Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17.
Prophets experience divine constraint, pilgrims pass through shaking times, and Jesus places compassion above divine law.
From now to mid-October the Lectionary readings from the Hebrew scriptures will come from Jeremiah (including Lamentations). Jeremiah is the largest book of the major prophets, covers a period of about forty years of the most decisive history at the end of the kingdom of Judah, and has the most personal and biographical presentations of any of the prophetic books (only Ezekiel is comparable). Some recent hyper-critical scholarship has cast doubts on any knowledge of the “historical Jeremiah,” but the remarkable tradition is hard to explain without some remarkable figure as its origin. (See Special Note, actually a rather long essay, on Background to Jeremiah below.)
This week’s Prophetic reading is Jeremiah’s “Call,” or commission as a prophet.
The prophet’s full commission is presented in the entire first chapter of the book, where the prophet is established as a main battle line in God’s warfare with God’s people. Jeremiah the prophetic warrior is drafted (verses 4-10), given two signs that explain the current campaign (visions in verses 11-16), and garrisoned as an impregnable fortress against his own people (verses 17-19).
The narrative of God’s drafting Jeremiah is in the first person: “the word of the Lord came to me…” It is the prophet’s account of how he came to be such an ominous and stubborn figure. He has experienced a divine constraint so fundamental to his being that it must have been prenatal (verse 5). He portrays a dialogue with God in which resistance or excuses are useless. Youth and lack of education are beside the point. When God has drafted a person, one takes orders, goes where one is told, brings the messages one is commanded, and generally stands fearlessly on duty as assigned (verses 6-8).
The prophet’s induction into God’s service is not dialogue only. There is a ritual action, whether this is only in a Jeremianic vision or it is the standard action of an ordination service in the temple. God causes something (the object is unexpressed) to touch Jeremiah’s mouth (as Isaiah’s lips were touched with the live coal, Isaiah 6:7).
The words accompanying this action are God’s speech. “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (verse 9, NRSV). The prophet is fully recruited to God’s side, is burdened and authorized by the awesome and deeply disturbing power of speaking God’s pronouncements to other humans.
The continuation of the divine speech says such speaking will involve pronouncing the fates of nations and kingdoms, mainly for judgment and destruction, but perhaps also, between the cracks, for saving and rebuilding (verse 10).
The Psalm reading is exactly what a newly recruited servant of the Lord should learn. It should be part of his equipment.
It is a prayer that God be a “refuge” and “strong fortress” in the speaker’s struggle with the wicked and the unjust. This speaker shares the Jeremiah experience of divine constraint since birth. “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; / it was you who took me from my mother’s womb” (verse 6, NRSV). As would turn out to be the case for Jeremiah, this speaker foresees a long life of service (verse 9) filled with dangers and trials (verse 13), but the final word of this verbal equipment is, “My praise is continually of you” (verse 6, and verse 23).
The Epistle reading continues the instructions for those who pilgrimage toward the City of God as followers of Jesus.
The pilgrimage has similarities with the Israelites going through the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai. The goal of the Israelites’ journey was the mountain where God appeared in thunder, lightning, and fire, and where God spoke the divine commands directly to the people, terrifying them so that they made Moses the intermediary for any further such divine instruction (Exodus 19 and 20, referred to here in verses 18-19).
The writer explains that while there are similarities to the Israelites’ journey, the present pilgrimage is beyond Sinai. It goes on toward Mount Zion, the true Mount Zion, which is the heavenly city of God.
The pilgrimage toward Zion is visualized as a pilgrimage festival to Jerusalem. There is a large festival crowd – here “angels” in their festival suits. There is an assembly of “the firstborn,” meaning those faithful ones who died in earlier times and were recorded in the book of life. The festival assembly also includes “the spirits of the righteous made perfect,” who are probably those who died as martyrs, before as well as since Jesus’ death.
As the pilgrims approach the holy center they come to Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant.” Moses was the mediator of the old covenant sealed at Sinai, but now at a new Zion that replaces Sinai there is a new covenant with its own mediator. This new covenant was sealed by the sprinkling of blood – here, as in most of Hebrews, the model is probably the Day of Atonement – a blood that forgives all human sin since the blood of Abel was shed by Cain (all this in verse 24).
The rest of our reading is an exhortation not to refuse “the one who is speaking” (verse 25). This one is the heavenly Jesus, who speaks now the new covenant as the voice of God formerly spoke the old covenant.
The warning is needed because it is still possible to fall away, to lose the heavenly “rest” (see 4:1-11) that Jesus made possible. God “shook” Sinai in the great appearance to Israel, but the prophet Haggai promised that there is yet a second “shaking” to come, and any of us can fall away in that second shaking (verses 26-27). The writer exhorts the hearers to persist and be able “to offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” as the completion of their earthly pilgrimage.
