Jeremiah's discernment and articulation of the freedom and pathos

[TS: set as epigram]
Ngwan’a magana go botšwa o wetše dikomeng, a re dikoma ke tšešo.
A child who refused to listen [to advice] landed in “initiation schools” and claimed that
the schools were part of his extended family. (Northern Sotho proverb)
The tenor of the proverb: One who does not listen to advice, usually lands in trouble.
In a parental educational setting, a parent will warn a disobedient child, that is, “a
know it all child,” that if s/he persists in misbehaving, s/he will end up dikomeng, at
the “initiation schools.” The Northern Sotho word koma (cf., plural dikoma in the
preceding proverb), refers to a place in African-South African indigenous contexts
in which maturing boy and girl children are initiated into manhood and
womanhood respectively. The common action phrase used in the context of
initiation is “go wela,” literally, “to go into the deep.” The latter phrase, signifies
even to the outsider (i.e., the one with no initiation experience) that the koma
experience is pretty rough. A disobedient child (person) who thinks s/he, is a Jack
of all trades, including “the koma trade,” is warned that, s/he will eventually reap
accordingly, that is, land in trouble!
NB: I suggest that the tenor and the accompanying explanation appears as a
footnote at the bottom of the paragraph. What do you think?
[AQ: I’ve modified phrasing to match your translation below, and to clarify the
proverb’s function as a warning. It may remain unclear for North American
readers what an “initiation school” is, although “boarding schools” for indigenous
children are familiar in the U.S. and Canada. Can you offer an explanation below?]
<A>An African/South African Reading
<FLEFT>To bring the Jeremiah text home to Africa, I use the experiences of African
peoples in South Africa (hereinafter referred to as “African–South African peoples”) to
interrogate the book around two themes:
First, a theme that emerges in the proverbial parents’ warning quoted above, “Ngwan’a
magana go botšwa o wetše dikomeng, a re dikoma ke tšešo,” [AQ: I’ve removed the
question mark again because it doesn’t seem to make sense of the phrase as a
“warning.” (OKAY) Could you also characterize, briefly, what “theme” you draw
out of the proverb?]
In the book of Jeremiah, Judah, a persistently disobedient child, disobedient despite
the constant warnings of Jeremiah, ends up in dikoma. Who could be designated as
a disobedient child from the apartheid (and present?) South African landscape?
During the period of Apartheid in South Africa, there were prophets who
continually challenged the apartheid ideologues, practitioners and all the racist
Afrikaners and other racist whites, about the injustices which they continually
perpetrated on Black peoples. In some cases, such atrocities were done in the name
of God (cf the state/white theology propagated by some of them then). The present
theme uses the preceding proverb informed by some of the themes derived from the
Jeremiah tradition to engage the events and dynamics around the downfall of the
apartheid regime in the mid-nineties in South Africa.
Second, “In Exile at Home.” I conclude with a citation of a few African proverbs that . . .
. [AQ: please offer an explanation why an essay on Jeremiah ends with these
proverbs, and why you have selected these? Do you see a connection with themes in
Jeremiah? NB: The explanation is offered towards the end of the article, just before
the conclusion.
Yes, as the BA was meant to be basically transgressive , I have elected to end this
article, the African way, that is, through the use of relevant proverbs. As I do the
latter (like in my bosadi(womanhood) approach, I seek to deliberately foreground,
part of the IKS (indigenous knowledge systems). Also, I have deliberately not
mentioned the tenors of the ending proverbs, in order not to be prescriptive but to
let various readers come up with what particular meaning they think a particular
proverb could mean in the context of their own reading (interrogation) of the book
of Jeremiah. If you deem it necessary, not sure how Dr Hugh Page’s take will be on
this, I could just briefly add their tenors, though that is not how proverbs function
in their respective settings. NB: Let me know what you all think about this.
I am a native of Polokwane in South Africa. Due to South Africa’s political
history, I only “acquired” South African citizenship in 1994 when South Africa became
independent. I therefore have a full grasp of what it means to be “in exile at home”
(Masenya 2003: 338–39; Masenya 2007). [AQ: please add refs for Masenya 1996 and
2003 to the chapter bibliography.--sh]Hailing from a Pedi rural setting, I was steeped
in African lore (for example, proverbs, folktales, and so on) from early childhood. Such
an upbringing, coupled with my intentional decision to foreground “Africa” in my
writings (Masenya2005:741-746) (for example in my bosadi approach, [AQ: please give
a brief characterization of this?] 1996; 2004) influences the way I read the book of
A word about the bosadi approach will be in order at this stage.
