Will the real Jeremiah please stand up?
There is a cliché that prophets are forth-tellers rather than foretellers. Actually they were both, and above all they were word tellers. They were touched by God’s word and were compelled to pass that word on, whatever the result. I used the word ‘touched’ deliberately; at some periods we seem to be dealing with a kind of possessive frenzy (I Samuel 10, 9-13) in which the prophet proclaims or chants or sings (II Kings 3, 16-18) his oracles. However we read the prophetic oracles in ‘books’; the end product of a process of editing and collecting in which the interests of the editor predominate over any historical, or chronological order. Additionally, ‘non-authentic’ oracles were added perhaps reflecting what later ‘disciples’ thought the prophet might have said in later times. Many prophetic books also contain brief narratives or (auto)biographical material often concerning the prophet’s call. These are often like the narratives in Samuel and Kings, quite possibly coming from the same school of thought and reflecting its interests.
Jeremiah, whose book I have been reading and studying since schooldays, is a good case to illustrate all this. At first sight the book is a bit of a mess, but a coherent mess. Jeremiah prophesies, according to the opening verses, for forty years (627-587 BCE). Throughout the book we are presented with other details of his career as a prophet and after, mixed in with poetic oracles, prose sermons and so on in no apparent order, chronological or otherwise. Many scholars still hold, more or less, to the view that the biographical material provides a framework of accurate information concerning the prophet around which the oracles and sermons can be fitted.
More recently emphasis has fallen on the book as a whole as it stands, rather than what it might tell us historically. It is a product of chaotic and perilous times. Judah was constantly invaded or occupied or, at least, dominated by foreign powers who expected total tribute and allegiance and created long standing internal divisions. This culminated in the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem, its temple in which God promised to dwell and the monarchy he promised to support. Land, lives, livelihood, political and theological identity were in peril. Could God’s people survive? Where was God in all this anyhow? Was he abusive or forgetful of his people? Had he abandoned them, or was he unwilling or unable to save? The competing voices of the book reflect this turmoil, seeking to explain events, argue about God’s justice with each other and with him and, if possible suggest a way of survival.
Jeremiah may be an historical figure, he is certainly the central figure in the book as written. He is seized by God to preach God’s unpopular word to the people and to Kings who ignore and abuse him, and to argue with God for what he does or doesn’t do on behalf of his prophet. In all this Jeremiah’s fate mirrors the fate of God’s people in exile even, as God’s prophet, he announces that fate. In the same way he draws us into his struggle and troubles as they mirror our own as we attempt to hear and act on God’s word.