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. []

3 comments on “Hermeneutics of suspicion and humble herneneutics

  1. Gavin (Otagosh)

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I’d want to respond by saying that I’m not completely naive about the dating of Jeremiah (Thomas Thompson is something of a hero of mine), but OTOH there’s also a case for reading it on the terms the book itself presents. This is certainly how most readers of Jeremiah down through history have approached it, and that kind of reading has been basic to the kind of “Bible abuse” I’m a survivor of. Most of the folk who read my blog are still very much of that persuasion, and I’m conscious that they are the primary ‘audience’ I’m writing for. On those terms I think it’s really important to tackle the problems in the narrative head on.

    As for approaching scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion… I plead guilty. Humbly suspicious of course ;-)

    Thanks again for the feedback. I enjoy following your blog!

    1. tim

      Yes, I agree about how to read the book, except I would be cautious about reading it as a diary-style reporting of events near the time by the person involved. Which I think, as a general appraoch to the Bible, not perhaps especially in Jeremiah (I need to think more about that) can be dangerous. I’d read it more the way I read Job or Jonah…

      As to whether the “best” way to discuss the Bible with those habituated to Bible abuse is to read like a fundamentalist except suspiciously, I think I disagree. I think it is better to encourasge people to hear the Bible as a polyphony, as a bunch of people from different times and places discussing, even sometimes arguing among themselves. You see Bible abuse can work two ways. You use the Bible to abuse others, but to do so (I’d claim) you have to abuse the Bible. This is too big a topic for the comments, so (if I can find time – I’m just off to Auckland and three days of meetings) I try to do that…

      But to summarise it briefly, I think it is better to be suspicious of Bible readers thanb of the Bible itself ;)

  2. Emily Colgan

    I really enjoyed the line ‘I am happily agnostic about history’. It made me smile :-) I might quote you sometime if that’s ok – it’s a great line.