Alas, poor Bible reading, pressure valve of my projects. I have become involved in two other writing projects, which means that yet again my progress here grinds to a halt for the time being.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
In today’s Chapters, we move forward in historical context. At the ends of Kings and Chronicles we saw the crash of Judah under Nebuchadnezzar’s war machine and the subsequent exile of the Israelites – which, we later figured out, really meant “the Israelite elite and artisan classes" – in Babylon. In Ezra and Nehemiah, we saw that when the exiles returned, they seemed to bring a new and more restrictive set of social and religious norms with them to impose on the folks who got left behind.
So, in Jeremiah 21 we jump right into Judah’s endgame. Zedakiah, the very last king of that disintegrating city-state, sends a couple of priests to Jeremiah to ask him if he can talk God into intervening on the Israelites’ behalf, like he used to back in the day. God’s answer is inconsistent. First, there is a resounding no: I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath. (5) The Israelites are told to surrender, or they will be killed. (9) And yet “moreover,” Jeremiah is supposed to tell the King that he has to do a better job of administering justice, or God will be angry. (11-14) Having the conditional warning come after the absolute statement rings oddly, as does the demand for changes of an administrative nature as Nebuchadnezzar’s thousands sweep down out of the east.
Jeremiah 22 is much the same, but in the reverse order. After an admonition to reform the justice system, Jeremiah (presumably speaking for God) goes into some detail about how Jerusalem is going to be sacked and how people will be talking about it in the past tense, once everybody goes into exile. In particular, he predicts grim fates for a couple of kings of Judah. One, Shallum son of Josiah, is a bit mysterious as he doesn’t appear in Kings or Chronicles, or at least in my notes thereon (although there is a much earlier king of Israel by that name who held the throne for one month before getting assassinated). The other, Johoiakim, comes two kings before Zedakiah in Chronicles, but things are pretty muddled at that point in the succession. It might not have been clear towards the end exactly who was boss.
False prophets are castigated at length in Jeremiah 23. They are dismissed as either reporting their dreams or simply making stuff up. Special attention is paid to the phrase “oracle of the Lord,” which is apparently a giveaway – there is no such thing as an “oracle of the Lord,” if I’m reading this right. (33-40) Although again, I’m not sure how the Israelite in the street is supposed to distinguish between Jeremiah and the fakers.
Oh, the chapter begins with a Biblical prophesy about someone from the royal family of David who will come back to rule over all of Israel: This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness. (6) This might sound a little exciting to the Christian ear, but from the context we see that Jeremiah is talking about the restoration of Israel and Judah after the Babylonian exile. If that prophecy correctly points forward to someone, it’s Nehemiah or Ezra.
Jeremiah 24 is a very interesting little metaphor. After everyone – or, as is actually spelled out here, after the officials, the craftsmen and the artisans were taken into exile, God shows Jeremiah two baskets of figs. One basket has yummy figs, the other rotten figs. The people who are going into exile, says God, are the good figs. Everyone who gets left behind, or who seeks shelter in Egypt, is one of the rotten figs. I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, says God, a reproach and a byword, an object of ridicule and cursing, wherever I banish them. I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and to their fathers. (9-10) So… if you were not in the ruling or artisan class, you were pretty much doomed. Clearly God – or at least Jeremiah – is of Nehemiah and Ezra’s party.
In Jeremiah 25, God gives Jeremiah a cup of wine of his wrath. Jeremiah is assigned to go to all the kings of all the kingdoms in the world, and tell them to drink the wine, after which they will be killed. If they say that they don’t want to drink it, he is to say that they have to. And, Jeremiah reports that he did so, which would seem to suggest that he is either speaking very figuratively, that there has been some sort of problem with the translation, or that he was stark raving bonkers. Of all the things that the Bible has asked me to believe so far, the notion that a priest from Judah went around cajoling all of the leaders of the known world to drink a lethal divine beverage is perhaps the oddest. I can’t imagine that we are expected to take it literally, but… there it is.
Posted by Michael5000 at 11/20/2011 07:08:00 PM
Sunday, November 13, 2011
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
Posted by Michael5000 at 11/13/2011 03:58:00 PM
Sunday, November 06, 2011
Well, it’s no great secret this far in that the God of the Old Testament is not, despite occasional references to mercy and compassion, a particularly merciful or compassionate entity. This week's reading does nothing to reverse this impression. In the tenth through seventeenth Chapters of Jeremiah, the way is cluttered with anger, threat, and revenge. God is great, and pissed.
