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!

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