Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The "Script" of Jeremiah

Last Advent I did an informal study of Isaiah, especially how that book's contents (with material spanning the 8th through 6th centuries BC) fit together. I posted some informal notes to guide my ongoing reading (, and my December 6 "Journeys Home" post this month). Jeremiah is another long book that resists a reader’s efforts to see connections. Here are a few personal notes about Jeremiah for this Advent season.

If you've ever read or browsed Jeremiah, you know that the book is complex, lacking chronological order and with different genres, styles, voices, and theological perspectives. John Bracke, recently retired from Eden Seminary where I’m an occasional adjunct, notes that the book's form “is the result of a very complicated process that occurred over a long period of time.”(1)

Writing in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 3, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), Louis Stulman writes, “Despite the enormous influence it has exerted on the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation, Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books in the BIble to read” (p. 220; the whole article is pages 220-235). Even the prose material alone is written in different styles. Some of the material is likely from Jeremiah himself, other material from Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch. The book has also been edited, and reflects a theological outlook in keeping with the "Deuteronomistic history."

Thus, to start with, I found very helpful an outline that Stulman has sketched, showing the basic grouping of theological themes within Jeremiah. He argues that the book has two sections, 1-25 and 26-52, forming a “two-part prophetic drama,” each with five acts (p. 221).

He calls the first part, “Dismantling Judah’s cherished social and symbolic categories.” This part’s five acts are:

Introduction (1:1-19)
1 The basis for God’s judgment (2;1-6:30)
2 Dismantling the Temple (7:1-10:25)
3 Dismantling the Covenant (11:1-17:27)
4 Dismantling “insider privileges” (18:1-20:18)
5 Dismantling the monarchy (21:1-24:10)
Conclusion, “the world under divine judgment” (25:1-38)

The second part is “Restoration and hope amid the wreckage: a survivor’s manual.” The five parts are:

Introduction, on hope (26:1-24)
1 “Conflicting theologies of hope” (27:1-29:3)
2 “The book of hope” (30:1-33:26)
3 “Moral instruction for the new community” (34;1-35:19)
4 “Traces of hope amid the wreckage” (36:1-45:5)
5 “God’s reign on earth signaling hope for Judean refugees in Babylon (46:1-51:64)
Conclusion: “Jehoiachin’s restoration as embryonic hope” (52:1-34)

The book addresses the fall of Jerusalem and Judah to the Babylonians in 587 BC, including the destruction of the temple. Bracke notes that there are three important perspectives about God of special importance:

1. God is sovereign. “God’s word changes history through judgment---plucking up and pulling down---and through restoration---building and planting” (p. 7). The people who had been rescued from Egypt and given a precious land had broken God’s covenant and strayed from God’s law, and therefore they must go into exile. But God is also faithful and merciful and will restore the land and the temple and will establish a new covenant (pp. 7-8).

2. Along with the anguish of the people of Judah, God “also experiences hurt and disappointment” (p. 8). God is a rejected husband and a rejected parent. Although God punishes his people, God is also in tremendous pain because of their pain and anguish (p. 8).

3. God is ultimately interested in “building and planting” (1:10), although at the end of Jeremiah this is promised rather than fulfilled (p. 9).

One of Shulman’s summary statements is interesting: “Jeremiah is ‘guerilla theater,’ a text of resistance that reimagines symbol systems and reframes and social realities. It reenacts or performs the fall and rise of Judah as well as the defeat of the geopolitical power structures responsible for Judah’s mistreatment. it attempts to convince Jewish refugees in Babylon that economic-military domination is not the final word and that God is an unflinching advocate for those devastated by war and exile. In effect, the book of Jeremiah is a liturgical act that creates a quite particular world, one that stands in stark contrast to ‘other worlds’ where absolute power, autonomy, and economic exploitation reign... [T]he text ennobles those on the margins to protest and dissent, ridicule and revel, and imagine a counter order. The prophetic script empowers broken people with the will to survive and the resolve to act with courage And ultimately Jeremiah functions as a dangerous ‘weapon of hope’ that will not knuckle under to political aggression, military might, or relentless despair” (pp. 234-235).

Clearly the hope of Jeremiah dovetails well with---and presages---our Advent hope.  I'll record a few more notes here soon.

1. John M. Bracke, Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).  See also his book Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (same date and publisher).

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