Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14
Fans of Steve Well’s The Skeptic’s Bible could have a heyday with Jeremiah 31.
It is a great example of a failed prophecy. But we will not hover like flies over this fact. Neither, though, will we follow the good Christian tendency to ignore inconvenient aspects of the Bible. We will make the skeptic’s truth central to today’s reflection. Our passage presents one of God’s promises that did not come true.
Inspired by Paul Ricoeur’s concept of the second naïveté, the skeptic’s truth offers critical distance. This distance gives us a vantage from which to look at our failed prophecy with new questions, new opportunities for faith, and new possibilities for reading our own biblical tradition. Where will we end up if we take seriously that a biblical promise failed?
Jeremiah 30-33 is known as Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation. The first two chapters are saturated with promises made to the Northern Kingdom. But the Northern Kingdom was swept into history with its exile in the 8th century (722/721 BCE). The promises in chapter 31: “again you will plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (verse 5) and “the sentinels shall call in the hill country of Ephraim,” (verse 6) were not fulfilled for them.
In their exile, they were forcefully repopulated by the Assyrians, their homes were replaced by other refugees from other reaches of the vast Near Eastern empire, and they never returned home. Indeed, it seems that most of the Northern Kingdom remained exiles in Syria and Babylonia.
Failed promises are a hard truth to face, especially since these promises are made, not just to a large abstract kingdom, but to blind people, the physically disabled, and women in their third trimester (verse 8). These promises are made to the grieving (verses 9 & 13), to people who are overcome by “hands too strong for them,” (verse 11). Jeremiah is not kidding when he says, “your hurt is incurable…there is no medicine for your wound, no healing for you (30:12-13).” It is not hyperbole when Rachel refuses comfort because “[her children] are no more” (verse 15).
While the people disappeared from historical record, the poetry was preserved, leading to both biblical and extra-biblical attempts to reuse it. Failure is just material waiting to be recycled. Already in Jeremiah 31, the promise oracles to the North were reapplied to the South, to Judah’s exile: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its towns” (verse 23).
Hence the hopes of failure can ignite others to new life. Matthew in the New Testament also works with this failed prophecy, claiming that Rachel’s weeping (31:15) refers to the children in Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod (Matthew 2:17). Here, Matthew takes the failure seriously, mapping current grief onto a more ancient sense of loss. “The Gabriel Revelation” contains a set of first-century B.C.E. prophecies about messianic death and resurrection that at one point appear to draw on Jeremiah 31’s prophecy to Ephraim (Israel). Here, failure is set into an emerging theology of resurrection.
But I personally am not satisfied with the idea that people die, lose, and suffer so that their hope can be recycled for others. While there is so much one can do with failed hope, as these post-8th century reflections attest, I cannot stop thinking about the people who died outside of the biblical story. What happened to those women in their third trimester who hoped to return to their homeland but never came back?
In this question, we are not alone. Apocryphal writings were no stranger to curiosity about the lost people of Israel. The book of Tobit presents an 8th century Northern Israelite who was exiled to Ninevah. The story focuses on two star-crossed lovers, Tobit and Sarah, as they both feel despair and a desire for death in exile. Tobit and his dog set out on an angel-graced journey which ends in his meeting and marriage with Sarah. Our question, “what becomes of these people who fell off the Bible’s radar?” puts us in touch with the ancient author of Tobit who wondered the same thing.
This desire to follow the lost is precisely what Jeremiah did with his Book of Consolation. It is not improbable that these failed hopes for the Northern Kingdom served as Jeremiah’s reading while he was in jail (chapters 32-33). With a mind fixed on the lost and an imagination shaped by God’s lingering hopes for them, Jeremiah crafted a new book in solidarity with the subaltern. That would make the Book of Consolation his “Letter from a Jerusalem Jail.”
In general, Jeremiah was braced for exile. Even during his incarceration, he refused to adopt the simple hope that God would save Judah and Jerusalem. Jeremiah was the ultimate skeptic, especially when compared with his prophetic contemporaries who preached hope and protection.
With love for the lost, Jeremiah imagined his way into exile. With hope for life outside of the city, Jeremiah’s willingness to be skeptical gave him the power to see forward. “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry” (verse 13).
Ultimately, in a letter to those Judeans already in exile, he writes,
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; takes wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).