Part of Jeremiah’s calling was to reach out to those living in the province of Ephraim, north of the dividing line between the southern kingdom of Judah (with its capital Jerusalem), and the northern kingdom of Israel (with its capital Samaria). The dispute between Ephraim (Joseph’s son) and Judah was an ancient one, going back to the conflict between Jacob’s two wives – Joseph was Rachel’s son, Judah was Leah’s son.
When rolling up our sleeves in gospel peace-making, it is remarkable how ancient some disputes are. Injustice has a long memory. In the Republic of Cyprus, the graffiti on the walls declares “I will not forget,” referring to the 1974 Turkish invasion. In Yerevan, the genocide monument stands dominant in concrete, on a hill in the centre of the city, overshadowing hearts and minds. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, tribal disputes go back hundreds of years. When an American says “that’s history,” he means it is not important, but in many parts of the world, history constitutes a call to arms.
The dispute between Ephraim and Judah was more than political; it was visceral, spiritual, ethnic. Jacob loved Rachel and was humiliatingly tricked by Leah on his wedding night. In the eyes of the north, Jacob never forgave Leah. It was only Rachel’s boys – Joseph and Benjamin, and Rachel’s proxy children Dan and Naphtali – who were truly loved. That’s why Jacob promoted Joseph above all his half-brothers and gave him special clothes. There is mutual envy in the story, Rachel envied her sister (Gen 30:1), and Leah’s sons attacked Joseph because of jealousy (Gen 37:11).
And so the north never accepted Judah’s choosing, never accepted a Davidic king, never accepted Jerusalem as capital, because it’s “not really what Jacob would have wanted.” David’s immense political skill united the tribes for one generation, but for one generation only, and then they went their separate ways again. Some wounds are too ancient, too all-defining, too unforgivable.
One of Jeremiah’s many prophetic responsibilities was as a peacemaker, and in both chapter 3 and chapter 31 we can observe him addressing Ephraim. There are some great things we can learn from his language in these chapters. Much of this insight comes from Binyamin Lau’s excellent commentary on Jeremiah is the Maggid Studies on Tanakh series, which I am enjoying reading. Quotations from Lau are in italics below.
- Jeremiah’s unique positionality
Jeremiah is a Levite from Anathoth in Benjamin. Benjamin is a Rachel tribe, Levi a Leah tribe. Anathoth, as a priestly city in the south of Benjamin, right on the border between north and south, kind of a hybrid place/ no-man’s land that shows affiliation neither to Jerusalem nor to Samaria. As such, “It pledges allegiance to neither kingdom” (Lau). Jeremiah is uniquely positioned to speak into both north and south, and to mediate between the two.
Completely neutral outsiders don’t always work as mediators, because both sides can argue, “You don’t really understand, your objectivity prohibits empathy, you are too distant from the complexities of the situation.” Jeremiah is an insider to the history, the complexities, the tensions, and yet he is a hybrid insider, belonging both to north (by hometown) and south (by blood). As a Levite, and as a prophet, he is also a political outsider – his conscience belongs neither to Jerusalem kings nor to Samaria kings, but to Yahweh as king. Jeremiah’s unique positionality means he can be accepted as a broker of peace.
- Diplomatic language
Jeremiah, when addressing Ephraim, never talks about the Davidic dynasty, because Ephraimites do not accept the Davidic claim.
As descendants of Rachel, who believe that Joseph was Jacob’s chosen son, they are unwilling to embrace the Davidic dynasty. Jeremiah is careful to strike the House of David from his vocabulary, for the Ephraimites are obviously uninterested in that product. He promises that their return to Zion will be guided by faithful shepherds (3:15). In his heart, Jeremiah certainly means Josiah… but to his audience, he remains deliberately vague. Lau
Instead of speaking of David, in chapters 3 and 31 Jeremiah makes frequent use of the name “Jacob.”
The name resonates with the Samaritans, recalling their forefather Jacob and the city of Bethel, where he encountered God, as well as stressing the origins they share with the people of Judah. Lau.
By diplomatically avoiding mention of David and stressing instead the common ancestor Jacob – back a generation before the split – Jeremiah is able skilfully to engage the Ephraimites, addressing them with the words of his prophecies without causing needless offence. Wise, tactful Jeremiah gains a hearing by knowing his audience and contextualising his message to them.
- Showing honour
Chapter 31 begins with the words, “At that time, declares the LORD, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.” (31:1). And yet, will reunification demand that one side relinquish its honour? Will the south win and the north lose face?
Hardly. “I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn” (31:9). These words, from the mouth of God, speak honour to Ephraim, specifically affirming their historic understanding of Joseph as being the one with a rightful claim to the succession.
Such an expression could never escape Jeremiah’s lips in the Judean hills or the courtyards of Jerusalem. This prophecy declares that in the struggle for succession between Judah and Joseph and their descendants, Ephraim, of Joseph’s line, is the rightful firstborn. Lau.
So much reconciliation is considered binary – one party gains, the other loses. This is particularly true when it comes to honour, which feels like a limited good or zero-sum commodity. Jeremiah, in speaking God’s affirmation of an extremely precious aspect of Ephraim’s identity story, is able to allay any fears of loss of face. This skill, friends, is essential for peace-brokers.
- Empathetic understanding
Jeremiah will, of course, speak correction into Ephraim’s sinful abandonment of the Lord. But he does so with empathetic understanding of how Ephraim got into this mess in the first place.
Jer 31:18 I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the LORD my God.
Jer 31:19 For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
He posits Ephraim, in emotional language, as grieving, as regretful, as longing to return. Three different shame words are employed, “ashamed”, “confounded”, “disgrace.” In a context where these words each articulate different rich shades of meaning, and communicate with moral power, the prophet is declaring that God gets it. He understands. He feels.
And he calls Ephraim an “untrained calf.” They were like a newly born calf on shaky legs that staggered into a no-go zone. This is very different language from Hosea’s more direct and accusatory, “Ephraim is a well-trained calf that loves to thresh” (Hos 10:11). We call out sin, friends, but we can do it without judgementalism, without finger-pointing, with depth of feeling and understanding.
Finally, Jeremiah speaks about Mama Rachel. He will immortalise her in Scripture as a weeping mother, an intercessor, a cipher for lamentation and grief.
Jer 31:15 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.”
By turning directly to the tribes of Israel and mentioning Rachel, the mother of Joseph, the beloved wife of Jacob who watches over her children, Jeremiah reaches the climax of his prophecies of consolation. The conflict between Rachel and Leah, between Joseph and Judah, between the House of David and the House of Saul, is about to end. Lau.
Christians are called to peace-making. In particular, those who serve in transboundary/ cross-cultural spaces will find themselves brokering peace. A range of soft skills and cultural intelligence is needed for this task. We need to get the history, as Duke Kwon says, “We can’t fix something unless we know how it broke in the first place.” Here are a few more skills, gleaned from Jeremiah, that can help us in this ministry of reconciliation.