2015 Lent 28

williams

Jeremiah 23:9-15

With today’s passage, let’s return to the question of redaction: was the book of Jeremiah edited years or even generations later in order to convey an agenda?

After all, we have witnessed individual politicians and pundits in our own day crash and burn morally.  Brian Williams comes to mind, poor guy.  And Monica Lewinsky is in the news again these days.  Need I say more?

Yet, arguably, we are not being judged as a nation.  America is not falling into the hands of enemies.  We seem (fingers crossed) to be pulling out of a lengthy recession.  Life continues much as it has for more than two centuries in our democratic, materialistic, science-smitten country.

In fact, looking at our history, there have been times—like during the so-called Civil War; like that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968; and like 9/11—when several cries of divine judgment were heard across the land.  Yet American life continues today much as it always has.  Today, as I cup my hand to my ear and listen, the judgment cries have largely fallen silent.

This idea—that there is not a cause-and-effect relationship between immorality and divine judgment—is captured in a scene from a dark movie starring Jason Bateman called, appropriately enough, Bad Words.  The story is of an angry but highly intelligent middle school dropout now grown up (Bateman).  To prove a point, he cleverly navigates his way into the national spelling bee: the bee policy states, “Contestants must not have graduated the eighth grade,” without listing an age limit.  Anyway, Bateman befriends a twelve year-old fellow contestant and persuades him, successfully, to shout out the f-word to express his anger.  After he does so Bateman says, “Well, see there?  You haven’t been struck by lightning.”

Moral failures happen all around us.  But judgment doesn’t.  God is merciful.  And mercy triumphs over judgment.

This doesn’t mean we should live by any less integrity, as if we are able to live as recklessly as we like because mercy rocks.  God is about love.  And real love puts others first.  The greater good, summum bonum, demands integrity of us!

But to rewrite history in order to scare people into walking with integrity doesn’t sit well with us either.  Fear sucks.  And to manipulate others through fear sucks worse.  Yet this just might be happening with Jeremiah.

The enemies of Israel had conquered them.  They had dispersed Israel and Judah into exile.  It would have been really easy in this context for a judgment-minded remnant to reflect:

In the good old days we had it so good—don’t you remember?  The people obeyed God and he blessed us.  Even the Queen of Sheba travelled from afar to see Solomon’s palace and temple and to learn at his feet.  Yeah, those were the good old days!  But then the people disobeyed and God judged.  How can we communicate this cause-and-effect relationship to our people?

And so books of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah (and arguably Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) were revised and added to in order to convey the importance of living lives of integrity, by giving the prophets powers to look into the future; and then by saying things like, “Repent now from your disintegrating ways, or God will bring enemies into our land and judge us!” because those rewriting them already knew the details, that the people had not in fact lived lives of integrity; and that the surrounding nations had already in fact conquered them.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

The future, however, is more like 1/20.

So this question of redaction is sensible.

But, of course, it poses a serious challenge to those of us who call the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments authoritative.  For even by granting the idea of redaction admittance, we’ve brought a stranger into our party.  And strangers change the mood.  And party-goers don’t want the mood to change.

Nevertheless, that someone probably redacted the prophets makes sense.  None of our politicians and pundits today—America’s priests and prophets—sees into the future.  They can speculate about the future—they should speculate about the future—and make present plans accordingly.  (See yesterday’s post for more about that.)  But as to specific details, no one can say how, when, or where America will come to an end.

Yet that’s just the credit many of the American Christian party-goers want to give to the pundits of old.

Well, what makes more sense to you?

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