Friday, February 28, 2014

Lamentations 1:1-2:22


The tone of Lamentations 1 is sorrow with a heavy dose of confession. Daughter Zion (i.e. Jerusalem) has been brought down and made ashamed:

How deserted lies the city,
    once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
    who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
    has now become a slave.
      (Lamentations 1:1)

She has been betrayed and abandoned by her lovers. Throughout Jeremiah, the NIV translated the word "lovers" with the explanatory "allies." Here it allows the metaphor to stand:

Bitterly she weeps at night,
    tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
    there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
    they have become her enemies.
      (Lamentations 1:2)

Verse 8 makes the reason for her condition clear:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly
    and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
    for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
    and turns away.

Jerusalem's sins are expressed in terms of sexual impropriety and ritual uncleanness.

Zion stretches out her hands,
    but there is no one to comfort her.
The Lord has decreed for Jacob
    that his neighbors become his foes;
Jerusalem has become
    an unclean thing among them.

      (Lamentations 1:17)

"Unclean thing" in that verse is, according to the notes in the Jewish Study Bible, literally "a menstruating woman."  Ancient Israel's misogyny and aversion to bodily fluids has been well-established in earlier blog posts.

It's clear that Jerusalem's condition is YHWH's doing.

...the Lord has sapped my strength.
He has given me into the hands
    of those I cannot withstand.

      (Lamentations 1:14b)

But Daughter Zion accepts the blame:

The Lord is righteous,
    yet I rebelled against his command.
Listen, all you peoples;
    look on my suffering.
My young men and young women
    have gone into exile. 

      (Lamentations 1:18)

If this sounds like the abused wife who blames herself to you, well, you're not the only one to think so.

Anger is the tone of Lamentations 2. In particular, it is YHWH's anger.

How the Lord has covered Daughter Zion
    with the cloud of his anger!
He has hurled down the splendor of Israel
    from heaven to earth;
he has not remembered his footstool
    in the day of his anger.
      (Lamentations 2:1)

YHWH has become like an enemy to his people.

The Lord is like an enemy;
    he has swallowed up Israel.
He has swallowed up all her palaces
    and destroyed her strongholds.
He has multiplied mourning and lamentation
    for Daughter Judah.    (Lamentations 2:5)

Everybody, from the young girls to the old men, mourns the situation. 

The elders of Daughter Zion
    sit on the ground in silence;
they have sprinkled dust on their heads
    and put on sackcloth.
The young women of Jerusalem
    have bowed their heads to the ground.
      (Lamentations 2:10)

And what a situation! The children are dying. Starving parents are reduced to cannibalism.

[Children] say to their mothers,
    “Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
    in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
    in their mothers’ arms. 
      (Lamentations 2:12)

Look, Lord, and consider:
    Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring,
    the children they have cared for?

      (Lamentations 2:20)

The people pray to an absent and uncaring God:

The hearts of the people
    cry out to the Lord.
You walls of Daughter Zion,
    let your tears flow like a river
    day and night;
give yourself no relief,
    your eyes no rest.

      (Lamentations 2:18) 

In some sectors of the Church, this call and response dialog has become popular:

God is good/All the time. All the time/God is good.

In the book of Lamentations, not so much.


Biblical quotations are taken from the New International Version. Next: Lamentations 3-5

Thursday, February 27, 2014


The book of Lamentations (called 'Ekhah, "Alas!" in Hebrew) is a collection of five poems. Each poem is a chapter of the book. The first four are alphabetic acrostics; every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are eacj 22 verses long. Chapter 3 is a "triple acrostic," 66 verses long, sets of three verses beginning with the same letter. Chapter 5 is also 22 verses long but is not an acrostic. The purpose of the acrostic structure might be to convey completeness: "lamentations from A to Z."

The introduction to Lamentations in the CEB Study Bible (p. 1301 OT) notes that:

Each poem has a different different tone and character. The poetry is difficult, containing many rare words and odd grammar, and the arrangement of verses doesn't always seem to make sense.

The occasion for these poems is the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (p. 1167 Hebrew Bible) says:

The poems of Lamentations may be dated to the sixth century, probably between 586 and 520 BCE, when the Temple was rebuilt.

The prophet Jeremiah has traditionally been identified as the author of Lamentations. Critical scholarship finds good reason to doubt that ascription. (Critical scholarship finds good reason to doubt most everything). As the introduction to Lamentations in the Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible puts it:

The writer of the poems was long believed to be the prophet Jeremiah, probably because 2 Chronicles 35:25 mentions that his laments were recorded. Second Chronicles, however, reports that Jeremiah mourned the death of King Josiah (609 b. c. e), not the fall of Jerusalem. In the end, the author of Lamentations remains unknown.

It is, of course, also possible that the poems of Lamentations had more than one author.

The book of Lamentations expresses almost unrelieved grief, horror, sorrow, and anger at YHWH who is blamed for Jerusalem's destruction. It is an ancient primal scream. The contrast to the Song of Songs couldn't be stronger. The Hebrew Bible expresses a wide range of human emotion and experience.

Several voices speak in the book of Lamentations. It is not always easy to identify who is speaking. One voice is notably absent. YHWH is silent.

A few notes from Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan's introduction to Lamentations in The People's Companion to the Bible (pp, 158-9):

Daughter Zion, represented as a woman, princess, widow, lover, daughter, and/or mother, personifies Jerusalem, YHWH's punished spouse....

Emilie Townes, a womanist social ethicist, reminds us that lament precedes healing. Lament asks for deliverence....Naming the pain makes it bearable.

Finally, the Harper Collins Study Bible introduction says,

The book of Lamentations is a work of art produced in response to a historical tragedy.


"I don't like Jeremiah."

That thought, unbidden, flitted across my mind as I was reading the other day. But as soon as I thought it, I knew the idea was incomplete, inaccurate, unrefined, and untrue. So, like a good Lutheran, I asked myself "What does this mean?" Just what do I dislike? How and why do I dislike it?

The fact is, I like the book of Jeremiah quite a lot. I don't particularly enjoy it. Like the times in which it was composed, the book of Jeremiah is dark, gloomy, violent, and unhappy. But it is also moving. Its imagery is compelling. Its structure, or lack thereof, is intriguing; its poetry powerful. So while I may not enjoy the book of Jeremiah, I do rather like it.

So what then does it mean to think "I don't like Jeremiah"? Maybe it is the personality of the prophet himself. He is quite the Gloomy Gus, after all, a regular Joe Bftsplk. You wouldn't want to invite him to a party. Arguably, he was also a traitor to his nation. It's hard to like traitors.

