Rhetorical Overkill: Jeremiah 2: 20-37

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Jeremiah 2: 20-37
20 For long ago you broke your yoke
and burst your bonds, and you said, “I will not serve!”
On every high hill and under every green tree
you sprawled and played the whore.
21 Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?
22 Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,
says the Lord GOD.
23 How can you say, “I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals”?
Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done—
a restive young camel interlacing her tracks,
24 a wild ass at home in the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind!
Who can restrain her lust?
None who seek her need weary themselves; in her month they will find her.
25 Keep your feet from going unshod and your throat from thirst.
But you said, “It is hopeless, for I have loved strangers,
and after them I will go.”
26 As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed—
they, their kings, their officials, their priests, and their prophets,
27 who say to a tree, “You are my father,” and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”
For they have turned their backs to me, and not their faces.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
“Come and save us!”
28 But where are your gods that you made for yourself?
Let them come, if they can save you, in your time of trouble;
for you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.
29 Why do you complain against me?
You have all rebelled against me, says the LORD.
30 In vain I have struck down your children; they accepted no correction.
Your own sword devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.
31 And you, O generation, behold the word of the LORD!
Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness?
Why then do my people say, “We are free, we will come to you no more”?
32 Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?
Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.
33 How well you direct your course to seek lovers!
So that even to wicked women you have taught your ways.
34 Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all these things
35 you say, “I am innocent; surely his anger has turned from me.”
Now I am bringing you to judgment for saying, “I have not sinned.”
36 How lightly you gad about, changing your ways!
You shall be put to shame by Egypt as you were put to shame by Assyria.
37 From there also you will come away with your hands on your head;
for the LORD has rejected those in whom you trust, and you will not prosper through them.

One of the things you will see if you spend much time with the prophets is what I and others have called rhetorical overkill. Not only is the person unfaithful, but they are having sex under every green tree, they are like a wild ass in heat, etc….that is the language and it is what it is. You can try to explain it away, you can say it is a metaphor, you might find it offensive, it might work differently in different cultures, but it is using figurative language to express the depth of pain of the betrayed by the betrayer. In this case God is the betrayed one and out of the language of God’s pain comes this set of metaphors shifting from sexual to agricultural and back to sexual to cultic and legal and back to sexual. This is the language of a person in pain trying to make sense of how their view of a person could be so different from the reality. What is the offense that caused this level of pain and disillusionment? Two are lifted up in this section: idolatry and injustice.
Idolatry may constitute a whole range of things from people at this time going out and doing practices which honor other gods, conducting worship of other nations gods, conducting practices which are not approved by God or they may not be worshipping God correctly (away from the temple in Jerusalem or it may be worship without justice). Somehow there has been a distortion of the vision that God had for God’s people. Injustice is lifted up when the prophet says : 34 Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in. Justice in the ancient world, even more than in the modern world, often depended upon one’s social standing, wealth and power more than any modern understanding of guilt or innocence, and yet this was not the society that the Lord envisioned.
The vine and vineyard image is one that recurs several times throughout scriptures because the vine was one of the most important and common agricultural images. In Isaiah 5, Isaiah morns of a vineyard that the vineyard’s owner did everything for and yet it does not produce, in Mark 12: 1-10 and parallels the image is once again brought up with a vineyard and unfaithful tenants and here in Jeremiah it is a choice vine which goes wild. People would have understood the agricultural imagery because this was an agrarian society.
One additional thing to consider is that we have a theological interpretation of reality going on, which we should expect from the prophets. This is not the world of power politics which the kings and princes are dealing with, they are trying to appease Assyria and Egypt, the powers that could conceivably invade and conquer Judah and they are attempting to maintain security through political alliances, military power and economic policy. Judah is a very desirable piece of property because it is at the trade crossroads between Assyria, Babylon, Persian and the far East and Egypt and Northern Africa and as N.T. Wright notes over the course of its history of 4,000 years on average every 40 years another army will march in or through it. (Wright 1992, 3) The prophets, kings and people are all looking at different strategies of survival and security. Security becomes the most important thing, more important than justice, more important than God, more important than freedom.
Security is perhaps the greatest idol that many in America face. We want to ensure that we have enough for ourselves at the exclusion of a societal concern for others and this runs headlong in contrast with the prophet’s and by extension God’s vision of shalom and justice. While many would read these words and be immediately drawn to condemn personal immorality as a method of societal corruption the prophet reverses this societal corruption, the loss of justice and trust in God’s way, is pointed to using a rhetorically inflated image of personal immorality where the woman in this image represents Judah.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

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