Jeremiah 31:1–26

Rachel Weeping

Commentaries by Sung Cho

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Jacob Steinhardt

Rachel Weeping for Her Children (Jeremiah 31:15), 1960s, Woodcut on paper, 400 x 318 mm, North Caroline Museum of Art (or any other collection that holds this print); Gift of Dr and Mrs Abram Kanof, LC.76.3.1/4, ©️ Jacob Steinhardt ©️ The Bar On Steinhardt Family; Photo: ©️ The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

She Refuses to be Comforted

Commentary by Sung Cho

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Jacob Steinhardt was an Israeli painter and woodcut artist. Born in Żerków in 1887, Steinhardt travelled throughout Europe as a student, artist, and German soldier in the First World War. He then returned to Berlin but emigrated to Palestine in 1933 with his wife and daughter when he perceived danger from the Nazi-controlled police. Once settled, he taught at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

Along with Ludwig Meidner, Steinhardt co-founded a German expressionist group, Die Pathetiker, which emphasized moody and dramatic gestures and expressions. He employed this approach in visualizing well-known biblical characters and scenes such as the meeting of Jacob and Esau, Jonah and the Fish, and Ruth and Naomi. Most evocative are his more poignant scenes of suffering and pain, which even include a personal take on one of Michelangelo’s Pietà sculptures.

Steinhardt, however, was not merely revisiting his religious upbringing through art. By means of his works, he bemoaned the lot of his fellow Jews in Europe and Jerusalem and expressed his frustrations at their plight.

Rachel weeping for her children is among the tragic biblical figures who carried his message. In this work, the focus is on the matriarch: her tilted head angled downward, cupped by her hands; her gaping mouth, raised eyebrows, closed eyes, and wrinkled forehead. There is no distinct background as found in other tragic scenes of Steinhardt. The mother’s pained look channels Steinhardt’s horrified reaction to the Holocaust.

Like Jeremiah during the Babylonian exile, Steinhardt faces the widespread peril endangering his people. The artist looks inward and visualizes his angst through an ancient biblical figure: Rachel weeping for her children. Her symbolic significance continues long after her first appearance in Genesis and Jeremiah.



Behrens, Stefan. 1987. Jacob Steinhardt. Das graphische Werk (Berlin: Berlin Kunstamtes Wedding)

Kolb, Leon ed. 1959. The Woodcuts of Jakob Steinhardt: Chronologically Arranged and Fully Reproduced (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America)

Peter Paul Rubens

The Massacre of the Innocents , 1638, Oil on oak panel, 198.5 x 302.2 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich; 572, bpk Bildagentur / Alte Pinakothek/ Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen/ Art Resource, NY

The Unfortunate Rachel

Commentary by Sung Cho

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The influential image of ‘Rachel weeping ... for her children’ in Jeremiah 31:15 continues beyond ancient prophetic contexts to the early infancy narratives of Matthew’s Gospel, specifically in 2:16–18, the so-called Massacre of the Innocents.

The famed Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens produced two versions of the Massacre (in c.1610 and 1638). The features of both are in accordance with numerous other visual interpretations of the passage from the days of Raphael to the mid-seventeenth century, including classical architectural backgrounds, nude athletic men, and depictions of violence. The soldiers attack, children suffer, and the mothers defend them in vain.

The most salient feature of the later Rubens painting is the figure representing Rachel. She stands in a central but isolated position at the centre of the composition, lifting her tear-filled eyes to the skies, donning a black over-garment of ritual mourning, and interposing between earth and heaven a bloodstained swaddling cloth. One may follow her eyes to the angels ready to receive the children as martyrs.  

Interestingly, this mother reappears in another work by Rubens, entitled The Horrors of War, completed around the same time (c.1638). As explained in a letter to its commissioner Justus Sustermans, the painter intended it to decry the destruction wrought by Europe’s internal wars, and especially those of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). Thus, the same mourning figure who in this Massacre of the Innocents represents Rachel—in essentially the same pose, and with the same expression and attire—is the ‘unfortunate Europe’ (l’infelice Europa) in his contemporaneous allegorical work.

Rubens illustrates the enduring relatability of Rachel as victim of political violence and war. She continues as the representative of suffering mothers, calling to mind unseen victimhood, centralizing the marginalized, and speaking for the unheard, beyond the Babylonian captivity and Herod’s massacre, all the way to the seventeenth-century wars of another continent.



