Field of Nightmares: Jeremiah’s Case Before God
I saw a curious bumper sticker the other day. It said:
Police Firefighters Soldier
Service = Sacrifice = Security
We have our “official” sacrifices which drum up for us noble sounding notions of heroes and self-giving in the service of asset protection. But I am also reminded of the countless sacrifices which remain hidden from our view: those in poverty, people without health care, immigrant workers, those working grueling and demeaning jobs for wages that do not even approximate living wages, the unemployed, the marginally employed, and the mass of humanity imprisoned. These people, sacrificed to the “fluctuations of the market” are discarded along with our massive piles of waste filling landfills and oceans. One third of the world’s urban population lives in abject poverty and squalor.[i]
The unifying nature of sacrifice always works best when the true nature of the victim and the act of dismemberment are concealed and disconnected from the community. Victims of consumptive greed and wealth expansion work best when they are invisible and silent. It is the victim, however, who sees most clearly what is going on.
The prophet Jeremiah is one such victim who refused to be drowned out by the noise of “business as usual” Through the voice of one prophet who himself is slated for slaughter, other victims protest. The cultivated land, animals and birds, the sky, the disenfranchised, and God himself cry out as victims against a community enthralled by empire building.
Historical Setting for the Case
Jeremiah’s prophetic career begins amid the seemingly positive reforms of the young king Josiah. Jerusalem harbored many prophets who assuredly announced a great harvest of peace and prosperity for a kingdom who claimed Yahweh as Lord. It is debated as to whether Josiah’s innovations were revolutionary or reformatory; either way, however, the historical accounts given in the Hebrew bible (2 Kings 21-23) negatively assess the outcome. It was not thorough enough to reverse the fundamental communal crisis that had brought the northern kingdom’s destruction.[ii]
Thus, even in the height of the revolution, when things appeared to be going in the right direction, Jeremiah is called as one of those “unwelcome” prophets to pronounce disaster on the horizon. Using the stock imagery of a kingdom as a cultivated field or orchard[iii], the Lord informs Jeremiah of his mission and message:
See, I appoint you this day
over nations and kingdoms:
to uproot and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant. (Jer 1:10)[iv]
When God calls Jeremiah as a prophet, he also informs Jeremiah that the opposition to his message will be strong. People, in fact, will try and kill him. Thus, what prompts Jeremiah’s complaint to God in chapter twelve is an attempt by Jeremiah’s home town to kill him. The lethal accusations play out in chapter eleven as a kind of orchard war. Both the kingdom of Judah and Jeremiah are fertile trees on the verge of destruction.[v]
Through the words of Jeremiah in chapter eleven, the Lord pronounces the end of the kingdom of Judah. “My beloved,” the Lord proclaims, “was a verdant olive tree, fair with choice fruit” (Jer 11:16). The Lord had tenderly planted the orchard (Jer 11:17), but now, it is destined for destruction. And why? The city of Jerusalem and the country side of Judah are awash in injustice, corruption, conspiracy, and greed. Those bound by a covenant of justice, righteousness, truth, and love[vi] have instead chased after dynasty-building gods.
The indictment of these gods is univocal among the unwelcome prophets[vii]: they are gods “you have made for yourselves” (Jer 2:28); they are gods that enslave everybody to their insatiable demands (Jer 2:14-19, 7:30-32); they are gods who perpetually demand sacrifice, especially at the expense of the poor, disenfranchised, and the land (Amos 8:1-5-6); they are gods who strip country sides of its fruit and then abandon it to the desert; they are gods of the deceptive ledger sheet and the perpetual open markets (Jer 3:24, 8:5-6, Amos 8:5) and always, always, they are gods covered in gold and silver (Jer 10:4,14, Duet 7:25).[viii]
The covenant breach is brought to a boiling point by the astounding displays of piety used to cover over gross grabs of land and resources. The Lord indicts the people at the temple:
Will you oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, shed innocent blood, steal, commit adultery, swear falsely and follow after other gods and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, “we are safe?” (Jer 7:6-10)
The Lord’s indictment continues:
Do you consider this House, which bears My name, to be a den of thieves? (Jer 7:11)
Like hostile corporate takeovers or gangster back alley deals, those already awash in wealth “execute their vile designs” and veil “their evil deeds” under copious amounts of wealth sponsored sacrifices. They not only make foreclosure plans on the temple floor, but strut around as pious exhibitions of proud self-accomplishment. The Lord protests:
Why should My beloved be in My House,
Who executes so many vile designs?
