Rachel’s tears and the fate of Gibeah
The threat posed by the reappearance of Balaam’s star, left Matthew depicting the unpalatable aftermath of Herod’s arrogance, innocent children slaughtered and Bethlehem mourning the loss of David’s younger heirs (Matt 2:17-18). He claims this fulfilled Jeremiah’s, “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children” (31:15, NKJV), yet neither its location nor the people involved seem to fit. The prophesied weeping was not in the tribal lands of Judah1 and the children of Bethlehem were descendants of Leah rather than Rachel (Gen 29:32-35). However, trace the roots of Jeremiah’s prophecy and it becomes clear that God was acting according to a pattern and it was this that Matthew saw replicated in his time.
Welcome to the hospitality of Gibeah
Jeremiah’s prophecy reflects the tragic wayside birth of Benjamin (Gen 35:16-20), for he encouraged his symbolic ‘Rachel’ with words that echoed those of Rachel’s midwife (Jer 31:16, cf. Gen 35:17). However, it also encompasses another tragic journey along the ‘Patriarch’s Highway’2. Through the midwifery of the Micah (Judg 17:4-5), Rachel’s fatal attraction to idolatry had surfaced again amidst the sons of Benjamin. Then, when an unnamed Levite’s concubine ran away, the stage was set for the judgement of Benjamin and the fall of Gibeah (Judg 19:1-30), events that would find theirs way into Israel’s prophetic vocabulary.
The unnamed Levite’s woes began when his concubine practiced harlotry against him3. The sense that this opposed him, hints that it involved the sort of cultic prostitution integral to the Canaanite religious framework (see Appendix I). In an act of repentance, she then returned under her father’s authority (Judg 19:1-2)4, allowing the Levite, after a telltale four-month period (see Appendix F), to recognise the sincerity of her change of heart and go after her to bring her back. His continued affection toward her is apparent from both the donkey provided for her use5 and the tone with which he addressed her6.
Moses had commanded hospitality toward Levites (Deut 12:19 & 14:27-29). Therefore, the father-in-law’s hospitality, so lavishly generous it delaying the Levite’s departure for several days, reminds us of the reception God’s servants could expect in an Israelite city. Hence, as night fell upon the travellers, the Levite rejected the uncertain hospitality of a Jebusite city in favour of reaching a Benjamite town. Unfortunately, Gibeah dashed his expectations when, contemptuous of Mosaic Law, they left him abandoned in the city square7. There he stayed until an elderly Ephraimite came in from the fields, recognised the visitors as emissaries from God, and treated the Levite’s party as honoured guests.
In the accounts next dramatic twist, the men of the city amassed around the old man’s home demanding intercourse with the Levite. This unusual request echoed the demands of the men of Sodom and the situation in which Lot and his angelic visitors found themselves (Gen 19:1-14). Yet, it would be wrong to assume that their motivation was nothing more than selfish lust, for in Gibeah, as at Sodom, the problem was Canaanite style idolatry (see Appendix I).
Judges describes the crowd of Benjamites as ‘sons of Belial8’, a term of disdain used by Moses for men who embraced idolatrous worship9. Thus, it seems that the men of the city, having learned that the visitor was a holy man, wanted him to address their spiritual needs. However, they, like the occupants of Sodom, wanted those needs met in accord with the practices of the Canaanites.
The Sodom tragedy established roles into which Gibeah’s actors then began to step. As, emulating Lot, the old man proffered his daughter and the crowd rejected the gesture, the script left the Levite with the unenviable task of emulating angels and striking the crowd blind, at least to the best of his decidedly mortal ability. His subsequent action, in encouraging his concubine to go out, was senseless against a lustful mob, but a shrewd move against a crowd intent on cultic prostitution10. In terms of fulfilling the crowd’s religious expectations, it was the equivalent of offering the services of a professional minister rather than a youth from the congregation. Furthermore, the concubine’s experience would help her distract the men’s attention, blinding their eyes to everyone but herself. The Levite had forgiven her the harlotry practiced against him and Judah’s merciful treatment of Tamar (Gen 38:24-26) provided him with a precedent for forgiving this sin that would prove his salvation.
