An Invitation to an Intimate and Transformative Relationship with God (Jeremiah 31:15-22)
15 Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
16 Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
18 Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading:
‘You disciplined me, and I took the discipline;
I was like a calf untrained.
Bring me back, let me come back,
for you are the Lord my God.
19 For after I had turned away I repented;
and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was dismayed
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
20 Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the Lord.
21 Set up road markers for yourself,
make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel,
return to these your cities.
22 How long will you waver,
O faithless daughter?
For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:
a woman encompasses a man. (NRSV)
Amid the idolatry of Judah, the corruption of its kings, the unraveling of Israelite society, the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and exile in Babylon, the book of Jeremiah not only pronounces judgment, but provides a message of hope and restoration. In the book’s central chapters, 30–31, often referred to as the Book of Comfort, one passage is especially stirring: Jer. 31:15–22. This passage shines light on the tale of judgment, alienation, and rejection told earlier. Amid Israel’s collapse and exile, God calls Israel back to an intimate, dynamic, and transformative relationship that models God’s character in Israel’s particular historical situation and points toward God’s universal plan of salvation.
God honors the purity and honesty of Rachel’s grief by responding with comfort and a promise to transform her loss.
Our textual unit opens with the sound of weeping. Jeremiah portrays the despair of Israel through an inconsolable Rachel and a pleading Ephraim. Rachel laments “because they [her children] are no more” (v. 15), and Ephraim expresses shame for turning from God and begs to be allowed to return (vv. 18–19). Jeremiah 31:15–22 helps God’s despairing people navigate the perceived gap between God’s promises and Israel’s misery in exile; it transforms the plight of each figure into an announcement of salvation that promises the return of Rachel’s children (vv. 16–17) and mercy for Ephraim (v. 20). This passage shows how God enters into Israel’s experiences in exile and transforms their alienation into an intimate relationship with God. Given a final oracle of newness (vv. 21–22), this poem offers a dynamic conversation between humans, caught in sorrow and sin, and God, who works within these human situations.
SCENE I: RACHEL’S GRIEF
The first stanza of this deliverance oracle uses the symbolic person of Rachel, wife of Jacob/Israel and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, to engage the imaginations of the Israelite people. Although barren for many years, Rachel never gave up hope of bearing children until “God heeded her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22). Scholar Susan Brown-Gutoff points out that Rachel refused to take “no” for an answer, even from God. 1 Jewish midrashic traditions develop the story of Rachel further by casting her as mother and intercessor for all Israel. Some traditions suggest Rachel’s place of burial, thought to be near a place called Ramah, was selected specifically so that Rachel could “implore God for mercy” on behalf of the exiles who passed by on their way to Babylon. 2 Another story credits Rachel’s inconsolable weeping with evoking a response from God after the reproaches and arguments of patriarchs and prophets such as Moses and Abraham effected nothing. The tradition suggests that God desired someone to share in God’s mourning. 3 Thus, Rachel weeps and refuses consolation not for herself, but “for her children, because they are no more (v. 15).” In this text Rachel plays an intercessory role on behalf of Israel while also signifying that just as the Rachel of Genesis received the love and devotion of Jacob despite her barrenness, so Israel received God’s tender love in the barrenness of exile. 4
God honors the purity and honesty of Rachel’s grief by responding with comfort and a promise to transform her loss. God recognizes in Rachel’s “work,” or labor of sorrow, a refusal of all false comfort, allowing hope to come only from God. 5 Only God can promise that her children shall return to their own country (v. 17). This assurance of salvation echoes the “emptiness-become-fullness of the historical Rachel” who was barren, but to whom God finally gave two sons. 6 In Jeremiah 31, God fills the bereaved Rachel with hope for the future (v. 17) through the physical return of her children “from the land of the enemy” (v. 16).
SCENE II: EPHRAIM’S TURN-ABOUT
The scene shifts to Ephraim, Rachel’s grandson, and a symbolic character for the Israelite children for whom Rachel mourns. In contrast to Rachel, who expressed her sorrow and asked for nothing, Ephraim pleads with God. With the words, “You disciplined me, and I took the discipline” (v. 18), Ephraim reminds God of their former relationship. He then begs God to allow him to return to this relationship of correction and instruction. 7 Ephraim follows this plea with a litany of repentance in which he acknowledges his sin and expresses great shame and distress. The NRSV translates Ephraim’s words as “after I was discovered, I struck my thigh” (v. 19), but the Anchor Bible commentary on Jeremiah suggests the phrase may be better understood as saying “after I came to understand.” 8 Thus, the remorse Ephraim expresses for turning from God is not simply a form of guilt, but a sign of deeper self-understanding. 9 Still, this new self-understanding calls forth great distress from Ephraim as he looks back upon his choice to turn from God. Ephraim’s expression, “I struck my thigh” (v. 19), indicates this distress and may be translated as “I beat my breast.” 10 While Rachel provides a model of mourning for those grieving in their physical exile, Ephraim provides a model of repentance for those alienated in their relationship with God.
