Can you recall a time you received a letter or email and it made you mad? The content of the communication you received provided you with information that you did not want to engage? Perhaps it was written notice of the loss of a life or the termination of your employment.
No one wants to receive communication that is disparaging or disappointing.
Jeremiah delivered just such a letter to the Exiles in Babylon in the correspondence we have in Jeremiah 29. In fact, Jeremiah’s failure to start with “peace” has been characterized as upsetting where the abrupt start of his imperative verbs would have “struck the recipients as a rude beginning.”
We have to insure we capture appropriately the setting, tone and context of Jeremiah’s letter to discern how to proclaim his word in our modern context. In a culture of expansion and growth in the West, we think of developments in new neighborhoods in burgeoning cities with ever increasing forms of capital as a good sign. We might see a sign for a new neighborhood edition being built in a formerly abandoned area of town, and we read the announcement of “building” and “planting” gardens as welcome good news. We would read “Build!” with a different tone than the context of Jeremiah’s audience, and we need to discern this well.
In fact, Daniel L. Smith in “Jeremiah as Prophet of Nonviolent Resistance” points out that the social-cultural ideas associated with the verbs Jeremiah uses have precedent in the Hebrew Bible that parallel episodes of warfare in Ancient Israel. It should go without stating that episodes of war are not times for prosperity gardening and home construction!
Additionally, we know from both Biblical contexts and extra-biblical records that those who were carried off to exile were subject to a forced deportation process. Exile was not a welcome event of joy.
More than likely you are a person like me who who has not experienced an exile imposed by governmental force causing you personal, familial and cultural dislocation. It is likely that only immigrants & victims of war can fully understand the personal, financial, family, social trauma on par with the recipients of Jeremiah’s letter to exiles. The important work in historical trauma, led by Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart is helping us better understand the pain of a forced exile. The pain of massacres like the Trail of Tears for indigenous first persons in America leaves generational pain.
Think if you can about the first peoples of the Americas who had lived in their territories for generations who were be forced to an unwanted and unwelcoming “reservation” in a territory foreign to them (modern state of Oklahoma). It is easy to understand that they were not happy to be told to “build” and “plant” in this new territory they did not want. They had been forced to this territory by colonizing powers that had decimated their families and stolen their tribal homes.
Being commanded! “Build!” and “Plant!” on land that was not wanted, in a territory not chosen, within a geographical climate and among people that had not been home, is not good news. Being told to “Build” and “Plant” in a land that is despised is not comforting. These commands, received in a letter from a political envoy, from Jeremiah were likely received as the dictate of overlords, oppressive overlords, and not a comforting word from the LORD!
Noting this, Jeremiah’s letter, might have been read in just such a manner. And, having arrived with the authority of a deposed king who was himself subject to Babylonian imperial authority, the letter carried the weight of demonstrating that Jeremiah and the King in Judah were telling the exiles something akin to how someone today might receive an email that essentially announced, “Suck it up! Settle In! You’re stuck!”
No one wants to receive such a letter in a territory among enemies that have subjugated and humiliated them.
Jeremiah’s letter is not, at its outset, hope-filled nor inspiring!
And yet, while Jeremiah’s message was likely received with pain among a people who already knew pain and dislocation, Jeremiah’s message includes the prospect of a future.
In building and planting, though the exiles did not want to remain in their forced deportation from Judah, Jeremiah is at least announcing to these exiles that their lives have not and will not come to an end. Jeremiah announces that a future can be built – though it will take their time and work and investment and effort.
And, Jeremiah sets up the exiles to understand a posture of God’s reality known from the start of stories in the Biblical text, namely that God seeks to bless persons and peoples, nations and authorities, with God’s benevolence. In Genesis 12 Abram is told that he will both be a recipient of blessing and a conduit of blessing. In Genesis 38-50, Joseph lives in a forced deportation from his own home and among his own people, though he works for the salvation of many in seeking the welfare of Egypt, which will come back to save his family, too.
In Jeremiah’s letter, though it starts strong and likely felt wrong, Jeremiah advocates a notion of God’s blessing being made possible through the conduit of God’s people. Though the exiles likely received this unwelcome communication they did not want, about their forced unwanted realities among a people where they felt miserable; even here God wills for God’s people to work for “peace.” And it is peace for God’s people – and for the persons where God’s people now reside. God wants peace, even for the enemies of God’s people.
Jeremiah’s letter was for persons forced into situations they despised. And yet Jeremiah and God do not give permission for the exiles to act with disdain toward their oppressors. Jewish exiles were not given permission to become exclusionary and dismissive. Jewish exiles were not given permission to be derogatory nor carry hate. Rather, the exiles were told by Jeremiah that peace was possible, and God could be present, if exiles worked toward the peace of all persons, even in the despised territory of the foreign oppressor.
In seeking the welfare, in advancing peace among the land of their enemies, and in working for the peace of cities and nations, God’s peace could be made available as a conduit of blessing through the service and work of God’s people, even in a foreign land.
Let’s return to where we started. Remember the time you received communication that was disappointing for you and your life, if you are stuck because of house cleaning you can Hire A Maid to help out. You did not want to know your friend had died and your life was in turmoil with the termination of your employment. God’s WORD then, and perhaps for you now, was not “Stop!” “Resist” “Destroy.” No. God said and says, “Build, plant, live, eat. Marry. Multiply. Prosper.”
In spite of real feelings of existential loss and despair; when quitting or protesting might seem easier, God announced then and perhaps announces now that persons and nations can find peace in praying to the LORD on behalf of enemies, in the midst of enemies, in and with foreign nations and oppressors.
Perhaps Jeremiah is the first to discern what Another will announce a few centuries later as the Word of the LORD, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Holladay, William L. 1983. “God Writes a Rude Letter (Jeremiah 29:1-23) (Enigmatic Bible Passages.” Biblical Archaeologist 46(3): 145 Summer 1983, July.  Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. 1989. “Jeremiah as Prophet of Nonviolent Resistance.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 13 (43): 95–107.  Representative work by Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart can be started at this links: https://ssw.smith.edu/about/news-events/dr-maria-yellow-horse-brave-heart-returns-smith-give-rapoport-lecture and thelockboss.ie  Books I have read and would recommend for discerning indigenous first peoples experiences in the now settled United States, in alphabetical order by authors last name, include: The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by Sam C. Gwynne. “I Am a Man”: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice by Joe Starita.