Saturday, January 4, 2014

Lectionary Notes on Jeremiah 31:7-14

Jeremiah 31:7-14

7 Thus says the LORD:

Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,

and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;

proclaim, give praise, and say,

"Save, O LORD, your people,

the remnant of Israel."

8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,

and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,

among them the blind and the lame, those with child and

those in labor, together;

a great company, they shall return here.

9 With weeping they shall come,

and with consolations I will lead them back,

I will let them walk by brooks of water,

in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;

for I have become a father to Israel,

and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,

and declare it in the coastlands far away;

say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him,

and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."

11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,

and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

12 They 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 become like a watered garden,

and they shall never languish again.

13 Then shall the young women 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.

14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,

and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,

says the LORD.

As we have discussed previously, the Book of Jeremiah was written in light of the exile of the ruling class of Judah, the Southern kingdom, to Babylon. Modern scholarship holds that the book itself probably bears the mark of three different influences: the prophet himself, known as Jeremiah, who is responsible for chapters 1-20; his scribe Baruch, who is believed to be largely responsible for chapters 28-45; and the editors of the book, writing after the exile and possibly adding or enhancing the Deuteronomic theology of the book overall. Deuteronomic theology emphasizes the importance of the covenant made between the Israelites and God on Mt. Sinai. It was understood that anyone who broke or was disobedient to such a covenant would be subject to “covenant curses” as described starting in Deuteronomy 28:15, which can be summed up, basically, as, “Nothing you will do will come to any good,” as describe in verses 47-50:

Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, 48therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you. 49The Lord will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, 50a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favour to the young.

When the ten northern tribes of the kingdom of Israel went into exile in 721 BC, of course the contradiction between being God’s chosen people and being utterly destroyed by the Assyrians had to be dealt with. The most logical explanation was that Israel was being punished by God for its faithlessness to the terms of the covenant. And boy, were they punished. The Assyrians basically packed up the entire group and scattered them throughout the Assyrian empire, never to return, and they disappeared from history, known as “the lost tribes of Israel.” Assyrians then moved into what had been Israel. Some of them adopted worship of Yahweh, originally as part of a pantheistic hedging-of-bets, but eventually some of them adopted worship of Yahweh alone. These people became known as Samaritans, since their population centered around the former capital of Samaria. However, they were never accepted as being Jewish, regardless of how Jewish their worship was, since they did not hold that Jerusalem was the center of worship, and indeed they were still scorned even in the time of Jesus, as we see throughout the gospels.

About 125 years later, in 597 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah, including Jerusalem, was also overrun, this time by Babylon. The Babylonians differed from the Assyrians in that they only carried off the ruling classes, and they settled them in a community in Babylon; therefore, they were able to maintain their cultural and religious identity, and indeed, the exilic period was responsible for a solidification of Jewish scripture and culture. Jerusalem itself, however, was destroyed, and since worship in the southern kingdom emphasized the temple cult, in which it wax believed that God actually lived in the Temple, this was seen as a particular sign of the utter abandoning of the people by God.

Prophets such as Isaiah, and roughly eighty years later, Jeremiah, held in tension dire warnings of impending doom as punishment with hopeful visions of the future that awaited the Jewish people if they returned to their proper obedience to God. Today’s reading comes from just such a optimistic prediction. Jeremiah 30-33 is known  by many scholars as “The Little Book of Consolation,” or “Book of Comfort,” envisioning a future of healing, reconciliation, peace, plenty—even better than the past in many ways. The complete restoration of all 12 tribes—both the northern and the southern kingdoms—is promised here. In Jeremiah 31:1, the Lord promises: “At that time I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people” (emphasis mine). Verse 6 makes clear that the two kingdoms will be reunited: “For there shall be a day when sentinels will call from the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’” Ephraim was in Israel, while Zion (Jerusalem) was in Judah.

That’s where our reading begins. It reinforces this prophecy of unification and the theme of gathering in verses 7-9, by stating that the remnants of Israel, including Ephraim, will be brought from the north.” Five actions are called for by God in verse 7: sing aloud, shout, proclaim, praise, and say. Rich and poor, weak and strong alike, will be restored—even women who were pregnant or in labor. The theory of exile as retribution is referenced in verse 10: “the one who scattered Israel,” is God, who has just stated that by God’s agency those same exiles will be led, weeping, back to their homeland. Remember, when reading verse 11, that “Jacob” became known as Israel, and verse 12 states that they will be brought back to worship and “sing aloud on the height of Zion.” This image is then completed in verses 12-14 with images of bounteous harvests (v. 12), dancing and celebration in response (v. 13), and the priesthood of Israel being restored to its proper place in Jerusalem. The people will be saved (v. 7), ransomed (v. 11) and redeemed (v. 11). The concept of gathering and salvation makes this passage so applicable to the Christmas season, when we celebrate the birth of Messiah.

There’s an obvious problem here. The skeptic will point out that this reunified Israel never actually happened—these promises were never fulfilled, and a restored, unified, single territory such as Solomon ruled never happened again in ancient times, nor even in our own time. Yet the larger hope and longing of people-- for peace, for security, for community, for plenty—is certainly relevant, then as well as now. In Christmastide, we celebrate the birth of one who preached those values through love.

Links for more information:

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha
Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming

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