Archive for the ‘Jeremiah’ Category

Theological snobbery


I caught myself in some theological snobbery yesterday.

We had a promo for (which looks to be a fine resource for children) and in the course of it they took the account of Jeremiah’s call and applied it to everyone.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me. (Jer 1:5a-b)

“This is God’s word for you.” They said. And, of course it is not. The remainder of the verse makes that quite clear.

Before I formed you in your mother’s body I chose you.
    Before you were born I set you apart to serve me.
    I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations. (Jer 1 :5)

It was God’s word for Jeremiah, not for you. Just as that lovely promise in Jer 29:11, or the horrible one in Jer 18:11, do not necessarily both apply to us, nor can we pick and choose!

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jer 29:11)

Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. (Jer 18:11a)

In each case we have to look at the circumstances of Judah and at our own situation and actions to see if either might apply.

So <INSERT horrid and raucuous grinding noise> fail!


Except… setting aside Jeremiah’s particular and peculiar calling (as “prophet to the nations”) the passage affirms that God’s call on Jeremiah’s life predates his birth and conception. If that call is timed like this what about your calling and mine?

“Ah,” say the clever and theologically trained wise ones, “but Jeremiah is special, and his calling is special. What applies to Jeremiah does not apply to you. God isn’t calling you to be a prophet to the nations. QED!”

But are the theologically trained wise ones right?

After all it is a key feature of Old Testament narrative that all the great heroes are portrayed “warts and all”, not one is presented as a super-human like the heroes of almost very national story as taught to children in schools. Thus it seems that after all this claim by Jeremiah might be your claim and mine…

Getting Bible Commentaries without a library

A few years back I posted a video showing how to get to the relevant pages of a Bible commentary using Google Books. Since then the video hosting service I used has removed the video, and Google has changed their interface. So, here is a renewed one.

What this means is that any serious Bible student can get at the latest and best biblical studies without a library and from wherever they happen to be.

Commentaries are the lifeblood of serious everyday Bible Study, as they present the results of extensive reading packaged and simplified.

Publications from 2013

I’m not sure I listed these here, and I do want to brag about the quantity, I’ll leave you to judge the quality ;)


“The Troubling Theology of Jeremiah” In Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. . Pearson Education, 2013.

“A Masculine Reading of the Book of Esther” In Global Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by Mark Roncace and Joseph Weaver. . Pearson Education, 2013.

“The Book of Amos and the Day of Yhwh.” Colloquium 45, no. 2 (2013): 154–169

Andrew T. Abernethy, Mark G. Brett, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft, ed. Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

“Living in the Empire: What Purposes Do Assertions of Divine Sovereignty Serve in Isaiah?” In Isaiah and Imperial Context: The Book of Isaiah in the Times of Empire, edited by Andrew T. Abernethy, Mark G. Brett, Tim Bulkeley, Tim Meadowcroft. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

Bier, Miriam J., and Tim Bulkeley, eds. Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

“Does Jeremiah Confess, Lament, or Complain? Three Attitudes Towards Wrong.” In Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament, edited by Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

New publication: Spiritual Complaint

I’m delighted, one of the two edited books I’ve been working on is now available and I have my copy :)

Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley, eds. Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

“Does Jeremiah Confess, Lament, or Complain? Three Attitudes Towards Wrong.” In Spiritual Complaint: Theology and Practice of Lament, edited by Miriam J. Bier and Tim Bulkeley. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.

Talking about who’s talking again: Jer 10:18-21

Photo from By Snapshots Of The Past (Bedouin tents and occupants Holy Land)

In my Who’s that talking? Jer 4:19-26 I commented on the first in a series of posts by Brenda at “Joining the Conversation”, thus joining a conversation I am happy to extend. Various factors, including available time meant I did not engage with Part 2: Who is speaking in Jeremiah 8:18-9:2?. But I would like to push further on Part 3: Who is speaking in Jeremiah 10:19-20?

