“Rachel weeping for her children”: a story from Lamentations
Now that most of the people had been marched out, the city was almost quiet. There were carrion birds.
Rachel daughter of Simeon had never been the kind of wife praised by the Proverbs writer, who excels in everything. Her weaving was barely adequate, and she was easily cheated by all stall holders and servants. But still her husband Joel had had reason to praise her. She had borne 14 children, seven sons and seven daughters, losing only three in infancy. She was cheerful and intelligent company. She never lied. She baked for every feast, and prayed in the Court of Women.
From their home she and Joel could see the gold-sparkling walls of the Temple, where God lived. They had a good life.
Then came the war. Then came the siege. Then came the destruction.
Rachel sat outside her house as evening fell, a beautiful evening that knew nothing of disaster. Behind her the door hung swaying in two pieces. There was no one else in the house.
Joel had died in the early days of the siege; pains in his heart.
He was fortunate.
Two of their sons and one son-in-law were killed in the fighting. Siege-starvation killed one son, one daughter, and a grandson; another grandchild was born dead.
There were prayers and weeping, and endless worrying about what would happen next; how God would save them; what the king should do.
Then, two months ago, the enemy took the city.
Oh that I could forget that day, those days. I never will.
The Temple, burning. Everywhere, screaming. Babylonian soldiers – swords and blood, shouts and cruel laughter.
Three of them broke the door into Rachel’s house, where she and her family were cowering, and
(She no longer liked to sit in that house; she only went in to sleep, or rather not sleep.)
As the men left, laughing and satisfied, carrying the jewellery they’d pulled off necks, Hezekiah, who was ten years old,
who was ten,
ran at them shouting with rage, so they
They left his body on the threshold.
The next day different soldiers came for the grain.
Two days later they came for anybody able-bodied and saleable.
Rachel would not see her children again, this side of the grave. She would never know what happened to them.
How long would she have to live, wondering?
She’d done her screaming and crying. Now she could only look up at the ruin that had been God’s home. God was gone. God was Israel’s enemy.
Rachel’s two remaining sons and four remaining daughters left for Babylon as slaves, along with one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. None of them came back.
Over decades, centuries, millennia, their descendants lived and died.
Some returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel, Ezra or Nehemiah.
Some converted to Christianity, or later to Islam, or later still to atheism.
Some kept the Torah and remembered the God of Israel.
Some stayed in Babylon; others travelled, by choice or more often by necessity. To Rome, to Tyre, to Moscow and Kiev and Paris; to London and Glasgow – eventually to New York and Detroit.
In the sixth generation from Rachel, Malkijah worked on rebuilding the Dung Gate, under the command of Governor Nehemiah.
A century later, Reuben lost a leg fighting against Alexander the Great of Macedon, but survived to bore his neighbours with the tale.
Three centuries later still, Junia was in bed sick the day a man called Peter preached a sermon at Pentecost – but a few days later she witnessed a lame man being healed in the rebuilt Temple, and became an adherent of the Way.
Esther experienced a similar grief to Rachel’s (twenty-five generations on) although this time the soldiers were not Babylonian, but Roman. The Temple was destroyed again. Time and life continued for Rachel’s children.
Thomas worked on a Phoenician cargo-ship and was drowned in a storm.
Mary learned the whole of the 119th Psalm to recite to her sister’s children.
Elise was sent for by her lover, one of William of Normandy’s knights, to join him in England in 1067. She never grew accustomed to the English weather.
Charles and many others died in infancy.
Vera was the oldest and sweetest-tempered woman in her Hungarian village when she died at the age of (probably) 76.
Richard and his family were killed in the Mongol sack of Baghdad.
749 of Rachel’s descendants died in the Black Death of 1348-9.
Simon and his wife were dispossessed of their home in Bruges for being Jewish.
Edward wrote a poem that pleased Anne Boleyn.
Sebastian was the best tailor of his day in Lyons.
Gabriel won a horse in a bet, to the amusement of his sisters and the annoyance of his parents.
Lucy was punished by her father for marching with the suffragettes.
Gerald survived the Battle of the Somme, and never spoke of the war after he came home.
22,567 of Rachel’s descendants died in the Holocaust.
Alexei was on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Casey emigrated to a kibbutz in Israel.
Jacintha served on the protection team for Vice-President Al Gore.
Lee worked long exhausting shifts in a Nottingham care home during the coronavirus outbreak of 2020.
They lived, they died; every one a living soul, a creation of infinite value.
Or enough value that a god thought them worth dying for.
Rachel looked up, and saw a man across the street looking at her. He was not a Babylonian, but one of their own; in fact slightly familiar. Yes, he was the mad prophet or possibly traitor, who’d kept saying they should surrender the city. Jeremiah, his name was.
He was staring across at Rachel as the dusk deepened, and it was only when he lifted a finger to his cheek that she realised he was crying. Weeping for the city.
She’d thought she’d wept all her tears, but she hadn’t. She cried and cried now again, uselessly, bitterly.
She’d never see them again, this side of the grave – and beyond the grave, what is there? Can a woman forget her sucking child? Some other prophet wrote that, long ago.
No, she can’t.
When it was fully dark, and jackals began to howl, she went into the house, the house where years of good memories – she felt – had been obliterated in one morning. She lit a lamp with her old wrinkled hands. Brown hands, knobbled on one side, and creased on the other. Hands that had washed clothes, scrubbed pots, planted herbs, caressed children.
The palms were criss-crossed with lines, looking almost – fancifully – like scrawled lettering. The words of the Law and the Prophets that learned men like Jeremiah read.
Her life was written there, on her hands and in their actions through the years, but the children were gone.
Eventually she slept, and a few weeks later she died.
God also has hands. “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” So wrote the prophet Isaiah.
All the names are graven, every one.
And God also weeps.
August 2020 Our church was studying the book of Lamentations this year in this time of crisis, and a challenge was issued to make written or other art based on the book. This is my effort, reproduced with permission.
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