Jeremiah versus Judah: The Nature of the Conflict

When we, in western culture, read the Old Testament, we often view it through a lens that is distinctly Greek in origin, not Hebraic. Thanks to Plato and his western descendants, we have tended to think of reality in static (what is fixed and unmoving) and spatial (place) terms whereas the Hebrews viewed reality as dynamic (action) and temporal (time). In later developments, because of Philo and others, Judaism came to embrace Hellenistic ideas and concepts, but the Hebraic roots of the dynamic and temporal, remained embedded in the vision of Yahweh worship. Perhaps the greatest monument to Hebraic thinking in the Hebrew Bible is the seventh-day Sabbath. Canonically, before Yahweh required a sanctuary (place), He established the Sabbath (time).[1] And the Sabbath remained long after the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple. Another aspect of the dynamic relates to the Ark of the Covenant standing in the temple—the deity’s throne without the customary statue or image of Israel’s God. In its place stood a token of the divine presence, unformed by human hands—the Shekinah. This divine column of cloud/fire stood, not in the passive, fixed sense, but actively and dynamically, as God dwelled among His people. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God made His character known through His actions. It was He who initiated most of the major contacts between Himself and His people—the covenants with Noah and Abraham, the call of Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, the Sinai covenant, and the oracles through His prophetic messengers.

Perhaps no other identifying feature of Israel’s God so typifies this dynamic deity as His name, Yahweh. In actuality, Yahweh is a substitute for God’s real name that is translated into English as, “I am who I am.” Built on the Hebrew verb “to be,” this name is not static, but both dynamic and temporal. Indeed, the Hebrew verb “to be” itself carries these aspects. “To be” is not the same as the static Platonic being; rather, it implies existence, eternality, and becoming, and involves living, effecting something, and performing actions. The focus of being in this Old Testament context is personal—who that person is as exemplified in action in terms of his or her inherent value—that is, moral character. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai: “And Yahweh passed over his [Moses’] face and Yahweh called: ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a compassionate and gracious god, forbearing long, lavishly kind, and trustworthy, one who preserves kindness for the thousandth generation, who forgives iniquity, rebellion, and sin, but who will never exonerate the guilty, but who will visit the iniquity of the parents upon the children and upon their children unto the third and the fourth generations.”[2] Clearly, Yahweh’s name here denotes His morally active character, living essence, and dynamic being. As such, Yahweh does not live in static remoteness, inaccessible to human beings. The dynamic nature of this deity means that He always acts with regard to the other.

While the beginnings of thinking in static and spatial terms has rightly been ascribed to the Greeks, I find traces of it in earlier civilizations, especially later Mesopotamia. In terms of worship, the Babylonians seem tied to place more than to time. The formation of images to represent deity, understood to act as their doubles, suggests a combination of dynamic and static thinking.[3] Dynamic, because the statue was deemed capable of acting on earth in the same way the deity acted in heaven. Static, because deities were confined to set places, temples, and could not move about on their own. Their worshipers had to provide the dwelling places, the bodies they inhabited, and the clothing they wore. They gave them food to eat, spoke incantations to soothe them, and took them on excursions.[4] In addition, while the Mesopotamians generally viewed their gods as dynamically active, their actions toward them had to be obtained through the means just stated. Essentially, the gods created human beings as their slaves and expected them to provide for them all their needs to keep them present. No Mesopotamian deity ever “chose a people” or gave them instructions. Instead they wrote their “will” in the entrails of sheep and in other natural phenomena that only specialists could decipher. While the Mesopotamians believed that the “signs” or omens could allow them to negotiate with the gods through prayer and sacrifice, essentially the signs came to be seen as verdicts, handed down by the gods either in reward for good behavior or as punishment for wrongdoing.[5]

Essentially, then, while the Yahweh of Israel dynamically acted on behalf of His people and initiated and carried out His covenantal promises, it was the Mesopotamian worshipers who had to act dynamically on behalf of their gods who often seemed remote,[6] and their ways incapable of understanding, viewing wrongdoing differently than their slaves,[7] and desiring no relationship with them.[8] When acting with regard to other gods, within the natural world, or in the arena of war, Mesopotamian gods bear dynamic characteristics.[9] But when relating to the Babylonians, the gods exhibit both dynamic and static elements. Though it seems, from the literature available from West Semitic cultures around Israel, that these people viewed their gods more dynamically than their Babylonian counterparts,[10] the high regard for temples and images suggest that the static remained present as well.

