Joel Baden and Tisa Wenger discuss messianic prophecy, timelessness, and historic context in Jeremiah 33:14-16. The text is appointed for the First Sunday of Advent (Advent 1), Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Welcome to Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study. Each week, we put you in the room with two Yale Divinity School professors, as they chat about an upcoming text from the Revised Common Lectionary.
I’m your host, Helena Martin. I’m a student at Yale Divinity School and an Episcopal priest.
If you’re writing a sermon this week, or preparing a Bible study, or if you’re just looking for a new point of departure for your own lectionary reading—regardless, you’ve come to the right place.
This episode, we have Joel Baden, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Director of the Center for Continuing Education and Tisa Wenger, Associate Professor of American Religious History. They’re discussing Jeremiah 33:14-16, which is appointed for Sunday, November 28, the First Sunday in Advent—and the first Sunday of Year C in the lectionary!
The text is read for you by Mike Libunao-Macalintal, who’s our Marquand Liturgical Assistant at Yale Divinity School.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
So Tisa, this week’s reading is Jeremiah 33, which contains this very famous line: “In those days, and at that time, I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Obviously a text that has had enormous messianic interpretations and repercussions, especially for Christianity.
But as you and I read this, it has sort of a timeless quality, too, in so far as… it sort of speaks to the notion of hopes for a new beginning both religiously, but also, as is so often the case, politically. The notion of a new regime coming to power, one that’s blessed by God, and that will correct the woes of previous generations.
Yeah. And, you know, as in the context of the larger passage, the larger book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah seems to be all about establishing God’s power and authority. But this passage in particular conveys really a mood of expectation. God’s people will be vindicated. God’s kingdom will be restored. A couple of verses earlier, the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem are desolate. And they need to be brought back. The time is coming when those who are suffering will be redeemed and rescued by God.
So I think it’s easy— traditionally, as you said, Christians have read this as a messianic prophecy, maybe reading Jesus back into the text as the branch of David. And some today might read it in light of contemporary politics.
I think in almost in any age, people want to read contemporary political events into this and read their own politics in. Who’s the righteous branch that will sweep away wickedness and restore God’s order? But Joel, how would you describe the situation to which it originally spoke?
We read it so naturally as eschatological and messianic now, but I suspect it was no such thing at the time. Jeremiah is writing and prophesying in a moment when—at least in Judah, in the Southern kingdom of Israel—what had been a multi-century dynasty of David’s line on the throne and had just come to an abrupt end, much to everybody’s shock and chagrin.
And this was a completely unheard of thing that had happened. It happened, from Jeremiah’s perspective, precisely because the people and their kings had lost their sense of justice and righteousness, and they started acting badly. And so as a result, the dynasty comes to this sudden end, having been destroyed by the Babylonians.
So this isn’t really looking so far into the future. Jeremiah’s essentially saying, “So look, we got beat. We lost the things we lost because we deserved to. If we repent, and we get our act together, it’s all going to be restored.” Right?
“The days are surely coming when I will maintain the promise.” It’s not even, it’s often translated “fulfill the promise I made.” It really just “maintain the promise.” Right? It’s an ongoing promise. David’s line will always sit on the throne. This isn’t about something long for the future. It’s about it an ongoing promise that simply everyone needs to get back to. “The people need to repent, and I’ll then put a king back on the throne who will execute justice and righteousness. And when that happens, I will restore all of my protection to Jerusalem, just as it was before.” So Jeremiah, I think is again not looking to some distant, messianic future. He’s trying to convince his listeners to change their ways so that everything can just go back to normal.
So what, I mean, what is it about this passage? Like, is it the translation, or is it something about the passage, or is it just the tradition of how it’s been read? That “in those days, and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David.” And “in those days, Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
And, you know, we know how this has been read over generations and generations and generations as— On the one hand, successive prophets and prophetic movements have read this as, “The days are here, now. This is the time that was being prophesied.” Right. Or alternately reading it into a distance kind of future.
Yeah. I mean, so, you know, some of the language part, it’s just, some of it just has to do with what we think of is sort of flowery eschatological language, right? “The righteous branch.” Nobody says that about… normal anything, right? That feels to us like that’s Messiah talk: the righteous. I’m not sure that it would have been for them.
It just is for us now, in part because we’ve taken these verses and read them that way. Right. So now every time it says “the righteous branch” or “the shoot from the stump of Jesse,” we’re like, well, you know, that’s obviously something more than just the next generation. But of course, the image of causing a branch to spring up is not actually something that happens in the far future. It happens, like, every spring.
