Rachel Weeping is another of the more recently published books that studies characters from the book of Genesis from the perspective of all three Abrahamic religions. In 1999 Linda S. Schearing, Valerie H. Ziegler, and Kristen M. Kvam, eds. published Eve and Adam: Jewish. Christian and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender (Indiana University Press, 1999), and just last year Phyllis Trible and Letty Russell edited Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006). Strickert’s volume, in addition to tracing the interpretation of the biblical character Rachel over time in each of the three religious traditions, examines references to Rachel’s tomb in the historical records of each religion. Though the precise location of the tomb varies somewhat in the records, and though the tomb has clearly undergone restoration and architectural change, nevertheless Rachels’ tomb still functions for believers from each of the traditions in important ways.
The volume takes Rachel’s tomb, a holy place in modern Israel, as its starting point, and uses “on the way” as its central characterization of Rachel. She is “on the way” to water her flocks when she encounters Jacob; she is “on the way” to marriage, waiting another seven years for Jacob; she is “on the way” through a difficult pregnancy to motherhood; she is “on the way” to her homeland when she dies in childbirth; and she is “on the way” through her son Joseph to Egypt (p. xv). Fittingly, Rachel’s tomb is located “on the way” from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Rachel and her tomb have both been connected throughout history to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Like Rachel herself who weeps for her children, the volume weeps over the present state of all of Rachel’s children. Rachel’s tomb, now a well-protected fortress and the scene of violence, is symbolic of the present day situation en route to Bethlehem in Israel: a 13 year old Palestinian child is killed by an Israeli soldier who stands atop the tomb/fortress; armored cars bring women who are seeking solidarity with Rachel, the barren woman whose womb God opened; armed soldiers are protecting the fortress and its environs.
The volume is divided into two main parts. Part I traces Rachel as she is depicted in the biblical text, and then as her biblical depiction is interpreted in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Part II traces Rachel’s tomb, first as it is referenced in the biblical text, and then as it is described in later literature, during the age of pilgrims, during the time of the rise of Islam, during the Crusades, and then into the modern period, especially the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Strickert’s final chapter deals with the “Politicization of Rachel’s Tomb.”
Within Judaism Rachel’s story is detailed in, for example, Josephus and Targum Jonathan; by Demetrius as recorded in Eusebius; in Jubilees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and Philo; by Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, and in The Zohar. In Christianity, Rachel’s story is interpreted by the evangelist Matthew and by Church fathers such as Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine; by Luther and in the literature of such figurers as Chaucer, Thackeray and Hardy. In Islam, Rachel appears in the Qur’an, The Tales and Lives of the Prophets, and the commentaries of al-Tabari who cites al-Husayn, al-Thalabi, and ial-Kisa’I. While in Judaism Rachel has sometimes been criticized for her sensuality, in both Christianity and Islam she has been consistently depicted as a biblical model of faith (p. 47).
There is a continuous line of testimony for the authenticity of Rachel’s Tomb going back nearly two thousand years (p. 71). However, when pilgrims came to the site, they were often met by guides of various quality. Some provided carefully documented historical information; others passed on historical tradition as fact, embellishing their stories, and some wanting to appear knowledgeable, probably made up data to please their audience (p. 71).The trajectory of information about Rachel’s tomb in each of the three religions is therefore diverse and sometimes contradictory. Still, that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all had a concrete relationship to the tomb throughout history, as pilgrims and caretakers, speaks of the tomb’s potential to function as a unifier for the peoples of the three faiths who claim Rachel.
Strickert’s approach is both historical and contemporary. He puts the past at the service of the present in hopes of helping to create a more peace-filled future. The monograph is carefully written in an engaging style. It contains information that while not denying but rather documenting differences in interpretation through time and across religious traditions, nevertheless provides the reader with a comparative approach that has the potential to view differences within the larger lens of a common matriarch and a common effort to honor her. The monograph claims what is common, not only the narrative but also the artifact of a shared past. Streikert does in his book what he hopes the People of the Book will do now. It’s a small gem worth reading.