When the call of God is a tale of woe: Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Baruch

A story circulates about St Teresa of Avila in several versions. The most common is that she is making her way back to her convent in a storm when her horse slips, and deposits her in the mud. In indignant prayer she admonishes God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you’ve got so few of them.”

Jeremiah would have agreed with the sentiment. He seems to be the prophet who both finds his calling most irresistible, and most uncomfortable and unwanted. He is therefore often miserable about his life trapped between the rock of his vocation, and the hard place of the people who reject it.

Michelangelo’s portrayal of weeping Jeremiah

Whereas there was no real need for the Revised Common Lectionary to include an alternative continuous track from Isaiah since there are so many related readings, it goes to town on Jeremiah. When reading through the prophets in Year C, it tried Isaiah for two brief Sundays before passing quickly to Jeremiah, where (with one addition of a reading from Lamentations) it provides semi-continuous readings for nine Sundays, Propers 16-24. There are a reasonable number of readings in the related track, again too many to deal with each one individually, although nowhere near as many as from Isaiah.

Jeremiah, the book, like most of the prophets, is an edited collection of poems and stories which occurred at different times in the prophet’s working life. Unusually with Jeremiah there is a significant degree of biography as well. In particular Jeremiah sets up a contrast between true prophets (Jeremiah) and false (pretty much everybody else).

Jeremiah’s work has some clear affinities with Deuteronomy, and the religious reform linked to the book of Deuteronomy that was initiated under King Josiah. This placed heavy stress on the worship of YHWH as the one true God, and a renewed call to obey the law given by God. In particular, Jeremiah sees the growing power and aggression of Babylon as an instrument God will use to punish Judah and Jerusalem, as Josiah’s successors fail to live up to his reform, and fall back into polytheistic ways.

This leads to Jeremiah being characterised as a defeatist and a traitor by the court prophets. These royally approved prophets carry on a rather carefully selective version of Isaiah’s belief that God will defend Jerusalem because his temple stands there (Jeremiah 7:1-7). Unfortunately for them, and for the nation, God is trying to say something different to their age through Jeremiah. Having the Jerusalem temple will be no defence for people who worship Baal and Astarte (Ishtar) alongside YHWH. It is there as a promise of an exclusive covenant.

Jeremiah comes to see that a new covenant will be needed, and he particularly stresses the inward aspect of that covenant, and of obedience to God in the heart (Jer 31:23-34).

Perhaps because Jeremiah is too well connected as a member of a priestly family, he is not executed for treason, only imprisoned for his loyalty to God. The powers that be, however, interpret his message, his faithfulness to YHWH, as treason to the nation. He lives and works in turbulent times, where the truth or falsehood of a prophecy can be a capital offence, or the military defeat of a nation. Again and again in the prophets, religion is politics carried out in a divine frame of reference.

When this national drama is overlaid on the psyche of a young man who feels things very deeply, as Jeremiah clearly does, we as readers are drawn into his internal drama, the intense depression into which his calling leads him. He is clearly tempted to despair at times, and only kept going by the overwhelming conviction of his calling, and the company of his friends, and his friend and scribe Baruch.

There is something of a Jeremiah tradition marked by continuing editing until quite a late stage. The book exists in two editions, a long Hebrew Bible version, and a somewhat shorter and differently arranged Greek Bible text.1 This existence of different versions of Jeremiah adds to the sense that, apart from the broad historical context outlined above, the readings selected in the lectionary will be understood as much in relation to the gospel as to their original setting.

The Jeremiah tradition is continued in the book of Lamentations. Because so much of Jeremiah’s prophecy is expressed as lament, it seemed natural to attribute these anonymous poems to Jeremiah, not least because they reflect the destruction of Jerusalem he lived through. Perhaps they should be better known in a world where so many end up fleeing destroyed homes and cities because of the violence of others. Unfortunately, the only widely used verse is quoted as an affirmation without the context of desolation and adversity.2

This is part of the same tendency to suppress lamentation in the modern church’s use of the Old Testament that we also saw with the Psalms. Nonetheless, some of the language of Lamentations does colour the Holy Week liturgy, and there is some sparing use of it in the alternative continuous lectionary.

Finally, we arrive at the apocryphal or deuterocanonical book of Baruch. This represents a fairly late development of the Jeremiah tradition, probably from the last century before the Christian era. It comprises both a book attributed to Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, particularly focussed on Jerusalem and its restoration, and a different version of the letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles.3 The focus on the renewal of Jerusalem means Baruch provides a reading for Advent, a passage that echoes Third Isaiah rather more than Jeremiah,4 and inspired the Advent carol, “People Look East”. It also provides one of the prophetic readings for the Easter Vigil.


Notes

  1. Both versions have been found in Hebrew among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  2. These are the verses that have inspired more than one hymn or song from Lamentations 3:22-23 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
  3. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles is at Jeremiah 29:4-28. The longer letter included as Baruch 6 is completely different and focussed on living among a people who worship idols. In some editions of the Apocrypha, this chapter (still numbered 6) is printed as a separate book, the Letter of Jeremiah.
  4. Advent 2, Year C.

