Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14
These verses speak to a community of migrants and refugees.
They speak to those who have been torn from their homes and homelands, who have seen their loved ones die or disappear. They speak to those who have suffered at the hands of an empire’s ruthless power—threatened, coerced, and terrorized into conformity with the ways and means of others. They speak to those on the run, in fear for their lives.
In this they form a natural complement to today’s gospel reading, which tells of the fearful flight of Jesus and his parents to Egypt—a desperate gamble to escape the murderous reach of Herod.
Two historical horizons present themselves as possible contexts for the origins of these verses in Jeremiah 31. The first and most typically cited is the late seventh century BCE, about a century after the people of the northern kingdom of Israel had been deported by the Assyrian empire. In this context, the prophet Jeremiah is understood to be speaking to the remnant left behind, coaxing them toward reunification with their southern brethren in Jerusalem.
The second and more likely background is the sixth century BCE, after the destruction of Judah by the Babylonian empire. After years of warnings from Jeremiah and others, disaster had finally befallen the kingdom: the city sacked, the temple destroyed, the king and his court deported or dead. The deportees who survived the journey to Babylonia were faced with a strange new life in a foreign country, their movements and actions subject to a foreign power, whose orders were conveyed through authorities speaking a foreign language.
Depending on a deportee’s status, she might have found herself in Babylon with Judah’s former king, Jehoiachin, and his family, or she might have been resettled in a refugee camp in rural Babylonia. Ezekiel’s community seems to have been part of one of the latter groups, who were expected to farm the land and pay taxes to the imperial government.
But the deportees in Babylonia, though certainly the most famous, were not the only ones to suffer the pain of exile. The book of Jeremiah is a book of many migrations. The Benjaminites (Jeremiah 6:1) and the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35) seek refuge in Jerusalem, hoping against hope that it might withstand the Babylonian onslaught. Once the territory has been overrun, people flee across the Jordan to Ammon, Moab, and Edom (40:11-12). Jeremiah himself is said to have left the devastated rubble of Judah for Egypt, part of a group seeking refuge from persecution by the Babylonian authorities (41:17—43:7). The group is divided over the causes of their plight, but united in their decision that flight represents a better chance of survival than staying put. The book of Jeremiah responds to a world of people on the move.
The divine word that speaks into this world is attentive to anxieties and concerns common among refugees and migrants.
A strange silence surrounds this time in Israel’s history—a silence that points to the impossibility of giving voice to profound trauma. But, after this period of unspeakable suffering, God promises the Israelites that God will bring them home again. Even if they have been scattered to “the farthest parts of the earth”—God will bring them home again. The joy this word evokes is so profound that it moves the people to tears. The pain and loss through which they have struggled for so long will be brought to an end—God will deliver them.
God’s motivation to action is identified as a form of parental care: “I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Depictions of God as a loving parent are especially prominent in the literature of this period, though perhaps nowhere so significantly so as the creation of humanity in God’s image in Genesis 1. The language signals that God’s relationship with the people is a personal one; humanity is more than an assortment of pawns being played across the earth for divine gain. God cares for the people, like a parent cares for a child.
The land to which the people will return is one akin to Eden. Last seen devastated and war-torn, the fields and the waterways of Israel’s homeland are now veritably bursting with life and abundance: “the grain, the wine, and the oil…the young of the flock and the herd.” God is not sending these traumatized people back into a war zone, but into a healthy homeland where their safety will be assured.
The book of Jeremiah reminds us that there are many causes of exile—foreign armies, famine, fear. These verses call us to acknowledge the great pain and suffering of those who seek refuge. Whether forcibly evicted from their homes or pressed to flight by famine, the exigencies of a collapsing national government, or persecution by the denizens of power, to abandon one’s home and flee into the arms of the unknown is a terrible, terrifying risk, and one that never comes without a cost.