Friday, November 9, 2007

Jeremiah and Global Warming



According to Martin Buber, A true prophet does not announce an immutable decree. He speaks into the power of decision lying in the moment and in such a way that his message of disaster just touches this power.

Martin Buber was born in Austria in the late nineteenth century. His most famous book is I and Thou. In that book Buber argues that human existence can be divided into two ways of relating. One is towards an object that is separate in itself, which he calls “I-it”. That is the way we think about things and use things. The other kind of relation is called “I – Thou”. which occurs in love and friendship. The “I – Thou” relation, is not a relation of subject to object, but rather a relation in which both members in a relationship share the unity of being. The ultimate Thou is God.

Martin Buber died in 1965. Here is a quote from his book The Prophetic Faith:

From the moment when a (large scale) disaster appears inevitable and especially after it becomes a reality, it can, like every great torment, become a productive force for the religious point of view. It begins to suggest new questions and to stress old ones.

Dogmatized conceptions are pondered afresh in the light of events, and the faith relationship that has to stand the test of an utterly changed situation is renewed in modified form.

But the new acting force is nothing less than the force of extreme despair, a despair so elemental that it can have but one of two results: the sapping of the last will of life, or the renewal of the soul.

I love the way these existentialists can be so dramatic with words: utterly changed situation....... extreme despair.... the sapping of the last will of life, or the renewal of the soul.

What's interesting about that quote is how relevant it is as a description of the response of religion to global warming. Of all the Biblical prophets, Jeremiah is the most relevant to our modern problem of global warming because it was Jeremiah who after his prophecy of destruction was fulfilled, realized he had been in error, and reversed his prophetic mission.



There are two kinds of prophets in the Bible. The early prophets were diviners who foretold the future and transmitted the divine will for special occasions or for important persons. Descriptions of these prophets is sketchy and not much of what they had to say has been written down. In contrast, the Writing prophets which includes the twelve so-called Minor Prophets and the three Major Prophets: Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, addressed themselves to the Hebrew nation as a whole and challenged the popular values and moral practices of the people and their rulers. The Hebrew word for prophet is “nabi” which means “one who is called”. They are called to speak the word of God even if it is opposed to what the rulers and their subjects want to hear.

The role of the prophets was critical during the four hundred or so years after the reign of Solomon because The Hebrews were twice threatened with extinction, and it is the prophets during these times that speak most relevantly to the dangers of extinction and to the choices that people must make in order to ensure survival.


The Prophets and the Hebrew kings together form about a third of the Hebrew Bible. The ancient Hebrew prophets were a variety of people: A son of working people like Micah. an aristocrat like first Isaiah, or a son of a priest, like Jeremiah. The prophets were said to speak God's word directly without intermediaries.

Three thousand years ago the kingdom of the Hebrew speaking peoples reached it's height with the two successive kings, David and Solomon. But things drifted downhill from there. Solomon's kingdom split into two after he died – A northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah.

This is a period when not only are the Hebrew kingdoms declining but they are assailed on all sides by the greater powers – Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. Sometimes the little kingdom kept from being swallowed up by making alliances with one or the other big power but it didn't always work in their favor.

Take the northern kingdom. Remember the Iranian president Ahmadinejad's misquote about wiping Israel off the map. It's happened already, in 722 BCE, when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and permanently exiled the majority of its inhabitants. They were dispersed to other nations that Assyria had conquered and were assimilated and their descendants eventually lost awareness of their original identity. These are the ten lost tribes – so important to the Mormons but forgotten by everyone else.

All that was left was the tiny kingdom of Judah and the Assyrians came very close to conquering it. But they retreated before they could capture the Judean capital of Jerusalem. Then the Assyrian empire weakened and over a century the Babylonians become the dominant power.

In 621 BCE a “forgotten” scroll was discovered in Solomon's Temple by the high Priest Hilkiah during extensive renovations. When the young king of Judah, Josiah heard the scroll he tore his clothes and repented of his grandfather Manasseh's syncretistic policies, setting out on a violent and dramatic religious reform. What was this scroll? Most Biblical scholars believe that it was some intermediate form of the book called Deuteronomy.

Some Scholars believe that Deuteronomy was composed in the 8th Century BCE to address the threats to Israel's political and religious survival. It was brought from the northern kingdom to the southern kingdom where it was then hidden from King Manasseh until the more sympathetic grandson, Josiah, came to the throne.