The sacred flesh will pass away from you,
for you exult while performing your evil deeds. (Jer 11:15)
“If you do right,” the Lord proclaims, “then you can stay in this place” (Jer 7:7). Otherwise, prepare to leave. The desert encroaches.
The Lord of Hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because of the evil wrought by the House of Israel and the House of Judah. (Jer 11:17a).
The orchard war continues when Jeremiah hears of the plot to silence his voice. In the words of the mob, sacrificial culture and agriculture congeal in lethal accusations over the orchard:
Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, Let us cut him off from the land of the living. (Jer 11:19)
Upon hearing of the conspiracy, Jeremiah comes to the shocking realization that his own family had set him up:
For I was like a docile lamb led to the slaughter. I did not realize that it was against me they fashioned their plots” (Jer 11:18-19).
When a people are in crisis as Judah and Jerusalem certainly were, all resources were consolidated in a unified front against the perceived enemy. Cries of injustice toward the marginal cannot be entertained.
Hence now, we come to Jeremiah’s filing an official grievance, a riv,[ix] against the Lord in chapter twelve. Jeremiah pronounces:
I make a claim against You. I shall present charges against You. (Jer 12:1)
It is easy to imagine a person filing a complaint against a neighbor who injured his plow ox, but it is quite another thing to imagine how one brings a charge of wrongful injury before the Lord. In the heightened crisis of Jeremiah’s day, accusations and counter-accusation, even against the Lord, swirled like debris in a whirlwind.[x] Many, especially those with investments on the line, pushed back against the patronage to the God Yahweh, whose demands for equity and justice repeatedly hindered the markets.
Yet, Jeremiah imagines bringing “charges” against God. Like Job, Jeremiah knows that he will not win because the Lord is righteous (Jer 12:1); nevertheless, being pressed into involuntary service as the bearer of bad news propels Jeremiah to express his torment. Oddly or perhaps even insidiously, Jeremiah’s expression of torment slowly transforms into God’s expression of torment. Jeremiah is made to feel as God feels.
In Jeremiah’s case, he presents a triad of torments that reverberate with the nearly two hundred year protests of prophets past. God plants a good crop reasonably expecting a bountiful harvest of justice and righteousness. Instead, the people sow wickedness devouring both land and people. The land languishes under neglect, seizure, enslavement, over-production and pillaging. This is compounded by drought, famine, and pestilence. Finally, both land and God spit out its inhabitants. The lure of allegiance to Baal energizes the triad. For prophets like Jeremiah, Baal is a false model. He beckons to be imitated even as his insatiable desire devours all who follow.
Jeremiah begins his argument:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why are the workers of treachery at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root,
They spread, they even bear fruit. (Jer 12:2)
From Jeremiah’s perspective, the situation is obvious. Wickedness and prosperity are bound together.[xi] Those who best “cheat the system” enjoy a stress free life. They have just enough religion to inoculate themselves from the virus that so torments the unwelcome prophets: knowledge of God who requires justice, righteousness, truth, and mercy far above sacrifice. The wickedly comfortable do not appear to ever be “tested in the heart” in the way God challenges Jeremiah (Jer 12:3).
