Softening the Hard Edge of Jeremiah’s Message

Reading through Jeremiah again, I noticed a couple of new factors that just mitigate a little the harshness of the prophet that strikes us at first glance.

Jer. 20:7-18 concludes the series of Jeremiah’s complaints to God that began at the end of chapter 11. However, 20:7-18 seems composite itself. Verses 7-10 are true complaint, featuring the nickname given Jeremiah by his opponents, ‘Magor-Missabib’, or Terror on Every Side, equivalent I think to calling him Chicken Little. (If you want to hear a powerful song, check out Phil Keaggy’s rendition of this idea at the end of True Believer.)

What follows is a song of deliverance in vv. 11-13 in classic psalmic fashion, where the persecuted person celebrates his rescue by God. But then vv. 14-18 unexpectedly return to dark lament, in the form of the evidently stereotypical curse on the day of one’s birth. I say stereotypical because it is the form of lament that opens the body of the book of Job.

Here’s where our first mitigating feature comes in. Like Job’s voice in Job 3, Jeremiah curses roundly the poor guy who brought the news about Jeremiah’s birth to his father:

Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you – a son!” May that man be like the towns the LORD overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon.

Talk about shooting the messenger! But here’s the point. This is rhetorical. What purpose would it serve for God to tackle that poor guy years later for a job well-intentioned and kindly performed? That’s not the purpose. Jeremiah (more likely than his editor alone here, I think) is letting off steam.

We should keep in mind when we read the bitter tones of the ‘oracles against the nations’ (e.g. Jeremiah 46-51) the role that rhetoric can play. They can make it sound as though God hates non-Israelites from the very bottom of his heart. Then how do we account for the sudden magnanimity of the gospel in the New Testament? We ought to keep in mind the natural extremity of rhetoric.

My time’s up. Second part next time.

Quick Links in the Book of Micah

I often write my posts pretty off-the-cuff, and this one will have to be an absolute first impulse, because I have 22% battery power left on my laptop, and no cord here at home. But chances to post come rarely so…

Here are some interesting leads for you to follow up in the book of Micah among the minor prophets, should you be so inclined:

  1. Micah’s hometown, Moresheth, mentioned in the title (1:1), appears again in the list of towns on the invasion route of Assyria as ‘Moresheth Gath’. Apparently it is represented by a large present-day ruin mound or ‘tell’ overlooking the Shephelah or western foothills of central Israel, or in ancient times, the borderlands of Philistia.
  2. The call to ‘hear’, using the very common Hebrew term ‘shema‘ in the plural, Micah 1:2, is very like similar calls to attention, or as it were, courtroom summons, at key locations in other prophets, e.g. Micah 6:1, to the mountains; Hosea 4:1, to the Israelites, at the beginning of the body of Hosea, and Isaiah 1:2, to the heavens and the earth as witnesses of Israel’s wrongs.
  3. To go another verse, the frightening appearance of the LORD in 1:3 is very like the theophanic description in Habakkuk 3, not to mention Psalm 97. When the LORD goes out, the mountains shake and melt like wax, says Micah 1:4, and so does Ps. 97:5 and Nahum 1:5-6. Scholars these days talk about ‘cultural memory’ as a conduit for ancient traditions, and I can’t help but wonder about distant memories of some great volcanic eruption lying behind these descriptions of God’s fearful presence, notwithstanding scholarly pointing to similar mythological traditions in the Ugaritic literature.
  4. Micah 4:1-3 is famously nearly identical to Isa. 2:1-4, and scholars debate endlessly whose the passage was first, if either prophet’s. It actually finds a very natural ‘bed’ in Micah, because the judgment of the temple ‘mount’ (Heb. har) in 3:12 is immediately reversed in the supreme blessing of the same mount in 4:1.
  5. Speaking of the devastation of Jerusalem’s ‘mountain’ in 3:12, which would have to be Micah’s most pioneering prophecy, as he was the first to forecast devastation for Jerusalem, along with exile to Babylon (4:10, acknowledging what most scholars would conclude here, but I still suspect it’s Micah’s own), there is a shared word here too. Jerusalem is so destroyed in Micah’s prediction here that it returns to scrub (ya’ar). Yet in 7:14, ya’ar becomes a positive image, as the LORD shepherds his people in the mountain scrublands such as Bashan and Gilead.
  6. Micah has a Jeremiah-style complaint in ch. 7 beginning in v. 1, which also uses the Hebrew term for ‘summer fruits’ that appears in Amos 8:1.
  7. Micah 7:17 speaks of foreign leaders coming bowing and scraping to Israel, licking the dust like serpents. As well as a suggestive help for understanding the curse on the snake in Genesis 3, it is very close to Isaiah 65:25, saying “Dust will be the serpent’s food.”