Jeremiah 10: The first sixteen Verses of Chapter 10 have Jeremiah transmitting God’s mockery of physical idols made by craftsman. Verses 17 – 22 are a warning of imminent destruction. Verses 23 – 25 are a plea from Jeremiah that God does not punish him personally, but rather “pour out [his] wrath” on foreigners and backsliders.
Jeremiah 11: God announces, through Jeremiah, that his Covenant with the Israelites has been broken by the unfaithfulness of the people of Judah and Israel:
16 The LORD called you a thriving olive treeIn the remaining five Verses, Jeremiah talks about a plot to silence or kill him, and how God is going to punish the plotters.
with fruit beautiful in form.
But with the roar of a mighty storm
he will set it on fire,
and its branches will be broken.
17 The LORD Almighty, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because the people of both Israel and Judah have done evil and aroused my anger by burning incense to Baal.
Jeremiah 12: For eleven chapters, Jeremiah has been talking about the disasters that are going to befall all Israelites, how the cities and countryside will be laid waste and the people enslaved or slaughtered. In that context, the portion of Jeremiah 12 called “Jeremiah’s Complaint” is kind of odd.
1 You are always righteous, LORD,Out of context, this is a very reasonable question: in the presence of a just God, why does evil prosper? Or, in the presence of a jealous God, why do the wayward prosper? It strikes an odd note here, however, because Jeremiah has been at pains to explain that these people are quite doomed and bringing everyone else with them. It seems to suggest a certain lack of conviction that he should be bringing the point up.
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
2 You have planted them, and they have taken root;
they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips
but far from their hearts.
Speaking of odd notes: Is the nature of Jeremiah’s complaint concerned with justice for the mistreated, or reward for the faithful? No. Jeremiah is much more interested in punishment than reward:
3 Yet you know me, LORD;The remainder of the Chapter is a response from God, who elaborates the extent to which He is sickened with the Israelites, and the extent to which He intends to punish them. In an interesting coda (14-17) He suggests that among the nations that are going to be carving up the Israelites’ territory, he will more or less adopt any that convert to worshipping him.
you see me and test my thoughts about you.
Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
Set them apart for the day of slaughter!
Chapter 13: This Chapter begins with metaphors (involving a linen belt and a wineskin) to illustrate the familiar idea that God no longer feels obligated to protect the Israelites due to their faithlessness. The second half of the Chapter is more announcement of dire punishment coming, slavery and exile in particular.
Chapter 14: The heading “Drought, Famine, Sword” by and large sums up Jeremiah 14, but there are some interesting details. Jeremiah tells us that:
11 Then the LORD said to me, “Do not pray for the well-being of this people. 12 Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.”Now, one hates to come out and say these things, but this passage is not consistent with the idea of a God of infinite mercy. Just at the definitional level, it isn’t. You can’t have both this passage and a God of infinite mercy. Unless some words are redefined or reinterpreted, the idea and the text are incompatible. This is disturbing stuff, and it is sometimes hard for me to understand why more people aren’t disturbed by it.
Anyway, Jeremiah responds by pointing out that there are false prophets running around saying that everything is fine, and that this confuses the people into misbehavior. God’s response is simply that those guys, unlike Jeremiah, are not authorized and are not delivering his message. How the Israelite on the street is supposed to tell the difference is not addressed.
Chapter 15: This chapter is a continuation of Chapter 14. Here’s a taste of the rhetoric which, again, is not really consistent with generally accepted definitions of “mercy”:
1 Then the LORD said to me: “Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! 2 And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the LORD says:“‘Those destined for death, to death;Verses 11 – 21 are a little cryptic, but seem to be a conversation between God and Jeremiah, with God reassuring Jeremiah personally that because he has been virtuous, he will be spared.
those for the sword, to the sword;
those for starvation, to starvation;
those for captivity, to captivity.’3 “I will send four kinds of destroyers against them,” declares the LORD, “the sword to kill and the dogs to drag away and the birds and the wild animals to devour and destroy. 4 I will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what Manasseh son of Hezekiah king of Judah did in Jerusalem.
