Jeremiah: About Reading the Bible in and for Our Time


Now the Christmas season is past, and Epiphany is well underway, our Monday night Bible Study group has resumed. In the Fall we read the epistle to the Hebrews, so it was time for another Old Testament book. We’re starting the book of Jeremiah, an unhappy and somehow very modern prophet! Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet. This isn’t an unusual response to God’s call in the Bible: Moses was not enthusiastic about the call to lead God’s people out of Egypt, and Jonah’s reluctance is well known. In Jeremiah’s case, the reaction is exacerbated by two things: his youth and the negativity of the message he was called to give.

Like other “writing prophets”, Jeremiah’s prophecy is distinguished by its contingency. In a particular time and place and set of historical circumstances, the word of YHWH comes to Jeremiah to warn that if the people of YHWH persist in breaking the covenant, they must expect the consequences. A similar message had been given by many previous prophets and gone unheeded. Over time however the window for real change had grown narrower: not just individuals but their whole social order was corrupt. When this had happened in the northern kingdom of Israel, the northern prophets were unsuccessful in changing their society and its people. So YHWH used the Assyrian conquest of the north as an instrument, however blunt, to correct the people of the northern kingdom and warn the people of the southern kingdom yet again. By the time Jeremiah was called to preach to the sourthern kingdom of Judah, that kingdom and its people were in as bad a state as the Israelites had been, or worse.

The Judahites believed, partly because they generalised incorrectly from YHWH’s deliverance of Judah and Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, partly because they mistakenly believed the covenant with David’s royal line was absolute and not contingent upon the king and people alike adhering to the Mosaic covenant, that YHWH would never abandon Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah had to tell them they were wrong, and he had to do it in the face of a royal theology and a religious system dedicated to telling them they were right. Who did they want to hear? If you guessed Jeremiah, you are wrong!

In trying to discern what aspect(s) of Jeremiah’s message can be applied to their own time, to our own time, students of Jeremiah and preachers often fail to honour the particularity of Jeremiah’s message. They and we are looking for a prophetic message that speaks beyond Jeremiah’s time and place to offer guidance in our troubled world. In Jeremiah’s preaching, does YHWH have a message for the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, for a time when some find that the centre has ceased to hold (as Yeats wrote), for a world undergoing rapid transition and change?

We must be careful not to content ourselves with facile platitudes about speaking “the truth to power”. Because that was part of Jeremiah’s prophetic mission, we can’t conclude that every oracle in his prophecies can be interpreted as speaking what we conceive to be the truth to the powerful! As Christians we affirm that the prophets can be understood on two levels: that in addition to the message that they brought in their own circumstances to their own time, there is a message within that message that speaks to later times, later events, in the life of YHWH’s people (including YHWH’s people the church). But classic Israelite prophecy, both the early prophets like Elijah and Elisha and the later prophets like Amos or Jeremiah, grew out of a unique relationship between YHWH and YHWH’s people which came to an end when all hope of reviving the monarchy was lost after the return from Exile. The classic prophets were part of how YHWH continued to call men and women to speak YHWH’s word and will to the people even after they were ruled by hereditary monarchs instead of leaders like Moses and Joshua.

To appropriate Jeremiah’s message, that is, to properly make it our own, we must crack open that historical matrix and reveal the word of YHWH that is its core. No modern secular state or its rulers, be it the USA, the EU, the UK, or Israel itself, stands in the relationship to YHWH that the Israelite people and their kings did during the time of the judges and the monarchy (whether united under David and Solomon or divided into Israel and Judah). We must put to one side what of Jeremiah’s words belong to such unique particularities of his time and place. So, for example, YHWH is not saying to us that failure to obey the Sinai covenant will result in the loss of our special relationship with a particular land. Our covenantal relationship with YHWH as Christians is under a new covenant, which Jeremiah himself foresaw. But just as there was no “get out of jail free” card for rejecting the Sinai covenant, Jeremiah speaks across the centuries to tell us there is no “get out of jail free” card for rejecting the new covenant. Instead Jeremiah warns us that we too are bound to YHWH by the covenant of our baptism and that we must live out that covenant in our lives or suffer consequences.

How do we carry out the work of discernment that allows us to put the particularities of Jeremiah’s own time and place aside and find the word of YHWH that speaks to our time? That work must be based on respect for the biblical text and its history. And it must also be carried out with love for YHWH and YHWH’s people in every age. It may end with us between a rock and a hard place, as it did for Jeremiah himself. We may end up repeating his call to become the remnant of YHWH’s people that still heeds the covenant in a hostile world. Our work may end with us speaking, as Jeremiah did, hard truths that no one wants to hear — speaking not to power, but to all but the few who welcome the call to repent and welcome the reign of God.


The First Question

I have my first question! It came in conversation, so I can’t link to an email or a comment. But the gist is this: what do you do when you come across a passage that you just can’t agree with or see a point to? And the example they gave was the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham (Genesis 22.1-14).

This is a real problem, there’s no denying it. And it’s not the only passage that is problematic. So where do we start? First off, I assume that you’ve tried your hardest to apply the study technique I laid out in the “how to” section of the Bible FAQ and Guide. Sometimes that helps with stubbornly problematic passages. We come to realise in the course of studying them that there is something of value in the story after all but that it shows, when taken in isolation, an understanding of God or our relationship with God that is at odds with the overall message of Scripture.

For many people, this is the case with the sacrifice of Isaac. They are able to take from it a positive teaching about trust in God, while recognising that the picture of God is distasteful to a modern reader and doesn’t fit with the progressive revelation of God as the God of mercy and love that we see in the covenant theology of the First Testament or the teaching of the Gospels. Others remain unconvinced.

For them, there are some things that progressive revelation can not explain! There is no way they can accept a picture of God as someone who puts Abraham through the ordeal of believing that God really wants him to commit human sacrifice, all the while planning to substitute a ram at the last minute. And don’t even start on the idea of a God that would do that to Isaac!

To that objection, some theologians find an answer in the very unknowability of God. Yes indeed this way of acting seems wrong to us, and absolutely would be wrong if a human being did it. But (to state the obvious) God is not a human being and, although we may learn morality from God’s indwelling Spirit in our hearts or from God’s revelation, we have to be cautious in applying our rules to God. This is a hard idea to accept or to truly articulate. But there is a point in all our attempts to know God, to understand God, when we must fall silent before the enormity of God Godself and our inability to understand God. As Isaiah prophesied: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55.8)

This suggests that sometimes we can come across problems of understanding and acceptance in reading the Bible for which there are no good answers. Because our difficulty is somehow bound up with our understanding of God, we end up in a situation where we just have to accept our difficulties while also trusting in the God of faithful covenant love, of mercy and justice, that we meet in the Bible and in Jesus. That means holding contradictions in tension: we can’t deny the difficulty we have with the passage but at the same time we can’t deny the God whom we know and in whose fellowship we live.

But in the end I have to confess that I don’t know the answer to this question. I know we must always approach every passage in Scripture with complete honesty, striving to learn from it but also testing it against God’s whole self-revelation, both in Scripture and in Jesus. I know it is OK to say, “I don’t get this” or even “I don’t like this! God is acting horribly”. God will never turn away from us as long as we approach God and the Bible with integrity.