“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” The prophet Jeremiah, writing in what were some of the darkest days in the early history of Israel, inspires hope. A covenant had been broken, punishment brought down on a people’s collective house. Still the Lord said he would save them. Yes, their temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Yes, they had been forced into their long days of the Babylonian captivity. Still the Lord says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Suffer, of course they suffered, but yes they were saved.
I have met Dr. Wayne Horowitz of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem several times. Most recently just a few weeks ago when I heard him speak twice. Normally he teaches Assyriology to students working on Sumerian and Akkadian texts and furthering the understanding of the traditions of these early Middle Eastern civilizations. He was here in the Yukon, though, exploring Athabaskan myth structures; how ancient tales are keep alive in the oral traditions of our First Nations.
Three years ago on an earlier visit I sat in on a presentation of some research he had then just completed. The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem had accessed a trove of a couple of hundred cuneiform tablets dating from between 572 and 477 BC. This marked a time following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 587 BC by Nebuchadnezzar and the time up to and following the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire when Cyrus the Great conquered it. Jeremiah lived in the early part of this period.
The archive of cuneiform administrative tablets came from an archaeological excavation of a town identified as Al-Yahudu, or the City of the Jews, in southern Babylonia. While exiled Israelite elites lived in Babylon, the common folk resettled in communities like Al-Yahudu. These tablets provide documentation of the actual life and times of this Judean community during their Babylonian exile. They describe the Judean exiles living peacefully with Arabs and other neighbours in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. They were tasked with rebuilding canals and the tablets document the business transactions key to their lives there.
Cyrus the Great allowed the first Israelites to return after his conquest in 539 BC. The temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt. However, other external forces would intervene in their history. A Macedonian invasion, civil war, and Roman occupation all preceded the destruction of the second temple in AD 70. We see the repetition of a cycle of sin, suffering, reconciliation and redemption over and over again. As the psalmist says, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
Professor Horowitz noted that last remnants of that Israelite community dating from the Babylonian exile sought repatriation to Israel from mounting strife in modern Iraq in the 1950s. This movement continued up until just a few years ago, some 2,500 years after the events Jeremiah experienced. The cycle continued leading them to seek the semblance of a peaceful haven back in Israel.
In the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is attributed to Paul, we are offered another view of the humanity of Jesus. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” Through his obedient acceptance of his trials, his suffering, he “was made” perfect. This glimpse of his humanity presents us with a model. How should we respond to the suffering in our world today?
Over the millennia, I would like to believe that humanity has grown in an awareness and understanding of the salvific journey we are on. Albeit haltingly and with enormous pain, we struggle forward in the recognition and acceptance of our oneness. Skin colour, language, religion, gender, class and a host of factors have divided us. Step by step barriers have been hurdled.
Slavery is no longer acceptable, though we know human trafficking still exists. The ideal of gender parity is taken for granted, but huge gaps in practice remain. The “divine” right of one people to rule over another is seen as ludicrous today, however, seemingly foreordained economic systems condemn former colonies to a grinding poverty still benefiting the far-off privileged.
Today is Solidarity Sunday. A national Share Lent collection will be taken as it has been for the last 51 years. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace created by our bishops perceived the need decades ago to open our national church community to the world. If we could recognize the global root causes of the pain and suffering afflicting our sisters and brothers in the Global South, maybe the blinders would be lifted from our eyes to the suffering in our own communities as well.
Thinking globally and acting locally has been a mantra for many. In our increasingly interconnected world we cannot escape the fact that the global now is local. We, of necessity, share responsibilities such as ensuring the health of our environment. War in a distant corner of the planet eventually affects us all. People struggling to survive on $2 a day in South Sudan can no longer be ignored, nor can those without clean drinking water on a northern reserve. In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of his impending suffering and also our salvation.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.