More generally, and my battery’s about to go, I find the relief from the burden of finding a great enough sacrifice to really remedy sin in Micah 6:8 a very prescient passage from a gospel point of view, though no real means of atonement is flagged there. But in 7:18 we do have a God who forgives, rather than staying angry forever, leading to an uplifting and hopeful conclusion that is taken up at the end of Mary’s long in Luke 1:55 or so, as Luke makes the connection between the hopeful texts of the OT prophets and the advent of Christ. God would prove true not just to Jacob but to all the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.”

Ten Books on the Boil: The Other Five

Well, the truth is you can’t really keep ten books properly on the boil. And a word from experience: this isn’t the kind of snappy title that attract readers to a blog post. Learning as we go. But, in the interests of finishing something that you start, here are some comments on the following five books whose reviews were flagged in a post probably two months ago:

  • Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (1996), by Marvin Sweeney
  • Interpreting Isaiah: issues and approaches (2009), edited by David Firth and H. G. M. Williamson
  • The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (1994), also by H. G. M. Williamson
  • Prolegomena to the History of Israel, originally 1878, by Julius Wellhausen (that ought to get a reaction), and
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.

Continue reading

A Great Post on the Nature of Prophecy

George Athas at his blog ‘With Meagre Powers’ has drawn my attention to an apt post by theologian Tim Bulkeley on the nature of prophecy. I agree with his point there, though it might challenge your ideas about what prophecy is!

http://bigbible.org/sansblogue/ot/prophets/amos/prophets-and-prediction/

I’m not emphasizing the point about conservatives. I am one to some extent, and know that we can all bring our preconceptions to our interpretation of the Bible. But Jeremiah certainly challenges us, especially in 18:7-10 and the lesson about the clay pot, to remember that God announced the future through his OT prophets in order to change that future, with the result, hopefully, that the dark future originally ‘predicted’ does not need to happen!

New Jeremiah Paper on Academia Site

Hello Old Testament/Hebrew Bible fans. If you’re interested in Jeremiah and/or OT law/torah, you might like to take a look at a paper I’ve recently posted on Academia.edu: http://www.academia.edu/10557454/Jeremiah_34_8-22._Fresh_Life_from_Ancient_Roots.

Jeremiah 34 Prezi Screenshot

It is intended to be read along with a prezi online, which is found at: https://prezi.com/nd26ypqgpu-u/jeremiah-348-22-fresh-life-from-ancient-roots-bilingual/. It is bilingual, thanks to my colleague Peter Tie’s contribution, so Mandarin readers can find some benefit there as well.

New Genre: The TwitView – a micro-book review

Book: Shead, Andrew G. A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: Apollos, 2012).

Looks like:
Shead - Mouth Fire
Pluses:
  • Solid grasp of the range of issues affecting Jeremiah
  • Excellent introduction to literary formation and structure of Jeremiah
  • Strong sense of biblical theology, and overall theologically very robust
  • Thoughtful and ambitious theology of the Word of God – a tour de force
  • Loves Jeremiah!
  • Wonderful value for money, at not much over $10. You’ll never get more bang for your buck.

Minuses:

  • Not as light as Reader’s Digest, that’s for sure, but clear and accessible for academic writing.
  • Ultimately draws the theological bow a bit too long, I felt, but well worth wrestling with.

Outro:

  • If you’re half interested in Jeremiah, and can handle a solid read, and have $15 to your name, you have to buy it!

Not Too Small to be Noticed: What Jeremiah 34 Says About the Value of the Individual

The Story in Brief: Zedekiah’s manumission of the slaves in besieged Jerusalem (Jer 34:8-22):

Under pressure from besieging Babylonian (or, as my young daughter read it out last night, ‘Babylion’) forces around 588 BC, Zedekiah, last king of Judah, secured the agreement of community leaders to release “fellow Jews” who were enslaved: 34:8-10, 15, 18-19. If we were to guess at his motives, and plenty of scholars have had a go, I think the most likely is that this was an attempt to set the covenant relationship with Yahweh on a better footing by fixing a point of obvious neglect of the law.