Chapter 16: In a series of stansas, God says not to marry or have children, not to attend funerals, and not to attend feasts. There is no point in human relationships, since everybody is due for the big punishment that is coming. In Verses 14 – 15, there is a brief segue into a theme that was much more common back in the book of Isaiah: the notion that at some point in the future, after the era of punishment, some surviving Israelites will be brought back to the Promised Land and given another go. But then we go right back to the punishment theme, which continues into…
Chapter 17: As elsewhere in Jeremiah, it can be hard to keep track of who is speaking in this Chapter – whether “I” is Jeremiah, or God, or some hypothetical third party. But I think it is Jeremiah who again shows his unhandsome attitude toward the salvation of others in Verses 17 -18:
17 Do not be a terror to me;And then, at the end of today’s reading – although, keep in mind that the locations that I choose to wrap up for the day may not have any organizational relevance – there is a long passage (19-27) that seems to contradict almost everything else in today’s reading. It homes in on something that we haven’t heard about for an awfully long time, the importance of the Sabbath. If the Israelites will reform on this point, God says (says Jeremiah), they can be spared the coming destruction.
you are my refuge in the day of disaster.
18 Let my persecutors be put to shame,
but keep me from shame;
let them be terrified,
but keep me from terror.
Bring on them the day of disaster;
destroy them with double destruction.
There is an illogic here, and I don’t see a ready way out of it. The Israelites are doomed and damned, mostly for their worship of false Gods, and there is no hope of a reprieve. It doesn’t matter that they were misled; the punishment is foreordained. Except, if they very carefully keep Sabbath, they will be spared. Again, the contradiction is right there at the fundamental level. I have been told many times that there are no contradictions in the Bible. This is said so often, and with such a level of confidence, that I didn’t really expect to see any, except perhaps here and there on a superficial level. At this point, though, consistency is no longer a reasonable assumption. Short of an escape clause along the lines of “The Prophets are fallible, and should not be expected to speak literal truth,” we have reached a point that the internal contradictions are too straightforward to get around.
And since I have begun admitting misgivings, I’ll throw out another one here: God prohibits the worship of false gods, and the breaking of this prohibition is always what angers him most. We have seen this innumerable times. But why? If God is universal and singular, and all other gods are just wood and clay, why get so worked up about a lack of faith? The options are obvious enough: get in touch and reestablish your preeminence, visibly reward the righteous, nip straying in the bud, or just laugh the whole thing off. Why is this particular phenomenon one that calls for periodic mass-punishment on such a grand scale? It’s not easy to tell whether it is OK to ask questions of the Old Testament God, but that would be mine if I had the chance.
Posted by Michael5000 at 11/06/2011 12:10:00 AM
Thursday, November 03, 2011
Inspirational Christian images are very, very common. You have almost certainly seen them all your life, with or without noticing. They consist of a short biblical verse printed over a photograph that may be thematically linked to the quotation, or may just be a sunset, a rainbow, or some similar attractive scene.
In addition to their substantial brick-and-mortar presence, these images are also widely displayed, offered, and sold (!) here online. I run into them constantly when I am working on MRtB, and over time I have come to find them a little troubling. So I thought I would make a little game.
What follows are:
Six typical inspirational religious images based on quotes from the first half of Jeremiah, found randomly on the internet.And the three questions, if you are playing the game, are: "Can you tell the difference? How? and What, if any, are the implications?"
Six additional images, also based on quotes from the first half of Jeremiah, that I assembled myself (I used one a few posts back).
Posted by Michael5000 at 11/03/2011 01:30:00 AM
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
There is a modest diversity in the nature of the Israelite badness. The top of the list continues to be the worshipping of false gods. Now, for many Books something has struck me as a little strange about this constant condemnation of religious waywardness, and I’ve finally figured out what it is. Let’s see if I can explain.
In a more usual sort of book for our time and place, by which I suppose I mean a novel or a history, an authorial hand would generally make sure that we saw the worshiping of false gods, or at least evidence of the worshiping of false gods, before moving us on to the consequences and reaction. Or, perhaps the order of these would be reversed, and the author might move from consequence to cause. But what a modern author does not ever do is show only consequence and reaction, without giving us any glimpses of a cause. So, as a reader trained inevitably to the story-telling modalities of my era, it creates some cognitive dissonance to read hundreds of pages about God punishing the Israelites for their constant worshipping of false gods, without ever hearing much about how many people were actually rushing off to the Azeroth poles, and when, and why.
