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In the prophetic books, can the people still repent?

When I was studying at Seminary, the question arose of whether judgment was truly inevitable. Could the people not still repent? I’ve always leaned towards yes, as this seems to fit with God’s compassion and grace, traits which are emphasized alongside of judgment in the prophetic books. Yet, grace and compassion – and repentance – did not guarantee that the appropriate punishment would not still come.

The following quote highlights the idea that repentance must have always been an option, and as I appreciate the logic of it, I’ve included it here:

“If there are twenty-four prophetic passages in which the people’s failure to repent is given as an explanation to justify their approaching doom, then at some earlier point in these prophets’ministries repentance was not yet a failure, not yet surrendered as an impossibility. The people can be judged for a failure to repent only if they were earlier clearly called to repentance.”

Thomas M Raitt, “The Prophetic Summons to Repentance” ZAW 83.1 (1971): 31-32

Sometimes the simplest explanation still makes the most sense

James McGrath, on his blog “Exploring our Matrix” provides an explanaton for the numbering of the fish in John 21. The number of the fish (153), like many other numbers in the Bible, has seemed to invited all kinds of speculations regarding its symbolism and deeper meaning.

Yet, McGrath during one of his classes had a student (Jordan Burt) who also fished and he gave probably the simplest and easiest explanation for the number being given in the text: Fishermen count their fish (follow the link to read McGrath telling the story himself).

It’s an explanation that appeals to me. I like the simpleness of it, but also how it reminds us of the fact that the disciples were blue collar workers (fishermen). It’s not that the writer of the gospel of John couldn’t have made the number 153 have a deeper symbolic meaning, but isn’t it symbolic enough for both God’s humour and wisdom that the future of the church was given into the hands of these down-to-earth men who think of counting and recording their fish?

Sorrow and grief in the book of Jeremiah

Alongside of whatever implicit sorrow is found in the text (e.g., sorrow related to shame and/or weariness), the text contains a significant number of explicit references to sorrow. The book of Jeremiah speaks of great sorrow and sadness felt by every agent. Bratcher notes the depth of the sadness, as it appears in Jeremiah 8:18-9:1: “The despair and grief is clear in the jumble of emotive words and the striking metaphors associated with weeping (cf. 9:10, 17-22). They intend to communicate profound anguish and sorrow.”1 Gench puts it slightly differently, but nonetheless argues for the deep grief found in the text: “There are few passages in the Bible that express grief as pointedly and passionately as Jer 8 and 9. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick,’ says the prophet (or God, or both).”2Both Jeremiah (cf. 20:18) and Baruch (cf. 45:2) bear the sadness over bearing a prophetic message, suggesting that sorrow is not only part of Jeremiah’s experience as a person and/or prophet but that sorrow is also a part of the experience of all those closely involved in prophecy.

Several other occurrences of sorrow in the text include the prediction of the people’s mourning the coming disaster and the command of Jeremiah not to mourn. The text in Jeremiah 16 speaks of a lack of mourning and lamenting for those who die. In the midst of this, Jeremiah is commanded by the LORD not to lament (ספד [spd]) because of the lack of peace in the land (16:5). The text makes a distinct connection between Jeremiah’s not lamenting and the future lamenting in the land: thesubsequent verses mention that many will die and not be buried, and they will be neither lamented (16:6) nor comforted nor consoled (16:7). In relation to this lack of mourning for those who die, many other texts point to there being much sorrow in the coming time of exile. Most of the references to grief, sadness, and anguish refer to the anticipated feelings of the people of Judah as they experience the inevitability of the exile.

Furthermore, the LORD shows grief by weeping for Moab (48:31). Ironically, even though the LORD chooses to mourn over Moab, there is no explicit indication of his mourning over his chosen people; considering all of the feelings given in the text, this lack must cause some surprise to the reader. It could be a rhetorical lack: If the LORD mourns and wails for the people of Moab who receive judgment (48:31), how much more does he not mourn for the suffering of his own people, his chosen ones? Yet, it could also be an intentional lack: The LORD’s sense of weariness over the people’s refusal to relent (15:6) could be displayed through a neglect in mentioning the LORD’s weeping for his chosen ones. A study of the word tears (דמעה [dmʼh]) in the text gives a stronger basis for these explanations. While the word “tears” often occurs within a reference to weeping or wailing in the text (e.g., 9:2[1], 19 [18]; 13:17; 31:16), Jeremiah 14:173 does not make this connection. Yet, it is just this text that suggests a certain level of mourning for Israel. Even if mourning is not explicitly mentioned, there is nonetheless sorrow on account of the punishment that the LORD is forced to place upon his people. The LORD’s concern for his people is shown even more by the LORD’s promise as the people go into exile: in the midst of this coming anguish, the LORD will still be their deliverer in times of anguish (15:11).

