Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jeremiah 21 – 25: Good Figs, Bad Figs, and the End of Judah

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.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jeremiah 18-20: Jeremiah Himself

The figure of Jeremiah himself is prominent in these three Chapters.  Jeremiah 18 begins with a specific message from God to the prophet, to the effect that he should go down to the potter’s shop and receive a message there.  As Jeremiah watches the potter work clay, sometimes abandoning a false start and reshaping something different out of the same clay, he says that it is the same with God and his people: God made the Chosen People, and he can scrap them and start over at any time, if he decides to.

There is more curious tension in Jeremiah 18, of the kind I mentioned last week, between whether the doom predicted by the prophet is foreordained or avoidable.  Is Jeremiah warning the Israelites, or just letting them know they are toast?  God/Jeremiah usually speaks as if it is the latter, but the issue is confused in 18:7-8.
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.
So, this sounds like it renders much of which we’ve been reading in Jeremiah somewhat more flexible.  But then when God tells Jeremiah to go deliver his message, he adds But they will replay, ‘It’s no use.  We will continue with our own plans, each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart. (12)  Which brings things back to sounding kind of preordained. 

Jeremiah 18: 13-17 is God’s message of intended punishment for his neglect.  Then, in Verses 18-23, Jeremiah complains of a whisper campaign against himself, and implores God to repay his community with famine and slaughter.

Chapter 19 also begins with a trip to the potter’s shop.  This time, Jeremiah is told to buy a pot, which he will eventually break metaphorically during a, well, a Jeremiad I suppose, to make a point about God’s ability to shatter Jerusalem at will.  It’s a rare moment when we are given a glimpse of a prophet in action.

There is a brief narrative line in Chapter 20, as the high priest hears about Jeremiah’s preaching and, apparently finding it objectionable, has him beaten up and put in the stocks overnight.  When he is let out, Jeremiah tells the priest that he will be carried away to Babylon and die there, along with all his friends.  Which may actually have been true, but you can kind of see why Jeremiah wasn’t winning any popularity contests.

In fact, he complains to God from 20:7 to the end of the Chaper, 20:18, about his lot as a prophet.  He is mocked, insulted, and reproached all day long, he says, and regrets that he was ever born.  He curses the day he was born, the man who told his father he had been born, and the fact that he was not stillborn.  It is not easy being a prophet, apparently.  Jeremiah is not a happy man.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Jeremiah 10 – 17: Those destined for death, to death.

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 tree
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.
In the remaining five Verses, Jeremiah talks about a plot to silence or kill him, and how God is going to punish the plotters.

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,
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.
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.

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;
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!
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.

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;
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.
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.

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;
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.
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.

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.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Twelve Passages from the Book of Jeremiah

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.

Six additional images, also based on quotes from the first half of Jeremiah, that I assembled myself (I used one a few posts back).
And the three questions, if you are playing the game, are: "Can you tell the difference? How? and What, if any, are the implications?"