I seem to be a moron times two. First, my lazy speculation that “the circle of the earth” means the Israelites thought the earth was round caught the attention of geometricians, historians, and cartographers—and not in a good way. Many, many, many of you observed that a circle is not a sphere. A circle is flat. Lots of ancient peoples believed the earth was shaped like a pancake (or, in the Hebrews’ case, a latke). For a speedy tutorial on this, read Chris Johnson’s e-mail.
I’m apparently soft-headed about child sacrifice, too. I pooh-poohed the idea that any civilization, including Israel’s enemies, ever ritually murdered its own kids. Readers bombarded me with articles, books, and Web pages about child sacrifices around the globe. (There’s practically enough for a Travel Channel special: The 10 Hottest Spots for Kid Killing!) In particular, they directed me to strong evidence that the Carthaginians offered large numbers of their children to Baal.
Let’s get back to the Bible, and a new book …
The Book of Jeremiah
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah is not a kittens, rainbows, and spring flowers kind of guy. These two let-it-bleed prophets share a style (emphatic, metaphoric poetry) and a sensibility (gloom). But they’re not identical twins—more like first cousins. Isaiah is bipolar, prone to wild mood swings, delightful when pleased, and a holy terror—truly, a holy terror—when angry. But he is also funny, in a vicious sort of way. You might not always like Isaiah, but he’d often be entertaining company, especially if you could get him to rip on the Babylonians.
Jeremiah, on the other hand—not the life of the party. (They don’t call them “Jeremiads” for nothing.) He’s plenty smart and eloquent, but he’s a priggish prophet. He doesn’t share Isaiah’s occasional fondness for black irony.
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah’s chief responsibility is to hector, nag, badger, noodge, and otherwise harass the increasingly unfaithful people of Judah to return to God’s side before it’s too late. Jeremiah ultimately fails, of course. He’s living during the darkest of times—the final few years before Babylon conquers Jerusalem and exiles the Jews—and no one could have stopped the disaster.
What’s most remarkable about Jeremiah is the depth of his rage, which can be explained by the hopelessness of his cause. His people don’t share his sense of urgency, and it infuriates him. Jeremiah has the flaws that all whistle-blowers have. Almost without exception, whistle-blowers are mean, self-righteous, and resentful. When they turn out to be right—and boy, does Jeremiah turn out to be right—everyone regrets not having listened to them to begin with. But the reason no one listens to begin with is that the message is so unpleasant and angry. Put yourself in the shoes of a Jerusalemite, sixth century B.C.: Would you pay attention to the cantankerous rageaholic shouting doom in the bazaar?
In Jeremiah’s first speech, he unloads on the wild, heedless idolatry of the Israelites, describing them as: “a lustful she-camel, restlessly running about.” Now I personally have never seen a lustful camel—of the she or he variety—but, wow, that is one vivid image!
It’s not just the lusty camel that occupies Jeremiah’s thoughts. Much more than Isaiah, he has sex on the brain. Wherever he turns, he sees it. Whenever he opens his mouth, filth spews out. A few verses before the she-camel, for example, he says that Israel “recline[s] as a whore.” Chapter 3 begins with him frothing about Israel’s “whoring and debauchery … you had the brazenness of a street woman.” In Chapter 5 he inveighs against the Israelites as “lusty stallions.” (Are they camels? Are they horses?) A few chapters later, they’re harlots. A few chapters later:
“I behold your adulteries,
Your lustful neighing
Your unbridled depravity, your vile acts … “
His combination of scorn and sex is very Church Lady—at once prudish and obsessed.
God’s disappointment with us only increases, because we are not merely unfaithful, we’re also morons. “My people are stupid … They are foolish children. They are not intelligent.” This may be Jeremiah’s cruelest cut of all, since we know how much the Lord values intelligence. God always rewards brainy people, even when they’re wicked. This is the first time He has ever wondered if His people lack smarts. His disillusionment is somehow more disturbing than His dismay over idol-worshipping. Infidelity He expects, but stupidity He can’t stand.
