A Voice in Ramah: Matthew 2:16-17

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:16-17 (NRSV)

My dad loves two shows: Frazier, and Everybody Loves Raymond.  He’s not quite as bad about this, now, but there was a period in there where, anytime you talked to my father, he was bound to quote one of those shows.  This occasionally still happens, but there was a period where it was guaranteed to happen, possibly several times.

I am beginning to feel this way about Matthew and the Old Testament.  You wonder if anything will come from Matthew’s pen where he doesn’t feel like he has to go, “It’s just like that time in the Old Testament when….”  You almost want to assure him that his Gospel is very good, and he really doesn’t have to find some Old Testament corollary for every single thing he says.

In this particular instance, you really feel the stretch.  In today’s citation, the portion Matthew quotes is not only in the wrong location, but it’s not a prophecy.  At least the other citations were set in the future.  This particular one is specifically about the condition of Israel at the time it was written.

This quote comes to us from Jeremiah 31.  It is part of a word given to Jeremiah to speak to the exiles in Babylon.  In it, God promises (granted, in the future) that He will restore Israel and end their exile.

The passage in question is verses 15-17:

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.

Jeremiah 31:15-17 (NRSV)

Ramah was a processing city for Jerusalem captives taken to Babylon.  If you were captured by Babylon in the invasion, you got held in Ramah for a period of time, then a group of you were carted off to Babylon to live the rest of your days as exiles as prisoners.

The prophecy in Jeremiah is not that Ramah will weep at some point in the future, but rather that her present weeping will come to an end when the Lord brings the exiles back in the future.

So, if Matthew is trying to say that Jeremiah predicted a time when Ramah would weep in the future, and this is when Herod had all the infants killed, this would be some fairly suspect exegesis.  Bethlehem is not Ramah, and Jeremiah quite clearly situates Ramah’s condition as present weeping.  The future component is that God will stop the weeping by returning the exiles.

However, we must also take into account that Matthew isn’t dumb.  He knows Bethlehem isn’t Ramah, and he knows the sadness of Ramah was not some future prophecy.  Why, then, can he speak about that passage being fulfilled in Herod’s first century edict about infants in Jerusalem?

I think it’s because, once again, Matthew isn’t saying, “Jeremiah 31 is a prediction of what’s happening, now.”  But rather, he’s saying, “What’s happening now can be explained by Jeremiah 31.  This right here, this is super-that.  This is that text in its fullest sense.”

Because what we have in the narrative is a tyrannical power over Israel who has taken their children.  It’s Herod.  It’s the Roman Empire specifically as they exist in the local power structures run through collaborators like the Empire-appointed Herod and the Empire-appointed High Priest.  This power is the Babylon of Matthew’s narrative.  The oppression of this power takes Israel’s sons into captivity, quite literally.  And as Matthew likes to do, he puts some teeth in the comparison by drawing out a very literal facet – Herod kills Israelite babies.  Even Babylon didn’t do that.  Much.  Probably.  Herod is quite literally taking Israel’s sons from her.

In Matthew’s eyes, Bethlehem becomes the Ramah that even Ramah never was.  It’s super-Ramah.  It’s a Ramah experience so much more horrible and complete than the actual, original Ramah.

But we also know from the Old Testament that God hears the weeping.  He hears the weeping, and He acts to save.  Jeremiah 30-31 are a bold promise of the liberation and restoration of Israel.  In this picture, recalcitrant Israel repents.  Her heart turns back to God.  The image is conflates both Israel’s repentance and restoration – you can’t really read Jeremiah and come away with a crystal-clear idea of which one of those things happens first – and that’s probably intentional because it’s all part of the same package.  The restored Israel will turn away from her sins and other gods and become wholly YHWH’s, and YHWH will deliver, protect, and glorify them.  It’s the Sinai covenant brought to its eschaton.

This is what we get in Matthew’s Jesus.  The killing of the infants sets up the weeping of God’s people, and it is the prelude to the promised act of deliverance and restoration.  Yes, God did this for the people of Jeremiah’s day.  Persia conquered Babylon and the exiles returned and restored Jerusalem.  But in Matthew’s mind, there was more to come, and what he is witnessing is even more That than That ever was.

If you put yourself in the shoes of the first century Israelite, something like an edict that kills the babies in Bethlehem is a horror – a flagrant abuse of Imperial power to protect itself in a catalog of other atrocities.  But Matthew wants you to know that this is the weeping that comes before the dancing.  The weeping that comes from the oppressor is coming to an end in Jesus Christ.

We are not under the oppression of the Roman Empire.  Unless you happen to live in Rome, then I guess you might feel that way.  But we are part of the great renewal.  There is a sense in which, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are an answer to the prayers of a captive Israel.  Not your works, but your existence.  In you, God is restoring His people and, through His people, the whole world.

Consider This

  1. In what ways are the church in general and you in specific called to be a remedy to the damage and excesses of the world?  What “weeping” ought we to be reversing with restoration?