For Jeremiah, this torment is exacerbated by an obvious fact: God himself planted this orchard. As is so often likened throughout the Hebrew bible, God nurtured Israel from its conception like a hardworking farmer, a devoted husband, or a loving parent. In return, the field was to yield a worthy crop. The wife was to love the husband in return and create a loving family. The child was to mature into a responsible adult able to manage the household and become a mutual friend to the parents.[xii]
In every way, the field, the wife, and the child were invited to reflect their model, and to model this “to the nations.”[xiii]
In the typical manner of Ancient Near Eastern cursing. Jeremiah wishes a reversal of fortunes on God’s wicked orchard who seek to sacrifice him to the necessity of communal protectionism.
Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter,
Prepare them for the day of slaying! (Jer 12:3b)
It is not just the poor and oppressed who languish under the gods of market necessity. The land itself writhes in agony, wilted by neglect and overwork. Its fruits hauled off to foreign markets, never tasted by those who labored for it. Unlike mythical gods who scorch the land with drought and plague because their whimsical demands are not met, Jeremiah summons land and sky as witnesses to the breach of covenant:
How long must the land languish,
and the grass of all the countryside dry up?
Must beasts and birds perish,
because of the evil of its inhabitance,
Who say, “He will not look upon our future.”
In the phrase, “he will not look upon our future,” Jeremiah mimics the reasoning behind those who advocate the sacrificial necessity of his murder. “The god who rescues slaves is an interesting museum piece,” they reason, “but when it comes to procuring a secure, settled existence, one must consult gods who can predict market fluctuations and political shifts.” “A god who requires equity, debt-forgiveness, and responsible care of the land and its inhabitance above all else clearly does not understand how markets and kingdoms operate,” they reason.
Jeremiah’s torment continues. The exhaustion of resources by “the evil of its inhabitance” ought to be a clear warning to abandon dynasty-building gods and return to the covenant-building god.
The anguished and oft repeated cry, ad-matai—“how long”, echoes through a seemingly empty sky. Jeremiah’s question “how long” could equally be understood today as the question “Why is it?” Why is it that “the prosperous who are at ease” never seem to see the suffering of those whom they exploit? Even when the poor languish, and the field withers, and animals perish, the wicked denounce the saving-god of slaves as irrelevant.
Thus Jeremiah’s grievance concludes.
In verse five, the case shifts to the defendant. It is the “righteous One’s” turn to respond, and sympathy is the last thing that Jeremiah will receive. The defendant immediately turns prosecutor. Stern exhortation and a call for courage come from the Lord. How, God interrogates Jeremiah, will you confront the big guns in Jerusalem when you can’t even handle the rather mild hostility of your home town?
If you race with the foot-runners and they exhaust you, how then can you compete with horses? If you are secure only in a tranquil land, how will you fare in the jungle of the Jordan? (Jer 12:5)
We can pause for just a moment here and notice the subtle switch of imagery. Jeremiah calls Jerusalem the wicked field planted by the Lord, but God refers to it as a jungle—the epitome of unbridled growth devoid of responsible cultivation, an uninhabitable wilderness swallowing all who enter.
The Lord must bear down on his lowly prophet who is most reluctant to accept the lynch mob stirring against him. Even in the “safety” of Jeremiah’s own family, the sacrificial logic solidifies: if it is necessary to eliminate the one in order to save the many, then so be it. The sacrificial fervor is rising. The refusal to heed the witness of the encroaching wilderness is doubled-down on the plot to eliminate “unwelcome” prophetic voices, hiding sacrificial necessity behind friendly words. The Lord sternly speaks the truth to Jeremiah:
For even your kinsmen and your father’s house, even they are treacherous toward you. They cry after you as a mob. Do not believe them when they speak cordially to you. (Jer 12:6)
The Lord’s response proceeds. Once more Jeremiah is made the unwilling empathetic partner to the Lord of covenant fidelity. “Jeremiah,” the Lord persuades, “not only do the wicked exhaust the land by their greed, even your own family is willing to expel one of its own to market demands and political necessities.” The one being expelled, the Lord continues, is not just the land, the animals, the fields and you Jeremiah. My people are willing to exchange a slave-saving god willing to make a covenant of love with his people for gold-plated gods whose demand for sacrifice never ends.