Belkin, Kristin L. 1998. Rubens (London: Phaidon)

Sauerländer, Willibald. 2014. The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute)

Charles Willson Peale

Mrs Peale Lamenting the Death of Her Child, 1772; enlarged 1776; retouched 1818, Oil on canvas, 93.5 x 81.4 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of The Barra Foundation, Inc., 1977, 1977-34-1, The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

A Grief Observed

Commentary by Sung Cho

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The American revolutionary and polymath Charles Willson Peale is famous for his portraits of the leading figures of that era. At times, however, he also revealed his own personality: his love of natural history, museum propriety, and family.

Alongside his joys, Peale’s art also exhibited his sorrows. His fourth child, Margaret Bordley (born in 1772), inspired him to initiate his most ambitious portrait: The Peale Family. The project, however, took over three decades to complete because a tragedy interrupted its progress. His beloved young daughter died the same year from smallpox.

Soon afterwards, Charles commemorated his deceased daughter with a painting that includes his first wife, Rachel (1747–90). It is unlike Peale’s other woman–child portraits that show two individuals alive and well. Here, Rachel looks heavenward and weeps over the lifeless corpse of the infant Margaret on her deathbed. All that is below the mother is white, including the handkerchief in her hand, the pillows, the bedsheets, Margaret’s clothing, and her skin. Peale intended the portrait to be a public health warning to encourage inoculation from smallpox.

In this work we find a complex mingling of politics, disease, and art as well as a multidimensionality that allows the work to be read on several levels. Peale perpetuates Rachel weeping as a symbol of personal family bereavement far beyond the original context of Jeremiah 31.



Richardson, Edgar P., Brooke Hindle, and Lillian B. Miller. 1983. Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Harry N. Abrams)

Ward, David C. 2004. Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Wehrman, Andrew M. 2022. The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press)

Jacob Steinhardt :

Rachel Weeping for Her Children (Jeremiah 31:15), 1960s , Woodcut on paper

Peter Paul Rubens :

The Massacre of the Innocents , 1638 , Oil on oak panel

Charles Willson Peale :

Mrs Peale Lamenting the Death of Her Child, 1772; enlarged 1776; retouched 1818 , Oil on canvas

Having the Ear of God

Comparative commentary by Sung Cho

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Jeremiah 31 is widely considered to belong to what is known as the ‘Book of Consolation’, a unit spanning four chapters (Jeremiah 30–33), with God’s promise of Israel’s future restoration as its unifying theme. Readers can locate some of the most tender messages in the Bible in Jeremiah 31. There are the affectionate words of verse 3: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’. Verse 20 establishes the idea of Ephraim as God’s ‘dear son’. In verses 31–34, there are promises of a ‘new covenant’.

Amidst such a hopeful outlook, we find the evocative image of Rachel in verse 15:

Thus says the LORD: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not’.

This verse is immediately followed by another divine word: a decree to cease from weeping, and the promise of future rewards and her children’s return from exile (v.16).

Yet, it is this woeful and mournful picture of Rachel, abstracted from its happy context, that has persisted over time.

Both before and after Jeremiah 31:15, and in both biblical and extrabiblical reception history, Rachel plays a prominent role. Here in a passage of a prophetic book, she not only represents her own sons (Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin) but also Judah and Levi (i.e. the sons of Leah) in the southern kingdom. Centuries after the cataclysmic Babylonian captivity, the matriarch reappears in a disaster on a more local scale, as Herod targets ‘all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under’ (Matthew 2:16).

This massacre in the time of Jesus is the subject of Peter Paul Rubens’s painting. When wicked political leaders exercise authority, innocent people suffer, whether they are located in seventeenth-century Europe or in first-century Palestine.

Similarly, in the first half of the twentieth century, Jacob Steinhardt has in mind his fellow Jews suffering under the Third Reich. Both Rubens and Steinhardt look to Rachel as a fitting symbol of innocent suffering in the face of the violence of war.  

Kings and führers, however, are not the only causes of Rachel’s weeping. When impersonal and natural causes led to the death of his child—a smallpox epidemic as the United States was establishing its new independence—Charles Willson Peale again conjured up Rachel. (This was especially appropriate as his wife was her namesake.)

The grief of parents is a universal experience that transcends times and cultures. Rachel is a sympathetic figure and her voice and her tears speak to victims of bereavement everywhere.

The difficulty in uniting these three artists goes beyond understanding their diverse backgrounds: Rubens, a Flemish Catholic; Peale, an American, probably Deist; and Steinhardt, a non-religious European Jew.

It is hard to ascertain whether the overall optimistic context of Jeremiah 31 is a major factor in their decision to make Rachel a central focus in their works.

