Who is Rachel ?


WHo is Rachel ?

We read about Rachel in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:15) :

‘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.”’

This verse is quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew (2:18), which sees it being fulfilled by the slaughter of the first-born sons, carried out by Herod after Jesus’ birth.

The background story is that Jerusalem had been ransacked by the Babylonians and its population taken as prisoners. Ramah, a small city about 5 miles north of Jerusalem, was the transit camp where those taken captive were assembled before being taken off to exile in Babylon.

The fall and desolation of Jerusalem is described in haunting poetry in the other Old Testament book ascribed to Jeremiah – The Lamentations of Jeremiah. It is not surprising, perhaps, that he portrays it as a sign of God’s anger. Rachel weeping for her children is a further expression of this devastation, a devastation that has echoed down the centuries, for the slaughter of innocent children following the birth of Christ, in twentieth century Europe, and now again in the Middle East.

The context of Jeremiah’s reference to Rachel is illuminating for Penthos. Jeremiah is widely-known for giving the Jewish people the hard word, for proclaiming God’s anger with his people, because of their unfaithfulness.

However, strange as it may seem, Jeremiah 31 is actually all good news, as Jeremiah proclaims that God has forgiven his people and will restore them to their land:

‘I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow’.

The verse about Rachel is actually a rhetorical device to provide a contrast retrospectively between the remembered misery and the coming joy.

Hannah Stone’s brilliant reference to Rachel is not lightly made nor coincidental: the verse about Rachel is followed just a few verses later by a passage often interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of Christ and the promise of a new relationship with God which lies at the heart of Penthos.

 ‘Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’

So Rachel represents all those who, down the centuries have grieved for loved ones lost in war. We have chosen to give voice to her grief by beginning our concert with Rudolf Mauersberger’s fine setting of words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, composed in the charred ruins of Dresden just weeks after the Allied firebomb attack in February 1945 destroyed the city, including the church where he was organist, and killing, amongst many thousands, eleven of the choristers in his choir.