And yet, that's not it either. While the prophet Jeremiah may not have been the pleasantest person, he was not utterly devoid of charm. His prophetic acts arrest one's attention and capture one's imagination. That thing with the yoke? Brilliant! Beside that, I feel a certain sympathy for the guy. Saddled with a message even he didn't want to speak, compelled to deliver it anyway. Beaten for it, mocked, imprisoned, thrown into a well and left to die, and all the time he was right. It's hard not to feel for Jeremiah.

So, no.  It isn't that I dislike the prophet. But what then is it that I don't like?

In the end I concluded that what I don't like is Jeremiah's God. In the book of Jeremiah YHWH seems to have a permanent mad-on. The Lord is pissed-off at everyone and everything and seems determined to destroy it all. First, YHWH is going to send the Babylonians to execute his wrath on Judah and all the nations. Then, in a classic case of "Doh! You did what I told you!" YHWH plans to rain destruction down on the Babylonians too.

In God's defense I should point out that the eventual goal to all of this is the eventual restoration of Judah. There's just too little restoration, too much doom, destruction, and despair. 

And then there's the way that God treats Jeremiah. Let's face it, throughout this book our boy is getting dumped on. Jeremiah complains, and rightly so, that God deceived him. He thought that this prophecy gig would be a good thing. Instead, Jeremiah is tricked into doing the Lord's dirty work and then finds himself holding the proverbial bag. 

I don't much like Jeremiah's God.

I'm sure that some of my fellow Christians will take exception to that: "How can you say that you don't like God?" 

But that's not what I said. I said I don't like Jeremiah's God. 

"Isn't there only one God?" 

Of course there is only one God but no single revelation of God is complete. As a Christian I confess that Jesus is God's most intimate self-revelation. But even the revelation in Christ is incomplete. We still see "through a glass darkly." Besides, I don't think we're required to like God or any particular revelation of God. Heck, sometimes even Jeremiah doesn't seem to like his God very well.

I have said before that I believe the Bible to be a conversation, a dialog between God, God's ancient people, and believers through the ages. Theh partners in any honest conversation are allowed to disagree with one another. We don't have to like Jeremiah, or Jeremiah's angry God. 

As I think of it, my favorite characters in the Hebrew Bible are the one's who argue with God: Abraham, Moses, Job, and, yes, Jeremiah. So, in the end, I guess I like Jeremiah after all. I'm just glad that his is not the only revelation of God in the Bible.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Jeremiah 51:1-52:34


Jeremiah 51 is a continuation of the previous chapter's oracle against Babylon. In this chapter the prophet refers to Babylon as "Leb-Kamai" (v. 1) and "Sheshak" (v. 41). YHWH tells the Judahites to get out of Babylon because he's sending armies to destroy the nation.

Sharpen the arrows,
    take up the shields!
The Lord has stirred up the kings of the Medes,
    because his purpose is to destroy Babylon.
The Lord will take vengeance,
    vengeance for his temple.
      (Jeremiah 51:11 NIV)

In verses 20-23 YHWH says that he is sending a war club to smash (NRSV) or shatter (NIV) Babylon. The Hebrew phrase "with you I smash/shatter" occurs 8 times in these 4 verses. The precise identity of the war club is unclear. I would have to guess it's the Medes from verse 11 quoted above.

Verse 58 serves as a good summary for the chapter:

This is what the Lord Almighty says:
"Babylon's thick wall will be leveled
and her high gates set on fire;
the peoples exhaust themselves for nothing,
the nations' labor is only fuel for the flames."
      (Jeremiah 51:58 NIV)

The chapter ends with a prose passage in which, at Jeremiah's direction, Baruch's brother Sereiah performs a prophetic act. He reads Jeremiah's prophecy to the exiles in Babylon, ties a stone to the scroll, and tosses it into the river Euphrates.

So will Babylon sink to rise no more because of the disaster I will bring on her. And her people will fall.
      (Jeremiah 51:64 NIV)

That's it for Jeremiah's prophecies. Chapter 52 is a kind of historical appendix which closely parallels 2 Kings 24:18-25:30. It describes the fall of Jerusalem. The New Interpreters Study Bible has a note that offers a plausible explanation for this chapter:

At first glance, the chap. appears superfluous, but it actually presents the fulfillment of Jeremiah's message of judgment. It portrays the destruction of the nation's symbols in the invasion of the holy city, the blinding of the king, the death of the heirs to the throne, and the destruction of the temple. Whatever historical data may underlie the account, the chapter shows the nation's collapse just as Jeremiah had promised. Perhaps Jeremiah's words of hope will prove equally reliable.

Next: Lamentations 1-2

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jeremiah 49:1-50:46


Jeremiah's oracles against the nations continue in chapter 49. Ammon, Edom, Damascus (capitol city of Aram), Kedar and Hazor, and Elam get the prophet's attention in that order. All of them will be destroyed. Ammon and Elam are to be restored one day. Some of these nations are described as women, particularly women suffering birthpangs, symbolizing their helplessness and suffering. In all of this the Babylonians are used as the tool of YHWH's wrath.

Chapters 50 and 51 are a lengthy oracle against Babylon. The nation that was used by YHWH to punish Judah (and just about everyone else) will now be punished by YHWH for its treatment of Judah. The invader from the north will be invaded by forces from the north.

Summon archers against Babylon,
    all those who draw the bow.
Encamp all around her;
    let no one escape.
Repay her for her deeds;
    do to her as she has done.
For she has defied the Lord,
    the Holy One of Israel.
      (Jeremiah 50:29 NIV)

Next: Jeremiah 51-52

Jeremiah 46:1-48:47


Chapters 46-51 of Jeremiah are a collection of oracles against the nations.

Chapter 46 addresses the Egyptians. They will not fare well against the Babylonians. YHWH will offer them as a sacrifice (v. 10)! Egypt is described in animal imagery; Babylon in insect images:

Egypt is a beautiful heifer,
but a gadfly is coming
against her from the north.
      (Jeremiah 46:20)

Egypt's destruction will not be permanent. Verse 26 states that Egypt will be inhabited again one day. The chapter ends with a note that "Jacob" will suffer only limited punishment (vv. 27-28).

Chapter 47 is a short oracle against the Philistines. They are finally to be destroyed completely. Verses 6-7 are addressed to YHWH's sword which will not rest until it has attacked the Philistine city Ashkelon.

