Jeremiah Vs. Religion

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Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Jeremiah 7: The Prophet Against Religion

By Christopher C. MacDonald OT 8174 Fall 2015

Introduction

If it is at first difficult to find a footing in which to approach Jeremiah’s sermon in chapter seven (due to the questions of sources and whether it is of pre- or post-exhilic construction) one may instead opt to anchor a view from chapter 26, or the simple aftermath of what was – quite arguably the sermon in question (given the unusual juxtaposition in the sermon between Shiloh’s destruction in the North and present Temple in the South which Brueggemann points put) [1] which was not well received by the people. In fact, they simply mobbed the prophet and wanted to kill him (Jer. 26:7 NLT).

Perhaps our understanding of the opening pericope (verse 1-15) should start there – for it takes it out of the realm of either a forced and conjectured nuanced political science that shrewdly foresaw future political events or as something back-dating prior events as some form of lessons for someone in the name of some dead prophet – as was somehow (this always mystifies me)  easily inserted as an authoritative story later amidst the oral traditions.

I think a far more interesting question – from the text –  is why God protects Jeremiah but allows the  other prophetic voice – Uriah son of Shemiah – to be brought back from the country he has fled to and (Jer. 26:23) to be run through with the sword and be buried in an unmarked grave? One of the characteristics of unredacted texts is that they are not neatly tied up – precisely because there is a very good possibility they are not “spin” at all.

Brueggeman sees the focus of the sermon as an explication of an “if-then” argument based in the Mosaic tradition and “distances it from the unconditional promises claimed for by David (2 Sam. 7:14-16).”[2]

It is in this that Jeremiah will shatter the “Zionist” security which embodies the current mindset both in their religion and in their sense of stately security.

Holladay takes a rather anthropocentric view saying “if the people do right, then Yahweh will be able to continue to dwell with them. This syntax of course suggests that Yahweh’s sovereignty is in this instance dependent on the conduct of the people and this perception of a dangerous limitation on his independence must have stimulated the vocalization of M.”[3]

Of course Holladay has it all wrong. It is a vain search for any corresponding data from the sermon itself which will say anything about God’s going anywhere.  That an M anywhere is spurred to vocalization moves beyond speculation into mere fantasy. What it does in fact say is that the people who were brought to the land will no longer dwell there, not Yahweh (v.3) It is their freedom which is in question, not God’s (v.6-7).

If anything it is in mentioning the doom of Shiloh, which as Brueggemann points out would have been utterly contrary to all expected metaphors – and a shock – that the prophet would have enraged his audience.  As Brueggeman says:

The position taken here by the prophet could only be treated as treason by the state, because it destroyed the ideological underpinning of the establishment (cf. 26:11). That dominant theology claimed that Jerusalem was inviolate because God had made unconditional promises. This royal tradition, albeit now distorted, is rooted in the temple and royal claims of David and Solomon.”[4]

Elsewhere Brueggemann has argued well that the temple had already been joined with political power and wealth under Solomon. That it was already a place of control opposed to Yahweh.

Brueggemann argues in chapter two of The Prophetic Imagination that “Solomon was able to counter completely the counterculture of Moses” in a three-fold manner by countering:

  • the economics of equality with the economics of affluence;
  • the politics of justice with the politics of oppression; and
  • the religion of God’s freedom with the religion of God’s accessibility. [5]

It is this last point especially (where “accessibility” is directly tied to the temple”) that God’s  freedom to act is in view.

