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!


Voron X said...

Bravo! Your analysis seems spot on from what I remember. Mind you, my bible-reading was much earlier in my youth, and I did not have as many years exposure to modern literary/storytelling forms, but I do remember thinking (and some of this may have been while reading the Children's Bible, I'm not sure) I remember thinking (somewhere in the back of my brain) at parts, "Wow, what a dumb story, the same thing keeps happening over and over again."
Of course, It was not supposed to be fiction, but I knew it was a story all the same.

Michael5000 said...

Thanks, Voron. This episode was a little more "Michael Reads Michael Reading the Bible" than straight Bible-reading. I'm always amazed by how much by how much I want to talk about after a few chapters of reading -- as is Mrs.5000, I think, who has long since retired from what she things of as one of my more tedious adventures.