The Transformation of Jeremiah

The person named Isaiah in the book called Isaiah is elusive.  His name appears only eight times; he speaks briefly in first-person language in Isaiah 6-8; and a handful of narrative events include him as a character.  The text that many interpreters identify as Isaiah’s “call narrative,” his initial experience as a prophet, appears mysteriously in the sixth chapter of the book.  There is no sense in which the book called Isaiah can be considered a record of the prophetic career of the person named Isaiah.  The presence of the person named Jeremiah in the book called Jeremiah is entirely different.  His name appears well over one hundred times; he speaks in first person language frequently; and there are dozens of narrative events that include him as a character.  The text often identified as his “call narrative” appears in the first chapter, and the event upon which almost all of his prophetic activity focuses, the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, is reported in the final chapter.  The book of Jeremiah is not a biography of the person named Jeremiah, but it can be reasonably described as a record of his prophetic career, as long as we acknowledge that such a record could have been written in other ways, which it was.  The version of the book of Jeremiah represented by the oldest Greek manuscripts is significantly different in content and order from the Hebrew version used to produce all English Bibles.

While all four of the scrolls in the Latter Prophets of the Hebrew Bible contain similar types of literature in their collections, there are also components unique to each.  The most striking example in Jeremiah is a set of poems dispersed throughout Jeremiah 11-20 called the “Confessions of Jeremiah.”  These poems present to us the inner life of the prophet, in conversation with God, sometimes accompanied by divine responses.  Whether these poems can be traced back to the person named Jeremiah who lived in Jerusalem in the late seventh and early sixth centuries is an interesting question, but one that nobody can answer definitively.  What is certain is that they contribute to the portrayal of the character named Jeremiah in the book.

According to the Confessions, in passages like 11:4 and 15:10, Jeremiah and the whole land of Judah suffer for the sins of the wicked.  Eventually, everyone in Judah suffers from the impact of the Babylonian invasion, and it would seem from much of what Jeremiah has said that it is all well-deserved punishment.  The conversations between Jeremiah and YHWH in the Confessions, however, serve to destabilize the simple equations of retribution, which claim that suffering is the result of guilt.  Sometimes the innocent suffer while the guilty prosper.  Once the literary character named Jeremiah has embodied this theological difficulty, he is in a position to begin to renegotiate its claims, which he does in startling texts like 31:27-34 and 32:36-41.  These texts are part of the section in chapters 30-33 called the Book of Consolation, and almost certainly come from the Persian period, but the book of Jeremiah has transformed the prophet into a literary character who is the ideal speaker of such new claims, because they are grounded in the experience of trauma that he has shared with a previous generation.

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