In God’s pronunciation of judgment, God reverses His own fate. It is now the Lord’s turn to file a grievance. “You have expelled even your own god. You have abandoned Me, deserted Me, handed me over, and rejected Me. You seek to devour the very One who loves you most.” (Jer 12:7-9).
God’s covenant partner has acted like a lioness roaring at its prey. Like a scapegoat thrust into the wilderness to be devoured by predators and scavengers, so the people spit out their own god.
My own people acted against Me.
Like a lion in the forest;
She raised her voice against me—
Therefore I have rejected her.
My own people acts toward Me
Like a bird of prey or a hyena;
Let the birds of prey surround her!
Go, gather all the wild beasts,
Bring them to devour! (Jer 12:7-9)
In the closing argument, the Lord directly rebuffs Jeremiah’s case that God himself had planted a wicked field. The wilderness does not encroach upon settled life because the gold-plated gods “you have made for yourself” withhold water, requiring fresh rounds of meat. Once there was a god who used land and sky, drought and plague, animal and field, sea and desert, in order to rescue a people from a land of perpetual work. Even now, this god summons these things as witnesses to covenant breach. It is not I, says the Lord, who speaks against you. It is they.
The land languishes in drought, famine, pestilence, and violent seizures. Yes, God planted the vineyard, but it is his covenant partner who must respond in love, faithfulness, trust, and mercy. They must yield the fruit of righteousness. Just as in the original garden, God provided everything, but even so, responsible choices must be made. If not, the garden shuts down.
Many shepherds have destroyed My vineyard,
have trampled My field,
have made My delightful field
a desolate wilderness.
They have made her a desolation;
desolate, she pours out grief to Me.
The whole land is laid desolate,
but no man gives it thought.
Spoilers have come
upon all the bare heights of the wilderness.
For a sword of the Lord devours
from one end of the land to the other;
no flesh is safe.
They have sown wheat and reaped thorns, they have endured pain to no avail.
Be ashamed, then, by your harvest—
by the blazing wrath of the Lord! (Jer 12:10-13)
Oddly, the Lord depicts Judah and Jerusalem as a wilderness of polar extremes. By its gangster-like mentality it behaves like a jungle, abounding in unbridled and intertwined competition for consumptive survival, indiscriminately overtaking every inch of ground. The city is over-grown in a Byzantine maze of intrigue, betrayal, treachery, assassinations, murder, lust, greed, adultery, corruption, and estate building. All play by jungle rules—seize or be seized.
Those on the outside of the jungle, however, experience an opposite wilderness—the desert. For those who have been uprooted—the poor, the destitute, the sojourner, the unwelcome prophet, and the land—all is bare, desolate, parched, withered, raped and stripped.
In the Lord’s closing argument, He points to the “root” cause which requires the Lord to uproot the whole orchard in order to plant again—acquisitive desire. God’s people, who once learned of their God in the wilderness, were lured by their neighbors to a false model of what it meant to be “rooted” in the land. Israel wrongly reasoned that their god was not well-suited for land occupation nor for commerce.
Baal, on the other hand, was a god of fertility and of enterprise. He was a networking god, and if anyone wished to move beyond subsistence to abundance, one would need to “swear by Baal.” The problem of other gods was never that of switching allegiance, but of trying to maintain dual loyalties.[xiv] Yahweh would be the god of the lofty mountain and of equally lofty ideals of fidelity and equity, but Baal owned the fertile field.
Israel’s “wicked neighbors” modeled the way of the markets to Israel and led them away from “the way of the Lord.”[xv] Significantly, the reference to oath-taking to Baal is general—they simply swear to Baal.[xvi] But the oath to the Lord is specific. It is “as the Lord lives,” and this specific oath is placed in stark contrast in the Lord’s closing argument. For one, it signifies that Israel was to be the model to the nations and not the other way around.
