Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Home. It is a word that evokes strong emotions, an idealized place even in the face of harsh reality.
We yearn to feel “home,” a place full of love, security, comfort. Sometimes “home” is found in a domicile, sometimes in a familiar landscape, sometimes even in another person. Church can feel like home.
This chapter in Jeremiah focuses on the yearning for a home that is far off, a loss of home that has shaken the very identity of the ancient Israelites. The passage offers cool comfort in its prediction that this loss will last a very long time.
The book of Jeremiah reflects the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. With this devastation, two diaspora groups were formed: the elite who were exiled to Babylon, and the poorer people who became refugees in places like Egypt. This passage is ostensibly addressed to the first group, those who suffered violent forced migration, and who had become cheap labor for their overlords. But much of what it says could apply to both diaspora groups.
Biblical texts suggest that the generation who suffered this defeat expected the exile to last only a short time. Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah state that the exile was punishment for the sins of that particular generation, setting up the expectation that the exile would last, at most, the length of one generation, or approximately twenty years.
As those who had been adults when the city fell began to die out, the people worried about the significance of the exile lasting so long. There was now a whole new generation of adults who had either been children when Jerusalem fell or who had been born in exile, never knowing the grandeur of their “home.”
Recently, biblical scholars have been at refugee populations in the contemporary world in order to understand the challenges facing multiple generations of refugees. These studies show that, while the first generation always feels like an outsider in their new “home,” subsequent generations begin to assimilate, creating a kind of hybrid identity.
The 1.5 generation, those who had been children when migrating, reinterpret their own traditions in light of their new home. Second generation refugees, while maintaining some traditions from their family’s originating home, begin to lose markers of identity such as language, dress, and music.
Assimilation and hybridity cause tension among the refugee community, as the older generation, in particular, worry about later generations losing their sense of identity. “Home” becomes displaced. What is “home” to a second or third generation refugee?
This text in Jeremiah reveals this anxiety. It both redefines “home” as the new place of residence, while also maintaining a notion of the “true home” back in Judea. In this oracle, God tells the exiles that they should settle and make new homes, even if they are temporary, in their place of exile.
The oracle states that the exile will last seventy years, or 3.5 generations. This means that when Jerusalem is finally rebuilt and they can return home, it will be the great-grandchildren of the original exiles, along with their children, who will return. Who would they be at that point? How would they dress? What songs would they sing?
In the ancient world, cultural markers like music, art, and even the names given to children had religious significance. Most of the music that is preserved in the Bible, in the Psalms, was liturgical music, which formed an integral part of the rituals. While the archaeological record shows that later generations of exiles kept names that attested to their worship of Yahweh, literary texts suggest something different. Esther and Mordechai, in the book of Esther, are named after the Babylonian gods Ishtar and Marduk. This oracle in Jeremiah asks, at what point does assimilation become obliteration of the Jews’ identity? And what parts of their culture are adaptable without threatening their identity as covenant partners with God?
The oracle maintains that it is not a betrayal of God to fully assimilate into the “home” life of Babylon. Here “home” is defined as land and family. They should own land, plant gardens, arrange for marriages (and note that it does not limit whom their children could marry). They should even work for the welfare of their host country. God tells them to become model Babylonians.
While the oracle states that they will do this for seventy years, the number seventy can simply mean a very long time. If forty years in the wilderness was long, this is more than one and a half times as long. They are in this for the long haul. There is no imminent return offered here, no savior on the horizon.
The oracle ends with a vague promise of return. This return is linked to their maintaining one element of their original identity: faith in Yahweh. The oracle states that their exile is part of God’s plan; in other words, they are not exiled from God. It also states that when they pray to God, then God will respond by restoring them to their home. But the oracle raises the question, what will home look like when they return?
Given the transformation that the end of the oracle envisions, I would maintain that what is promised is that perfect “home” that we all yearn for. It is that place, that status, where we no longer feel like we are an outsider. It is a place of safety because someone good is in charge. In Jeremiah, it is deliberately ambiguous inviting each of us to think about how we are all refugees in this land, waiting for the promise of our ideal home.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of hope,
How often have we found ourselves in exile, separated from our awareness of your presence! Restore us, and let us find you when we seek you. Amen.
Evening and morning ELW 761
Praise, my soul, the king of heaven ELW 865, H82 410, UMH 66
A sound of angels, Christopher Tye
Adoramus te Christe, Giovanni Palestrina