The examples above indicate that the grief of Jeremiah is closely related to that of the other agents in the text. This suggests that Jeremiah’s grief is more than merely a reflection of his own feelings. McConville notes how Jeremiahs pain relates to that of the people: “Jeremiahs distress is of a piece with the message. He feels already the pain that will come upon the people, in a way that proves his identification with them.”4Rosenberg goes even further in discussing how Jeremiah’s sorrow is a mirroring of the grief of the LORD.5 Rosenberg notes that the“mingling of divine and prophetic persona (punctuated only occasionally by first-person markers such as ‘and the Lord said to me’) is frequent in Jeremiah and illustrates the extent to which God’s sorrow and the prophet’s suffering are seen as two sides of the same coin.”6The use of sorrow in the life of the prophet, including the actions of weeping, wailing, and lamenting, shows a significant relationship between the different agents, and furthermore, it suggests a mirroring of one agent’s feelings by another.

1 Dennis Bratcher, “The Voice/ CRI Biblical and Theological Resources for Growing Christians; 17th Sunday after Pentecost; Commentary on the Texts; Jeremiah 8:18-9:1,” no pages (cited 12 May 2006). Online: http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper20ot.html.

2 Roger J. Gench, “Jeremiah 8:18-9:3” Interpretation (Jan 2008):74.

3 Jeremiah 14:17:“Speak this word to them: “‘Let my eyes overflow with tears night and day without ceasing; for the Virgin Daughter, my people, has suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow.”

4 McConville, Judgment and Promise (1993), 61.

5 Bratcher also concurs with this, pointing out that “in chapter 9 the judgement of God (v. 11) is clearly linked with grieving (vv. 10, 17). This suggests that it is not Jeremiah alone who grieves at the plight of these people, but that Jeremiah is reflecting the grief of God.” (Bratcher, “Commentary,” n.p.), Bratcher argues that this is similar to the concept of “divine pathos” that Fretheim refers to frequently in his book,Suffering.

6 Joel Rosenberg, “Jeremiah and Ezekiel” in The Literary Guide to the Bible (ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode; Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1987), 186.

Table of Feelings present in the book of Jeremiah

The following table lists most of the textual references for words explicitly related to feelings in the text of Jeremiah.