Civil laws in Exod 21:2-6 and Deut 15:12-18 set a six-year limit to the permissible period of enslavement of a ‘fellow Hebrew’, which by the time of the later Deuteronomy law seems to have simply acted as a synonym for ‘fellow Israelite’, though it probably meant something different in Exodus 21. My sense is that the prescribed limit of six years had long been neglected, and Israelite slaves had been kept indefinitely. Perhaps this rested uneasily on the conscience of some in Jerusalem, and it seemed an obvious point at which a gesture of renewed obedience to God could be made. Verses 18-20 imply that the covenant ceremony, which was conducted in the temple itself (v. 15), involved a ceremony of passing between the parts of animals divided in half, in a gesture of “let this be done to me if I fail to uphold this agreement,” i.e., a rather graphic self-maledictory oath. (The same practice lies behind Abraham’s dream in Genesis 15.)

Presumably upon the withdrawal of the Babylonian army in the face of Egyptian army manouevres (34:21), the slaveowners reneged on their covenant and re-subjugated their released slaves (34:11, 16). The effect was to make their gesture look particularly empty and artificial. This double-take elicited a judgment prophecy from Jeremiah, who condemned this violation of the recent covenant as symptomatic of Israel’s general covenant infidelity, and predicted Babylonian forces’ return and successful destruction of Jerusalem: 34:12-22.

Jeremiah 34 Prezi ScreenshotScreenshot of recent presentation on the slave release story. (See it at http://prezi.com/nd26ypqgpu-u/jeremiah-348-22-fresh-life-from-ancient-roots-bilingual/)

God’s Awareness of the Individual

Reading this story, my eye was caught by little phrase ‘לְנַפְשָׁם’ (l’naphshām). Translated “as they desired” (NET, w. NRSV similar) or “where they wished” (NIV), I now think “to live their own lives” (New Jerusalem Bible)’ is closer to the Hebrew. The important point is that either the will, or at least the wellbeing, of the slave is taken into account in this little phrase, i.e. the slave is considered as a person and not just property.

The same safeguarding of the slave as a person is seen in OT slave law. Exod 21:5-6; Deut 15:16-17 say that the choice to become a bondslave, i.e. to renounce the right to freedom after the stipulated ownership period of six years, remains the slave’s own. Deut 15:18 implies that this is an exception and should not quietly become the default arrangement, though it is possible to imagine this bondslave provision being exploited as a loophole, and it is hard to tell whether torah slave laws were ever properly enforced (though Jeremiah 34 and Nehemiah 5 provide case studies).

Deuteronomy often connects the slave’s domestic situation with the Israelites’ national past, most famously in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments:

“But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant,…so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. (15) Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:14b-15a NIV)

This care of the rights even of an owned individual fits a theme we see at various points in Jeremiah. Though the outlook for the nation is grim, as the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem is destined to fall as the inevitable expression of Yahweh’s judgment for Judah’s sin, the individual who remains faithful to God can, maybe not thrive, but survive:

  • Jeremiah, who is so afraid of his calling and continues to suffer through it, is made “iron and bronze” by the LORD and outlasts all of his rivals.
  • Ebed-Melech, the African royal court staffer who rescues Jeremiah from the cistern (Jer 38:7-13), is rewarded for his faith and faithfulness with survival of the crisis (39:15-18).
  • Baruch, who feels the burden of the prophetic ministry as his master does (45:3), is urged to let go of ambitions inappropriate to such a dark and difficult time (45:5a), but is also granted survival (45:5b).

Hinted at here is a possible freedom both from the mastery of ego and the grinding burden of self-loathing. The work and plan of God, we might say the Kingdom, is bigger than you or me. Like little children in a large family, circumstances cannot be ordered around our personal preferences. But like little children in a large family, each of us remains inestimably precious to God. To use Paul’s image, like the various parts of the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-27), each of us who has been inducted into the family of God, a privilege anyone may claim who is so minded, has a role to play in the right functioning of that body as a whole. In a sense, while we’re not needed by God, the Bible’s witness is that we are wanted.

That makes me relax a little. The need to try to prove my right to breathe has passed. I don’t need to achieve anything on the sporting field or in the business world (or academically!) to show onlookers that I’m a worthy human being. I don’t need to publish a book to be someone. Just my being here shows that I’m wanted, if this is a world where God presides.

Hands up anyone who prefers it to be a world where God does not preside.