Review in: JOURNAL OF THE EVANGELICAL THEOLOGICAL SOCIETY 42/4
Review door: J. Robert Vannoy
A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming.By Walter Brueggemann.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998,
xiv + 502 pp., $32.00 paper.
This book is a combined edition of Brueggemann’s previously published twovolume commentary on Jeremiah in the International Theological Commentary series (To Pluck Up, To Tear Down, 1988 [reviewed in JETS 34/3 (1991)]; To Build, to Plant, 1991). The volume begins with a newly written brief survey of “Recent Jeremiah Study” in which Brueggemann assesses the redefinition of Jeremiah studies emerging out of the 1986 publication of three major commentaries on Jeremiah by W. Holladay, R. Carroll and W. McKane. It is Brueggemann’s opinion that these three commentaries, while reflecting substantial differences in approach, nevertheless have in common a disproportional intensity of criticism and thinness of interpretation (see his “Jeremiah: Intense Criticism/Thin Interpretation,” Int 42  279). In Brueggemann’s view, the book of Jeremiah ultimately “does not belong to the scholarly guild,” but rather to the synagogue and the Church, where it has been preserved and read (p. xiii), although as a “public document” Jeremiah cannot be contained within the Church and synagogue because it “purposes to address all who attend and listen” (p. xiv).
Brueggemann is clearly one of today’s most prolific and astute writers on matters of hermeneutical, exegetical and theological import for the contemporary reading of OT literature. His writings are both innovative and imaginative. Reading them can be exhilarating and exasperating, enlightening and elusive at the same time. Reading this commentary is no different from many other examples of his writing. It contains a wealth of material for elucidating the underlying theological issues with which Israel was confronted at the time of the Babylonian captivity, and suggests ways in which these same issues reappear in different forms in our own time and culture. According to Brueggemann this is a commentary that is intentionally addressed to the Church and synagogue as communities that expect “to be addressed in dangerous and unsettling ways by the holiness that sounds here” (p. xiii). This statement is not an idle threat. Reading Brueggemann is always unsettling! He regularly deals in provocative statements that alternately inspire and disturb. In spite of differences that evangelical interpreters may have with some, if not many, of Brueggemann’s theological, philosophical, hermeneutical and literary-critical assumptions, he brings a superb gift of language to his task and suggests numerous fresh approaches to understanding the text that very often fit well within an evangelical framework.
While in his introduction Brueggemann disavows adjudication between the different positions on the composition of the Jeremiah reflected in the works of Holladay, Carroll and Childs (p. 11), the commentary for the most part sidesteps these issues by accepting the text as it stands, while not denying significant editorial reshaping. He views the book as a “complicated literary composition” (p. 7), and he is skeptical about the possibility of unraveling the specifics of the editorial processes that gave form to the book, but he concludes that in the end what matters is its present canonical shape. The skepticism about untangling the book’s textual history spills over into skepticism about the “person of Jeremiah” as well. While Brueggemann does not deny that the “Jeremiah” of the text is rooted in historical reality, he views the persona of the prophet as an “intentional construction” (p. 11), and suggests that the Jeremiah of the book of Jeremiah “is more like a ‘portrait’ that reflects the taste and interest of the artist, rather than an objective report that is factually precise” (p. 11). He concludes that whether Jeremiah is a “discernible historical figure or an imaginative literary construct is not required for this exposition, and finally adjudication of the matter is impossible” (p. 12).
Brueggemann’s interpretive perspective is shaped primarily by sociological and literary analysis. He views the Biblical text as “neither neutral nor objective, but as located in, reflective of, and concerned for a particular social context that is determinative of its shape and focus” (p. 13). He sees the book as the reflection of a dispute in Jerusalem “about who rightly understands historical events and who rightly discerns the relation between faith, morality, and political power. The tradition of Jeremiah articulates a covenant-torah view of reality that stands in deep tension with the royal-priestly ideology of the Jerusalem establishment” (p. 14). The sort of literary analysis that Brueggemann embraces is not traditional source- or form-critical analysis, but rather one that recognizes the power of language to “propose an imaginative world” without “excessive reference to external historical factors and without excessive interest in questions of authorship” (p. 15). He says that the interpreter should focus on “the action and voice of the text itself ” and not be “led away from the actual work of the text by any external reference or hypothesis” (p. 15). His interpretive method rests on the assumption that “Jeremiah’s proposal of the world is indeed an imaginative construct, not a description of what is nor a prediction of what will be. . . . It invites the listener to participate in the proposed world so that one can imagine a terminated royal world while that world still exists, and one can receive in imaginative prospect a new community of covenant faith where none has yet emerged” (p. 17). So in Brueggemann’s view “sociological analysis helps us see how the covenantal perspectives of the prophetic tradition stand over against royal ideology” while literary analysis “helps us see how Judah is invited to act faithfully, even if that faithfulness is against the presumed interest and ‘truth’ of the Jerusalem establishment” (p. 17). It is then when the “text is read and heard as a critique of ideology and as a practice of alternative imagination” that the “text continues to have power and pertinence in many subsequent contexts, including our own” (p. 17). From this synopsis of Brueggemann’s method, it should be apparent that imagination plays a central role in his conception of both the formation and proper reading of the text. His approach says that the text invites the reader to enter the imaginative world of Jeremiah’s prophetic vision and in so doing to experience its power for contemporary living.
In the commentary proper Brueggemann divides Jeremiah into fifteen main literary units, each of which is given a general introduction and then detailed commentary along with suggestions for contemporary relevance is provided for each subsection within the larger unit. This is a commentary that every interpreter of Jeremiah should consult when wrestling with the meaning and continuing relevance of Jeremiah’s words for today.
J. Robert Vannoy
Biblical Theological Seminary,