But some of the language also—and this is not captured at all in the common translations—but the NRSV reads here, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” But what it literally says is, “The days are imminently coming.” Like, they’re about to be here. Again, so, it’s got a very modern, “right now” sense to it.
What I think is so interesting about it is it’s, as you said, used by all sorts of groups to talk about— it’s the very next thing, right? It’s coming now. But also, this language is used for, as we said at the beginning, for the “what’s coming around the corner is gotta be better.” Right? The thing that’s coming next, it’s going to be our salvation after the desolation that we’re currently experiencing.
And you think about, in the heightened political climate of especially modern America (but really the world over), that everybody in every sort of political moment is thinking, “The next thing’s gotta be better.” Or, “We finally like have achieved the thing that— we’ve finally achieved righteousness and justice after years of not.”
And both sides will claim this as their own at every possible opportunity because it has this eternal sense of, you know, “It’s bad now, but there’s a promise that it’s going to get better.”
Yeah. And I think what you just said helps us understand why this passage and so many biblical passages just resonate over time and with so many different people. Because it does have that— even if we read it in a translation that conveys the immediacy of the promise, it speaks to the immediacy of our own moment, and different moments over time.
And especially as those meanings get layered, right? And successive generations, as you said, the language of “the righteous branch” takes on greater and greater significance.
Yeah. And honestly, this is how prophecy has been read for as long as prophecy has existed, even back into the biblical times itself. Almost every biblical prophet was speaking to their immediate historical context.
Jeremiah was talking about the conquest and the destruction of Judah and the conquest of Jerusalem. And he was talking about getting over that terrible thing. But, as soon as that wasn’t the thing that was happening anymore, how does Jeremiah become useful for another generation of readers? Why does anybody care what somebody said about an event that happened a while ago? A hundred years ago? 200 years ago? 2,000 years ago? The reason that we continue to read the prophecy is precisely because we continue to update its references and its relevance, right? We make it not about the historical event it was originally about, but about something more, something further out, something broader, something more abstract so that it can be constantly reused.
And we see prophets doing this in the Bible to earlier prophets. I mean, Daniel does this to Jeremiah. Jeremiah says, you know, “70 years.” And Daniel says, “He meant seven times 70 years.” Right. And so this constant sense of interpreting to make it about us. The Dead Sea Scrolls are interpreting the text this way. Lord knows, Christianity, new Testament and early Christians are entirely—and early Judaism as well—entirely taking these prophecies that were so historically specific as this one was. And saying, “Yeah, but in order for this scriptural passage to be meaningful, to me, it can’t just be about that. It has to be about me and it has to be about now.”
And you know, this again is one of these passages—in part, because of its language and in part, because it has entered such a traditional liturgical reading, right? When you read this passage every single year, or every few years, you’re being encouraged just by the shape of liturgical cycle itself to make it relevant to what’s going on now. Right. If it weren’t about now, why would I be reading it right now?
Right. Well, and not only about now, but about a kind of eternal future, right? And God’s plans for, for all of us and for the world.
Yeah. And that’s the other thing that this passage does. It makes the passage of time, and the change in what’s happening in the world, it makes it part of a divine scheme. Right? Now, when we say it’s been bad, but it’s going to be good, it’s not just political and it’s not just social or economic. Right. It’s part of something bigger, right? The deity is making this happen. It’s part of the promised future.
That’s right. And I mean, it is about the traditions of reading, and it is about the liturgical calendar, as you’re saying. But there’s also in the text and in the structure of the prophecy, I think encourages us to read it that way. I mean, even “The word of the Lord,” you know, as the chapter begins before this passage, “came to Jeremiah, thus says the Lord who made the earth, who formed it to establish it. The Lord is his name.” Right? There’s this—
It’s cosmic. Yes.
Right. Where is time situated? This is this isn’t just—even if Jeremiah was talking about human time and simply the next thing that’s going to happen to us as a people, he’s framing it as part of cosmic time, part of the cosmic plan, and that’s going to be something that we read and we understand as being always the case.
Yeah. So it’s cosmic time and not just linear time.
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For more about Chapter, Verse, and Season, or for more Bible resources in general, visit YaleBibleStudy.org.
Chapter, Verse, and Season is produced by Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey, and me, Helena Martin. Our theme music is by Calvin Linderman. Thank you, as always, to the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School. And thank you to Professors Baden and Wenger for sharing their wisdom with us today.
We’ll be back next week with another conversation from Chapter, Verse, and Season.
New Revised Standard Version Bible
Copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Host: Helena Martin
Producers: Helena Martin, Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey
Music: Calvin Linderman