Sunday, August 19, 2018

Jeremiah 3: To God, restored covenant is more important than reputation

In Jeremiah 3, God compares his relationship to Israel, in part, to a marriage relationship. (The marriage metaphor is mixed up with figures of a Father and his children and also a chief shepherd with his flock of sheep).

God knows the rule about a faithless spouse. The faithful partner in the broken relationship is barred from receiving the faithless partner back into the marriage covenant. It pollutes the land. It shames the faithful partner.

Yet God is willing to set his own good reputation aside in order to receive back his faithless partner Israel.
 “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.” (Jeremiah 3:14, NIV)
What a wonderful God is the God of the Bible! God is willing to set aside his own good reputation in order to restore me into covenant relationship to God—even after I have sullied God's good name and I have violated that relationship to such a level that the damaged should have been permanent! Such a restoration could be compared to a husband receiving back his faithless wife knowing full well that receiving her back as his wife is unlawful and a pollution to the land!

While I dirtied the relationship and while restoration is invited, the choice is to return completely my own. In the metaphor, I must return and behave as a faithful wife. In the meaning of the metaphor, I must return with intent to be faithful. The ball is so much in my court that God often expects one response when he gets another. In Jeremiah, God remembers his hopes for Northern Israel that were never realized.
And I thought, "After she has done all this she will return to me"; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. (Jeremiah 3:7, NRSV)
With God's invitation, God was certain the people would return in a similar manner of a restored marriage; but God's expectation was not realized. God was surprised by Israel's and now Judah's faithlessness! In fact, this chapter features a verse that seems to be deliberately vague; but if it is read carefully, it becomes evident that the verse describes God in the figure of the estranged husband, standing outside the house of his wife's lover. He is weeping because his faithless wife in inside the house with her lover.
A voice on the bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping [because*] of Israel's children, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord their God. (Jeremiah 3:21)
It is no wonder the poet says
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices. (Isaiah 65:2)
If we have violated covenant against God, God calls us back with weeping. Though God's reputation may be damaged by taking us back, restored covenant is more important to God than a good reputation.

* The Hebrew word, almost universally translated as "of" is variously translated in other places as "that, because, for, if, surely, except, yea, doubtless" (Strong's, OliveTree resource). The word "of" can indicate either a consequence or an antecedent. In the context of God begging the people to return to God in covenant relationship, the weeping in verse 21 is to be understood as God's weeping for Israel rather than Israel's ritual weeping in the Baal cult. A case can be made that this weeping is the weeping God and Jeremiah expect from the people over their own apostasy. The text eventually goes there in Jeremiah 3:22b; but the strength of the case is indirect and the text is confusing to read that way. (See Alex Varughese, Commentary on Jeremiah, Beacon Hill Press, 73).

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