Israel never remained far from the same kind of development. To the extent that Yahweh came to be seen as like an earthly king, He grew increasingly like Baal, a West Semitic deity who, like the Babylonian Marduk, combined dynamic and static qualities. The divided kingdoms not only reduced Yahweh worship to a formal attempt to get Him to accede to their demands; they created idols that further introduced the static into their religions. We can see this same blend of the dynamic and static in the conflict between Jeremiah and the false prophets and the hierarchy (the priests, the princes, and the last kings of Judah). The very institution of kingship, contrary to the prophetic voice, had increasingly brought authority in as dictation rather than authority involving negotiation, conciliation processes, and dynamic interrelationships. Top-down control involves static governance with minimal discussion; where discussion is allowed, dynamic relationships can take place. Essentially, just as Yahweh came to be seen as like Baal (an ancient symbol of power), so Judah’s king, princess, and priests attempted to silence any voice of dissent, including Jeremiah’s.

Jeremiah attempted to bring the people back to a fully dynamic relationship with Yahweh, one built on a new covenant of divine promises. He clearly stated that this covenant was not like the formal Sinai covenant, one that had become overcast with the more static structure of ancient Near Eastern treaties. With Yahweh—not the people—fulfilling the covenantal promises, He would take Judah back to the relationship of marriage in which Judah would know the Lord. Yahweh would build this level of intimacy on His trustworthiness that initiates reciprocal trust. What Yahweh wanted was a dynamic relationship, not a formal, static one.

But the hierarchy rejected Jeremiah’s messages for the belief that Yahweh would never allow Nebuchadnezzar to come into His city because His temple was there. When they chanted, “This is the temple of the Lord,”[11] Jeremiah pointed out that the place did not guarantee a static position before Yahweh while they oppressed and murdered others, destroying any possibility of dynamic relationships.[12] He further stated that, initially, when they had come out of Egypt, God did not order them to offer sacrifices, but wanted them to listen to His voice so that He could have a relationship with them as their God.[13] Ultimately, Jeremiah stated, once Yahweh had established the dynamic relationship of trust with His people, they would forget all about the static icon of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant.[14]

When human beings turn away from the dynamic, living God—He who is who He is—to worship something they create in His place, they invariably seek power over others, including the deity, whose image they have made. Idolatry is the creating of one’s double and calling it a god in order to have control over the divine. Such a god becomes a static replica of its maker. When a person, such as a prophet, speaks out against the idol created, the fierce tenacity to protect the idol leads to measures that destroy the messenger and spiritually ruin the idol’s worshipers. Just as the people created the static idol in the first place, so now they objectify—create a static image of—the messenger so that they can oppress him. The cruel treatment of Jeremiah stands as testimony to the fact that when a prophet takes on the static “sacred cows” of the people, violence may well result. It happened to Jeremiah. It happened to Jesus.

[1] A close reading of 2 Samuel 7:4-7 suggests Yahweh’s reluctance to have a king build Him a temple. Kings built temples to establish their position with divinity. Such temples, therefore, became part of the ancient milieu of power and dominance. See Victor (Avigdor) Hurowitz, I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in Light of Mesopotamian and North-West Semitic Writings (JSOTSS 225; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1992), 313.

[2] Exodus 34:6-7, my translation. Several words deserve discussion: 1) The fourth attribute, translated “kind,” lacks a full English equivalent. In my perception, it refers to going beyond what is legally or conventionally required to exercise undue loyalty, faithfulness, steadfast love, or kindness. This word is so situational that the context has to determine its precise nuance. 2) The word translated as “visit” (pāqad) has an administrative sense to it. If it means to “punish” as lexicographers maintain, then this text (as well as Exodus 20:5) contradicts Deuteronomy 24:16, which explicitly forbids putting a child to death for the parents’ sin or vice versa, as well as this principle expanded to include any punishment in Ezekiel 18. Though perhaps theological development is involved, it isn’t necessary to suppose that Exodus 34:7 refers to vicarious punishment. Rather, Yahweh allows for the intrinsic consequences of sin from generation to generation (something that medical science provides parallel illustrations of), but limits it to the third or fourth generations.

[3] Zainab Bahrani, The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2003), 138-145, 201-205.

[4] A. Leo Oppenheim with Erica Reiner, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (rev. ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977), 183-198. For excursions of the gods, see Steven W. Cole and Peter Machinist, Letters from Priests to the Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal (SAA 13; Helsinki: Helsinki University/The Neo-Assyrian Text-Corpus Project, 1998), XV, 53-54, 118.

[5] See Amar Annus, “On the Beginnings and Continuities of Omen Sciences in the Ancient World,” in Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World (ed. Amar Annus; OIS 6; Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2010), 1-3.

