Thursday, October 4, 2007

Jeremiah - prophet of doom or prophet of hope?

Some Fundamentalist preachers call a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or drought “punishment from God”. They use the fear induced by a disaster to divide people . The impending destruction from global warming is going to be fertile ground for religious innovators. During a prolonged crisis people tend to get religion. Just look at Iraq, which used to be a secular country but is now threatened with civil wars based on the religious divide between Sunni and Shia Moslems. Instead of spreading apocalyptic doom, we could profit by seeing global warming as a challenge for each and every one of us to behave responsibly, in order to increase our ability to survive.


The ancient Hebrew prophet Jeremiah is a prime example of someone who profited, in the right sense from a disaster, because by his writings he managed to reinforce the survival of the Jewish people at a time when they were threatened with extinction.

Jeremiah prophecized the destruction of Jerusalem, the capital of Judea 2500 years ago. At the time, the Jewish kingdom of Judea was threatened by the Babylonian Empire, centered in what today is called Iraq. A hundred years earlier, the Assyrian Empire had crushed the adjoining Jewish kingdom, Israel, and scattered its inhabitants to the winds. That was a wake up call for the Judeans.

Josiah, the king of Judea, got religion. He instituted religious reforms and executed all the foreign priests in Judea and Israel. He had apparently discovered a “forgotten” scroll while renovating the Jewish temple. Jeremiah was a contemporary of Josiah's and probably was an advisor to the King. There's a credible theory that Jeremiah is actually the author of this scroll. Most Biblical scholars think that the scroll was what we now call the book of Deuteronomy, or “second law”. It was called that in a later Greek translation because it referred to Moses' second telling of the Ten Commandments.

Why does the Bible have Moses recite the Ten Commandments twice, each time in a seperate book in the Old Testament? The book of Exodus tells the dramatic story about how the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were given their freedom, new laws and a new land through God's intervention. But surely pronouncing the laws a second time takes away from that dramatic story line.

Meanwhile, back in Judea, King Josiah gets killed and so do his religious reforms. Jeremiah is thrown in jail for warning everybody that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed. Unfortunately he's proven right after the Babylonians lay seige to Jerusalem, take it and the Jewish temple and break it up into rubble. Then for the coup-de -grace, they round up all the upper and middle class and march them into slavery to Babylon. You may have heard the song: “From the Rivers of Babylon” which refers to this event.

Jeremiah is spared exile because he advised the people of Jerusalem to surrender before the seige. Half of his people, the people of Israel, were lost to history after they were conquered by the Assyrians. What can he do to save the other half when they've just been enslaved and exiled to Babylon? It doesn't look good. But Jeremiah, who predicted this would happen, has been thinking about this eventuality for a long time. He's learned from the example of King Josiah that instituting religious reforms from the top down lasts only as long as the King lasts. If Judaism is to survive in exile than it must come from the heart. And it must reflect a people's humble origins, not the rich and the powerful.

The “Shema” is by far, the most important Jewish prayer. It is singled out by Jesus as the “Great Commandment”, the one that sums up all the rest of them. The name “Shema” comes from the first two words of the prayer: “Hear oh Israel”. The words of the Shema, especially the words: “...you shall love your Lord God with all your heart...” are not in the book of Exodus when Moses first recites the commandments. But they are there when Moses recites the commandments the second time in the book of Deuteronomy. Could Jeremiah have inserted the Shema into Deuteronomy? He may not have created it, but it's a prayer that sums up his life's work.

Deuteronomy is a more subdued book than Exodus. Moses is preparing the Hebrews for their life in the promised land but he doesn't get to go there himself. He keeps telling them “Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Kind of a strange way to prepare people to live in a promised land don't you think? But not if the people that you are adressing are slaves in exile, as was the situation when Jeremiah adressed the Judeans. Remember your humble origins and keep religion in your hearts. This is the message of Jeremiah and Deuteronomy.

Jeremiah's “rediscovered” scroll that fizzled when King Josiah's rein ended, got a second lease on life with the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah had profited from the destruction of Jerusalem because he had learned to use the story of Moses to inspire the exiles from their hearts. He had discovered a way to keep Judaism alive in an age when the Jews were going to be under the thumb of empires for a long time.

To this day, in Jewish homes everywhere, the Shema is recited at sunup and sundown and at other significant times as well. That's the mark of a great prophet. Someone who can turn a catastrophe into an opportunity for people to keep the world alive.