Chapter 48 is addressed to Moab. This chapter closely parallels Isaiah 15-16. The destruction of Moab is described city by city. Verse 10 curses those, Babylonians I should think, who do not take part in the destruction. Verses 11-12  use an analogy of wine.

Moab has been at rest from youth,
   like wine left on its dregs,
not poured from one jar to another—
   she has not gone into exile.
So she tastes as she did,
   and her aroma is unchanged.
But days are coming,"
   declares the Lord,
"when I will send men who pour from pitchers,
   and they will pour her out;
   they will empty her pitchers
   and smash her jars."

Like Egypt, Moab will one day be restored:

"Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab
in days to come,"
declares the Lord.
      (Jeremiah 48:47a)

Next: Jeremiah 49-50

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jeremiah 42:1-45:5


The story of the refugees from Mizpah continues. In chapter 42 they come to Jeremiah and ask him for an oracle from YHWH. They promise, absolutely promise, that they'll do whatever YHWH tells them. After 10 days Jeremiah gives them the word: "Don't go to Egypt." The last verses of this chapter (42:21-22) sound as if, though they haven't said so, the people have already made up their minds. Maybe Jeremiah is just anticipating that no one will listen to him. It has happened often enough before.

In chapter 43 Johanan, the leader of the remnant, gets suddenly insolent. He accuses Jeremiah of lying and then leads the refugees off to Egypt, dragging Jeremiah along for good measure.

Once in Egypt, Jeremiah makes another one of those prophetic actions for which he is known. He buries a couple of stones in the road and announces that king Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar in the Hebrew, but the good old NIV smooths it out for us) will set his throne up at this spot when he conquers Egypt.

In chapter 44 Jeremiah offers another oracle in the same vein. YHWH, he says, sent the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and Judah because the people worshiped other gods. Now the remnant in Egypt are worshiping Ishtar, the "Queen of Heaven." The people defend themselves saying that the Queen of Heaven has brought them what little prosperity refugees might be said to have. Jeremiah reasserts that YHWH is angry and will send the Babylonians to Egypt to destroy them.

Chapter 45 is a flashback to an earlier time. Remember Baruch, Jeremiah's secretary? YHWH promises that, although bad things are coming, Baruch will escape with his life.

The image of Jeremiah and Baruch came from the website of the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam. Next: Jeremiah 46-48

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jeremiah 38:1-41:18


The chronological order of the book of Jeremiah is often confused. At the end of chapter 37 Jeremiah was in prison. At the beginning of chapter 38 he seems to be out and about, preaching his message of capitulation to the Babylonians freely. Four officials take exception to Jeremiah's pronouncements and, with king Zedekiah's permission, lower him into a cistern where, sinking into the mud, he is left to starve to death. This is a literal and figurative low point in Jeremiah's career.

A foregiener, an Ethiopian servant named Ebed Melek ("Servant of the King") gets Zedekiah's permission to free Jeremiah. Indecisiveness may be one of Zedekiah's problems. The contrast between the duplicitous king and the forthright foreign servant couldn't be clearer.

In verses 14-28 we read that Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah and held another private conference with him in the temple. Jeremiah's advice is the same as ever: surrender to the Babylonians and live. Zedekiah is afraid to do so. Jeremiah tells Zedekiah that the women of his household will be taken captive, Zedekiah himself will be captured, and the city of Jerusalem will be burned. Zedekiah tells Jeremiah to keep this conversation secret.

Chapter 39 gives a brief account of the fall of Jerusalem which was told in greater detail in 2 Kings 25 and 2 Chronicles 36. When Zedekiah attempts to escape the besieged city, he is captured by the Babylonians, forced to watch his sons killed, then blinded, shackled, and taken to Babylon.

The Babylonians (they may be "Chaldeans" if your Bible hews closely to the Hebrew text) destroy Jerusalem and deport its wealthy and powerful citizens.

In chapter 39 the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar in the Hebrew) rewards Jeremiah's pro-Babylonian preaching by freeing the prophet from prison and handing him over to Gedaliah who, we will learn, was appointed governor over Judah by Babylonians. Jeremiah speaks a propitious oracle concerning Ebed Melek.

Chapter 40 tells a somewhat different story concerning Jeremiah's release. Here he is found among the captives being taken to Babylon but is freed and handed over to Gedaliah.

Either way, Jeremiah stays behind in Judah. Back in chapter 24 he had referred to those who did not go into exile as "bad figs." Here they appear to be the fortunate ones though things will soon go badly among them.

After verse 6 Jeremiah vanishes from the narrative for a while. Governor Gedaliah encourages the people, as Jeremiah did, to serve the Babylonians. Jews who had fled into neighboring lands return to Judah:

[T]hey all came back to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah, from all the countries where they had been scattered. And they harvested an abundance of wine and summer fruit.
      (Jeremiah 40:11)

Good fortune does not reign long. Gedeliah refuses to credit reports that a certain Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, is plotting to kill him.

In chapter 41, Ishmael assassinates the governor and thereby ends "even limited Judean autonomy in the land" as a note in the Jewish Study Bible puts it. This is the "culmination of the events associated with the destruction of the Temple and the exile."

Ishmael compounds his crime by murdering 70 mourning pilgrims who come to offer gifts at, we must suppose, the ruins of the temple. The motive for Ishmael's act is not clear. He dumps their bodies in a well. Another 10 pilgrims are spared, apparently because they buy their lives with the promise of hidden wealth. Ishmael takes the people of Mizpah, what's left of them, captive. A man named Johanan commands an army that rescues the Mizpahites. Ishmael escapes.

Now fearing that the Babylonians will send armies to end all of this internal strife, the rescued Mizpahites take it on the lam. The story isn't ended but the chapter is. So we'll leave off with a cliffhanger....

Next: Jeremiah 42-45

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jeremiah 35:1-37:21


You may be forgiven if you don't remember the Jehonadab (aka Jonadab), son of Rechab (or Rekab), ancestor of the Rekabites. We met him way back in the tenth chapter of 2 Kings where he and Jehu turned a temple of Baal into a latrine. Apparently Jehonadab also gave his descendants some instructions. As they express it to Jeremiah:

We do not drink wine, because our forefather Jehonadab son of Rekab gave us this command: ‘Neither you nor your descendants must ever drink wine. Also you must never build houses, sow seed or plant vineyards; you must never have any of these things, but must always live in tents. Then you will live a long time in the land where you are nomads.’ We have obeyed everything our forefather Jehonadab son of Rekab commanded us.
      (Jeremiah 35:6b-8a)
 Apparently the Rechabites have come into Jerusalem to escape the Babylonian threat. When they refuse Jeremiah's offer of wine, he holds them up as exemplars of faithfulness in contrast to the people of Judah and their king, Jehoiakim.

