For Whom Does Rachel Weep?
The Day’s Readings: The Akedah and Rachel Weeping for her Children
The haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Jeremiah 31:2-20) envisions the return of Israel to Jerusalem following a catastrophe in terms reminiscent of their entry into the land of Israel following the wilderness wandering and the exodus from Egypt. It accompanies the day’s Torah reading (Genesis 22:1-24), the Akedah, which portrays God’s redemption of Isaac from God’s own command that he be offered as a sacrifice by his father, Abraham.
The haftarah depicts Rachel weeping for her children, here portrayed as Israel in general, following their redemption from an unidentified oppression.
ירמיה לא:טו כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ.
Jeremiah 31:15 Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah—wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted; for her children, who are gone.
The combination of Genesis 22:1-24 and Jeremiah 31:2-20 thereby takes up some of the most basic concerns of Jewish history and thought: the brutality and senselessness of the oppression of Jews throughout history—even if the oppression is decreed, approved, or tolerated by God—and the anticipation of a joyous and complete return of all Israel to Jerusalem.
The Book of Consolation: Jeremiah 30-33
A cursory reading of the haftarah in the context of the Rosh Hashanah Torah service suggests that it refers to Israel as a whole. But modern scholarship has developed a more complex model to explain the composition of this passage and the larger collection of which it is a part, the so-called Book of Consolation in Jeremiah 30-33, which envisions Israel’s restoration following the Babylonian Exile.
In its present form, Jeremiah 30-31 presents Israel’s return to Jerusalem and its restoration as part of God’s New Covenant with Israel and Judah, based on divine Torah written upon their hearts, which ensures Israel’s continuation as a nation before God for all eternity. Jeremiah 32 and 33 elaborate upon these chapters by stating that the eternal Davidic covenant will be applied to the city of Jerusalem itself and to its Levitical priesthood.
Dating the Book of Consolation and Determining Its Addressees
Most scholars, following the twentieth-century Scandinavian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965),  view the Book of Consolation as one of the latest sources of the Book of Jeremiah, i.e., as the product of the Babylonian Exile and beyond. Recent research, however, points to an earlier layer of prophetic oracles in Jeremiah 30-31 which were composed as part of an effort to support the program of religious reform and national restoration sponsored by King Josiah ben Amon of Judah (r. 640-609 BCE). In these oracles, Jeremiah portrays the return of the northern Israelite tribes to Samaria and his hope that they will join their Judahite brothers in worship of YHWH in Jerusalem.
These oracles were later expanded and reconfigured as a portrayal of the return of Israel and Judah to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile. And thus the text dates from two different periods. The earliest layer of oracles about the North is pre-exilic, more specifically Josianic, while the supplemental layer revising these oracles is exilic or even later.
Adding Judah into the Equation
The presence of two sources is suggested, in part, by the two different oracular introductions employed in these two chapters.
כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר כְּתָב לְךָ אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ אֶל סֵפֶר.
Thus said YHWH, the God of Israel: Write down in a scroll all the words that I have spoken to you.
כִּי הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם יְ-הוָה וְשַׁבְתִּי אֶת שְׁבוּת עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוּדָה אָמַר יְ-הוָה וַהֲשִׁבֹתִים אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לַאֲבוֹתָם וִירֵשׁוּהָ. וְאֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶל יְהוּדָה.
For behold, a time is coming, declares YHWH, when I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah, says YHWH, and I will return them to the land which I swore to their ancestors that they would possess. And these are the words which YHWH spoke to Israel and to Judah.
The first introduction employs what is commonly known as the messenger formula, “Thus said YHWH (‘כה אמר ה),” which is the classic Israelite and Judean oracular introduction in which the prophet conveys a message from YHWH. This formula is used consistently in the older layer of oracles that envision Israel’s or Jacob’s return to Samaria (see Jer 30:2; 5; 12, 18; 31:2, 7, 15, 16, 23, 35, and 37).
The second employs the phrase “[For] behold days are coming (or: a time is coming), declares YHWH (‘כי] הנה ימים באים נאם ה]),” which projects a future event or consequence from the present circumstances. This formula is used in the redactional layer to introduce statements that envision the future return of both Israel and Judah, culminating in a vision of a restored Jerusalem (see Jer 30:3, 31:27, 31, and 38).
ירמיה לא:כז הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם יְ-הוָה וְזָרַעְתִּי אֶת בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת בֵּית יְהוּדָה זֶרַע אָדָם וְזֶרַע בְּהֵמָה.
