For my second week of Lent, I decided to throw myself into one of the books of the prophets. When I look back on my journey from white evangelicalism into more progressive Christianity, aside from the influence of various contemporary people I’ve read, one of the biggest factors was the year I did some more in-depth reading of the books of the minor prophets (they’re only called the “minor” prophets because the texts that are named after them are significantly shorter than the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; the nickname isn’t meant to imply that their messages are of lesser significance). Rachael and I spent the fall of 2012 hosting a weekly Bible study on the prophets for a group of UGA students who were involved with the campus ministry that we had gone through when we were undergraduates. That study was a fun experience, but I remember really stressing over how to present ideas that deviated from evangelical orthodoxy; I think 2012 was the year I abandoned inerrancy, and that was a challenging thing to introduce to a bunch of undergrads who had been spiritually raised on it.
My major recollections of the minor prophet study (we called it “Minor League” because puns are the best) mostly revolve around lots of discussion about how the prophets were all upset with people because they weren’t properly worshiping God; it’s kind of a funny thing to remember in hindsight, because there’s so much in the prophets that is more about how frustrated they are with outward shows of piety that overshadow societal problems about which God is more angry. It’s a messy recollection, and I think that I’d like to revisit the minor prophets soon, assuming I continue my Bible reading after Lent’s concluded.
For the time being, I’m contenting myself with a relatively brisk read-through of the book of Jeremiah. I’m pretty confident that I’ve read through the entirety of the Bible at least once in the last ten years, but things do get fuzzy after a while. I picked Jeremiah mostly on a whim; the idea that sticks out most about this book is that Jeremiah engages in a particularly melancholy reflection on the waywardness of Judah. What I’ve seen in the first quarter of the book reflects that in part, but there are also some things that didn’t really stand out to me in the past. The first metaphor that Jeremiah explores to describe Judah and Israel’s relationship with God is of a bride who has forsaken her husband; this isn’t an unusual metaphor in the Bible (the book of Hosea is especially famous for using this extended conceit), but it’s a hard one for me to latch on to. There’s too much of the sense that the relationship is intended to be one between an owner and property, and that description just rubs the wrong way.
Other things that are notable and generally positive include the sections where Jeremiah rips into Judah for not doing enough to care for the marginalized while hiding behind signifiers of extreme piety:
3 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury,[a] burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
That’s some really good stuff.
Of course, the flip side of this is that you have to think about all the seriously negative talk about other religions that’s going on here. Jeremiah’s primarily a lament and theodicy of the Babylonian Exile, and the major narrative that all the writers in the Bible who were grappling with that national trauma pushed was that Israel and Judah got too cozy with non-Jewish religions. This context must be remembered when you come across bits like this: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal–something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 19:5). We don’t actually have any evidence that most of the other religious groups from the time period were engaging in child sacrifice, so things like this accusation are very likely just part of the propaganda. This is a hard thing to remember; my evangelical instincts are still primed to assume that there was something wrong with the other non-Jewish religions that Jeremiah complains about. As I’ve been reading through, I had a thought that the constant refrain of Judah’s unfaithfulness might be somehow tied back to the commandments laid down in the Torah following the Exodus. The Hebrews established a code of faith that had as a significant part of its structure rules for taking care of people in need, and I was thinking that this communal failure was the infidelity that Jeremiah rails against. I think that might still be a possibility, but you can’t ignore the historical context of why this and other books of the prophets were written, and I realized recently that I had done just that in my reflections.