This story is out of chronological order but has probably been placed here because of the contrast that it makes to the disobedience of the Judahites in the matter of freeing (and then not freeing) their slaves in the preceding chapter.

The narrative of chapter 36 is also set in the time of Jehoiakim. Here Jeremiah enlists the help of Baruch (we met him in chapter 32, verse 12) in making a scroll of his dire prophesies. For some reason (that temple sermon maybe?) Jeremiah is barred from the temple premises. So he sends Baruch to read the scroll to the worshipers there. Some of Judah's officials then ask Baruch for a private showing. Keeping the scroll, they send Baruch and Jeremiah into hiding. Then the officials read the scroll to the king who, in a show of apparent unconcern, cuts it up and burns it a bit at a time. Jeremiah and Baruch then make a new scroll and add a few harsh words for Jehoiakim. He will have no successor to sit on his throne (v. 30). This is almost true. His son Jehoiachin does reign in Jerusalem but only for three months.

Chapter 37 brings us back to the reign of Zedekiah. The Babylonians have begun a siege of Jerusalem but call it off when the Egyptians intervene. Jeremiah warns that the Babylonians will be back. YHWH's wrath cannot be escaped. When he tries to leave for Anathoth to claim some property (probably not the field he redeemed in chapter 32 if the Harper Collins Study Bible is to be believed) he is arrested on suspicion that he is going over to the Babylonians. Jeremiah is imprisoned under harsh conditions. Zedekiah, seeking some word from YHWH summons Jeremiah privately. Jeremiah gives him bad news. But, when the prophet asks for a little mercy, the king arranges for Jeremiah to be given better accommodations and rations, though they may be short rations. A loaf of bread a day doesn't sound like much. When the siege is renewed, however, Jeremiah may have been eating better than many of his fellow citizens.

Biblical quotations are from the New International Version. The illustration came from the Pitts Theological Library website. Next: Jeremiah 28-41

Friday, February 21, 2014

Jeremiah 32:1-34:22


Whether the "Book of Comfort" ended with Jeremiah 33, the poetic oracles of chapters share its more positive outlook.

Chapter 32 opens while Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians. Jeremiah is in custody. Apparently King Zedekiah was not happy with the prophet's oracles against Judah, Jerusalem, and the king himself. While in prison Jeremiah learns that a field in Anathoth that is owned by his family has come available for purchase. As the next-of-kin he can redeem the field. And he does. This is a prophetic act/sermon rather like walking around Jerusalem wearing a yoke. It bears witness to YHWH's promise that Judah, after exile, Judah will be restored.

I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God.
      (Jeremiah 32:37-38)

Jeremiah 33:1-16 is another oracle from the same time. Speaking through the prophet, YHWH decalres that the exiles will return to Judah and a good king from David's dynasty will rule over them. Verse 16 is a close parallel to Jeremiah 23:5-6. Only there the name "YHWH is our righteousness" was applied to the king. Here the name is given to Jerusalem.

Verses 17-18 promises that the Davidic kingship and the levitical priesthood will never end. The fact that this didn't quite pan out was no doubt a contributing factor in the rise of messianic expectation during the intertestamental period.

Verses 19-26 speak of YHWH's "covenant" with the sun and the moon. That covenant cannot be broken; neither can YHWH's covenant establishing Judah's kings and priests.

Chapter 34 returns us to the dark tone we've come to expect from Jeremiah. In verses 1-7 he predicts that Zedekiah will be taken into exile and die there but, if it's any comfort, he will receive an honorable burial. Thinking back to 2 Kings 25 you may recall that Zedekiah was indeed taken into exile, saw his sons killed, was blinded, and thrown into prison. It didn't go well for Zedekiah.

Verses 8-22 take the form of a narrative. During the siege of Jerusalem Zedekiah decrees that the citizens should free their Hebrew slaves. At first they comply. Then they renege. YHWH is displeased and gets a little sarcastic:

Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine.      (Jeremiah 34:17)

Biblical quotes are from the New International Version. Next: Jeremiah 35-37

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Jeremiah 30:1-31:40


Here in the midst of all the doomy-gloomy stuff in Jeremiah, we find the "Book of Comfort" or "Consolation" a collection of material with a decidedly more upbeat nature. In The Twible, Jana Reiss jokingly (p. 173) calls this section a "Hallmark card."  Some of my sources restrict the "Book of Comfort" to today's passage, the poetic oracles of chapters 30-31. Others include the prose narratives of chapters 32-33. A note in the Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible says,

Many scholars believe that someone other than Jeremiah wrote this section in the prophet's name to balance his many sermons of doom.

The Jewish Study Bible suggests that this section may have originally stood at the end of the book of Jeremiah. It seems clear to me that the oracles of the "Book of Comfort" are addressed to the people in exile.

Chapters 30 and 31 are spoken in YHWH's voice. The theme of this section is stated in 30:3:

The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the Lord.”

Note that both Judah and Israel are to be returned.

In 30:13a the NIV once again translates a Hebrew word for "lovers" with the explanatory "allies":

All your allies have forgotten you;
    they care nothing for you.

Personally, I think the metaphor is more powerful when not explained.

Jeremiah 31:15 is a heartbreaking image:

This is what the Lord says:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

Rachel was, of course, Jacob/Israel's favorite wife. By analogy the exiled Judahites are her children. (Technically Leah was the mother of Judah but this is poetry. Let's not get technical).  The Gospel of Matthew (2:17-18) quotes this verse in reference to Herod's slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. 

Following verse 15 YHWH comforts Rachel with the news that her children will return from the land of their enemies.

Verse 26 seems to suggest that these oracles came to the prophet in his sleep.

At this I awoke and looked around. My sleep had been pleasant to me.

Verse 29 quotes what must have been a familiar proverb:

The parents have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

The prophet says that this proverb will no longer be spoken. The children will no longer be punished for their parents' sins. Ezekiel 18:2-4 quotes the same proverb to the same effect. I don't take this as a universal statement of individual responsibility. It is tempting to read it that way in light of our current individualistic culture. In context, however, the prophet seems to mean only that the parents' sin, which led to exile, is no longer being held against the children who are coming home.

Verses 31-34 promise a brighter future. YHWH's covenant will not only be reinstated, but it will be made unbreakable.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
   declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

Every year at the end of October, Luthereans read this passage as part of their celebration of Reformation Day. I've always thought that this was just a bit presumptuous on our part.

