Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
September 1, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this Reading,
but there is available a
This reading follows closely Jeremiah's "call" or commissioning narrative with which the book opened and which established the content and tone that his preaching would take (see Commentary on Jer 1:4-10). Typical of the arrangement of the collected sayings that comprise many prophetic books, the book of Jeremiah begins with a summary of the main themes that will be elaborated in various ways throughout the remainder of the book. That suggests that this early material in the book will not have as identifiable a historical context as some of the later passages will have. It also suggests that the literary features of the text, the use of metaphors, structural elements, rhetorical movements, word plays, and a variety of other literary features will be the primary vehicle for the theological message here.
This reading, while in some ways a self-contained unit set apart by certain features, is also tied closely into a larger block of material by these overarching themes and rhetorical movements. In order to understand the full import of these verses, it is important to see this passage as part of that larger sweep of material. The whole section begins in 2:1-2 where the metaphor of marriage is introduced as a governing theme, and concludes at 6:30, where the beginning of chapter seven begins an extended narrative section set in a particular historical context. Although fitting within the general theme of this section, the prose passages of 3:6-11 and 15-18 are generally considered to be later interpolations into the original sequence. The arrangement of the material within the book differs considerably between the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) versions, which suggests a dynamic tradition that was preserved in different forms.
A superficial reading of this larger section (2:1-6:30) reveals a flow of thought that is not unusual for prophetic collections. It begins with an indictment of Israel's sin with the interwoven metaphors of marriage and court trial (2:1-37). It then moves to an extended call to repentance (3:1-4:4) with Jeremiah's thematic "Return!" using a variety of now familiar metaphors ("break up your fallow ground," "circumcise your hearts"). The section concludes with a depiction of the judgment to come upon Judah if they did not repent mixed with further reasons why that judgment was imminent (4:5-6:30).
It should be noted here that this is certainly not the end of Jeremiah's message. Jeremiah's commission was not only "to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow" but also "to build and to plant" (1:10). We cannot and should not divorce these judgment passages from later passages that promise a new future and forgiveness on the other side of exile (for example, ch. 31). But it is also crucial to the book of Jeremiah, as it likely was to the preaching of the prophet himself, that hope is not introduced too early or in a manner that would lessen the magnitude and consequences of the sin.
The people, according to Jeremiah, had gone so far away from God that they did not need to hear of grace first; they needed to realize what they had done in rejecting God and the consequences of their choices before they could hear about God's grace and willingness to forgive. They were in no position to believe they needed God, or Jeremiah's message, until they had some reason to believe that God was really God. And Jeremiah was convinced that the only thing that would persuade them of that fact was if they realized the worthlessness of the gods they had chosen over Yahweh. As quickly as we may want to get to hope as Christians, we must let the book speak for itself, and in so doing perhaps hear something about the balance between grace and accountability. The truism that we sometimes use is appropriate here: sometimes the only way to get people to look up is when they hit bottom and that is the only way left to go.
This larger section of Jeremiah is one of the best examples of carefully crafted Old Testament literature that uses extended and interlocked metaphors as well as rhetorical structural elements as a means of communicating theology. As noted, this is not necessarily a single block of material written as a unit, but it is woven together with great skill so that it stands now as a coherent piece of literature that requires careful attention to detail, context, and flow of thought.
Although outside this reading, the introductory verses of the chapter (v. 1-2) establish the metaphorical context in which the following verses should be read. The picture is of a devoted bride (Israel) who loved her husband (God). This metaphor is a common prophetic one for describing Israel's relationship to God (for example, Hos 1-3, Ezekiel 16). The wilderness period following the exodus was also viewed by some prophets as an idyllic time for Israel, a "honeymoon" between her and God, before she was allured by the worship of Ba'al after settlement in the land (Hos 2:14-15, Ex 19-24; see Ba'al Worship in the Old Testament). The poignant use of the word "remember" in this introduction (v. 2) suggests that the honeymoon is over, and there is a serious crisis in the relationship.
Many scholars have noted that the form or structure of this passage is patterned after a legal trial or a disputation speech in which a case is presented, witnesses are called, a verdict is reached, and a sentence is pronounced. This particular form has its roots in the covenant or treaty formulations from surrounding cultures (in Hebrew the same word means "covenant" or "treaty") in which a superior king (suzerain) or an overlord would enter into an agreement with lesser kings or leaders. The suzerain would stipulate certain provisions for which the others would be responsible (usually taxes and loyalty in the form of military support if necessary) in return for his guarantee of protection and provision of the city or area. The treaty would then outline consequences if they failed to meet their part of the agreement. The disputation speech is the legal case that would be brought by an overlord when the treaty had been violated and he planned to invoke the provisions for consequences (usually a punitive strike against the city or in serious cases removal of the king and destruction of the city).
