She Refuses to be Comforted
Commentary by Sung Cho
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)
The Unfortunate Rachel
Commentary by Sung Cho
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)
A Grief Observed
Commentary by Sung Cho
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
Commentary by Sung Cho
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)