Bible quotes are from the New International Version. Next: Jeremiah 32-34

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jeremiah 26:1-29:32


The notes in the New Interpreters Study Bible say that the "second scroll" of Isaiah (chapters 26-52) are characterized by more prose and more biographical detail.

Chapter 26 begins with a sermon similar to the "Temple Sermon" in chapter 7. This time we are given a historical setting. It takes place "early in the reign of king Jehoiakim." Jeremiah's message is conditional: "If you repent, YHWH will relent." The sermon is not well-received.

But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, "You must die!'
      (Jeremiah 26:8)

He finds himself on trial before the city elders at the New Gate. Defiantly, Jeremiah tells them, "If you kill me, you will be liable for innocent blood" (v. 15). The elders, citing the mixed precedent of prophets Micah and Uriah, vindicate Jeremiah.The chapter ends on a curious note:

Furthermore, Ahikam son of Shaphan supported Jeremiah, and so he was not handed over to the people to be put to death.
      (Jeremiah 26:24)

As the New Interpreters Study Bible note on this verse says,

Mysteriously, Ahikam, son of Shaphan, rescues Jeremiah. The Shaphan family is associated with the king and helps and supports Jeremiah. But from what is Ahikam rescuing Jeremiah? Since the people and officials have already declared Jeremiah innocent, the rescue seems unnecessary. However, this rescue creates parallels to the account of Jeremiah's endangerment and rescue in chap. 36. In both chapters, it is Jeremiah's prophetic message that puts his life in peril. In both, he is accused of false prophecy and is vindicated. Chapters 26 and 36 thereby create an envelope around the intervening material.

Chapters 27 and 28 comprise one of my favorite narratives from Jeremiah. There was, apparently, a summit meeting in Jerusalem. Kings from surrounding nations came to meet with Zedekiah of Judah. They conspired to rebel against their Babylonian overlords. Jeremiah puts a yoke around his neck, a yoke like like a pair of oxen wear to plow, a symbol of submission. His message to the assembled kings:

But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the Lord.      (Jeremiah 27:11)

He specifically tells Zedekiah to capitulate to the Babylonians (vv. 12-15). He also warns the king and pretty much anyone else who will listen to pay no heed to other prophets with their sunny oracles.

The temple has already been partially looted by the Babylonians. Its remaining furnishings will be taken too. They will remain in Babylon until YHWH brings them back.

Chapter 28 is a story of dueling prophets. A certain Hananiah opposes Jeremiah. The exile will only last two years, he claims. Hananiah takes the yoke that Jeremiah has been wearing around his neck and breaks it. Jeremiah admits that Hananiah's message is appealing. He might wish it were true:

[Jeremiah] said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”
      (Jeremiah 28:6-9)

Later, YHWH sends word to Hananiah that the symbolic wooden yoke that he broke will be replaced with a symbolic iron yoke (v. 13). And, oh yeah, for speaking falsely in YHWH's name, he's going to die.

In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.
      (Jeremiah 28:17)


In chapter 29 Jeremiah sends a letter to the people of Judah who are already living in exile in Babylon. Settle in, he tells them. It's going to be a long haul. Don't listen to anyone who says otherwise.

One of the letters recipients, a man named Shemaiah, is unhappy with Jeremiah's message. Shemaiah fires off an angry letter addressed to Zephaniah, the high priest in Jerusalem. "Jeremiah's nuts," he says. "Make him shut up" (vv. 24-28)

When Zephaniah shares the letter with Jeremiah, the prophet answers:

[T]his is what the Lord says: I will surely punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants. He will have no one left among this people, nor will he see the good things I will do for my people, declares the Lord, because he has preached rebellion against me.
      (Jeremiah 29:32)

Oops again.

The illustration of Jeremiah wearing his yoke came from this website. Unless otherwise noted, scriptural quotations are from the New International Version. Next: Jeremiah 30-31

Monday, February 17, 2014

Jeremiah 23:1-25:38


Jeremiah 23 begins with an oracle against the kings of Judah (vv. 1-8). Using an analogy familiar to ancient near eastern cultures, Jeremiah refers to the kings of Judah as "shepherds." Bad shepherds. YHWH will deal with them. Jeremiah looks forward to a good king from David's line. In Christian liturgical use this passage is applied to Jesus. Verse 6 gives that king's name as "YHWH is Our Righteousness" a pun on the name of (bad) king Zedekiah. The NIV's translation "The Lord Our Righteous Savior" seems a bit interpretive to me.

The remainder of chapter 23 (vv. 9-40) consists of oracles against the prophets of Judah. They are false. The priests are no better (v. 11). The are guilty of adultery, that is, idolatry. They lie and tell the people everything is okay but bad times are coming. God can see what they're up to (v. 23).

In chapter 24 Jeremiah describes a vision of two baskets of figs: one yummy good, the other inedibly bad. Like the potter's wheel (chapter 18) this is a simple metaphor. The good figs are a good portent; YHWH will bring the exiles home. The bad figs are bad news for Zedekiah and the officials of Jerusalem.

In chapter 25 Jeremiah announces that the Babylonian exile will last 70 years. It didn't. It was actually closer to 50 years. But if you are the kind of person who wants to maintain the Bible's inerrancy (Why would you want to do that?) you could explain this as a symbolic number. The number 7 represents completeness, times 10 is a multiplier. The exile will last a long but finite time. It will be done when Judah's penance is complete. Then Babylon will be punished.

Verses 15-38 describes Jeremiah pouring out the cup of YHWH's wrath on pretty much every nation. YHWH is a pretty angry God.

Next: Jeremiah 26-29

Coming Out

Michael Sam came out.

Ellen Page came out.

Now it's my turn. I think it's time I told the world the truth about my sexuality.

I am a heterosexual male.

And the world throws a huge collective yawn. Nobody cares that I am a straight guy.

There may be a few people who care that I am not a homosexual male. But that's not the same thing. Not at all.

Coming out as a straight male costs me nothing. It takes no particular courage. I'm not likely to be ostracized, vilified, disowned, or demonized for it. There will be no real consequences. No one will try to make me change. Not that I could anyway.

Westboro Baptist "Church" probably won't announce a demonstration because I've come out. They did mount a protest against Michael Sam. At least they tried to. University of Missouri students rallied in support of their defensive lineman. They made a human "wall of love" that effectively cut off the hate group's attempted demonstration.

God bless 'em.

There has been discussion about whether Michael Sam will be welcome in NFL locker rooms. It shouldn't be an issue. I'm not saying it won't be an issue. Just that it shouldn't. The fact is every man who has showered in a locker room has probably showered with a gay guy. The only difference is Michael Sam is open about it.