There has been considerable debate among scholars on the exact role of this covenant formulation in biblical thinking and writing, exactly when it was introduced, as well as the legal role or even existence of a disputation speech in such a context. Some see the entire book of Deuteronomy patterned after this model, while others think the form was introduced late in the post-exilic era. We do not have to settle all those debates to understand this text. While the term "covenant" does not occur in this passage, the language and metaphors here are permeated with the concept. Whatever the origin, it does seem clear that this passage reflects some such legal background. However, that does not at all mean that we must shift from the metaphor of marriage with which the passage began in order to understand the covenant background of this form in legal terms.
Since much of the passage makes heavy use of metaphor, including the imagery of marriage, it is likely that the disputation speech here is not all to be understood in narrowly legal categories. Rather the disputation form is itself metaphorical to describe the severity of the violation of the relationship between Israel and God. The marriage metaphor for that relationship continues throughout this passage in various ways (prostitute/unfaithfulness, 2:20-25, 33-34, 3:1-2; bride, 2:32; wife/divorce, 3:1, 20). This suggests that the language of covenant has been creatively adopted into this context with the idea of violation of a treaty or covenant now used as a secondary metaphor to describe the problems in the relationship. That has more implications for the overall message of the book than we can address here, but at the very least it suggests that what is unfolding in this book is not a legal process where sin demands punishment, but rather a relationship that needs to be healed (cf. Hos 1-3).
The opening question from God, "What did I do wrong?", follows as the response to the marriage problems suggested in the opening verses. The question is more than rhetorical, for it drives to the very heart of the problem. While there is only brief allusion to it here (v. 6), this would immediately recall the entire exodus tradition where God brought Israel out of Egyptian slavery, led them through the wilderness, and settled them in the land. God had done everything to establish and promote the relationship with Israel, and yet the relationship was troubled. This echoes the cry of the vineyard owner in Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard (5:1-4), "What more could I have done?"
The answer serves to vindicate God and place the blame squarely on Israel. Rather than following after God as they had in the wilderness responding to his love and provision for them (v. 2) they had followed after other gods when they settled in the land (v. 4). The term that is used here for the other gods, primarily the fertility god Ba'al and his consort Ashtoroth (Asherah), is itself a sarcastic theological comment. The word is translated "worthless" (NRSV) or "vanity" (AV), the same Hebrew term (hebel) that is thematic in Ecclesiastes where it is usually translated "vanity" or "vapor." The term basically means breath or vapor, and therefore something that is transient, insubstantial, unreliable, and of no value. Jeremiah contends that they have worshipped gods that are finally worthless as gods and so the people have themselves become worthless (note v. 11). As Walter Brueggemann comments, people tend to take on the character of whatever gods they worship.
Verse six introduces an accusation against the people that unfolds as a key structural and rhetorical element throughout this entire larger section, and especially in this chapter comprising the indictment against Israel. The rhetorical technique here is the use of quotation to carry the flow of thought (cf. Malachi where the same technique is used as imagined dialog). The accusation is cast here in terms of the play back and forth between what they (the people) said or did not say or what they should have said, and what God said in response. This use of quotation is not evident in chapter four where the call to repentance dominates, but returns in chapter five with similar impact. This technique becomes the glue that holds the passage together and provides access into the heart of the message in these verses. It will be helpful to notice the entire sequence of this focus on speaking in this section.
2:6 - "they [Israel] did not say,
is the Lord?'"
2:20 - "you said, 'I
will not serve.'"
(they should not
3:19 - "I said how I would . . .I said you would, . . . instead" (the Hebrew idiom here expresses the hope of a desired outcome that is strongly contrasted with the actual reality)
The section begins with an indictment about what Israel has not said that it should have said, continues throughout quoting what Israel has said that it should not have said, and concludes with what God had hoped for as a result of his care, but yet proved disappointing because of Israel's failure. This climax of the quotation technique in these verses returns to the metaphor of a marriage relationship that had failed because the wife had been unfaithful (3:20).