The Gospel reading is about binding and loosing.
A woman who was “bound by Satan” for eighteen years (verse 16) by being physically bent over is released (untied, loosened) by Jesus from her disability. This may have been a regular healing story, like the one about the woman cured of the hemorrhage (Luke 8:42-48), but this one took place on a Sabbath and in a synagogue while Jesus was leading the service, creating a little tempest for the elders. Thus we have in fact a combination of a healing story and a controversy story. The controversy, which comes up several times, is about what is permitted on the Sabbath.
The President of the Congregation is discrete about the problem. He does not address Jesus directly, but says to the crowd who are present, “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (verse 14, NRSV).
The fault lies with the needy, not with the healer! Don’t come on the wrong day! Jesus asserts that this is quite ridiculous, even hypocritical, and appeals to an example of what IS permitted on the Sabbath. It is permitted to untie (literally “loose”) a work animal to take it to water (verse 15); therefore, how much more appropriate to release a suffering human, Sabbath or no.
The early followers of Jesus labored with the issue of how much of Jewish law and tradition applied to them (how much of the law was still “binding” on them, and how much had been “loosed” by Jesus’ authority). They understood most of the Ten Commandments to be required of them, but by the second century Christians (as they were then called) no longer observed the Sabbath (the fourth Commandment) but observed “the Lord’s Day” (Sunday) instead.
For a couple of generations many decisions had to be made in detail about what law applied to Jesus followers and what did not. These decisions were made step by step by those who were understood to have received authority from Jesus. In Matthew Peter is given this authority. “[W]hatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). In time Christians too had to make decisions about what was permitted and what was not.
Our story, and others like it, stood as forceful reminders that compassion for human suffering must take precedent over all religious formalities among Jesus’ followers.
Special Note: Background to Jeremiah.
As “minimalist” historians of ancient Israel in the 1980s and 1990s came to deny the historicity of most of the Israelite Biblical books, so Jeremiah fell under the hyper-critical axe in those decades. William McKane published a massive commentary on Jeremiah (two volumes in the “International Critical Commentary” series, T&T Clark, 1986-1996) in which the extensive “Deuteronomistic” editing and elaborations in the book of Jeremiah were taken as evidence that most of its historical references cannot be trusted. At the same time, but independently, Robert P. Carroll took a rigorous postmodern approach to the book, finding it essentially “ideological” and its presentation of the person of Jeremiah essentially fictional (Jeremiah, in “The Old Testament Library” series, Westminster, 1986).
[More balanced treatments are found in Thomas Overholt’s brief commentary in Harper’s Bible Commentary, Harper, 1988; Douglas R. Jones, Jeremiah, The New Century Bible Commentary, Eerdmans, 1992; and Patrick D. Miller, “Jeremiah,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI, Abingdon, 2001. Walter Brueggemann's A Commentary on Jeremiah, Eerdmans, 1998 (original 1986), gives thematic treatment in the immediate wake of Carroll's ideology vs. history turn in Jeremiah studies. Terence Fretheim's Jeremiah, "Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary," 2002, emphasizes rhetorical and reader-response criticism. John Bright’s older commentary in the Anchor Bible, Jeremiah, Doubleday, 1965, is still useful and less one-sided than many more recent works.]
The last few decades have seen a turning away (even turning against) historical criticism of the prophetic writings among Biblical scholars, clearly reflecting a shift in the cultural Zeitgeist. The approach here, however, is unapologetically historical. I am interested in what was going on in Jeremish's time and how he acted in the great events then unfolding. Those are still serious and worthwhile questions, and there are more materials for addressing them than for any other period of ancient Israelite history.
Some of us at the University of Chicago in the 1960s took a more “political” approach to Jeremiah and his tradition. We found that the book’s overall presentation of the prophet was coherent with the trends and events of the historical period from 640 to 550 BCE. (Some of our writings are found in, Scripture in History & Theology, Essays in Honor of J. Coert Rylaarsdam, The Pickwick Press, 1977. Much of the following summary of Jeremiah’s historical situation is found in my essay, “The Political Background of Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon,” pp. 151-166.)
The Yahweh-only Religious Movement
The most distinctive long-term development in Israelite religion and history was the emergence and progressive articulation of the Yahweh-only religious movement and its associated political parties. The prophetic movement behind the Elijah-Elisha traditions led to the great religious purge of the northern kingdom carried out by Jehu at the overthrow of the house of Omri (Ahab and Jezebel). In that purge, Ba'al worshipers were massacred along with the members of the old dynasty (II Kings 9-10). That dynastic change marked the triumph of the Yahweh-only religious policy, though with disasterous foreign policy consequences (submission to Damascus). After two generations, the Jehu dynasty regained considerable power and prosperity and the original religious zeal was compromised by wealth and increasing social injustice in a class-divided society. This led to the extreme prophetic critiques of Amos and Hosea in the last generation of the Jehu dynasty and after (760-722 BCE).