The bosadi (womanhood) approach (cf Masenya 1996; 2004; 2005: 741-751) is an
approach to the reading of biblical texts that was developed with a view to the
articulation of the concerns of African-South African women. “…it can be argued
that the major hermeneutical focus of the bosadi biblical hermeneutics is the unique
experiences of an African-South African woman, with a view to her liberation. It is
first and foremost an African woman’s liberation hermeneutic. African women,
facing such multiple life-denying forces as sexism in the broader South African
society, inherited from the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, sexism in the
African culture, post-apartheid racism, classism, HIV/AIDS, xenophobia, are made
the main hermeneutical focus…the experiences of the marginalized, in this case
African-South African women, and not the contexts which produced the Bible, serve
as a starting point of one’s encounter with the biblical text.QUOTE ENDS RIGHT
HERE) (Masenya2005:747),
<A>The Book of Jeremiah: An Introduction
<FLEFT>The book of Jeremiah claims to report events that occurred in Judah’s last
years. Thus Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry started during the reign of King Josiah (626
B.C.E.) and continued through Jehoiakim’s reign (609–598 B.C.E.) and the exile of
Jehoiakin (598 B.C.E.) until the death of King Zedekiah (598–587 B.C.E.; compare
52:34). [AQ: “Jehoaikim” vs. “Jehoaichin” in previous paragraph. Make
On the geopolitical scene, the superpowers of the time, Assyria, Babylon, and
Egypt, vied for power over smaller states like Judah. Assyria dominated the landscape
and took Israel to exile into 722/21 B.C.E. (compare Shiloh’s fate in Jer. 7:12-15, 26:6).
Sooner rather than later, Babylon gained ascendancy as the new imperial power. The
monarchy contributed greatly to Judah’s moral and spiritual decline. Eighth-century
prophets already critiqued the ruling classes’ greed for power and wealth at the expense
of poor people (Chaney 1993: 255–60). Therefore, Jeremiah’s message against the
wickedness of the powerful was not new. The impact of Babylonian imperialism on
Judah would not only severely influence Judah’s inhabitants but also become the core of
Jeremiah’s message. For Jeremiah, but perhaps contrary to the perceptions of most of his
hearers, these were not mere political events. They formed an integral part of Judah’s
deviation from the covenant stipulations. Says Brueggemann: “The reality of Babylonian
power is not denied but is firmly subordinated to and incorporated into the intention of
Yahweh. The Book of Jeremiah thus mediates the reality of imperial politics through the
theological claims of the covenant” (1998: 3; see also Stulman 2005: 202). [AQ: please
add a ref for Stulman 2005 to the bibliography.--sh]I am captivated by the book of
Jeremiah’s ability to expose human pride in institutional power and to warn the powerful
to act responsibly when in such positions.
The book of Jeremiah is complicated by its lack of a unified chronological
structure. It is difficult to assign with any definitiveness any original author and/or editors
of the book named after Jeremiah. Scholars, including Carroll, argue that it is impossible
to retrieve the (work of the) historical Jeremiah: “We should treat the character of
Jeremiah as a work of fiction and recognize the impossibility of moving from the book to
the real ‘historical’ Jeremiah, given our complete lack of knowledge independent of the
book itself” (Carroll 1989: 12; see also 1999). [AQ: please add a ref for Carroll 1989
to the bibliography.--sh]
Despite this lack of a unified systematic whole, what becomes clear when one
reads the book in its present form is that most of the events narrated in the book shed
light on the contexts of a late pre-exilic setting and an early exilic one. There is a general
consensus among scholars that the book’s recipients were the Jewish communities in the
postexilic period: the late exilic and early postexilic periods (Bruggemann 1998; Collins
1993: 120; Stulman 2005; Diamond and O’Connor 1999; Wessels 2004: 479). [AQ:
please add a ref for Collins 1993 and Stulman 2005 to the bibliography.--sh]Collins
succinctly captures this consensus by saying:
<EXT>The book is the outcome of a process of transmission which actually shaped the
material being transmitted. Hence, although the resulting book provides unsatisfactory
information about the life of Jeremiah, it easily makes up for this deficiency by the
insight it gives us into the religious thoughts and concerns of the late exilic and early
post-exilic community. (1993: 120)</EXT>
Traditional approaches, such as historical-critical methods, no longer monopolize
scholarship. Some more recent approaches to the book include feminist/womanist
approaches (Bird 2000; Mbuwayesango2001; Weems 1995, 2004;
Mbuwayesango2007); intertextual approaches (Carroll 1999: 220–43; Diamond and
O’Connor 1999: 87–145); and ideological-critical approaches (Mottu 1993: 313–28;
Carroll 1999: 220–43). [AQ: please add refs for O’Connor 2002 (NB: replaced here
by Mbuwayesango 2001, Weems 2004, and [Brenner 1995deleted and replaced byreplaced by Bird1997] to the bib.--sh] Some insights from these approaches resonate
with those entailed in my bosadi approach [AQ: please tell how they “resonate”?]
