Did Jeremiah confess? Or: Laments, complaints & confessions?

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

Jim West, in typically forthright style (and with no evidence or argument provided – come on Jim ante up, present some reasons for your opinion!) links to and pooh-poohs a short post “Jeremiah: Memoirs or Laments? (Jer 11:18-20; 12:1-6; 15:10-21, 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13)” by Don C. Benjamin at Bible and Interpretation. Benjamin rehearses briefly the sort of form-critical argument usually presented to claim these passages as “laments”, mainly and even more briefly that they follow the typical form of that genre. A common corollary of that claim is to deny these texts to Jeremiah seeing them as “traditional texts” rather than the outpouring of a “great spirit”. West seems to wish to return to the maximalist position, viewing the texts (perhaps) as belonging to a person (Jeremiah the prophet), at least his title suggests this: “Jeremiah: Were His Confessions His?

Ever since Gerhard von Rad described various passages in Jeremiah as ‘Confessions’ scholars have discussed and debated the idea.  Personally, I’ve never been persuaded that von Rad was wrong.

[Now, of course, though the idea that, through the confessions Jeremiah initiates a new sort of prophecy, where the life of the prophet is as significant as their message, did “belong” to the great von Rad,1 he was by no means the first to use the name “confessions” for these passages.2]

I think this gives me a topic for my contribution to the colloquium spiritual│complaint : theology and practice of lament. I now plan to work on “Did Jeremiah confess? Or: Laments, complaints & confessions?” Personally unlike that renowned maximalist Dr Jim, I have never been convinced that we even have any evidence for the existence of a “prophet Jeremiah” in sixth century Judah, but I can see no reason for the character Jeremiah the prophet from the eponymous book not to have used the complaint form…

I do hope I have baited Jim enough to get a response with some meat in it (he can put it here in the comments if he really wants to keep his blog pure and free from argument and evidence ;) and perhaps others of you enough to start a discussion, which will help me firm up my ideas for the colloquium!

  1. As well as his Theology see also the essay reprinted as Gerhard von Rad. “The confessions of Jeremiah.” In A Prophet to the nations: essays in Jeremiah studies, edited by Leo G. Perdue and Brian W. Kovacs, Eisenbrauns, 1984, 339-48. []
  2. As evidence see: Thomas Kelly Cheyne, Jeremiah: his life and times. A.D.F. Randolph, 1889, 2. []

5 comments on “Did Jeremiah confess? Or: Laments, complaints & confessions?

  1. jim

    i dont know that i have anything to add to von rad. he said it so well and so thoroughly will you be miffed if i just say your readers should consult him directly?

    and- i would very much like to see the paper you’re going to give. may i?

  2. tim

    That’s a cop out, Benjamin simplified and dumbed down “Jeremiah’s laments”, someone should do the same for “The confessions of Jeremiah”. And you put your hand up ;)

    When I write it, yes, for now I am still not certain of the topic… but getting more certainer…

  3. Brooke

    There’s a somewhat analogous issue in Dan 9:4b-19, with the pious deuteronomistic prayer that contrasts theologically and ideologically with the apocalyptic narrative framework. The scholarship has move over time from:

    a) those who deny the issue (“Daniel wrote it, there’s no contrast, take your fancy pants form criticism and go away”); to
    b) those who see a “ham-handed pious redactor” who “inserts” the prayer (these are the ones who are getting the goat of the traditionalists); to
    c) those who say, “Hey, if the author of Daniel 9 knew the genre of the post-exilic deuteronomistic prayer of community penitence, then maybe he incorporated or wrote such a prayer himself.”

    Collins, for example, transitions from (b) to (c) between his “Apocalyptic Imagination” and his 1984 commentary in the “forms of old testament literature” series.

    The question would be, then, whether an historical (or ancient narrative) Jeremiah would plausibly use an *established form* to articulate *genuine emotions*. As a prayer-book Anglican, it seems obvious to me that the answer is Yes, of course. For those who rather esteem spontaneous prayer as the only expression of genuine sentiment, well, maybe not.

  4. Tim

    Thanks, Brooke, even as a non-prayerbook-using Baptist I agree that others words and forms can often be really good ways to express oneself. Here there is no evidence that the words were re-used, only that the form is an established one. However, as an Amos guy, not a Jeremiah guru, I’d still wonder whether the prophetic books are memoirs.

    But that’s another story, here for me the earlier question is are these passages “confessions”, “laments” or “complaints”? Benjamin (following Baumgartner) claims laments, West (following von Rad) claims confessions, I (sort of following Gerstenberger) think I want to claim them as complaints…

  5. Brooke

    I can’t speak to the “confessions,” but the distinction between “lament” or “complaint” I think is not really a form critical one (because I believe that these are two English terms for a single genre). I gather vaguely that the issue arose among Germans who would differ about whether to call the genre Klagen (“laments”) or Anklagen (“complaints,” the idea being that “lament” sounds more passive and pussy-footey than the actual content of the things).

    But a Jeremiah scholar I’m not, so I could be missing a conversation about all this from those circles.