“It’s going to be a quagmire.” The media use this phrase whenever the American military run into any difficulty or experience any setback. I remember numerous headlines with the word “quagmire” in both Iraq wars and during the initial Afghanistan campaign. They used it because they knew that Americans would immediately remember the Vietnam war and the literal quagmires that so many American units found themselves in during that fateful conflict.
By predicting a “quagmire” in Iraq or Afghanistan, journalists were not saying that the Vietnam experience was going to be duplicated in every respect in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. That would be impossible. They were saying that some of the core elements of the Vietnam war were going to be repeated.
We see the same thing happening with the word “Watergate.” How many times the media have said that the results of Robert Mueller’s investigation are going to produce another Watergate. Again, they don’t mean that every detail of the Nixon scandal is going to be replicated in what they hope is Mueller’s takedown of the Trump administration. No, they are using “Watergate” as a kind of shorthand, a word that every American immediately understands, to predict some similar outcomes for the Trump presidency and his associates.
So, whether it’s “quagmire” or “Watergate,” the media are reaching back into the past to find a narrative that everyone is familiar with in order to paint a similar, though not identical, picture of the future.
That’s what Jeremiah is doing in Jeremiah 31v15: “Thus says the Lord: A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah is reaching back into the past, to Genesis 35 where Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, to say “Something similar is going to happen again in the future.”
In Genesis 35:16-20, a mother, Rachel, laments the pain of being separated from his child by death. Jeremiah says something very similar is about to happen again.
And sure enough a few years later, the mothers of Judah experienced the pain of death and exile separating them from their children, when Babylon carried them away into captivity using Ramah as a staging post (Jer. 40:1). It’s not an exact replica of what happened with Rachel in Genesis 35, but the mourners are the same (mothers), the places are in the same locale, and the causes of the mourning are the same (death causing painful separation from their children). Based on the continuous tenses of the Hebrew verb, Walter Kaiser argues that Jeremiah was predicting more than one Rachel-like mourning for Israel:
If Jeremiah realized that Rachel wept over her children/nation in the past, and had continued to do so in his day with the unspeakably horrible events of the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem and its Temple, did he not also realize that she would yet have future occasions to weep in the days that lay ahead prior to the eschatological inbreaking of the new David and the restoration of Israel to her land? How many chastisements, when they would appear, and under what circumstances they would come, Jeremiah does not profess to know, much less imagine. But the iterative and durative nature of these days of trouble he does know.
Then fast forward about 600 years and there’s another “fulfillment” of this prophecy. Matthew tells us that Herod ordered the Bethlehem infanticide in order to fulfill “what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:17-18).
Matthew is saying that although Jeremiah’s prediction of a Rachel-like mourning for the mothers of Judah came true, he was also predicting an even greater and more significant mourning many years later. Again, it’s not an exact replica of what happened with Rachel in Genesis 35 or with the mothers of Judah in Jeremiah 31, but we have the same mother-mourners, the places are in the same general locale, and the causes of the mourning are the same (death causing painful separation from their children).
This is not the same kind of exact and precise prediction-fulfillment we find with, say, Micah’s prophecy of Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). It’s more along the lines of typological fulfillment, where, although the details differ, the essence of a past story is used to predict a similar story in the future.
Now then, who’s going to preach about infanticide for their Christmas sermon?