As a species, we human beings are obsessed with the question “Why?” Part of our advanced level of consciousness is our ability not only to imagine and predict the behaviors of others, but to build mental models of both the future and the past. Our ability to dissect the past with that one word – why – helps to to make necessary changes in order to fare better in the future.
The book of Jeremiah, like several other Old Testament books was largely compiled and put into written form during the period of Babylonian exile. The exile was a time of national soul-searching, and identity formation for the displaced people of Judah. It is in exile, far from the security of Jerusalem and the confidence inspired by temple that Judah developed a robust and deep cultural identity. A people plagued by idolatry and convenient political alliances, stripped of their power and privilege became principled, counterculture followers of Yahweh.
Of course there were some real hairy historical reasons Judah found themselves in the position of re-building their identity on God. As the Assyrian empire began to wane, the Babylonians were surging onto the world stage. The small Assyrian vassal state of Judah began to switch allegiances several times over this period. When Egypt teamed up with Assyria to fight Babylon, Judah attacked Egypt and lost and for a period was under their control until Babylon took over the region and Judah pledged its allegiance to the Babylonians… for a season, until the burden of paying taxes to Babylon was just too much for Judah to endure and they stopped. Which brought about the swift and decisive destruction and deportation of Judah.
Chapter 8:18-9:1 describes the time just before this destruction descends on Judah and the people get hauled off to Babylon. Chronologically the story happens before the exile, but it was compiled during the exile. I’m attracted to the idea that what we have in Jeremiah is in large part an exercise in meaning-making. It’s that quintessentially human pursuit – we ask why.
We can’t help but to ask why. When a tragedy strikes (either a natural disaster, or a mass-shooting) we become meaning-making machines, constructing backstories and theories that attempt to satisfy the question “why did this happen?” Certainly there are elements in Jeremiah that serve this function. Why did Babylon destroy our cities and haul us off to this foreign land? We certainly haven’t been faithful to God. We basically adopted the Gods of every empire around us.
What I find fascinating is that after the sin and judgement case is laid out pretty forcefully we get this extended section of lament, from three parties. Jeremiah is lamenting the fate of his people and begging God to hear their hopeless cry. The people of Judah are questioning God’s very presence, and crying out that they aren’t being saved from this impending doom. We have God lamenting the unfaithfulness of the people, and that it has all come to this. Then capping off this lament section we get Jeremiah appealing to God’s compassion, portraying Judah as wounded and in need of a healer. Jeremiah doesn’t have any answers to the question why. All he sees is death and destruction right around the corner. There is no fix, just tears.
I find this part of Jeremiah’s response incredibly instructive. Our instinct to rush in and answer the question “why?” in the wake of tragedy is one I think we need to tame. Especially for religious leaders. Jeremiah’s role of speaking on behalf of God to a rebellious people didn’t dull his empathy for them. Even though he has a laundry list of reasons “why” Babylon is about to roll through Judah and destroy it, we get a glimpse at how this emotionally devastates Jeremiah and his deep love for his people.