But most importantly, the appeal to the living Lord steers one toward a covenant-making god. It is an invitation to share in life as covenant partners and co-responders. It steers one toward the tree of life and away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Jezebel ushered in the prophetic backlash recorded in the Old Testament because her god, Baal, understood the law of land seizure for the sake of estate expansion. Markets and kingdoms, she reasoned, do not require permission from those who responsibly manage the land. Baal understood the law of sacrifice, but not of covenant partnership.[xvii]
For the God of Sinai, however, the land is given not taken.[xviii] In the garden, the choice must be made. As Girard states: "…[biblical faith] suggests that humanity can become divine by renouncing violence. Christianity invites us to imitate a God who is perfectly good. It teaches us that if we do not do so, we will expose ourselves to the worst. There is no solution to mimetism aside from a good model.”[xix]
Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period Volume I: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy. Trans. By John Bowden. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.
Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period Volume II: From the Exile to the Maccabees. Trans. By John Bowden. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
Baker, Judy. "Urban Poverty: A Global View." Washington D.C.:The World Bank Group, 2008.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Land. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.
Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil Asher. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Tests. New York: Touchstone, 2002.
Girard, René. Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. Trans. by Mary Baker. Michigan University Press; East Lansing, 2010.
Ruckhaus, Keith. Israel’s Narrative of Origins from the Perspective of Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory. PhD dissertation, University of South Africa, 2010. http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/3469/thesis_ruckhaus_kr.pdf?sequence=1
Wenham, Gordon J. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Gran Rapids; Baker Academic Press, 2012.
Biblical Quotes from:
NJPS, TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures. New York; The Jewish Publication Society, 1985
[i] Judy Baker, Urban Poverty: A Global View. (Washington D.C., The World Bank Group: 2008), 1.
[ii] Brueggemann demonstrates how thorough and central the idea of land as gift is in the Bible. In particular, the land is given by God’s word and received (or taken) by listening response. In this way, the land is “not just an object to be taken and occupied. It is rather a party to a relation.” Walter Brueggemann, The Land, 48.
[iii] The references to a kingdom as a “planting” of a tree or garden in the Hebrew bible are numerous. Of the most well-known, however, is the garden of Eden (Gen 2). In mimetic terms, the garden signals the break from an undifferentiated state to one that establishes distinctions. “God plants a garden. The verb for plant, natah, mainly refers to planting olives trees, vineyards (Deut 6:11), and people (2 Sam 17:20) in the Hebrew bible. It should not escape us that gan is derived from the verb ganan meaning to surround or defend. Gardens in the semi-arid Lavant fundamentally refer to orchards which serve to not only provide fruit in due season, but also buffer against the encroachment of the desert both in terms of a refuge from heat and infiltration by animals and humans. The garden in Genesis 2 functions similarly to the cordoning off of darkness on day one of Gen. 1:3. Like evening and morning, it is in between desolation and life and it is the critical setting for community.” Keith Ruckhaus, Israel’s Narrative of Origins in Genesis One and Two from the Perspective of Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory (PhD dissertation, University of South Africa, 2010), chapter 6, 13.
[iv] Unlike Isaiah’s (Isa 6) or Ezekiel’s (Ez 1) visions of prophetic calling, Jeremiah is simply asked to look upon a shaqed, the branch of an almond tree (Jer 1:11). The word comes from the verb to watch, shoqad, because the early blossoming of the almond tree signaled the beginning of spring and in most cases and end to famine. Thus, the almond tree watches for the beginning of the spring harvest. Jeremiah was a part of a small Levitical community that probably cultivated their own fields and orchards (1 Kings 2:26, Josh 21:18). Jeremiah hears God’s voice simply by contemplating an orchard. Jeremiah interchanges the image of a field gone bad with that of an unfaithful wife as primary metaphors for the wayward Israel and Judah (Jer 2:1-3, 3:1-19, 4:3-4). The main cause is that both field and wife abandoned the One who nurtured the relationship.
[v] Of all the prophets, Jeremiah best embodies the relationship of God, “his inheritance,” and the land. Brueggemann states: “In the Old Testament, he is the poet of the land par excellence.” Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977) 107.