The Levite was not callously feeding his concubine to a raging mob, but sending her to undertake a familiar task with no expectation of physical harm. Hence, those with a severely misspent youth would recognise the tinge of ‘after the wild night out’ about the scene that greeted him in the morning. Moreover, they would probably sympathise with his lack of concern at finding her collapsed (which would otherwise be quite shameful) and his conclusion that she was simply sleeping it off .
A touch of death on the nation
Whether the concubine was, as often inferred, a cruelly offered ‘sacrificial lamb’, or, as I have advocated, a strategically deployed distraction, the outcome remains uncompromisingly tragic. The ‘sons of Belial’ were exceedingly zealous in their idolatry, to the point where they ceased to care about their behaviour’s impact on others. Hence, having abused the concubine to the point of death11, they simply abandon her on the threshold (Judg 19:26).
As Moses command Israel to purge such ‘sons of Belial’ from their midst, this matter was no longer the sole concern of Gibeah, nor even of the tribe of Benjamin, for such practices rendered their entire nation unclean and left it in peril of suffering Sodom’s fate. The Levite therefore acted to transform that invisible truth into a tangible reality. As he sent a part of his Concubine’s corpse to each tribe, it rendered everything it touched unclean (Num 19:11, Judg 19:29). His gruesome prophetic shock-tactics worked, for ‘everyone who saw this said, “Nothing like this has ever happened before, not since the people of Israel came out of Egypt. Think about it. Tell us what to do.”’ (Judg 19:30 NCV).
Having heard that in one of their cities ‘Sons of Belial’ had seduced the inhabitants to serve other Gods, the tribes began to follow Moses instructions (Deut 13:12-16, cf. Judg 20:1-13, 48). They assembled at Mizpah, investigate the matter and found the report true. Therefore, it only remained to strike the inhabitants of the city with the sword, destroy its livestock and burn it with fire, in other words, to leave it like Sodom.
Ramah gains a voice
The tribe of Benjamin, having shunned the congregation at Mizpah and to the defence of Gibeah (20:3), then fell into Rachel’s folly. Twice the Lord sent the other 11 tribes against them as a warning. However, the warnings were to no avail, so God told the tribes to confront the Benjamites one last time and assured them of victory.
On this last occasion the tribes set an ambush by Gibeah and then drew out the Benjamite forces toward the ridge-top route, in the general direction of Bethel and therefore into the proximity of Ramah12. As the battle retreated from the gates of Gibeah, the trap sprung and smoke rose from the burning city (cf. Gen 19:28). The Benjamites, seeing the sign hanging in the sky behind them, knew that God had given them into the hands of their enemies and, as the tide of battle turned, they despaired. God had judged Benjamin and suddenly the tribe, like Rachel before them, was about to loose its life.
The impact on the nearby Benjamite city of Ramah is not difficult to surmise. The city was close to the action and their watchmen could hardly have missed the tell tale smoke13. Amongst the anxious ‘daughters of Rachel’, who awaited their loved ones return, shouts of encouragement would have turned to cries of anguish. As this symbolic ‘Rachel’ wept bitterly at her children’s destruction, Ramah became a part of the prophetic vocabulary.
The remnant fruit of the pomegranate
The 11 tribes struck down the fleeing men and demolished Gibeah exactly as Moses had instructed (Deut 13:12-15 cf. Judg 20:48), before then repeating the process in all the other cities of Benjamin14. Thousands died, that thousands more might live, leaving only the six hundred men who had fled into the wilderness and to the Rock of Rimmon (Judg 20:44-46). Then, four months later, Israel offered the six hundred survivors of Benjamin peace and re-integrated them into the nation.
