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Migration and the Prophets

The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of migrants. To recognize the role of migration in the story of God’s people is not only to admit that the Old Testament is indispensable to a Christian theology of migration in the 21st century, but to recognize that experiences of migration have stood at the heart of the theological project for more than three millennia. This brief piece examines the contributions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the two prophetic books that respond to the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Judahite kingdom in the sixth century BC. These events triggered several instances of displacement, and these books respond to these events in complex ways.

Jeremiah: Acknowledging Diverse Experiences of Migration and Their Trauma

Jeremiah is one of the most robust scriptural witnesses to mass displacement. When the Babylonians began their march towards Jerusalem, many of Judah’s residents quite reasonably decided that it was unsafe to stay in their towns and villages. Even today, migration in search of security from political violence is a common cause of refugee movements.1 Some of these people first sought refuge in Jerusalem, as it was the most well-fortified city in the kingdom. The Rechabites are one example (Jer 35). Although we are told little about this community, their story is notable for the way that it acknowledges the difficult choices the Rechabites faced as they tried to figure out how to adapt to their new circumstances without losing their distinctive identity.2

Once the Babylonian army arrived on Jerusalem’s doorstep, not even the capital could be the safe haven that Judah’s refugees needed (Jer 8:14–15). Many of the people fled again, searching for somewhere out of the way of the fighting. Although the Bible does not say much about mortality rates, we can be sure that many people died before they found refuge (Jer 6:1; 39:4–9; 52:7). As a comparison, we can look to the later history of involuntary migrations in the Middle East. In the 18th and 19th centuries AD, these migrations sometimes saw death rates as high as five percent. The stories told of those migrations, like those in the Bible, often refer to the extreme physical hardships suffered by the people forced to move, including widespread disease, lack of food, and death.3

In Judah, some of the people running from the Babylonians were able to escape across the Jordan River, going into Ammon, Moab, or Edom (Jer 40:10–11). These countries, although certainly foreign, had long-standing political and cultural connections with Judah. Adding to that their geographic proximity, these countries were attractive destinations for those in search of refuge. Although the language and cultural barriers in Ammon, Moab, and Edom were not insignificant, they were lower than they might have been elsewhere. Some of the refugees did eventually return to Judah, but some of them may have decided to stay.

Back in Judah, the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem eventually succeeded. The city fell to the invaders in 586 BC, and they promptly ransacked the temple, deported its remaining leaders, and burned the city (Jer 39:7–9; 52:11–23, 27–30; 2 Kgs 25:7–17, 21). Once the worst of the crisis was over, many of the people who had fled the country came back (Jer 40:11; 43:5). A number went to Mizpah, where the Babylonians had set up headquarters. The reasons for this are never stated, but they may have placed some hope in Babylonian promises of food (Jer 40:10–12). Archaeological evidence suggests that the former kingdom was significantly impoverished after its defeat, and this influx of refugees may well have overwhelmed the town.

These already-repeat migrants were soon on the move again, anyway. An assassination plot against Gedaliah provoked a civil war; fearful of what the Babylonians might do in retaliation, many people fled to Egypt (Jer 41–44). (Parts of the Bible imagine the land as being completely empty after this, but we know from both the Bible and from archaeology that there were some people still there. The idea that the land was empty is related to one theological explanation for the destruction, namely, that the land needed a sabbatical rest.)

The people who fled to Egypt, however, did not mean to stay there. Instead, they hoped to return home as soon as it was safe (Jer 44:14; cf. Jer 40:11–12). This sort of temporary flight, or envisioned temporary flight, is especially common in civil wars. People flee an area of fighting in order to get out of immediate danger, but plan to return when the fighting stops or when it moves to another area. The Jeremiah narrative acknowledges that at least a few of the refugees in Egypt will return home again, though it implies that many others will not (Jer 44:14, 28). In the meantime, these frequent crises have raised serious questions of faith; many of the migrants wonder whether—or which—God is able to save them (Jer 42–44).

The book of Jeremiah tells a narrative of Judah and Jerusalem’s destruction that incorporates many different kinds of migration into the story of the people of God. Even Jeremiah is depicted as an involuntary migrant, forced to abandon the homeland he loves (Jer 40:4–6; 43:6). The book recognizes that experiences of migration vary greatly; the cause of displacement, the destination of the displaced, the desire or lack thereof to return, and the impact of this displacement on faith are all deeply personal, even as they form part of a wider picture.