[6] So says the Babylonian sufferer in “The Babylonian Theodicy,” XXIV:256. W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (BWL;Winona Lake/Oxford: Eisenbrauns/Oxford University, 1960, 1996), 86-87.

[7] As explained by another Babylonian sufferer in “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer,” II:33-37 (BWL 40-41).

[8] Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan; Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001), 37-38.

[9] Bohman, Hebrew Thought, 58-59. See any number of myths such as Enuma Elish. One deity, Enki/Ea is known for his dynamic relationship with human beings (see, e.g., Atrahasis).

[10] See the narrative, Kirta, in which El initiates contact with the king in a dream. Simon B. Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (SBLWAWS 9; SBL: Scholars Press, 1997), 13.

[12] See Jeremiah 7:5-11.

[13] Jeremiah 7:21-23. The word “obey” also means to “listen.”


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7182
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The author makes an important point. However, the word dynamic does not connote the relationship God desires. the New Testsnent is clear that God desires an intamacy akin to Marraige. Israel substituted the passion of Baal in orgies, and passing their children through the the fire.Even now lust and greed have entered the church in two forms, The Prosperity Gospel and the introspective nature of the emerging church. True love has a reverential aspect. It is in that sense Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter. A shelter in the time of storm. It is indeed that that aspect seems lost upon the current Adventist administration.They assume the role of School master with vigor. Where is the theme–“Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden …”? Tom Z

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Jeremiah versus Judah: The Nature of the Conflict 12 November 2015 Jean Sheldon said in this insightful study: “The cruel treatment of Jeremiah stands as testimony to the fact that when a prophet takes on the static “sacred cows” of the people, violence may well result. It happened to Jeremiah. It happened to Jesus.”

It is happening all around us and we are all impacted. The violence done to truth and integrity is real.
What was the popular message in Jeremiah’s day? In short: peace and prosperity for as far as the eye could see. Similar conditions exist today, particularly for much of these United States of America.
As I watched the most recent national political debates of both parties and studied the current lesson on the book of Jeremiah, I was impressed with the similarities and the lessons we still need to learn about truth and true prosperity.

Donald Trump’s promises, Hillary Clinton’s proposals, Ben Carson’s “purity”, Bernie Sander’s socialism, are for a return to “peace, prosperity, and equality for all”. The popularity of these politicians is partly based on the hunger and fear that many have to protect their wealth and to become even more prosperous. The similarities to Jeremiah’s day and situation do not stop there. Jeremiah was very critical of the practices and conditions of that day, his forecasts being in direct opposition to the popular entertainers and politicians.

God was very displeased with Israel and Judah, so much so that His wrath followed in the form of Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. Near total economic destruction was the result. Jeremiah tells us of the conditions that angered God in that age. Reading through these lessons about the life and times of Jeremiah several times, two realizations strike me: Firstly, how much of the sins of Israel and Judah had to do with commerce, trade and economics; secondly, how similar are conditions in our society today. Actually, conditions today may be even worse. In our own church Adventist Health Systems agrees to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for healthcare fraud without firing anyone, one major division in our church structure eliminates over 690,000 church members due to accumulated errors and delays in it’s record keeping.
Is anyone alarmed? Do we just yawn and “turn the page”?

We see that commerce and making money were uppermost in the minds of people. “How to get rich quick!” was a pervasive motive. No doubt, a presentation in the middle of the desert on the topic of how to double your money in two weeks would have pulled in big crowds in those days. “They all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain. ‘Come,’ each cries, ‘let me get wine! Let us drink our fill of beer! And tomorrow will be like today, or even far better.’”(Isaiah 56:12) “Oh unfaithful daughter, you trust in your riches and say, ‘Who will attack me?’” (Jeremiah 49:4 NIV)

Nowadays, review any magazine newsstand and we see wealth and arrogance idolized. The business magazines — Forbes, Fortune, Money, etc.and many others — all dote on the powerful and the rich, non-stop Those that have accumulated great wealth are profiled for us to envy.They are scrutinized so as to discover their secrets of success. Most of them love to see themselves quoted and arrogantly ascribe their success to their acumen, wisdom, and possibly a bit of luck. The implied message is this: Since they’re rich, they must be intelligent and noble people. The pervasive materialism of the prophet’s day resulted in complacency. With the great accumulation of wealth, surely tomorrow won’t be any different. Prosperity will continue. Why would anyone tamper with such a successful system of beliefs?

Today, this same arrogance is expressed in many forms. Like that society of old, what we see today is that society has put its trust in wealth, either real or imagined.
The price of this headlong pursuit of wealth in Jeremiah’s day and ours, is that society agrees to sacrifice truth. “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.” (Jeremiah 8:10) “Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips.” (Jeremiah 7:28).

