Linus’ questions

Posted: 22nd December 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized
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Continuing the discussion of Matthew’s appropriation of OT scripture as prophecies fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we turn to these exegetical questions found in yesterday comic section of the newspaper. The passage in question come from Matthew 2.16-18 (REB):

When Herod realized that the astrologers had tricked him he flew into a rage, and gave orders for the massacre of all the boys aged two years or under, in Bethelem and throughout the whole district, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the astrologers. So the words spoken through Jeremiah the prophet were fulfilled: “A voice was heard in Rama, sobbing in bitter grief; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they were no more.”

The fulfilled passage in question is from Jeremiah 31.15 and in its original context has nothing to do with Jesus, Herod or the slaughter of young children. William Barclay describes the situation as this:

Jeremiah was picturing the people of Jerusalem being led away in exile. In their sad way to an alien land they pass Ramah, and Ramah was the place where Rachel lay buried (1 Samuel 10:2); and Jeremiah pictures Rachel weeping, even in the tomb, for the fate that had befallen the people.

Remember that Rachel was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin; Ramah was located in the area allotted to Benjamin, just north of Jerusalem. The NET Bible has this further note:

Ramah is a town in Benjamin approximately five miles (8 km) north of Jerusalem. It was on the road between Bethel and Bethlehem. Traditionally, Rachel’s tomb was located near there at a place called Zelzah (1 Sam 10:2). Rachel was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin and was very concerned about having children because she was barren (Gen 30:1-2) and went to great lengths to have them (Gen 30:3, 14-15, 22-24). She was the grandmother of Ephraim and Manasseh which were two of the major tribes in northern Israel. Here Rachel is viewed metaphorically as weeping for her “children,” the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, who had been carried away into captivity in 722 b.c.

Whether Rachel was weeping for Jerusalem (Barclay) or the northern kingdom tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (NET) is evidently disputable, though the latter seems more appropriate. Regardless, we do now have the specific “who”, “where” and “why” that Linus seeks.

We often caution about taking a verse-by-verse view of scripture – applying individual passages to whatever we want by interpreting them outside of context – yet at first blush it seems that this is what Matthew is doing here and elsewhere in this second chapter of his gospel (cf. Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:23 and Isaiah 11:1) when he uses the literal words themselves to communicate, outside of original context or metaphorical meaning. Or is there something else here? In comments to my previous post on Matthew, Damian noted that:

Regarding Matthew’s use of the OT, I’m of the school that tends to assume that an OT quote implies the relevance of the entire passage that quote is within. In Matthew, especially early Matthew, this approach works quite well, and so I don’t think he misappropriates prophecy at all.

So we return to Jeremiah and tackle the larger picture. Chapters 30 and 31 fall under a general categorization of promises and hopes for the restoration of Israel and Judah. So while Rachel is weeping in 31.15, the overall trajectory of the passage is positive; keep reading in Jeremiah 31.16-17 (REB):

These are words of the Lord to her [Rachel]:
Cease your weeping,
shed no more tears;
for there will be a reward for your toil,
and they will return from the enemy’s land.
There will be hope for your posterity;
your children will return within their own borders.

In the face of bitter lamentation and exile from wrongdoing, there is the ultimate promise of hope and consolation:

The days are coming, says the Lord, when I shall establish a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. […] I shall set my law within them, writing it on their hearts; I shall be their God, and they will be my people. No longer need they teach one another, neighbour or brother, to know the Lord; all of them, high and low alike, will know me, says the Lord, for I shall forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I shall call to mind no more. (Jeremiah 31.31, 33-34 — REB)

Again, these verses were originally specific to the exiled Israelites, but Matthew is surely calling to mind the promises of the covenant for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. That is, Herod has slaughtered the children of Bethlehem and there is much weeping, but like the exiled kingdoms, the Christ has survived and will return (out of Egypt) to establish a new covenant with all people and for all time. If we view Matthew’s scripture quotations in this light, then we perhaps understand that he is telling the gospel story as a massive typological argument, using huge blocks of Hebrew scripture to underpin the good news message of Jesus Christ as the annointed Messiah and fulfillment of all scripture.

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