The writer fails to explain why, though all Benjamin stood condemned, the community chose to forgive these few men. To us they look like a desperate group of weary warriors melting into the relative safety of a craggy hill. However, the writer expected his audience to understand the deeper significance of these men and the rock to which they ran. The rock’s name provides the clue to what was going on. When Israeli’s use ‘Rimmon’ as a place name, it almost exclusively means ‘Pomegranate’15. The pomegranate was a traditional Jewish representation of righteousness, and as such itwas used on the High Priest’s robe and in the decoration of the temple (Exod 28:33-34, 1 Kgs 7:20, 2 Chr 3:16), furthermore Jewish tradition held that the Pomegranate’s seeds equated to the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot (commandments) within the Torah (Law)16. Thus, the symbolic associations of that fruit clarify that these six hundred men had taken the one route of escape that Moses left open to them, they had fled to the righteous Rock that was also a God of faithfulness and without injustice (Deut 32:1). The four months and the number six hundred were enough for an Israeli reader to appreciate that these men were genuinely righteous ‘seed’. Therefore, just as the Levite accepted his repentant concubine back, so the community forgave these Benjamites.
Given Benjamin’s origin amidst Rachel’s traumatic labour, the figurative connotations of Rimmon become especially poignant. As a ‘cluster’ fruit17 (along with the grape and fig), the pomegranate represented abundant fertility and alluded to female reproductive fecundity18. Thus, hidden within this rocky ‘pomegranate’ was a righteous remnant and, amidst the agonising death of Rachel’s unrepentant offspring, Rimmon had become the womb of a re-born Benjamin.
The life of Gibeah’s best-known survivor continues to remind us of the significance of Rimmon. When the Lord chose Saul of Gibeah as the first king of Israel, his pilgrimage to the ‘Hill of God’ reminded him of the deaths of Rachel and Deborah19, and then showed him idolatry (a Philistine garrison) at the hill of God (1 Sam 10:2-3). After Saul’s appointment at Mizpah the scriptures contrast the approving reaction of ‘a band of men whose hearts God had touched’ with that of ‘children of Belial’ (1 Sam 10:26-27, NKJV). Later, as Saul waited for an overdue Samuel and panic set in, a tell tale six hundred remain steadfast (1 Sam 13:11,13). Still later, as Saul prepared himself for battle with the Philistines, he tarried on the edge of a hill (Gibeah20) under a pomegranate tree by the precipice (Migron), with him his six hundred men and the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam 14:2).
The baby who refused to be born
Before the Northern Kingdom’s eventual disappearance immoral idolatry once again became rife (Amos 2:7, Hos 4:14-15). At that time, God prompted Hosea to use images from the Gibeah episode21. A ‘spirit of harlotry’ had lead the people into the adultery of idolatrous practice (Hos 4:12-14), so God was withdrawing, by implication leaving them unprotected. Like the Benjamites at Gibeah, they were looking in the wrong direction so Hosea declared “Blow the horn in Gibeah, the trumpet in Ramah. Sound the alarm at Beth-aven; look behind you, Benjamin!” (Hos 5:8 NRSV). With the ‘Gibeah principal’ once again at work, the Lord reminded them “Since the days of Gibeah you have sinned, O Israel; there they have continued. Shall not war overtake them in Gibeah?” (Hos 10:9, NRSV).
History was repeating itself, however with a significant difference. The Northern Kingdom (aka Ephraim) entered into the death of exile with no baby remnant in sight. As Hosea predicted, the labour pains of a woman came upon them, but the baby lacked wisdom, so when the time arrived it refused to leave the womb (Hos 13:13). The population of the Northern Kingdom unanimously failed to return to the Lord and the infant nation, upon whom their national survival depended, simply refused to be born!
Two witnesses to another birth
At around the time that Hosea prophesied to the Northern Kingdom, the Lord brought forward the prophets Micah and Isaiah, as two witnesses to warn Judah against a similar fate22. By the third chapter of Micah, self-centred greed had destroyed Samaria and the rot of idolatry was spreading to Jerusalem, just as predicted (Mic 1:6, 7, 9). Micah’s numerous shepherding references and mention of the Tower of the Flock bring the focus back upon Jacob’s life and Rachel’s death, thereby underlining that Jerusalem faced a similar fate (Mic 4:8). Amidst the denunciation of corruption and arrogance God leaves a glimpse of hope, in the ‘after days23’ Jerusalem would again be as intended, for a remnant would survive and return to their Lord (Mic 3:4, 9-12, 4:1, 6-8). However, in the remnant’s creation, the Tower of the Flock (i.e. Jerusalem) would cry out in the agony of childbirth (Mic 4:9-10).
