Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-9
The two visions of hope and homecoming from Jeremiah featured by the lectionary (Jeremiah 31:7-9 and 31:31-34) this week might best be characterized as anomalous when read in the context of the book as a whole.
Not that Jeremiah is a hopeless book… Indeed some scholars have argued that the images of destruction and violence in Jeremiah serve to organize Judah’s traumatic experience of chaos in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon. In the sense that it functions as a map for survival, the book is a radical articulation of hope.
But the “Book of Comfort,” three chapters at the center of the book (chapters 30-33), renders hope in ways that are likely more recognizable to many contemporary communities. Even though these images of homecoming, restoration, and renewed relationships are stunning in their own right, to read them apart from the context of the entire book lessens their impact and perhaps even runs the risk of demeaning the grace they offer. If we keep the context of the whole book before us, however, we can appreciate that the hope we encounter in 30-33 is not only hard-won but also more radical — and at the same time more tentative — than we may have imagined.
Further, the vision of restoration is linked inextricably to the memories of disaster and destruction. Kathleen O’Connor’s work highlights the way Jeremiah refuses to deny or gloss over the community’s experiences of deep loss and suffering.1 In fact, the vision of the restoration retains much the language of pain and divine judgment. In the great company, there is lameness and blindness (cf. Jeremiah 5:21), weeping (Jeremiah 3:21), (not) stumbling (Jeremiah 6:21) — all language that Jeremiah has used to describe the people’s suffering and God’s punishment.
Further, the affirmation that God will bring the people “from the land of the north” and “from the farthest part of the east” (31:8) recalls the enemy God raised from those regions to ride into battle against daughter Zion (6:22). The woman in labor, who embodied the community’s experience of chaos and anguish (see 6:24), still labors, but now she stands as a tentative assurance of new life. Even the language of gathering ([I am going to] “gather them”, verse 8) recalls Jeremiah’s call for the people to “gather” together in the fortified cities, fleeing for safety, from the foe from the north (Jeremiah 4:5-6).
In 31:7, memories of devastation and war resonate in the people’s self- identification as “the remnant of Israel”, suggesting that they see themselves as survivors. Perhaps trauma also explains the awkward fit between the call to sing and praise (verse 7a) and the plea to “save” (in verse 7b). The expected response to a call to praise is stymied inexplicably with a petition: “Save, O YHWH, your people.”
Scholars have offered numerous theories to explain the peculiar order, but perhaps the strangeness of the structure reflects the community’s habit of lamenting and petitioning. “Save” erupts as a knee-jerk reaction rooted in generations of suffering and the near-constant experience of alienation from and persecution at the hand of God.
Throughout the Book of Comfort, God repeatedly and even paradoxically both affirms and discourages the people’s weeping (see Jeremiah 30:15-16). When I first read verse 9 (“with weeping they will come”), I assumed that the “great company” was weeping tears of joy. Maybe they are; but on further reflection, I wonder if they are crying for what and whom they have lost. Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim observe that the Book of Comfort “unites expressions of hope with suffering and marginality… God promises to redeem Israel from many troubles; but this redemption throbs with pain.”2
This is a gathering of survivors, happy merely not to stumble… and eventually to enjoy good food and wine and company, to laugh and dance (31:12-13). Newly restored, the people relish ordinary life. But at the same time, they remember the sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers, who did not survive. They will never forget the trauma of their past, but they will enjoy a certain peace. And that will be enough.
As the great company limps back in to the land consoled and led by God (31:9) — the same God who punished them with disturbing zeal — the weakness and brokenness of the past and present has not been not be eradicated. The memory of God as holy terror lives in their bones. Straight into the heart of that fear, Jeremiah injects a little beauty and tentative moments of consolation. While he is interested in justifying God’s punitive actions against Judah, he resists papering over God’s role in the people’s misery.
Simultaneously, the prophet revalues the community’s image of itself as vulnerable. In the stories of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the people’s status as slaves is used as a touchstone for justice. Remembering their identity as former slaves and aliens in Egypt informs commands to care for those at the margins (i.e. Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt”). As in Exodus, the people whose restoration Jeremiah imagines are a people who embody an inversion of cultural norms.
In Jeremiah’s restored community, however, there will be no need for Deuteronomy’s exhortation to care for the widow and the orphan. The lame and the broken will no longer be relegated to the edges of society, left to glean the leftovers. Instead in this new society, they — the blind and the lame, and the pregnant and laboring women — will no longer live on the periphery.
They will be revered as — and at — the heart of the community. Images like this one encourage Israel to view its marginality as the core of its communal identity. Instead of decrying and lamenting their marginal status (as an exiled people in Babylon or as a people stifled under Persian rule), their vulnerability should, according to Jeremiah, now define them.
God’s act of gathering the people back to the land restores them to blessing but not necessarily to power, at least in a traditional sense. Nationalism, military might, and full treasuries — even temple glories — are not objects of hope for Jeremiah. Instead Jeremiah sees hope in the faces of the broken and the forgotten. There he finds the essence of Israelite identity… and the basis for his particular image of renewal.
1Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).
2 Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim, “You Are My People”: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 135