The book’s portrayal of these experiences also honors the fact that displacement, even in cases where migrants have some autonomy over the timing of their departure or their destination, is often deeply traumatic. The book’s strange, disordered contents are sometimes seen as a stumbling block that must be overcome in order to discern the divine word; more recent readings have recognized that they reflect the disruption and disorientation inflicted by displacement and its trigger events, including war, political violence, and famine.4 The acuity of the distress caused by migration and its associated traumas is so extreme that even God weeps at the people’s suffering (Jer 8:18–9:1). Acknowledgment of traumatic suffering within the life of the people of God is a crucial part of the divine word that Jeremiah conveys, even as it raises questions about the nature of the God who allows it.

Ezekiel: Making Meaning of Displacement

Involuntary migration provokes a deep and dangerous dive into the nature of God in the book of Ezekiel, too. Ezekiel responds to the deportation of many of Judah’s inhabitants to Babylonia in 597 BC, about a decade before the kingdom’s final collapse. The royal family was detained in Babylon, and the other deportees were resettled on rural agricultural estates. Ezekiel’s own community was located at Tel Abib on the Chebar Canal, which may have been somewhere near the city Nippur (Ezek 1:1, 3; 3:15, 23; 10:15, 20, 22). There, the deportees had to learn a completely different way of life—a far cry from their existence as members of Jerusalem’s royal, priestly, and administrative families (2 Kgs 24:12, 14–16). It is hard to know exactly what everyday life was like at Chebar, but Ezekiel never mentions interactions with Babylonians or with other outsiders, suggesting that the community was probably quite isolated, inhabited mostly by Judahites.

The nearest modern analogy for Ezekiel’s circumstances is the refugee camp, where migrants live in close quarters with others from their community and have limited opportunity to engage with the host community. Ezekiel’s response to this experience is similar to the responses of other migrants in similar situations. Instead of encouraging integration, isolation has the opposite effect. The community may even understand the disaster as a consequence of assimilation.5 Ezekiel’s accounts of Israel’s history of transgression (Ezek 16; 20; 23) explain that the people have been deported to Babylonia in punishment for their persistent worship of foreign gods. In the process, they argue that what happened was not the result of chance, or the result of the power of other kings and their gods, but was a result of crimes committed by the Israelite community. Daniel Smith-Christopher has called this an “our fault” theology, and helpfully observed the way that it reclaims the deportees’ moral autonomy.6

Ezekiel’s depiction of a God whose commitment to justice leads to catastrophic punishment is one that many Western Christians find difficult to engage, having been raised on a spiritual diet that emphasizes God’s love to the exclusion of almost all other divine attributes. But Scripture reveals a more complex deity, as well as one who recognizes the spiritual and psychological needs of involuntary migrants. Surviving defeat and deportation required making sense of what had happened—retelling the story of Israel in a way that could account for these tremendous changes. Traumatic events like displacement threaten our ability to tell our stories. They disrupt the structure of our daily lives, undermine our ability to recognize connections between events, and challenge God’s commitment to justice. In the face of this, telling stories helps to repair the social networks and theological systems broken down by displacement. Ezekiel’s insistence on telling the story of Israel’s sin is a way to re-establish the coherence of the world and affirm God’s justice.

Emergency Theology

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel are emergency theology: they try to respond to a cascading series of crises, more or less as they are happening. Neither are the kind of work that might have been composed in the uninterrupted quiet of a private study, although both have fueled profound work of this kind. Jeremiah, in particular, exhibits a chaotic structure and style that makes it very difficult to read straight through. Yet Jeremiah’s disorderliness acknowledges the disorientation that arises from involuntary migration and other forms of trauma.7 Ezekiel, on the other end of the spectrum, appears almost excessively orderly, but has a theology so radical that the rabbis advised the faithful not to read it until well into adulthood, and never alone. Both prophets draw on older theological traditions but are driven by their circumstances to create something new. One might have expected the scribes who passed on these prophetic voices to smooth out their oddities; instead, they recognized the exasperating elusiveness of speech about God in unfamiliar circumstances. Attempts to articulate a theology appropriate to such circumstances may produce work that is imprecise, ambiguous, or even imperfect, but in the midst of crisis such efforts are acts of true faith.8 Like Scripture, a Christian theology of migration must recognize the diversity of migratory experiences and the legitimacy of a wide range of individual and collective responses to them.9

Written By

Carly L. Crouch is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament. She is author of War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East (de Gruyter, 2009), Israel and the Assyrians (Society of Biblical Literature, 2014), The Making of Israel (Brill, 2014), An Introduction to the Study of Jeremiah (Bloomsbury, 2017), and, with J. M. Hutton, Translating Empire (Mohr Siebeck, 2019). Her current project incorporates trauma studies,
social-scientific research on involuntary migration, and postcolonial theory to understand the effects of the Babylonian exile on Israelite and Judahite identities.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of migrants. To recognize the role of migration in the story of God’s people is not only to admit that the Old Testament is indispensable to a Christian theology of migration in the 21st century, but to recognize that experiences of migration have stood at the heart of the theological project for more than three millennia. This brief piece examines the contributions of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the two prophetic books that respond to the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Judahite kingdom in the sixth century BC. These events triggered several instances of displacement, and these books respond to these events in complex ways.

