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ClassicsOnline Home » OLD TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 12: The Faith Makers I: Jeremiah / Naham / Habbakuk
The Spoken Word and the Old Testament recordings
Those familiar with the first nine sets of The Spoken Word, presenting the New Testament writings, will be familiar also with the approach adopted. The scriptural books have been ordered in the general order of their composition according to the best of current knowledge. Although with respect to the New Testament there are areas of disagreement among scholars, there is a broad general consensus about the order of these writings.
In presenting the Old Testament scriptures, The Spoken Word adopts the same broad approach. Here, however, there is much less agreement among scholars as to the order of these books and there is a cavernous lack of clear information with which to work. Furthermore, many of the books are composed of elements originating centuries apart.
So why make the attempt to re-order the Old Testament scriptures at all? I am confident that the The Spoken Word approach answers that question simply through the experience that emerges from engagement with it. To witness the way in which these scriptural writings unfold over a period of centuries, from the late seventh century BC to the first century BC, is to experience the impact of these writings in a wholly new and illuminating way. The Old Testament comes to life in a manner hitherto unimagined. The traditional canonical order will always stand as the touchstone, and over the years new scholarship will affect our judgement regarding the order of composition, but what happens when we see the writings unfold though time is that we get a new sense of the story of our faith, a sense that speaks powerfully to a living faith in our own time.
The first writing that was, centuries later, to form part of the Hebrew canon, came from the prophet Jeremiah as recorded by his scribe, Baruch. Jeremiah’s prophecies date from the last two decades of the seventh century BC and the first two decades of the sixth century. His contemporaries in Jerusalem were Nahum and Habakkuk, and his sixth century contemporary, living in Babylon, was Ezekiel. It is clear that, for these prophets, no other faith-related documents existed, nor had the ‘history’ of the Hebrew people, from the patriarchs to the kings, been developed except in a rudimentary form.
The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Obadiah and Isaiah all lived and made their prophetic statements during the years of exile in Babylon in the sixth century, although they projected their words back into the past for cultural reasons. We do not know in what order they appeared on the exilic scene so the order adopted in The Spoken Word is somewhat arbitrary. The probability is that they lived contemporaneously over the last years of the Babylonian empire and, in the case of Isaiah especially, on into the Persian empire, right through to the return to Palestine. The approach adopted here for Isaiah is that one individual lay behind all three ‘periods’ of Isaiah’s writing, his style and content changing in response to the radical transformation taking place all around him over a period of around 20 years.
These prophet writings have been arranged in The Spoken Word as The Faith Makers, as it is in these books that, over a period of a century, we witness the emergence and maturation of the distinctive Hebrew faith. The recordings of these prophetic books cover sets 12 to 15 of The Spoken Word. The text of these prophets, with introductions and companion notes, will shortly be published as The Faith Makers, the first of a series called The Testament Companion. (See www.genesis .net.nz for updated information on these publications)
Simultaneously with the emergence of the prophetic writings, there developed in the years of exile a schematic story of the Hebrew people from the patriarchs to the fall of Jerusalem. It is unlikely that theses stories were written down even by the end of the exile, but the general structure and content had been shaped by the time of the return to Palestine. This process of developing the story of the Hebrew people continued after the return, with the concept of the written law developing over the subsequent two centuries. All these elements were woven together in the story contained in the books from Genesis through eventually to the Maccabees. The Spoken Word sets from 16 onwards (not recorded at the time of these notes) encompass these books under the title, The Myth Makers. These recordings, too, will be supplemented by a companion book of the same title in the series, The Testament Companion.
The final group of writings as recorded in The Spoken Word are the wisdom books. The oldest stratum of the wisdom literature is, like the prophets, embedded in the Babylonian exile and is, in fact, an adaptation of Babylonian wisdom literature. The latest of these writings came into being not long before the time of Jesus. The Spoken Word gathers these together under the generic title, The Insight Makers and these too will have an accompanying book of text and comment.