Micah’s witness finds support in the prophecy of Isaiah as God draws upon Rock of Rimmon imagery to lament the idolatry of Israel (Isa 2:5-16). In this chiasmus, the layered poetic equivalent of a Russian doll24, the outer layer portrays the people of Jacob entrusting themselves to unreliable foreigners. The next reveals that the land was full of idols and, because of the terror when God acts, they needed to give these up and hide amidst caves and rocks. Following this comes a layer describing the humbling of men and their idols on a day when God is exalted. The final core describes the casting down of those lofty things that men desired above God and which entice them into idolatry — safe cities, fine homes, pre-eminent locations and business success.
The Lord returned to the Gibeah theme to warning that the idolatry of Jerusalem will meet the same end as that of Samaria (Isa 10:10-11). Once again, a mighty army would destroy the cities of Benjamin (Isa 10:28-3225) and humble the arrogant (Isa 10:32-34). A righteous destruction would fall upon idolatrous Jerusalem, but a remnant would escape and rely upon the Lord, rather than other nations and their ‘gods’ (Isa 10:20-22). In this re-enactment of the events of Gibeah, salvation once again lay in flight to the rock of righteousness.
Isaiah had repeated cause to return to the theme of a nation being born anew, for in warning Judah against an action that God will never forgive26, Isaiah experiences the pains of childbirth (Isa 21:3), for national rebirth would be the necessary outcome. If Judah stood condemned to die, a righteous remnant had to be born, a remnant that had cast itself upon the mercy of God. The very judgement that decimated Judah created the context for such a rebirth. Thus, when Isaiah’s fears come to fruition, we find Hezekiah concerned that ‘the children have come to birth, but there is no strength to bring them forth,’ (Isa 37:3, NKJV).
The day of Jacob’s distress
The two witnesses, Micah and Isaiah, both brought prophetic warnings of a future that lay in store if Judah continued in her folly, a future in which death would consume the irredeemably compromised and the hope for God’s people would lie in the birth of a repentant remnant. For Jeremiah that future was already unfolding27. A section of Judah’s population had already gone into exile and the remainder showed little sign of amending its ways. Announcing the coming of a day of Jacob’s distress, the Lord once again drew upon images from Gibeah and mixed them with thoughts of a mother dying in childbirth (Jer 4:27-31). In Jeremiah’s prophecy, an army arrives and people flee to hide amidst the rocks (like Rimmon). The army leaves every city desolate and uninhabited (like the eventual outcome at Gibeah). Judah, who has espoused harlotry, finds her lovers despising her and seeking her life (as with the Levite’s concubine)28. The daughter of Zion (Jerusalem) makes the sound of one in childbirth and gasping for breath with the exertion of it (just like Rachel). She stretches out her palms as she lies, exhausted before her murderers (reminding us of the concubine’s final moments and her hands upon the threshold).
As Judah began to adopt the lifestyle of the other nations, their idolatry became an incurable wound born by God (Jer 10:19-24). Therefore, faced with a commotion coming from the north and laying waste the cities, Jeremiah stated his personal response, like those who ran to the Rock of Rimmon, he would acknowledge the imperfection of his way and his need of God’s just correction in his life.
Jeremiah foresees the birth of a remnant
Jeremiah later brought a further word concerning the coming destruction. On that day, fear would grip the men of Judah and they would become like women in childbirth (Jer 30:4-80). Israel would then no longer serve strangers but would serve instead the Lord their God (Jer 30:9). The storm would burst on the head of the wicked, but the Lord would preserved a ‘remnant’ (Jer 30:23 – 31:2, 31:7-8). Those who escaped the sword would find grace in the wilderness and entering into rest (Jer 31:2), just as the six hundred Benjamites had. The Lord would then restore their fortunes in the land and rebuild the ruins (Jer 30:16-22).
Introducing further comment on the promised restoration, the Lord reminded Judah, “a voice was heard in Ramah of painful crying and deep sadness: Rachel crying for her children. She refused to be comforted, because her children are dead!” (Jer 31:15 NCV). Once again, idolatry had become the cause of Rachel’s tears, so, like Rachel’s midwife, God consoled this nation that was agonising in its death throes ‘Thus says the Lord: “Refrain your voice from weeping, And your eyes from tears; For your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord,”’ (Jer 31:16a NKJV). A new Judah had been born.