Deuteronomy means “second law” in Greek, because the Ten Commandments occur for the second time in the Bible in this book. The real influence of this book is its overriding message about choices that the  “ Chosen People”can make. It goes like this: If they have a strictly monogamous relation with the Hebrew god Yahweh,  he will bestow his great blessings. But if they go whoring after other Gods, then they will be cursed by terrible suffering and destruction.

The book is a series of speeches that Moses gives to the Hebrew tribes just before they reach the promised land. But Moses doesn't follow the Israelites into the “Promised Land” He dies before they cross the Jordan River.

We called on Yahweh, the God of our fathers. Yahweh heard our voice, and saw our misery, our toil, and our oppression, and Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. (Deut 26: 5 – 10)

For this law (Torah) I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach.... I call on heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you life and death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut 30:11 – 14, 19)

The Deuteronomic formula, that good times follow the people's faithfulness to Yahweh and bad times follow when they worship in the temples of other gods, quickly became a powerful influence on prophets and scribes. Scholars call the two historical books of “Kings” in the Old Testament “The Deuteronomic history”. It's the history of Hebrew kings scrupulously edited to fit the Deuteronomic formula. The people are always rewarded with good times when the king prohibits the worship of foreign gods and punished when the king permits syncretistic worship.

Deuteronomy was so influential and still is, because it gives an overarching meaning to history. It helped the Jews feel that Yahweh was a just God even when they were suffering. But its essentially a formula. No matter what bad things happen it can always be explained as caused by the people's infidelity. It cannot be refuted. It's patently false, but that didn't prevent it from being very successful. Proof of that is the fact that Judaism is more than three thousand years old and still going strong.

In contrast the scientific evidence of climate change and prediction of global warming can be refuted if the refuting evidence is strong enough. Science can always be improved and updated.

Modern day fundamentalists try to deny the reality of global warming. They see global warming as a rival to their Deuteronomic explanation of why bad things are happening. Preaching about Hurricane Katrina punishing the New Orleans sinners is vintage Deuteronomy. But contrary to the Deuteronomic theory which divides the”Chosen People” against everyone else, Science has the potential to unite people from all cultures because it does not demand absolute faithfulness to one particular religion.

The Deuteronomic formula does not speak to our times any more. Are the people who lost their Southern California homes being punished for angering God? I don't think so. Were the poor in New Orleans sent Hurricane Katrina as punishment for their licentiousness? I don't think so. Was the Nazi Holocaust God's punishment for Jewish sins? The very idea is monstrous. It would make God a worse tyrant than Hitler.


The other major innovation of Deuteronomy is that it insists on one central place for worship. That's why a big part of Josiah's reforms was to destroy rival shrines and execute foreign priests in the countryside of Judah and in Samaria, the former site of Israel. Places with important Biblical connections, like Shiloh and Bethel were downgraded and sacrifices to Yahweh were only permitted in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.

Before the Assyrians came along the Hebrew tribes were more equal rivals with the other tribal groups - the Moabites, the Canaanites, the Philistines, etc. But when people make peace with their neighbours it becomes almost inevitable that syncretistic worship will develop. Syncretism, is that very pagan, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and yes, Unitarian approach of mixing different religious elements together.  But when the great powers of Assyria and Babylonia come to the fore the practice of syncretism was not so benign, for these huge empires and their triumphant gods threatened to swallow Judaism without a trace. That's why the prophets worked so hard to steer the people away from syncretism.

After twenty years of his reign Josiah was killed by the Egyptians in the battle of Megiddo. His death necessitated some reworking of the Deuteronomic theme. Josiah had kept faithful to Yahweh,  so why did Josiah die young and most of his reforms die with him? Only one of his reforms remained after he died and that was the centralization of worship and sacrifice in Solomon's Temple.

There are some scholars that think that the prophet Jeremiah had a hand in writing and rewriting Deuteronomy. There are similarities in style and focus between the writings of Jeremiah, and the content of Deuteronomy. And whoever wrote the Deuteronomic History had put a lot of hope in the promise of Josiah's reign. They must have been sorely disappointed by Josiah's untimely death.

Three months after Josiah died Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed unless the Judeans changed their ways. Jeremiah believed that the Babylonian Empire was doing the will of Yahweh and punishing the Judeans for their sins of syncretism. That's the Deuteronomic formula.

