This has become a keystone passage for Christian faith communities in understanding their role in city transformation and community engagement. Does how we understand it today reflect what was actually going on? Here are a few things about these verses that should challenge and excite us.
First a little context from the side of the story we don’t often talk about– hang with me to the end!
The era around the exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon was a power struggle between Babylon and Egypt, and then Babylon and potential alliances of small nation states around Palestine. Much of Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign was spent checking Egyptian power in Palestine and Syria, and the Judean kingdom was often a buffer or a vassal for either power. Later, we see King Zedekiah of Judah beginning his reign with a conference of nation states in Jerusalem, including the surrounding nations of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon, to consider overthrowing the Babylonian regime. As the kings and kingdom of Judah try their hand against Babylon, they are subject to four different deportations between 605 B.C. and 581 B.C. Kings Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah are the main puppets and leaders in place during this period. Jeremiah’s letter scribed in Jeremiah 29 is sent after King Jehoiachin was deported from Jerusalem (Jer. 29:7).
Who Were the Exiles?
The image of captivity and exile is a huddled mass yearning to breathe free. In fact, the “huddled masses” were the ones left behind! Nebuchadnezzar II’s policy was to deport to Babylon the religious and political leaders, and the artisans and creatives (Jeremiah 29:2). He did this multiple times, leading Jeremiah to believe that the restoration of Judah would not happen by those remaining in Judah, but the Creative Class flourishing in Babylon who would return later.
How did the Exiles Live?
Ancient tablets recently uncovered give a detailed account of what the exiles’ life would have been like. They were largely given autonomy to become merchants and leadership in Babylon. In fact, records indicate that Nebuchadnezzar needed the Judean exiles to help revive the Babylonian economy. Some Biblical texts hint that Nebuchadnezzar had to pause his war and expansion efforts from time to time to resupply for next campaigns. No doubt this took its toll on the economy. Further historical records show that, during this time, the Jewish exiles created a vibrant cultural and religious identity of their own.
The Real Impact of Jeremiah’s Letter
Imagine the Political and Creative Class of Judah, sitting in Babylon. They receive a letter that tells the artisans to create, the leaders to build communities, the religious oracles to again perform weddings and birth rituals. They are to create, design, trade, and sell, restoring the economy that took them captive in the first place. They aren’t going home for a while, so in the flourishing and prosperity of Babylon will they have the opportunity to define and refine their own Hebrew culture and identity.
3 Thoughts for the Church and the City Today
The Church and Culture/The Church and the City today often revolves around well-meaning efforts of political/social activism, care for the marginalized, and attractional evangelism. That is not to say those are negative, or should be replaced. But the example of the Jewish exiles, as encouraged by Jeremiah, points us towards another role of faith communities we have to fulfill; creativity.
1. Creation of Community
Jeremiah calls on the exiles to build homes, plant gardens, have children, and institute new families. These are all creative acts looking forward, from the ground up, and with optimism, faith and hope. Community is created around resources and development and sustainability. Do our faith communities today just preserve the past and present, or invest faithfully in the future from a place of optimism and faith?
2. Creation of Culture
This period of exile was a period that defined the Jewish people forever. Jewish leaders moved away from a theology of judgment to a theology of salvation, and oversaw resurgence in Jewish tradition. A greater emphasis on Mosaic origin, and the finalization of the Torah, also happened during this time. While also heavily invested in Babylonian affairs, the Jews shaped a distinct religious culture of their own. In a church culture today that is heavily attractional, are we investing in our faith culture and theology, or watering it down?
3. Creation of Economy
Care for the marginalized is implicit in Jewish culture, but the historical and Biblical records emphasize the role of the Jewish people in creating wholistic welfare, prosperity and wealth (shalom) in Babylon. The Missional Movement in modern day Christianity has fostered a social justice and marginalized strategy; missing is the Biblical role of the church to incubate innovation and enterprise, launch entrepreneurs, support big ideas, and infuse our communities with creativity and resources that create sustainable growth. What will it take for our churches to again take up that call?
Comment with your thoughts and ideas, and share to spread the conversation!
(Sources: Chronological Study Bible, and see links above)
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