Jer 31:27 Behold, a time is coming – declares YHWH – when I will sow the House of Israel and the House of Judah with seed of men and seed of cattle.
ירמיה לא:ל הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם יְ-הוָה וְכָרַתִּי אֶת בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת בֵּית יְהוּדָה בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה.
Jer 31:31 Behold, a time is coming – declares YHWH – when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.
The Northern Oracles
Once we remove the supplemental material, the remaining, earlier material addresses the northern polity of Israel and its exiled and defeated inhabitants exclusively. Here are some examples:
ירמיה ל:י וְאַתָּה אַל תִּירָא עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹבנְאֻם יְ-הֹוָה וְאַל תֵּחַת יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי הִנְנִי מוֹשִׁיעֲךָ מֵרָחוֹק וְאֶת זַרְעֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ שִׁבְיָם וְשָׁב יַעֲקֹב וְשָׁקַט וְשַׁאֲנַן וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד.
Jer 30:10 But you, have no fear, my servant Jacob – declares YHWH. Be not dismayed, O Israel! I will deliver you from far away, your folk from their land of captivity. And Jacob shall again have calm and quiet with none to trouble him.
לא:ה עוֹד תִּטְּעִי כְרָמִים בְּהָרֵי שֹׁמְרוֹן נָטְעוּ נֹטְעִים וְחִלֵּלוּ.
31:5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them.
לא:ז כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְ-הוָה רָנּוּ לְיַעֲקֹב שִׂמְחָה וְצַהֲלוּ בְּרֹאשׁ הַגּוֹיִם הַשְׁמִיעוּ הַלְלוּ וְאִמְרוּ הוֹשַׁע יְ-הוָה אֶת עַמְּךָ אֵת שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל. לא:ח הִנְנִי מֵבִיא אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ צָפוֹן וְקִבַּצְתִּים מִיַּרְכְּתֵי אָרֶץ… קָהָל גָּדוֹל יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה. לא:ט …כִּי הָיִיתִי לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְאָב וְאֶפְרַיִם בְּכֹרִי הוּא.
31:7 For thus said YHWH: Cry out in joy for Jacob, Shout at the crossroads of the nations! Sing aloud in praise, and say: Save, O YHWH, Your people, the remnant of Israel. 31:8 I will bring them in from the northland, gather them from the ends of the earth… In a vast throng they shall return here. 31:9 …For I am ever a Father to Israel, Ephraim is My first-born.
The description of the wandering Ephraim being forgiven and adopted again by God, found in the haftarah—and well known from its inclusion in the high holiday liturgy—is also from this earlier level:
ירמיה לא:יח שָׁמוֹעַ שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶפְרַיִם מִתְנוֹדֵד יִסַּרְתַּנִי וָאִוָּסֵר כְּעֵגֶל לֹא לֻמָּד הֲשִׁיבֵנִי וְאָשׁוּבָה כִּי אַתָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי… לא:כ הֲבֵן יַקִּיר לִי אֶפְרַיִם אִם יֶלֶד שַׁעֲשֻׁעִים כִּי מִדֵּי דַבְּרִי בּוֹ זָכֹר אֶזְכְּרֶנּוּ עוֹד עַל כֵּן הָמוּ מֵעַי לוֹ רַחֵם אֲרַחֲמֶנּוּ נְאֻם יְ-הוָה
Jer 31:18 I can hear Ephraim lamenting: You have chastised me, and I am chastised like a calf that has not been broken. Receive me back, let me return, For You, O LORD, are my God… 31:20 Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me, a child that is dandled! Whenever I have turned against him, my thoughts would dwell on him still. That is why my heart yearns for him; I will receive him back in love – declares YHWH
Jeremiah’s point in these oracles, addressed to the Northern Kingdom, is that God knows they are contrite and has forgiven them and that soon they will return to their land, plant crops, and live comfortably. But that is not his entire point.
