What did Jeremiah mean when he spoke of Rachel’s weeping over her sons?
At Jeremiah 31:15, we read: “This is what Jehovah says: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping: Rachel is weeping over her sons. She has refused to be comforted over her sons, because they are no more.’”
Rachel’s two sons did not die before she did. Consequently, what Jeremiah recorded 1,000 years after Rachel’s death might seem to be inaccurate.
Rachel’s first son was Joseph. (Gen. 30:22-24) Later, she had another son, who was named Benjamin. But Rachel died giving birth to that second son. Therefore, the question arises: Why does Jeremiah 31:15 say that she was weeping because her sons were “no more”?
It is noteworthy that the first son, Joseph, in time fathered Manasseh and Ephraim. (Gen. 41:50-52; 48:13-20) Later, Ephraim was the most prominent and influential tribe of the entire northern kingdom of Israel and came to represent all ten tribes. On the other hand, the tribe that descended from Rachel’s second son, Benjamin, became part of the southern kingdom, along with Judah. In a sense, then, Rachel could be spoken of as a symbol of all the mothers of Israel, of the northern kingdom and the southern one.
By the time the book of Jeremiah was written, the northern ten-tribe kingdom had already fallen to the Assyrians and many of its people had been taken away captive. However, some of Ephraim’s descendants may have fled to the territory of Judah. In 607 B.C.E., the Babylonians conquered the southern two-tribe kingdom of Judah. It appears that as part of that conquest, many captives were assembled at Ramah, some five miles (8 km) north of Jerusalem. (Jer. 40:1) Perhaps some were slaughtered there in the territory of Benjamin where Rachel was buried. (1 Sam. 10:2) So Rachel’s weeping over her sons could imply her figuratively mourning over the Benjamites in general or particularly those of Ramah. Another possibility is that it suggested that all the mothers of God’s people wept over the death or exiling of Israel.
In any case, Jeremiah’s expression concerning Rachel’s weeping over her sons was prophetic of what happened centuries later when the life of young Jesus was in danger. King Herod commanded that all the boys up to two years old in Bethlehem, which was on the south side of Jerusalem, be put to death. Thus, those sons were no more; they were dead. Imagine the cries of grief from the mothers bereft of their sons! It was as if those cries could be heard as far as Ramah, on the north side of Jerusalem.
Consequently, both in Jeremiah’s time and in Jesus’ time, Rachel’s weeping over her sons was fitting language to express the grief of Jewish mothers over their slain children. Of course, those who died and went to “the land of the enemy” death may return from the grip of that enemy when the dead are resurrected.