Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Jeremiah: The Suffering Prophet for a Suffering People

As opposed to the various other written styles in the book of Jeremiah, due to the prose, almost Psalter-like, literary style of the laments, historical and redaction biblical critics debate whether the exegesis of texts like Jeremiah 20:7-13 should be viewed through the lens of Jeremiah as the purveyor of these laments about his own existential theodicy, or whether these laments should be viewed from the more collective or group-social allegorical standpoint. In other words, does the lament come from a later editor and represent the people in the context of the exile as a sort of “national lament,” or, in fact, does it really matter in terms of theodicy whether the lament was about Jeremiah's personal life or a broader psalm written by a later prophet or editor regarding the fallen state of the people of Israel?

Jeremiah 20: 7-13 is the fifth of what has been attributed to that prophet's personal laments; this is one of the reasons why Jeremiah has historically been referred to as the “weeping prophet.” And, indeed, Jeremiah had good reason to weep due to a host of political, personal, and theological reasons in his own experience. He was from a priest's family who lived about three miles north of Jerusalem (1:1) and was called to his prophetic mission when just a young man (1:6,7). His preaching caused him to be quite unpopular and he suffered opposition and persecution from many sources, to such an extent that he was finally kidnapped, taken to Egypt against his will, and tradition says that the aged prophet was put to death there for preaching against idolatry (Jones 40).

Life was not much brighter in the collective life of the Israelite people. The Kingdom of Israel by this time ceased to exist after the Assyrians had invaded and ended the Northern Kingdom. Assyria waned and Babylon took its place as the dominant world power. The Kingdom of Judah, likewise, continued in existence in the time of Jeremiah and went through serious turmoil. First with Josiah's reform, the untimely death of Josiah, and then with the debacle of Josiah's sons' disastrous revolt against Babylon (II Kings 24:1-7) that ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon's temple, the fall of Jerusalem, and the end of any autonomous Israelite state forever (Jones 37-41).

Much has been made in modern academic criticism about whether the versical “laments” of Jeremiah, as in chapter 20:7-13, were the actual personal laments of Jeremiah (known as the individual-psychological analyses) or were more a national verse reflecting the despair of the Israelite people after the final fall of Judah and the exile (known as the paradigmatic-collective) and were simply inserted by the final editors as if written by Jeremiah. The nuanced difference in interpretation may seem trivial, but merits analysis (Dubbink 69-71).

Such logic suggests an “either...or” mentality but not a “both...and” exegesis. And there is certain merit to such an analysis of Chapter 20: 7-13. In terms of literary flow and philosophical context, these verses seem choppy, especially in verse 13. Assuming for sake of argument that this verse is authentically Jeremiah's and not a later lament simply attributed to him, Jeremiah starts from bitter anguish and almost blasphemous denunciations about God deceiving and forcing Jeremiah to do things against his will (v. 7-9). By verse 13, Jeremiah's outlook swings, almost in bipolar fashion, to the other end of the spectrum by acclaiming, “Sing to the Lord...for he has delivered the life of the needy...” (NRSV v. 13).

Clearly, such a quick and dramatic turnaround in theodicy is extreme, to say the least. Theodicy is the rational understanding of how vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil is justified. Or, in terms more digestible, how one understands or justifies (or cannot justify) if God is good, how could he allow bad things to happen.

This gives immediate credence to the current school of thought that says these verses were later adaptions of sermons given in Babylonian exile or even post-exilic synagogues and simply attributed to Jeremiah when the final written form of that book was finalized. Certainly, the Deuteronomistic Texts and the Jeremiah might suggest that some later editor compiled or even wrote both (Sharp 9). If these laments were written later, presumably at a time when no one remembered Jeremiah and there were little or no records available of his life story, an interesting point to consider is the fact that theses verses speak so incredibly accurately about how Jeremiah might have felt at different points in his life (Jones 23). In other words, how was this accomplished by ignorant authors/editors decades or centuries after Jeremiah? To look at this from another angle, an analysis of Jeremiah through the lens of a modern sociological paradigm might prove useful in explaining why Jeremiah 20: 7-13 seem at once to be a veiled synthesis of different views of theodicy and yet might still be all attributable to the prophet Jeremiah and not a later Exilic or post-Exilic editor using Jeremiah as a mouthpiece for his current theological message.

James Fowler in his book Stages of Faith developed six stages of faith through which a person can pass throughout a lifespan. Fowler's work is basically a study of psychology in which he suggests that faith, and not religion or belief, "is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence." (Fowler 14). In brief, Fowler suggests that on the ideal plain, a person moves through the following stages of faith: Intuitive-Projective, Mythic-Literal, Synthetic-Conventional, Individuatative-Reflective, Conjunctive, and Universalized faith.

