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. So Jeremiah’s words, written 1,000 years after Rachel died, might seem to be incorrect.
Rachel’s first son was Joseph. (Genesis 30:22-24) Later, Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. So we might ask, Why does Jeremiah 31:15 say that she was weeping because her sons were “no more”?
Joseph had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. (Genesis 41:50-52; 48:13-20) In time, the tribe of Ephraim became the most powerful tribe of the northern kingdom of Israel and came to represent all ten tribes of the northern kingdom. The tribe that came from Rachel’s other son, Benjamin, became part of the southern kingdom of Judah. So it could be said that Rachel symbolized all the mothers of Israel, both of the northern kingdom and of the southern one.
By the time the book of Jeremiah was written, the northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by the Assyrians and many of its people were taken away captive. However, some of Ephraim’s descendants may have run away to Judah. In the year 607 before Christ, the Babylonians conquered the southern two-tribe kingdom of Judah and took captives. Many of these were taken to the city of Ramah, about eight kilometers (5 miles) north of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 40:1) Perhaps some were killed there in the territory of Benjamin where Rachel was buried. (1 Samuel 10:2) So Rachel’s weeping could refer to the sorrow that was felt over the death of all the Benjamites or of those killed near that location, Ramah. It is also possible that Jeremiah’s words refer to all the mothers of Israel weeping over the death or captivity of God’s people.
In any case, Jeremiah’s words about Rachel’s weeping over her sons were prophetic. They refer to what happened hundreds of years later when Jesus was a small child. King Herod commanded that all the boys up to two years of age in Bethlehem, which was on the south side of Jerusalem, be killed. Imagine the heartbreaking sound of those mothers crying because their sons were dead, they were “no more.” It was as if those cries could be heard as far as Ramah, on the north side of Jerusalem.
Therefore, both in Jeremiah’s time and in Jesus’ time, Rachel’s “weeping over her sons” is used to describe the sadness of Jewish mothers over the death of their children. Of course, those who died and went to “the land of the enemy” death may return when the dead are resurrected.