[vi] This pair of pairs—justice/righteous and truth/mercy—is repeated throughout the Hebrew scriptures (Amos 5:7, 24, Isa 5:7, Mic 3:1, Hos 2:19,20). It is a stock formula to concisely communicate the covenant demands. Albertz identifies the balanced pairs as: “a just balance of interest for the well-being of all, a social solidarity that secures basic interests for all Israelites. Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period: Volume I From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy, 1992, 166.
[vii] Prophets were a conventional accoutrement of shrines, temples, and festivals in the Ancient Near East. They mainly functioned as a kind of guidance counselor utilizing necromantic skills. They advised in most aspects of quotidian life: when to plant crops, whether to go to war, success of a business transaction, or who to marry. Unique to Israel was the development of prophets in opposition to the social machinery of well-being, especially when it excluded, exploited or expelled parts of the population. (Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion: Volume I, 151-152.) Seizure of land for purposes of estate expansion gave birth to the “troublers of Israel.”
[viii] Significantly, Jeremiah and other prophets often mention the need to fell trees in order to make gold and silver plaited idols (Jer 10:4, Isa 40:20).
[ix] A riv is a quarrel or dispute which usually has communal and economic ramifications. It is not used in a sense of two people arguing with each other. In other words, a riv is a civil or communal issue, one that particularly deals with equity, fairness, or being wronged. Often times, it is a “class action” suit where a group brings a dispute with another group to an arbitrating person or body (Ex 17:2, Jud 6:29-32, Num 20:3).
[x] Bringing a dispute or charge to the Lord or even against the Lord is common fare in the Bible. Among the better known examples is Job (Jb 9:3, 13:19, 40:2) and Isaiah (Isa 45:9, 41:21). The Psalms are filled with expressions of grievance to the Lord which are usually “filed” at the temple during communal sacrifices (Ps 5, Ps 109). It is readily apparent that disputes and accusations over the unreasonableness of a justice-demanding god were intense in Jeremiah’s setting (Jer 2:29, 5:12, 6:10, 16, 14:14-16, 16:10, 18:12).
[xi] The connection between wealth and “wickedness” is probably one of the most ignored biblical notions today. (Isa 53:9, Ps 125:3, Ps 109). For an extended treatise of the “wicked rich” and the “righteous poor” see Rainer Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period Volume II: From the Exile to the Maccabees. (Trans. By John Bowden. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 507-518. Wenham suggests that Psalm 1 sets the stage for the entire Psalter by dividing all of mankind into two groups: the righteous who love the Torah and the wicked who are destined for ruin. See Gordon J. Wenham, The Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. (Gran Rapids; Baker Academic, 2012), 34.
[xii] The primary analogy of the covenant relationship in the New Testament is, of course, God as a father to his children. In the Hebrew bible, the analogies are more varied. Nevertheless, the more favored analogies to convey the binding covenantal relationship among the prophets and the Psalms are: God as loving parent (Isa 49:15, Ps 2, Hos 11:1, Jer 3:19), God as devoted husband (Isa 50:1, Hos 2, Ez 16, Jer 2 ), and God as farmer/shepherd (Isa 5, 40:11, Ez 15.
[xiii] The theme of God’s people as a model to the nations is grounded in Deuteronomy (Deut 4).
[xiv] Rainier Albertz effectively argues that syncretism was not an issue in the early development of Yahwistic religion. Two main factors created a conflict over religious symbolism and ritual during the monarchy: first, the Northern kingdom began stressing the qualities of god as life-giver and blessing-provider at the near exclusion of Yahweh as one who intervenes in history to save; the second was imperial expansion and increased multinational trade.
