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.

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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.

A Tasty Snippet from Jeremiah 10

Well, just wrote a whole post on this and lost the lot just before saving. Hmph.

To be brief, then, there’s a ripper little near-palindrome and the only piece of Aramaic in the Old Testament outside of Ezra and Daniel except for two words used as a name for a pile of rocks by Laban in Genesis.

It’s seemingly given to Jewish exiles in Babylon as a comeback line for locals who want to mock them for worshipping the invisible (and lone) god of an insignificant and now conquered people.

Here’s a line they can use:

“Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.'” (Jer 10:11 NIV)

Like any good comeback line, it has the virtues of carrying a truth, and also of sounding cool. This diagram shows that it is almost a palindrome, one of those lines like ‘racecar’ or ‘a man, a plan, a canal, panama’, that works the same way forwards and backwards. This one mainly works aurally rather than visually, but here it is with the transliterated Aramaic to give you the idea. (Created using Prezi.)

Jeremiah 10.11

There’s the Maker God, and there are the made gods. Big difference. Another gem from a fascinating book!

When Prophecy Was Meant to Fail

My title above is a spin on that of a book I long knew about but only read within the last 12 months, Robert Carroll’s When Prophecy Failed, published back in the 80s.  Carroll’s book pointed out a range of OT prophecies that look for all the world unfulfilled.  There are some celebrated examples where he is clearly right, such as the prediction in Ezekiel 26 where the word of God predicts Tyre’s utter destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, which was followed at a later date by the prophecy in the final verses of Ezekiel 29 (vv. 18-21) that offer King Neb Egypt as a consolation prize in place of the still-elusive Tyre, which he was unable to conquer despite a long campaign.

Carroll - When Prophecy Failed

I’ve just seen a reference to it in a fairly recent essay by a scholar I quite enjoy reading, Ronald Clements, ‘Prophecy Interpreted…A Case Study in Jeremiah 26:16-24,’ in Uprooting and Planting: Essays on Jeremiah for Leslie Allen, ed. John Goldingay (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2006), 32-44.  Here’s an apt comment about Carroll’s proposal in a footnote of Clements (p. 35 n. 3):

“When understood as a message of divine warning, prophecy would not be regarded as having “failed” if those who heard it responded in such a way that the threat could be…revoked.”

Here Clements picks up on a truth seen in prophecy throughout the Old Testament and fundamental to Jeremiah: The freedom of God to respond to human beings overrides considerations of the prophet’s predictive reliability.  That is, God is willing to let his prophet be wrong if a threat of doom He has given the prophet to proclaim achieves its main purpose.

That main purpose is not to predict the future.

It is to change the behaviour and attitudes of his people.

If the threat of trouble ahead brings about humility and practical repentance, then the predicted doom need not fall.  Check out this programmatic passage from Jeremiah:

 7  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed,
8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,
10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
11 “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’
(Jer 18:7-11 NIV)

An inevitable ramification of this is that the prophet will be left out in the cold, as far as being correct about the future!  But God will not bind himself to his forecast, hypothetical future, if that means being unable to change course in response to the very change the prophetic message he sent was intended to produce!  Theologically, we’re talking about the vital doctrine of the freedom of God.

Oh, and one other key theological issue is at stake: real relationship.  No-one who is utterly unable to respond to the opposite party is really in relationship with that other party.  The portrayed God of the Old Testament is, as our Jeremiah passage so clearly shows, really very willing to change his planned course of action in response to human changes in their relational stance toward him.

This is very profound and very important, and should be a key part of our personal theologies.

For other vivid OT examples of this principle at work, see:

  • The book of Jonah, whose prophetic content is limited to a single verse!  And whose single verse of prophecy turns out not to come true!  And that because it is warning, it is heeded, and the forecast doom is no longer needed!  All to Jonah’s profound displeasure, but let no-one fail to appreciate what a radical and profound little book this is!
  • 1 Sam. 2:30, where the LORD says of Eli’s priestly family:

“Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever. ‘ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” (NIV)

  • And Clements’ own example, Jeremiah 26:18-19, where the prophet Micah’s long-past prediction that Jerusalem would be so thoroughly destroyed that it would be like a ploughed rural hilltop is raised as an example of a prophetic word that did not come to pass because its hearers responded in repentance as intended.

There are many others.  The book of Jeremiah makes clear that prophetic prediction was not always meant to fail.  There comes a clear turning point in Jeremiah’s ministry where the forecast doom was no longer a warning, but an inevitability, and those who tried to avoid the sentence of God, e.g. by resisting the Babylonian advance, were just prolonging their own pain.  But this other side of the prophetic coin might just open our minds to the multifaceted purposes of OT prophecy, and to a neglected side of biblical theology.