Response to...

"The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah"

Part VI - Three "Weird" Fulfillments in Matthew  [Back to the Main Menu fabprof0.html]

Weird Passage One: Herod's Slaughter of the Children

Another prophecy related to the birth of Jesus is the claim that the Messiah would be born at a time when King Herod was killing children.

Just a quick comment here-very few of the messianic prophecies are detailed enough to match the statement above! The nature of predictive prophecy and typology generally is to 'draw the pattern', and anchoring that pattern in a detail or two, but RARELY getting as specific as 'King Herod ...killing children'.

Only the gospel of Matthew (2:16-18) makes this claim, quoting a prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15) which states that "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more." There are two problems with this alleged messianic prophecy:

Just another quick comment-most of the OT references that Matthew makes involve TYPOLOGY, not PREDICTIVE PROPHECY PER SE. As such, the 'predictive' element is NOT foremost in the OT context, but in the background of the Israelite worldview. (I have discussed this in detail in the earlier piece on Typology.) The implications of this for this discussion are significant--these types of passages are referring PRIMARILY to a PAST event, rather than to a future one, with the import that the objection "they cannot be messianic, because the OT context is about the PAST" is irrelevant at best, and ill-informed at worst.

it is not a prophecy about children being killed and it is quite doubtful that there ever was such a slaughter of innocents by Herod. "Rachel weeping for her children" refers to the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (and wife of Jacob) weeping about her children taken captive to Egypt.

I do not mean to be picky, but this statement itself is a little misleading. We don't have a passage in which a literal Rachel 'weeps for her children'. The closest we have is Jacob weeping over the supposed death of Joseph in Gen 37.34-35. But this in no way diminishes the force of Jim's argument.

In context, the verse is about the Babylonian captivity, which its author witnessed.

Technically, the data supports a reference to the Assyrian captivity, rather than that of Babylonian. Rachel was the ancestor of the Northern Tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who covered much of the Northern territory (but was also that of Benjamin, the smaller tribe of the south). Ramath is at the border of Israel (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom), and could accordingly be involved in EITHER/BOTH captivities. Most commentators think the data supports the Assyrian exile rather than the Babylonian. But, again, this does not mute the voice of Jim's objection.

Subsequent verses speak of the children being returned, and thus it refers to captivity rather than murder.

I have to agree with Jim on this point (as do most commentators on Jer 31). The reference is CLEARLY to the captivity of the heart of Israel, with YHWH's subsequent promise to restore these children to the Land. The mistake that Jim makes (along with many, many Christian interpreters) is in assuming that the 'weeping' is over the slain children, INSTEAD of over the exiled Christ-child. If there is one thing that Matthew makes clear to us throughout his gospel (especially the first half), it is that he sees Christ as the embodiment of True Israel. (see BEAP: 140-141; EBC, (in loc)). [This can be understood either as a case of typology (ruler/nation) or the stronger relationship of CORPORATE SOLIDARITY (below). In either case, the identification is well within the bounds of acceptable Jewish exegesis in the 1st/2nd centuries.] The prophecy of the Assyrian (or Babylonian) captivity in Jeremiah is NOT about the massive casualties of the events leading up to the exile, but about the survivors of those events! In other words, Rachel in Jeremiah is 'weeping' over the living/exiled children (not those who perished in the siege/battles) and "Rachel" in Matthew is 'weeping' over the living/"exiled" Christ-child (not those slaughtered by Herod). And, just as YHWH brings a message of hope to Rachel ('the children will return') so Matthew re-iterates that hope as he narrates the return of the Child in the next few verses.

Thus the objection doesn't stand-the passage is understood typologically, and the alleged discordance between 'captivity' and 'murder' is simply a product of misunderstanding the passages.'