That was the 10th Century, this is the 7th – things are only even more reified. Jeremiah brings out the metaphorical jackhammer for as Brueggemann argues in his commentary on Jeremiah:

It was part of the rationale and self-understanding of the southern royal community that northern Shiloh and southern Jerusalem are precise opposites.* Whereas Shiloh is rejected Yahweh and therefore destroyed, Jerusalem is chosen and valued by God, and therefore safe. The contrast between Shiloh and Jerusalem shows the power of self-serving, vested interest in shaping the truth claims of the royal ideology. The managers of the Jerusalem establishment could not believe that Jerusalem might be treated by God as Shiloh was. [6]

 

Brueggemann knows well the fully articulated views of sociologist Peter L. Berger (as cited in the beginning of The Prophetic Imagination) whose catalog of books starting with The Social Reconstruction of Reality (with Thomas Luckmann, Doubleday, 1966), through books like The Sacred Canopy, his The Noise of Solemn Assemblies and my own favorite, The Precarious Vision (Doubleday, NY, 1961) present a stunning explication of the religious enterprise in Ancient, Modern and Postmodern contexts.

It seems obvious to me that Brueggemann has missed the last book (which is easy to do as Berger has 12 others on the same theme) for he believes Berger presents only a “formal” sociologist’s view and not the “the substance of the prophetic ministry.”[7] Berger’s whole last two sections of The Precarious Vision, entitled “Zion”and “Exodus” are an amazing unpacking of a deeply Christian prophetic calling both “in the world but not of it.” His last chapter entitled  You are the Man  uses the exchange between Nathan and David after his failure with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite as a typological example. It depicts David attempting to hide behind his Kingship but Nathan stripped him of this self-deception with the story and declaring “You are the man!”[8]

Not the king, the man.

Like Nathan, Isaiah and every other prophet one can think of, Yahweh’s freedom to break through the collective walls of human self-deception – most powerfully embodied in the religious enterprise when joined with the state and most perfectly housed for Israel in the temple in a Zion theology of security comes through His prophets alone.

It is not a coincidence that the message of the prophets is so often tied to those outside the protection encasing of the established powers: the orphan, the widow and the foreigner (Jer. 7:6).

It is a curious thing.[9]

But it is consistent throughout the prophets. As Richard D. Patterson says:

 Throughout the Old Testament, then, the cause of the widow, the orphan, and the poor is particularly enjoined upon Israel as befitting a redeemed people who are entrusted with the character and standards of their Redeemer. Even in the last book the theme is utilized in pointing to the coming ministry of the forerunner of Messiah and of Messiah Himself and of the righteousness that would then be inaugurated (Mal. 3:1-6).[10]

Dealing with things straight up Jeremiah lives in Judah while it play vassal to either Egypt or Babylon under Jehoaikin. His concerns have little or nothing to do with anything other than Israel’s fidelity to Yahweh and its moral actions. Israel’s freedom or bondage is dependent on God’s will not that of the King (who is never mentioned.) In fact, other prophets would occasionally name who was going to be the instrument of punishment. In this case, it almost (not quite, because he will throw them out) seems a case of Divine apathy in return for their pretentious use of the temple as a “hiding place” for their own sin (Jer. 7:9-11).

Lessons from Jeremiah’s Sermon

Certainly one of the safest places to hide from God is in the Church or within the religious enterprise. In our culture one does not have to look far to see the Solomonic mix that Brueggemann pointed to from the 10th Century which combined affluence, political oppression and organized religion as a means of control. At first reading I felt I was reading an analysis of the Bush years (with no small reverb though the Obama years as well) – not the Sitz im Leben of the prophets in general or Jeremiah specifically. Military power, joined with monied interest and a quasi religious justification that ever-so subtlely subordinates the true demands of the Gospel to the pragmatic advancement of the State – world-wide.

But on a smaller scale  it goes like this: “I give my tithe, serve on the deacon board and attend my church regularly.” I may also in fact support Internet sites that pay for human trafficking as I am addicted to porn. I live a double life. But I am forgiven and feel my good outweighs the bad because I envision God as having a “scales” system. My Presbyterian church has encouraged me to “re-imagine God” and this is how I do it.

“I am safe in my church as no one really knows me, the sermons are on bettering my life in quick pragmatic ways that encourage my  best sides and never challenge true holiness or discipleship. I could never be honest about my life.”

I am no moralist. I only know this man is sick in heart and needs help that is not coming.

