My brain hurts!
I’m reading in Jeremiah … a short passage today (Jeremiah 43:1-7), raises some interesting and challenging questions.
Let me first summarise what’s happening and then think about the intent of those who wrote the text. I guess this is all about how we view scripture and how it comes to us.
Basically this is what’s happened: The forces of Babylon have finally overcome Israel and taken off most of the people into captivity in Babylon. However, there is a remnant who are still left and they are trying to decide whether to give in to The Babylonians or run to Egypt for help.
The prophet Jeremiah has been warning Israel that God’s way, and their only hope, was to surrender to Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. (The defeat of Israel is God’s judgment for neglecting God’s commands to care for the weakest – the widow, the orphan and the stranger).
Two of the leaders of the remnant group, Azariah and Johanan, ask Jeremiah to pray to God for guidance.
Jeremiah’s answer is that God’s word is still the same. Stay in Jerusalem. If they truly want to learn to listen to God’s way, this is what they must do. But this is not what Johanan and Azariah wanted to hear.
Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the other insolent men said to Jeremiah, ‘You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, “Do not go to Egypt to settle there”’ ….
(In reality, they had probably already decided that they were going to lead the people to Egypt, whatever Jeremiah said, in the belief that they would be safe there).
The outcome of all this is that they ignore Jeremiah’s warning that going to Egypt will end in disaster. They decide to go to Egypt and take Jeremiah with them – possibly of his own free will, or maybe as a captive as he was against the plan – it’s not clear –
Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces took all the remnant of Judah … everyone …. the men, the women, the children and the princesses, and came into the land of Egypt, for they did not obey the voice of the Lord.
Now … let’s step outside the text for a minute. The authors of Jeremiah are among those deported to exile in Babylon. It is during the years in exile that much of the Old Testament is written. They write from the point of view that the exile is indeed God’s judgment, and that they must use the years in exile to reflect on past failures and seek to be more faithful to God’s word.
So, as we think about the intent of the authors, it’s reasonable to suppose that they want to claim that they are the true remnant of Israel and not the group that ended up in Egypt. Their position is that they are the community that God has chosen to take forward.
So now … I’m thinking about the process that brought the text to us … a process that would have included some editing and in the end a decision that this was indeed God’s word to Israel.
Those who considered the book of Jeremiah as having authority, and included it in the Hebrew Scriptures have a particular point of view. That is … it is the voice of Jeremiah that needs to be heard.
We know that all reporting of an event is told from a point of view. There is no such thing as a totally impartial observer. In the same way, the text of Jeremiah witnesses to the conflict between Jeremiah and the Royal house of Israel, but it is not a neutral voice.
The account is presented as both political reporting and theological fidelity. No doubt there are times when political reporting is not faithful to God’s word. I would take the view that Christians who are determined to support the gun lobby, or the interests of oil and gas companies are not being faithful to the teaching of scripture.
The book of Jeremiah is presenting a political point of view and claiming that they are being faithful theologically. The authors are not neutral voices. They take up a particular standpoint. In this chapter it is that those who go to seek refuge in Egypt are being disobedient to God’s voice.
As we read it, we have a choice about what view we take. Do we trust the process that has resulted in the book as we have it ? Do we side with Jeremiah or Johanan and Azariah in this account ?
Perhaps the most important thing we can say is that the values Jeremiah holds are ones that we too want to follow. The word that comes up very often is ‘listen.’ The Hebrew word doesn’t just mean hear with your ears, it means pay attention and act accordingly. Listening is active and leads to being obedient to God’s word.
We might think that hearing God’s voice is tricky … In situations where we need guidance that might be true, but as far as understanding how we are to live, we have quite enough to go on. Perhaps the key is to make sure that we develop practices that lead to all being treated fairly and with compassion.