From this, it is easy to see which view of God the poor, enslaved, and disenfranchised would prefer. Albertz concludes that ultimately the crisis of idols and other gods was one of a deep-seated “structural violence.” (Rainer Albertz, A History of the Israelite Religion: Vol I, 1992. 138-161)
[xv] The language of being tempted by idols in verses fifteen and sixteen is thoroughly Dueteronomic, yet it alludes to having acquired the impulse from one’s neighbor or “the nations.” Here, Jeremiah speaks of “learning” to “swear by Baal.” The term, lamad, denotes being trained, guided, or instructed in a skill mainly by repetition, and hence the battle over ritual practice. Hence, lamad can have the sense of growing accustom to something or learning behavior. Jeremiah, uses lamad to speak of learning to follow Yahweh or Baal. Other uses of lamad by Jeremiah, however, more directly connect “learning” desires or passions to such an extent that the desire overtakes the one who acquired it like a camel or she-ass in heat (Jer 2:22-23). Jeremiah speaks of learning the evil of acquiring wealth in a similar way (Jer 13:23).
The true contrast between being enticed by idols and learning the way of Yahweh is in the Dueteronomic preference for hearing over seeing. This comes out clearly, for instance, in the garden story of Genesis 2 where the crisis is squarely framed in terms of a choice between hearing the command or viewing the tree. It also comes out in the Dueteronomic version of receiving the ten commandments (Duet 5). There the terms are in stark relief: “You heard a voice,” (Deut 5:22-27) but “you did not see a form” (Duet 4:15). The Israelites are to be guided, directed, or instructed in torah which is the key weapon for battling the greatest threat to Yahweh and his people—prosperity and the lure of wealth (Deut 8). Wealth and prosperity, which the Dueteronomic perspective repeatedly bemoans, will cause the people of God to “forget” both God and his covenant (Duet 8:14).
[xvi] There is much to suggest from the prophets and the Psalms that oath-taking at sacred sites and under the auspices of sacrifice was an integral aspect of festal gathering (Gordon Wenham, The Psalms as Torah, 57-76). Ratifying a business deal is likely to be performed under the auspices of sacrifice (Gen 31:51-54, Mt 23:16). The Psalms repeatedly complain about deceitful “plots and schemes” to impoverish the supplicant taking place in the temple precinct (Ps 69, 109). Jeremiah’s prophecies repeatedly attack the “barren heights” where the people of God prostitute themselves to the Baals. The “high places” possibly refer to strategic overlooks for trade routes (Jer 3:2ff). Swearing to Baal may have referred to a mutual sacrificial gesture for safe passage of goods. Everyone gets a piece of the pie, except the sustenance farmer and the poor who watch the bounty of the land hauled away as luxury goods. Jeremiah repeatedly connects “swearing to Baal” with whoring themselves out to the nations (Jer 3:1-2). As offensive as this image is to many, the connection might have more to do with grossly inequitable market exchanges and usury than with sexism.
[xvii] Brueggeman, in fact, dares to say that land is perhaps the central issue of faith. He argues that the Old Testament tells the epic of a people who oscillate between a landlessness and a landedness. The epic revolves around a land promised, a land settled, a land mismanaged, and a land lost. Walter Brueggemann, The Land, 3
[xviii] When God “gives” the land in promise to Abraham (Gen 15:7), it is also said that Abraham must “take possession” of it. The verb yarash is a favored Deuternomistic term and can strongly connote seizure by force. The strongest example is the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard by Jezebel that sets the prophetic protest in motion (1 Kings 21). One can, however, simply take possession simply by occupying the space once inhabited by others. According to Finkelstein and Silberman, the Levant experienced a period of tremendous upheaval at the beginning of the Iron Age. Cities and villages were abandoned or destroyed, reducing much of Canaan to a frontier status. The population of the territory dramatically decreased. The Israelites were among several transmigratory groups who probably came upon “ghost towns” and simply resettled them. (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed New York: Touchstone, 2002, 78, 83.)
[xix] René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. (Trans. by Mary Baker. Michigan University Press; East Lansing, 2010) 101.
Keith Ruckhaus©2013. Copies for individual use are permitted. Please contact me if you wish to copy an article for educational or commercial use. Presented at the 2013 Colloquium of Violence and Religion Conference.