The Book of Jeremiah

The Book of Jeremiah has the best writing in the Hebrew Bible. Job, Ruth, Genesis, and Psalms are all stylistically referenced, and the arc of history extends from the Patriarchs to the Exodus to the earthly kingdom.

And it’s funny.

In the Hebrew Bible, comedy works by establishing a pattern and unexpectedly reversing it. When Jacob’s sons are worried about their fate under Pharaoh’s vizier (actually their brother, Joshua), the hapless brothers relates the increasingly cruel tricks the Egyptians may have planned:

Now the men were frightened when they were taken to his house. They thought, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to

attack us and
overpower us and
seize us as slaves and
take our donkeys.”
Genesis 43:18

joseph-brothers-donkeys

This formula works in longer narratives too. The story of dull-headed Judah and Tamar has all the makings of a Shakespearean comedy: Tamar has been working as a prostitute, and had her unknowing father-in-law, Judah, as a client. Now she’s pregnant, and Judah ordered her execution:

And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.”

So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”
Genesis 38:24

But Tamar had wisely taken Judah’s seal and staff as security… and had hidden herself before Judah could present payment, meaning she still had the security though the debt was unpaid. So she is able to prove the identity of the other guilty party, the man who ordered her incineration!

When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.” And she said, “Please determine whose these are—the signet and cord, and staff.”
Genesis 38:25

In Shakespeare’s tragedy the king would now kill himself, and everyone would die. But Judah comically realizes the truth: Tamar is guilty, but Judah is not only guilty but — because had not paid Tamar, and had not arranged a replacement marriage —  Judah is also in debt to her!

So Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And he never knew her again.
Genesis 38:26

judah_and_tamar

The Book of Jeremiah is comedy, but a dark and subversive one. Jeremiah Biblical genre on its head in striking and unexpected ways. And as all comedies end happily ever after, with a marriage and shouts, so this comedy does this book. These comic surprises in Jeremiah occur on multiple levels — even to the type of story that it tells.

The author of Jeremiah enjoys zingers, the same set-up leading to an unexpected outcome, from the downright funny

“Therefore you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:

“Drink,
be drunk, and
vomit!

Fall and rise no more, because of the sword which I will send among you.
Jeremiah 25:27

… to the Lovecraftian

Do you not see what they do in

the cities of Judah and
in the streets of Jerusalem?

The children gather wood,
the fathers kindle the fire, and
the women knead dough, to make cakes for

the Queen of Heaven; and
they pour out drink offerings
to other gods, that they may
provoke Me to anger.
Jeremiah 7:17-18

queen-of-heaven

Even the narrative portions of Jeremiah use this formula, with a cozy scene turned into high blasphemy by a Son of David himself:

So the king sent Jehudi to bring the scroll, and he took it from Elishama the scribe’s chamber. And Jehudi read it in the hearing of the king and in the hearing of all the princes who stood beside the king. Now

the king was sitting in the winter house in the ninth month,
with a fire burning
on the hearth before him.

And it happened, when
Jehudi had read three or four columns, that
the king cut it with the scribe’s knife and
cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until
all the scroll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth.
Jeremiah 36:21-23

17_Weigel Engraving _scrolls burnt 36 Emory Pitts Theology archivs Book Title: Biblia ectypa : Bildnussen auss Heiliger Schrifft Alt und Neuen Testaments Author: Weigel, Christoph. Image Title: Jehoiakim Burns the Scroll Scripture Reference: Jeremiah 36 Description: Jehoiakim burns the Jeremiah scroll.

