After all of the negativity directed towards Jeremiah, it seems pretty classic on the part of the Israelites that they are now reaching out to him for help. The King, Zedekiah, sends Pashhur to Jeremiah. “Please petition the Lord for us, for Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon is waging war against us; perhaps the Lord will do to us like all His wonders, and he will withdraw from us (Jeremiah 21:2).” It’s a pretty plea, but it’s also too late. God isn’t backing down from His promise to exile the people, and it seems like for once, they’re going to pay for their behavior. It’s going to be hard and tragic, but it’s seemingly inevitable at this point. This book is dragging out a bit though, and I’m wondering when the shift will finally happen.
So this chapter starts out with some narrative, rather than more prophetic words. Pashhur, the son of Immer the priest, hears everything that Jeremiah has been saying. He gets angry, and lashes out. He hits Jeremiah and puts him in jail. Wow – I know that I’ve been saying that I understand getting annoyed at all the doom and gloom, but this seems like a pretty dramatic reaction. Luckily, Jeremiah is only in jail overnight, and Pashhur lets him out the next day. Whatever the priest was hoping would happen as a result of this action, it seems to have backfired, because Jeremiah immediately returns to his prophecies. And now, they get personal.
“And you, Pashhur, and all those who dwell in your houses shall go into captivity, and you shall come to Babylon and there you shall die and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have prophesied falsely (Jeremiah 20:6).” After bashing Pashhur, and letting him know that the dreaded exile is coming, Jeremiah starts to talk to God. He lets Him know how he’s being mocked and abused by the populace, showing that even with God one his side, it’s hard to be an outcast. Even a prophet wants to be accepted, showing that peer approval is critical at every stage of life.
Most of the time, when someone makes a mistake, their immediate reaction is to try to fix it. We want to quickly apologize, make everything better, and move on. But sometimes that’s easier said than done, and there are things that can’t be easily fixed, or even fixed at all. “And you shall break the jug before the eyes of the men who go with you. And you shall say to them: so said the Lord of Hosts: so will I break this people and this city, as one breaks the potter’s vessel, which can no longer be repaired, and in the Topheth they will bury without place to bury (Jeremiah 19:10-11).” This is a great metaphor and image. Once a jug like that is broken, nothing can fix it. Yes, you can glue it back together, but there will always be little pieces missing. Yes, you can buy or make a new one, but that’s not fixing what broke, it’s providing an alternative. There are plenty of times when we say things that we want to take back, but no matter what people say, they’re out there, and can’t be fully removed. People may forgive, but the cracks have formed, because they don’t really forget.
After all of this doom and gloom over the previous chapters, I’m not particularly surprised that the people decide to rebel against the messenger. It’s easy to blame the one bringing news of things that we don’t want to hear, regardless of how true they may be, and the frustration of the people starts to boil over. “And they said, ‘Come, let us devise plots against Jeremiah, for the Torah shall not be lost from the priest, neither counsel from the wise man, nor speech from the prophet. Come, let us strike him with the tongue, and let us not listen to all his words (Jeremiah 18:18).'” In all honesty, I completely get where the people are coming from in this case. When I hear people preaching doom and gloom about the future of the Jewish people, Jewish education, and particularly Jewish communal professionals, I’m inclined to want to turn down the noise because it so upsets me, rather than to engage with the perceived prophets. It’s a constant challenge to not dismiss these people, and to cling to a reality that feels comfortable for me. How do we engage with those who are speaking harshly about the future, while not giving into their fear-mongering, and instead work to prove them wrong?
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord; the Lord shall be his trust (Jeremiah 17:7).” This is a simple statement on its surface. If you trust God, you’ll receive blessings, and God will be the source of those blessings. But does trust alone lead to anything? So regularly, it feels like we hear about people who are busy waiting around for things to happen, rather than actively pursuing their own missions. We can trust in God, but we also need to take action on our own.
Throughout Tanakh, and continuing through Jewish history in general, a constant trope is that God brought the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt. This statement is used as the driving concept behind the need for continued loyalty to God, the reminder of why the covenant exists, and and refrain each time the people either succeed, or screw up. But now that the exile is coming, it’s an event so momentous that it requires a whole new set of cues.