By and large, in a deceitful society driven by greed, it is generally (though not always) true that every winner must have a loser as its counterpart. The wealthy can only become super rich if there are many others who are less than rich … or poor. To a degree, wealth is a relative concept. “You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen.” (Jeremiah 34:17) It’s obvious that many people became enslaved by the economic system of their day.

Where is Jeremiah when you need him TODAY?

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It does seem the author was equating the dynamic with the relationship of marriage that God desires.

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For me, Jean’s article was very thought provoking. After reading it twice, I actually had an uncomfortable/sympathetic feeling for her. The article flows, but appears to be semi-convoluted. I would say it is rather obscure in certain parts… One thing that bothered me was the sources in the end notes. I detect a major philosophical analysis, with a minor psychological one. Note #2 offers some beneficial insight for exegesis. I can only speculate what the genre and intended audience is however the thrust and conclusion has a superficial flavor to it. This leads to ambiguity. What is the take away for the reader in 2015?
I think of 2 verses…

Nehemiah 8:8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
Habakkuk 2:2 And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.

The last article paragraph contains the practical application/contemporary relevance elements …but requires elaboration to be beneficial/edifying.
Asking some why questions would launch this effort.

Understanding basic psychological human needs and also knowing the depraved/fallen propensities of individuals after the fall would enhance understanding and clarity.

Do people only worship idols and engage in astrology because they are on power trips?

This dynamic/static conflict is alive and well, not only in SDAism, but throughout the modern/postmodern world. As modernism strives against the non-tangible to establish a static definitive world view, the post-modern presents exponential evidence of an inter-connectedness in a dynamic, inclusive world view. This latter view does not negate the value of investigation into the physical world, and the advances that this knowledge has given us in comprehending the physical self, especially in medicine. However, these advances (have recently) point(ed) to an inter-relatedness, a dynamic that overturns the value of things isolated in a vacuum.

Yet herein lay the problem: those desperate for a single monolithic view, cannot admit that it - the singular creation (“things isolated in a vacuum”) - can be affected by the ignorance of those within it,. But every species, every creative act of God, that is wiped out by the vulgar arrogance of man gives evidence of being anti-Christ, anti-human. This is the deadly proposition that the post-modern world is railing against: our natural world is a complete system of interconnections between the physical and the dynamic, between the rock and the wind, between the wind and the water, between the water and the earth, between the earth and the plant, between the plant and the animal, between the animal and man. And between man and love, that great unifying principle upon which it is all based.

So the conflict is here, between the Greek pragmatism and the Hebraic relativism. The curious thing is that the pragmatist will die on the hill of certainty while the relativist will flourish in the embrace of possibilities.

What does this mean in Adventist terms? That there are those which will die defending a Traditional Christianity without the relativistic aspects grace and mercy. The Christian will exhibit, on a continual basis, the dynamic relationship of life IN Christ, blown by His Spirit, to the benefit of mankind, that "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Trust BEing!

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this article is so meticulously crafted, finely nuanced and exquisitely rendered - a complete joy to read, and ponder…PUC is so blessed…

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When reading Jeremiah I often wondered about my own church. The above essay offered an interesting paradigm of evaluation of what is happening within our church. The trend towards “clarification”, “plain (one interpretation only) reading”, casuistic definitions and lists of do’s and don’ts … may very well be a “fixation”, turning our God into a static one, just as we have turned from a movement of present truth into a rather static church with set tradtions. While we may be proud that we don’t burn our children alive (well, I am not sure, sometimes), the indictment of the book of Jeremiah still stands. Troubling reading.

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The ever flowing and dynamic “kingdom” of God defines its citizenry as well - one that will “go where You go” and who “will follow the Lamb wheresoever He goes”. This involves that intimate relationship typified by the marriage relationship. It’s a spiritual connectedness that is rationally inexplicable. When that relationship is by-passed because of a lack of a spiritual union, autocracy and laws are created to simulate devotion and commitment. Its’s much easier to live by laws driven by punishment, than by commitment supported by love.

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Dr. Sheldon is the rare scholar whose erudition is made accessible by an appreciation for clear prose and thoughtful insights. I never fail to learn from her. What a gift to the church.

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Isn’t it interesting that the secular world of “political correctness” is becoming ever more aggressively stifling in its attempts to suppress any open discussion of contrarian ideas under the “guise” of “safe zones”. This is a very dangerous approach to education, life and religion.
Excellent commentary Jean!! Very thought provoking!!

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