Brenda focuses on Jer 10:19-20. In v.18 Yhwh is the “speaker”, note the messenger formula introducing the verse, and the “I” speaker who claims responsibility for”slinging out” the inhabitants of the land and “bringing” distress on them.

 18 For thus says the LORD: I am going to sling out the inhabitants of the land at this time, and I will bring distress on them, so that they shall feel it. (Jer 10:18 NRS)

Verse 21 draws conclusions speaking of the leaders of Judah in the third person, and also speaks of Yhwh in the third person:

 21 For the shepherds are stupid, and do not inquire of the LORD; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered. (Jer 10:21 NRS)

It seems a priori likely therefore that “Jeremiah” is the speaker here. With such bookends in place Brenda focuses on vv.19-20, writing:

Furthermore, the use of the first person singular possessive pronoun here suggests instead a completely different speaker: one who has a claim on the people of Judah, a claim held primarily by God. Yet, it does not seem that the LORD is speaking here, which implies that Jeremiah has taken over that claim. Moreover, it is fairly clear that Jeremiah is speaking in verse 23, so he could easily be the one speaking in verses 19-20.

I’d like to ask, what sort of claim has this singular speaker on Judah? This speaker calls the hurt their own (v.19) and accepts that it as “punishment”, yet as well as bewailing the destruction of their “tent” also mourns their lost “children”.

 19 Woe is me because of my hurt! My wound is severe. But I said, “Truly this is my punishment, and I must bear it.”
20 My tent is destroyed, and all my cords are broken; my children have gone from me, and they are no more; there is no one to spread my tent again, and to set up my curtains. (Jer 10:19-20 NRS)

Yhwh has referred to Judeans as his children at Jer 3:19. In the book of Isaiah Zion mourns her children… The tent is also interesting, in 30:18 Yhwh will speak of the “tents of Jacob”, but Jer 4:20 with the reference to tents destroyed offers a closer parallel. None of this clinches an opinion on the speaker of Jer 10:19-20 but I am again (as at 4:19-21) inclined to hear Zion as the speaker who bewails her lost children and tent. This might also explain why she needs assistance to spread her tent again.

Brenda concluded that identifying the speaker of these two verses “is somewhat ambiguous, blurring the distinction between the feelings of Jeremiah and the people of Israel.” I am more inclined to hear a conversation:

  • Jer 10:18 Yhwh declares exile and destruction as punishment
  • Jer 10:19-20 Zion bemoans the destruction and her lost children
  • Jer 10:21 Jeremiah points to the blame attaching to the leaders of Judah, the “shepherds” who have failed to inquire of Yhwh and so brought down this punishment.


Who’s that talking? Jer 4:19-26

Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting (from Wikimedia)

Teaching the prophets I often stress how helpful it can be to try to identify the “voices“.1 So I was interested to read Brenda’s post at Joining the Conversation (Part 1: Who is speaking in Jeremiah 4:19-21?) Her main interest is in Jer 4:19-21, arguing that there “Jeremiah” is the speaker, while YHWH begins to speak in v.22.  Her main engagement in the post is with Korpel2 who argued that in Jer 4:19-21 the speaker was Zion.

In the context of this argument Korpel claims that Jer 4:23-26 are spoken by YHWH. There are two planks to the claim.

  1. That the third person reference to YHWH in v.26 is not determinative, citing as well as Biblical evidence an example from the Ugaritic texts. Where the goddess ‘Anatu is quoted:
    She raised her voice and cried:
    ‘Now listen, o hero Aqhatu!
    Ask for silver and I will give it to you,
    gold and I will send it to you,
    but give your bow to the Virgin ʿAnatu,
    your arrows to the Wanton Widow of the Nations!’
    (KTU 1.17:VI.16-19 cited from Korpel, 89)I’d agree that such third person references are not determinative, but am convinced that they are at least suggestive.
  2. She also claims:  “All these verses [23-36] start with rʾyty, ‘I have seen’. If we disregard for a moment Jer 23:13-14, where the problem of identification is the same as in Jer 4, it is significant that in all other cases where rʾyty occurs in the book of Jeremiah God is the subject ( Jer 7:11; 13:27; 30:6; 46:5).” (Korpel, 92)I think this dismisses Jer 23:13, 14 too quickly, it seems to me far from clear that these verses should be attributed to YHWH, indeed the formula ne’um YHWH at the close of v.12 might suggest they are not.

