In this series of posts, we've been exploring why Matthew sees the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem as "fulfilling" Jeremiah 31:15, which speaks of Rachel weeping for her lost children at Ramah. In part one of this series, we saw that the connection between Bethlehem and Ramah has to do with Rachel's death in childbirth on the way to Bethlehem. It appears from 1 Samuel that she died and was buried in the vicinity of Ramah. In part two of this series, we looked at the geographical and historical context of Jeremiah 31:15. There we discovered that in Jeremiah's day, Rachel was weeping because it was from Ramah that the conquering Babylonians were deporting the captive Jews from Jerusalem. In this post, we'll conclude by putting all the pieces together so we can understand the point Matthew was trying to make.
When I taught this to my Sunday School class, I explained that Matthew is not merely quoting clear predictive prophecies about the Messiah. Rather, he is associating the events in Jesus' life with a wide range of events in the history of Israel. I said it's a bit like that word-association thing psychologists do:
Psychologist: "What do you think of when I say 'Bethlehem'?"
Matthew: "Rachel's death."
P: "And what does that make you think of?"
M: "Her tomb at Ramah."
P: "And 'Ramah'?"
M: "Rachel weeping for her lost children!"
If we understand this dynamic, then we can appreciate the parallels Matthew wants his readers to draw.
In Genesis, Rachel dies giving birth while on the road to Bethlehem. In the midst of her suffering, the midwife tries to comfort her with the news that she is having another son. In this way, her child is both her cause of weeping and her hope for the future.
In Jeremiah's day, Rachel weeps over her children once more, this time because they are being led into captivity and exile near the very spot where she is buried. She is then comforted with the promise that her children will return. Once again, her offspring are both her cause of weeping and her hope for the future.
In Matthew's day, Rachel weeps yet again: this time over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. No words of comfort are given her in Matthew, but the very next verse speaks of Herod's death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel. Just as in Jeremiah's day, the situation seems bleak, but the hope of salvation lives on.
There are, of course, additional historical parallels in this passage. When the wicked king Herod orders the slaughter of innocent children to protect his rule, we naturally think of the Egyptian pharaoh who ordered the slaughter of Hebrew children. One child, Moses, escaped the slaughter and went on to deliver his people from captivity and exile. In the same way, Jesus escapes the slaughter of the innocents—ironically, by going into exile in Egypt. Like the Israelites, he is led into Egypt by a man named Joseph, a man whom God speaks to in dreams. Like the Jews for whom Rachel wept in Jeremiah's day, this child knows the experience of living in exile, and like the Israelites of Moses' day, he goes through his own exodus from Egypt. Just as Rachel was comforted with the promise that her children would be restored, and just as Moses' birth was a sign that the Israelites' deliverance was near, so Matthew's readers are meant to understand that the long-awaited Messiah has been born and the hope of salvation is close at hand.
Obviously, there's a lot more going on in Matthew's infancy narrative than most modern readers realize. If you want help in bringing out these kinds of connections, here are some resources you'll find helpful:
You may find this surprising, but the main resource I used in preparing my Sunday School lesson was our Bible Lands PhotoGuide. It's tempting to think of the PhotoGuide as primarily a collection of pictures, but it's actually one of the best places for clear, concise information about biblical sites. The photos are really just the icing on the cake. The PhotoGuide article on Ramah gave me all the relevant passages needed to explain the connection between Ramah and Bethlehem, so that constituted the bulk of my research.
Of course, this passage was focused specifically on a place name, so the PhotoGuide was an obvious place to begin. For other New Testament passages that deal with quotations from or allusions to the Old Testament, I find Beale and Carson's Commentary on the New Testament Use of The Old Testament to be particularly helpful. While most good commentaries will deal with the interpretive issues this commentary focuses on, it is precisely this commentary's focus which makes it so valuable. Rather than having to skim commentary which deals with the use of the Old Testament as one of a dozen important aspects of a passage, Beale and Carson put that one issue front and center.
Other resources which help to explain the links between the Old and New Testaments are the various Bible Background Commentaries available from Zondervan and IVP. These are not as narrowly focused on OT and NT parallels as Beale and Carson, but they'll generally draw your attention to those parallels, along with providing information on the historical background of a passage.
While explaining why Rachel was weeping at Ramah required having my Sunday School class look at a number of different passages together with several maps, they were able to follow my explanation without getting overwhelmed by the details. On the contrary, they were excited to see how all these passages fit together. I hope you've found this series helpful—and maybe even a little exciting—as well.
In yesterday's post, I began relating how I used Accordance to teach a Sunday School class on why Matthew saw the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem as the "fulfillment" of what Jeremiah wrote about Rachel weeping at Ramah. In that post, we saw that Bethlehem and Ramah, at eleven miles apart, are not exactly neighboring towns. The connection between them is not one of proximity, but of historical memory. Genesis 35 tells us that Rachel died in childbirth on the road from Bethel to Bethlehem, and 1 Samuel appears to indicate that she was buried in the vicinity of Ramah. Thus, Matthew pictures Rachel weeping in her grave at Ramah over the horrific events taking place in Bethlehem—the destination she died looking toward.
In today's post, I want to look at the original context of Jeremiah's image of Rachel weeping at Ramah. After all, it was Jeremiah, not Matthew, who first spoke of Rachel weeping there. In Jeremiah's day, was Rachel weeping over something that had happened in Bethlehem?
To answer that question, I had my Sunday School class look at Jeremiah 31:15-17. Verse 15 contains the lament quoted in Matthew, followed by the LORD's command to Rachel to stop weeping. Rachel is comforted with the promise that she will receive the "reward" of her "work," and her "children will return from the enemy's land."
