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Reading Jeremiah’s ‘Oracles Against the Nations’ in Australia today

Monday, 7 March 2016  | Alison Sampson


I would prefer a Bible that did not contain Jeremiah’s Oracles Against the Nations (Jeremiah 46-51) or other texts of retribution. I would prefer to worship a God to whom not a speck of vengeance is attributed. Like many interpreters, I would prefer to think that the inclusion of these texts is a mistake made by patriarchal editors, who sought to validate their own violence by attributing violence to God. But that would be to do a disservice to the text. The Oracles are in the text, and so I must grapple with the reasons why.

Thankfully, in his commentary on Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), Louis Stulman places the Oracles into context. He reminds us that they were given to a people in exile: traumatised refugees living on the fringes of a new society a long way from home. Their world has been shattered by military might: their families slaughtered, their buildings demolished, their fields burned. Violence is part of life: it is not something they can ignore. And so they must grapple with violence as they seek to understand who God is and what their continuing relationship with God will be.

The exiles are not doing this from a powerful position. They are prisoners-of-war. And so, suggests Stulman, the Oracles ought not be read as battlefield rallying cries, but as defiant declarations made in public worship. By proclaiming that YHWH is sovereign over all the earth, and that all nations are YHWH’s servants and will be held to account, the Oracles reframe the experience of violence and oppression, and may help the exiles imagine a future tinged with hope. As such, the Oracles model a form of worship which challenges the rhetoric of the dominant powers, and offers a vision of a society based on shalom.

Stulman’s suggestion that the Oracles are liturgical theatre intrigued me. I was particularly convinced by his thinking about the social location of the audience and what that implied. A powerless people making these claims about God are showing defiance towards the world order, not physically exercising violence against nations; and this approach is more in line with my understanding that God is, fundamentally, love.

However, the risk with the Oracles and other violent texts is that they can be adopted by the powerful to justify national supremacy and violent warmongering, and so a faithful reading means looking at the social location of the original audience, and reflecting on one’s own social location, before making any claims based on the text. What oppressed and suffering people declare about God will be very different to what powerful people might or should declare, and this leads to questions about who we, as the audience now, should identify with.

In Set Them Free (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002), Laurel Dykstra argues that the best reading of the exodus text for middle class Americans is to read as Egyptians: those who benefitted from the enslavement of others, just as middle class Americans (and Australians) now benefit from the effective enslavement of garment workers, tomato pickers and all who are grossly underpaid and exploited. When we read the violence in exodus, then, Dykstra suggests that we must listen for the anger of the poor and for God’s anger in the face of our injustice.

Similarly, Stulman’s observations about the first audience of the Oracles imply that, to a citizen of a powerful country which engages in many violent and oppressive practices—against its First Peoples, against asylum seekers, against the land, against underpaid workers, and against other nations to which we send our soldiers to fight—the Oracles should be heard as a warning. Further, in the context of the whole book of Jeremiah, they invite us as a nation, and me as a citizen of that nation, to repent and change our ways: to Close the Gap, to offer shelter to asylum seekers, to heal the land, to seek fair work practices and to bring our soldiers home.

The Oracles are not just about the audience, however. Thinking about them as public liturgy and performance reveals the breadth of human experience which can be offered up to God. The liturgies used at the church at which I serve include references to anger, trauma, sadness and despair, and to our enmeshment in systems of corruption and violence; and our use of the lectionary ensures that we are exposed to a variety of Biblical texts, not just those which are triumphant or cheerful.

Even so, when compared with the Oracles, any negativity we express is lightweight. I have begun to wonder just how strongly we can name God’s anger against the oppression and injustice that is all around us: the slashing of single parenting payments; the struggle of many public schools to make ends meet; the drastically shorter life span an indigenous person can expect; the situations that lead to thousands of indigenous children in foster care; the minimal taxation of the very wealthy and the multinational; and so on.

Or perhaps, as a largely middle class congregation, we are hypocritical if we express God’s anger at injustice too strongly. For we cannot express it too strongly if we are not prepared to make radical changes in our own lives, as so much of the oppression in our society benefits us economically. Maybe, then, a first step in our public worship is to listen closely to texts such as the exodus and the Oracles Against the Nations, to compare our social location with that of the texts’ original audiences, and to seek out God’s voice and the voices on the margins now. For it may be in such careful listening that we begin to love, and in loving that we begin to repent: to turn our comfortable lives around as we seek the way of shalom.

________

Works cited

Laurel Dykstra. Set Them Free. The Other Side of Exodus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.

Louis Stulman. ‘Theological and Ethical Analysis’ in Jeremiah, 383-87. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.

Alison Sampson is a pastor at the South Yarra Community Baptist Church. She is a regular contributor to Zadok Perspectives, and blogs about faith and life at www.theideaofhome.blogspot.com.


Comments

john yates
March 8, 2016, 5:59PM
where is Jesus in the oracles? unless we begin, and end, with him we will simply end with politics, of one sort or other

most of our congregation are not middle class Bible readers, and not a one would read Ethos! I think they would get these section of the OT, and Revelation too, very quickly.

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