Walter Brueggemann: Not Comforted!

We recently saw the film, Philomena. It is a story of “Philomena,” the title character (played by Judy Dench) is a young Irish girl who had a baby. Because of her pregnancy, she was sent to a convent where she lived with the stress of harsh disapproval and hard labor in a laundry. In what is said to be based on a true story, her little baby, Martin, whom she treasured dearly was sold for adoption to a wealthy U.S. couple who took him away from the convent in a fancy car.

The film consists in Philomena’s desperate, urgent determination (50 years later) to find her son, Martin. Led and supported by Martin Sixsmith who is a reporter (played by Steve Coogan), she eventually is able to trace her son to Washington DC where he had become an important Republican operative. At the outset, Sixsmith was only looking for a good story; he was, nonetheless, slowly won over to share her urgent quest. Finally she finds Martin’s gay partner, only to learn that Martin has died of AIDS. But she also learns that Martin’s partner had thoughtfully and generously taken his body and laid it to rest in the graveyard of the Irish convent where she had birthed him. Only with assurance of the belated “homecoming” of Martin, as she visits his grave, does Philomena find some solace.

The film, as might be expected, led me to a trajectory of biblical texts that concern lost children. At the outset, I thought of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was the belated son of Jacob, spoiled by his father and despised by his older brothers. His brothers, in their resentment against him, resolved to kill him. They were, however, restrained by their oldest brother, Reuben (Genesis 37:21-22). Another older brother, Judah, has a better idea with a chance for economic gain. He proposes that the brothers “sell” Joseph for a “profit” (vv. 26-27). Thus Joseph, not unlike Martin, turns out to be a profitable commodity. The brothers, not unlike the Irish nuns, make money by the sale of a child, in this case, for “twenty pieces of silver” (v. 28). We are not told how much money the nuns received for Martin.

Their father, Jacob, is not unlike mother Philomena. When Jacob sees the evidence of the staged murder of his son, he is disconsolate:

He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without a doubt torn to pieces. Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days (vv. 33-34).

His sons play their expected social role, seeking to comfort their father. Jacob’s daughters, who were not in on the plot, also try to comfort their desolate father. But then, we are told:

He refused to be comforted, and said, “No, l shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning (v. 35).

Jacob would not be comforted. He could not be comforted.  In that moment, Jacob relives the anguish and the grief that has beset this chain of fathers and sons in the book of Genesis. Thus Abraham, when he is summoned to offer up his son:

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you (Genesis 22:2).

Father Isaac, when he learned of the ruse of Jacob to secure a blessing that was not his:

Then Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him?” (27:33)

And son Esau matched the violent response of his father:

He cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” (v. 35)

But the grief of Jacob is deeper and more severe than that left unexpressed by Abraham, or the disruption of Isaac, or the pathos of Esau. He could not be comforted. When the brothers proposed to take beloved young Benjamin with them to Egypt, father Jacob must reiterate and reperform his most durable grief:

My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to _Sheol (42:38).

Only late in the narrative, after the cunning disposal of Joseph and the careful protection of Benjamin, only then do the brothers return from Egypt in order that they may report to their father:

Joseph is alive! He is even the ruler over all the land of Egypt (v.26).

Jacob’s response does not surprise us:

He was stunned; he could not believe them. But when they told him all the words of Joseph that he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die” (vv. 26-28).

He was stunned! The Hebrew says, “His heart overturned.” Indeed, his life was overturned as he was at long last comforted. No doubt Jacob would have said, had he known the words of the later father rendered in parable:

This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (Luke 15:24).

Jacob finds a better comfort than did Philomena; “My son is alive and well!” 

But of course, the tradition is not finished with this final comfort of Jacob. The prophet Jeremiah, so long after the stories of the ancestors, can remember that dreadful scene of the grief over Joseph. Only now the prophet, in his acute sensibility, can transfer the grief from father Jacob to mother Rachel. Beyond the Genesis narrative, mother Rachel is scarcely mentioned in the Bible. (See only Ruth 11:4). But Jeremiah’s stressful time required him to dig into the pain of the tradition. He knows, moreover, that he can go no deeper into the pain of the tradition than the memory of Jacob’s pain concerning Joseph. So the prophet listens! What he hears is lament and bitter weeping. He knows it is “weeping and bitter lament” over Jerusalem that is about to be sacked, over the temple that is about to be razed, and over Israel that is about to be exiled. And he knows the accent of the weeping. It is the sound of mother Rachel. In the Genesis story, Rachel is written out of the account of Joseph’s would-be death. But now she is restored as the mother of deep grief:

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 no more (Jeremiah 31:15).

