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. []

Isaiah and Jeremiah: Made for each other?

Reading a master’s thesis reminded me of Robert Alter’s bold suggestion:

Let me risk a large conjecture, … It may be that a sense of some adequate dialectical tension between these antitheses of divine plan and the sundry disorders of human performance in history served as an implicit criterion for deciding which narratives were to be regarded as canonical.

Alter, Robert. The art of Biblical narrative. Basic Books, 1983, 34.

To someone studying alternately roughly week about:

  • assertions of YHWH’s sovereignty in Isaiah
  • Jeremiah’s laments

Alter’s conjecture is highly suggestive, whatever else the book of Isaiah is “about” it is concerned to explore what it means to declare the sovereignty of God in three different imperial contexts, whatever else the book (or books if we count the LXX as a different work) of Jeremiah is about it is concerned with the tempestuous and troubled relationship of God and prophet. These two works epitomise Alter’s two tendencies rather well, and they follow each other in the canon :)

The fact that both works are among the longest and most complex in the Bible should not interfere with your enjoyment of such a bold oversimplification built upon such a conjectural foundation ;) But do rip it to shreds, or admit its fascination, or just ask for clarification… I need distraction from my writer’s block…

Did God seduce Jeremiah? Addendum

I should point out as an addendum to my previous post it sould be noted, that if it had been in a traditional scholarly article and not an ad hoc blog post I would have referenced scholars like:

Crenshaw, James A Whirlpool of Torment Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984,  39.

Fretheim, Terence E. Jeremiah. Smyth & Helwys Bible commentary. Macon, Ga: Smith & Helwys Pub, 2002, 290.

In particular:

Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 1999, 854f..

Give a richness of detail and scholarship that are valuable, though unsuited to the blog format (or at least to be honest to the time I can spare for what is intended to be a writers’ block breaking strategy – till my conscience got the better of me!)

Did Yahweh seduce Jeremiah?

In response to my podcast “The last Confession of Jeremiah: Jeremiah 20: Yahweh seduces his prophetDavid Haslam asked (on Facebook) about the choice of “seduce” here. He noted that most English translations have other words:

“persuaded/denounce” (ASV & WEB),
“deceived/report” (KJV),
“coerced/denounce” (NET)
“deceived/persecute” (DRC & NIV)

From that list you will see that פתה is not easy to translate, like most words, but more than many it carries a meaning that will in other languages be rendered in different ways according to the context. It does indeed suggest persuading, though often in the sense of deceiving, sometimes coercing. In the qal it has the sense of being simple, open minded, or deceived. Its first occurrence in the Bible (Gen 9:27) it just means “enlarge”.

The piel that we have in Jer 20:7 is used 17 times:

  • enlarge (Gen 9:27)
  • seduce virgin girl (Ex 22:15 v.16 in English)
  • coax, entice – of Delilah technique for getting information from her husband (Jud 14:15; 16:5) of tricking Ahab (1 Kgs 22:20,21,22 also 2 Chron 18:19,20,21) or of humans attempting to trick Yahweh as if he were a god (Ps 78:36)
  • deceive (2 Sam 3:25; Pr 24:28)
  • seduce (Hos 2:1) of Yhwh as husband persuading his wife (Israel) to return to him from her lovers
  • Pr 1:10 might be either coax/entice or deceive but Pr 16:29 suggests the use of force
  • Ez 14:9 is perhaps the closest usage at first sight, it involves someone deceiving  a prophet into inquiring of Yhwh on their behalf even though they are an idol worshipper, in which case Yhwh will do the same to the prophet, and even kill him.

So basically most of the usages involve persuading someone to do wrong, often by using sexual wiles. The question that remains concerns Jer 20:7. Does Yhwh here trick a gullible Jeremiah into doing wrong? or Does Yhwh here seduce Jeremiah? Clearly the sexual overtones here cannot be intended literally, but is this the picture being painted? I find it difficult to see Jeremiah in this case claiming that Yhwh has treated him like the prophet in Ezekiel, for Jeremiah is firm that he has spoken the truth. Rather, I suggest that he is claiming to be like an innocent girl (cf. his first confession 11:18ff.) whom Yhwh has persuaded to do as he wishes.

Because in Jer 20:7 that seems to me to be the choice we have: either Jeremiah accuses Yhwh of treating him like a prophet who takes payment from idolaters to give an oracle, or Jeremiah is claiming Yhwh charmed him into what he has done, like a girl seduced by a lover.

What do you think?