In making the recordings of The Spoken Word, I have endeavoured to treat the texts not as ‘sacred scripture’ to be solemnly intoned, but as vigorous outpourings of the human spirit in engagement with God, faith and the state of the people among whom the writers lived. The prophets wrote passionately and their writings are spoken in these recordings as I imagine they may have been uttered originally (allowing, of course, for differences in both language and culture). As a storyteller myself, I endeavour to tell the many and wonderful stories in the scriptures as if they were fresh from the first tellers‘ minds. This too, as with the New Testament recordings, is central to the objective behind The Spoken Word experience.
Jeremiah, Nahum and Habakkuk
The canonical book of Jeremiah is a chaotic mess from the point of view of understanding the way Jeremiah’s ministry developed over several decades. In The Spoken Word an effort has been made to re-order the text in such a way that Jeremiah’s message emerges coherently against the background of the tempestuous events of his time.
Briefly, the historical background has two fronts, the political and the religious. On the religious front, Jeremiah was a member of a group of reformers who, in the latter half of the seventh century, endeavoured to change the polytheism of traditional Hebrew religion into one centred wholly upon the god Yahweh who, to that point, had been one of a large number of gods worshipped in cults by the Hebrew people. Yahweh’s role was limited in the people’s mind to being their god of battle and defence. Further, the reformers proclaimed that this Yahweh was an ethical god demanding an ethical life from the people of the Hebrew community. The reformers’ message was a radical break from the entire Hebrew religious tradition and met solid resistance from all quarters. Most offensively of all, the reformers, and Jeremiah, insisted that Yahweh alone was to be worshipped to the exclusion of all the other gods, and that this worship was to take place only in Jerusalem, abandoning all the local shrines throughout the country.
On the political scene, the tiny state of Judah was under constant threat as the superpowers of the age, Assyria and Egypt, battled for supremacy, with the land of Palestine being of strategic importance in their power struggle. In the preceding century, Assyria had annihilated the kingdom of Samaria to the north of Judah. In the time of Jeremiah, the refugees from Samaria formed, in all probability, the bulk of the Jerusalem population. The prophecies gathered together as ‘Early Jeremiah’, covering the years up to the fall of Assyria to the Babylonians, are full of this sense of dread at the danger of invasion. The prophecies of these years also betray Jeremiah’s disillusionment and despair at the rejection of the reformers’ vision of religious faith. Although King Josiah appears to have been sympathetic to the reform position, the people and the elders completely rejected this new religion.
The political situation appeared to change dramatically when, between 612 BC and 609 BC, the Babylonian empire conquered and destroyed the empire of Assyria. For a brief period there was ecstatic hope that this conquest would be the end of threat to the nation. The prophet Nahum, exulting in the fall of Assyria, falsely encouraged this hope. That Babylon proved an even more terrible foe and threat than Assyria is reflected in the writings of the prophet called Habakkuk.
The last decade of the sixth century, as reflected in the writings of both Habakkuk and Jeremiah, was a time of mounting political threat accompanied by a terrible, region-wide drought and famine that, in turn, produced bands of marauding raiders that pillaged the countryside. Judah, meanwhile, was being corruptly and ineptly led.
In this situation, Habakkuk challenged Yahweh as to why, if God was ethical and all-powerful, evil and terror were everywhere triumphant? The answer he received—“the upright shall live through faithfulness”—became the key prophetic statement such that, in a sense, everything that followed in Hebrew and Christian history was and is but commentary on that insight. Brief though his book is, Habakkuk stands with the great figures of religious tradition.
The political crisis came to a head in 598 BC when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. A number of the leading people were taken to exile in Babylon, among their numbers a young man named Ezekiel who was to figure so prominently in the next stage of the Hebrew story. The Palestinian state survived for another 11 years during which Jeremiah continued to prophesy. After an effort to throw off the Babylonian yoke, the city was captured and totally destroyed in 587 BC. The bulk of the people were sent as captives to Babylon. Jeremiah, however, remained in Judah until a further abortive revolt saw him taken, against his will, to Egypt where, presumably, he ended his days. At the end of his life he probably thought that everything he had striven for had ended in failure.