“Therefore, behold days are coming, says the Lord, and it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives, Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ But, ‘As the Lord lives, Who brought up the children of Israel from the northland and from all the lands where He had driven them,’ and I will restore them to their land that I gave to their forefathers (Jeremiah 16:14-15).”
The eventual exile, and then restoration to the land, is so pivotal in the development of the Jewish people throughout history, that it will completely alter the way that the people relate to God. I’m wondering if that’s really true though. When we pray, and particularly at the Passover seder, which is the core of our tradition in my mind, it’s the Egypt model that we use, not the restoration. Is that because we aren’t back in Israel in a messianic sense? Or because even though it’s written here in Tanakh, we don’t relate to God in this way yet?
This chapter starts out with God continuing to punish the people, and refusing to show mercy on them this time, no matter what they do. I know that I’ve spent several chapters thinking about how ridiculous it is that the people continually screw up and are forgiven just like that, but now I’m equally frustrated with all of these curses that seem to have no way to be stopped. Luckily, by the end of the chapter, there does seem to be some reprieve from the depressing, angry rants. “And I will make you for this nation into a fortified copper wall, and they shall fight against you but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you to redeem you and to save you, says the Lord (Jeremiah 15:20).” This is a statement that I can deal with. The challenges will still be there, and the people won’t have an idyllic future handed to them, but they won’t be without a protector, and will prevail in the end. That seems to be the course that history has wound up taking, and I’m glad to see a break in the constant curses of the last few days.
I love the days when the chapter we’re reading somehow related to what I’m doing or thinking about outside of this project. Today, I’m at a seminar focusing on water issues in Israel, and Jeremiah is talking about the land and people being cursed with a drought as a punishment for their misdeeds. “Because the earth was broken for there was no rain on earth, farmers were ashamed; they covered their heads (Jeremiah 14:4).” The people have exhausted their chances for forgiveness, and God is immune to their pleas. Based on what I’m learning about today, I think I have a new appreciation for how grevious of a punishment this is. In the ancient Middle East, water was everything. Water meant your family could survive for the year. Losing a water supply meant losing a livelihood, a home, and quite possibly your life. Today, we’ve inherited this fear in the modern region. Water is political,it’s territorial, and people are beyond passionate about it. Could it be that part of our current fixation is knowing that while today we are blessed with it, in the past it has been used to curse us?
God sends Jeremiah on what seems like an extended goose chase, or lesson in experiential learning. First, He has him buy a girdle and put it on, while keeping it dry. Then, Jeremiah is instructed to go and hide it in a certain rock, and does so. After a certain amount of time passes, Jeremiah is sent to retrieve the girdle, and it was rotten and ruined. This story is odd enough so far, but then God uses it as a metaphor for the pending destruction of Jerusalem and Israel. “For, just as the girdle clings to a man’s loins, so have I caused the entire house of Israel and the entire house of Judah to cling to Me, says the Lord, to be My people, and for a name and for praise and for glory, but they did not hearken (Jeremiah 13:11).” I realize that I’m a huge geek and this probably isn’t part of the intent of this interlude at all, but it really seems to me like an experiential education lesson plna. Instead of just repeatedly telling Jeremiah about why the people deserve punishment and what’s going to happen to them, God gives Jeremiah a task that allows him to see in a minor way the hands-on nature of the issue, and the outcome. Jeremiah is the student in this situation, and he has to internalize his lessons.
In this chapter, Jeremiah seems to be arguing with God. With the disclaimer that God is infinitely wise and always right, nevertheless, Jeremiah points out that He is the one who created the evil that exists in the world, and asks how long it will take for God to root it out. God acknowledges that the evil of the people is His reality and responsibility, but that doesn’t make things any better on either end. “My inheritance was to Me like a lion in the forest; she raised her voice against Me; therefore, I hated her (Jeremiah 12:8).” No matter that God is responsible for the evil of the people, it doesn’t make it any better – either for Him or for them. Even when one creates the beast, it’s hurtful when it lashes out at you.