After the judgment of Yahweh had fallen on the northern kingdom (722 BCE), its Yahweh-only heritage was appropriated and integrated with a Jerusalemite viewpoint and became the basis of religious reforms by (probably) Hezekiah in 715-701 and (certainly) Josiah, escalating from 627 to 622 and prevailing until 609, when everything was derailed by Josiah’s death at the hands of Pharaoh Necho II.
Uncompromising insistence on the Yahweh-only religious policy was the central thrust of the intermittently renewed reform movements. Eventually this was reinforced by the unification of all animal sacrifice in a single Yahweh sanctuary – the Jerusalem temple in Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s times.
The Political Parties in Jerusalem-Judah
Josiah’s era (640-586 BCE) was marked by conflict between two political parties with their respective policies. One party was conservative, following the policy of Josiah's grandfather Manasseh (reigned 697-642 BCE) who remained allied with Assyria during his long reign. The other party emerged (or revived) during Josiah's reign, as Assyrian power began to decline in the Near Eastern world. The strength of this party was based in the landed gentry of Judah, "the people of the land," and it was this party that carried out the "reform" of Josiah. The reform unified the sacrificial offerings of the kingdom of Judah, banning all places of sacrifice except Jerusalem. Many of the old priesthood of the city-state of Jerusalem opposed this reform, and lined up regularly in the opposition to Josiah's reform.
Josiah was eight years old at the beginning of his reign and political guidance was clearly in the hands of his mother and other court counselors. There were two political marriages carried out while Josiah was still a teenager. One was when Josiah was fourteen years old, and a second, quite different, marriage when he was sixteen years old. (The ages of his sons and the different mothers they came from, as given in II Kings 23:30-37 and 24:8, 18, are the basis for these conclusions.)
The second marriage (in 632), together with the leadership of the family of Shaphan, Josiah’s chancellor (“secretary,” NRSV), initiated a change in policy that led directly to the religious reform in Josiah's adulthood, when he took over the direction of policy himself. This new program established the “Deuteronomic” religious policy as the law of the land. (The story of the finding of the scroll of the law of Moses in the temple [II Kings 22:3-23:3] is a public justification for adopting a radically new law of the land ("covenant," see II Kings 23:3). The story may be fiction, but it exists because there really was a law that needed a divine sanction for such extensive innovations as the reform in Judah involved.)
The book of Jeremiah places Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet in the year 627, the thirteenth year of Josiah, when the king was twenty-one years old and the Yahweh-only policy for the kingdom of Judah was building up to its climax. Many of Jeremiah’s poetic oracles may belong to this period of Josiah’s reform, though they have all been re-oriented to later situations in Jeremiah’s career (as the detailed story in Jeremiah 36 makes clear). Jeremiah’s really serious activity, however, came immediately after Josiah’s death.
After Josiah’s Reform – Jeremiah vs. Jehoiakim
With Josiah’s death, the people of the land placed his second-oldest son on the throne (first son of Josiah’s second marriage). That reign lasted only three months, just long enough for Pharaoh Necho, who had killed Josiah, to get back from a Mesopotamian campaign and remake Judean affairs in a pro-Egyptian image. Pharaoh eliminated Josiah’s second son and put his oldest son (from Josiah’s first marriage) on the throne, and laid a very heavy tribute on the people of the land who had supported Josiah. (All this is in II Kings 23:29-35.) Necho – and Josiah’s oldest son Jehoiakim – was clearly opposed on political grounds to Josiah’s reform.
As soon as Jehoiakim was enthroned, by Pharaoh’s command, Jeremiah delivered his “Temple sermon,” presenting Yahweh’s threat that the Jerusalem temple could be abandoned just as the Shiloh temple had been abandoned many centuries before (Jeremiah 7:1-15 and the narrative of the sermon and its sequel in Jeremiah 26). For the rest of Jehoiakim’s reign (11 years), Jeremiah is radically opposed to the royal administration and its pro-Egyptian anti-Babylonian policy. Everything in Jeremiah’s book is consistent on this opposition to Jehoiakim and his anti-Josiah policy.
Scholars have always thought that Jeremiah could not be radically critical of the temple establishment and also support a policy that made the Jerusalem temple the supreme center of Yahweh worship. A little-recognized feature of Josiah’s reform reduces this apparent contradiction.