Jeremiah: Acknowledging Diverse Experiences of Migration and Their Trauma

Jeremiah is one of the most robust scriptural witnesses to mass displacement. When the Babylonians began their march towards Jerusalem, many of Judah’s residents quite reasonably decided that it was unsafe to stay in their towns and villages. Even today, migration in search of security from political violence is a common cause of refugee movements.1 Some of these people first sought refuge in Jerusalem, as it was the most well-fortified city in the kingdom. The Rechabites are one example (Jer 35). Although we are told little about this community, their story is notable for the way that it acknowledges the difficult choices the Rechabites faced as they tried to figure out how to adapt to their new circumstances without losing their distinctive identity.2

Once the Babylonian army arrived on Jerusalem’s doorstep, not even the capital could be the safe haven that Judah’s refugees needed (Jer 8:14–15). Many of the people fled again, searching for somewhere out of the way of the fighting. Although the Bible does not say much about mortality rates, we can be sure that many people died before they found refuge (Jer 6:1; 39:4–9; 52:7). As a comparison, we can look to the later history of involuntary migrations in the Middle East. In the 18th and 19th centuries AD, these migrations sometimes saw death rates as high as five percent. The stories told of those migrations, like those in the Bible, often refer to the extreme physical hardships suffered by the people forced to move, including widespread disease, lack of food, and death.3

In Judah, some of the people running from the Babylonians were able to escape across the Jordan River, going into Ammon, Moab, or Edom (Jer 40:10–11). These countries, although certainly foreign, had long-standing political and cultural connections with Judah. Adding to that their geographic proximity, these countries were attractive destinations for those in search of refuge. Although the language and cultural barriers in Ammon, Moab, and Edom were not insignificant, they were lower than they might have been elsewhere. Some of the refugees did eventually return to Judah, but some of them may have decided to stay.

Back in Judah, the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem eventually succeeded. The city fell to the invaders in 586 BC, and they promptly ransacked the temple, deported its remaining leaders, and burned the city (Jer 39:7–9; 52:11–23, 27–30; 2 Kgs 25:7–17, 21). Once the worst of the crisis was over, many of the people who had fled the country came back (Jer 40:11; 43:5). A number went to Mizpah, where the Babylonians had set up headquarters. The reasons for this are never stated, but they may have placed some hope in Babylonian promises of food (Jer 40:10–12). Archaeological evidence suggests that the former kingdom was significantly impoverished after its defeat, and this influx of refugees may well have overwhelmed the town.

These already-repeat migrants were soon on the move again, anyway. An assassination plot against Gedaliah provoked a civil war; fearful of what the Babylonians might do in retaliation, many people fled to Egypt (Jer 41–44). (Parts of the Bible imagine the land as being completely empty after this, but we know from both the Bible and from archaeology that there were some people still there. The idea that the land was empty is related to one theological explanation for the destruction, namely, that the land needed a sabbatical rest.)

The people who fled to Egypt, however, did not mean to stay there. Instead, they hoped to return home as soon as it was safe (Jer 44:14; cf. Jer 40:11–12). This sort of temporary flight, or envisioned temporary flight, is especially common in civil wars. People flee an area of fighting in order to get out of immediate danger, but plan to return when the fighting stops or when it moves to another area. The Jeremiah narrative acknowledges that at least a few of the refugees in Egypt will return home again, though it implies that many others will not (Jer 44:14, 28). In the meantime, these frequent crises have raised serious questions of faith; many of the migrants wonder whether—or which—God is able to save them (Jer 42–44).

The book of Jeremiah tells a narrative of Judah and Jerusalem’s destruction that incorporates many different kinds of migration into the story of the people of God. Even Jeremiah is depicted as an involuntary migrant, forced to abandon the homeland he loves (Jer 40:4–6; 43:6). The book recognizes that experiences of migration vary greatly; the cause of displacement, the destination of the displaced, the desire or lack thereof to return, and the impact of this displacement on faith are all deeply personal, even as they form part of a wider picture.

The book’s portrayal of these experiences also honors the fact that displacement, even in cases where migrants have some autonomy over the timing of their departure or their destination, is often deeply traumatic. The book’s strange, disordered contents are sometimes seen as a stumbling block that must be overcome in order to discern the divine word; more recent readings have recognized that they reflect the disruption and disorientation inflicted by displacement and its trigger events, including war, political violence, and famine.4 The acuity of the distress caused by migration and its associated traumas is so extreme that even God weeps at the people’s suffering (Jer 8:18–9:1). Acknowledgment of traumatic suffering within the life of the people of God is a crucial part of the divine word that Jeremiah conveys, even as it raises questions about the nature of the God who allows it.