God responds to Ephraim by transforming Ephraim’s shame with tender and endearing words. God asks rhetorically, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?” (v. 20). Bozak suggests that God’s endearments refer to Ephraim as a beautiful treasure of great worth. 11 Not only does God transform Ephraim’s shame, but God chooses to remember him as treasured rather than disgraced (v. 20). Human justice suggests a ruler would remember acts of disloyalty with harsh judgments. God on the other hand, is fully aware of Ephraim’s disobedience and chooses to remember him by showing mercy: “As often as I speak against him, I still remember him” (v. 20).
God’s remembrance of Ephraim is coupled with great emotion. The NRSV states that God was “deeply moved” for Ephraim (v. 20). But the English words “deeply moved” only faintly reflect the rich meaning that may be found in the Hebrew. The Hebrew term behind “deeply moved” is hāmâ, which encompasses meanings such as groaning, overwhelming emotion, anguish, and sympathy. 12 God’s emotional response to Ephraim echoes the lament raised by Rachel for her children. In relation to Ephraim God takes on characteristics of a compassionate mother, thus emphasizing God’s re-commitment to an intimate relationship with Israel.
SCENE III: GOD’S NEW CREATION
In the final two verses of the oracle God offers a concluding response and promise to Israel, who is both “virgin Israel” and “faithless daughter” (vv. 21–22). After receiving Israel’s cries through the innocent Rachel and disgraced Ephraim, God now calls the people of Israel to consider the path by which they traveled into exile so that they may return to their cities (v. 21). Both a spiritual return to relationship with God and a geographic return to the land may be implied. 13 With this call, God makes the oracle’s climactic declaration: “For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encompasses a man” (v. 22). This phrase is both baffling and hope-giving. What does the relationship between a woman and a man have to do with a new creation? The term “encompass,” sābab in Hebrew, is key for understanding this verse. Sābab may mean to go around something, to turn into something or be transformed. 14 The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states that sābab “implies a movement that simultaneously involves a change.” 15 Thus, we may infer that something fundamental about humanity (i.e. women and men) is changing and becoming new. One interpretation of the phrase “a woman encompasses a man” suggests that Israel, the wife, will finally embrace God, the husband. 16 Other interpretations point out that verse 22 uses the same verb for God’s creative activity that is used in Genesis 1 when God creates man and woman. 17 Scholars of this interpretation suggest verse 22 eliminates the hierarchical gender roles prescribed in Genesis 3. 18 Regardless of the phrase’s specific interpretation, it remains clear that God continues to shape and create the people of Israel by drawing men and women into a new form of relationship.
THE CORE MESSAGE
These three poetic snapshots of Rachel, Ephraim, and God’s new creation all contribute to the oracle’s core message: God restores Israel within an intimate, dynamic, and transformative relationship.
What does this relationship between God and Israel look like? All three stanzas of the oracle overflow with tender imagery that emphasizes intimacy between God and Israel. The image of Rachel identifies Israel as God’s beloved wife. In Hebrew culture, an ideal wife depended upon her husband for protection, care, and material support. 19 The culture expected her to give devotion to only one husband. 20 In a faithful, functional marriage relationship, deep emotional connections developed, fostered by physical and spiritual intercourse. Therefore, some scholars have seen the image of Rachel and phrases such as “Return, O virgin Israel,” to be God’s way of calling Israel to renew an intimate and faithful marriage. 21
God relates to Israel not only as husband to wife, but as mother to child. When responding to Ephraim’s plea for forgiveness, God declares, “I am deeply moved for him,” using Hebrew words that not only echo the grief of mother Rachel, but suggest that God experiences God’s love for Israel in a particularly female way. Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible suggests this phrase may be translated as, “therefore, my womb trembles for him.” 22 Such a translation also fits with the following phrase, “I will surely have mercy on him” (v. 22). The verb translated “to show mercy” derives from the Hebrew nominal rehem (womb). Thus, the verb rhm (to show mercy) develops motherly sympathies into more abstract concepts of compassion and mercy. 23 Trible translates this final phrase from God to Ephraim as, “I will truly show motherly compassion upon him.” 24 Such motherly compassion, Trible points out, suggests “the presence of a love that knows not the demands of ego, of possessiveness, or even of justice . . .” 25 This God of Israel loves so intimately that even the standard rules of justice will be broken in order to receive Ephraim again as a beloved child.