The core of Jeremiah’s message was that Yahweh, Palestine’s national god, demanded from the Hebrew people uncompromising obedience to his will and to fulfilment of his ethical demand. For the prophet, the most important element in the message was the sole acknowledgement of Yahweh and the abandonment of the other gods the people worshipped. The ethical content in his prophecies, while critically important, was nevertheless underdeveloped and generalised.
He declared that the threatened destruction of the city and state was a punishment from Yahweh for the people’s failure to heed the reform message. His declaration of judgement and punishment directly contradicted the accepted notion that the Yahweh was the state’s protector, the god of battle who guaranteed their safety and security. Jeremiah’s message was incomprehensible to the people and was totally rejected by them. He had the further temerity to identify that the terrible Babylonians were Yahweh’s instrument and that faithfulness and obedience to God demanded surrender and submission to the invaders. He was therefore regarded as a traitor and suffered as such.
The significance of Jeremiah
Although throughout the whole of his life and ministry, Jeremiah was either ignored or reviled, it was his insight into the meaning of the catastrophe that engulfed Judah that was to give the exiled Hebrews a sense of meaning to their suffering. From that meaning came the foundation for hope that their suffering would be creative and that they would emerge to a new life. Historically speaking, therefore, Jeremiah is the true father of the Hebrew faith and, through the Hebrews, to the faith of both Christianity and Islam. When we read Jeremiah, we are reading the record of how our faith came into being. What is extraordinary about this book is that it is, by and large, a genuinely contemporary record, and, in large measure, the prophet’s own words as dictated to his scribe. Here is the spring from which the river of our faith emerged.
Jeremiah is also one of the greatest poets that have ever lived. His poetry has a power that is heart-stopping. Although the ancient world produced many great poets in Egypt, Greece, Rome and Mesopotamia, the words of Jeremiah stand in a place unique.
The New Jerusalem Bible translation
I use the New Jerusalem Bible for these readings and I am grateful to the publishers (Random House (US) and Darton, Longman & Todd), for their permission to read from their translation. There are a number of good translation options available but, to my ear, only one, the NJB, captures the sound of words with vividness. Others are essentially literary compositions, their focus being upon the printed page. The NJB is not without its weaknesses but, on the basis of the sound of its words, it stands head and shoulder above other contemporary translations.
– David Guthrie, 2010
Any gift that I may have that is expressed in these readings is just that—a gift received from the Spirit through the person of others. I owe an inestimable debt to my speech tutor of student days, John N. Thompson and to Dr Raymond Foster whose enthusiasm for Jeremiah and Ezekiel set me on the path of a love for the scriptures. To my son, Jonathan, I owe all my skills with the computer, enabling the technical side of these recordings, while my wife, Barbara, and daughter, Ruth, have been my unfailing support, encouragement and critics. Strangely, the centrepiece of this acknowledgement belongs to five children, my grandchildren, for whom I ventured into recording in order to create for them disks of stories and music.
The manner of the gift
How did it come about that I created these recordings? The story commences in mid-2006 as I was emerging from a long period of illness. During this period the daily morning and evening prayer offices of the church were my sustaining support. I began to record these offices and publish them on my website and on podcast, receiving considerable affirmation and support from many for the initiative.
The early broadcasts were poor in quality both from the standard of equipment and my technical inexperience, but both gradually improved and the standards rose. Initially, I recorded each day’s office as a complete entity, but found that this consumed an immense amount of time, recording, editing and making ready for broadcast and also brought variable quality, dependent as it was on my pressure, health and wellbeing on each day.
The logical next step was to record whole books of the New and Old Testaments and then break up the recording into the tracks corresponding to the daily lections and that is what I proceeded to do. From that point it became a near-inevitable step to conceive the publication of the recordings in themselves, while a parallel development of conceptualisation took place regarding the philosophy behind the recording and their ordering, as recounted above. And so these recordings came to be. They remain for me indelibly planted in the spirituality of the prayer offices; for me, a gifting of the Spirit through me to the church.
For the prayer offices: www.genesis.net.nz
David Guthrie, 2010
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OLD TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 12: The...