< October 25, 2009 >

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-9


This lection is quite short, a snippet from within a larger literary context.

Such snippets, which are not infrequently encountered in the lectionary, can actually function to hinder if not hamper biblical literacy, something that the compilers of the lectionary certainly did not want to have happen! The last point granted, preachers--even and perhaps especially lectionary preachers--should consider the benefits of occasional, if not regular, lectio continua.

In the case of Jeremiah 31:7-9, the snippet in question has literary integrity: it is a complete oracle, capable of being treated in isolation from its larger context. The beginning of the oracle is marked by a prophetic speech formula ("For thus says the LORD," verse 7). Similar formulae occur in 31:2 and 31:10, thus setting verses 7-9 apart as a coherent, self-standing unit.

But, of course, it is not completely self-standing! The first word of 31:7 ("For") signals as much, connecting what follows to what precedes. More generally, 31:7-9 belongs to a larger section in Jeremiah commonly called the "Book of Comfort" (chapters 30-31). As this title intimates, these chapters contain promises of restoration and consolation.

The majority of Jeremiah's book, in accord with four of the six paradigmatic verbs used in his call narrative, has been negative, full of God's wrath and judgment; there has been much plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing (1:10b). But there remain those two other verbs that were used when God called Jeremiah: "to build and to plant" (1:10c). These positive activities are at work in the Book of Comfort wherein the majority of the promises in the book--the building and the planting, as it were--have been collected (see also chapters 32-33).

One expects, therefore, positive sentiments from an oracle found in the Book of Comfort, and that is precisely what we encounter in 31:7-9. And yet, lest this be cheap grace or a mere Band-Aid of hope, readers (and preachers) need to recall that Jeremiah and his book have lived through many chapters of death, destruction, and judgment to get to this point.

The promises in the Book of Comfort are anything but cheap. They are, however, to be sure, profoundly grace-full. They come unexpectedly and, or so Jeremiah asserts, undeservedly. It is not that Israel has repented or somehow otherwise pleased God, thereby satisfying his wrath. It is rather that the long-promised destruction of Judah and Jerusalem has taken place and that God--despite, apparently, all possible reasons to the contrary--simply cannot give up beloved Israel (see, e.g., 30:18; 31:3, 10, 20).1  This is a new and unexpected thing, alright: it is the Gospel of God--God proving God's love for us, even while we were still sinners (cf. Romans 5:8). So we see that this sin and judgment is real and must not be forgotten despite the fact that the snippet of 31:7-9 does not focus on it.

And yet even the good news of restoration in 31:7-9 cannot completely ignore the past history of sin, judgment, and exile. This is, after all, a text about re-storation. Verse 31:8 indicates that what is promised here is a re-turn. God must bring Israel back from other climes: "the north" (where lies the road to Babylon) and "the farthest parts of the earth" (31:8a). Those who return are "a great company," and all are included, no matter what state of being or health. None are left behind. Even those who might otherwise be considered unfit for a long journey--the blind, the lame, the pregnant, those in labor--will return too. All will return "together" and will return "here" (31:8b).

Both words are weighty, signifying the concreteness of social solidarity and particular locality. The remnant of Israel that is prayed for (31:7) and that is now returned is not solely the creme de la creme. Or, said differently, God's assessment of "la creme" includes those whom others would prefer not to return "here," let alone all "together."

Evidently it is not only God who remembers the judgment, even if it is now past (or imminently so). Those who return do so with weeping (31:9a). Such weeping makes sense in light of the viciousness of exile and judgment, the signs of divine wrath. On the other hand, this weeping could include tears of joy, as the exiles return home. After all, they are returning here, together. A decision between the two options is not possible, in part because of the play of poetry (which so often traffics in ambiguity and indeterminacy), but also because the "parallel" word in the next line is not entirely certain.

The Hebrew text reads "with supplications, I will lead them back," whereas the Greek (followed by NRSV, see the text note there) reads "with consolations, I will lead them back." The former ("supplications") may suggest that the weeping is of a penitent sort; it also suggests that Israel has responsibilities and duties that accompany, if not facilitate, its return (cf., e.g., 29:13; 31:18-19). The latter ("consolations"), quite apart from the specific nature of the weeping, emphasizes the merciful, nurturing, even kind aspects of God's work--a point reinforced by the remaining images in the verse, especially the parent metaphor.

The difference between the two terms ("supplications" and "consolations") in Hebrew is slight, and it may be that here, too, a decision cannot be made. Perhaps the openness of the poetry, along with the antiquity of both readings, permits the preacher to play with both options and their correlate significations.

Whatever the case, the last two images used in the oracle are rather unambiguous. First, God promises to lead the returnees by steams of water, in a straight path, in which they won't stumble (31:9b). The pastoral imagery as well as the confidence and trust evoked here are familiar from Psalm 23.

Second--and this image is precisely what causes the pastoral imagery (note the "for" in Jeremiah 31:9c)--God is portrayed as Israel's father. While the "fatherhood of God" is a common notion and metaphor now, perhaps especially via the Lord's Prayer, it is actually not as pronounced in the Old Testament as one might suspect. The first instance of the God-as-parent/Israel-as-child metaphor does not appear until Exodus 4:22.

While that passage, like this one, explicitly names Israel as the firstborn (son), the divine parent is not gendered as a "father" explicitly until Deut 32:6.2  In Exodus, the metaphor connotes fierce parental love that leads to passionate protection; in Deuteronomy, it has to do with the creation and establishment of the people. Both passages and their connotations find resonance with Jeremiah 31:9.

As God created Israel like a parent (Deuteronomy 32:6), rescued Israel from Egypt like a parent (Exodus 4:22), and carried Israel in the wilderness like a parent (Deuteronomy 1:31), so now God will return the remnant of Israel, saving it (Jeremiah 31:7) and leading it back safely with plenty of water at hand because "I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn."

All parts of Israel's life--its creation, its slavery and redemption, its sustenance and re-redemption post-judgment --is marked by the God who creates, redeems, and sustains, not unlike the very best of parents.3

1For the theological dynamics, see Walter Brueggemann, The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah (Old Testament Theology; eds. Brent A. Strawn and Patrick D. Miller; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), esp. 115-132; and, earlier, Thomas M. Raitt, A Theology of Exile: Judgment/Deliverance in Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).
2Other and mother metaphors are, of course, found elsewhere. For the latter, see famously the passages from Second Isaiah (Isa 42:14; 45:10-11; 49:15; cf. 66:13)--a unit of Scripture that, at several points and on several themes, bears close comparison with Jeremiah 31. Some scholars have posited a relationship between the passages.
3For more on the divine-parent/human-child metaphor in the Old Testament, see Brent A. Strawn, "'Israel, My Child': The Ethics of a Biblical Metaphor," in The Child in the Bible (eds. Marcia J. Bunge, Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 103-140.