Now that he's out, Michael Sam is still the same talented athlete that we knew.

Now that she's out, Ellen Page is still the same winsome actor we knew before.

The only thing that may have changed is our perceptions of Sam and Page.

I know and love people who are various shades of queer and various degrees of out. In three decades of ministry I have had a few parishioners come out to me. I know people who have struggled for years to accept their own sexuality. I have seen the courage that it took for them to be open in a world that has judged them as defective, perverse, and wrong because of their innate sexual identity. And I have seen that once they come out, they are still the same people they were before.

I like to think that it is getting easier. I like to think that it is getting better. I like to think that because of people like Michael Sam and Ellen Page more young people will find the courage to be open about who they are.

I like to think that a day will come when an LGBTQ person's coming out will be met with huge collective yawn.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Jeremiah 18:1-22:30


In Jeremiah 18:1-12, at YHWH's instruction Jeremiah watches a potter shaping a clay vessel. When it doesn't turn out the potter forms it into something else. The analogy is simple. YHWH is the potter. Israel is the clay. The Lord can re-shape his people as he sees fit. Verse 11 is disturbing:

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. (NRSV)

The NIV softens the verse, excusing YHWH of "evil":

Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.

Though YHWH offers Judah a chance to repent, his offer is rejected (v. 12).

In verses 13-17, YHWH complains that his people have forgotten him (v. 15) and therefore:

Their land will be an object of horror
    and of lasting scorn;
all who pass by will be appalled
    and will shake their heads.
      (Jeremiah 18:16)

Verse 18 says that Judah's priests, sages, and prophets have conspired against Jeremiah. In verses 19-23, Jeremiah complains to YHWH and asks the Lord to avenge him. The book of Jeremiah sketches an interesting picture of dueling prophets in Judah. Reading between the lines one can picture finger-pointing and mutual accusations of heresy. Jeremiah's message was unpopular. His was, no doubt, the minority voice. That he was right is confirmed by the fact that his oracles are preserved. His adversaries are known mostly from being mentioned in his own book. It's interesting to me that, in his day, Jeremiah opposed the orthodox establishment. It is his unorthodox view that is enshrined in the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

There is more pottery in chapter 19. In a prophetic act, Jeremiah buys an earthenware vessel. He takes it along as he leads some of Jerusalem's key leaders out to the valley of Hinnom. There, speaking for YHWH he accuses the Judahites of idolatry and child sacrifice:

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.
      (Jeremiah 19:5)

He warns of the horrors of a pending siege of Jerusalem:

I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them.’
      (Jeremiah 19:9) 

And then, Jeremiah breaks the jar. Next, the prophet goes to the temple and preaches that YHWH will bring disaster on his people.

Chapter 20:1-6 tell how a priest named Pashhur responds to Jeremiah's message. He has the prophet beaten and put in stocks overnight. In the morning Jeremiah gives Pashhur a new name. The good old King James Version transliterated the Hebrew as "Magormissabib." Modern versions translate the name to something like "Terror on Every Side." Jeremiah tells the Pashhur that he and all his family will die in exile.

The rest of chapter 20 (vv. 7-18) is taken up with one of Jeremiah's laments. A beating and a night in the stocks did nothing to improve his mood. He complains that YHWH has deceived and overpowered him. There may be an image of sexual violence in these words; YHWH seduced and raped Jeremiah. In verses 11-12 Jeremiah, claiming that YHWH is on his side, asks the Lord to avenge him against his opponents. Verse 13 is an expression of praise that may be a "thanks in advance" for YHWH's help:

Sing to the Lord!
    Give praise to the Lord!
He rescues the life of the needy
    from the hands of the wicked.

In verses 14-18 Jeremiah once more regrets ever being born.

The historical situation for chapter 21 is specified in verses 1-3. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has besieged Jerusalem.  King Zedekiah delegates Pashhur, a different Pashhur than the priest we met in the last chapter, and a priest named Zephaniah to ask Jeremiah's, and therefore YHWH's, advice. They hope for a happy oracle (v. 2). Jeremiah disappoints them. He prophesies an ugly siege and defeat for Jerusalem (vv. 4-7). He advises surrender to the Babylonians.

The footnotes in the Harper Collins Study Bible suggest that verses 11-14 are separate oracles of judgment addressed to unnamed kings of Judah for their failure to do justice.

Chapter 22:1-9 are also addressed to an unnamed king. 

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.      (Jeremiah 22:3)
Or else (v. 5)

Verses 10-12 speak of one king who is dead (possibly a proverbial usage) and another who is in exile. The exiled king is identified as "Shallum," whom we also know as Jehoahaz (cf. 1 Chronicles 3:15).  He will die in exile.

Verses 13-19 are addressed to king Jehoiakim (identified in v. 18). Jehoiakim was an Egyptian puppet king and later a Babylonian vassal. He is criticized for building his palace with forced labor. His father, Josiah was a right guy but Jehoiakim is going to going to die unmourned; his body will go unburied. Interestingly neither the books of Kings nor Chronicles mentions Jehoiakim's burial.

Verses 20-23 pronounce judgment on Jerusalem, describing the city as an adulterous wife. The NIV renders a Hebrew word as "allies" in verses 20 and 22. The NRSV renders the same word more literally, and more sexually, as "lovers." The NRSV's translation allows for the possibility that the "lovers" are foreign allies or foreign gods.

Verses 24-30 are addressed to Jehoiakim's son Jehoiachin. He will not return from exile. Though he had seven sons (1 Chronicles 3:17-18) he will be accounted childless. His sons will share his fate. None of them will occupy Judah's throne.


The photo illustrating this blog post came from this site. Unless otherwise noted biblical quotes are from the New International Version. Next: Jeremiah 23-25

Friday, February 14, 2014

Jeremiah 14:1-17:27


There was, apparently, a drought which is poetically and graphically described in Jeremiah 14:1-6. It was the occasion of repentance on behalf of the people of Judah (vv. 7-9). They ask why YHWH is unwilling or unable to help. In verse 10 YHWH tells them: he's tired of being rejected, now he is rejecting them. In verses 11-12 YHWH tells Jeremiah not to pray for the Judahites. It won't do any good.

In verses 13-16 YHWH addresses the other prophets of Jerusalem. They are a bunch of liars and will be destroyed.

Therefore this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine.
      (Jeremiah 14:15)

In verses 17-18 YHWH mourns over the destruction of his people. He's not inclined to do anything about it, but it saddens him. In verses 19-22 the people cry out and confess and ask for rain.

