A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25 (30): October 24, 2021: Jeremiah 31:7-9

7For thus says the LORD: 
     Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, 
     and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; 
     proclaim, give praise, and say, 
          "Save, O LORD, your people, 
               the remnant of Israel."
          8See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, 
          and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, 
               among them the blind and the lame, 
               those with child 
               and those in labor, 
          together; a great company, they shall return here.
               9With weeping they shall come, 
               and with consolations I will lead them back, 
                    I will let them walk by brooks of water, 
                    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; 
               for I have become a father to Israel, 
                    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jacob mentioned?
  • Yes, I know that Jacob and Israel are the same narrative character, and I know that this is poetry so I should expect such renaming, but what does bringing Jacob in contribute to the statement of prophecy?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jeremiah and Isaiah are the prophets that always have names. The other prophets get allusions, or even quotations, but they aren’t named. I do not remember a single instance where Paul or any gospel storyteller says, “As it stands written in the prophet, Habakkuk….” And when Jesus asks who people say that he is, no one says, “Zephaniah.” At best, he shows up in the catch-all term “one of the prophets of old.”

Jeremiah, like Isaiah, was a prophet from the Babylonian period, when “Judah [had] gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude” (Lamentations 1:3). And that is why we have to notice that Jeremiah is talking about Jacob, about Israel, about the Northern Kingdom that had been scattered in exile by Assyria nearly 200 years before Jeremiah spoke these words.

Why bring in Jacob?

It is an important question. It means that Jeremiah and his audience have raised their eyes higher than their own predicament. They are together looking for something bigger than the easing of their pain. They are together remembering the earlier disaster, the Assyrian onslaught that obliterated 10/12s of the Jewish people. When I read such passages with my students, they notice that the Babylonian Exile was not the first rupture in the history of the Jewish people, nor was it the last. They notice, also, that trauma has left deep marks on the Jewish faith, and by extension on the Christian faith as well.

This might be a week to remember that. We misunderstand the problems of the present when we forget the traumas of the past that have marked us and shaped our lives and our hopes. Jeremiah’s words make it clear that healing in the present moment will require the healing of past losses. The relatives scattered by the Assyrians will have to be returned.

This, of course, would be impossible. Two centuries of dispersion would have made those people untraceable. Other ancient Jewish texts imagine that the voice of Messiah would call all these lost and scattered relatives home to Mount Zion. Some even imagine that God would use birds to send out the call to return. The birds would find the descendants of the exiles just like the doves in the old Aschenputtel (Cinderella) story picked the lentils out of the ashes. But returning all those who had been lost would have been impossible, and this impossibility is part of the prophecy. Jeremiah and his audience knew that very well.

Life leaves marks. If we forget that, we misunderstand our reactions to pain and disruption. People (and peoples) who have experienced trauma cannot just “get over it.” It continues the trauma to demand that they do. When we demand that people “just get over it” we are making it clear that what we want, what we demand, is that we not be disturbed. And when other people remind us of the event that changed everything, that damaged everything, we are annoyed. We don’t think of it as annoyance. We think of it as realism, as tough love, as good advice. But what we really want is to avoid any disruption in our world. “After all,” we say, “everybody has troubles. You’re no different.”

But my trouble does not cancel out your trouble. The fact that my relatives left Sweden because the economic system collapsed on top of them does not cancel out the trouble that was caused when they settled on the hereditary land of the Anishinaabe in northern Minnesota. The Anishinaabe live there still, and the dominant culture created by my relatives and their descendants is a reminder of the loss of their relatives and the loss of their hereditary land.

In the late 19th century the Ghost Dance emerged among Native Americans, beginning with the Northern Paiutes and spreading widely. People performed the Dance hoping that it would bring about the return of the bison, the return of all the relatives lost, and the return of the sacred hereditary land. These hopes were crushed at Wounded Knee when Spotted Elk and the people following him were massacred. James Mooney spoke with Lakota people after this catastrophe and they told him that they would no longer speak of the Ghost Dance to him or to any other European. (see Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion). Trauma upon trauma left indelible marks.

Jeremiah’s words remind me of the hopes expressed in the Ghost Dance. Jeremiah’s words remind me of the marks left by trauma. Jeremiah’s words make me wonder if his audience also resolved never to speak of their hopes to the Babylonians. And then I remember Psalm 137, and I realize that the trauma of lost relatives and lost land may be the same in any century.

May all those who must remember losses become God’s firstborn.

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