Prophecies & Pottery: Journeys with Jeremiah Worship Series – Jeremiah 2
This passage reminds the Southern tribe of Judah and us of the Sacred covenant between God and the people. “I will be your God; You will be my people”, with the reminder “You shall have no other gods before me.” These verses sound like part legal indictment in a courtroom, and part lovers’ quarrel in an intimate setting. “Where did I go wrong? I provided everything for you, but you didn’t appreciate it. I initiated positively, but you responded negatively. You are responsible and it has consequences.”
Background Context: Jeremiah is desperately trying to get the people back into covenant relationship with YHWH, hoping it will prevent the total annihilation of Judah, remembering how the 10 northern tribes fell to Assyria a century earlier in 721 BCE. Judah is caught in a geo-political/theo-political quandary. King Josiah, who was also trying to usher in reforms, was killed in 609 BCE when he tried to prevent Pharaoh Necho of Egypt from supporting the now ailing empire of Assyria in standing against the rising empire of Babylon. It brings to mind how the pendulum always swings back and forth with the rise and fall of empires. Jeremiah predicts the impending fall of Jerusalem. But people refuse to believe him because they thought Jerusalem would always be safe, as Isaiah said 110 years before.
Jeremiah’s indictment: God examines Judah, asking why they started worshiping worthless gods when God brought them to the Promised Land where they have everything to give thanks for. The people started following idols of the local people, forgetting to remain faithful to the covenant relationship, to their God. Jeremiah, is indicting the people on God’s behalf: You have committed two evils – sins of omission and commission, forsaking God and turning to other gods.
The priests have stopped asking the basic question they are called to ask, “Where is YHWH?” Judah, the only remaining tribe, stopped telling their own story, their theological affirmation:
“I am your God, who brought you up out of the land of slavery in Egypt, and into Promised Land.”( Dt. 5, Ex. 20)
It was the failure to ask this crucial question: ‘Where is the Lord?’ Knowing where God was in their experience, and remembering that God was part of their ongoing story. Not knowing or remembering those things – being foolish enough to not even ask the question – was the shortcoming of later generations. It was the question the people should have been asking and failed to do so. They failed to acknowledge the one who delivered them from slavery and led them safely into the promised land.
They had strayed from their faith, they forgot to ask the theologically important questions, and pursued gods who were worthless. Jeremiah uses the image of water to seal the indictment. Jeremiah evoked the collective consciousness and memory of God providing water in the desert for the parched refugees out of Egypt during the 40 years of wandering. Jeremiah uses this imagery of a cistern to bring the indictment that they have foolishly forsaken this ever-flowing spring of the living water of Yahweh, and turned to poorly constructed cisterns, basically other gods that would not hold any water.
In the Commentary “Feasting on the Word” Thomas Steagald writes:
Jeremiah is speaking to the people just before the destruction of Jerusalem, before the exile into Babylon. The Babylonians will soon lay siege to the city and temple – cutting off aid and supplies – and the flow of water. The city’s great cisterns are becoming cracked and leaky. Water will run out.
Theologian John Holbert writes:
This metaphor of the cracked cisterns would be a symbolic image in the ancient desert land, where it was was crucial to devise systems to save and store water for long dry spells. A simple way was to dig a hole in the ground, but a poor solution, since water moves to the lowest level and seeps into the soil. Enterprising inventors began to experiment by placing a kind of limestone over the soil of the hole to prevent the loss of water. There are still remains of limestone-covered cisterns that served the ancients in this way. But water has its way of discovering cracks. This is the reality that informs the metaphor of Jeremiah. We are doomed to build cisterns that will crack and leak, because we have forgotten the God of Living Water, who makes sound cisterns.
It’s a parable of spiritual crisis. People are thirsty – physically & spiritually. They have forgotten how to go to the well of God’s goodness, quenching their deepest thirst with other gods… fill in the blank.
Sally Brown, in Feasting on the Word asks:
How we might discern the relevance from our our own time, noting the historical, cultural, and political distance that separates the ancient nation of Judah and our contemporary world?
Jeremiah’s indictment is based on forgetfulness. Have we also forgotten the stories of what God has done in our lives – personally and collectively? Have we also failed at decisive moments to remember and practice the narrative of God’s saving grace in our history? Do we remember to pause and ask the question, “Where is God in this?” Where has God shown up in our community of faith? Do we know or understand why we sometimes choose cracked cisterns which gives no life, leading to emptiness and despair? We hear these words along with ancient Judah, in being indicted, in being lured away by false promises that will not sustain us.
This analogy speaks of the dangers of not paying attention to that which sustains life for the long-haul in favor of things that are of less worth. What can we name for our time that are truly important but in danger of being neglected? (pause…) The story does not resolve today. And most of the time, that is our desire, for things to be resolved, to be wrapped up neatly. This chapter is part of a larger indictment throughout the book. But the wider context of these verses leads to a call for repentance to find living water in relationship with God.
John Debovoise in Feasting on the Word:
It’s never easy to hear an indictment. How do we find the courage and trust to remain in the presence of the indictment, and not flee away in shame or anger or denial. What is truly an abomination to God today? What in our behaviors are an affront to God? It’s always easier to judge others, then to do the work of self-reflection. When we are spiritually thirsty, it is likely that we have abandoned the gifts that really give life and instead embrace an ineffective substitute. We then need to be prepared to deal with the grief this passage evokes.
To find the truly worthy life, we may need to ask “What does God want to do in and through me, through us, for the sake of the world? Consistently placing global economic and military domination ahead of the needs of the poor is a leaky cistern – it is no substitute for embracing the ways of the life-giving God. It is when we participate in the redemptive work of God – keeping promises, welcoming strangers, forgiving debts – that we drink from the fountain of the living God and discover a quality of life both sustaining and sustainable.
Water for the ancients, as it continues to be for us, was and is the source of life. To choose God is to choose life – that which endures and renews. Let us not forget to ask where is God in our midst.
In season, out of season, Let us sing God’s song.
In the square and in the senate Let us sing God’s song.
In exile or in honor Let us sing God’s song.