(Masenya 1996, 2004, 2005). [AQ: please make sure refs for Masenya 1996 and 2005
have been added to the bib.--sh]. It is argued, as in womanist/feminist hermeneutic
frameworks, that there is no value free interpretation of the Bible. Thus, the
experiences of basadi (women) are deliberately made a hermeneutical lens in one’s
interaction with the biblical text in the bosadi methodology. Having said that,
noteworthy, particularly for how the methodology will be employed in the present
entry, is my conviction (also articulated in the bosadi approach), that the struggle
for the affirmation of African women should be informed and inspired also by the
African corporeal mentality. It should thus be a gender struggle for real, a struggle
by both women and men for the affirmation of all African-South African peoples.
It is particularly with the latter focus in view, that the bosadi concept will serve as
my methodological tool for my interaction with the Jeremiah material.
Considering this variety of approaches to the book, Brueggemann describes it as
rich with potential for interpretation with none dominating where one may “remain and
play and listen and notice,” since God is not flat or mute in the book (Brueggemann
1998: xiii).
As I venture to “remain, play, listen, and notice,” even as I try to make sense of
Jeremiah through an African lens, I will interrogate the Jeremiah text based on two main
themes: first, the proverbial parents’ warning, Ngwana magana’ go botšwa o wetše
dikomeng, a re dikoma ke tšešo; and second, the experience of being an “exile at home—
an Africa in exile in her own territory.
<A>A Lesson from Disobedience?
<B>The Dikoma Analogy: South Africa and Judah
<FLEFT>The Northern Sotho proverb I have quoted above refers to the presence of
disobedient children in (indigenous) African societies. In the African (Northern
Sotho/Pedi) context, this proverb is usually cited to warn a child who refuses to take
advice (from the elderly) that his or her stubbornness will land him or her in trouble. The
proverb gives no room for exceptions to the underlying (optimistic wisdom?) mentality
that bad actions will necessarily land one in bad situations. The latter mentality reminds
one of the key presupposition underlying Deuteronomistic theology evident in the book
of Jeremiah, according to which Judah’s disobedience to covenant stipulations will of
necessity lead to Judah’s punishment (see 7:1-8:3; 11:1-17; 13:1-11; 16:1-13, 26, 27;
verses[AQ: chaps. 26 and 27, or verses 26 and 27 in chap. 16?] 17:5-8; 29:10-20; 32;
33:1-13; 42:7-22; 44; 45; chapters[AQ: are last two refs. to chapters 44 and 45?] (see
Carroll 1988: 24). [AQ: please add a ref for Carroll 1989 to the bib.--sh]Scholars
basically agree about the influence of the Deuteronomistic editors on the book (see also
Brueggemann 1998; Wessels 2004: 470-483; Weems 2004:214; Scheffler 1994: 385).
[AQ: Wessels page range is backward here. Please review and adjust as needed.--sh]
[AQ: please add refs for Weems 2004 and Scheffler 1994 to the bib.--sh]
the South African apartheid era, many prophets (that is, Black theologians, liberation
theologians, and others) and certain institutions (the South African Council of Churches
[SACC], the Institute for Contextual Theology, and others) dared to challenge the South
African government over the atrocities committed against the Black majority. Their
boldness and persistence in prophesying were probably motivated by their conviction
that, eventually, their message would be vindicated. After all, as the proverb warns,
ultimately disobedient children, however adamant and defensive they are in their
disobedience—even if they use religious texts to buttress their disobedience—do not get
away with their behavior. They usually end up in initiation schools!1 NB: I suggest that
you delete this footnote as more explanation about “koma” has already been made.
Also, on account of how the rite of circumcision, particularly as it is observed in
African contexts, has mostly been misunderstood, particularly by outsiders. Would
the apartheid government eventually have dikoma as their fate?. Notice that the
proverb speaks of initiation schools, in the plural, indicating that the severity of the
punishment does not depend on the relationship of the disobedient child with one or
another mongkoma (a leader in the koma exercise). As already noted, the initiationschool experience could never be an easy one. Just so, the Afrikaners, the oppressors of
African peoples during the apartheid era, have had to learn a similar lesson. Obsessed
with election theology and a related biblical hermeneutics (cf Masenya2004:55-66;
Snyman2007:53-83), most of them believed that they were closer to God than were all
the other “heathen” (Babylonian?) peoples. It may be argued that, they in their
A koma (initiation/circumcision school) is an African–South African traditional place where maturing
boys and girls go to be initiated into adult life. As part and parcel of such a process, the boy children
usually undergo circumcision.