The book of Jeremiah is replete with the language of relationships: dysfunctional, enmeshed, difficult, acrimonious relationships. YHWH, the people of Judah, and Jeremiah, none of them are happy but they can't seem to work out their differences.

Chapter 15 begins with YHWH telling Jeremiah that even if Israel's greatest intercessors, Moses and Samuel, stood before him, he would still visit four kinds of destruction on Judah:

“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.
      (Jeremiah 15:3)

Why? YHWH is just worn out, "tired of relenting" as the NRSV puts it (v. 3).

In verses 10-18, Jeremiah, whose task has not been light, regrets ever having been born. He accuses YHWH of tricking him:

You are to me like a deceptive brook,
    like a spring that fails.
       (Jeremiah 15:18b)

In reply, YHWH tells Jeremiah "turn to me and I'll turn to you" (vv. 19-21).

In chapter 16 YHWH tells Jeremiah not to get married and not to have children, because the children of Judah

...will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like dung lying on the ground. They will perish by sword and famine, and their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.
      (Jeremiah 16:4)

In fact, Jeremiah should not take part in such ordinary activities as feasting and mourning. In light of the pending disaster it is all futile.

Verses 14-18 take a happier turn. YHWH promises to restore Israel. I can't make out whether this refers to the northern kingdom which has already been destroyed, or to Judah (all that remains of Israel) which is soon to be destroyed. I'm inclined to think the latter because of the reference to "the north" in verse 15, but I hold that opinion lightly.

In verses 19-20 the people reject idols. YHWH responds (v. 21) by promising to teach them.

Chapter 17 opens with a statement about just how deep-seated are Judah's idolatrous ways.

Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool,
    inscribed with a flint point,
on the tablets of their hearts....       (Jeremiah 17:1) 

Verses 5-8 are a poem which the New Interpreters Study Bible points out, "echoes Psalm 1, although the direction of literary dependence is not clear." The point of the poem is that Judah will flourish if the people trust in YHWH. The NISB notes suggest that this oracle may have been addressed to the exiles.

Verses 9-11 declare that YHWH is judge. Verses 12-13 are a brief statement of praise and a reiteration that the people should be faithful. Verse 13 describes YHWH as a "fountain of living water." The Gospel of John will apply this image to Jesus (cf. John 4).

In Jeremiah 17:14-18 the prophet speaks personally to YHWH once again, though his tone is gentler, his words a bit more measured than previously. He asks the Lord for support against his detractors.

Verses 19-27 are another prose sermon, this one at Jerusalem's People's Gate. The topic is sabbath keeping. Observing the sabbath will bring blessings. Failure to do so will bring punishment, destruction by fire.

Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotes are from the New International Version. Next: Jeremiah 18-22

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Jeremiah 10:1-13:27


The tenth chapter of Jeremiah begins with an oracle comparing and contrasting YHWH and idols (vv.1-16). This is YHWH's book. Jeremiah is YHWH's guy. Need I say that the idols don't come off well?

Seriously, I think that monotheism is the genius of Judaism. The idea that God could not, should not, and would not be portrayed in an image expressed God's transcendence and, in some ways, made God portable. A God who cannot be contained in an image can be worshiped anywhere. There is no need to carry God with you because, wherever you go, God is there.

Having said that, I have no doubt that the Hebrew scriptures mischaracterize the nature of idol worship. I doubt that those who used an image of a god believed that the image was the god.

Verse 11 is in Aramaic. It is the only Aramaic verse in Jeremiah which leads scholars to think that it was originally a marginal note that was copied into the text.

In Jeremiah 10:17-18  YHWH tells daughter Zion that she is about to be sent packing. Following these verses it is difficult to tell who is speaking. For example, the NIV labels verses 23-26 "Jeremiah's Prayer" but the New Interpreters Study Bible notes suggest that this lament is spoken by a daughter Zion. Nevertheless, the message is clear: YHWH is sending conquerors from the north. 

In Jeremiah 11:1-17 YHWH reminds the people of Judah of his covenant with them. Having brought their ancestors our of Egypt, all YHWH asked in return was a little obedience. Because they did not obey, curses have fallen on the people (vv. 6-8). Disaster is coming. Idols won't help (vv. 9-13). YHWH is angry, angry enough to command Jeremiah not to pray for the people.

Verses 18-23 use terms similar to those found in the preceding verses. There, the Judahites conspired and YHWH would destroy the nation which was described as an olive tree. Here, it is Jeremiah who is the target of a conspiracy. He is the tree that will be destroyed along with its fruit. The punchline comes when we learn that it is Jeremiah's own people, the people of Anathoth (v. 21) who are potting against him. YHWH will deal with them (v. 22-23).

Theodicy is the topic of Jeremiah 12:1-4 as the prophet asks, "Why do the wicked prosper?" The NIV's text heading suggests that verses 5-17 are "God's Answer" to Jeremiah, though there is no clear indication of this in the text itself. Verses 5-6 say that you shouldn't trust your own kin. In light of the conspiracy against Jeremiah mentioned above, that seems good advice. Verses 7-13 repeat that Judah is going to be destroyed.

Jeremiah 12:9 refers to Judah as a "speckled bird" set upon by other birds. It's a strange verse and the source of a strange Gospel song written by Rev. Guy Smith and originally recorded by Roy Acuff in 1936. It depicts the Church, however Rev. Smith defined "Church," as the speckled bird, pecked at by foes but finally triumphant.

Verses 14-17 declare that Judah's wicked neighbors, who led YHWH's people into the worship of Baal, can now worship YHWH. Or else.

In chapter 13:1-11 Jeremiah engages in a prophetic act. He buys and buries a linen loincloth. The NIV calls it a "belt," but it's actually the underwear of the day. After wearing it, Jeremiah buries it in the ground and, sometime later, digs it up again. It is ruined. The point of this act-parable? Judah did not cling like a loincloth to YHWH, therefore they will be ruined.

Verses 12-14 describe the people of Judah as wine jars. Again the NIV translates differently calling the "wineskins." YHWH will fill the people with "drunkenness"and smash them against one another, shattering them like earthen jars we must suppose.

In verses 15-19 Jeremiah calls on Judah to glorify God. If they don't Jeremiah will cry as they are taken into exile.

Verses 20-27 use a disturbing image of sexual violence to describe the pending invasion of Jerusalem.