The prophetic voice does not now bring condemnation or the threat of outcast (though the man had best be careful who he shares this information with). The prophets were always for the freedom of their people and about matters of the heart.

It was for this reason that Jeremiah reiterates what God had revealed on the trek  into the Promised Land – that He did not want burnt offerings and sacrifices (Jer. 7:21-24) – but obedience from the heart. He says, in fact, that they are utterly “backwards.” (v.24).

I’ll end with the words of T.S. Eliot, born under modernity who speaks directly into our current postmodern situation:

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened
before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no God; and this has
never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?[11]

Are the closing of many of the mainline churches a form of apathetic judgment by God for like some of the mirrored excesses or myopia of the templed state of Israel under kings like Solomon, Jehoikim and so many others?

When we replace heartfelt faithfulness to God with the benefits of membership in a religious institution that promises safety despite moral action – especially in regards to the disenfranchised and the call to do justice – is not possible we are inviting our own decline?

Secondly, if that same agenda (to represent the widow, the orphan and stranger) crops up through prophets from all ages and then again in Jesus as God’s fullest expression (Hebrews 1) it not a difficult inferential jump to adopt such a stance either personally or within any faith community concerned with biblically responding to the heart of God as it has been consistently been unfolded.

 

Bibliography

Berger, Peter L. The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks at Social Fictions and the Christian Faith (Doubleday, NY, 1961)

Brueggemann, Walter A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Eerdmans, 1998)

Brueggemann, Walter The Prophet Imagination (Fortress Press, Philadelphia 2001) Ellicott, John. Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible as referenced online October 24, 2015. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/psalms/89.htm

Eliot, T.S. Choruses From the Rock as cited at http://www.tech-samaritan.org/blog/2010/06/16/choruses-from-the-rock-t-s-eliot/  Cited on December 27, 2015.

Holladay, William. Jeremiah Chapter 1-25 Hermenia (Fortress Press, 1986)

Patterson, Richard D. The Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and the Extra-Biblical Literature (Bibliotheca Sacra, Dallas Theological Seminary. Used with permission -July 1973) p. 23-34. https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/20-proverbs/text/articles/patterson_widow_bsac.pdf As cited on December 27, 2015.

 

Additional resources

Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Anchor, 1990).

Berger, Peter L. The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America  (Doubleday, 1961).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Brueggemann, Walter A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Eerdmans, 1998) p.74-75

 

[2] Brueggemann, Ibid., p.75

[3] Holladay, William. Jeremiah Chapter 1-25 Hermenia (Fortress Press, 1986) p.241.

[4] Brueggemann, Ibid., p. 74

[5] Brueggemann, Walter The Prophet Imagination (Fortress Press, Philadelphia 2001) p. 98

[6] Brueggemann, Commentary on Jeremiah, p. 77.* Brueggemann footnotes what he calls a “self-serving ideology” as articulated in Psalm 78:78:56-72, then points to Anthony P.Campbell’s “Psalm 78: A Contribution to the Theology of the Tenth Century Israel,”  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 (1979) 51-79; and Richard J. Clifford, “In Zion and David a New Beginning: An Interpretation of Psalm 78,” in Traditions in Transformation, Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson (Winona Lake, INd.: Eisenbrauns, 1981) 121-141.

[7] Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, p. 130.

[8] Berger, Peter The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks at Social Fictions and the Christian Faith (Doubleday, NY, 1961) p. 227.

[9] And will be addressed in a second paper to submitted for possible extra credit given certain lapses and delays this semester. There is not space nor is it appropriate here.

[10] Patterson, Richard D. The Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and the Extra-Biblical Literature (Bibliotheca Sacra, Dallas Theological Seminary. Used with permission -July 1973) p. 23-34. https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/20-proverbs/text/articles/patterson_widow_bsac.pdf As cited on December 27, 2015.

[11] Eliot, T.S., Choruses From the Rock as cited at http://www.tech-samaritan.org/blog/2010/06/16/choruses-from-the-rock-t-s-eliot/  on December 27, 2015.

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