Exegetical Exercise (Jeremiah 1, 4-10)

Image Michelangelo Prophet Jeremiah detail
The woeful daughter Zion

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 16, is Jeremiah 1:4-10, “the call of Jeremiah.” Here is the NRSV’s text, starting from Jeremiah 1:1, followed by my exegetical notes:

The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month. (Jeremiah 1:1-3)

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

 First impressions/questions: Does God know everyone, appoint everyone for some specific work? If so, does everyone end up doing this work? (Is it possible for people to go against or to defy God? For how long? With what consequences?)

People use this as a text against abortion a lot – I have seen it on billboards – which always irritates me, since it doesn’t seem to have a thing to do with abortion, really. Though it does suggest that God knows us long before we are who “we” are. God’s foresight is impressive.

How is Jeremiah a prophet to the nations? (i.e., the gentiles?) Notice that God DOESN’T appoint Jeremiah a prophet to Judah! And yet, we think of him as a southern kingdom prophet. So this is a little bit strange, isn’t it? The words of God are the vehicle for the destructive activity with respect to the various nations. But the destruction seems like it is going to happen to Judah. So … is Judah being treated as one of the nations??

For at least the first 20 chapters or so, all the prophecies are to Judah. Some are about Israel, but the thrust of the prophecies is to Judah. In some cases, they hold out the possibility of repentance – but no one accepts the offer. (God is “looking for one person who tells or seeks the truth so that I can pardon them …”)

Background – Anathoth is one of the Levitical towns, the place to which Solomon banished the priest Abiathar after he supported Solomon’s brother Adonijah in the abortive succession dispute at the end of King David’s reign (1 Kings 1:7, 2:26-27); Abiathar was a descendant of Eli, so the banishment fulfilled the prophecy that Eli’s descendants would not live to old age and that the priesthood would pass out of his family. Jeremiah’s association with Anathoth, then, isn’t a great recommendation. North and east of Jerusalem, but not that far north (according to the map at Bible History) We don’t know whether Jeremiah ever actually served as a priest – possibly not, which might have been a point of considerable frustration for him. (On this and related points, see Bryna Jocheved Levy, “Jeremiah Interpreted: A Rabbinic Analysis of the Prophet”.)

Josiah, Jehoiakim & Zedekiah – kings of Judah at the end of the monarchy; Josiah (2 Kings 21:26-23:30) a righteous king associated with the repair of the Temple, the discovery of “the book of the law,” and subsequent suppression of pagan worship practices, who dies fighting the Egyptians who are en route to support Assyria against Babylonia; Jehoiakim king at the first deportation to Babylonia; Zedekiah the disastrous last monarch, at the time of the final siege and fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (2 Kings 24:1-25:26). Tradition has it that Jeremiah begins his prophetic career in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign. Tradition also has it that Jeremiah is related to the prophet Huldah, the prophet consulted by Josiah when “the book of the law” is found, both being descendants of Rahab and Joshua, and by being married to Jeremiah’s uncle, which may be why Jeremiah doesn’t comment on Huldah’s being consulted about the book instead of him; alternatively, Jeremiah may have been out of town at that precise moment, prophesying to the northern kingdom exiles; also according to the Rabbis, the king and officials consulted Huldah because they hoped a woman, being compassionate, would have a kinder word about the document, but as it turned out, the word was harsh enough even from her.

Analysis of the Text – Jeremiah seems to be reporting an event that happened in the past. We can’t tell from the text itself when in the life of the prophet this “word of YHWH” comes to him. His protest that he is “only a boy” (or, child, or lad, or youth), in Hebrew a naar, apparently could describe a pretty wide range of ages, and might have more to do with social role (“trainee,” “assistant”) than age; Isaac is a naar in Genesis 22, and tradition has it that he is 37; Joshua is a naar in Exodus 33:11 and is traditionally known to be 42. Nevertheless, we think of Jeremiah as having been at least relatively young at the time of his call.

God (YHWH) is extremely active in the text: God has already taken four significant actions prior to this call (“formed,” “knew,” “consecrated,” “appointed”); promises four future actions (“send,” “command,” “be with,” “deliver”); and takes/took four actions in the course of the call (“says” (twice), “put out” God’s hand, “touched” “appointed”).  The verb for “consecrated,” by the way, is literally “I made you holy” – suggestive. Perhaps the parallelism is no coincidence? In any event, God is intimately involved in Jeremiah’s life circumstances.

Jeremiah’s activity in the text is limited to one speech, and to being the object of God’s action – saying, touching, and appointing – and of God’s imperatives (“do not say,” “go,” “speak,” “do not be afraid”). The texts immediately following are both something like training runs: God shows Jeremiah something (an almond branch; a boiling pot), asks him what he sees, and then explains the vision in terms of something God is doing.

God addresses Jeremiah as “you” (a lot: 12 times, 13 if you count “your mouth”) – seemingly emphasizing the intimate relationship God already has with Jeremiah – whether Jeremiah is aware of it or not? Jeremiah by contrast addresses God once, literally referring to God as “Lord YHWH” – but whether he actually pronounces God’s unpronounceable name – ?

Jeremiah in v. 6 is like others (Barak, Gideon, Moses …) in raising some objection to God’s call. Considering the text’s emphasis on God’s initiative (not to use the P[redestination]-word), it doesn’t seem like his objection can possibly have much force; and in fact, he doesn’t decline his call, merely seems to seek to postpone its taking effect. His objection that he doesn’t know how to speak might remind us of Moses’ objection in Exodus 4:10 – which doesn’t get Moses off the hook, either.

The paired oppositions in v. 10 alliterate; Jeremiah is appointed over the nations and kingdoms, to ntosh and nthotz, to haavid and haros, to vnot and ntotz. It is very striking, and underscores both the destructive and the restorative potential of the divine words given to Jeremiah to speak. All this activity is supposed to be with respect to the nations. That is, to the others. So it’s shocking and horrifying that Jeremiah’s first prophecy (Jeremiah 2, really, which is grim) is against Israel, which is really by typical usage and expectation not one of the nations, although of course, it is technically a nation. But Israel is not what “the nations” is supposed to mean. Except perhaps that in adopting the behavior of the nations (paradigmatically, idolatry and injustice, which do go together), Israel has also exposed itself to the consequences to which the nations are exposed.

Summary: All in all, Jeremiah seems to have very little choice in the matter of his call, and as it turns out, the work he has to do is almost unbearable; we can’t help but empathize with his loneliness, his sense of rejection, as well as his wish that things would be different, would turn out differently. No one wants to hear what he says, and he’s punished more than once for speaking the words God gives him to say; no wonder God needs to tell him not to be afraid, and a few verses later, not to back down. Jeremiah’s job description seriously fits that cliché “it’s a lousy job, but someone’s got to do it.” So … receiving a call may not be enjoyable at all. Although there are moments of enjoyment even in Jeremiah’s autobiography (e.g., Jeremiah 31:26).

Jeremiah is the poster child for being truthful, despite the social cost, and in some sense despite the personal cost. His experience reminds us that receiving a call may take exceptional courage, and may expose a person to a life of affliction.

One response to “Exegetical Exercise (Jeremiah 1, 4-10)”

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