This introduces a strange tension into the experience of Bible-reading. On one hand, it is easy enough to say “well, if God is always complaining about the Israelites’ waywardness, the Israelites must have always been wayward.” This doesn’t require mental gymnastics; we infer causes from consequences all the time. At the same time, however, we – and be “we” I mean we the novel-readers – have been teethed on a literature that invites or even demands that we made moral judgment of its characters. And if a novelist gave us a character that was always in an angry, punitive froth about something, but gave us no other evidence that this thing was happening, it would be understood as an invitation to understand the character as potentially unhinged, dangerous, disturbing. One knows that the Bible was not written with any such ideas in mind, nor was it intended to be read in this fashion, but because it is difficult to switch off a lifetime’s worth of context, the intellectual tension remains.
But I have digressed, as usual. In addition to the worship of false gods, Jeremiah accuses the Israelites of dishonesty, hypocrisy, sexual misbehavior, taking God for granted, and unkindness to the vulnerable. The punishments are equally varied, many involving a conquering army from the north but others involving environmental disasters, poisonous snakes, and so on. Unlikely words are occasionally put in the mouths of people who will suffer the punishments:
8:14 Why are we sitting here?And again and again, if we give Jeremiah credence, we are faced with the incredibly demanding discipline and baffling moral logic of God:
Let us flee to the fortified cities and perish there!
20 Now, you women, hear the word of the LORD;There is a certain grim beauty to it – as I mentioned last time, Jeremiah seems to me a poetic notch or two up from what we have seen before – but the words “justice,” “righteousness,” and “kindness” ring very oddly after an announcement that dead bodies will lie like dung on the open field. It’s very problematic. If when confronted by these passages one wants to take the Bible seriously, and yet not regard God as a vengeful horror, the only retreat is to “God’s ways are not man’s ways” and the notion that there is no frame of reference for a human to really conceive of an infinite and infinitely righteous God. Which then begs the question, why have I been asked so often, and in so many different ways, to read this book? Is there a virtue in trying to understand that which is incomprehensible? And if so, how will I know if I'm making progress?
open your ears to the words of his mouth.
Teach your daughters how to wail;
teach one another a lament.
21 Death has climbed in through our windows
and has entered our fortresses;
it has removed the children from the streets
and the young men from the public squares.
22 Say, “This is what the LORD declares:“‘Dead bodies will lie
like dung on the open field,
like cut grain behind the reaper,
with no one to gather them.’”
23 This is what the LORD says:“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the LORD.
Chapter Three is an extended metaphor of religious infidelity, and is an admirable and perhaps even witty piece of rhetoric. It has the memorable line Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to [her sister Judah], she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. After that, the predictions of punishment become a bit more generalized. It becomes hard to tell, sometimes, who “I” is – Jeremiah, God speaking through Jeremiah, or some random sinner being quoted. After a while, the text frankly starts to seem a bit repetitious to me. Indeed, in at least one instance it really IS repetitious, literally. Check out this passage:
13 “From the least to the greatest,That’s Jeremiah 6:13-15, but then it’s Jeremiah 8:10-12 too. See, I really am paying attention! I was also paying attention to Jeremiah 8:8, which reads:
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
14 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
they will be brought down when I punish them,”
says the LORD.
8 “‘How can you say, “We are wise,I very much doubt that Jeremiah conceived himself as a post-modernist paradoxically undermining the authority of Scripture even as he created Scripture, but he conjures much the same effect in this odd little Verse. To stretch the concept only a little, Jeremiah implies that you can’t trust the Bible, because it has been corrupted by human hands. You can only trust… Jeremiah, perhaps? Except, he’s in the Bible. It’s quite a conundrum.
for we have the law of the LORD,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?
See you next time!
Posted by Michael5000 at 10/26/2011 02:13:00 PM
Monday, October 17, 2011
As an aside to anyone who has been following along, obviously all previous goals, projected finishing dates, and so on are completely off the table at this point. Maybe I can get a rhythm going again, is as much as I can promise at this point.
Jeremiah 1 actually starts with some contextualization, which is nice. It tells us that what follows from 1:4 on is going to be The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. It also tells us when Jeremiah lived: from the thirteenth year of King Josiah of Judah through the reigns of Kings Johoiakim and Zedekiah.
Looking back to our notes from Kings and Chronicles, we see that this puts Jeremiah at the very end of independent Judah, which had managed to stay quasi-independent after the collapse of its larger sister kingdom, Israel. As Judah gets squeezed between the relative superpowers of Egypt and Assyria, there is a religious revival under King Josiah when, we were told, the laws of Moses were rediscovered in the temple, and reimplemented. After Josiah gets killed in an reckless-sounding attack on an Egyptian column, Judah slides rapidly towards its sack and pillage and the taking of the Israelites into exile. From this general background, I think we can anticipate a mood of pessimism.