This same pattern — an expected pattern twisted in an unexpected way – survives in even broader constructions. In the wilderness, the LORD spoke to Moses “face to face, like a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The tragic King of Judah, Zedekiah, is likewise promised such a meeting with a foreign king, Nebuchadnezzar

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. For then the king of Babylon’s army besieged Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the prison, which was in the king of Judah’s house. For Zedekiah king of Judah had shut him up, saying, “Why do you prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; and Zedekiah king of Judah shall not escape from the hand of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face, and see him eye to eye; then he shall lead Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall be until I visit him,” says the LORD; “though you fight with the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed”’?”
Jeremiah 32:1-5

The meeting, “face to face” and “eye to eye” is again promised, but with an additional prophesy: Zedekiah will not die by violence

And you shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be taken and delivered into his hand; your eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon, he shall speak with you face to face, and you shall go to Babylon.’”’ Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: ‘You shall not die by the sword.’
Jeremiah 34:3-4

Instead, Zedekiah’s fate is unspeakably worse:

But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king, and they overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. All his army was scattered from him. So they took the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath, and he pronounced judgment on him. Then the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. And he killed all the princes of Judah in Riblah. He also put out the eyes of Zedekiah; and the king of Babylon bound him in bronze fetters, took him to Babylon, and put him in prison till the day of his death.
Jeremiah 52:8-11

zedekiah-and-nebuchadnezzar

But in the end, Jeremiah is a comedy in the broadest sense. The Book begins with a lawsuit, God petitioning a cosmic court for divorce from Judah, including a request to be freed from any child support

“Therefore I will yet bring charges against you,” says the Lord,
“And against your children’s children I will bring charges.
Jeremiah 2:9

The nation of Jacob has been not just idolatrous, but foolish, worshiping the work of human hands

I will utter My judgments
Against them concerning all their wickedness,
Because they have forsaken Me,
Burned incense to other gods,
And worshiped the works of their own hands.
Jeremiah 1:16

All of Israel – the holy offices of Priest, Prophet, and King — is corrupted. The corruption of the people themselves is emphasized twice, twofold each time, at the beginning and the end of the litany

Because of

all the evil of the children of Israel and
the children of Judah,

which

they have done to provoke Me to anger—
they,
their kings,
their princes,
their priests,
their prophets,

the men of Judah, and
the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah 32:32

Even foreigners can see the destruction of Jerusalem was a result of God’s judgment

And the captain of the guard took Jeremiah and said to him: “The LORD your God has pronounced this doom on this place. Now the LORD has brought it, and has done just as He said. Because you people have sinned against the LORD, and not obeyed His voice, therefore this thing has come upon you.
Jeremiah 40:2-3

Jerusalem is itself destroyed, but the LORD’s presence in the temple is worse than lost — God Himself has ordained the destruction! Nebuchadnezzar, destroyer of the Temple, blinder of the king, is himself God’s servant!

“Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Because you have not heard My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ says the Lord, ‘and

Nebuchadnezzar
the king of Babylon,
My servant,

and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual desolations.
Jeremiah 25:8-9

x1952-367, The Chaldees Destroy the Brazen Sea, Artist: Tissot, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

But even in this is comedy. The hyperbolic lawsuit hints it is a legal satire

“Lift up your eyes to the desolate heights and see:
Where have you not lain with men?
By the road you have sat for them
Like an Arabian in the wilderness;
And you have polluted the land
With your harlotries and your wickedness.
Jeremiah 3:2

But God still loves Israel

“Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD:
“I remember you,
The kindness of your youth,
The love of your betrothal,
When you went after Me in the wilderness,
In a land not sown.
Jeremiah 2:2

Indeed, God remembers even the smallest child

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
Before you were born I sanctified you;
I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah 1:5

And remembers the House of David. A future King will come.

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness;
A King shall reign and prosper,
And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.

In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell safely;
Now this is His name by which He will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS
Jeremiah 23:5-6

For the tree of Jesse is not dead, but rather a shoot still grows, a Jew among the gentiles.

Now it came to pass in the thirty-seventh year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, that Evil-Merodach king of Babylon, in the first year of his reign, lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a more prominent seat than those of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin changed from his prison garments, and he ate bread regularly before the king all the days of his life. And as for his provisions, there was a regular ration given him by the king of Babylon, a portion for each day until the day of his death, all the days of his life
Jeremiah 52:31-34

jehoiachin-in-babylon

And then we see. The Book of Jeremiah is a comedy, a romantic comedy, and like any romcom it needs a reunion and gifts and renewed vows

“Return, O backsliding children,” says the LORD; “for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
Jeremiah 3:14

As in that other romantic comedy, the Book of Ruth, the story of David’s great-grandmother:

“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Ruth 1:16

1_6-1_ruth_ruth_and_naomi_gleaning_in_the_fields

So in the Book of Jeremiah:

‘You shall be My people,
And I will be your God.’
Jeremiah 30:22

The Book of Jeremiah is the romantic comedy, the love story, of God and nation of Israel. Their quarrels and jealous do not erase that love. They are part of the passion that can only come from that love.