The New Testament’s favourite Hebrew prophet: Isaiah

Of all the prophets, Isaiah is the one most often read in the lectionary. It is also the most quoted book, apart from the Psalms, in the New Testament. Isaiah provides some of the key Old Testament readings for both the Christmas and Easter lectionary cycles, and much of the libretto for Handel’s Messiah.

The book as we have it falls into three main sections. Much of the first section, chapters 1-39, relate to the time when Assyria is the major power in the Middle East. Isaiah’s ministry covers the time of four kings of Judah, and by the end of his prophesying Israel, the northern kingdom has fallen, and Judah, especially the city state of Jerusalem, stands alone.

One of the features which makes Isaiah stand out in his day is the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from an Assyrian siege. The section of 2 Kings which includes this story is also repeated as chapters 36-39 of Isaiah. Isaiah emphasises that the Lord has made his home on Mt Zion. If his people trust him, he will defend them. According to the biblical account, the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army are struck down by God, possibly by a plague. Sennacherib’s own records give no account of why his siege failed, but merely recount an unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem and a substantial financial tribute.1 This failed siege is seen in scripture as a stunning vindication of Isaiah’s prophecy.


A detail of the Assyrian carved record of Sennacherib’s campaign (see note 1 for the link)

Perhaps because of this prophetic success, Isaiah’s theology was carried on by one or more disciples, who not only edited his voluminous prophecies, but brought his theology up-to-date for subsequent generations. Most notable among these disciples was the anonymous prophet2 who prepared the people for the end of their exile in Babylon, nearly 200 years later. The section containing his work is the most coherent in the book, consisting of chapters 40-55. It is also the section which is most used in the lectionary.

While this anonymous prophet, sometimes called Isaiah of Babylon, continues the emphasis found in Isaiah of Jerusalem on the importance of that city, he particularly uses the first Isaiah’s way of identifying God as the Holy One of Israel. The most significant sections of his prophecy, however, are what have become known as the Servant Songs, most famously the song of the suffering servant,3 read in the Good Friday Liturgy, and treated from New Testament times on as a prophecy of the crucifixion.

This and the other servant songs have always presented something of a conundrum: whom did Isaiah have in mind? Some have seen the servant as inspired by Jeremiah, others as a self-portrait, and others as at least in part the nation’s calling. Perhaps the prophet is simply offering a vision of the kind of person God wants: what true calling means. It is a vision that Christians see reaching its fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth in such a way that it is impossible for them to read these texts without hearing the gospel story.

If the first section of Isaiah perhaps has more prophecies focussed on the calling of a true king, and the second on the calling of a true servant, the final section has a significant vision of the promised kingdom, Jerusalem triumphantly restored, where there will be true justice and peace. All these themes occur throughout the book, and help make it feel like a unity, but they can be seen as emphases of their particular sections.

The readings from Isaiah in the lectionary are too numerous to mention. However, their significance will often derive more from relating them to the gospel of the day than from their context in the book of Isaiah. With Isaiah more than any other book of the Old Testament, the Christian theological tradition tends to overpower the historical context. This is especially true in Ordinary Time; let me take two examples to illustrate.

In Year A, Proper 22, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time has a reading from Isaiah 5, which portrays God as the owner of a vineyard, a metaphor for his people Israel. The gospel reading has Jesus telling a parable about the owner of a vineyard, and the disrespect its tenants show him. In Year B, on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 19, an excerpt from one of the servant songs relates to a gospel in which, after Peter confesses Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tries to teach his disciples that the cross is the way of true service.

Essentially, prophecies from the book of Isaiah, all three sections, do so much to shape the Christian gospels, that now, especially when reading from Isaiah in the liturgy, the gospel inevitably shapes our understanding of what Isaiah is about. There is perhaps no other book of the Old Testament where it is so hard to imagine what Jewish readers hear when they listen to the same text. Whether it is helping us interpret Christmas with “unto us a boy is born”,4 or Good Friday with “he was wounded for our transgressions”,5 Christians read Isaiah as a book about Jesus, almost a fifth gospel.6


Notes

  1. Sennacherib’s monumental inscription is now in the British Museum, it includes a reference to shutting Hezekiah up “like a bird in a cage”. See https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=295077&partId=1
  2. Scholars tend to refer to the Isaiah who prophesied in Jerusalem beginning in 740BC as First Isaiah, or occasionally Isaiah of Jerusalem, and to the one who prophesied in Babylon around 540BC as Second Isaiah, or Isaiah of Babylon. For convenience’s sake, rather than because people think they all came from the same author, chapters 56-66, largely coming from the time after the Exile, are sometimes referred to as Third Isaiah.
  3. Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the Old Testament Reading for Good Friday. The responsorial psalm is Psalm 22. The passion narratives of all four gospels echo phrases from these two readings which underscore their value, and help the early Christians interpret the crucifixion as God’s triumph prepared for by the prophets, rather than a disastrous end to the Jesus movement. An excerpt from the suffering servant passage is also read as the related reading on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 24, Year B.
  4. Isaiah 9:6
  5. Isaiah 53:5
  6. One scholar in fact titled his book on Isaiah The Fifth Gospel, (John SawyerCambridge University Press, 1996)

Making prophets: the economy of justice

As we turn in this series to the prophets, we also return to some overlap between Jewish and Christian ways of grouping the books of the bible. What Christians call the prophets largely overlaps with the books grouped by Jewish tradition as the latter prophets.