As in any intimate relationship, God’s love for Israel is not static, but dynamic. God invites Israel into a relationship that is sensitive to the interactions between the two parties. If God is not dynamic, Israel has no tools with which to understand a God who tears down Israel and builds them up, who exiles them and calls them home. Because God demonstrates great contrasts in character, God may seem fickle or impetuous. In the book of Jeremiah, God rejects Israel for its sins, and then gathers Israel in again with words of consolation and promise in the Book of Comfort. However, a closer examination will show that the cognitive dissonance a modernist skeptic might feel when reading about such contrasts is actually evidence of God’s deep interaction with the human story. Walter Brueggemann suggests that the exile was not only a crisis for Israel, but a crisis within God’s own life. 26 Retribution theology, or an understanding of God as a participant in a convenience marriage that gives and takes based on the behavior of the partner, cannot speak to the event of exile. Rather, “God is radically vulnerable to the realities of Israel’s life.” 27 God experiences the sorrow and disturbing questions of the exile alongside Israel. The exile even seems to “evoke in God a new resolve for fidelity” in his relationship with Israel. 28 God does not respond to Rachel’s tears and Ephraim’s pleading with promises of restoration because Israel had somehow “served its term,” but because God experiences the plight of Israel, God’s bride, and has compassion upon her.
Both God and Israel experience transformation in this relationship. God experiences transformed fidelity towards Israel, and Israel experiences transformation through its spiritual and geographic reunion with God. The repetition of the Hebrew word šub (turn) in Jer. 31:15–22 emphasizes the changes occurring in the Israelite community through renewed relationship with God. The physical situation of Israel is transformed in the first stanza when God promises Rachel that her children will šub or “return from the land of the enemy” (v. 16). This promise is Rachel’s source of hope for a new way of being in the physical world: at peace with one’s children close. Šub next appears in the mouth of Ephraim as he begs to return from his undisciplined behavior to an intimate relationship with God: “Bring me back [šub], let me come back [šub]. For you are the Lord my God” (v. 18). The poet leaves the nature of Ephraim’s return ambiguous as either a physical return from exile or a return from spiritual separation with God. 29 Bozak explains that Ephraim undergoes a transformation of the heart in which he recognizes his own personal sinfulness and his dependence on God. 30 Finally, God takes up the call of šub in the third stanza, inviting the people of Israel into a new way of being that is both physical and spiritual. God transforms Israel’s present reality from the despair of loss to the hope of presence and from the shame of sin to the comfort of reconciliation with God. Israel becomes a new creation.
THE TEXT IN OUR CONTEXT
This unveiling of how God works in relationship with Israel serves as a critical “meaning making” passage within the book of Jeremiah as well as in God’s larger unfolding plan of salvation. The deliverance oracle in Jer. 31:15–22 examines the plight of God’s people caught in the gap between despair and hope, judgment, and mercy. The passage highlights God’s restorative presence within this gap as God works to fashion newness out of Rachel’s grief and Ephraim’s shame. Only amid the painful truth-telling of Rachel’s lament and Ephraim’s repentance can God begin to work towards Israel’s healing. 31 As scholar Louis J. Stulman observes, “authentic hope must bear the scars of disaster.” 32
The process of God’s working from judgment and pain towards hope and restoration in the book of Jeremiah follows a significant theme in the larger biblical canon: the transformation of sorrow into joy. This movement foreshadows Jesus’s life of uncomfortable truth-telling, his suffering and death, and the tremendous hope, restoration, and newness of life that springs forth from his resurrection. Walter Brueggemann explains that prophetic texts “move toward God’s compassion” similar to the way the gospels move from God’s abandonment of Jesus on Good Friday to the resurrection on Sunday. 33 This movement towards compassion, especially as demonstrated in God’s response to Ephraim in Jer. 31:20, calls up the image of the prodigal son. Just as Ephraim pleads to be taken back into relationship with God and is received as a “dear son,” so the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable is welcomed home by his father with joy and celebration (Lk. 15:11–24). The compassionate and merciful characteristics of God that Jesus speaks of through the story of the prodigal son were experienced through God’s response to Israel’s exile and Ephraim’s pleas.