In the light of this, if we look again at Jer 4:23-26 Korpel’s critique of Roberts (“that he does not pay any attention to the literary context of Jer 4:19-22” p.92) seems appropriate, for the opening formula in 4:27 ki koh ‘amar YHWH strongly suggests the possibility of a different speaker (“Jeremiah”?) in 4:23-26.

I am therefore, with Roberts3 and against Kopel, inclined to see Zion as the speaker of 4:19-21 with YHWH responding in 4:22. Note the adversative “For foolish [are] my people…” that opens this verse. With a commentary by “Jeremiah” in 4:23-26.

(Duane Smith in a comment on Brenda’s post asked: “Is it possible that YHWH is speaking and Zion is his mouthpiece?” I think my argument above suggests my answer is “possible but not likely”.)

  1. Or, more generally, these podcasts.  []
  2. Marjo Korpel. “Who Is Speaking in Jeremiah 4:19-22? The Contribution of Unit Delimitation to an Old Problem.” Vetus Testamentum 59, 1 (2009): 88–98. []
  3.  J. J. M. Roberts, “The Motif of the Weeping God in Jeremiah and its Background in the Lament Tradition of the Ancient Near East.” OTEs 5 (1992),  361-374  []

Different sorts of “humour” in the Hebrew Bible: Appeal for help

In my previous post I quoted a table from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage1.

HumourDiscoveryHuman natureObservationThe sympathetic
WitThrowing lightWords and ideasSurpriseThe intelligent
SatireAmendmentMorals and mannersAccentuationThe self-satisfied
SarcasmInflicting painFaults and foiblesInversionVictim and bystander
InvectiveDiscreditMisconductDirect statementThe public
IronyExclusivenessStatement of factsMystificationAn inner circle
CynicismSelf-justificationMoralsExposure of nakednessThe respectable
SardonicSelf-reliefAdversityPessimismThe self

In this post I’d like to add to Fowler’s table with some suggested (Hebrew) Bible passages that (I suggest) reflect that sort of humour:


DeviceMotive or aimProvinceMethod or meansAudienceBible example
HumourDiscoveryHuman natureObservationThe sympatheticRuth 2
WitThrowing lightWords and ideasSurpriseThe intelligentIs 5:7
SatireAmendmentMorals and mannersAccentuationThe self-satisfiedIs 5:22
SarcasmInflicting painFaults and foiblesInversionVictim and bystanderJer 22:14
InvectiveDiscreditMisconductDirect statementThe publicJudges 5?
IronyExclusivenessStatement of factsMystificationAn inner circleJon 2 esp. v.8
CynicismSelf-justificationMoralsExposure of nakednessThe respectableXXX
SardonicSelf-reliefAdversityPessimismThe selfXXX

Some are fairly straightforward like Ruth 2 as I suggest in Humour in the Bible: 8 Ruth: Ruth is from Moab, Boaz is from Bethlehem. Here gentle pointing out of the social and cultural differences between semi-nomadic Ruth and peasant farmer Boaz leads to some smiles and a richer sense of the characters involved in the story. I think this example fits Fowler’s “humour” category neatly, through the observation of human nature our sympathy with the characters is enhanced.

But is Isaiah’s punning  “he expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (sedaqah), but heard a cry (sea’qah)!” (Is 5:7 NRSV) wit, for there is certainly surprise and light thrown by words and ideas, but the aim is surely amendment (the goal of “satire”).

