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Note of the Day – December 28

The ‘fourth’ Day of Christmas (December 28) is associated in the Church Calendar with the “Massacre of the Innocents” in Bethlehem, as narrated in Matthew 2:16-18. I will be discussing this passage in more detail in a subsequent note for Epiphany; here I will look specifically at the Old Testament passage quoted in v. 18: Jeremiah 31:15 [LXX 38:15].

This is one of many “formula-citations” in the Gospel of Matthew, and the third of five used in the Infancy narrative: the first, Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23) I have already discussed in a series of Advent notes; the second, Micah 5:2 (Matt 2:5-6) will be treated prior to Epiphany. The setting for the Scripture passage is the “massacre” of the newborn children, narrated briefly in v. 16:

“Then Herod, seeing that he was (being) played with by the Magoi, was provoked (to anger) exceedingly, and setting forth (men) from (him), he took away [i.e. killed] all the children th(at were) in Beth-lehem and in all her borders, from two-years (old) and down [i.e. under], according to the time he (sought to) know precisely from [lit. alongside] the Magoi.”

Then the citation is introducted (v. 17): “then was fulfilled the utterance through Yirmeyah {Jeremiah} the foreteller, saying…” Jeremiah 31:15 exists in four principal forms: the Hebrew MT, the LXX A (Alexandrinus) text, the LXX B (Vaticanus) text, and the version in Matthew. The version in LXX A and Matthew is fairly close to the MT, although there is some indication, at least in this instance, that Matthew may reflect a more accurate Hebrew original. Here are the three versions side-by-side:

Hebrew (MT)

Thus says YHWH:
“A voice in Ramah was heard, mourning and weeping of bitterness [i.e. bitter weeping];
Rachel, weeping over her sons refused to be comforted [over her sons],
for he is no (more)”

LXX A [38:15]

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice in the height [B Ramah] was heard, of wailing and weeping and mourning,
Rachel, weeping (aloud) over her sons, and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
Ou%tw$ ei@pen ku/rio$
fwnh\ e)n th u(yhlh [B Rama] h)kousqh qrh/nou kai\ klauqmou= kai\ o)durmou=:
Raxhl a)poklaiome/nh$ e)pi\ tw=n ui(w=n au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

Matthew 2:18

“A voice in Ramah was heard, weeping and much mourning;
Rachel, weeping (for) her children [te/kna], and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
qwnh\ e)n  (Rama\ h)kou/sqh klauqmo\$ kai\ o)durmo\$ polu/$:
 (Raxh\l klai/ousa ta\ te/kna au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

It is possible that the repeated phrase “over her sons” in the MT is a scribal error or addition, as well as the curious singular suffix in the last line “he is no (more)”; if so, then Matthew (and LXX A) may reflect a more accurate underlying Hebrew text than the MT. Unfortunately, verse 15 is not preserved among the six (highly fragmentary) Jeremiah scrolls from Qumran.

In applying Jer 31:15 to events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writer (as in the case of Isa 7:14, etc) has taken the passage out of its original context. While Matthew treats it as a prophecy of future events, the original passage is an evocation of the prophet’s own time. It is part of a larger section (30:1-33:26) promising future restoration for the people of Israel, with messages specifically directed at the exiled Northern tribes (“Ephraim”) in 30:1-31:40. Even in these two chapters one also finds the message being applied to the Southern kingdom (Judah), by Jeremiah himself or a later (exilic) editor. In any event, the theme of a reunited Israel is prominent, culminating in the famous passage of Jer 31:31-34, where God promises to make a new covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. The Community of the Qumran texts and the early Christians both saw themselves related to this “new covenant” with God.

Rachel, as the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh), represents the Northern tribes (closest to Judah); her weeping and mourning is a dramatic and evocative depiction of the (Assyrian) Exile, but it may be an echo (or foreshadowing) of the (Babylonian) exile of Judah (cf. the association of “Ramah” in Jer 40:1). The town Ramah (lit. “height”, so translated by LXX A) was in the territory of Benjamin, on the border of Ephraim and not far from Bethel; it may be the same as Ramah/Ramathaim the hometown of Samuel’s father, and is usually identified with modern er-Râm. According to Gen 35:16, Rachel died somewhere between Bethel and Ephrath and Jacob set up a pillar at that location, which is confirmed by the reference to “Rachel’s tomb” in 1 Sam 10:2-3. Gen 35:20 has a parenthetical statement (presumably an editor’s gloss) that “Ephrath” is (near) Bethlehem, representing either an scribal mistake or a competing tradition. The Gospel writer clearly identifies this Ramah with Bethlehem.

Rachel’s weeping is actually just the opening setting of this oracle of hope, for vv. 16-17 exhort the mother to cease weeping—her sons will return to their own land. There is no indication that the Gospel writer means to infer the wider context of the prophecy; he rather narrowly applies it to the “massacre” of the newborn males in Bethlehem. However, it should be noted that he does narrate a return—that of the infant Jesus and his parents out of Egypt back into their own land (see Matt 2:14-15, 19-21). Consider also the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2 [8:23-9:1] in Matt 4:14-16: the original prophecy offers the promise of deliverance to the people of the Northern kingdom, now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6-7 [5-6] are the concluding words of the section 6:1-9:7, and, traditionally, one of the most famous ‘Messianic prophecies’ applied to the birth of Jesus (cf. my earlier Advent season note).

At the historical level, given the likely population of a relatively small town like Bethlehem, the number of male infants slaughtered would probably have been fewer than one hundred (perhaps even less than fifty). However, as the tradition developed, and legendary or fabulous details were added, the number expanded considerably—most commonly 14,000, as in Greek Orthodox tradition, but occasionally even higher. These “Holy Innocents” came to be regarded as the first Christian martyrs.

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