This passage, Jer. 31:15–22, speaks across the centuries to the deep sufferings of Jews and Christians alike, while also planting seeds of hope. For hundreds of years readers of Jeremiah have lifted up Rachel’s tears to God when their own words failed them. Matthew the Evangelist uses Rachel’s lament to express the grief following Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 2:18). For post-Holocaust scholars such as Emil Fackenheim, Rachel’s tears are especially emotive “for all who ever mourned, or thought of mourning, at the Wall in Jerusalem, weeping with Rachel for children, exiled still.” 34 This passage affirms expressions of grief that reject all pretenses of false comfort. Only God offers consolation and restores people of sorrow to fullness of hope. Whether we find ourselves in physical or spiritual exile, God’s response to Rachel and Ephraim assures us that God is present in our suffering and working to transform that suffering into something new.
Because God brings transformation when we are most vulnerable, we must reexamine how we nurture intimate relationships with God. Intimacy requires honest interaction with God, but how much of our Sunday morning worship is intimate in this way? Do we provide the sorrowful with opportunities to wail their laments? Do we foster communities that hear and receive pleas of repentance? Do we know how to express our spiritual turmoil when our heart is burdened with Rachel’s sorrow or Ephraim’s guilt? This passage from Jeremiah calls Israel and us to open the burdens of our hearts to God’s transforming presence. Through entering into this relationship with God, we receive a promise that we will be fashioned into beloved mothers and dear sons that together will become a new thing on the earth.
APPENDIX: SERMON OUTLINE
God is ready to engage us in a relationship that is truly intimate, dynamic, and transformative.
Help the congregation to better understand how a relational God responds to human sorrows and guilt in a transformative way.
Problem, Resolution, New Possibility
- Introduction: Indicate scope of sermon and hint at the hope that will come with the New Possibility
- Problem: Situations of despair, hopelessness, and guilt
- Brief story illustrating a contemporary instance of sorrow that seems to have no hope of comfort
- Exploration of Rachel’s sorrow
- Figurative Rachel’s loss of entire nation to whom she struggled to give birth
- Inconsolable nature of her sorrow
- Exploration of Ephraim’s guilt
- Ephraim, a Prodigal Son, cut himself off from his father and finds himself suffering in a foreign land.
- Desire for a chance to return/repent
- Ask question: Where is God in these situations?
- Resolution: God is intimately present and involved (dynamic) in these situations
- God with Rachel
- Figurative Rachel (i.e. Israel) as beloved wife of God
- God honors Rachel’s sorrow and extends hope for future
- God with Ephraim
- Ephraim as “dear son”
- God as joining Rachel in weeping over Ephraim
- Exploration of how God might be present/working in contemporary story
- God with Rachel
- New Possibility: Awareness of God’s presence brings hope of transformation
- God comforts Rachel and Ephraim and calls them to šub, to turn to him
- Within this relationship, God fashions a new creation
- Cite examples of newness emerging from instances of sorrow or guilt
- Conclusion: In our despairing darkness God offers us relational intimacy and the hope of transformation.
- Susan E. Brown-Gutoff, “The Voice of Rachel in Jeremiah 31: A Calling to ‘Something New,’ ” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 45, no. 3–4 (1991): 182.
- Frederick A. Niedner Jr., “Rachel’s Lament,” Word and World 22, no. 4 (fall 2002): 411.
- Barbara A. Bozak, Life ‘Anew’: A Literary-Theological Study of Jer. 30–31 (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1991), 150.
- Niedner, 412.
- Bozak, 95.
- Jack R. Lundbom, “Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary”, The Anchor Bible, vol. 21B (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 442.
- Ibid., 443.
- Elmer A. Martens, “Jeremiah”, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1986), 193.
- Bozak, 99.
- Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 415.
- Bozak, 101.
- Botterweck, 10: 127.
- Ibid., 130.
- Martens, 194.
- Deborah F. Sawyer, “Gender-Play and Sacred Text: A Scene from Jeremiah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 83 (1991): 107.
- Bozak, 158.
- Ibid., 160.
- Ibid., 157.
- Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 45.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., 45.
- Ibid., 33.
- Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 129.
- Ibid., 128.
- Ibid., 129.
- Ibid., 101.
- Ibid., 147.
- Louis J. Stulman, “Jeremiah as a Messenger of Hope in Crisis,” Interpretation 62 (January 2008): 11.
- Ibid., 7.
- Brueggemann, 129–130.
- Emil L. Fackenheim, “The Lament of Rachel and the New Covenant,” Cross Currents 40, no. 3 (fall 1990): 345.