She refuses to be comforted! She is exactly like her husband Jacob in the Genesis narrative who also refused to be comforted. Rachel, not unlike Jacob, is also not unlike Philomena. All of them have lost a child. All of them grieve.

The story of grief, in all of these cases, is very deep. But it is not beyond reach. Jacob is comforted when he readies to go see his son in Egypt. Philomena is comforted when she finds that Martin is at rest in his grave, when he had come home to her. As for mother Rachel, in her grief, the prophet speaks a word of comfort to her:

Thus says the Lord:

Keep your voice from weeping,

and your eyes from tears;

for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord;

they shall come back from the land of the enemy;

there is hope for your future, says the Lord;

your children shall come back to their own country (vv. 16-17).

For Jeremiah, Rachel is weeping for the lost children of exile, sons and daughters, treasured and now deported. Jeremiah, however, knows more. He can and will anticipate a great homecoming worked by the God of all restoration. There is hope! There is this inscrutable expectation that Israel will come home, because the God of the Genesis fathers and mothers is the God who keeps promises.

We might imagine that we have finished with Joseph, Jacob, Rachel and their grief. Joseph has been found! In the narrative, Rachel has been reassured by the prophet. Except that in the narrative account of Jesus by Matthew, Rachel in her grief is retrieved one more time in the only mention of mother Rachel in the New Testament. Now the reperformance of greedy violence against vulnerable children occurs yet again. It was greedy brothers that caused Joseph to be sold to merchants. It was greedy violence that caused Israel’s displacement to Babylon. And now, via Matthew, it is the greedy violence of King Herod that leads to brutality against the children (Matthew 2:16-18). In order to stop the threat of the baby Jesus, Herod implements a massacre of the new children who are in the reach of his regime. In doing so, he reiterates the fearful violence of Pharaoh in Exodus 1:16. The action of Herod is recognized by Matthew to be a replay of old violence. If we listen as Matthew listened, as Jeremiah had listened, we can hear the weeping. If we have paid attention, we can identify that particular accent of the weeping. In the wake of the grief of father Jacob, this weeping is the inconsolable sobbing of mother Rachel yet again. With the assurance of the prophet Jeremiah, we might have thought that Rachel had finished weeping. Except in the world of greedy violence, mother Rachel is never finished weeping:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah;

A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lament.

Rachel weeping for her children;

She refused to be consoled, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18).

She refused, one more time, to be comforted! She is as she was in the Jeremiah tradition. She is like her husband, Jacob, in the Genesis narrative who also refused to be comforted. Her tears would not be assuaged. She is like Philomena as long as she had not found Martin. All of them grieve. All of them have lost a child. Rachel is, as Emil Fackenheim has written, still weeping over six million lost and not recovered… just lost!

All of this comes into view with the film of Philomena. I had and have no need to make further connection beyond this triad of texts concerning Jacob and Rachel and their grief. Except that we are not finished with weeping over children, refusing to be comforted. Today we in the United States still live in a culture where children live in poverty and are food disadvantaged. An effective response to such social failure requires complex policy decisions and deployment of adequate resources. 

But such policies require social resolve. All that is needed is an attentive focus on the actual children and the risks they face in poverty and hunger. Notice of children in poverty and hunger will and must evoke tears among us…tears of the recognition of suffering, tears of penitence for social failure, tears of shame for uncaring indifference and maybe—in the end—tears of hope for restoration, homecoming, and the assurance that these children can not only live but prosper. In my judgment, it is the case that without tears of recognition, repentance, shame, and hope, there will be no resolve or energy for true social change.

We should, in the face of social failure, refuse to be comforted. We refuse, until something is done. We refuse until children are noticed, treasured, and protected. We refuse until money is invested and programs are initiated. We refuse until all of our children are given the elemental resources for life and wellbeing. We live in the shadow of the God who is “father (and mother) of orphans” (and of other unprotected uncared for children) (Psalm 68:5). This God will refuse to be comforted until we learn the tears of effective alertness. Then, we shall be comforted,

comforted like Jacob,

comforted like Rachel,

comforted like Philomena.

Imagine: no more the sound of weeping! No more the cries of desolation! No more violence toward the vulnerable. No more! Then our deep nighttime tears may be turned to tears of joy:

Weeping may linger for the night,

but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

When we have done our homework we may then, with Paul, bless the God of all comfort:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we are able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God (II Corinthians 1:3-5).


Author note: See the wise, suggestive appeal to the name of mother Rachel by Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (1988). 


Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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