arrogance like the “know it all” proverbial child, being convinced that the dikoma
belonged to their families, [AQ: this isn’t clear: do you mean that the Afrikaners
paternalistically believed the dikoma were extensions of their own families? Or that
the dikoma were appropriate cultural institutions for the powerless
Africans?]oppressed the powerless in the name of God. They boldly preached the purity
and election of the Afrikaner race (volk), supported by a controversial Dutch Reformed
theology, a type of royal-temple ideology [AQ: please explain the comparison: did the
Dutch Reformed operate either a monarchy or a temple? What’s the basis for the
comparison? NB: I suggest that I offer no explanation here, as it will “spoil” the
use of the proverbial analogy in this paragraph. The readers who are conversant
with how the Bible was used in apartheid South Africa, to perpetuate the
exploitation of Blacks prompted by the notion of the election and supremacy of the
Afrikaner race (pretty much the same usage as in colonial and slavery contexts) and
colonialism, will be able to make this linkage. Also, in the previous page, I have
alluded to this and provided references. I think that should be enough. NB: What
is Dr Page’s view on this? Having said that, let me now explain my use of the
proverb here: Like the “know it all child” (in the Afrikaner’s case, like in the case
of Judah, they believed that they were “untouchable” as God had elected them
(thus, in my view, they “erroneously” thought that dikoma belonged to their
“families”, meaning nothing bad would eventually happen to them as they believed
(or deceived themselves) that God (the koma leader?) was on their side. In a
nutshell, they, like the disobedient child, could do what they liked, as nothing bad
would never befall them. This is the sense in which the above analogy is made-NB:
if you have further questions, you are welcome to engage me]. After the catastrophic
event of the fall of the Afrikaner “empire” in 1994 (compare to Judah’s in 587/6 B.C.E.),
we may now hope that the previous oppressors have learned the lesson taught to stubborn
children: disobedience comes with a heavy price!
Part of the heavy price includes the redefinition of Blackness and/or Black folks.
How should Afrikaners grapple with the fact that their former political subjects are now
their political bosses? What does it mean for a previously despised African to be in
charge now of her or his previous masters? [AQ: I’m letting “masters” be generic to
avoid the possible sexual connotation of “mistress” here. OKAY] The notion of white
superiority (and privilege) also now begs redefinition. Where do notions of Afrikaners’
election fit in relation to affirmative action, for example? “Where is God?” One can
speculate with ease that this question was crucial among Judean exiles during Jeremiah’s
time. “What happened to the tenets of white theology?” “Does God still care for white
South Africans?” These are some of the critical questions that bother many South African
white folks today. How may African peoples today “reread” the catastrophe that befell
Judah in those days? Are we, like the Babylonians of old, all of a sudden no longer the
heathens of apartheid South Africa? Could it be that we have been used as agents of
God’s wrath to punish apartheid’s disobedient children? If so, how and what does it mean
to experience “a reversal of roles”?
I find the exercise of involving a deity in the interpretation of these catastrophic
moments in both contexts (South Africa and Judah) not only problematic but also scary.
Why? In both contexts, not everybody believed God was involved in the unfolding
events. And for those who did, their interpretation of God’s involvement is not similar.
This interpretation becomes even more problematic when we consider that among the
Judeans there was no uniform understanding of YHWH’s workings. The conflict between
Jeremiah and false prophets (Jeremiah 28) is one case in point. Because of his heavy
message, many of his listeners did not view Jeremiah favorably. Nevertheless, we may
assume that many among the powerless, whose voice we unfortunately do not hear in the
book, would have been affirmed by Jeremiah’s message that challenged injustices
committed against them. Jeremiah received opposition from kings and prophets, some of
whom designated him a false prophet (Mottu 1993: 315). I am not sure if
Nebuchadnezzar viewed his capture of Judah more as the Babylonian gods’ intervention
or simply as part of his imperialist expansionist agenda. I do not believe that he was
convinced that his capturing Judah made him the servant of Judah’s God (27:6).
In the South African situation, although there might be generalizations
(particularly in certain Christian circles) that the events of 1994 (the catastrophe of the
Afrikaner empire and the rise of Black Power) might be viewed as having revealed the
intervention of (and even vindication by) God and/or the ancestors, such will remain just
that: generalizations. However, note that many Christians (and people of other faiths) did
pray during those difficult times. As stated previously, some Christians used the same
prophetic oracles to condemn apartheid’s injustices. Similarly, those white South
Africans who dared to speak against apartheid in the name of God might view the
attainment of democracy as God’s answer to their prayers.