Though Is 5:22  “Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink…” (Is 5:22 NRSV) is fairly straightforwardly satire.Yet goals are tricky, if the goal here is arguably change in Jer 22:15  “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.” One doubts the intent is a change of behaviour, and so suspects sarcasm…

In Jonah’s psalm (Jonah 2)  there is plenty of irony, note especially “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” (Jon 2:8 NRSV) on the lips of a prophet fleeing God while pagan sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh above him in the ship. But is there any exclusiveness or mystification here?

This post has taken too long, and anyway its goal is to encourage you to comment and enter a conversation on the topic so I will leave it to you to either propose answers to my questions, or candidates for cynicism and the sardonic (I suspect Job and Ecclesiastes might be fertile hunting grounds…).

My conclusion so far is that these characteristics of different varieties of humour will be helpful in discussing biblical humour, but that they are far from the neat and clear classification that they seemed at first glance!

Into what category though does something like the ironic presentation of Sisera’s mother and her ladies gloating over Sisera and his men enjoying the Israelite women they capture as booty in Judges 5 fall?2 There IS irony, since at the time elsewhere Sisera is lying dead struck through the head by a tent peg driven by Jael. Yet there is no mystification or exclusiveness to the telling… Nor does it fit “satire” since the goal is hardly amendment, or sarcasm since the Canaanites wil hardly hear the song… Perhaps “invective fits best?

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []
  2. I address the passage here  Humour in the Bible Book 7 Judges: Gender Bending. []

Why is academic writing turgid?

Charles contrasts First Sentences from Ford and Fretheim the differences are really striking!

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Ford Maddox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier

The Pentateuch (that is, a book in five parts) has been a designation for the first five book of the Old Testament (and Hebrew Bible) since the second century CE at least.

Terrence Fretheim in an academic work The Pentateuch. Charles notes, and I agree, that Fretheim is a stimulating thinker. So, he poses the question of why academic writing is so often dull and lifeless. I have not much wisdom to offer there. Read his post.

He offers his own suggestion for improving Fretheim’s sentence:

In contrast to the abstract and immovable god of the philosophers, the Pentateuch portrays a god that is, in the best sense, all too human.

Which I think is good but too long, I suspect the original paragraph in a sentence led him astray ;) How about editing it to:

God is all too human in the Pentateuch.

The prophet Jeremiah. Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (from Wikimedia)

So, with this terrible example (from an academic hero) in front of me I am looking closer at my own first sentences from now on. I’m currently working on an article for the book on Lament and Complaint. I’m ashamed that the current first sentence reads like this:

The claim by Shakespeare’s Juliette “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is often quoted to assert that naming is arbitrary.


The “Confessions of Jeremiah” present the emotionally turbulent and violent world of a prophet caught between God and family.

Of course, I’d need then to make clear by “prophet” I do not mean a historical figure, but a literary construct, yadda yadda yadda, but that might make a better start?

Jeremiah 4:23-27 (translation and notes)

We looked at Jeremiah 4:23-27 in class this week and I plan a podcast on the text over at 5 Minute Bible so, since Ill use my own very literal translation there I though I’d publish it here wirth a few notes to explain it.It is intended to be as near word for word as I could get and still be English. So the repetitions stand out, it is laid out to show the terse almost staccato feel. I have noted some of my translation choices with footnotes.
23I looked at the earth.

It’s higgledy piggledy.2
To heaven,
but no light there!
24I looked on the mountains.
They are quaking.
All the hills shake themselves.
25I looked.
No human,
and all the birds of heaven have fled.
26I looked.
The field’s a desert,
and all its cities are destroyed
before YHWH,
before the heat of his anger.
27For thus says YHWH:
All the land will be desolation.
But I will not make a full ending.
28Because of this the earth will mourn,
and the heavens will be dark above,
because I have spoken,
I have decided;
and I have not relented
nor will I turn back

Warning, I may update this post, adding notes, or even adjusting the translation. I did this one some years back and need to revisit it when I have time, my son did years ago name my translation the Temporary English Version ;)

  1. הִנֵּה hinneh “look!” can serve a number of functions. In old translations it was often rendered “Lo!” or “Behold!” The important part this construction plays in giving language a “biblical” flavour, illustrates its significance to Hebrew speech. 