And if you ask yourself,
"Why has this happened to me?" —
it is because of your many sins
that your skirts have been torn off
and your body mistreated.
      (Jeremiah 13:22)

Verse 23 insists that the Judahites are incapable of changing their sinful ways.

Can an Ethiopian change his skin
or a leopard its spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.

In our cultural context the mention of skin color may seem racist. I don't think this was the case for Jeremiah's context. The disturbing part of this passage is the rape imagery. It becomes more disturbing when we learn the identity of the rapist as YHWH says:

I will pull up your skirts over your face
that your shame may be seen —
your adulteries and lustful neighings,
your shameless prostitution!
      (Jeremiah 13:26-27)

Biblical quotes are from the New International Version. Next: Jeremiah 14-17

Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin


Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I found two of my old college friends, representing opposite sides of the American political divide, had posted links to articles--articles that set me to thinking.

The first, from my conservative pal, was a piece by Bill Federer comparing and contrasting Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The occasion for the article was the coincidence that Darwin and Lincoln were both born February 12, 1809. Federer all but deifies Lincoln but does a typical relgious-right hatchet job on Darwin. Federer pulls some egregiously racist quotes from Darwin's works, blames the scientist for social darwinism, and links the theory of evolution to the politics of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

In response to Federer I note that Darwin and Lincoln were, in fact, both abolitionists. They were also, products of their times, both racist by modern standards. While Darwin's racist statements may make him morally flawed, they do not reflect on the accuracy of his scientific observations. Nor, do I think, can we hold Darwin responsible for the atrocities committed by later generations who misused his work.

In short, Federer's critique of Darwin is a blatant ad hominem attack. He goes after the man but does not address the issues.

My liberal friend linked to this article at Religion Dispatches magazine's website. In it Stephanie Krehbiel  raises the question of whether the moral failings of prominent 20th century Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder should color our reading of his work. She calls it the "Woody Allen problem."

I’ve been thinking of Yoder since Woody Allen received his Golden Globe award for Lifetime Achievement last month which has resuscitated public discussion of whether a man who married his partner's daughter, and who’s still accused of molestation by his now-adult daughter (who was seven years old at the time), should be receiving accolades of any kind. “There would be some measure of accountability in not giving Oscars and Golden Globes to such men,” writes Victoria Brownworth in Shewired. “A small gesture toward their victims, but a statement that those victims matter, irrespective of canon or genius. The only way to make the crimes stop is to stop rewarding their perpetrators. For now that seems to be the only recourse we still have.”

Yesterday, in a lunchtime conversation with a colleague, I referenced Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper," a movie that was made before my interlocutor was born. By way of explanation I said, "It was back when Woody Allen was still funny, before he was a child molester." It was a glib, sarcastic remark made in an informal conversation. For the purposes of this blog I should probably note that Allen has been accused of the sexual abuse of a minor but that he has not been convicted.   He is an alleged child molester.

I think the last Woody Allen movie that I watched was Love and Death (1975). Since that time I just haven't been interested in his work. I will admit that the accusations against Allen color my perceptions. I don't want to see his movies. I don't want to spend my money to support the work of a man whose alleged actions I find morally reprehensible.

I am torn, though, over the question of whether he should have received that lifetime achievement award. His work clearly has merit apart from his personal moral failings. Is it possible to reward the quality of his films without approving his actions? Would withholding an award on the basis of his personal life amount to an ad hominem attack?

An unintended consequence Allen's Golden Globe award is that it has raised awareness and sparked discussion of the very real, very serious problems of child sexual abuse and the ways that some abusers can use their power, prestige, and privilege to get away with it. I am not, of course, suggesting that this in any way serves as a justification for giving Allen that award.

Granted, there is a great qualitative difference between Woody Allen's movies, which are essentially entertainments, and Charles Darwin's objectively verifiable science. And here is where the case of John Howard Yoder comes in. Yoder was neither an objective scientist nor an entertainer. He was influential ethical thinker, an intellectual apolgoist for pacifism. He was also a serial sex abuser. Because of his powerful and privileged position Yoder got away with it for a long time. When the institutions to which he was beholden finally acted, it was too little and too late. Krehbiel notes that Yoder still has defenders: people--men--who, in defense of Yoder's work, minimize his actions. That, in itself, is wrong. But how are we to respond to the work of an ethicist who behaved so unethically, a pacifist who perpetrated sexual violence?

I don't have any easy answers. Maybe there aren't any. There are, however, serious ethical questions to wrestle with. One thing is clear. Krehbiel's article is a plea for the voices of the victims to be heard. Justice demands no less.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jeremiah 7:1-9:26


Jeremiah 7:1-8:3 is a prose section sometimes called the "Temple Sermon." Jeremiah apparently harangued people with this message at the doors of the temple. Their trust that the very existence of the temple would keep them safe and Jersualem inviolable was ill-founded:

Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!”
      (Jeremiah 7:4) 

The Judahites have failed to do justice. Verses 5-7 hark back to Deuteronomy 28-30. The temple has become a "den of robbers" (v. 11). Jesus will cite this verse when he upsets the temple in his own day (Mark 11:17 and parallels).

The old temple at Shiloh was destroyed (vv. 12-15). Its existence didn't spare the Israelites from being conquered (v. 15). Neither will the Jerusalem temple save the Judahites.

In verses 16 ff. YHWH once again expresses his anger about Judah's idolatries. In verses 25-26, the prophet cites the exodus from Egypt, this time taking a less romantic view than in chapter 2:

From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.

Verse 31 brings the most scandalous accusation against Judah. The people have practiced child sacrifice in the valley of Ben-Hinnom (which gives its name to Gehenna, hell).

As  a result of all this, Judah and Jerusalem will become a wasteland of open graves and rotting corpses (7:32-8:3).

Jeremiah 8:4-17 is a poetic passage detailing again the sins of Judah's people, priests, and prophets. Their repentance comes too late to prevent disaster.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:26 is a collection of poems which the New Interpreters Study Bible interprets as a conversation among several voices including YHWH, Jeremiah, and Judah. Mostly they lament the devastation of Jerusalem. 8:22 asks the question "Is there no balm in Gilead?" which is the source of a well-known spiritual song and which is quoted in Poe's famous poem The Raven.

The Apostle Paul quotes Jeremiah 9:24 in his first letter to the Corinthians though, as usual, he shows no concern for the original context of the quote.

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
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.
Jeremiah 9:23-24)

In 9:25-26 YHWH announces that he will deal with those who are uncircumcised. the Gentiles whose foreskins are not circumcised and the Judahites whose hearts are uncircumcised.


Biblical quotations are from the New International Version. Next: Jeremiah 10-13