I think for the new South African government (that is, the postexilic audience of
Jeremiah’s message), Judah’s catastrophe teaches the following lessons. Leaders,
particularly African leaders, must resist a deep-seated mentality that believes “once in
power, always in power,” a mentality that might have been inherited from the African
traditional system of dikgoshi (traditional leaders). People gain power in many ways,
including by default, by the popularity of certain individuals in their political parties, or
for many other reasons. Once in power, all leaders need to serve the people by exercising
justice for the powerless, averting all forms of greed, and being self-critical, challenging
and uprooting corruption among themselves, and so forth.
The 587 B.C.E./1994 C.E. catastrophes in Judah and white South Africa,
respectively, show that no human leader is indispensable. Thus human leaders need to
remain humble and vigilant even as they serve fellow human beings who have equally
been created in the image of the divine leader.
The main thrust of Jeremiah’s message before the Judean exile was that continued
disobedience would lead to a troubled end. Their dikoma would come in the form of “a
foe from the North” (6:22; 20:1-6; 23:9ff, 27; 28). Earlier in his message (Jer. 3:11-14;
22-23; 7:1-15; 26:1-5), Jeremiah gave his hearers some hope that if they repented and
turned to YHWH wholeheartedly, they would avoid impending judgment. With time,
however, as the Judean peoples persisted in their idolatries, adulteries, and oppressions
(7:1-15; 18:18-20; 22:13-17), Jeremiah warned that their salvation would come through
their submission to the Babylonian yoke (27:12). As stubborn children, bo-ngwan’a
magana go botšwa, the Judeans would meet a disastrous end!
An important question, however, is: could we safely conclude that the “children”
were all disobedient? Or was the prophet, inspired by the Israelite corporeal mentality
(compare to the African one) in which the entire group suffers for an evil committed by
an individual? This understanding makes sense, particularly if we consider that his
message was directed mainly against the ruling classes (see Chaney 1993; Mottu 1993;
Mosala 1993). The Northern Sotho proverb comes to mind: ya ja lebele, e fetetša tše
dingwe (translated, “once a goat eats a crop, it affects all the other [innocent] goats”). Its
tenor is: if one person in a group commits an error, everyone is punished because of his
or her mistake. Or is it, as one commentator stated, a matter of later redactors trying to
vilify Jerusalem and those who remained in it?
<B>Interrogating the Corporeal Mentality within Judah’s Punishment
<FLEFT>Reading as a justice-seeking bosadi Bible reader, I am bothered that although
the prophet’s message was mainly directed against male members of the ruling class and
the religious establishment, the negative repercussions of their corrupt and failed
leadership (see Domeris 1999; Diamond and O’Connor 1999) [AQ: please add a ref for
O’Connor 2002 to the bib.--sh]affect those who did not eat the proverbial crop,
according to Jeremiah. How could womenfolk, given their exclusion from public
religious life, fully access the prophet’s message?
Even more unsettling is that women, already marginalized in that patriarchal
society, are further marginalized by the prophet’s problematic use of female sexual
imagery to depict the type of punishment (dikoma) that would befall the whole nation
(see Weems 1995; Diamond and O’Connor 1999). [AQ: please make sure that a ref for
O’Connor 2002 has been added to the bib.—sh: RECTIFIED, IT WAS SUPPOSED
TO BE 1999] The core (judgment) message directed to the whole nation (symbolized by
male leadership) is more often clothed in sexual imagery that vilifies women. The
language sounds very rough to the ears of an African person whose tradition has always
avoided speaking publicly about matters of sex and sexuality (see Masenya 2004), let
alone when one hears such words as an “insult” or attack on human sexuality. In the Pedi
culture, for example, if someone offends another person, the latter may deliberately swear
at the offender by referring to his or her mother’s genitals! Specific reference to a
mother’s genitals in such a conflict setting intends to make sure offenders really will be
hurt. The troubling practice (as in Jeremiah) exposes and attacks mostly female sexuality.
In Jeremiah’s case, might we agree with Domeris that in his attempt to create an
antisociety through the use of an antilanguage, Jeremiah “exaggerated” the situation to
drive a specific point home (Domeris 1994, 1999)? [AQ: please add a ref for Domeris
1994 to the bib.--sh]If that was the case, why did the exaggeration have to occur through
the use of problematic sexual female imagery (2:20; 3:6; 3:11; 4:30)?
Such misogynistic depictions of sexual female imagery, particularly in the oracles
portrayed as coming from a deity, make it difficult for present-day Africana female
readers to identify with such oracles, and with the deity portrayed therein. Commenting
on Jeremiah’s marriage metaphor (Jeremiah 2–3), Diamond and O’Connor rightly argue
that Jeremiah’s portrayal of the divine-human relationship that shows the deity as longsuffering undermines itself “by reinforcing cultural images of a punishing, unjust God, of
punishing unjust husbands, and of wicked independent women” (1999: 145).
