Friday, June 28, 2013

Jeremiah: Prophetic Interpreter of His Times

Jeremiah was called to speak to his own time.  His words were collected and compiled so that they might speak to the generations to come in the exile and after the exile.  Jeremiah's words provide the revelatory lens by which Judah is to interpret her experience.  There was a very real danger that the exiled Judeans would come to false conclusions regarding their exile in Babylon.  The common way of reasoning was that when one nation conquered another this was a sign that in the warfare of the gods the conquered nation's god(s) had been defeated.  Jeremiah's prophetic ministry was to provide a proper interpretative framework through which to view the exile.  Yahweh was not weak and therefore able to be defeated by the Babylonian gods.  Rather, Judah had been wicked in idolatry and the exile was Yahweh's just judgment.  John N. Oswalt nicely captures this dynamic of proper interpretative reasoning:
It is often said, "The winners write history."  But that is exactly what Yahweh would not allow to happen.  He told them what their history meant, and it was usually quite different from what the rich and powerful would like to have said about it and themselves.  In the end, the idea that the God of these little Canaanite principalities called Israel and Judah was in fact using the mightiest powers of the world to discipline and refine his people was the last thing that anyone would have expected to emerge from Israel's experience.  For in the end, Israel's history is tragedy compounded by tragedy.
Here is what the Israelites could have thought:
* We were really arrogant to think that ours was the only God; now we know better.
* We were much too exclusive in our thinking, believing that there is only one way to express one's faith; now we know better.
* Our spare and limited expressions of faith could be enriched by the rich religious pageantry and imagery of our captors.
* Our reliance on a book religion--verbal communications from God about the way we conduct our lives--needs to be replaced with the much more satisfying ritual participation in the great cosmic dance.
But what was the actual meaning of that experience as testified through the prophets?  It was the very opposite of the reasonable conclusions above.  The exile was intended to teach the Judeans that Babylon's gods were not gods at all; Judah's problem was that they had not been monotheistic enough.
* The exile was intended to teach the Judeans that covenantal obedience is indeed the only way to express faith; Judah's problem was that they had not been exclusivist enough.
* The exile was intended to teach the Judeans that ritual is only symbolic of genuine changes in personal relations between the worshipper and God; Judah's problem was that they had been too much infected with ritualistic understandings inherent in the worldview of continuity.  
* The exile was intended to teach the Judeans that it is by means of the Word of God that we will be delivered from entrapment in the cosmic plunge; Judah's problem was that they were already too much entrapped in attempts to control the cosmos for their own benefit.  (The Bible Among the Myths, pp. 135-136)
So Jeremiah was tasked with calling for repentance and yet realizing, with increasing clarity, that Judah would not repent and therefore go into exile.  Jeremiah's words were, thus, preparatory for coming exile.  Judah needed to enter the exile with the proper interpretative framework so as to respond rightly. R. E. O. White aptly comments:
Yet if Judah went into exile blaming the past, or the fathers, or fate, or foreigners, or God, then the experience would teach her nothing and would only breed bitterness and further rebelliousness.  But if she went forth in true sorrow, feeling her guilt before God, and in her suffering found the way to penitence, then the outcome could yet be healing, cleansing, and the renewal of her covenant with God.  A generation or two immersed in the heathenism she had so longed lusted after might well cure her of it forever.  If her humiliation was rightly interpreted as God's cleansing judgment, Judah might yet return with God's law written upon her heart.  (The Indomitable Prophet: A Biographical Commentary on Jeremiah, p. 23)
The Church today needs the prophetic perspective and message of Jeremiah.  As we continue to feel the reverberations of the demise of Christendom and the abandonment of the vestiges of a Christian consensus there will be all sorts of temptations to compromise fidelity to the Word of God.  Proper interpretation of our times must flow from God's perspective as grounded in his Word.  This has happened before.  When the Roman empire was being overtaken by barbarians there was a kind of "current events" wisdom that said this was due to the forsaking of the old gods.  Christianity was faulted.  Augustine's The City of God provided another interpretation rooted in the Christian tradition to explain why the cultural crisis had come.  The generations to come might call for the need for another Augustine to arise and, in a Jeremiah-like fashion, interpret the times in a way faithful to God's revelation.