Pushback: "Uh, excuse me, but...what has Ramah/Rachel-Benjamin got to do with Bethlehem/Leah-Judah?!! I noticed that you say that the passage in Matthew 2:18 "Rachel weeping for her children refers" to Jesus. This is not possible as Jesus was of the tribe of Judah and clearly not "a child of Rachel" whereas the town of Ramah belonged to the tribe of Benjamin which was a child of Rachel and the children killed were therefore her descendants.

Good question!

Let's look at some commentators on this passage right quick, and see how THEY deal with the "Ramah/Rachel" terms:
"It is uncertain whether Jeremiah 31:15 refers to the deportation of the northern tribes by Assyria in 722-721 B.C. or to the deportation of Judah and Benjamin in 587-586 B.C. (cf. R.E. Brown, Birth of Messiah, pp. 205-6). The latter is more likely. Nebuzaradan, commander of Nebuchadnezzar's imperial guard, gathered the captives at Ramah before taking them into exile in Babylon (Jer 40:1-2). Ramah lay north of Jerusalem on the way to Bethel; Rachel's tomb was at Zelzah in the same vicinity (1Sam 10:2). Jeremiah 31:15 depicts mourning at the prospect of exile; Rachel is seen as crying out from her tomb because her "children," her descendants (Rachel is the idealized mother of the Jews, though Leah gave birth to more tribes than Rachel) "are no more"—i.e., they are being removed from the land and are no longer a nation. But elsewhere we are told that Rachel was buried on the way to Ephrathah, identified as Bethlehem (Gen 35:19; 48:7). Some see a confusion of traditions here and assume that the clan of Ephrathah later settled in Bethlehem and gave it its name, thus starting a false connection Matthew follows. The problem, however, is artificial. Genesis 35:16 makes it clear that Jacob was some distance from Bethlehem-Ephrathah when Rachel died—viz., somewhere between Bethel and Bethlehem (only 1Sam 10:2 says more exactly where he was). Moreover Matthew does not say Rachel was buried at Bethlehem; the connection between the prophecy and its "fulfillment" is more subtle than that. ... Why does Matthew refer to this OT passage? Some think the connection results from word association: the children were killed at Bethlehem, Bethlehem = Ephrathah, Ephrathah is connected with Rachel's death, and Rachel figures in the oracle. Rothfuchs (p. 64) sees a parallel between the condemnation to exile as a result of sin her) and the judgment on Israel as a result of rejecting the Messiah (an interpretation that sees the slaughter at Bethlehem as a sign of the latter). More believable is the observation (Gundry, Use of OT, p. 210; Tasker) that Jeremiah 31:15 occurs in a setting of hope. Despite the tears, God says, the exiles will return; and now Matthew, referring to Jeremiah 31:15, likewise says that, despite the tears of the Bethlehem mothers, there is hope because Messiah has escaped Herod and will ultimately reign. [EBCNT, in loc]