Feeling Hebrew (root form) Verse References
wrath/insolence1 עברה (`brh) Jeremiah 7:29; 48:30
anger/wrath חמה (ḥmh) Jeremiah 4:4; 6:11; 7:20; 10:25; 18:20; 21:5,12; 23:19; 25:15; 30:23; 32:31,37; 33:5; 36:7; 42:18; 44:6;
anger (אפ (+ חרון (ʼp + ḥrwn) Jeremiah 2:35; 4:8, 26; 7:20; 10:24; 12:13; 15:14-15; 17:4; 18:23; 21:5; 23:20; 25:37-38; 30:24; 32:31,37; 33:5; 36:7; 42:18; 44:6; 49:37; 51:45; 52:3.2
anger/wrath מקצפ (mqṣp) Jeremiah 10:10; 21:5; 32:37; 37:15;3 50:13
to anger4 כעס (k`s) Jeremiah 7:18-19; 8:19; 11:17; 25:6-7; 32:29-30,32; 44:3,8
indignation זעם (z`m) Jeremiah 10:10; 15:17; 50:25
to be sick/weary5 חלה (ḥlh) Jeremiah 4:31; 5:3; 10:19; 12:13; 14:17; 26:19; 30:12
weary לאה (lʼh) Jeremiah 6:11, 9:5(4);6 12:5, 15:6; 20:9
distress/anguish צרה (ṣrh) Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24; 14:8; 15:11; 16:19; 30:7; 49:24; 50:43
anguish מעה (m`h) Jeremiah 4:19 (twice); 30:20
to be ashamed יבש (ybš) Jeremiah 2:26,36; 6:15; 8:9,12; 9:19(18); 12:13; 14:3-4; 15:9; 17:13,18; 20:11; 22:22; 31:19; 46:24; 48:1,13,20,39; 49:23; 50:2,12; 51:17,47,51
to be humiliated כלם (klm) Jeremiah 3:3; 6:15; 8:12; 14:3; 22:22; 31:19
to have compassion רחם (rḥm) Jeremiah 6:23; 12:15; 13:14; 21:7; 30:18; 31:20 (twice); 33:26; 42:12; 50:42
rejoicing noun ששון (śśwn) Jeremiah 7:34; 15:16; 16:9; 25:10; 31:13; 33:9, 117
joy noun שמחה (śmḥh) Jeremiah 7:34; 15:16; 16:9; 25:10; 31:7; 33:11; 48:338
Voice [sound] of joy and rejoicing (phrase) קול ששון וקול שמחה (qwl śśwn wqwl śmḥh) Jeremiah 16:9; 25:10; 33:10
to sing for joy; רנן (rnn) Jeremiah 31:7, 12; 51:48
sorrow/grief יגון (ygwn) Jeremiah 8:18; 20:18; 31:13;9 45:3
lamentation קינה (qynh) Jeremiah 7:29; 9:10(9), 20-21(19-20)
wailing נהי (nhy) Jeremiah 9:10(9), 18(17), 19(18), 20(19); 31:15
to weep בכה (bkh) Jeremiah 9:1 (8:23), 13:17, 22:10, 41:6, 50:4
weeping בכי (bky) Jeremiah 3:21; 9:10(9); 31:9,10 15, 16; 48:5 (twice); 48:32
to cry (out) זעק (z`q) Jeremiah 48:20; 31
wail ילל (yll) Jeremiah 4:8; 25:34, 36;11 47:2; 48:20, 31, 39; 49:3; 51:8
to lament ספד (spd) Jeremiah 4:8; 16:4, 5, 6; 22:18 (twice); 25:33; 34:5; 49:312
lament מספד (mspd) Jeremiah 6:26; 48:38
pain כאב (kb) Jeremiah 15:18
pain, sorrow מכאב (mkʼb) Jeremiah 30:15; 45:3; 51:8
wound מכּה (mkkh) Jeremiah 6:7: 10:19; 14:17; 15:18; 19:8; 30:12, 14, 17: 49:17; 50:13
be astonished, appalled (qal),desolate (niphal, hiphil) שמם (shmm) Jeremiah 2: 12; 4:9; 10:25; 49:20; 50:45;13 12:11; 33:10;14 18:16: 19:8; 49:17; 50:13
tears דמעה (dm`h) Jeremiah 9:2(1), 19(18); 13:17; 14:17; 31:16
1 Baloian’s Anger in the Old Testament was helpful in pointing out references on all the terms related to anger.
2 Although most of the occurrences of אפ (ʼp) have to do with anger, a few, like 2:35, have to do with turning one’s face away. Those references that specifically speak of anger burning (אפ + חרון ['p + ḥrwn]) are the following: 4:8, 26; 12:13; 25:37, 38 (twice); 30:24; 49:37; 51:45.
3 This is actually a verbal form of anger, while the rest are not acting as verbs in the sentences. It is unique in that the anger expressed is by the people who attack Jeremiah instead of being expressed by the LORD.
4 Most forms of the verb are in the hip’il infinitive construct form with a first common singular pronominal suffix.
5 Although not all cases of weariness and humiliation are related to feelings (e.g., Jer 12:13 is merely talking about the weariness involved in doing hard labour), these emotion laden words often convey a sense of sadness.
6 The verse references are from the English text, which differs from the Masoretic numbering by one verse for ch. 9. The different numbering for the Hebrew verses are placed in brackets.
7 About half of the references refer to rejoicing being forbidden or taken away (7:34; 16:9; 25:10).
8 As with the references to rejoicing, about half the references refer to joy being forbidden or taken away (7:34; 16:9; 25:10; 48:33).
9 Jeremiah 31:13 speaks of sorrow going away (and being replaced by joy).
10 The weeping in Jer 31:9 is more a sign of joy than sorrow.
11 In Jer 25:36, ילל (yll) is found in the noun form.
12 The verb ספד (spd) is most often found in the negative (16:4, 5, 6; 22:18; 25:33).
13 The use of the hip’il in 10:25; 49:20 and 50:45 gives the verbal form the sense of being desolate, and thus, even though desolation would most likely have an emotional response, this reference will not be used in the text, as it is not directly linked to a feeling.
14 Similar to 10:25, the use of the niphal verbal form in 12:11 and 33:10 gives the verbs a sense of desolation as opposed to one of astonishment, and these references will not be used further in this text.

Church or the Academy?

During a conversation at SBL, a former professor of mine mentioned that we, as Reformed scholars, would eventually have to choose between serving the church or the academy. By that, I assume he means that one cannot please both academia and the church at the same time – whatever we write, one side will be frustrated or disappointed by the choices we make. However, I’m not sure I want to choose between church or the academy, although perhaps I have already unwittingly made my choice.

The conference has been held from Saturday to Tuesday with sessions occurring all day on Sunday. Unfortunately, morning worship wasn’t really one of the options for the Sunday sessions (and I wasn’t around to go to the 7.30 a.m. service). As my attending church on Sunday morning is non-negotiable for me, I found a church in the neighbourhood of the conference and skipped out on half my morning session. Surrounded by mostly black people and eating Thanksgiving dinner for communion, I felt at home among these believers who were doing church [fighting for social justice being one of those things]. My time living in intentional community has only reaffirmed my desire to not allow my faith to be only something for head. So I have definitely chosen church.