New birth, the one way back
From the time of Rachel, we have watched a spiritual principal at work. She espoused idolatry and died, though not without giving birth to the seed of the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin espoused idolatry and ‘died’, though not without giving birth to the seed that was in the Rock of Rimmon. Ephraim espoused idolatry and ‘died’ whilst lacking the strength to give birth. Judah espoused idolatry and ‘died’ though not without giving birth to the seed of post-exilic Judah (cf. Zech 8:11-12).
This principal had ancient roots, for it was already at work in the time of Noah’s flood, where confinement, under the leadership of the Seed of the Woman and in a womb-like ark, birthed Noah’s family as a righteous remnant. From that time onward, the familiar pattern recurred whenever idolatry and godless precepts took hold. Amidst the death of the old and corrupt, the only way back to corporate godliness was in the birth of the new and righteous, a process overseen by the prophetic midwifery of God. Here then, was the process that Matthew saw at work in the life of Christ.
The birth pangs of Messiah
At the outset of this chapter, mismatched places and seemingly inappropriate tribes gave cause to seek the roots of Jeremiah’s prophecy. We found them in the birth of Benjamin and then saw how, through the fate of a Levite’s concubine, Gibeah’s hidden idolatry gave a voice to Ramah and caused Rachel to weep for her children. More importantly, we discovered how the Rock of Rimmon represented a re-birth of Benjamin and salvation from the impact of covert idolatry. From these events, a ‘Gibeah principle’ emerged, whereby re-birth brought freedom from the curse of the law. We saw how prophets like Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, then took that template and applied it to events in their own times.
The halakah midrash29, a collection of Jewish oral commentaries and traditions, anticipates that a time of tribulation would herald Messiah’s coming, a time it calls heble hamashiah or ‘the birth pangs of Messiah’30. Matthew, by implying that the ‘Gibeah principal’ had a part to play in Messiah’s preparation, suggests that we should see the start of those birth pangs in the pain of Bethlehem. For, through that massacre, God liberated Jesus from the unseen shackles caused by the hidden ‘teraphim’ of idolatry and the disobedience. However, Matthew’s reminder of this powerful spiritual dynamic also suggested that the only route back to Eden for his nation, corrupted by idolatry as she was, lay in being born again.
Some might ask whether such a ‘birth’ could ever be worth the heartache and bloodshed it would involve. Like suffering Rachel or those who lost loved ones in the fall of Jerusalem, they need to know that such pain is worth its outcome. Hence, of all the Gibeah-related prophecies that Matthew could have chosen, he picked the one that goes on to provide God’s answer to their question (31:16-19). Yes, it is worth it. For, as at the beginning, the cost of preserving the priceless way to the tree of life remains the destruction of idolatry-corrupted ‘Eden’, but the reward for such grim work was a way back into God’s blessing for those in exile from it.
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1 The scriptures mention places of that name in Simeon (Josh 19:8), Asher (Josh 19:24 & 29), Naphtali (Josh 19:32 & 36), and Benjamin (Josh 18:20-28 and especially 25), but not Judah.
2 This ancient and well-used route followed the geographical backbone of Israel, the ridge between Gerazim in the north and Hebron in the south. Various Wadis provide access to it from the plains below.
3 I have adopted the traditional interpretation that this passage refers to prostitution rather than anger as suggested by some more recent translations.
4 The account of Jacob sets the Biblical precedent for return to one’s father’s house as a God-motivated move (Gen 28:21, 31:3, 32:9).
5 The text introduces the donkeys in the context of the Levite speaking tenderly (Judg 19:3) and their saddles are mentioned in almost the same breathe as the fact that the concubine was with him (Judg 19:10).
6 The sort used by Joseph to reassure his brothers (Gen 50:21) and by Shechem to woo Dinah (Gen 34:3).
7 Travellers do not usually carry bulky straw for their animals but aquire it on the way. Therefore, a Middle Eastern host usually provided food for both their guests and their animals (cf. Gen 24:32-33), but Judges 19:19 robs the people of Gibeah of any excuse for their lack of hospitality.