"He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem (2:16). Only 123 men returned to Bethlehem from the Babylonian deportation (Ezra 2:21), and it appears not to have grown beyond a small village of perhaps a thousand people at the birth of Jesus. Herod’s forces kill all the infant boys under the age of two years, which would calculate to between ten to thirty boys. Although this number of infant boys massacred would be a huge loss for the village of Bethlehem, it is not an incident that stands out significantly when seen in the light of other horrific events in Herod’s infamous career, and historians would have easily bypassed it. “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning” (2:18). Centuries earlier, Nebuchadnezzar’s army had gathered the captives from Judah in the town of Ramah before they were taken into exile to Babylon (Jer. 40:1–2). Jeremiah depicts Rachel, who is the personification of the mothers of Israel, mourning for her children as they are being carried away. However, there was hope for their future because God would restore Rachel’s children to their own land (31:16–17), and messianic joy would come in the future establishment of the new covenant with Israel (31:31–34). [ZIBBC, in loc]
C. Use in Jewish Sources, The Targum on Jer. 31:15 reads, "Thus says the Lord: 'The voice has been heard in the height of the world, the house of Israel who weep and lament after Jeremiah the prophet, when Nebuzaradan, the chief of the killers, sent him from Ramah, with a dirge; and those who weep for the bitterness of Jerusalem, as she weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they have gone into exile'. " (All translations from the Jeremiah Targum are taken from Hayward 1986.) The personification of Rachel is replaced with the literal referent "the house of Israel," her children are explicitly identified as Jeremiah the prophet and others from Jerusalem, and the cryptic Hebrew "because they are not" is explained as the people's departure into exile. There also seems to be a desire to clarify why Ramah appeared in the original OT text, hence the allusion to Nebuzaradan's action (see Jer. 40:1). All of these explanations elaborate on the natural meaning of the more poetic MT and fit an understanding of the passage that Matthew could have presupposed. In later rabbinic literature, Rachel becomes a consummate mourner (Whitters 2006: 236-37). "
"Further strengthening the parallel is the alternate tradition, probably current also in Matthew’s day, that Rachel’s tomb was on the outskirts of Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem (cf. Gen 35:19; 48:7; to this day, what is called Rachel’s tomb is located there). Rachel might well weep there for the infants of Bethlehem, even within the larger context of messianic joy through the birth of the Christ in that same village. [WBC, in loc]
"This second tradition, which identifies Ephraph with Bethlehem (cf. Demetrius in Eusebius, Praep. ev. 9:21–10), favoured the traditional site venerated by Christians and Muslims, and it puts Rachel’s burial place near Bethlehem on the Jerusalem road. Thus there were two rival reports as to the location of the tomb (cf. Gen. Rab. on 35:18 and Jeremias, Heiligengräber, pp. 75–76). Matthew speaks for the report found in Gen 35 and 48. This is why he can associate Rachel’s weeping in Ramah with the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem. (Curiously, Jacob, Rachel’s husband, is associated with Bethlehem in Apost. Con. 7:37:2, which is probably from a Jewish synagogal prayer.) (2) According to Jer 40:1, all the captives of Jerusalem were gathered at Ramah for the march to Babylon (cf. the targum on Jer 31:15). This encourages one to draw a typological correlation between Israel and the Messiah. Just as the Jews, amid lamentation and grief, left Ramah to go into exile, so Jesus, amid lamentation and grief, left Bethlehem to go into exile. The departure of the Messiah to Egypt recapitulated the deportation of the people to Babylon—an event to which Matthew, significantly, calls attention thrice in the genealogy (1:11, 12, 17). (3) Three different OT prophecies involve Ramah: Isa 10:29; Jer 31:15; Hos 5:8. All three associate the place with a disaster of one sort or another. When one adds that the exile to Babylon began there (see above), Ramah might be regarded as a city of sadness par excellence. (Cf. the way in which the 9th of Ab became the date of disasters par excellence; see Davies, GL, pp. 71–2.) [ICC, in loc]
"Redak explains that this is figurative of the Ten Tribes, led by Ephraim." [Judaica Books of the Prophets, in loc]
"Jeremiah’s reference to lamentation here may be based on the use of the site as a staging area for shipment of exiles to Babylonia after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 (see 40:1). [BBC, Jer 31]
This verse inspired a midrash on the merit of Rachel, who intercedes before God in connection with Manasseh’s sins. [Fishbane, M. A. (2002). Haftarot. The JPS Bible commentary (382). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society]
"The expression “merit of the fathers,” here is not to be taken literally, but rather in the sense of merit of parents or ancestors, for here it refers to the merit of Rachel who was regarded as the mother of all Israel (see Gen. Rab. 71.3)." [Lauterbach, J. Z. (2004). Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael. Originally published: Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society of America, 1933-1935. (New ed.). Philadelphia, Pa: Jewish Publication Society.]

What we see from this is: So, the usage of "Rachel" by Matthew (and by Jeremiah) should not be taken too literally--both used the name to refer to groups larger than just Benjamin and Joseph's descendants.

Similarly, the reference to "Ramah" seems to be a generalized, figure-of-speech reference, to a place of sadness over exile or misfortune.