“I am putting my words as a fire in your mouth; these people are tinder and it will consume them” (Jeremiah 5:14).
Andrew Shead presents to us the topic that in the book of Jeremiah, the vocabulary of “word” and “words” is not only prevalent, but is actually a blueprint marking divine speech with a role to give the book’s final form its narrative and theological shape. It is not Jeremiah, but the phrase “the word of the Lord” which is the main character in the book of Jeremiah.
Now Jeremiah has always had a confusing structure to many people, laymen and scholars alike. (A simple test: Outlining Jeremiah one day. Go ahead. Try it.) It’s clearly not chronological with it’s constant references to “the fourth year of Jehoiakim” in the second half of Jeremiah. So what’s a Bible lover to do? How can one understand Jeremiah’s main message?
Introduction: Theological Interpretation [see following paragraphs]
Chapter 1: The Word and ‘words’ in Jeremiah
Chapter 2: Structuring Jeremiah
Chapter 3: Word and Speaker
+++++++how the speaker is completely absorbed by the Word
Chapter 4: Word and Hearers
+++++++how an all-powerful Word can be rejected by its hearers
Chapter 5: Word and Power
+++++++the power of the Word to build and to destroy
Chapter 6: Word and Permanence
+++++++how does Jeremiah and Baruch’s writing stand to be permanent Word?
Chapter 7: A Conversation with Barth
The Unity of the Bible
The NSBT series seeks “‘to analyze and synthesize the bible’s teaching about God… on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus’” (pg. 25, quoting Brian Rosner) believing there to be an inner unity to the Old and New Testaments and how it fits as “Scripture” and “God’s Word.”
“To what extent does the final meaning of the one, divinely authored Scripture shape the initial meaning of its various parts read in their own right?….There is a process by which God’s revelation unfolds across Scripture [read here for an excellent post on typology]…and this must be honored” (pg. 26).
“Biblical theology…may be defined as knowledge of God as God in the Bible” (pg. 28). Shead believes (which I must agree) that when we read/study the Bible we are not reading an ancient book about an ancient superstitious people who were trying to figure out who or what was up in the sky. Rather the book we have in front of us is one which reveals God in such a way that we may in fact know Him, His character, and His Son, the Word.
• In chapter 2 Shead shows the structure of Jeremiah and how the book isn’t a precise chronology, but an increasing theme of how the Word of the Lord tears down and builds up nations. “We might describe [Jeremiah] as the story of what happened when the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah” (pg. 38).
Though the chapter can be tedious (the lingo of “Disjunctive Headings”, “atypical Disjunctive Headings”, and “Narrative Formulas.” I still don’t understand the difference), it comes with the purpose in showing how Jeremiah is structured. Shead’s outline and structure of Jeremiah gives way to pages and pages of note-taking (hopefully in your Bible too!). Jeremiah has a history riddled with confused outlines. This one might not be perfect (it might be?), but it’s an awfully good one.
• The movie director illustration was a novel idea as a way to understand the use of the author’s ‘camera’ throughout Jeremiah. Movement 1 of Jeremiah gives us the point of view of the prophet. In Movement 2 the camera gives us the long shot of people, places, and times. In Movement 3, after we see a battle of words, but in Jer. 37 the camera pulls back, and “words are slowly overtaken by events, and Jeremiah shrinks to a figure in a wide-angled landscape shot of destruction until, in chapter 39, he is reduced to an incidental character, caught up with the rest of Judah in the destructive power of the word of God, finally unleashed on his feckless people” (pg. 90). In the final movement, the camera rises as high as it can go, and the word of the Lord sounds across all the nations of the earth.
• The exegesis in chapters 3-6 was alluring. It may sounds funny saying exegesis is alluring, but I enjoyed read through Shead’s work seeing how Jeremiah’s use of “word” and “words” structuring and colored his (and Baruch’s) writing to their respective audiences (in both the MT and LXX) and gave a greater understanding to the meaning of portions of Jeremiah and his book as a whole.
• Chapters 5-6 are great in the exegesis, but I was bewildered once Shead moved from hermeneutics to theological explanation. Whether talking about ‘speech’ in the divine agency debate, Goldingay’s ‘model of scripture’ as inspired word, or the difference between prophetic speech and a prophetic book (to name a few), I didn’t always know if Shead agreed with an opposing position or not. And whether or not he did, I didn’t know why it mattered in the end.
• Finally in chapter 7, Shead has a “conversation” with Karl Barth. Fortunately he doesn’t make Barth out to be the enemy (since he’s not). (Barth was actually more conservative than many of the liberal scholars of his time. He rejected much of his liberal training and went down a more conservative route).
Barth described his work to be a ‘theology of the Word’, which is exactly what Shead is aiming at in his book. What does Jeremiah teach us about the Word (message) of God and His (written) words? Barth, being so influential in 20th century Protestant theology, still had a ways to go in understanding this, and Shead tries to show that in the last chapter of his book.
However, this last chapter was the hardest to read. Again, the points of comparison in the theologies was pretty cloudy. [Disclaimer: I will add, though, that I’m no Barthian connoisseur, so I jumped into the section with very limited knowledge. Also, the NSBT series, though not out of reach for the lay person, it is not the most accessible either]. But, without the clarity, I had to reread portions to get the gist of what Shead was saying, much of which I’m still unsure.
There was still much to be gained in this section (I have plenty of underlinings). There was gold to be found, but it does take plenty of mining.
This book will not be for everyone. If you’re not interested in a scholarly discussion about the nature of the word of God and/or a structural study on the theology of the “word/words” in Jeremiah, then you wouldn’t be interested in this book. (Not really sure why’d you’d even be reading this review, really).
However, if you are studying Jeremiah, and you’d like to read an excellent book on his structure and power and place of the word of God (it is the main character), then this book is for you. It’s also not so dense that an intrigued reader couldn’t read it. If I ever taught/preached through Jeremiah I would surely use Shead’s outlined structure and work.
- Series: New Studies in Biblical Theology (Book 29)
- Author: Andrew G. Shead
- Paperback: 321 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (October 4, 2012)
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