11 comments:

  1. Hi Charles,
    I would like to take this opportunity to comment on the use of the term "Fundamentalists".

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  2. The term "Fundamentalism" came into use in the 1920's as a popular name for Christian Evangelical Theology. The use of the term has been extended and confused in recent years through its application to the ultraconservative wing of any religion for example "Islamic Fundamentalism" or "Jewish Fundamentalism". This has given the term the connotation of religious extremism and intolerence, the opposite of Christ's teachings.
    This innuendo allows Bible believers to be dismissed as either mindless followers or to be treated as a danger to society. Yes, Fundamentalism is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to problems of life and if that is deemed dangerous, Fundamentalists would have to plead guilty as charged. They do believe the Bible is God's Word and it contains the answers they need. They often have "Fun" searching for these answers. They refuse to accept that the relevation of the Bible is an historical and culturally conditioned cloak under which God's Truth lies hidden and is therefore unfactual, misleading and impractical for today's problems. They believe as the Bible teaches that God is a God of love not a god who punishes His human creations for no apparent reasons.
    Fundamentalism is an honest and serious attempt to take the Bible for what it claims to be, the verbally inspired Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
    Like holding up a mirror and examining his reflection, the Fundamentalist Christian holds up and reads his Bible to examine and pattern himself after the flawless reflection of Jesus Christ. The Fundamentalist believes:
    1. Jesus lead a sinless life
    2. He died on the cross as a
    pardon for our sins
    3. The Biblical prophecy
    predicting the imminent and
    personal, second coming of
    Christ
    4. The final judgement day and
    5. The resurrection of Christians
    to life eternal.

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  3. "Fundamentalism is an honest and serious attempt to take the Bible for what it claims to be, the verbally inspired Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice."

    Thanks David, for the quote. This is a good illustration of why Fundamentalism is such a danger to Open Society. Those who believe that the Bible is infallible are not interested in dialogue with others but are only interested in imposing their view on the rest of society. After all, its infallible so they have a duty to impose it.
    Also, if the Bible is infallible, then anything that contradicts it, such as much of the modern sciences of Biology, Physics, Astronomy, Geology etc. must be wrong. I realize that for some people, the inner sense of certainty that goes with being a fundamentalist is attractive. But for most of us the price of denying modern science and abandoning Open Society is too high.

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  4. Charles,
    You believe our "Open Society" is made up of people with open minds.
    I would argue that most of us do not really know the facts about our society because we have been swayed or duped by political or media propaganda.
    In addition, given the high percentage of people in our society who watch hours of violent television shows on a daily basis combined with a steady rise in the rate of violent crime, our society is headed for a certain downfall just like the collapse of the Egyptian, Roman and Aztec civilizations. Moral decay and a dramatic increase in violence where characteristic of the last stages of these civilizations. When humans become gods unto themselves that is exactly what happens and that is where we are at today.
    Our only hope is to return to the worship of the one true God of the Bible, the God of the founding forefathers of both Canada and the United States.

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  6. David,
    The rate of violent crime has been decreasing for the last twenty years. Those civilizations you are talking about collapsed because they ran out of resources especially energy resources, in their case it was carbohydrates which declined because of drought and the exhaustion of the soil.
    Our civilization may well collapse but it will be because we run out of energy and food. It will have nothing to do with violence on tv and whether or not people believe in God. The Roman Empire had abandoned paganism when it collapsed.

    Violent tv? Atheism?

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  7. I am really enjoying this interchange between Charles and Dave - both bring some very important facts and issues to the forefront.

    Each in his own way; is striving for the truth and a better society. It doesn't get any better than that.

    I think if we can get everyone in this world informed, engaged, dedicated, and effective in seeking the truth about an issue that they believe needs change - what a better world this would be.

    What if instead of mandatory military service, we had mandatory humanitarian service? What if our allegiance was not based on a arbitrary geographic determination (i.e. our current governance of countries run by corporate greed) but instead based on us being a member of the human race on spaceship planet earth?

    What if the world’s poor were paid a fair wage for their work, and had time-off to force changes in their world without getting shot or incarcerated for their efforts; while the world’s rich switched from their distractions of the stock market, CNN, Nintendo and sitcoms - to likewise getting involved and engaged?

    That’s where the paradigm shift has to head towards, and I think that’s the fringe and hidden benefits of global warming and world overpopulation. These 2 issues will force people to shift their focus as these realities will force people to grapple with not just the present, but the future of human culture on planet Earth.

    The question is will it happen within our lifetimes? Will it be a little to little a little too late? Will there be great upheaval and war associated with these changes and the control over natural resources, such as the control over food and water?

    Probably “yes” will be the answer to all of these questions.

    The change starts with asking informed, pertinent questions.

    Thank you both Dave and Charles for starting the debate.

    Dave R.

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  8. Davidr,
    I think I know you. Both you and Davef should check out EarthMeanders, esp. the posting: "the pain of caring about the earth too much."

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  9. Dear Charles,

    I totally agree with you when you said, “Those civilizations collapsed because they ran out of resources…” That is why I redefined “What is a Sustainable Society?”

    My definition is: A sustainable society is one that can progress without catastrophic setbacks in the foreseeable future.

    I also claim, “A society running on a huge resource deficit is not sustainable.”

    Could you please take a quick look at my blog and let me know your thinking? I plan to visit “non-environmentalist” blog sites and try to win over some hearts.

    http://sustainablesocietyusa.blogspot.com/

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  10. When I am talking to religious people, I am telling them the following;

    The Earth, God created was as good as it could get. If we human beings, try to take things away from the nature, put things into the nature, or even move things around within the nature in large quantity are not good. God would be very unhappy if people keep doing that.

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