At the same time, I’m not interested in church that isn’t interested in listening to biblical scholarship. To ignore what’s happening in biblical scholarship is denying my Reformed heritage (this is despite the fact that, as a friend at this conference put it, there are a lot of people focused on a lot of obscure little details that I’m not at all interested in). How can we believe that God rains down good on both the wicked and righteous and then assume that other Christians (and non-Christians) are incapable of having good insights into linguistics, the biblical text, theology and culture?!? And since as a Reformed Christian I believe in God’s sovereignty and capability of working amongst all people in all things, how can I not use the gifts God’s given me to participate in developing that knowledge further? And then sharing that knowledge with the wider body of Christ (the church).

I, being typical of the generation in which I belong, want both. This conference has reminded me that I’m not the only one, which is pretty exciting. Now just to figure out how best to do that well (and finish my dissertation :))

SBL in Chicago: a world of contrasts

I spent the first afternoon of SBL attending a seminar on theological interpretation of the Bible. I’d love to do more to help further good biblical interpretation that takes seriously both the confessional nature of the Bible and current critical/academic scholarship on the Bible. Attending this seminar and hearing what others are doing is hopefully a step towards doing more of that.

Before walking into the Seminar, I had seen a notice that there was a Taizé service in the church at 6 that evening. Perfect timing, I thought – something to do between the afternoon service and my late dinner plans. And perhaps it would be a nice change from the very intellectually focused afternoon.

It was a strange contrast between the two. The seminar was attended by about a hundred people, almost entirely composed of fairly well-to-do white males. The Taizé seminar was about 10 people, mostly females – of which at least one was homeless. The seminar was well organized; the service somewhat haphazard. Yet, the singing in the Taizé service, despite the seminar being full of theologians and pastors, felt significantly better. Furthermore, I was robustly welcomed and thanked for my presence at the service; people were appreciative of me at the seminar, but I wonder how much of that was related to the potential diversity I represented?

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that I felt more immediately at home in the Taizé service than I did in the biblical seminar. Life in Amsterdam has obviously changed me – living in a Christian community and hanging out with homeless people regularly probably does have an effect on a person. Yet, I also long to feel at home and have a voice in doing theological interpretation well: theological interpretation that has consequences for both the homeless and the ones who might be accused of being too impressed by their own thinking.

This has been crossposted from my more informal blog: so this fits how?

Part 3: Who is speaking in Jeremiah 10:19-20?

As part of a thesis discussing the representative role of Jeremiah the prophet, I looked at how various passages in Jeremiah allow for ambiguity in who is speaking in the text. Below is a short discussion on Jeremiah 10:19-20.

Another section that shows further the ambiguity between the feelings of Jeremiah and the people of Judah is Jeremiah 10:19-20.10 It is questionable who is speaking here, Jeremiah or the people of Judah. According to Polk, more commentators claim that the people of Judah are speaking in these verses.11 Since verse 18 speaks of the destruction coming on the people of Judah, the people would be the most logical recipients of this message of destruction, and they are thus the ones most likely to respond. Since verse 21 refers to the people of Judah in the third person as “my people,” it is less likely that the people of Judah are speaking here.

Furthermore, the use of the first person singular possessive pronoun here suggests instead a completely different speaker: one who has a claim on the people of Judah, a claim held primarily by God. Yet, it does not seem that the LORD is speaking here, which implies that Jeremiah has taken over that claim. Moreover, it is fairly clear that Jeremiah is speaking in verse 23, so he could easily be the one speaking in verses 19-20.

Thus the one expressing the grief found in verses 19-20 is somewhat ambiguous, blurring the distinction between the feelings of Jeremiah and the people of Israel. In the midst of this blurring, the step towards seeing a representational nature to the feelings is easier to make.

Footnotes:

10 Jeremiah 10:18-21 (NIV): 18 For this is what the LORD says: “At this time I will hurl out those who live in this land; I will bring distress on them so that they may be captured.” 19 Woe to me because of my injury! My wound is incurable! Yet I said to myself, “This is my sickness, and I must endure it.” 20 My tent is destroyed; all its ropes are snapped. My children are gone from me and are no more; no one is left now to pitch my tent or to set up my shelter. 21 The shepherds are senseless and do not inquire of the LORD; so they do not prosper and all their flock is scattered.

11 Timothy Polk, Prophetic Persona: Jeremiah and the Language of Self (JSOTSup 32; 1984), 61.

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