Opening The Old Testament
Pray for the Shalom of the City: Reflections on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
The letter is for them a jolt. "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce" (Jer. 29:5). House building and agricultural concerns suggest a lengthy sojourn, a settled life in a foreign land. Well, they may have thought, we do need to live, but we can still keep our unique Israelite ways, living in our Israelite houses, eating our beloved Israelite produce from our wonderful Israelite gardens. Given all that, we will still maintain with strictness our Israelite ways. But the next sentence calls all that into question. "Take wives, have sons and daughters; then take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there (in exile), do not decrease" (Jer. 29:6). This answers the question: how long? Long enough to marry, have children and grandchildren, at least three generations, with the implication of even more. And then there is the sticky question of where these wives and husbands are to come from. Does Jeremiah imply that intermarriage with the locals may be a possibility or perhaps even a necessity in order to keep the community alive and vibrant? The next sentence may certainly imply that possibility.
"Seek the shalom of the city where I have exiled you, and pray to YHWH on its behalf, because in its shalom you will find your shalom" (Jer. 29:7). Pray to YHWH for the shalom, the peace and welfare and soundness, of Babylon, the pagan center of all things we know as evil? What can Jeremiah mean by that astonishing request? Because YHWH is in fact God of Babylon, too, not the so-called mighty Marduk living at the top of the great building in the city, it means that YHWH has deep concern for Babylon, the place where YHWH's people now live and will live for many years. Rather than hold their noses in horror at the pagans who would taint them, YHWH says they must pray for them, because all are in the world of YHWH together. This is nothing less than a call for the exiled Judeans to open their lives and hearts to the people among whom they now have been forced to live. Rather than close their lives to the Babylonians, Jeremiah asks them to open up their lives and to learn and grow in the new reality of Babylon.
Jeremiah concludes this portion of his brief note by warning the exiles not to listen to other so-called prophets and diviners who speak a different word, words presumably that would urge them to keep to themselves, to insist on their own rightness and righteousness, to attack any who would dare to act and believe differently than they do (Jer. 29:8-9). YHWH did not send them, says Jeremiah, and if they prophesy in the name of YHWH, they are lying.
How current all of this sounds to my 21st-century ears. In a world of increasing diversity where so many find themselves exiled from what they know, from what they have done, from their familiar actions in the world, how are we who are in power in these places to react to their presence among us? And how are they to live in their new place? In Dallas, TX 229 different first languages are spoken; exiles are living here in huge numbers. Jeremiah asks them to pray for the shalom of their new home, while I am asked to open up my lives to them. Only in these ways may we all discover the full shalom of the world of God.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.