Concerning the Ammonites. Thus says the LORD: Has Israel no sons? Has he no heir? Why then has Milcom dispossessed Gad, and his people settled in its towns? 2 Therefore, the time is surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sound the battle alarm against Rabbah of the Ammonites; it shall become a desolate mound, and its villages shall be burned with fire; then Israel shall dispossess those who dispossessed him, says the LORD. 3 Wail, O Heshbon, for Ai is laid waste! Cry out, O daughters of Rabbah! Put on sackcloth, lament, and slash yourselves with whips! For Milcom shall go into exile, with his priests and his attendants. 4 Why do you boast in your strength? Your strength is ebbing, O faithless daughter. You trusted in your treasures, saying, “Who will attack me?” 5 I am going to bring terror upon you, says the Lord GOD of hosts, from all your neighbors, and you will be scattered, each headlong, with no one to gather the fugitives. 6 But afterward I will restore the fortunes of the Ammonites, says the LORD. 7 Concerning Edom. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Is there no longer wisdom in Teman? Has counsel perished from the prudent? Has their wisdom vanished? 8 Flee, turn back, get down low, inhabitants of Dedan! For I will bring the calamity of Esau upon him, the time when I punish him. 9 If grape-gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? If thieves came by night, even they would pillage only what they wanted. 10 But as for me, I have stripped Esau bare, I have uncovered his hiding places, and he is not able to conceal himself. His offspring are destroyed, his kinsfolk and his neighbors; and he is no more. 11 Leave your orphans, I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me. 12 For thus says the LORD: If those who do not deserve to drink the cup still have to drink it, shall you be the one to go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished; you must drink it. 13 For by myself I have sworn, says the LORD, that Bozrah shall become an object of horror and ridicule, a waste, and an object of cursing; and all her towns shall be perpetual wastes. 14 I have heard tidings from the LORD, and a messenger has been sent among the nations: “Gather yourselves together and come against her, and rise up for battle!” 15 For I will make you least among the nations, despised by humankind. 16 The terror you inspire and the pride of your heart have deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, who hold the height of the hill. Although you make your nest as high as the eagle’s, from there I will bring you down, says the LORD. 17 Edom shall become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters. 18 As when Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighbors were overthrown, says the LORD, no one shall live there, nor shall anyone settle in it. 19 Like a lion coming up from the thickets of the Jordan against a perennial pasture, I will suddenly chase Edom away from it; and I will appoint over it whomever I choose. For who is like me? Who can summon me? Who is the shepherd who can stand before me? 20 Therefore hear the plan that the LORD has made against Edom and the purposes that he has formed against the inhabitants of Teman: Surely the little ones of the flock shall be dragged away; surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate. 21 At the sound of their fall the earth shall tremble; the sound of their cry shall be heard at the Red Sea. 22 Look, he shall mount up and swoop down like an eagle, and spread his wings against Bozrah, and the heart of the warriors of Edom in that day shall be like the heart of a woman in labor. 23 Concerning Damascus. Hamath and Arpad are confounded, for they have heard bad news; they melt in fear, they are troubled like the sea that cannot be quiet. 24 Damascus has become feeble, she turned to flee, and panic seized her; anguish and sorrows have taken hold of her, as of a woman in labor. 25 How the famous city is forsaken, the joyful town! 26 Therefore her young men shall fall in her squares, and all her soldiers shall be destroyed in that day, says the LORD of hosts. 27 And I will kindle a fire at the wall of Damascus, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. 28 Concerning Kedar and the kingdoms of Hazor that King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon defeated. Thus says the LORD: Rise up, advance against Kedar! Destroy the people of the east! 29 Take their tents and their flocks, their curtains and all their goods; carry off their camels for yourselves, and a cry shall go up: “Terror is all around!” 30 Flee, wander far away, hide in deep places, O inhabitants of Hazor! says the LORD. For King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon has made a plan against you and formed a purpose against you. 31 Rise up, advance against a nation at ease, that lives secure, says the LORD, that has no gates or bars, that lives alone. 32 Their camels shall become booty, their herds of cattle a spoil. I will scatter to every wind those who have shaven temples, and I will bring calamity against them from every side, says the LORD. 33 Hazor shall become a lair of jackals, an everlasting waste; no one shall live there, nor shall anyone settle in it. 34 The word of the LORD that came to the prophet Jeremiah concerning Elam, at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah. 35 Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am going to break the bow of Elam, the mainstay of their might; 36 and I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven; and I will scatter them to all these winds, and there shall be no nation to which the exiles from Elam shall not come. 37 I will terrify Elam before their enemies, and before those who seek their life; I will bring disaster upon them, my fierce anger, says the LORD. I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them; 38 and I will set my throne in Elam, and destroy their king and officials, says the LORD. 39 But in the latter days I will restore the fortunes of Elam, says the LORD.
