Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jeremiah 3 - 9: Reading Jeremiah in 2011

Reader, it is as I feared: the Book of Jeremiah does not take very long to get into its groove, and that groove is much the same groove as had the Book of Isaiah. Which is to say, of course, that the Israelites have been very, very bad, and that therefore God is going to punish them plentifully.

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:
I hope you will forgive me this bit of genre parody. 
8:14 Why are we sitting here?
Gather together!
Let us flee to the fortified cities and perish there!
And again and again, if we give Jeremiah credence, we are faced with the incredibly demanding discipline and baffling moral logic of God:
20 Now, you women, hear the word of the LORD;
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.
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?


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,
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.
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:
8 “‘How can you say, “We are wise,
for we have the law of the LORD,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?
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.

See you next time!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jeremiah 1-2: First New Book in a Year and a Half!

OK, here we go. Jeremiah is the second-longest book of the Bible by a nose – Psalms is the longest – so we’ll hope that I can make brisker progress with it than I did with Isaiah, the fifth longest. After Jeremiah, I’ll catch breath with little Lamentations before heading on to Ezekiel, itself the third longest book in the Bible.

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 Begins

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,
Before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
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.”

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.

Jeremiah 2

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;
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.
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:
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!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Isaiah 61-66: Ultimate Isaiah

So, as I was saying, the Book of Isaiah is an unsettling document to the lay reader. By “to the lay reader” I of course mean “to me.” Still, the whiplash transitions throughout the Book between prophecies of paradisiacal futures to come and prophecies of relentless destruction of Israel, Israel’s enemies, or both, are pretty extreme. I’ve also noted that, for a major prophet, Isaiah doesn’t seem to have been much of a hand at predicting the future. Other disturbing details have cropped up in the Book as well; virgin birth seems to be more common than you’d expect, and at least some of Isaiah’s preaching is done, per God’s instruction, in the buff. The Bible is full of surprises.

Isaiah 61 is Isaiah at his gentlest. It speaks of the coming “Year of the Lord’s Favor,” a time of peace, prosperity, and plenty for everybody who has had a tough life up to now. It speaks of “the oil of gladness” and “double portions” and the rebuilding of ruined cities. But we are still in the brutal mindset of the Old Testament age, of course, and even in this idyllic vision there are undercurrents. Part of the blessing, for instance, is that people won’t have to work so hard because Aliens will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. The Israelites will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. (5-6) To our minds this may seem a little cynical, but to Isaiah a natural part of plenty is being in the position to boss, rather than to be bossed.

Chapter 62 keeps up this positive theme, and stipulates that the name of Jerusalem will be changed to Hephzibah, and that its lands will be called Beulah rather than Zion. “Beulah” doesn’t really seem to have taken off; “Hephzibah” I’ve never even heard of.

Isaiah 63 is of two parts. Verses 1 – 6 are a short vignette of a figure – God, one supposes – who comes from “trodding the winepress” so that his clothes are soaked and red; what he has really been up to is the bloody business of trampling the nations.

Verses 7 through 19 are a prayer that starts by reciting “the kindnesses of the Lord” to the Israelites, but then interestingly modulates into a tone of complaint that God is perhaps not as kind as he used to be. “Why, O Lord,” the prayer asks, “do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?” (17) This is a very fair question, and addresses a puzzling Old Testament commonplace: God is so often said to cause people to defy him, and then to punish them mightily for defiance.

Isaiah 64 continues this prayer. (Here, again, the division of Isaiah seems very arbitrary. One so wishes to correct the editing so that 63:1-6 stands alone and 63:7-19 are not separate from 64, but I suppose that there would be brisk institutional resistance to any such rationalizing scheme.) In it “the people” (as portrayed by Isaiah?) continue to ask rather poignant questions of God. Why, when He has claimed an ability and responsibility to actively intervene on behalf of His people, do things always go badly? Why aren’t there miraculous interventions any more, like there used to be. Or, why does divine action seem to consist always in punishment, never in reward? If God is all-powerful, and the Israelites are his people, why is Zion a wasteland, Jerusalem a slum, and the Temple burned down?

Isaiah 65 is God’s answer, and in Verses 1 – 16 that answer is “incorrect ceremonial practice.” People that make sacrifices of the wrong kind, in the wrong places, who don’t keep kosher, and so on, are in for a world of hurt. This kind of misbehavior is as always blurred with religious infidelity, the outright worship of other gods instead of or in addition to God.

11 “But as for you who forsake the LORD
and forget my holy mountain,
who spread a table for Fortune
and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny,12 I will destine you for the sword,
and all of you will fall in the slaughter;
for I called but you did not answer,
I spoke but you did not listen.
You did evil in my sightand chose what displeases me.”

Then, is Verses 17-25, God says – or is made to say, by Isaiah – that He is going to start over with a new universe. He will make a new heavens, a new Earth, and a new, better, Jerusalem. There will be no sorrow and no sickness, and lifespans will be much increased. The existing heavens and Earth “will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” It’s a remarkable passage, and rather alarming in its casual promise of obliteration of our entire reality. On the face of it, is seems isolated from anything that has come before, and from anything I’ve ever heard of Jewish or Christian theology.

Isaiah 66 is the final chapter of the Book. It does not really wrap things up, so far as I can tell, but seems a fitting reprise to all of Isaiah in its puzzling muddledness. It contains within it celebration at the coming greatness of Jerusalem, but it’s right there alongside angry imagery like this:
15 See, the LORD is coming with fire,
and his chariots are like a whirlwind;
he will bring down his anger with fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For with fire and with his sword
the LORD will execute judgment on all people,
and many will be those slain by the LORD.
For whom does the bell toll?
“These are the ones I look on with favor:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word.
3 But whoever sacrifices a bull
is like one who kills a person,
and whoever offers a lamb
is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense
is like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
and they delight in their abominations;
4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, no one listened.
They did evil in my sight
and chose what displeases me.”
Well, this is frankly puzzling, because Isaiah and indeed the entire Old Testament to this point has been all about following instructions, and sacrificing bulls and lambs and making grain offerings is very much something you ARE supposed to do. In fact, a few verses later, there is a reference to the grain offerings that are going to happen when the Israelites triumph over all of the other kingdoms of the world.

Isaiah, ladies and gentlemen.

COMING SOON in Michael Reads the Bible: Jeremiah!