This sequence underscores the nature of Israel's failure as well as providing the basis to understand its results. Israel's problem was that the people had drifted into a mode of dealing with God that allowed them to say the wrong things. That is, their discourse with God, the way Israel lived as God's people, was horribly flawed and misguided. They had disregarded their relationship with God, the same God that had brought them into existence as a people, and rejected serving him (v. 20, the same root Hebrew word translated "serve" can also mean "worship."). They had even taken delight in their freedom from God (v. 31).
Yet, they denied that they had forsaken God and claimed innocence, even though the evidence of their unfaithfulness was obvious (2:23-25, 25-36). They freely worshipped the fertility gods of the land, and attributed to them the most intimate of relationship, calling them Father and Mother (v. 27). And now, in a time of crisis they called to them for help (v. 27). But Jeremiah, as Isaiah before him, declared that the gods of the land were worthless and could not even save themselves let alone anyone else (v. 28; cf. Isa 46:1 f). God had expected them to call him "Father," (3:19), not Ba'al, and he had hoped to bless his people as they served him. But they had refused, and had left their "husband" to follow other gods (3:20).
The question, then, hangs in the air. What had caused these people to get to this point where they could act so wantonly and recklessly and risk so much? The answer lies in the first two of the series of quotations from our reading: "They did not say, 'Where is the Lord?'" The people were condemned for what they have said, since it revealed their guilt. But they also were condemned for what they have not said. It is this silence, this neglect of asking this question about God that lay at the root of their failure, because it is in asking this question that they would have been reminded whose they were and why they existed. Because they had not asked the question, because they had not taken care to remember who they were and who God was, they had forgotten God. Jeremiah even points out in a pathos filled metaphor the absurdity of a bride forgetting her wedding day, let alone her husband! And yet these people have forgotten him (v. 32).
Walter Brueggemann has observed that what they had not spoken was the story of who they were as the people of God (note vv. 6-7). They became worthless in serving worthless gods because they had not recounted the story of God's actions in their history in creating them as a people. Several passages in the Torah instruct the people to retell the story of God's deliverance in the Exodus to their children. In fact, those instructions are often cast as answers to questions: "When your children ask in time to come . . . then you shall tell them . . ." (Exod 13:14-16, Deut 6:20-25, Josh 4:6). Even today, in modern Jewish Passover services that celebrate this event as the defining moment of God's revelation to his people, the story of the exodus begins with a child asking questions.
But they had stopped asking the questions that would have led them to remember. Even the priests who were directly responsible for teaching the people had failed in their task of instruction, and had likewise failed to ask the same question (v. 8). As a result, the priests did not "know" God, so could give no instruction. The Hebrew term "know" is more than knowledge about someone. It is the term for intimate relationship, the term used in the Old Testament for sexual relations between a husband and wife. Again, the marriage metaphor plays in the background. The very people who should have been the leaders in reminding the people of who they were did not have a close enough relationship with God to call the people to repent. The effects of not asking the right question led to a degeneration in all levels of society. Rulers were corrupt, prophets saw no difference between Yahweh and Ba'al, and the people ended up worshiping worthless pieces of wood and stone.
This leaves the two questions that the people do not ask in this reading as pivotal in the book. It is a theological commentary on the root problem that underlies what the people actually do say that bears witness to their sin. They had simply forgotten who their God is because they had not deliberately put forth the effort to ask the questions, to remember (note the same interplay of remembering and forgetting in Pss. 105-106; note the same idea from a different perspective in Deut 8:11-19).
With this theological point made, the passage returns to the accusation with a rhetorical question that illustrates the absurdity of what they have done. An invitation is offered to compare Israel's behavior with other nations. While other nations served the gods who were really no gods at all, at least they were loyal to them. Israel, on the other hand, saw no such need for loyalty to the only God who was really God! Repeating the point made earlier (vv. 4-5), the prophet declares that they have made a bad bargain in exchanging the God who had brought them out of Egypt for gods that have nothing to offer (v. 11).
The phrase translated "their glory" (v. 11) in its present form refers to the people. However, in the Hebrew text, this phrase is marked as a scribal correction (tiqqun sopherim), an instance where the scribes changed the text because they thought it sounded irreverent in some way. The original likely read "my glory," which was understood to be a title for God himself. The idea is that they have traded God ("my glory") for "something that does not profit" or serves no purpose. The rhetoric of verse 12 serves to reinforce the absurdity of any people changing their gods, let alone Israel abandoning Yahweh.