City vs. Kingdom = Zion vs. Deuteronomy
The reform of Josiah created a sharply new power relationship between the kingdom of Judah and the old city-state of Jerusalem (“Zion” in the liturgical language of the Jerusalem temple). Josiah’s reform had merged the religious administrations of all the other Judean Yahweh sanctuaries. The former local priests were combined in some manner with the older priestly orders of the Jerusalem temple (see II Kings 23:8-9). This complex and very loaded situation broke open immediately after the death of Josiah. The old city-centered priestly power groups seized the opportunity to support Jehoiakim’s return to the pre-Josiah religious conditions. The Zionists returned to their ancient liturgies – mimicked by the prophet in his temple sermon: “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (7:4, NRSV). (The old Zion liturgies, with "Immanu-El" as their motto, exalted Zion in such chants as Paslms 46 and 48. These were what Jeremiah challenged.)
A core of recalcitrant Zionists had remained opposed to the reform led by the people of the land. (The old city-state had always been the private property of the house of David, not an original part of the tribe of Judah.) The religious-political unification of the realm by Josiah’s reform was reversed by Pharaoh and Jehoiakim. Their new policy once again separated the ancient holy city from its more distant outlands. It was this return to independence by the temple establishment that Jeremiah opposed – not the centrality of Jerusalem in Josiah’s reform.
Thus, Jeremiah was always a consistent and emphatic supporter of Josiah’s reform, of the entire Yahweh-only policy and ethos which was embodied in the Deuteronomic scroll of the law of Moses. In Josiah’s time Jeremiah shared with other prophets in poetic oracles preaching the absolute necessity for Lady Zion to return to her faithfulness to Yahweh (most clearly in Jeremiah chapters 2-6). After Josiah’s death, Jeremiah became a public scandal (see his situation after the temple sermon as stated in Jeremiah 26:16-24), having to go into hiding from the wrath of Jehoiakim (36:5 and 19), and generally standing as a minority opposition to the current political and religious establishment.
The Pro-Babylonian Foreign Policy
Josiah’s foreign policy had always been consistently pro-Babylonian (a reversal of the pro-Assyrian policy his grandfather Manasseh had maintained for over fifty years), and Jeremiah always advises the Judeans to accept Babylonian suzerainty and live at peace with those overlords to whom Yahweh had given world-rule for the time being (see numerous references to Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon in chapters 21-29).
After eleven years of Jehoiakim’s reign, Jerusalem was besieged and captured (but not destroyed) by Nebuchadnezzar, shaper of the new empire based on the city-state of Babylon. The royal family of Jehoiakim’s line was taken into captivity to Babylon (597 BCE). (There were three exiles of Judeans, 597, 586, and 581, see Jeremiah 52:28-30, where the numbers are probably heads of households. The city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed after the second exile.)
Josiah’s other son from his second (pro-Babylonian) marriage, Zedekiah, was not exiled but was put on the throne as Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal. The old distinction between the two marriages of Josiah persisted. The pro-Josiah, pro-Babylonian policy was favored by sons from the second marriage; the pro-Egyptian, anti-Babylonian policy by the son and grandson of the first marriage. The various members of the house of Shaphan (about six of whom are referred to in various passages) consistently supported the Josiah policy and also protected Jeremiah through three generations of the family.
Jeremiah was thus an increasingly conspicuous advocate of the religious policy of the Yahweh-only tradition that saw the Jerusalem temple as “the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name there” (Deuteronomy 12:5, NRSV). Jeremiah, however, insisted that Yahweh’s protection of that holy place would always be contingent on Israelites keeping the Ten Commandments (7:9-10). Even with that contingency, Yahweh would find ways to maintain, even through exile to distant lands, some remnant of the old covenant promises.
Jeremiah’s mission from Yahweh was “to pluck up and to pull down, / to destroy and to overthrow, / [but also] to build and to plant” (1:10). (The fragments of Jeremiah tradition looking to a hopeful future are collected in chapters 30-33.) It is clear that the Deuteronomistic movement, carrying on the Yahweh-only tradition, kept seeking ways to build and to plant, even beyond the great tragic end of Jerusalem. They reshaped the traditional stories and records of Israel into a mega-narrative consistent with the program and priorities of Josiah’s reform (the “Deuteronomistic History,” the core narratives of Deuteronomy-II Kings).
In that process, those reform advocates found, or developed, a major ally and fellow traveler in the prophet Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch.
Finally, Jeremiah himself ended in exile – though ironically his exile was in Egypt instead of in Babylon (chapters 43-44). Nebuchadnezzar had offered him VIP treatment anywhere in the empire (40:2-6), but the old prophet chose to slug it out with the remnants left in the land, who in turn betrayed him and drug him off to Egypt, still a suffering servant of Yahweh’s word.