As I have gone through these chapters where we hear the judgment of the nations being place in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah and proceeding from the voice of the LORD, I have to admit that these passages are deeply unsettling to me. Perhaps it is because I stand in such a different place that the hearers of these words, I am a white middle class male who lives in the relative security and comfort of the United States and the hearers of these words would’ve been Jewish people taken into exile and perhaps needing a word of vengeance. Perhaps in their powerlessness they were willing to endure if the could trust that their suffering would have meaning and they would be avenged. As St. Paul could say in his letter to the Romans:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12.19
And I can identify with what Miroslav Volf can discuss in the last chapter of his incredible work Exclusion and Embrace where he discusses the need for God’s judgment as he writes from his own experience of trying to discuss reconciliation in the contexts of his native Bosnia. I can understand the need to give a voice to the pain that one encounters and the loss of identity, and even to use the language I’ve used throughout this blog of the wounded God who is grieving the loss of God’s relationship to Judah because of their inability or refusal to live in the covenant. I can understand all these things and yet still this is an uncomfortable section to work through, and it isn’t that Jeremiah in general is easy to work through, there is the language of judgment and the ending of the world the Jewish people knew which continually makes the book a challenge, but I think it hit me hear in these last chapters because it is directed towards the outsiders. Most of Jeremiah is directed inwardly towards the people of Judah and trying to get them to return to their covenant relationship, but in these final chapters Jeremiah turns towards all the other nations, in Chapter 49 it rails against Ammon, Edom, Damascus (and by extension Syria), Kedar and Hazor (Arabia), and Elam. This is a consistent pattern among the prophets which also occurs in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Amos and yet to me it is still uncomfortable.
The primary reason for my discomfort is its external direction. The judgment that each of these nations is no greater than what Judah/Israel receives, but these are not nations that were ever in a covenant with God. I’m always a little uncomfortable when a group, a community or a congregation identifies all the evil or all the judgment that is going to occur on everyone but themselves. Certainly there has been plenty of judgment on Israel and in particular with all these nations there is no way to know what sins, real and perceived, they perpetrated against the nation of Judah, the exiles in Babylon or Egypt, how they played in the political intrigue that led Judah into its confrontation with Babylon or really anything. Perhaps they are innocent bystanders, perhaps not. I am troubled by the quick and easy resolution of each section how afterwards God will restore the fortunes as if after all the bloodshed and destruction it suddenly makes it all better.
One of the struggles in the Bible is it is not one picture of God but more like a mosaic of pictures from different people at different times with different experiences. Christians from very early have always had a struggle reconciling the judgment of God with the love of God and several of the earliest heresies of the church wanted to separate the judging God they perceived in the Old Testament from the God of love in the New Testament, but things are rarely that simple. I value Jeremiah and the picture of the passionately engaged and wounded God he portrays even if at times that picture makes me uncomfortable and I know there are times where my own perspective needs to be stretched.
One of the nice things about writing reflections rather than a verse by verse commentary is that while I can talk about the individual judgments and go into greater detail, I think for the few people who read this far into Jeremiah they are pretty familiar with this type of language. Others can probably do more justice to the relatively sparse historical references we have to these verses, and at this point it is not where my heart is. Walking with Jeremiah for the last year and a half has been insightful but I also am aware that as I near the end of this long walk into the destruction of Judah and the convulsions of the struggles of empires that I come to the end longing for an end to the cycle of destruction and judgment and to enter into the long process that the people of Judah will go through of reconstructing their identity as the people of God.