Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6
With Jeremiah it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect an intentional literary order (see also Isaiah). The book as a whole reflects the fiercely troubled times of the early exilic period. This is the case with our text. If it connects in any way with its literary context it is by the themes of judgment and hope that run through chapters 21-25. Jeremiah 23:1-6 briefly addresses “judgment” in the initial three verses. They indict the shepherds for their responsibility in the scattering of God’s people. After the indictment, the text offers hints of hope.
After a long siege to Jerusalem, the city finally fell to the invading army. They destroyed the temple and the royal palace, deported the king and his family, and killed many of the ruling class. By the end of the invasion, life was drastically changed in the city. Not only were the elite killed and exiled, the poor also were displaced from their lands and homes. The economic catastrophe impacted the daily life of the people who remained around. This was a multilevel debacle. Most importantly, their survival as a community of YHWH’s followers was in doubt.
The visible signs of destruction were everywhere to be seen in physical infrastructure and its consequences on the political, economic, and religious life of the people. However, there were also less visible wounds in the aftermath of the destruction. The book of Jeremiah addresses a community who is trying to understand and deal with the spiritual, emotional, and material consequences of the disaster.
This is reflected in our text that incoherently describes two causes for the disaster. First, the reference to “shepherds” is directed to the monarchy who failed to protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Although the direct agent scattering the people was the Babylonian empire, the text states that the kings embody the urban establishment and are responsible for driving away the people. The kings are irresponsible and disobedient. The previous chapter clearly asserts that the trouble coming to the city is caused by the royal leadership.
Second, after the indictment against the kings (verse 2), the text also states that the scattering is the outcome of YHWH. God will gather the people who God drove away (verse 3). In relation to its broader context, these verses assert that God is doing something radical concerning the people in Judah and the city of Jerusalem. However, the divine intervention is marked by frightening discontinuity. God somehow is an agent of violence and destruction. God is as well an agent of restoration and blessing.
One can understand the text as the literary outcome of a community processing trauma. Therefore, the analysis of the situation is not a dispassionate narrative of facts and numbers. Its veracity does not depend on them. What makes the text truthful beyond any connection to a historical event is its lack of coherence, its combination of mythical and human agents in the destruction. If the community behind the text were able to describe the humiliating and painful experience in a clear and concise way, with all the facts and numbers in a consistent and sequential manner, I would doubt its veracity and power to help the people process their trauma.
Therefore, when a dispassionate narrative fails to account for trauma, the poetic and mythical evocation of disaster performs a healing function in the midst of the toxic and unbearable atmosphere of physical and emotional evil.
One may wonder what healing function a text performs that states God is responsible for the scattering of the people as the consequence of military invasion, destruction of cultural and religious identity, and economic catastrophe. Our first answer to this important question is the text itself as a witness to the destruction. The text reflects the capacity of speech to help people survive violence and the profound theological issues it raised. If despair prompts speech and reasoning, and above all if it results in writing, fraternity is established and hope is born.
The second connected notion is the function of evocative poetry to reframe violence, thus giving it meaning and order. Here, we can underline one incoherent element in our text. God drives away the people. This description is a summary of what the book of Jeremiah is about: a painful portrayal of a siege that lasted several years and the final destruction. However, the same God promises to bring them back. The mythical description of restoration uses the symbolism of people as a flock who return to their pasture and are again fruitful and increase in number (verse 3). The emphasis on hope thus reframes destruction, asserting that God will bring the people back, will restore the Davidic line, and most importantly as a direct statement to trauma, “they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord” (verse 4).
Finally, the healing function of the text relates to its personal character. It is the divine voice that speaks to the people, not the prophetic voice. God promises three things that relate to the experience of the people as chosen. From ancestral time (see the book of Joshua), the land is the material symbol of God’s connection and inheritance. The monarchy represents the unconditional promise that God will always be with the Davidic house regardless of their disobedience (see the book of Samuel). Finally, the words “justice and righteousness” constitute a major theme in the prophetic tradition calling on the ideal community where God’s torah, or teaching, will arbitrate social and political relationships. The two words are often paired in Jeremiah as well as in Isaiah. When they are joined by “and,” they form a hendiadys, or two words linked to form a single idea. The emphasis on both words may be related to what in modern terms we call “social justice.” (See Jeremiah 9:24; 22:3, 15; and 33:15).
In a few words, we can say that the hendiadys imagines a time when there will be fairness in the judicial system but also a time when laws themselves will be crafted to improve conditions of the poor. Therefore, in their broader sense “justice and righteousness” have implications in the political, social, theological, and legal dimensions of the community.