Chapter 5 and Chapter 6
Jeremiah suggests that his readers search Jerusalem for a righteous person: “You will not find a man; There is none who acts justly.” Since the city is empty of worthy people, God has no reason to spare it from conquest. This hearkens back to Genesis, doesn’t it? It is essentially the same discussion that Abraham and God have about Sodom and Gomorrah back in Genesis 18. God is planning to destroy those cities, but Abraham argues with Him, eventually persuading the Lord that He can’t wipe out the towns if there are even 10 innocent souls in them. (Of course it turns out there are no innocents, so God offs the cities.) Jeremiah takes on the role of God here in the retelling: Because there’s not a single just person in Jerusalem, the city deserves its doom. (I wonder if the story of Diogenes and the lamp is ripped off from Jeremiah. Diogenes supposedly roamed the streets of Athens, carrying a lamp in broad daylight, searching for an honest man.)
Here’s a disheartening moment. The Lord tells Jeremiah to not even bother to pray for the people anymore because they’re so unapologetically idolatrous. You know things are bad when God Himself gives up!
Chapter 8 and Chapter 9
Jeremiah laments the terrible fate of his countrymen. He’s heartbroken, dejected, desolate about their suffering. He asks, looking out for his own misery: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Yet Jeremiah’s histrionic mourning for His people is somehow suspicious. He promises he would “weep day and night” for his people, moans at how heartsick he is over their suffering. But think about how much delight he takes in enumerating their sins and threatening them. He’s clearly thrilled to be the bearer of bad tidings to Israel. So it’s very disingenuous when he starts talking about how bad he feels about Israel. He’s like the gossipy classmate who, with a long face and a big hug, tells you that she saw your boyfriend making out with your best friend. You can be very sure that her glee outweighs her sympathy.
Jeremiah’s world is terrible for a new reason. It’s not simply that the bond between man and God is broken. The bond between man and man is broken too. When you abandon the Lord, according to Jeremiah, you also unravel all that holds society and family together. In a society that has quit God, you must: “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin.” This is natural law theory taken to its utmost extreme. All manmade laws and all social bonds are tenuous, dependent on faith and God’s will. There’s no such thing as innate human decency, or innate family love—it’s all contingent on the Lord.
Jeremiah interrogates God like a lawyer on cross-examination: “Let me put my case to You: Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” Great questions, prophet! Will the witness please answer?
So, dear Lord, why do the good and faithful often suffer while the wicked grow fat and rich? As Jeremiah and Isaiah make clear, God will deliver his comeuppance eventually either on earth (Babylon sacks Jerusalem) or later. But that is not the answer God makes to Jeremiah’s question. If I am untangling the metaphors in Verse 5 correctly, He says He’s making life tough for the faithful to harden them. This life is just boot camp for a more rigorous world to come. You’ll thank Drill Sgt. Jehovah later.
A curious episode in which God orders Jeremiah to buy a loincloth, wear it for a while, and then hide it in a rock by the Euphrates River. Jeremiah is instructed to return to the loincloth some days later, at which point he discovers it is ruined. This loincloth, God tells us, is Judah. It was supposed to cling to God, the way the cloth clings to the loins—no boxer shorts back in the day, I guess—but because it has been ruined by sin, it’s now just a worthless rag.
The Judahites can’t save themselves from their terrible fate because they have become evil to their core. God asks, famously, “Can the Cushite change his skin or the leopard his spots?” This is another example of a famous Biblical phrase that isn’t quite what I remember it to be. Did you know that the leopard was paired with a person? I didn’t. Cushite is a Biblical term for Ethiopians or Nubians. The reference complicates the passage for modern readers. It’s not that referring to Cushites means the verse is racist—it’s clearly meant to be descriptive of skin color rather than derogatory. But it does muddy it. I’m not surprised that the phrase that we use today only includes the leopard. Can you imagine saying “Can the Ethiopian change his skin color?” in conversation? It would be awkward to explain.
“Blogging the Bible” takes a hiatus next week. I’m going on a work trip to Israel. I’ll try to snap some pictures of famous ancient spots—”Photographing the Bible”—and post them when I return.
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)