Note that not all Judeans of Jeremiah’s time (including Jeremiah himself)
participated in the Babylonian exile. The text not only mentions a remnant designated the
poorest of the land but also the existence of the “righteous” in the land (compare and
contrast 5:1-6 and 12:1-4). In that way, Jeremiah deconstructs his own message regarding
the wholesale condemnation of the Judahites (see Carroll 1999). One cannot safely
conclude that all of Judah’s children were disobedient (for not all tasted the exile) nor
argue that all those who experienced the exile were disobedient. According to the book of
Jeremiah, the majority of Judeans ended up in exile.
Again, Jeremiah believed the only relief and hope for the Judean future was to
submit to the Babylonian yoke. We now ask: how may such a positive Jeremian notion of
exile shape an Africana reading of the theme of exile in Jeremiah?
<B>Exile and Life: Reconcilable?
<FLEFT>“Choose exile and live!” (Jer. 38:17-18; 21:1-10: 27:1-7; 8) seems to be
Jeremiah’s call to his people. Jeremiah 21:8-9 captures the core of this call succinctly:
<EXT>And to this people you shall say: Thus says the Lord: See, I am setting before you
the way of life, and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword,
by famine and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who
are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. (21:8-9, italics
mine; see also 27:8)</EXT>
The opening contradictory phrase “choose exile and live” seems to capture
Jeremiah’s perception of a future hope for Judah. Such a painful theme reminds me of my
encounter in one of the Elminah Slave Castles’ rooms in Ghana in 2000. In that upper
room, I saw a board with a quotation from Ps. 132:14. The gist of its message was: “God
is in this place”! Invoking a biblical text in that context invited me to grapple with the
possibility of God’s presence in the house of slavery. Is that what Jeremiah (21:1-10)
meant when he encouraged Judeans to choose exile rather than their own homeland,
implying that God could be actively present in exile? It is worth remembering that those
Africans, who were captured in the seventeenth century, were in fact in exile in Ghana,
their native land! One wonders how enslaved people could have understood Jeremiah’s
message that there is life in the house of slavery.
<A>“In Exile at Home”: An Africa in Exile in Her Own Territory
<FLEFT>In my writings (Masenya 2003: 338–39; see also 2007), [AQ: please make
sure refs for Masenya 2003 and 2005 have been added to the bib.--shDONE]I have
used the phrase “In Exile at Home” in my reimagination of the Vashti character in Esther
to show the state of “exiled” African women in South Africa. I will use this phrase
broadly in the present text to include the “exiled” state of Africana peoples to investigate
what the above “contradictory” phrase on Jeremiah’s message could mean in African
(South African) contexts.
Historically, and today, Africana peoples have been the victims of a variety of
ruthless systems—such as slavery, colonialism, and apartheid—ironically in their own
territories. Although with slavery, there was a forced removal of African peoples from
the mother continent, in most cases, in the earlier stages, the slaves would first taste what
it meant to be in exile at home (see the Elmina Castle incident described earlier).
Various Africana peoples have therefore tasted the experience of exile in their
own territories! Ke maho a go tšwa dipitšeng (they are the wooden spoons from the
cooking pots). They have had first hand experiences of being in exiles in their own
homes![AQ: help us a little more to understand the proverb?] As victims of such evil
systems, Africana peoples therefore know fairly well what it means to be in “exile at
home,” to be designated a “foreigner” in one’s native land, where captors impose foreign
cultural and political systems, languages, religions, and values on them. Exile, therefore,
is a place of limited or no access to resources (depending on the generosity of the
captors). The experience of African and Judean exiles losing their lands to foreigners was
painful. Land is the most invaluable religious and material asset for African peoples.
Lehumo le tšwa tšhemong, “wealth comes from a field,” says an African saying. The
effects of land loss during colonial and apartheid South Africa are felt still by African–
South African people today, an effect that has given birth to “socioeconomic exiles” amid
political freedom! Such exiles cannot hope for a swift return if the South African
government continues to implement slowly its land redistribution policy. In present-day
South Africa, many African peoples experience what one would call “socioeconomic”
exile. Forty-two percent of the South African population earns R250-00 (about US $30)
per month, even as the gap between rich and poor people continues to increase. The
economy remains in the hands of the historical winners.
African women continue to be victimized by patriarchy in many respects
(particularly in the home and the church). In our day, womenfolk feel the brunt of
patriarchy through the impact of HIV/AIDS. If we add the observation that violence
against women and children is at its peak in present-day South Africa, the reader will
come to appreciate the reality that indeed one can be at home and yet in exile! These
already “exiled” peoples, captured on their own territory, know well that exile cannot
mean life. They will struggle to make sense of the message of Jeremiah.