You will recall from the discussion of the historical books that Jewish thought groups Joshua, Judges,1 & 2 Samuel (1 scroll) and 1 & 2 Kings (1 scroll) as the former prophets. There are also four scrolls of the latter prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve. The twelve are the so-called minor prophets: those whose books are considerably shorter than the lengthy works of the first three. The Christian bible inserts Daniel between Ezekiel and the minor prophets.

Continue reading “Making prophets: the economy of justice”

Translating and publishing grandfather's wisdom – Sirach

The wisdom of Jesus ben Sira1 comes down to us in a Greek edition translated by his grandson, who revered his grandfather’s wisdom as a guide to life. It is another of those books whose authority and inspiration is disputed among Christians.

It is often known as Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with the undisputedly canonical book of Ecclesiastes), a word which essentially means “the church’s book”. It’s a fairly clear indication that its popularity among the early Christians was significantly greater than its use in the Jewish community it came from. He writes a couple of decades before the ongoing pace of Hellenisation forced the Maccabean crisis.2

The book falls into two main sections. The first, and longest, presents the wisdom ben Sira has accumulated and meditated on over the years, loosely organised by themes. It stands in the tradition of practical wisdom for the art of living. The majority of readings in the lectionary come from this section.

The second section3 concerns “the works of the Lord”. Starting with the works of creation, ben Sira moves quickly into a rehearsal of Israel’s history through some of its most famous characters. This may also provide the passage of Sirach with which most people are familiar from memorial services: in the Authorised Version it begins: “Let us now praise famous men …”.4

One feature of the book is the way it holds together what some people may think are different strands of Judaism; practical wisdom and law, priestly and prophetic ministries. Ben Sira’s account of famous ancestors ends with a eulogy of the high priest Simon, which both shows that the temple was under fairly continuous building work, and offers a sense of how much the temple ritual engaged the emotions of devout Jews like himself and his grandfather. The passages that occur in the lectionary largely reflect this solid Jewish piety.5

There is one other passage (Ecclesiasticus 24) worth noting. It is provided as the reading for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. It reflects the same tradition we saw when looking at the book of Wisdom. The language Jewish piety used of the wisdom of God, Christians quickly adapted for Jesus as the word and wisdom of God. It’s a pity the lectionary doesn’t use the second half of that chapter in conjunction with the summer reading of John in Year B. There are clear echoes in John’s writing about Jesus as the Bread of Life which present him as even greater than Wisdom.

[Wisdom says:]
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.

[Jesus says:]
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Comparing Sir 24:21 with John 6:35


Notes

  1. Although the book is commonly referred to as Sirach (abbreviated Sir) the author is normally referred to by his Hebrew name, ben Sira (ben meaning “son of”) as I shall do here.
  2. See the post on the books of the Maccabees.
  3. Rather confusingly for English readers, the second section appears to begin mid-chapter at 42:15.
  4. This begins at 44:1. The lectionary uses it as a reading for the Saints and Martyrs of England.
  5. These readings are Year A, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 2, and Year C, Proper 17, the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, and Proper 25, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The gift of Wisdom

The Book of Wisdom, or the Wisdom of Solomon, is another of those books whose place in the bible is disputed. Like several of the uncontroversially canonical wisdom books, it links itself with the proverbially wise king, Solomon. Unlike them it was written very late, probably a few decades before the time of Jesus. This means that it also offers evidence of the sorts of beliefs that were important to some groups of Jews at the turn of the eras.

Continue reading “The gift of Wisdom”

With breasts like twin gazelles – the Song of Songs

The Song of Solomon is one of several books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the deuterocanonical Wisdom being the others) to be attributed to Solomon because of the tradition that made him a proverbial figure of wisdom. Its traditional title, Song of Songs,1 indicates (according to Hebrew idiom) it is the best of all songs. Sadly, no readings from it occur in the shared lectionary tradition on a Sunday.2 One short passage is used as the first reading for the feast of St Mary Magdalene.

I once gave a talk – with selected readings – on books of the bible we hardly ever read in church. This was one of my selections, and I read a couple of the passages where the lovers in the song describe each other. Afterwards, an older and more senior priest took me to one side, and said: “I’m not sure you should really read those passages in church.” To which I protested mildly, “But that was rather the point of it.” He replied, “well, you didn’t have to sound as though you were enjoying it.”

Continue reading “With breasts like twin gazelles – the Song of Songs”