Airliner crashes, weather-related disasters, drought and flooding on an unprecedented scale, political turmoil, prolonged and bloody civil wars, the refugee crisis, and terrorist attacks. This is the world we live in. And as we stand aghast at the chaos and destruction, it is almost impossible not to become alarmed and distressed. So, how should Christians respond? Well, if ever there was a time to weep, then surely it is now. Yes, there is a time when weeping is the acceptable and appropriate Christian response to untimely death and tragic loss. Even the apostle Paul said that we should “weep with those who are weeping” (Rom 12:15). And there’s a biblical character who exemplifies weeping as a Christian response to the devastation of evil— Rachel the weeper.
Rachel was the second wife of Jacob, and therefore a matriarch in Israel. Although Jacob loved Rachel more than her older sister Leah, her life was not easy, and for many years she suffered greatly with childlessness (Gen 29:30–31). Eventually, she became the mother of Joseph, but died suddenly after difficulties in labour giving birth to her second child Benjamin. She was buried in a lonely wayside tomb a short distance from Bethlehem (Gen 35:19–20). A thousand years later the prophet Jeremiah called her from her makeshift grave to weep for the children of Israel being taken into exile (Jer 31:15), thus, Rachel the matriarch became a symbol of mourning for the Jewish people, but later also for Christians.
The weeping Rachel reappears against the background of prophecy right at the beginning of the New Testament in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Although she doesn’t feature in Matthew’s genealogy of the Messiah — which is startling for its inclusion of four Old Testament women (Matt 1:1–17) — she is allocated a small, yet significant, part in the unfolding nativity drama where she is called upon to act as the primary witness to Herod’s massacre of Bethlehem’s infant boys whom she considers her own (Matt 2:16–18).
Rachel is the first female character in the New Testament to say anything, albeit indirectly through the words of Jeremiah. Since the presence of women tends to be hidden from view in Matthew’s Gospel, and since he rarely assigns speaking roles to females, Rachel is especially worthy of our attention because here, for the very first time in the New Testament, a woman is an actor rather than an object, and a female voice is clearly heard (Matt 2:18; cf. Jer 31:15):
A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,Rachel weeping for her children and she did not want to be comforted, because they are no more.
It’s an uncomfortable sound. The haunting cry of a woman bewailing her lost children. Rachel, the shadowy figure of a long-dead woman stands on the periphery of Matthew’s nativity story. But silent she is not. This is Rachel’s sole appearance in the New Testament, but it is perhaps this, her last entrance into the biblical drama, that is her noblest and most enduring contribution.
Rachel is weeping. In other words, she’s crying aloud, expressing uncontainable, audible grief— it is a violent emotion. It expresses physical or mental pain that is outwardly visible. She is the unforgettable and tragic image of the inconsolable mother. She is the first person in the New Testament to mourn for lost children, though certainly not the last — she foreshadows the sorrowful women at the end of Matthew who come to the tomb of another executed son. Sometimes weeping is all we can do, and I believe Matthew is holding up Rachel as a model for Christians to imitate.
Rachel is weeping. She isn’t given any actual words to speak. But she vocalises loudly, and we can easily understand her:
Weeping is a public outcry against human perpetrators of evil and injustice.
Weeping gives a voice to the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves, the vulnerable and the weak (usually the victim/s).
Weeping interprets tragic events as wrong and delivers criticism of the underlying morality in order to evoke a proper response in the reader or viewer.
Weeping demonstrates compassion and communicates solidarity, effectively saying “I don’t have to be you in order to feel your pain and share your grief”.
Rachel’s bitter tears may be understood as a call for action. In Matthew 2:18, Rachel doesn’t address anyone specifically, but perhaps her weeping first and foremost addresses God himself. As such, her weeping functions as an intercessory prayer that gives her a voice when there are simply no words. Perhaps crying helps us to communicate what we’re feeling in a way that language cannot. It surely allows the Spirit to help us by interceding for us “with groans that words cannot express” (Rom 8:26).
In Jeremiah, the LORD is very much present and tenderly comforts Rachel, saying to her, “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, and they will return from the land of the enemy” (31:16). In Matthew however, God seems to have disappeared into the night along with the holy family, leaving Rachel shrouded in darkness crying bitterly using the words of the weeping prophet made audible through the wailing of the Bethlehemite mothers for whom divine intervention never comes. Her heart-felt lament echoes down through the millennia and invites Christians of the twenty-first century to mourn when confronted with untimely death, for the way of weeping is one that finally leads to restoration.
Weeping is not merely a feminine form of displaying emotion. It reveals our humanity. Emotions are commonly held to be a female trademark, but men report having feelings just as often as women. They just don't express them, though (according to Scripture) they should. Because, if Rachel is indeed the female paradigm for weeping in the New Testament, Christian men should notice that she also provides the precedent for the male paradigm, Jesus himself, who wept publicly on a number of occasions. He wept when his beloved friend Lazarus died, knowing that he would raise him from death (John 11:35). Jesus also wept over Jerusalem, foreseeing the destruction of the city and her people (Luke 19:41; cf. Matt 23:37).
Of course, I am not suggesting that weeping is, or even should be, the only nor the complete Christian response to violence and killing, but it is a much-overlooked initial response that has value and purpose. Crying emotional tears is a uniquely human behaviour and a natural response to a range of emotions such as sadness, grief, joy, or anger. There are well-documented health benefits to expressing emotion through crying and actively grieving after experiencing a loss. Crying leads to emotional release for the bereft, and weeping with a person or a community can be a way of communicating care and shared humanity.
Let us recognise that weeping is a God-given gift that enables us to express pain, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Crying is normal and expected behaviour which should be supported and encouraged, rather that repressed. Let us not speak or act until we have sat with those who weep, and wept with those who mourn. Let us pass through Bethlehem, and pause for a while at Rachel’s tomb. In the midst of death and dying, let us listen to Rachel’s lament and take it to heart. May we remember Rachel and realise when it is a time to weep.
I believe that Rachel’s weeping encompasses all human loss, the grief of every mother, and by extension, of all humanity. What should Christians do when faced with tragedy? Scripture replies with the ancient voice of a dying mother… we should weep. As human beings, and as women of faith, we can join our voices with Rachel’s. God will listen. And he has said, “Blessed are those who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:25).
I’ve lived in Brisbane for nearly 19 years, but I grew up, went to school, and got married in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa during the turbulent apartheid era. After graduating from university, I was employed as a laboratory analyst and worked in an oil blending plant. There I was one of 3 women among a staff of 15, and the only white, so it was quite a change to what I had experienced growing up. I learned a lot about ethnic and religious diversity, multiculturalism, racism, and sexism. Then, in the late nineties we made the difficult decision to emigrate. Despite this being the best decision for our children’s future and the fact that we are so thankful to be able to enjoy life in Australia, it’s still a painful time to look back on.
However, becoming an Aussie meant I could eventually fulfil my dream of attending Bible college, and in 2016 I finally graduated with an MDiv after 6 and a half years of part-time study! I discovered that I love the rigour and structure of pursuing God through academic means, so much so that I have decided to keep going. I’m currently completing an MA research project in Old Testament narrative.