For the Judeans of Jeremiah’s time, the best option amid impending doom was to
choose exile. Exile would be the only source of hope for Judah, its leaders, and its
peoples. Jeremiah’s message was strange because people were discouraged from putting
their trust in their own heritage—their historically esteemed assets, such as the Jerusalem
city, its temple, and the highly esteemed royal-temple ideology. Convinced that he indeed
spoke on behalf of Yahweh, Jeremiah continued with his dreadful message
notwithstanding the risk to his own life. The fact that one’s home can actually turn into a
place of pestilence, famine, hunger, and death (see 21:8-9) has been (and still is) tasted by
many Africana peoples. Though the message resonates, many Africans might dislike it,
because to embrace the message means that imperialism, usually touted as a divine agent
(e.g., colonialism and apartheid in South Africa), always wins the day. In most cases,
imperialism wins at the expense of many a powerless victim (see the proverbial goat
described earlier). In that sense, Jeremiah’s message might be viewed as a call for the
powerless—the powerless nations, minority groupings, and “powerless majorities”
(women in patriarchal contexts and Blacks in apartheid South Africa)—to show
resignation among the powers that be. Africana women who continue to remain at the
bottom of the societal ladder may not be encouraged to confront patriarchy!
The irony is that when Jeremiah himself was confronted with a choice between
home and exile, he chose home (40:1-6). Did he dread the unknown and so refuse to
abide by his earlier message? Was he afraid to face those whose judgment he had boldly
predicted? I find no clue in the text to help answer these questions.
What is perhaps a vindication of Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom (dikoma) is that
it appears the exilic experience indeed benefited many exiles. The fact that very few
exiles in Egypt or Babylon returned home when they were allowed to points in that
direction (see Carroll 1981: 248; Boadt 1984: 384). [AQ: please add a ref for Carroll
1981 and Boadt 1984 to the bib.—sh: DONE]
This positive portrayal of exile makes one suspect that those who benefited from
the Babylonian exile had a larger share in the book’s revision. Not only is the Babylonian
exile glorified, but it also occupies more space in the book. Little, if any, space is given to
those who went to exile in Egypt (Africa); the latter, like the Babylonian exiles,
continued to thrive there. Similarly, those who remained in Judah are portrayed in a
negative way, the poorest of the land (40:7). Should the latter be taken literally, also
implying that the Judeans could not hope for any future from these? Should it be
interpreted positively to imply that these, unlike “the cream of the land” who were
“hurled” to exile, were more faithful to YHWH’s covenant stipulations? A similar
situation seems to prevail in postapartheid South Africa. There seems to be an underlying
perception by the ruling party that South Africa’s future (particularly in terms of political
leadership) lies with those of their own (for example, the African National Congress) who
experienced “political” exile during the apartheid era. For the powerful, those who
remained in the land to experience the harsh reality of living in death’s shadow,
incarceration, and being “exiled at home” cannot be worthy candidates to rule the
country. In the Judean situation, it was a Judean against a Babylonian; later on, it became
a Jew against a Jew! In South Africa, it was a black person against a white person; now, it
is a black person against a fellow black person! Doesn’t this reveal just how self-serving
and greedy any human being can be?
Even the political exiles of many Black South Africans during the apartheid era
benefited the exiled then and even now. They benefited then because their flight out of
their native land saved them from torture, denigration, and even death. Some of them
benefited because they obtained educational opportunities for themselves and their
children. As noted above, many of these are still benefiting because of the warped way in
which political leadership is devised.
Depending on the experiences and ideology of a particular African–South African
reader, the notion of the compatibility of exile and life in the book of Jeremiah will
invoke different reactions.
<SPACE><FLEFT>To enable readers to continue further dialogue with the book of
Jeremiah, I end this interrogation with the words of the wise in Africa. I intentionally
leave these words open-ended by not providing their tenors. Each reader needs to figure
out for themselves what their tenors could be. As you take time with these proverbs, if
they help to unravel the Jeremiah material they will have served their purpose:
<EXT>Serokolwana se senyane se ikoketša ka go nkga. (A small herb increases itself by
releasing a strong odor.)
O se bone go akalala ga bonong, go wa fase ke ga bona. (Do not envy the great heights
at which an eagle flies, it will soon fall down.)
Ngwana’ magana go botšwa o wetše dikomeng a re dikoma ke tšešo.
La go hlabela o le orele, ka moso le hlabela ba bangwe. (When it [the sun (rays)] fall on
you, avail yourself; tomorrow it will fall on others.)