The rest of the first chapter is a nice bit of narrative – the first we’ve really seen since way back in Job – with Jeremiah telling the story of how God came to him as a child and taught him to be a prophet. God speaks directly, in quoted passages, but also in imagistic puns – Jeremiah sees an almond tree, which means that God is watching, because “almond tree” and “watching” sound the same in Hebrew. (Obviously, I got that from the footnote.)
I had an emotional reaction to the first line of Jeremiah 1:5: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you… It's because I've seen this fragmentary quotation used on billboards, punctuated as a complete sentence and attributed “-God,” by the anti-abortion crowd. We are supposed to assume from the phrase that God, somewhere in the Bible, has made a definitive statement (directly addressed to us, no less) of when embryonic life should be protected under Federal statute. But here’s the full verse:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,This is God telling Jeremiah about his own personal destiny. Now, if our devious billboard designer wanted to justify distorting the passage for political scree he or she could obviously say “But the context doesn’t matter, its says right there that God recognizes individuals in utero.” To which the equally obvious and equally tedious counterargument is, “it says right there that God recognized Jeremiah in utero and also that he is unique and different, implying that God doesn’t make this distinction for the rank and file. Both interpretations are perfectly obvious to the person who wants to make hay with them, and both are totally without merit. Neither God nor Jeremiah says anything here about the moment at which life should be designated as beginning under law. He’s saying, “Jeremiah, you are a special person with a special mission.”
Before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
Of course, it’s Jeremiah telling us that God told him this. It is, I think, reasonable to keep such a thing in mind when evaluating a prophet.
Since Jeremiah is roughly contemporary with Isaiah, we would expect them to be singing from the same proverbial choirbook, and indeed it is so. Once the prophesy begins in Chapter 2, it focuses on the familiar theme that the Israelites’ decline into poverty and defeat is their punishment at the hands of God for their having strayed from religious orthodoxy.
The more I think about it – and one is forced to think about it a lot, in the Old Testament – the more it seems like this is a understandable mood for the late-Judah Israelites. Whether or not you believe that the premise of divine retribution is true, it must have felt true to the last holdouts in their little kingdom clustered around Jerusalem as they waited to see which of the neighboring powers were going to sack them. “We used to be regional contenders,” they must have thought, “and now we’ve been laid low. What went wrong?”
If you look for the answer to such a question in the theological realm, there are several answers available. “Their gods must be better than our gods” seems to have been a common response across many cultures in such a predicament, or even “Our god must have died” or “We haven’t been living right, so our god isn’t backing us up against their gods.” Since the Israelites don’t have full recourse to the idea of other gods – the Old Testament, despite its strong undercurrent of hegemonic polytheism, certainly has several definitive statements of absolute monotheism – none of these answers are available to them (or at least not to a religious leader like Jeremiah). Therefore if bad things are happening, it must be because God wants them to happen. If God wants bad things to happen, we must have done something to piss him off. What could that be? Religious unorthodoxy is a conspicuous candidate, particularly so perhaps if you are – like Jeremiah – a priest.
Whether Jeremiah will join Isaiah in the ecstatic promise of future glory years remains to be seen. He doesn’t in Chapter 2. But very much like Isaiah, he rails first against Israelites who have worshiped other gods, and secondarily against those who have emigrated to Egypt or the Euphrates Valley. He also, moreso than I think we’ve seen in previous books, points a finger at Israelites who are simply indifferent to religion.
Why do my people say, “We are free to roam;This passage is a nice example of what, at least in the first few chapters, is a palpably different writing style in Jeremiah. So far, there have been none of the jagged mood swings that characterized Isaiah (and Psalms, for that matter). Instead of the repetitious rhythms of Isaiah, which felt sometimes like someone reading God’s plan for retribution off of PowerPoint slides, Jeremiah is so far much more fluid and integrated. It is adorned in metaphor like a bride in her wedding ornaments! Elsewhere in Chapter 2, the straying Israelites are compared to animals in heat, disgraced thieves, poorly cross-pollinated vines, and prostitutes. And this line has special literary relevance for modern English readers:
We will come to you no more;?
32 Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.
22Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abudance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” declares the Sovereign Lord.Out out, damn spot!
See you in Chapter 3!
Posted by Michael5000 at 10/17/2011 07:26:00 PM