Sunday, September 14, 2014

Jeremiah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

In my last book report, on Isaiah, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the book’s complexity.  It’s a collection of ancient Hebrew poetry, written by different authors in different socio-political contexts, spanning around 200 years.  I was afraid the same would be true of Jeremiah.  However, as I read through this book, I found its message startlingly simple.  The book was written during and after Israel’s defeat and exile by Babylon in 587 B.C.E.  It seeks to answer two fundamental questions: 1.) Why was Israel defeated? and 2.) Is there hope for the future?  

What’s amazing to me is not the complexity of Jeremiah’s message, but the creative and brutal ways in which he talks shit on Israel, the defeated nation.  As I explained in a previous post, I am deeply disturbed by Jeremiah’s interpretation of history, because it seems demonstrably false and cruel.  The real historical reason why Babylon defeated Israel in 587 B.C.E. was because Babylon was a much stronger nation.  Simple.  This fact doesn’t interest Jeremiah, however, who insists that it was because Israel had “sinned.”  The prophet spends pages and pages writing some of the most vitriolic poetry I’ve ever read to a defeated and traumatized nation, adding insult to injury.  Here are a few examples to illustrate (and there are dozens) Jeremiah’s message to defeated Israel (which basically amounts to “You brought this on yourself”):

“Have you not brought this upon yourself, 
by forsaking the Lord your God?” (2: 17)

“You have polluted the land
with your whoring and wickedness.” (3:3)

“Your ways and your doings
have brought this upon you.
This is your doom: how bitter it is!” (4:18)

“Shall I not bring retribution
on a nation such as this?” (5:9)

“I will cast you out of my sight.” (7: 15)

“I have bereaved them, I have destroyed my people;
they did not turn from their ways.” (15:7)

“Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.  This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will…” (13:8)

"We are fucked!" -- Jeremiah

What is even more disturbing about Jeremiah’s poetry is that its general outlook and worldview has inspired some of the most hateful fundamentalist fanatics even in our own day.  Jerry Falwell comes to mind, who said that AIDS and 9/11 were the result of America’s “godlessness.”  This is also the logic of Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who basically blamed all national tragedies on “the gays” and on non-gays who tolerate their existence.  

Jeremiah is fiercely intolerant of other religions and lifestyles that don’t fit into his narrow definition of how things should be.  The main “sin” of Israel, according to Jeremiah, was that the people allowed other religious practices to exist in their nation.  If Jeremiah had his way, Israel would be a strict theocracy, like Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini.  Religious freedom would be non-existent.  This sort of fierce monotheism/religious intolerance has inspired some of the most unpleasant chapters in world history.  Jeremiah often compares Israel to an unfaithful wife/prostitute who has gone after other religions.  These passages also have disturbing misogynistic overtones. Jeremiah often compares God and Israel’s relationship to a failed marriage, with the blame placed squarely on the woman (Israel):

“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?  Would not such a land be greatly polluted?  You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1)

Jeremiah is really repetitive about this whole “Israel as an idolatrous whore” thing.  Speaking to a deeply traumatized people whose land has been invaded and destroyed, Jeremiah’s shows the sensitivity of a grizzly bear.

While, from a 21st century perspective, we may rightly criticize Jeremiah’s perspective, it makes sense in the context of the history of Israel and their relationship with God.  The covenant between God and Israel given by Moses was supposedly what held them together as a nation.  If the people broke this covenant, they were cutting off an important part of their identity.  Also, this covenant (represented by the laws of Moses) was supposedly meant for their good.  Some of Jeremiah’s criticisms of Israel are justified, even by 21st century standards.  For example, the prophet denounces social injustice and oppression.  The prophet writes:

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages.”  (22:13)

It is also important to note that Jeremiah was not a detached observer/criticizer of Israel’s calamities.  He was a Jew, and suffered the same fate as his people.  However disturbing we may find his message, the prophet literally empathizes with his people.  Like most prophets, Jeremiah experiences persecution, loneliness, deprivation, and threats on his life.  Throughout the book, Jeremiah often does performance art pieces which are meant to symbolize the fate of Israel.  They are often humiliating and weird.  For example, he wanders around wearing an ox yoke, to show how Israel will be taken captive to Babylon, like yoked oxen.  

Jeremiah the performance artist.

Here are some passages indicating Jeremiah’s suffering/empathy for his people:

“My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.”  (4:19)

“For the hurt of my people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (8:21)

“Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land!  I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me.”  (15:10)

For all his “doom and gloom” prophecies, Jeremiah is not totally despairing.  His ultimate message is that, while Israel will be defeated and taken to Babylon, they will eventually be restored and allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild.  This, in fact, did happen.  Here are some passages regarding the hope of Israel’s restoration:

“I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land.  I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up.  I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (24: 6-7)

“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.” (29:11)

“For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord.” (30: 17)

The book of Jeremiah ends with a series of oracles predicting destruction for Israel’s neighbors: Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and finally even Babylon.  The tone and content of these oracles are particularly brutal and vindictive.  Here’s a passage in which God sounds like Thor or The Incredible Hulk:

“You are my war club, my weapon of battle:
with you I smash nations;
with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I smash the horse and its rider;
with you I smash the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I smash man and woman;
with you I smash the old man and the boy;
with you I smash the young man and the girl;
with you I smash shepherds and their flocks;
with you I smash farmers and their teams;
with you I smash governors and deputies.” (51: 20-23)

God smash!  The picture of God here is a God of wrath, war, and death.  A scary God.  Overall, the picture of God that emerges from the book of Jeremiah is a complex one.  He is scary and not shy about killing (or smashing) lots of people.  But God is also, at times, loving and compassionate.  I suppose, in this way, the God of Jeremiah is like an alcoholic, abusive husband—mean and scary one moment, kind and loving the next.  Wild mood swings punctuated by violence.

It’s also kind of astonishing, I think, that from one of the weakest nations of the ancient world (Israel), should emerge the idea of this powerful, transcendent God—an idea that still persists today.  While the local gods of the more powerful nations of Egypt and Babylon have faded into myth, the God of Israel is still worshipped by millions of people today.  This, to me, is fascinating.

Jeremiah is on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, like many Bible characters.

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