In Rubens’s painting, the images of angels carrying wreaths in the sky strongly suggest that he wanted to communicate something hopeful. The children are clothed in white, representing purity. Peale similarly depicts his deceased daughter in white while his Rachel looks upward (though we do not know what—if anything—she sees). As for Steinhardt, there seems only to be darkness and despair. Rachel has her eyes closed. Yet despite their differences, it is beyond doubt that all three acknowledge Rachel as a suitable embodiment of their own personal turmoil.

To venture further, however: these artists—initially drawn to Rachel with a sense that she is a sympathetic fellow sufferer—have knowingly or unknowingly tapped into the stirring power of maternal suffering in the story of God with his people. As noted earlier, God immediately implores Rachel to stop weeping and comforts her in Jeremiah 31:16. Influential readers have not lost sight of this connection. The rabbinic minds behind the midrash Eichah Rabbah (proem 24) imagine Jeremiah summoning the patriarchs and Moses to reprise their roles as intercessors and to weep on behalf of Israel. Yet, in this instance, they fail to move God to intervene as they did before. Meanwhile, where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses fail, Rachel succeeds. She recounts her stories of sacrifice and persuades God to hear her pleas.

The impact and influence of Rachel weeping continue as innocent people suffer in this world as victims. Time will tell where she will be summoned next. Yet in every instance where she appears, sufferers and observers look to her for sympathy and trace the trajectory of her cries to the ears of God.



Hadjittofi, Fotini, and Hagith Sivan. 2020. ‘Staging Rachel: Rabbinic Midrash, Theatrical Mime, and Christian Martyrdom in Late Antiquity’, Harvard Theological Review, 113.3: 299–333

Lindars, Barnabas. 1979. ‘“Rachel Weeping for her Children”: Jeremiah 31:15–22’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 4.12: 47–62

Strickert, Frederick M. 2007. Rachel Weeping: Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the Fortress Tomb (Collegeville: Liturgical Press)

Thompson, J. A. 1995. The Book of Jeremiah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)


Next exhibition: Jeremiah 49

Jeremiah 31:1–26

Revised Standard Version

31 “At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.”

2Thus says the Lord:

“The people who survived the sword

found grace in the wilderness;

when Israel sought for rest,

3the Lord appeared to him from afar.

I have loved you with an everlasting love;

therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

4Again I will build you, and you shall be built,

O virgin Israel!

Again you shall adorn yourself with timbrels,

and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.

5Again you shall plant vineyards

upon the mountains of Samarʹia;

the planters shall plant,

and shall enjoy the fruit.

6For there shall be a day when watchmen will call

in the hill country of Eʹphraim:

‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion,

to the Lord our God.’ ”

7For thus says the Lord:

“Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,

and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;

proclaim, give praise, and say,

‘The Lord has saved his people,

the remnant of Israel.’

8Behold, I will bring them from the north country,

and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,

among them the blind and the lame,

the woman with child and her who is in travail, together;

a great company, they shall return here.

9With weeping they shall come,

and with consolations I will lead them back,

I will make them walk by brooks of water,

in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;

for I am a father to Israel,

and Eʹphraim is my first-born.

10“Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,

and declare it in the coastlands afar off;

say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,

and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’

11For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,

and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

12They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,

and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,

over the grain, the wine, and the oil,

and over the young of the flock and the herd;

their life shall be like a watered garden,

and they shall languish no more.

13Then shall the maidens rejoice in the dance,

and the young men and the old shall be merry.

I will turn their mourning into joy,

I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

14I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,

and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,

says the Lord.”

15Thus says the Lord:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are not.”

16Thus says the Lord:

“Keep your voice from weeping,

and your eyes from tears;

for your work shall be rewarded,

says the Lord,

and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.

17There is hope for your future,

says the Lord,

and your children shall come back to their own country.

18I have heard Eʹphraim bemoaning,

‘Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastened,

like an untrained calf;

bring me back that I may be restored,

for thou art the Lord my God.

19For after I had turned away I repented;

and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh;

I was ashamed, and I was confounded,

because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’

20Is Eʹphraim my dear son?

Is he my darling child?

For as often as I speak against him,

I do remember him still.

Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him,

says the Lord.

21“Set up waymarks for yourself,

make yourself guideposts;

consider well the highway,

the road by which you went.

Return, O virgin Israel,

return to these your cities.

22How long will you waver,

O faithless daughter?

For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:

a woman protects a man.”

23 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its cities, when I restore their fortunes:

24And Judah and all its cities shall dwell there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. 25For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

26 Thereupon I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.