Kgotlelela moepa - thuse, The correct spelling is: moepa-thuse (it is a hyphenated
word, literally meaning, digger of thuse. I suggest we change the translation in
following sentence, and just keep it as digger of thuse, we could then insert the
footnote with the following statement: There is no consensus on what the meaning
of thuse is. Some scholars regard it as a very scarce root which was used for
therapeutic purposes while others refer to it as a very small ant. Whatever option
one takes, the main idea communicated by the proverb is that that particular
valuable object (like treasure), is hard to find. Thus, if one really wants to find it,
one needs to work very hard, as there “ordinarily” is no treasure that comes in
handy. [AQ: should this short dash previously be an em dash?--sh] ga go lehumo le
le tšwago kgauswi. (Persevere, you digger of thuse (a “hard-to-find” fruit), no wealth
comes from the neighborhood (or literally, no wealth comes from near) NB: you are
welcome to choose whatever translation you deem fit, I think the latter makes more
justice to the sense communicated by the proverb.)</EXT> [AQ: we’ll need help
with this translation. Is a preposition missing?]
<AAE>Madipoane Masenya (ngwan’a Mphahlele)
<BIB>Bailey, Randall C., ed. 2003. Yet with a Steady Beat: Contemporary U. S.
Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Bird, Phyllis A. 2001. “A North American Feminist Response.” In Other Ways of
Reading: African Women and the Bible, ed. M W Dube, 199-206. Atlanta:
SBL, Geneva: WCC Publications.
Brueggemann, Walter. 1998. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Boadt, Lawrence. 1984. Reading the Old Testament: an introduction: New York,
N.Y.: Paulist.
Carroll, Robert P. 1981. From Covenant to Chaos: Uses of Prophecy in the Book of
Jeremiah. London: SCM.
Carroll, Robert P. 1989. Jeremiah: Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield
Academic Press.
Carroll, Robert P. 1999. “The Book of J: Intertexuality and Ideological Criticism.” In
Troubling Jeremiah, ed. A. R. Pete Diamond and Kathleen M. L. O’Connor, 220–
43. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.
Chaney, Marvin L. 1993. “Bitter Bounty: The Dynamics of Political Economy Critiqued
by the Eighth-Century Prophets.” In The Bible and Liberation: Political and
Social Hermeneutics, ed. Norman K. Gottwald and Richard A. Horsley, 250–63.
Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
Collins, T 1993. The Mantle of Jeremiah: The Redaction Criticism of the Prophetical
Book. Sheffield: JSOT.
Diamond, Pete, and O’Connor, K M. 1999. “Unfaithful Passions: Coding Women
Coding Men in Jeremiah —2-3(4:2).” In Troubling Jeremiah, eds. A. R. Pete
Diamond and Kathleen M. O’Connor, 123-45. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.
Domeris, William R, 1994. “Jeremiah and the Religion of Canaan.” Old Testament
Essays 7 (1): 7-20.
Domeris, William R. 1999. “When Metaphor Becomes Myth: A Socio-Linguistic
Reading of Jeremiah.” In Troubling Jeremiah, ed. A. R. Pete Diamond and
Kathleen M. O’Connor, 244-62. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic. [AQ: this article
shows the same page range in Troubling Jeremiah as the Diamond and
O’Connor article “Unfaithful Passions” in the previous ref. Please review and
adjust the one needed.—sh: DONE]
Masenya (ngwana’ Mphahlele), Madipoane. 1996. Proverbs31:10-31 in the South
African Context: A Bosadi (Womanhood) Approah, Unpublished D.Litt at
Phil Thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa.
Masenya (ngwana’ Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2003. “A Small Herb Increases
Itself(Impact) by a Strong Ordour: Reimagining Vashti in an African-South
African Context.” Old Testament Essays 16 (2): 332-342.
Masenya (ngwana’ Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2004. How Worthy Is the Woman of Worth?
Rereading Proverbs 31:10-31 in African-South Africa. New York: Peter Lang.
Masenya (ngwana’ Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2005. “An African Methodology for
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approach.” Old Testament Essays 18 (3): 741-751.
Masenya (ngwan’a Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2007. “Invisible Exiles? An AfricanSouth African Woman’s Reconfiguration of Exile in Jeremiah21:1-10.” Old
Testament Essays 20 (3):756-771.
Mbuwayesango, Dora R. 1997. “Childlessness and Woman-to-Woman
Relationships in Genesis and in African Patriarchal Society: Sarah and
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Scheffler, Eben. H 1994. “The Holistic Historical Background against Which
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Wessels, Wilhelm. J. 2004. “Setting the Stage for the Future of the Kingship: An
Ideological-Critical Reading of Jeremiah 21:1-10.” Old Testament Essays 17 (3):