Review of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made,” by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas

The Wise Men is the massive professional biography of Jack McCloy, Chuck Bohlen, Dean Acheson, Bob Lovett, George Kennan, and Averell Harriman. Written largely as a series of episodes revolving around the Groton School, Yale University, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the book tells the story of the old American foreign police elite, and has relevant for current trends.

the-wise-men-isaacson-thomas

The history presented is detailed, ponderous, and heavily implies access to the personal journals of either these men, or of those around them. In the same way that Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs appeared to rely on personal access while not simply repeated what was said before, The Wise Men provided much more depth for the American foreign policy elite than I had before. I’ve read much more on the Chinese polite elite — Jie Chauzhu, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, Chiang Kai-shek, and so on, and The Wise Men gives me a frame to drape knowledge of elite events on the eastern side of the Pacific in that period.

Chiang_Kai_Shek_and_wife_with_Lieutenant_General_Stilwell

Which would bring me to a first criticism. Both the characters and the authors go out of their way to dismiss the Asian theater, both in the Second World War and the Cold War. China is viewed as a distracting, “land war in Asia” is an insult never given context, and it’s clear the wars in Asia are most regrettable because they placed US foreign policy on a backwards and irrelevant continent. “Republicans” and “isolationists” (always so called) who wanted to focus US foreign policy on protecting Asia from communism are the most two-dimensional characters in the book. At times this Eurocentric focus is plainly stated, but its never explained or contextualized beyond the superficial level.

It’s hard for me to understand these “Wise Men,” because their faults do not fit into neat categories. In many ways they are White Protestant nationalists, they look down on Jews and Catholics and Asians in equal order. McCloy in particular has a horrific involvement with the survival of the death camps in Germany and the construction of the internment camps in the U.S., and Harriman and the rest do not lose sleep over the crushing of central Europe or Asia. But this ethnocentrism does not seem to extend to any policy recommendations for the suppression of non White Protestant populations within the United States. Perhaps a comparison might be made of the Roman Senatorial elite, a small Italian nobility that magnanimously ruled over subject populations from the Iberians to the Jews. I don’t know, and this likewise is not explored.

slavery-in-ancient-rome

The final chapter of the book, “The Last Supper of the Wise Men,” tries to shoehorn an elegy for the old foreign policy elite. It falls flat (not the least because the combined efforts of the disdained Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administration would win the cold war months after the book was published!). But there’s something to this. Isaacson and Thomas note that even the “poorest” of the wise men had second homes and personal servants. Some of this is a function of the economic development of the time. But as well, The Wise Men is the story of an elite being swept away, as an elite is being swept away in our times.

churchill-harriman-and-stalin

I write this in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. The last three years have seen three elite failures in the west: the gamergate revolt in hobbyist journalism, the Brexit polling debacle, the Republican primary prediction debacle, and the general election polling debacle. These are the results of the economic collapse of the old media elite, which had lead to hiring and publication decisions which encourage low-skill analysts and click-bait headlines.

The Wise Men describes a different elite — foreign policy instead of journalism — but at the dawn of the professional class. Men like Harriman had no need for income from their work. Instead, power was a hobby, for those rich enough to afford it. We are entering that world again — the Washington Post is a hobby of Amazon-founded Jeff Bezos, and for a time The New Republic was the toy of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. If these men allow their children to inherit vast wealth, the world of that generation will be the world of Averell Harriman.

It’s hard to recommend The Wise Men because it is a very slow read — It took me 14 months to muscle through it on unabridged Audible. But it’s a fascinating look at a world that once was, and may be again.

