The Book of Jeremiah has the best writing in the Hebrew Bible. Job, Ruth, Genesis, and Psalms are all stylistically referenced, and the arc of history extends from the Patriarchs to the Exodus to the earthly kingdom.
And it’s funny.
In the Hebrew Bible, comedy works by establishing a pattern and unexpectedly reversing it. When Jacob’s sons are worried about their fate under Pharaoh’s vizier (actually their brother, Joshua), the hapless brothers relates the increasingly cruel tricks the Egyptians may have planned:
Now the men were frightened when they were taken to his house. They thought, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to
attack us and
overpower us and
seize us as slaves and
take our donkeys.”
This formula works in longer narratives too. The story of dull-headed Judah and Tamar has all the makings of a Shakespearean comedy: Tamar has been working as a prostitute, and had her unknowing father-in-law, Judah, as a client. Now she’s pregnant, and Judah ordered her execution:
And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.”
So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”
But Tamar had wisely taken Judah’s seal and staff as security… and had hidden before Judah could present payment, meaning she still had the security though the debt was unpaid. So she is able to prove the identity of the other guilty party, the man who ordered her incineration!
When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.” And she said, “Please determine whose these are—the signet and cord, and staff.”
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the king would now kill himself, and everyone would die. But Judah comically realizes the truth: Tamar is guilty, but Judah is not only guilty but — because had not paid Tamar, and had not arranged a replacement marriage — Judah is also in debt to her!
So Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And he never knew her again.
The Book of Jeremiah is a comedy, but a dark and subversive one. Jeremiah Biblical genre on its head in striking and unexpected ways. And as all comedies end happily ever after, with a marriage and shouts, so this comedy does this book. These comic surprises in Jeremiah occur on multiple levels — even to the type of story that it tells.
The author of Jeremiah enjoys zingers, the same set-up leading to an unexpected outcome, from the downright funny
“Therefore you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:
be drunk, and
Fall and rise no more, because of the sword which I will send among you.
… to the Lovecraftian
Do you not see what they do in
the cities of Judah and
in the streets of Jerusalem?
The children gather wood,
the fathers kindle the fire, and
the women knead dough, to make cakes for
the Queen of Heaven; and
they pour out drink offerings
to other gods, that they may
provoke Me to anger.
Even the narrative portions of Jeremiah use this formula, with a cozy scene turned into high blasphemy by a Son of David himself:
So the king sent Jehudi to bring the scroll, and he took it from Elishama the scribe’s chamber. And Jehudi read it in the hearing of the king and in the hearing of all the princes who stood beside the king. Now
the king was sitting in the winter house in the ninth month,
with a fire burning
on the hearth before him.
And it happened, when
Jehudi had read three or four columns, that
the king cut it with the scribe’s knife and
cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until
all the scroll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth.
This same pattern — an expected pattern twisted in an unexpected way – survives in even broader constructions. In the wilderness, the LORD spoke to Moses “face to face, like a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The tragic King of Judah, Zedekiah, is likewise promised such a meeting with a foreign king, Nebuchadnezzar
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. For then the king of Babylon’s army besieged Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the prison, which was in the king of Judah’s house. For Zedekiah king of Judah had shut him up, saying, “Why do you prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; and Zedekiah king of Judah shall not escape from the hand of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face, and see him eye to eye; then he shall lead Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall be until I visit him,” says the LORD; “though you fight with the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed”’?”
The meeting, “face to face” and “eye to eye” is again promised, but with an additional prophecy: Zedekiah will not die by violence
And you shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be taken and delivered into his hand; your eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon, he shall speak with you face to face, and you shall go to Babylon.’”’ Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: ‘You shall not die by the sword.’
Instead, Zedekiah’s fate is unspeakably worse:
But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king, and they overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. All his army was scattered from him. So they took the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath, and he pronounced judgment on him. Then the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. And he killed all the princes of Judah in Riblah. He also put out the eyes of Zedekiah; and the king of Babylon bound him in bronze fetters, took him to Babylon, and put him in prison till the day of his death.
But in the end, Jeremiah is a comedy in the broadest sense. The Book begins with a lawsuit, God petitioning a cosmic court for divorce from Judah, including a request to be freed from any child support
“Therefore I will yet bring charges against you,” says the Lord,
“And against your children’s children I will bring charges.
The nation of Jacob has been not just idolatrous, but foolish, worshiping the work of human hands
I will utter My judgments
Against them concerning all their wickedness,
Because they have forsaken Me,
Burned incense to other gods,
And worshiped the works of their own hands.
All of Israel – the holy offices of Priest, Prophet, and King — is corrupted. The corruption of the people themselves is emphasized twice, twofold each time, at the beginning and the end of the litany
all the evil of the children of Israel and
the children of Judah,
they have done to provoke Me to anger—
the men of Judah, and
the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Even foreigners can see the destruction of Jerusalem was a result of God’s judgment
And the captain of the guard took Jeremiah and said to him: “The LORD your God has pronounced this doom on this place. Now the LORD has brought it, and has done just as He said. Because you people have sinned against the LORD, and not obeyed His voice, therefore this thing has come upon you.
Jerusalem is itself destroyed, but the LORD’s presence in the temple is worse than lost — God Himself has ordained the destruction! Nebuchadnezzar, destroyer of the Temple, blinder of the king, is himself God’s servant!
“Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Because you have not heard My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ says the Lord, ‘and
the king of Babylon,
and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual desolations.
But even in this is comedy. The hyperbolic lawsuit hints it is a legal satire
“Lift up your eyes to the desolate heights and see:
Where have you not lain with men?
By the road you have sat for them
Like an Arabian in the wilderness;
And you have polluted the land
With your harlotries and your wickedness.
But God still loves Israel
“Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD:
“I remember you,
The kindness of your youth,
The love of your betrothal,
When you went after Me in the wilderness,
In a land not sown.
Indeed, God remembers even the smallest child
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
Before you were born I sanctified you;
I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”
And remembers the House of David. A future King will come.
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness;
A King shall reign and prosper,
And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell safely;
Now this is His name by which He will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS
For the tree of Jesse is not dead, but rather a shoot still grows, a Jew among the gentiles.
Now it came to pass in the thirty-seventh year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, that Evil-Merodach king of Babylon, in the first year of his reign, lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a more prominent seat than those of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin changed from his prison garments, and he ate bread regularly before the king all the days of his life. And as for his provisions, there was a regular ration given him by the king of Babylon, a portion for each day until the day of his death, all the days of his life
And then we see. The Book of Jeremiah is a comedy, a romantic comedy, and like any rom-com it needs a reunion and gifts and renewed vows
“Return, O backsliding children,” says the LORD; “for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
As in that other romantic comedy, the Book of Ruth, the story of David’s great-grandmother:
“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
So in the Book of Jeremiah:
‘You shall be My people,
And I will be your God.’
The Book of Jeremiah is the romantic comedy, the love story, of God and nation of Israel. Their quarrels and jealous do not erase that love. They are part of the passion that can only come from that love.
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