The First Haftarah of Affliction, Jeremiah 1:1–2:3
The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah . . . to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah . . . until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. (Jeremiah 1:1–3)
The fifth month of the Hebrew calendar is Av, and on its ninth day, Tisha b’Av, 586 BCE, the holy temple was destroyed by the Chaldeans, launching what Jeremiah describes starkly as “the captivity of Jerusalem.” For three weeks leading up to this mournful day, we read passages from the prophets, the Haftarot of Affliction, beginning with Jeremiah chapter 1.
Jeremiah describes his calling from God, who set him apart from before birth as a prophet to bring a message warning of judgment to come, along with a hint of hope:
Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant. (Jer 1:9b–10)
Jewish tradition doesn’t ignore the warnings of judgment, and we recognize the past judgment on Tisha b’Av each year, but our tradition teaches us to also look for the note of hope—“to build and to plant.” And so the reading for this week concludes with the first three verses of Jeremiah 2:
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord,
“I remember the devotion of your youth,
your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord,
the firstfruits of his harvest.”
This lovely vision pictures Hashem’s romance with Israel, who followed him out of Egypt and into the wilderness like a bride devoted to her husband. The prophet’s words draw our attention beyond our undeniable failures as a people to our equally undeniable foundation as a people chosen and loved by God. And it’s particularly striking that Hashem is speaking here specifically to Jerusalem. Jerusalem didn’t literally follow him in the wilderness and had no apparent role in the narrative of redemption from Egypt at all. Yet, by Jeremiah’s time, Jerusalem represents the soul of the people Israel, so that her story and Israel’s story are deeply intertwined.
. . .
In the days of his earthly ministry, Messiah Yeshua looked ahead to another Tisha b’Av—the date of a second destruction of the temple, this time by Rome, in 70 CE. On his way to Jerusalem for his final Passover, Yeshua is well aware of his coming crucifixion, and yet even more troubled by the crucifixion of Jerusalem that will come not long afterwards. Some Pharisees have warned him that Herod, ruler of Galilee, is seeking to kill him, so he’d better move on, and Yeshua replies,
Go and tell that fox . . . “It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.” O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 13:32–35)
The last two verses here (13:34–35) appear also in Matthew 23:37–39, but in a different context. In Matthew, Yeshua says these words not on the way to Jerusalem, as in Luke, but after his triumphal entry into the city when the crowds had called out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt 21:9). In Matthew’s version, therefore, the promise “you will not see me” contains an additional word—“again” (Matt 23:39). This minor detail suggests that Matthew sees the triumphal entry as a prophetic enactment of Yeshua’s future return, when Jerusalem will see him “again” and this time cry out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
There’s another difference in the two accounts. In Matthew 23:37, Yeshua says to Jerusalem “you were not willing” after having a number of disputes with the Jerusalem authorities (Matt 21:10–22:46). In Luke’s version, however, Yeshua says “you will not see me” before he has even arrived in Jerusalem, and before he has tested Jerusalem’s “willingness” to respond.
How then do we interpret Yeshua’s sadness at Jerusalem’s rebuff, apparently before it even happens? How can Yeshua claim that the city “will not see” him, shortly before he shows up and is seen there? Yeshua seems to be acting here as a prophet speaking God’s own words in the name of God. As commentator Robert Tannehill argues, the words “how often have I desired to gather you” (Luke 13:34) refer to “the long history of God’s dealing with Jerusalem,” and the words “you will not see me” likewise refer not to Yeshua, but to God: “Verse 35 is speaking of the departure of Jerusalem’s divine protector, who will not return to Jerusalem until it is willing to welcome its Messiah, ‘the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
This interpretation brings Luke 13 into harmony with our first Haftarah of Affliction, Jeremiah 1:1–2:3. In Luke’s account, the longing for Jerusalem’s welcoming response belongs not only to Yeshua but even more to God, whose love for the city and whose grief at its wickedness is not a recent development but has extended through multiple generations, as Jeremiah also reveals. Accordingly, the predominant tone of Yeshua’s words here is one of lament. Nevertheless, a more positive note emerges in the end: “You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Luke 13:35, emphasis added). We have reason to hope that the divine presence, whose departure renders the city vulnerable to its enemies (“Behold, your house is forsaken”), will return again, to comfort and glorify Jerusalem.
The condition for such a future return is clear: the city—apparently still in its character as the capital of the Jewish people—must offer the same welcome to the Messiah that he will receive from his Galilean followers later in Luke’s account, when he enters the city a few days before Passover.
Yeshua’s crucifixion during Passover sets the stage for his resurrection on the third day. It also expresses Yeshua’s identification with Jerusalem, which will endure a similar fate at the hands of Rome a generation later—and will be resurrected when Messiah returns. Crucifixion bears the seed of resurrection to come. Tisha b’Av is a day of mournful remembrance, but also a day of hope.
But let’s seek not only hope for the future but also guidance for life today in the words of Jeremiah and Messiah Yeshua, in the way they both speak of Jerusalem. Hashem chooses to address his people not in abstract or generic terms, but in intimate terms as Jerusalem his bride. Yeshua verbalizes God’s intimate longing to gather Jerusalem’s children under his wings. They both remind us to pay attention to the living, breathing, impassioned person near us, to not turn persons into objects, either of our admiration or, perhaps more commonly, of our disdain. God looks at a face and remembers a story even as he warns of judgment to come. We can do something similar amid our everyday encounters, as we treat others with kindness and dignity. Thus we can have hope not only for the future redemption, sure to come, but also for redemptive human interaction while we await it.
Portions of this drash are adapted from Besorah: The Resurrection of Jerusalem and the Healing of a Fractured Gospel, by Mark Kinzer and Russ Resnik. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021.
Scripture references are from the ESV.