The concluding verse of this reading is a familiar sermon text, simply because the metaphors are so vivid and understandable. While many in the modern Western world are unfamiliar with cisterns, they were common in rural areas of the United States a century ago, and were the main water supply for many places in the arid Middle East in ancient times. These underground chambers collected rain water during rainy seasons to use in the dry seasons. They could vary in size from small household cisterns holding up to 100 gallons, to huge caverns like those around the fortress of Masada holding hundreds of thousands of gallons. The two main problems with cisterns was rubbish collecting in them due to the necessity of having open tops, and stagnation due to bacteria or microscopic plants. Having seen some of these stagnant cisterns, it is understandable that no one would choose to drink cistern water over fresh flowing water if they had the choice.
And yet this is what Israel had done. In this poignant and gripping metaphor, the prophet drives home the absurdity of their choice. They had chosen to abandon the fresh, living (flowing) water as a source of life to try to survive on what water they could capture on their own stored in cisterns. They had chosen to turn away from God who had brought them out of Egypt, who had showered them with his grace and care, who had been with them from the beginning, to serve the fertility gods of Canaan.
That would have been bad enough. But there was a second evil that they had committed. The cisterns that they had dug were broken and leaked; they could hold no water! The gods of Canaan were an illusion, a vapor that had no substance, not really gods at all. When they needed the water, they would find that the cistern was empty! Later on in the chapter, the prophet returns to this metaphor of water. When they have discovered that they have no water, no resources of their own in times of crisis, they would seek water from surrounding nations (v. 18). Yet they would find that "no water" characterizes life without God, since he is the only source of living water (cf. John 4:5-15, 7:37-38).
The passage continues beyond the reading to delineate the nature of their failure and the consequences unfolding in history. Jeremiah would spend his entire ministry elaborating on this theme of failure, its grave implications for the people, and the possibility of hope beyond disaster. The message is simple: the people have become apostate. They have broken faith with God, they have betrayed the trust that should have characterized the relationship. That has implications not only for their religious life, but would have wider ranging implications for their national life as well. Just as they had abandoned God in their religious life and sought the aid of the gods of the lands, they had also abandoned God in their national life and sought to save themselves by alliances with foreign powers. Neither was adequate. Both were an illusion, like a broken cistern, like trying to carry water in a bucket with no bottom. And they seemed unaware of their circumstances and peril, constantly professing their innocence and glorying in their freedom from God.
Their plight can be traced back to their failure to keep alive their story, the failure to teach to succeeding generations the story of God. The priests had failed to instruct, the kings had abandoned God as the source of their strength, the prophets had become spokesmen for Ba'al, and the people thought they were free of any accountability to God and so reveled in the fertility rites of the Ba'al temples. They had forgotten who they were. And they had forgotten who God was. "They did not say, 'Where is the Lord?'" When they stopped asking that question, the answer ceased to matter. And they could make the absurd and ludicrous choice of dry cisterns over living water, while still claiming "I have not sinned." It is no wonder that Jeremiah sees an ominous future for these people!
And yet the larger message is, "Return!" We must not forget the purpose of Jeremiah's preaching. His message was not good riddance, but return!
There are two interwoven aspects of this passage that both provide fruitful preaching paths. Yet, both aspects need to be kept in view to prevent the message from becoming distorted or lopsided. One dimension involves the simple fact of apostasy, failure, and sin that needs to be addressed head on as a means to change. The second dimension probes the root causes of that apostasy, and may provide not only warnings of failure but also some positive models for avoiding that failure.
One of the most difficult tasks for those who have grasped the depth and breadth of God's grace, who are really motivated by love for others, is to call people to accountability for their actions. We would much rather speak of forgiveness and grace than we would of sin and punishment. For many who have experienced the more legalistic aspects of Christianity, it is sometimes even more difficult to deal with sin directly and forthrightly. True, it is easy to slip into the bombastic and sometimes pompously self-righteous position of condemning others for actions that are perhaps no worse than our own failures, or to tackle "safe" sins that are so far removed from us that we run no risk of condemnation ourselves. And there are always those who use condemnation of others as their own ego support system. These are really subtle forms of pride and hypocrisy cloaked under the veil of speaking the truth, or hating the sin but loving the sinner, or being bold for the Lord. To such self-righteousness the words of Nathan echo across the centuries: "You are the one."
Still, this reading and many others like it in the prophets and the Gospels clearly allow, even compel, us to confront people with the destructiveness of their sin. We must always keep in mind that the purpose is, finally, not to condemn or judge but to issue the call to return, to repent. But how shall people feel any need to return until they are first brought to an understanding that they have left God and that there are consequences that result from that departure? Change is not really possible without a recognition of the need to change. Returning, repentance, is not really possible without realizing the need to repent.
