Blogging The Bible

Why This Prophet Bugs Me So Much

My Israel trip turned out to be less biblical than I had hoped. I learned an awful lot about the West Bank security barrier but very little about the walls of Jericho. (There was one delightful Bible-blog moment, which occurred during a meeting with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. (Click here for details.)

The Book of Jeremiah

Chapter 14 through Chapter 16
Anyone who’s ever been in a bad relationship knows the Doctrine of Pre-Emptive Cruelty: Before you go through the torture of dumping a boyfriend, you act meaner than you feel toward him. (This usually goes on at an unconscious level.) Boyfriend understandably bristles and retaliates. This makes the actual leave-taking much easier. You get to lighten your own guilt by blaming the dumpee for being such a jerk.

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This appears to be God’s strategy. As He prepares to hammer Judah with the Babylonian invasion, He gets more and more rageful. It’s anticipatory cruelty—trying to make the breakup a little bit less traumatic for Him. (Remember, this is a thousand-year-old covenant he’s ending!) He spends a lot of these chapters, and much the whole Jeremiah book, making Himself out as the victim—betrayed by idolatry, false prophets, sexual misbehavior. This helps Him justify the punishment He’s about to deliver. It’s unfair to say He’s taking pleasure in the impending doom. But He’s dwelling obsessively on the details. (How they’ll be attacked by swords, dogs, birds, and wild animals; how some will starve, some will be enslaved, some will die in battle—and there shall be no mourning for the dead.) It’s almost as though He’s thinking out loud, trying to explain Himself to Himself. He’s half-triumphal, half-heartbroken as He declares, “I have destroyed my people … their widows became more numerous than the sands of the sea.”

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Chapter 17
As I mentioned last time, one of the key themes of Jeremiah is that there is no intrinsic human morality. We are capable of goodness and love only thanks to our faith. This Jeremiac view contrasts with other parts of the Bible, particularly Genesis, where moral behavior can exist in parallel with faith, not dependent on it. (The most vivid example is Abraham rebuking God for his eagerness to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.) Anyway, there’s one sentence in this chapter that beautifully, and starkly, encapsulates that challenge to humanism: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse.” (Human emotion is fickle and untrustworthy—unlike God!)

God dispatches Jeremiah on the first of several prophetic suicide missions. Like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels, or M in the James Bond movies, the Lord is sending out his most capable warrior against impossible odds. Here, the Lord tells Jeremiah to stand at the gate of Jerusalem and harangue the king and others about the Sabbath, reminding them if they don’t obey it, they’ll be destroyed. Later, God will send him to harass the king in his court, barge into the Temple, and badger all the kings of the region. In each case, Jeremiah risks his life by preaching this horrible message: You’re doomed, and nothing you do can save you.

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Random question: Why was Jeremiah a bullfrog?

Chapter 18 through Chapter 20
New mission: to take a clay jug to the gates of Jerusalem and announce that God is going to “make this city a horror,” and that the Jerusalemites will “eat the flesh of their sons.” Then shatter the jug, because this is what God will do to Jerusalem. The top priest, unsurprisingly, is perturbed and throws Jeremiah in the stocks. This does not deter Jeremiah one bit. He curses the priest, telling him he will die in captivity.

Jeremiah is curiously ambivalent about his job. On the one hand, he delights in denouncing the priest and cursing Jerusalem and foretelling death and destruction. On the other hand, he’s genuinely hurt that no one likes him. As soon as he finishes damning the priest, he chants a self-pitying lament, cursing the day he was born. He moans that he has become a laughingstock (“everyone mocks me”). He complains that whenever he’s around, he hears people whispering, “Let us denounce him!”

C’mon, Jeremiah! You must be kidding! You show up at capital city, tell everyone they’re going to be cannibalizing their kids in a couple years and that there’s nothing—nothing­—they can do to prevent it. And then you’re surprised that they don’t like you!

Chapter 21 and Chapter 22
King Zedekiah asks Jeremiah to intercede with the Lord against the Babylonian invaders. “Perhaps the Lord will perform a wonderful deed for us.” Jeremiah, rather than offering Karl Roveian strategic advice or even a few kind words, disses the king. There’s no chance the Lord will intervene, Jeremiah says: Jerusalem will be sacked—some will die from plague, others from violence, and others will be enslaved.

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Oops, I just spilled a Fresca on my Bible.

Chapter 23
I must admit that Jeremiah is not the jolliest way to spend an afternoon. The string of major prophets—Isaiah and Jeremiah, with Ezekiel on the horizon—is the Bible’s Murderer’s Row. Their books are dreadfully long—longer than the entire Torah, in fact! They’re also repetitive, gloomy, and very hard to read. I need some encouragement. Please tell me it gets better when I’m done with these guys.

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Along comes a funny scene to brighten things up. God is irritated by the false prophets who are contradicting Jeremiah’s morbid predictions. These prophets, like President Bush’s Iraq war advisers, see only the bright side: God still loves us! The Babylonians will be defeated! (Actually, they’re exactly like Bush Iraq advisers, who also insist the Babylonians will be defeated.) The Lord knows they’re selling a bogus product—a counterfeit DVD of prophecy. God challenges the prophets who claim to be delivering His words, sarcastically mocking them for saying He came to them in a vision. “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ ” (Can’t you just hear God doing a little falsetto as he mimics the false prophets?)

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Chapter 24 and Chapter 25
The Bad Food and Drink section. Chapter 24 is all about bad figs. (Metaphor alert: bad fig=bad Jerusalemites). In Chapter 25, Jeremiah forces all the kings of the world to drink from the Lord’s “wine of wrath.” Not just drink, actually, but chug it. “Drink, get drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more.” This wrath-wine bender represents God’s judgment against the whole wicked earth.

Chapter 26 through Chapter 28
Jeremiah’s most alarming adventure yet. The Lord instructs him to wear a yoke and visit the kings of Moab, Tyre, Edom, and Judah. There he tells them that they must submit to the yoke of the Babylonians, or else be annihilated. Let’s linger on this for a minute, because this is the passage where I finally recognized why Jeremiah bugs me so much. He’s a Quisling, a Tokyo Rose! Jeremiah feels no loyalty to his land or his people—he’s so traitorous that he’s prodding them to surrender to their mortal enemy!

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He’s doing it for God, of course. (In this way, he reminds me of the extreme, ultra-orthodox rabbis who, for scriptural reasons, believe the state of Israel is an abomination that is preventing the return of the true Messiah. They’re so nuts that they do things like attend the anti-Holocaust conference in Teheran.)

In hindsight, Jeremiah proves to be right. The Babylonians did sack and slaughter, and the Jews were marched off into exile. The lesson in his betrayal of his country is this: All our quotidian bonds—to family, nation, and tribe—are nothing compared with our connection with God. (God made this point emphatically back in Chapter 16 when He denied Jeremiah a wife and children.)

But this doesn’t comfort me! I am not strong enough in my faith to set aside family and country for God. And I don’t want to be. Jeremiah is a righteous prophet, but I can’t help feeling that he’s also a terrible traitor.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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