8 Often rendered ‘sons of wickedness’ or‘worthless fellows’, but perhaps ‘useless men’ would be closer.
9 Moses describes how Israel should deal with any ‘sons of wickedness’ in the Israelite cities who are leading the people to serve other Gods (Deut 13:12-15).
10 The word normally translated ‘seize’ or ‘take’ carries the sense of taking hold of something to encourage or lead it into a desired action. (Gen 19:16, 21:18, Exod 12:33, Judg 16:25, 2 Sam 13:11, 15:5, 2 Kgs 4:27).
11 They treated the concubine in the way Egypt treated the Hebrew slaves (Judg 20:5, Deut 26:6).
12 They were on the high ways that lead to Gibeah and to Bethel (Judg 20:31), thus between them and going north. Isaiah’s southward march of an invasion has Ramah listed north of Gibeah (Isa 10:29).
13 The names Ramah and Gibeah both imply elevated locations. That they presented a choice of overnight hospitality impies proximity (Judg 19:11-14).
14 Although the text only mentions the destruction of cities that the army of eleven tribes came to, the small number of survivors from Benjamin implies that they visited all the cities occupied by that tribe.
15 Roland. K.Harrison, “Pomegranate,” ISBE, 3:920.
16 C. E. Armerding, “Command; Commandment,” ISBE, 1:736.
17 Fruits that bear an abundance of seeds from a single stem.
18 Hence, Israelite spies bore out of Eschol, which means ‘cluster’ (Deut 13:15). The scriptures also mentioned them alongside love making (Song 7:12) and used to depict potential fertility (Song 4:12–15).
19 The ‘Oak of Tabor’ recalls the judge Deborah, namesake of the nurse, whose base of operations may have been, or at least was easily confused with, the nurse’s burial site (Judg 4:5, Gen 35:8).
20 Gibeah means ‘hill’ (Strong, “1389 גִּבְעָה ,” Concordance) and is probably used in that sense here as the town had already been destroyed.
21 E. Ball, “Hosea,” ISBE, 2:761-767, in particular 761.
22 G. L. Robinson and R. K. Harrison, “Isaiah,” ISBE, 2:885-904, in particular 886; E. Ball, “Hosea,” ISBE, 2:761-67, in particular 762; T. E. McComiskey, “Micah, Book of” ISBE, 3:343-46, in particular 344.
23 The phrase ‘latter days’ (Mic 4:1) infers only the conclusion of an indeterminate period. For example, Moses used it for the time when Israel’s repentance allowed God to bring them back from exile (Deut 4:30) and Balaam used it concerning events fulfilled in the time of David (Num 24:14).
24 The layers are A1 2:5-7, B1 2:8-10, C1 2:11-12a, D 2:12b-16, C2 2:17-18, B2 2:19-21, A2 2: 22-3:2.
25 Joshua assigned Migron (1 Sam 14:2), Ramah (Josh 18:25), Geba (1 Sam 13:6) and Gibeah (Judg 19:14) to Benjamin. The Pass is probably the Pass of Michmash in Benjamin (1 Sam 13:23). Anathoth and Almon were Levitical cities in Benjamin (Josh 21:18). After the exile in Babylon, Benjamin returned to Nob (Neh 11:32), Michmash (Neh 11:31) and Ai, or Aiath (Neh 11:31-32). Only Gallim and Laishah are not linked to Benjamin with any certainty, however, Saul’s action in giving David’s wife to Gallim suggests that Gallim was probably also in Benjamite hands (1 Sam 25:24).
26 Explored further in Chapter 20, ‘Judah’s day of judgement’.
27 The exile of Judah took place in a series of waves. Jeremiah 29:26-32 concerns the reaction to correspondence between Jeremiah and the section of Judah that had already gone into exile.
28 Women dressed for harlotry (Pr 7:10). Compare this attire with the great harlot of Babylon (Rev 17:4-5).
29 Recorded in the second century C.E. in an attempt to prevent their loss.
30 Tom Huckel, “Midrash Sifre on Numbers, § 40,” The Rabbinic Messiah, Num :24.