Her time had come, unexpectedly. The morning through the lattice shone with a bright and soft melancholy. In her arms, her second son. The fruit of the night’s long and anguished labor. Gentle tears fall; the child has her eyes.
A former life pressed in upon her. Leah, her sister, Leah. The feud between them over Jacob — for his love and for his offspring — had availed neither. So much of her married life, she now realized, glowed with envy — she wanted more than Jacob’s heart and eye. She wanted his heirs (Genesis 30:1). She remembered her desperate cry to her husband, a lifetime ago now, “Give me children, or I shall die!”
Even at the birth of her first son, Rachel already began to look for another: “And she called his name Joseph [literally, “May he add”], saying ‘May the Lord add to me another son!’” And now, she held him — for the first and last time. The midwife aimed to comfort her with the fulfillment, “Do not fear, for you have another son” — consolation to a dying mother.
How many such golden mornings would this son grow to know without her? How many grandchildren would her wilting arms never hold? As her soul made ready for its unwilling exodus, tears showered the plant just sprouted. She sighs a name, “Ben-oni, son of my sorrow.”
Jacob sat beside his great love, grief gripping him by the throat, yet managing to say, “He shall be called, ‘Benjamin, son of my right hand.’” Son of my right hand, as though to say, “As you depart, my Rachel, my dove, this son — this life you brought forth from death — shall be in favor at my side. He shall be closer to me than a shadow; as close as your memory. This, the last token between us on earth, I will cherish.”
And with that, Rachel departed from the world and was buried on the way to Bethlehem.
A Ghost, Crying
It moves the soul to imagine a mother saying hello and goodbye to her child in the same moment. We can see her with our imagination, gazing around longingly at loved ones, her eyes resting upon her son with a look to bring water from the hardest heart. Ben-oni, Ben-oni.
And it moves us to hear the other two mentions of this mother’s tears in Scripture. As the blood of Abel continues to speak, Rachel too continues to cry.
In the first incident, Israel has fallen bloodily to Babylon. Amid the stunning note of hope given in Jeremiah 31, we hear her:
Thus says the Lord,
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
Near the place of Rachel’s tomb, her voice cries out at the devastation of Benjamin and the other Israelite tribes. The Lord speaks poetically, resurrecting Rachel, as it were, to picture her as an Israelite mother weeping without remedy for her slain and exiled children.
In response, Yahweh comforts her, “There is hope for your future, and your children shall come back to their own country.” He will relent of his judgment, and depicts himself as a Father to Israel, saying, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? . . . I will surely have mercy on him” (Jeremiah 31:16–20). In other words, he shall be called “Benjamin” — a son at my right hand.
She Refuses to Be Comforted
Hundreds of years later, her consolation is again disturbed.
Herod has done the unthinkable. Furious at the wise men for not divulging the location of baby Jesus, “he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16). The dragon devoured many to ravage the one.
Matthew writes of the infanticide,
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17–18)
“She weeps, and refuses to be comforted, because they are no more.”
As the brutes went door to door, Rachel again raised her anguished cry. These tears did not signal exile, but extermination. She does not die with her healthy child in her arms — bequeathing her son with a hope and a future — she watches, as baby boy after baby boy is ripped from his mother’s arms and done away with. She weeps, and refuses to be comforted, because they are no more.
Do We Weep with Her?
Because they are no more.
There is a discomforting calm in these words: The deed is done; the violence spent. The water is again calm over the sunken ship. The dreadful stillness; an unholy hush. Little giggles, gone. Creaking floors cease playing the music of pattering footsteps. They are no more.
“Because they are no more.”
“If a pitiless culture will not mourn for the missing, she will. If we live too busy to mind the brutality, she isn’t.”
What a word to echo through the empty corridors of the world today — and in the United States alone, a child misplaced every minute. Though not ancient Israel, I hear Rachel, from a forgotten corner of the world, weeping. If a pitiless society will not mourn for the missing, she will. If we live too busy to mind the brutality, she isn’t.
Day after day, she mourns as a mother bereft of more children. As one after another is stolen from behind fortress walls, she begets tears without number. Final punctuations fall; biographies end. Nothing left to read, nothing more to say. Towns and cities and even nations full of people — gone — “Ben-oni.”
She looks out from the lattice, daylight rests upon her with a bright and terrible melancholy. How many have never lived to see this dawn? Will we not weep with her — because they are no more?