Jeremiah was an unhappy and a very unpopular man. He first resisted his calling. ...He refused again and again to pass sentence in Yaweh's name upon his beloved people, but the word remained in his heart like a burning fire,shut up in his bones and he was weary of the vain effort to contain it.(Buber, Ibid.) People called him a traitor. Perhaps he saw the inevitability of the Babylonian juggernaut, perhaps he felt obliged to castigate the people of Judah for neglecting the poor and allowing syncretism. But his claim that the Babylonians are Yahweh's retribution against the Judeans was rejected by most Judeans.


There was a popular sense amongst the Judean royalty after Josiah's death that they could evade Babylonian captivity by allying themselves with the Egyptians. But after the Assyrians and Egypt were defeated by the Babylonians at the battle of Carchemish, Egypt ceased to be a big player.

By adopting the Deuteronomic centralization of Worship the Judeans put all their eggs into one basket, increasing the vulnerability of their religion. Many Judeans had faith that the temple in Jerusalem would not be destroyed because it was so holy. But Jeremiah saw that this idea was threatening the survival of Judaism. If the temple was the only place to go to worship Yahweh then what if the Judeans were exiled?

Jeremiah is commanded by God to go to the Temple gate, and there proclaim:

Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another... I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever. (NRSV Jeremiah 7)

Jeremiah hears God's voice telling him to do unusual things that we might now call street theatre, as many of the other prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel did. He walks around Jerusalem with a wooden yoke around his neck to symbolize the yoke of Babylon that he claims everyone must take on for their sins. When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem they spared Jeremiah.


Five hundred years later, as recounted in the New Testament, Jesus is forced by the Roman Centurions to carry a huge wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of his crucifixion. The cross is both symbol and reality of Rome's brutal repression of dissent. Ironically it becomes the symbol of triumph in Christianity.


Jeremiah is commanded by God to go down to the potters house and watch the potter work his wheel.

The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me. Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?....At one moment I may declare concerning a nation that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it. But if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on. NRSV: Jeremiah: 18)

According to Martin Buber, the future is not something already found in the present hour, it is dependent on the real decision that is to say, the decision in which man takes part in this hour. ... To be a prophet means to set the audience, ...before the choice and decision, directly or indirectly.


Jeremiah's pleading and castigating didn't seem to work very well for him. He was thrown in jail. Then into a dungeon. The false prophets who had the ear of Josiah's weak successors, predicted that the temple would survive the Babylonians, but it happened instead, as Jeremiah foretold. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was levelled after a terrible siege and Solomon's magnificent temple was reduced to rubble.

The Babylonians exiled ten thousand of the most well-off Judeans and sent them into slavery in Babylon. After the exile and the destruction of the temple, Jeremiah realized that the covenant between the Israelites and Yahweh was not made from temple worship or following the written Torah but from the living relationship between the chosen people and Yahweh. He then proclaimed his most famous prophecy. It's a prophecy of salvation for this time of deep suffering. In it, Jeremiah foresees the day when Yahweh will form a new covenant with his people one that's written in their hearts without tablets or intermediaries.

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God , and they shall be my people.....for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest.

According to the Deuteronomic formula, when Jeremiah was not successful in getting his people to change their ways, his prophecy of destruction was fulfilled. But that didn't mean he wasn't ultimately effective. I think Jeremiah realized that instituting religious reforms from the top down wasn't going to work, because those reforms would just disappear when the reforming king passed on. But if the moral sense of Judaism was taken to heart then it would make for a more lasting covenant. After the exile the Jewish religion survived both in Jerusalem and in the Diaspora. And I believe it has a lot to do with the Jewish people taking up Jeremiah's call for a new covenant. As also it becomes the inspiration for the Christian Bible, the “New Testament” which means in Latin - “New Covenant”.


Jesus was greatly influenced by Jeremiah and by the book of Deuteronomy. The Shema, the Deuteronomic prayer that starts out: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is our God, the Lord alone.You shall love Yahweh with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6: 4-6 is called the great Commandment by Jesus. It is the one he says that sums up all the other commandments. The Shema is considered the main statement of faith by all Jews. It is recited at sunrise and sundown and at special occasions, in practicing Jewish households to this day.

Deuteronomy had it's day. The Deuteronomic formula gave Jewish history meaning and an enduring sense of purpose. But the Deuteronomic theory that the fate of the chosen people is dependent on their faithfulness to one God is too exclusive. We need to think about all humans being the chosen people not just one group. It shouldn't be a Darwinian race to the bottom to see who survives. And we need to understand the consequences of how we live and how it affects others and the very ecosystems that we depend on.

The false prophets tell us that we don't have to change, that we can avoid hard decisions indefinitely. Can we really trust their soothing words?

No comments:

Post a Comment