    In narrative hinneh often marks a change in view-point:
    Ruth 2:4 where we are invited to “join” Ruth in watching Boaz’ arrival;
    Ruth 3:8, having followed Ruth to Boaz’ feet, we share his surprised awakening.

    It also serves other functions:
    affirmation (translated something like “indeed”) – Ruth 3:2 (where the “look” seems redundant in English);
    explanation “that is…” (which we would put in brackets) Am 7:1;
    call to attention (Ruth 1:15)
    marking events that happen contemporaneously - Ruth 4:1 where וְהִנֵּה suggests that, hardly has Boaz sat down, than the other Goel arrives. []

  2. תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ tohu vabohu
    This phrase is found most notably in Gen 1:2 (also though split by other words in Is 34:11) translators have to choose a rendering which ideally captures:
    the sense of confusion - rendered in traditional English translations “formless and void” –
    and the echoing sound.

    Various proposals have been tried; Robert Alter’s literary “welter and waste” is good. I have opted in Jer 4:23 for the more homely “higgledy piggeldy”. []

Hermeneutics of suspicion and humble herneneutics

Gavin at Otagosh has a post Jeremiah was no bullfrog – and since I’ve been posting on Jeremiah a lot this month, working on an article helps ;) and since be mentioned one of my posts1 I thought I’d respond2Both Gavin’s posts are thought provoking and will stimulate you to think through your response to this troubling book.

He and I both find reading Jeremiah unpleasant, the book leaves a bad taste in the mouth.  But then our responses diverge. Gavin is a suspicious reader. He understands Jeremiah as:

first and foremost a political agitator, and the God-talk, which serves as a framework for his agenda, serves those ends

I’m not a suspicious reader of theological writings (at least not of Scripture) I tend try to see the good in every passage. The brutality and confusion in Jeremiah seems to me to express the brutality and confusion of life, and therefore I’d read the book as an attempt explore this within a Yahwistic framework. Clearly composed3 some time after the events it describes and presenting the character of the prophet as in some sense (pretty much the same sense as a good novel presents its protagonist) a model through whose life we can explore our own. That is, I see the book as a valuable work of theological art, not as a horrid piece of pro-imperial propaganda. In short, I tend to take the work at face value and ask what it seems to be wanting to achieve, rather than reading it through my suspicion that it must be up to no good ;)

But then OTOH, I’m a skeptic about history, while Gavin seems almost uncritical  about the historicity of what he reads,   seemingly seeing the book as written near the time of the events it describes and perhaps with Jeremiah having a hand in the writing, for he writes:

The book is written against a time of horrific political developments, and the prophet – a partisan for the Babylonian superpower (“my servant Nebuchadnezzar”) – attempts to make sense of it all through the time-honoured method of blaming the victim (the people of Judah) while stewing in his own self pity.

I find this interplay of suspicion and what I4 think of as humble hermeneutics fascinating, and never more so than when it is married to a believing approach to history. This historical approach might well be right. My stance is not to claim that we know the book is distant from the prophet, rather I am happily agnostic about history, I believe that however hard we try we can know very little about how and when the book came to be. But why be credulous about history if you are then suspicious about purpose and character of the writing?

  1. …and since hopefully a little link love will get Google interested ;) []
  2. Here not there since his 2009 post “So Amazing a Blasphemy” that he references had comments closed. []
  3. By which I mean, at least, edited into something like the shapes (LXX and MT) in which we have it. []
  4. Well, we all like to use “good” words about ourselves. []