< January 02, 2011 >

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

 

It is quite peculiar that a text from Jeremiah disrupts a series of Isaianic texts in the lectionary calendar.

The five Sundays that precede the Second Sunday of Christmas all contain texts from Isaiah for their First Reading, and the three Sundays following this Sunday similarly all have Isaianic texts. Although a text from Jeremiah may seem discontinuous with the Isaianic focus of the lectionary for this Christmas season, Jeremiah 31:7-14 possesses an Isaianic pattern.

Jeremiah 31:1-14 summarizes the message of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and demonstrates numerous similarities to Isaiah 40:1-11, the prologue to Second Isaiah. The text contains the motifs of travel through the wilderness (31:2), the revelation of Yahweh (31:3), a way for God's people (31:1, 9, 14) rejoicing and singing (31:4, 7, 13), the blind and lame as pilgrims (31:8), Zion, the dwelling place of Yahweh, as its destination (31:6), Israel calling Jacob (31:7, 11), Yahweh as savior and redeemer (31:7, 11), Yahweh as shepherd and gatherer of his dispersed people (31:8, 10), Yahweh leading this procession (31:9) the transformation from wilderness into a watered garden (31:5, 12), and the announcement of comfort (31:13).

All of these themes feature prominently throughout the message of Second Isaiah, and the last of these, "comfort," comprise the opening words of the prophecy, "Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God" (Isaiah 40:1). In fact, chapters 30 and 31 of Jeremiah have been deemed, "The Book of Comfort," and this passage likely served as a template for the writing of Second Isaiah. Viewed in this manner, this passage from Jeremiah naturally fits within a series of readings from Isaiah.

Jeremiah announces a great reversal in Yahweh's plans for his people. This is stated plainly in 30:10, "He who scattered Israel will gather him." Yahweh's announcement to gather the dispersed Jews from the north, including "the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together" (31:8) overturns God's judgment of Judah previously pronounced in 6:21. There God announced he would stir an invading nation from the north resulting in "parents and children together, neighbor and friend perish[ing]." Later on in this passage Yahweh instructs, "O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation" (6:26) because of the coming Babylonian conquest. The reading for today reverses this pronouncement, "I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow" (31:13b).

This dialectic between judgment and salvation, exile and homecoming, old and the new covenant, is the existential space where the people of God demonstrate their faithfulness to Yahweh. Obedience is not the escape or banishment of one or the other mode of being, but is rather learning to negotiate the tensions within this continuum. Even as Yahweh announces the great reversal of judgment in the Book of Comfort, he reminds Israel of the terror of the Day of the LORD (30:4-7), Israel's overwhelming guilt (30:12-15), the anger of Yahweh (30:23-24), and the weeping of Rachel (31:15). Yahweh does not relinquish the possibility of judgment even while he announces salvation (31:29-30).

Contextual theologies that highlight liminality and hybridity as loci for theological reflection offer a useful means to appreciate these exilic and diaspora texts of Scripture,1 as well as re-imagine the missional role of the church in post-Christian societies.2 The temptation for God's people is to reify essentialist constructions of their own identity and mission that conflict with the values of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that cannot be solely identified with any human institution. The people of God are characterized, as exemplified in the ministry of Jeremiah, by their facility to flourish in liminal situations, whether it be in Babylon or Yehud, whether they be ruled by a Davidic king or a foreign one.

Thankfully, the poles of this dialectic are not fixed, nor will the synthesis comprise of a compromise between the two extremes. The trajectory of God's plans for his people moves progressively in the direction of salvation and culminates there. Judgment and exile are not the final chapter in the story of God's people. The exile, which was previously understood as the curse of the covenant, is transformed into an act of discipline (31:18).

Chapter 31 of Jeremiah ends with the announcement of a new covenant and a new Jerusalem. This covenant is God's final covenant with Israel and this Jerusalem "shall never again be uprooted or overthrown" (31:40). This assurance provides the hope to enable the exiles to not despair when restoration seems so distant. In addition, these salvation oracles grant people the courage to resist identities and institutions that may offer empty promises of security that possess no substance behind them.

Today's reading ends with the promise of an unending banquet and festival featuring an abundance of provisions and celebration. Psalm 147 and Ephesians 1:3-14 similarly speak of the assurance of God's lavish blessing of his people. Whereas the first reading for the previous week, Isaiah 63:7-9, acknowledged the possibility of disappointment within God's plan of salvation, this week's reading reminds God's people of its certain fulfillment.


1 E.g., Mary F. Foskett and Jeffrey Kah-Jin Kuan, eds., Ways of Being, Ways of Reading: Asian American Biblical Interpretation (St. Louis: Chalice, 2006).
2 Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).