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Mary and Rachel: Biblical Women in Travail

by Brant Pitre December 17, 2018 0 Comments

This is an excerpt from The Mass Readings Explained, a weekly video Bible series on the readings for each Sunday's Mass Readings. 

Learn more about this series here >


First, obviously the prophecy is focused on geography. I talked about this before, geography matters. Where is Bethlehem? Well Bethlehem is in the south. It's in the southern territory, the southern part of the holy land, which was referred to as Judah, right. So this particular town, Bethlehem, was famous not for its size, it was a small place, but for its associations with King David. So Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, it was the place of his family. And 1 Samuel 17 tells you that David lived in Bethlehem along with his father Jesse and the sons of Jesse there. So in a prophetic context when Micah brings up the city of Bethlehem, as soon as you say Bethlehem a First Century Jew would think David, the city of David, the King of David. Alright, second though, you’ll notice there's a little second name added here, a little appendix so to speak.

It doesn't just say, “But you, O Bethlehem,” it says, “But you, O Bethlehem Eph’rathah,” right. Now why does it add Eph’rathah? Well I’m not exactly sure. But I can't help but notice the fact that Eph’rathah is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament as a town that's close to Bethlehem, that's linked with Bethlehem, but which is first mentioned in the Bible with reference to a woman in the Old Testament, the mother of Israel whose name was Rachel. So you might remember in the Old Testament Jacob is the father of Israel. Jacob was the brother of Esau, he’s the son of Isaac, and his name is changed by God to Israel. And he becomes the father of the 12 sons who are the 12 tribes of Israel. So you could say in a very literal sense that Israel, Jacob, is the father of Israel the people, right, he's the patriarch. Well, he was also married to a woman named Rachel and Rachel, likewise, was the mother of Israel.

She was the matriarch, so to speak, of the 12 tribes of Israel. And what’s interesting is, if you go back to Genesis 35 we have a story of Rachel's death and burial. And guess where this mother of Israel dies and is buried? She's buried at Bethlehem Eph’rathah. So let's look at the passage for just a minute. This isn’t the Old Testament reading for today. I’m just throwing this in as a little Advent gift to you, so this is just a little extra Christmas gift, a little lagniappe here. But I think it's interesting because in Genesis 35 we see the mention of Ephrath which is linked into Eph’rathah in the prophecy of Micah. So Micah wants you to think back to this text we’re about to read. So Genesis 35:16 says this. This is the story of the death of Rachel, the mother of Israel.

It says:

"Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor. And when she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, "Fear not; for now you will have another son." And as her soul was departing (for she died), she called his name Ben-o'ni; but his father [Jacob] called his name Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel's tomb, which is there to this day."

Alright now you might be thinking, Dr. Pitre what does that have to do with Micah 5 or any of that? Well, two things. First, just notice that Bethlehem Eph’rathah echoes the story of the place where Rachel was buried. And sure enough to this day, not just to the day that Genesis was written but to the present day, you can go to Rachel's tomb near Bethlehem. And people do go to Rachel's tomb there, Jewish people go there, to honor Rachel as the mother of Israel. And there is a practice among some Jews even of asking for Rachel's intercession to pray for the Jewish people. And the reason they do this is because the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapter 30 and 31 says that Rachel is weeping for her children because they were no more. Now Jeremiah is writing hundreds of years after Rachel had died and yet he describes her as alive and mourning with her children, praying for her children so to speak, interceding for them.

So the Jewish tradition developed that Rachel wasn't just the mother of Israel that she was also kind of great intercessor on behalf of Israel. And that somehow through dying in childbirth, right, she kind of embraced that suffering and became the suffering mother of Israel. So if you go back to the first reading for today notice what Micah says there. He's describing the coming of the Messiah, and look what he does. He links the prophecy of the Messiah to this image of a woman who is in travail, right. Go back to the prophecy he says, “from you [Bethlehem Eph’rathah] shall come forth for me one who is ruler of Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days…he shall give them up until the time when she who was in travail has brought forth.” Well, who is this woman who was in travail in the Old Testament, near Bethlehem Eph’rathah? It was Rachel, the mother of Israel. Who through her suffering brings a child into the world, Benjamin, the last of the 12 tribes. And so I just bring this up because Rachel is a link, an Old Testament link, to Mary as mother of the Messiah.

I don’t have time to do this in this video, but in my book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary I have a whole chapter — I’m really excited about this particular part of the book — showing how the New Testament depicts Mary as the new Rachel, as the new mother of the church, the mother Israel, and in particular as the mother of sorrows. Just as Rachel was sorrowful and suffered for and with her children in the Old Testament, so now Mary as the new Rachel suffers, in the sense mourns, for the sorrows of her children, but also intercedes for them and prays for them as a maternal intercessor with her people. In fact the Jews had a tradition that when Abraham and Jacob, and like some of the other patriarchs Abraham or Moses, when they would pray and ask God to bless the people of Israel, on one occasion God wouldn't listen to their prayers. But when Rachel interceded for the people of Israel God heard her prayers because of the sorrow and the suffering that she endured as the mother of Israel.

So all that to say Micah here is describing this future time when the mother of the Messiah, who is kind of like a new Rachel, is going to give birth to the Messiah in Bethlehem. Which is, by the way, where Rachel was buried, so it’s all connected images to Rachel there. And that through her a ruler is going to come forth in Israel whose origin is from ancient days. And the Hebrew here is literally from the days of ‘olam, the days of the age, or you can translate that from the days of eternity. So all the church fathers saw in that a kind of shadow or clue that this future king, who’s going to be born in Bethlehem near where Rachel's tomb was, that this future king wouldn't just be an earthly king, that he would be a divine Messiah, because his origin was from eternity. A pre-existent Messiah who was not created when he came into the world but rather existed with the Lord and then assumes a human nature in the incarnation. And comes to us as man in this little city of Bethlehem, the town of David, the town near where Rachel the mother of Israel was buried by Rachel’s tomb.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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Life after Death, a Bible study on the 7 last things

This study could also be titled: the 7 most important things to know in our earthly life, as what happens when we die, affects how we live today.
Brant Pitre is one of the most outstanding teachers of Scripture.
He takes a complex topic, breaks it up into bite size chucks, articulates it in a way that is comprehensible, referencing Scripture.
He covers so much ground in a limited time frame, never a dull moment.
He has a good sense of humor too.
In this study, using Scripture, he helps us understand the many questions we ask about what happens when we die.
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This is a beautiful and moving study of the Triduum, my favorite time of the year. It’s also my first presentation from Dr. Bergsma, but it definitely won’t be my last.