Ezekiel: Making Meaning of Displacement

Involuntary migration provokes a deep and dangerous dive into the nature of God in the book of Ezekiel, too. Ezekiel responds to the deportation of many of Judah’s inhabitants to Babylonia in 597 BC, about a decade before the kingdom’s final collapse. The royal family was detained in Babylon, and the other deportees were resettled on rural agricultural estates. Ezekiel’s own community was located at Tel Abib on the Chebar Canal, which may have been somewhere near the city Nippur (Ezek 1:1, 3; 3:15, 23; 10:15, 20, 22). There, the deportees had to learn a completely different way of life—a far cry from their existence as members of Jerusalem’s royal, priestly, and administrative families (2 Kgs 24:12, 14–16). It is hard to know exactly what everyday life was like at Chebar, but Ezekiel never mentions interactions with Babylonians or with other outsiders, suggesting that the community was probably quite isolated, inhabited mostly by Judahites.

The nearest modern analogy for Ezekiel’s circumstances is the refugee camp, where migrants live in close quarters with others from their community and have limited opportunity to engage with the host community. Ezekiel’s response to this experience is similar to the responses of other migrants in similar situations. Instead of encouraging integration, isolation has the opposite effect. The community may even understand the disaster as a consequence of assimilation.5 Ezekiel’s accounts of Israel’s history of transgression (Ezek 16; 20; 23) explain that the people have been deported to Babylonia in punishment for their persistent worship of foreign gods. In the process, they argue that what happened was not the result of chance, or the result of the power of other kings and their gods, but was a result of crimes committed by the Israelite community. Daniel Smith-Christopher has called this an “our fault” theology, and helpfully observed the way that it reclaims the deportees’ moral autonomy.6

Ezekiel’s depiction of a God whose commitment to justice leads to catastrophic punishment is one that many Western Christians find difficult to engage, having been raised on a spiritual diet that emphasizes God’s love to the exclusion of almost all other divine attributes. But Scripture reveals a more complex deity, as well as one who recognizes the spiritual and psychological needs of involuntary migrants. Surviving defeat and deportation required making sense of what had happened—retelling the story of Israel in a way that could account for these tremendous changes. Traumatic events like displacement threaten our ability to tell our stories. They disrupt the structure of our daily lives, undermine our ability to recognize connections between events, and challenge God’s commitment to justice. In the face of this, telling stories helps to repair the social networks and theological systems broken down by displacement. Ezekiel’s insistence on telling the story of Israel’s sin is a way to re-establish the coherence of the world and affirm God’s justice.

Emergency Theology

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel are emergency theology: they try to respond to a cascading series of crises, more or less as they are happening. Neither are the kind of work that might have been composed in the uninterrupted quiet of a private study, although both have fueled profound work of this kind. Jeremiah, in particular, exhibits a chaotic structure and style that makes it very difficult to read straight through. Yet Jeremiah’s disorderliness acknowledges the disorientation that arises from involuntary migration and other forms of trauma.7 Ezekiel, on the other end of the spectrum, appears almost excessively orderly, but has a theology so radical that the rabbis advised the faithful not to read it until well into adulthood, and never alone. Both prophets draw on older theological traditions but are driven by their circumstances to create something new. One might have expected the scribes who passed on these prophetic voices to smooth out their oddities; instead, they recognized the exasperating elusiveness of speech about God in unfamiliar circumstances. Attempts to articulate a theology appropriate to such circumstances may produce work that is imprecise, ambiguous, or even imperfect, but in the midst of crisis such efforts are acts of true faith.8 Like Scripture, a Christian theology of migration must recognize the diversity of migratory experiences and the legitimacy of a wide range of individual and collective responses to them.9

Carly Crouch

Carly L. Crouch is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament. She is author of War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East (de Gruyter, 2009), Israel and the Assyrians (Society of Biblical Literature, 2014), The Making of Israel (Brill, 2014), An Introduction to the Study of Jeremiah (Bloomsbury, 2017), and, with J. M. Hutton, Translating Empire (Mohr Siebeck, 2019). Her current project incorporates trauma studies,
social-scientific research on involuntary migration, and postcolonial theory to understand the effects of the Babylonian exile on Israelite and Judahite identities.

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Lisseth Rojas-Flores, associate professor of clinical psychology, writes about the trauma inflicted on Latino youth by both the pandemic and the immigration system, as well as the Christian responsibility to work toward change