Including Israel in the Josianic Reform
The Josianic reform was fueled by finding some version of the scroll of Deuteronomy in the Temple (2 Kings 22). One key aspect of this reform was the idea that YHWH was to be worshiped in one central location, which was understood by Josiah and the Judahites as Jerusalem at the Temple built by King Solomon, according to tradition. Jeremiah accepts this view, and thus claims in several places that the resettled Israelites will, from now on, worship in Jerusalem and accept the Davidic king as their ruler:
ירמיה ל:ז הוֹי כִּי גָדוֹל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא מֵאַיִן כָּמֹהוּ וְעֵת צָרָה הִיא לְיַעֲקֹב וּמִמֶּנָּה יִוָּשֵׁעַ. ל:ח וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם הַהוּא נְאֻם יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֶשְׁבֹּר עֻלּוֹ מֵעַל צַוָּארֶךָ וּמוֹסְרוֹתֶיךָ אֲנַתֵּק וְלֹא יַעַבְדוּ בוֹ עוֹד זָרִים. ל:ט וְעָבְדוּ אֵת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם וְאֵת דָּוִד מַלְכָּם אֲשֶׁר אָקִים לָהֶם.
Jer 30:7 Woe, for great is that day with none like it! It is a time of trouble for Jacob, but from it he shall be delivered! And it shall come to pass in that day, declares YHWH Sebaoth, I will break his yoke from upon his neck and your bonds I will strip off, and strangers shall no longer make slaves of them! And they shall serve YHWH their God and David their King whom I will establish for them!
לא:ו כִּי יֶשׁ יוֹם קָרְאוּ נֹצְרִים בְּהַר אֶפְרָיִם קוּמוּ וְנַעֲלֶה צִיּוֹן אֶל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ.
31:6 For there will be a day when watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God!
לא:יא כִּי פָדָה יְהוָה אֶת יַעֲקֹב וּגְאָלוֹ מִיַּד חָזָק מִמֶּנּוּ. לא:יב וּבָאוּ וְרִנְּנוּ בִמְרוֹם צִיּוֹן וְנָהֲרוּ אֶל טוּב יְ-הוָה…
31:11 For YHWH will ransom Jacob, Redeem him from one too strong for him. 31:12 They shall come and shout on the heights of Zion, radiant over the bounty of YHWH…
In sum, when the supplemental passages introduced by “behold a time is coming” are removed, an oracular sequence remains which is concerned exclusively with the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s return to Samaria, and their attachment to Zion, God, and the House of David.
The Development of the Passage in Historical Context
The prophet Jeremiah himself likely wrote the original prophecies to support King Josiah’s program of religious reform and national restoration in which he sought to reunite the former Northern Kingdom of Israel, destroyed by the Assyrian empire in 722-721 BCE, with the surviving Kingdom of Judah under Davidic rule in Jerusalem in the late-seventh century BCE.
King Josiah’s efforts failed when he was killed at the age of thirty nine by Pharaoh Necho at Megiddo in 609 BCE. In the aftermath of Josiah’s early death, Judah found itself first under Egyptian rule, then under Babylonian rule, and finally in Babylonian Exile. In light of this new reality, the oracles were revised and supplemented to portray the return of both Israel and Judah to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile.
From Whom Is Rachel Weeping ?
This helps us to understand the imagery of Rachel weeping for her children. In the Torah, Rachel dies in childbirth while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (Gen 35:16-20) and her husband Jacob buries her between Beth-el and Ephrat. Jeremiah took the imagery of sorrow associated with Rachel’s tragic death and burial and revised it, creating the image of Rachel weeping for her lost children.
Initially, Rachel’s children in Jeremiah referred only to the northern tribes of Israel, i.e., the Joseph tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh), and Benjamin, who are, in fact, her children according to the Bible. They also naturally pass by Beth-el, which was a large city in the Northern Kingdom (Amos 7:13), on their way into exile and on their way back home. After the revision of the oracles in light of the destruction of Judah and the exile of the Judahites to Babylon, Rachel’s crying no longer refers to only her “sons” the Rachel tribes, but to all Israel and Judah, who would return to YHWH and Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile.
The Book of Jeremiah thus demonstrates both the continuity and the versatility of Jewish tradition, as it is adapted to meet the needs of new and unanticipated situations, such as Josiah’s reform or the later Babylonian Exile. Although we no longer revise biblical texts, we do revise our interpretation and use of them. And thus, in contemporary times, Rachel weeps for all Israel, who have suffered for millennia in catastrophes such as the Shoah, and who look to Jerusalem for ultimate restoration.
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September 28, 2016
May 6, 2020
Professor Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology and Professor of Tanak and Chair of the Faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion California. His Ph.D. is from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of thirteen volumes, including Reading Ezekiel: A Literary and Theological Commentary; Tanak: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Jewish Bible; and Reading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology.
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