Due to length constraints and general relevance to the topic of this paper, discussion of the first 3 stages is unwarranted. For purposes of further exegesis of the Jeremiah passage in question, application of the latter stages of Fowler's paradigm is helpful. Looking at the earlier verses in chapter 20, we certainly see the anguish of the writer, specifically in such phrases as “I have become a laughingstock” (v. 7). Such verses, in terms of faith, would suggest that the writer here is in the 4th Stage of Fowler's paradigm. The fourth stage is one of angst and struggle, in which one must face difficult questions regarding identity and belief. Those that pass into stage four usually do so in their mid-thirties to early forties. At this time, the personality gradually detaches from the defining group from which it formerly drew its identity. The person is aware of him or herself as an individual and must--perhaps for the first time--take personal responsibility for his/her beliefs and feelings. Stage four is heavily existential and disillusionment reigns. Those in this stage are in danger of becoming bitter and trust nothing and no one (Fowler 150-190). Considering how Jeremiah has trusted God but is still betrayed and abused, one can sympathize with the character Jeremiah's wrestling with his own understanding of his faith.

The reader also sees in the later verses, beginning in verse 11, and ultimately culminating in verse 13 with “Sing to the Lord...” that Jeremiah has begun the move or has already moved into the 5th stage of Fowler's development. Also known as “second naivety,” stage five Conjunctive faith moves one from stage four's rationalism to the acknowledgment of paradox and transcendence. In this stage, the world, having been demythologized in stage four, is re-sacrilized. The person is imbued with vision and a new sense of justice that goes beyond justice as defined by one's own culture and people (Fowler 170-190).

The reader can here see in the later verses of this passage, that Jeremiah, if he was indeed the writer, has indeed hit upon a workable theodicy in terms of his own personal life. Jeremiah has finally reached a stage where he could acknowledge such a paradox as delivering the messages of God and still being a laughingstock. The costly nature of God's work is made evident to Jeremiah in this stage. Perhaps for Jeremiah, the greatest paradox is realized and accepted: faithfulness to God may not lead to happiness but to despair, and yet that despair is not be an enemy to the faith, but cause growth. (Laha 47-48).

There remains still the problem of synthesis of these stages into the one passage. However, as the book its suggests, Baruch was Jeremiah's secretary of sorts (Jeremiah 36:4-32). Such a person compiling many oracles who might have known Jeremiah personally would likely synthesize perhaps two oracles given at different stages of Jeremiah's life into one unified verse, specifically ending the edited passage on the upbeat later stage of Jeremiah's faith to capture the more final theodicy of the man.

While the redactors are right in assuming that much of the language of Jeremiah is identical, especially in the prose sections, to the literary and language forms of the Deuteronomistic writers (Anderson 353), it is not logically certain then that these oracle verses in 20:7-13 were written by such writers and just attributed to Jeremiah because they had no other place of putting them. The fact may be that such editors were not so much conveying new written material but perhaps modernizing or standardizing scrolls from a form already written.

Certainly by analyzing Jeremiah with the lens of Fowler's stages of faith, the theodicy suggested in 20:7-13 is not beyond the realm of possibility that all the views expressed therein were from one person. Perhaps because the words were so personal, the later Deuteronomistic editors and writers made certain that the oracles were reworked into the final edition of Jeremiah because they spoke so poignantly to the psyche of an exiled people. In essence, they needed to be revised for a present context so they would not be lost. In the final analysis, perhaps that is why the works and oracles of Jeremiah were such brilliant prophecy, they spoke not only to the heart of an individual that was languishing in the mysteries of theodicy but also in a later and larger context, spoke for a people going through the same emotions and questions (Diamond 323-325). Jeremiah was the suffering prophet who at a later time was the voice for a suffering people.

Anderson, Bernhard. Understanding the Old Testament. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998: 350-355.
Diamond, A.R. Pete. “Laments and Jeremiah and their Contexts: A Review.” Journal of Biblical Literature 2002: 323-325.
Dubbink, Joep. “Jeremiah: Hero of Faith or Defeatist?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 86 (1999): 67-84.
Fowler, John. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: Harper Collins, 1981.
Jones, Douglas. Jeremiah. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1992: 37-41.
Laha, Robert. Jeremiah. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002: 47-48.
Sharp, Carolyn. Prophecy and Ideology in Jeremiah. New York: Continuum Books, 2003: 9-12.

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