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Politics of Scripture

Political Hierarchies and God’s Order

For those who experience a divine compulsion to publicly resist the perversions of the powerful, despite their own hesitations and fears, Jeremiah may be an encouraging witness to the potential for an experience of divine presence alongside the pain.

1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2 to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3 It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.

4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the LORD said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Jeremiah 1:1–10 (NRSV)

It is safe to say that Jeremiah did not enjoy being the LORD’s prophet. He did not choose that path; it was chosen for him. His compulsion to name the reality he saw thrust him into the center of the political conflict of his day, despite his lack of political credentials—and he suffered the consequences. Nevertheless, the pain of his calling came with the consolation of a uniquely intimate experience of divine presence and preservation. Jeremiah’s path is not one that we all must walk, but those who find themselves in those tracks in spite of themselves may find a helpful witness in Jeremiah’s experience.

One’s “calling” or “vocation” is often understood as a highly personal drive toward a certain line of work, field of study, or charitable cause. However, callings in the biblical literature are inescapably political in nature, and Jeremiah’s prophetic call is no exception. The LORD who calls him characterizes this vocation as less about Jeremiah himself (his skills, interests, social position) and much more about the needs of the polities to which Jeremiah is being sent. As a result of this call, Jeremiah’s own personhood diminishes so that he may become a channel for the divine pronouncement to the people and leaders of Judah, and ultimately, “the nations” (verse 5). In fact, the biblical book of Jeremiah is unique among the latter prophets in the way that Jeremiah (the person) resurfaces from time to time to lament his coercion by the LORD into this unchosen political role (e.g., Jer 15:10–21, and elsewhere). In this sense, “calling” may be an overly generous term for what could be more properly termed an involuntary divine “deployment” of the prophet as a weaponized human mouth, loaded with the LORD’s own words (verse 9).

While the lectionary brackets out Jeremiah’s so-called “call narrative”(poem, actually) this week in Jer 1:4–10, the superscription of the book in verses 1–3 sets this deployment in an explicitly political context. Of course, listing contemporary kings was the common way to date a document’s content, in the era before standardized calendars. And yet, the particular kings named in Jeremiah’s superscription: Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah—as well as the explicit reference to “the exile of Jerusalem”—could not be penned or read without evoking the painful remembrance of a historical moment of epic political turmoil, from grand heights of hopeful reform under Josiah to the deepest depths of national disaster. Perhaps the feeling evoked by these simple “dates” is analogous to the way we can no long read the calendar dates “September 11” or “January 6” without feeling the pathos of our own painful recent political history. Jeremiah the prophet is launched into the heart of just such a traumatic context.

The literary form of Jeremiah’s deployment resonates with other examples of call narratives found within the biblical literature: Moses (Exod 3–4), Gideon (Judg 6), Isaiah (6), Ezekiel (1–3), and others—even Mary’s annunciation in the New Testament (Luke 1). Like these exemplars of the genre, Jeremiah’s prophetic call commences with a divine confrontation (Jer 1:4) and an introductory word (verse 5a). This is followed by the direct commission (verse 5b), an objection from the prophet (verse 6), divine reassurance (verses 7–8), and a sign (verse 9). The conformity of Jeremiah’s experience to the generic trope does not diminish its force, as if the author couldn’t come up with an original plot. Rather, the use of the formula  is a rhetorical signal to the reader that Jeremiah belongs in the company of accepted prophetic authorities. The use of the call genre stakes a claim—indeed a political claim—about Jeremiah’s status and the corresponding duty of the LORD’s people and their leaders to hear and respond to Jeremiah’s words.

At the same time, there are aspects of Jeremiah’s call that deviate from the genre’s patterns. For example, as I mentioned above, Jeremiah’s commission is unusually rehearsed as poetry rather than narrative. What might a poem convey that a story could not? Perhaps it emphasizes that what we have here is not merely an anecdote, something that could have been discovered in Jeremiah’s diary under his pillow; the commission is itself a public message with a literary shaping. Indeed, the poem includes the oracular formula, “thus says the LORD” (ne’um YHWH, verse 8). This makes the commission a public verbal communiqué, in much the same way that an open letter today is meant for general readership, despite being addressed to an individual.

Another unique feature of this deployment is the revelation that Jeremiah was known and set apart for his role even before birth (verse 5). In its immediate context this feature appears to pre-empt Jeremiah’s coming objection that he is unqualified for the job. The LORD draws upon the metaphor of a craftsman (using the Hebrew verb yatsar, “to form” as a potter does with clay) to insist that Jeremiah has been custom built for exactly this prophetic purpose. This is in contrast to, say, the narrative of Isaiah’s calling (Isa 6) in which we overhear the heavenly court musing, “Whom shall we send?”—whereupon Isaiah volunteers, “Send me!” No, Jeremiah is not given the option to volunteer, nor to escape. This role is his destiny.

Such a divine claim does not keep Jeremiah from protesting his appointment. Like Moses, like Isaiah, Jeremiah suggests that he is unfit to speak for God. However, his rationale for objecting is not disability (like Moses) or uncleanness (like Isaiah). Jeremiah protests that he is a na’ar—translated by the NRSV as “only a boy” (verse 6). This translation is certainly within the semantic range of the word. But as Brent Strawn reminded me in a podcast discussion of this text , na’ar is not always—nor even usually—a reference to youth and is often used by adults to indicate their relative social status in comparison to someone of higher class or authority. In my opinion, the social interpretation of na’ar makes better sense of Jeremiah’s objection and the LORD’s response. The prophet will be sent as a divine emissary to the social elites of his people and even to the nations. But his lower status (na’ar) within the humanly-devised socio-political structures will not be a barrier, for (despite appearances) the LORD has disrupted the usual hierarchies to place Jeremiah “above” (‘al) nations and kingdoms (verse 10).

Modern communities who would look to Jeremiah 1:4–10 for salient meaning should note the prophet’s reluctance. His hesitancy turned out to be legitimate in light of the way his long and painful prophetic career unfolded. Jeremiah’s words portended the traumatic plucking up and pulling down, destruction and overthrow of his own people and their political structures (with only a rare word of building and planting on the other side of disaster). Such gloomy messages put him in the crosshairs of those who derived their power from the preservation of those same political structures: kings, courtiers, elites. And these opponents did not recognize nor validate the social status conferred upon Jeremiah by his divine deployment. They marshaled their power to keep the prophet in his lane, by force. Therefore, those who are eager to speak for God in our own social milieu have, in Jeremiah, cause for pause. “Speaking truth to power” often has detrimental consequences for the speaker. As Jeremiah describes it, the genuine prophetic mission is a compulsion, not an aspiration.

However, there is also a word of reassurance in Jeremiah’s witness. His prophetic deployment, shaped as an oracle, contains an oath of divine presence and ultimate rescue (verse 8). The final words of his commission are about building and planting (verse 10b), and the canonical book that bears his name ends on a note of hope: the kingdom that brought destruction upon Judah will itself be overthrown (Jer 51:59–64), and the seeds of a renewed Judahite dynasty will persevere in the hope of being planted again in their land (Jer 52:31–34). Once again, the apparently rigid hierarchies of the political stage prove to be no obstacle to the divine purpose.

Jeremiah is not the only exemplar of the prophetic office—other, different models may be accessed. But for those who experience a divine compulsion to publicly resist the perversions of the powerful, despite their own hesitations and fears, Jeremiah may be an encouraging witness to the potential for an experience of divine presence alongside the pain. Jeremiah’s call/deployment glimpses a different reality, where one’s own inadequacy according to the world’s power brokers is not a barrier to participation in the remaking of the world as we know it.

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