Impressions of “Reflections on the Psalms,” by C.S. Lewis

I recently had the opportunity to listen to C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms, on unabridged Audible. Unlike his more famous works it is not a apolgetic — Lewis is writing to the interested layman, Christian or not, about the Hebrew psalms and how they relate to Christianity.

reflections-on-the-psalms

Lewis’s preferred rendering closely mirrors Robert Alter’s translation, The Book fof Psalms, and disagree with the style followed by Dumbrell and Lozovyy. When it comes to the Psalms, the “literal” translation is preferred among the academically minded, and a loose translation is preferred by would-be theocrats. It’s easy to see why. The Psalms are written in a down-to-earth style: the Hebrew word ruach sometimes translated as “spirit” means life-breath (the in-flow to the lungs), and words used to describe redemption clearly refer to civil suits. While what Lewis calls “double meanings” (and what Alter would call “Christian hermeneutics“) can be easily applied to some verses, there seems to be no serious academic dispute as to the original, intended meanings of many of the Psalms.

In my review of Alter’s work, I noted many have the style of hip-hop: self-congratulatory poems praising one’s own virtues and cursing adversaries. I don’t think there’s a way to resolve this without admitting that the words of the Scripture itself reflect the human biases and faults of the human author. To this Lewis and I would add that the Holy Author has a clear intention in doing this. An analogy might be found int he list of Popes. Christ chose as the first Pope a man who cut off an ear in the Garden and denied him three times during his trial. God uses human instruments to reveal Himself to us. Perhaps because we could not withstand a clearer revelation.

the-book-of-psalms

Lewis also makes some worthwhile observations about prophecy. Lewis gives the example of a scientist of the oceans, describing in a lecture what an alien fish on a planet with such-and-such conditions may look like. If later a space probe is sent to a world similar to one described, and takes photos of alien fish similar to that described by the scientist, is the scientist is a prophet? In a literary sense, yes: he accurately understood the mechanics of what was happening, and made a prediction in line with that. Other ‘prophecies’ by the same scientist should be taken more seriously as a result.

This point is important. For while there are prophecies that are filled-full by events, and those which are clearly written after events, the Scriptures even record prophets who hide their thoughts, or are scared of political power, or who disagree with other prophets

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go against Ramoth Gilead to fight, or shall I refrain?”

So they said, “Go up, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king.”…

Then he came to the king; and the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall we refrain?”

And he answered him, “Go and prosper, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!”

So the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”

Then he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master. Let each return to his house in peace.’”
1 Kings 22:6,15-17

Thus, prophecies are part of the internal dialog of the Scripture. Another aspect of this internal dialog are where different human writers seem to disagree with each other. An interesting chain, albeit partially out of order, concerns the books Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, and Isaiah.

Ecclesiastes, if it is to be literally believed, was written by Solomon

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Solomon, though, allowed worship in the “high places”

And Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places.
1 Kings 3:3

Which were destroyed by Hezekiah

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done.

He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.
2 Kings 18:1-4

Which may not have been such a good thing after all

Look! You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.

“But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the LORD our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar’?”’
Isaiah 26:6-7

Knowledge of these internal dialogues become necessary to sustaining the faith when one reads the Psalms. Lewis begins his reflections on the Psalms near where I end it, with the terrible ones.

Let his days be few,
And let another take his office.

Let his children be fatherless,
And his wife a widow.

Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg;
Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places.

Let the creditor seize all that he has,
And let strangers plunder his labor.

Let there be none to extend mercy to him,
Nor let there be any to favor his fatherless children.
Psalms 109:8-12

chinese-begger-kids

These terrible Psalms too are part of the Scripture’s internal dialog. And this internal dialog reaches its climax in the hallucinatory four-way testimony of the Gospels — of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — in which the human ability to understand the Divine only by stripes is most apparent.

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”
Luke 14:25-26

and

Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.
Matthew 19:13-15

I’m glad I read Reflections on the Psalms. It’s a brief book more accessible to general readers than Alter’s Book of Psalms. It is a much more human in understanding the flesh and blood writers than most “religious readers.” It has some fascinating thoughts on prophecy and the dialog of the Bible.

And it’s short! Only three and a half hours. Highly recommended!