Sometimes circumstances that work out as a result of sin place people in such a position. But if we are truly motivated by love and concern for others, surely we would want to warn them of such circumstances in order to give them a chance of choosing a different course of action to avoid those consequences. In this sense, love may need to be "tough" for it really to be love. The slogan used in public media to combat driving while intoxicated reflects this perspective on a totally secular level: "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." If this is true on such a mundane level, how much more would it be true with spiritual matters?
This suggests that we are compelled by love to confront people with the magnitude of their sin and proclaim the consequences of their actions to them in no uncertain terms as means of calling them to repentance. The form this will take will depend on the community to which it is proclaimed, as well as the personality of the one proclaiming. It may also reflect some theological perspectives. Probably few today would do so from the perspective of Jonathan Edwards' sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" or from the perspective of the "hell fire" preaching of American revivalism. It is not our job to push people to the bottom so they can climb back up. It is our task to tell them that they are headed to the bottom, or are already there, solely as a means to provide a way back.
In our modern culture where we are sometimes preoccupied with not offending anyone's sensibilities, this passage calls us to view the world and people from the perspective of God and the relationship that he desires for his people. We cannot use that to satisfy our own desire for power and control. And it can never be divorced from the love that is willing to weep over the sinner (cf. Jere 8:22-9:1). But then neither dare we abandon it for the sake of acceptance and popularity.
The second dimension deals with how we might avoid the causes of Israel's collapse. While different prophets dealt with different aspects, here the cause is a failure of identity as the people of God, a failure to speak the necessary things and to ask the right questions.
A dominant feature of many aspects of religious culture, especially in the USA in recent years, has been a militant orthodoxy that wishes to impose a narrow agenda on others and call it the will of God. While the most convenient example of this tendency for many are Fundamentalists and those who advocate a literalist and inerrant view of Scripture, it is not that simple. The same sort of agenda exists for those who have their own causes they wish to advocate, whether it be gay rights or pro- or anti-abortion or feminism or capital punishment or any of a number of other causes that dominate societal discourse. What all of these share too often is the idea that one side or the other is the "righteous" one, is the only possible orthodox position, and so is used as a reason to shut off discussion of the issue in the name of God.
But instead of marking the end of the matter, silence so generated may indicate nothing more than that the necessary questions are no longer being asked, that the issues are no longer being brought into the light of relationship with God and discussed with the leading question, "Where is the Lord?" The danger lies in the temptation to make such issues a matter of agenda and creed rather than submitting them to the community shaping story of God.
In this sense, this passage is a critique of unexamined tradition that no longer asks the foundational questions that should shape identity, and no longer engages in meaningful discourse that allows the community to be dynamic. The resulting closed system of belief allows no new possibilities and is content with stagnant water that, in reality, may be no water at all.
This simply calls us into active and ongoing discourse as Christians, always beginning with the foundational question, "Where is the Lord?" that then allows us to retell the story as the foundation of everything else that follows. This does not mean that should avoid established creeds or doctrines or beliefs, or that we should overthrow all tradition. But it does suggest that the story of God, remembering and retelling the community and character shaping story of God's provision and grace, reminding ourselves who we are and to whom we belong, serves to provide a counter to the danger of changing gods while we are denying that we have done so.
It also compels us especially to be diligent in following the injunctions of the Torah that call us faithfully to tell the story to our children. In our modern culture with all the competition for the attention of our youth, that is no easy task. And it is easy to fall into the trap of settling for form or appealing to short attention spans rather than dealing with substance and content. But that simply says that we need to be ever active and creative in finding ways to be faithful in telling the story of God in ways that our youth can hear and understand, and make the story their own.
Not too long ago, someone wrote an article on evangelism in the church asking the question, "Will our Faith have children?" Someone else responded with an article asking the question, "Will our children have Faith?" That is really the heart of the matter addressed here. The suggestion from this indictment speech is that an important answer to that question is to be sure that the story is told, that the people learn who they are as God's people, what that means in daily living, and how to carry that faith and commitment into discourse in all aspects of life as a foundational truth. Telling the story and asking the right questions is the means to establish an identity that will not have to go looking for other gods.
What fault there was in Israel's failure, this passage says was not God's. The fault lay with those who failed to make sure the children had faith.
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