In Jeremiah, Rachel weeps because her children are no more, but this is apparently the result of exile rather than infanticide. I next had my class turn to Jeremiah 40:1, which speaks of Jeremiah being found among the captives being held at Ramah prior to their deportation to Babylon. You see, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Ramah became the staging area from which the Babylonians actually sent the people of Judah into exile.
To illustrate this for my class, I turned once more to the Accordance Bible Atlas. I changed the Route layer displayed on the Map from Ancient Highways to Fall of Jerusalem and Exile. I then let the animated route play as I explained that the Babylonians attacked Judah not from the east, which would have required taking an army through the desert, but from the north, through Syria and Samaria. They later carried the Jewish captives into the Babylonian exile by the same route.
Wanting to show my class that Ramah was just north of Jerusalem on the main road leading north, I decided to display the Ancient Highways route layer again. Yet I also wanted to show that this was the very route the Babylonians would have taken, so I wanted to keep the Fall of Jerusalem and Exile layer on the map at the same time.
But how to do it? Both of these layers appear in the same pop-up menu of the Atlas, which means choosing one will necessarily remove the other. That is, unless you know the trick! If you hold down the Shift key on your keyboard while selecting a second layer, both layers will be displayed on the map at the same time. So that's just what I did.
Now I had another problem. When I selected the additional layer, the animation of the Fall of Jerusalem and Exile layer started all over again, and I didn't want to waste class time waiting for it to finish. So I used another power-user trick: I simply held down the Option key while clicking the Animate checkbox. Doing this skips the animation and immediately shows the finished route. Now I could simply zoom in on the area between Bethel and Bethlehem to show the following.
As you can see, the blue line representing the exiles (see the legend just above the map) does not exactly pass through Ramah or follow the road nearest to Ramah. That's because most of the animated route layers are designed simply to give a general sense of movement rather than to follow specific roads. Still, it's easy to see why Ramah would have been used as a staging point for the deportation of the Jerusalem captives.
In this way, Jeremiah imagines Rachel weeping at Ramah because she is watching the deportation of her descendants from the very place where she is buried. In response, the LORD tells her not to weep, because her hope for the future lies in the eventual deliverance and restoration of her children.
As you can see, using the Accordance Bible Atlas really helped to explain the geographical and historical context of these passages. Its flexible interface made it easy to modify the map to show the information I wanted to show, and knowing a few modifier key tricks really helped streamline my presentation.
In my next post, I'll finish this series by talking about how Matthew connects the story of the slaughter of the innocents to these Old Testament passages (and others) to make his case that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.
In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, he points to specific events as the "fulfillment" of several Old Testament "prophecies." For the past several weeks, I've been exposing my Sunday School class to these Old Testament passages in their original context to show how Matthew's narrative is much more nuanced and profound than most of us realize. I wrote about doing this with the Immanuel prophecy in a previous post. This past Sunday, I talked about how Matthew saw the slaughter of the innocents as the fulfillment of Jeremiah's imagery of Rachel weeping at Ramah.
The subject of Sunday's lesson was all too painfully illustrated by the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, and I hesitate to discuss it for that reason. While the wanton killing of small children is always shocking, it is, sadly, nothing new. It wasn't new in Matthew's day, either, and he tapped into the memory of a still more ancient infanticide to make his point.
I began by asking my class why Rachel would be weeping at Ramah over the slaughter of children at Bethlehem. Are these two towns close to each other?
To answer that question, I selected "Ramah" in Matthew 2:18 and chose my favorite Map background (Light Browns) from the Map submenu of the Amplify toolbar icon. This opened a map with two sites named Ramah highlighted in red. I didn't bother pointing out the northern Ramah, but quickly zoomed in on the one between Bethel and Jerusalem.
I then pointed out that Ramah and Bethlehem are not all that close. Ramah is north of Jerusalem, while Bethlehem is south of it. There are about 11 miles between them—a fact I just happened to mention, but I could easily have shown my class by option-dragging from one site to the other and pointing out how the distance is shown in the Instant Details panel. (See the image above.)
If these were not neighboring towns, why would Rachel weeping at Ramah have anything to do with the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem? To explain the connection between these two towns, I presented several seemingly disconnected passages. First, we looked at Genesis 35:16–20, in which Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin somewhere along the road from Bethel to Bethlehem. In her suffering, she is comforted with the news that she is having another son.
Genesis 35 says that Rachel was buried on the way to Bethlehem, and tradition locates her tomb about a mile north of Bethlehem. I even showed my class a photo from the PhotoGuide of Rachel's Tomb. But then I explained that there are reasons to believe that Rachel was not quite so close to Bethlehem when she died. I had my class turn to 1 Samuel 7:17, which describes Ramah as the center of Samuel's prophetic activity. Then we looked at 1 Samuel 10:2, in which Samuel tells Saul that he will meet two men at Rachel's Tomb shortly after he leaves the town (of Ramah). This would seem to indicate that Rachel actually died in the vicinity of Ramah.
If true, that would certainly explain the connection Matthew saw between Ramah and Bethlehem: Rachel died near the one while traveling toward the other. Thus, she weeps at Ramah because she is buried there, and she weeps over what is happening in Bethlehem because it's as if she is still looking in that direction.
There's still more to this story, but I'll have to finish it in another post. In my next post, we'll look at why Jeremiah spoke of Rachel weeping at Ramah. In the process, I'll show you several little-known tricks to using the Accordance Bible Atlas.