Another in my series on the “Confessions of Jeremiah”

Confessions of the Lovelorn (image by dickuhne)

As some of you know (despite this week working on my “Assertions of YHWH’s sovereignty and imperial context in the book of Isaiah” paper – provisional but current title, watch this space ;) I am continuing my series of short biblical studies podcasts on The Confessions of Jeremiah adding two more to the series, which now comprises:

On this latest one, I wonder how YOU think Yahweh might have wished to respond to this complaint from our Jerry?

PS: Plus another in the series: Jeremiah’s fourth confession: Jer 18:18-23 the continuing drama of Jeremiah and his Yahweh

Maybe it was Baumgartner after all…

In my recent request for information “The Confessions of Jeremiah: who coined the usage? I cited T. K. (Thomas Kelly) Cheyne, Jeremiah, his life and times. James Nisbet & Co., 1888, 2 as the first usage of the phrase “the confessions of Jeremiah” that I could find, and asked if anyone had more sure information.

No one did, but Stephen kindly tracked down Cheyne and sure enough the quote is there. Mysteriously it is on the second page 2 (it is not mysterious that it is, I trust Google books implicitly, what is strange is that there are two page twos, one after the other – a misprint :) BUT in the quote Cheyne is calling the whole book “the confessions of Jeremiah” not just the texts we now know by that name. There seems still to be a reference that (given I only have access to Google snippet view) looks like current usage given that it is a whole section with this title:

BUTTENWIESER, Moses. The Prophets of Israel from the Eighth to the Fifth Century. Their Faith and Their Message. 1914, 80ff.

Can anybody, either confirm this usage, or propose a more solid information on the origin of this name for a collection of some of the laments in Jeremiah?

The Confessions of Jeremiah: who coined the usage?

Cheyne, T. K. (Thomas Kelly)

The more I look at the “Confessions of Jeremiah” the more puzzled I get (not by the contents, though Jeremiah is a puzzle of a book for sure) it is a commonplace of scholarship (and also to some extent of preaching) to identify a collection of passages from the book of Jeremiah as “the confessions of Jeremiah” (the exact list of passages varies a bit, but the lists are substantially the same).This usage was already common and unexplained by the start of the twentieth century. But is seems almost absent (at least from Google books, as far as they are available outside the USA) before that. The only sure example I can find is:

Cheyne, T. K. (Thomas Kelly). Jeremiah, his life and times. James Nisbet & Co., 1888, 2

This may suggest Cheyne coined the term, and perhaps even first identified the passages as a group (I am not sure because all I get is snippet view, and none of my other usual sources of e-texts seem to have the work :(

BUT if he was, why does no one else give him a hat tip?

Does anyone know what is going on here, or have better information about the origin of the name “confessions of Jeremiah”?

Confessions of Jeremiah

I’m writing that focuses quite a bit on the “confessions of Jeremiah”. I suddenly came to realise that though I know the terminology “confessions” dates before the start of the twentieth century I do not know who coined it or when. Does anyone have any evidence to help me? (My excuse for asking is that I am cut off by a three hour drive from my usual print reference works and my Google skills have so far failed to help me!)

Lament, complaint or confession: Prophets and “their” books

Brooke commented on my post Did Jeremiah confess? Or: Laments, complaints & confessions?

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.”

What is the relationship between a book and the "people" it contains? (Photo by kelly taylor)

Indeed the trajectories of scholarship on the two books seems to have been similar. In Jeremiah too most of the ink has been spilled over issues of the historicity (of the words seen as ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah in the late sixth-early seventh century) and more recently the history of the text (seen as growing over time rather like a snowball or a hymn1 ) However, my interest in whether the texts traditionally called the “Confessions of Jeremiah” is not in these areas. I wonder how these texts are intended to function as components of the larger text known as the book of Jeremiah (mainly I am interested in the MT edition, though it would also be interesting to look at whether these sub-texts function differently in the other well-known edition – found commonly in the LXX).

This is partly a question of genre. If the composer(s) of the book thought of these texts as “complaints” then they would function differently than they would if they were thought of as “laments”. But perhaps they were used as “confessions”. In this case the genre attribution would only in part depend on the form, which is close to the lament/complaints in Psalms, but also on how the passages function in the book. Is Jeremiah (the eponymous character in the book, not the putative sixth-fifth century person) lamenting something, complaining to God or confessing?

I hope to use the book of Amos, which contains texts that do all these things, as a point of comparison. The speaker of the book and/or their God laments (5:1-3), “Amos” complains (7:1-6) and the speaker of the book confesses (1:2; 4:13; 5:8-9; 9:5-6).2

  1. Many hymns that were commonly sung in churches in the 20th century had had verses added over time, many too had had wording adjusted and adapted over the years, as well as in some cases being translated from other language originals []
  2. I had not noticed before writing that, but it is all the major characters of the book who are involved here, among the actors in the book only those satirised and the land are left out. []

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. []