Martin Kessler, ed., Reading the Book of Jeremiah: A Search for Coherence
(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2004). Pp. xiv + 204. Cloth, US$29.50. ISBN: 1-57506-098-1.
Reviewed by Carolyn J. Sharp
Yale Divinity School

What might “coherence” mean in the literarily chaotic Book of Jeremiah? In a 1963 essay entitled “Force et signification,” Jacques Derrida observed (here in Alan Bass’s translation) that “metaphor is never innocent. It orients research and fixes results.” Indeed. The metaphor of coherence employed in this volume suggests that meaning may be discerned less in textual disjunctures and dissonances than in the ways in which aspects of textual signification work together, affirm and reinforce each other, and otherwise “cohere.” These essays aim to demonstrate that meaningful coherence may be discerned in the complex and overtly polyphonic Book of Jeremiah. The 13 contributors ply traditional historical and literary methodologies in their quest for continuities across the tangled layers of poetry, prose exhortation, and prose narrative in Jeremiah. Most of the contributors look for signs of structural unity, central themes, or dominant plot trajectories, subordinating the multivocality and fractiousness of the Jeremiah traditions to various overarching images or theological motifs.

The contributors have, in the main, focused on three points of entry into the Book of Jeremiah: the significance of the oracles against Babylon, the persona of the prophet Jeremiah, and the role of oracles of hope. Klaas Smelik leads off the collection with an essay that is thoroughly diachronic in method (intended as an ironic feint, given the avowedly synchronic focus of the volume?), looking at authorial and editorial techniques that shaped the Book of Jeremiah and echoing the well-worn suggestion that the theme of punishment of all the nations in Jeremiah 1, 25, and 50–51 shows God’s sovereignty over all. Joep Dubbink argues that the figure of Jeremiah is presented both as declaimer of God’s purposes and as paradigmatic embodiment of the Word of YHWH. His essay condenses the polyvalent theologies of the Book of Jeremiah into a single monolithic “theology” in a way that some (synchronic) readers may find not entirely sustainable, but his piece also offers creative insights, among them that the persona of Jeremiah may have been portrayed as composite in order to represent the ambiguities and tensions of the prophetic calling.

Louis Stulman suggests in an essay distilled from his eloquent Order Amid Chaos: Jeremiah as Symbolic Tapestry (Sheffield, 1998) that the figure of Jeremiah mediates the destruction and reconstruction of Judah’s symbolic world through iconoclastic oracles of judgment in the first half of the book and attenuated but insistent oracles of hope in the latter half. The late Robert Carroll analyzes Jeremiah as a production that performs contested theological and political issues through the intentional representation of voicing and counter-voicing; for Carroll, literary integrity is to be found precisely in the polyphony and contradictions of the Book of Jeremiah rather than in spite of them. Walter Brueggemann offers an evocative reflection on mercy as a central theological issue in Israel’s agonistic engagements with the reality of God and the power of empire, as seen especially in rhetorical claims about Babylon. Ronald Clements presses for an evangelical reclamation of prophetic biography: the “historical Jeremiah,” understood as a flesh-and-blood model of faith, instructs the book’s audience through his spiritual pilgrimage in the Book of Jeremiah. Space constraints preclude more detail here on the intriguing essays of the other contributors, who are A. J. O. van der Wal, Martin Kessler, Christopher Seitz, J. G. Amesz, John Hill, Bob Becking, and J. W. Mazurel.

The results are stimulating in two senses. Interpreters for whom literary coherence and authorial intent remain uncomplicated notions will likely enjoy these essays with a profound appreciation for their sensible and jargon-free arguments. Interpreters who have paid attention to developments in literary theory over the last three or four decades, however, may be stimulated to wonder what academic agenda may be at work here, for this volume drives toward a studiedly naïve notion of coherence that would have been more at home in the 1960s than in the present-day hermeneutical landscape. It is fair to say, then, that no matter what one’s position on the spectrum of reading practices, one will find this volume worthy of engagement, whether as ally or as skeptical interlocutor.

In Clements’s piece we encounter a claim that may illuminate the hermeneutical assumptions about “coherence” in this collection overall. Clements sees a theological tension generated between the private despair of Jeremiah and his public proclamation of hope; he avers that this tension constitutes “a powerful paradox, but not one that is unresolvable” (136). The Book of Jeremiah as resolvable paradox: this oxymoron seems to be the conceptual engine driving the volume. Each contributor acknowledges the complicated literary dynamics that characterize the Book of Jeremiah, but many then try to resolve the irresolvable by means of claims about some broad theological theme, structural framework, or governing narrative trajectory that sweeps away all inconsistencies in its path. Some readers may ask whether this is the best that synchronic reading strategies have to offer in our contemporary hermeneutical moment. Many of the scholarly arguments here constitute no advance over the invaluable Troubling Jeremiah (eds. Diamond, O’Connor, and Stulman; Sheffield, 1999), which addresses itself to synchronic interpretation with considerably more acuity regarding method. Especially noteworthy there is Pete Diamond’s brilliant introductory essay on hermeneutics and Jeremiah studies, the consultation of which would provide an indispensable corrective for students oriented to Jeremiah studies by means of the volume presently under review.

The impact on Jeremiah scholarship of this volume may be muted, for two reasons. First, the approaches to literary coherence plied in a number of the essays seem noticeably dated, yielding a methodological homogeneity that repeatedly reveals its lack of familiarity with literary-theoretical developments. The strongest essays (including those of Stulman, Carroll, Brueggemann, and Clements) attend well to the subtleties of rhetorical artistry and intricacies of textual representation, but other contributions are decidedly uneven in that regard. Too often, synchrony is sketched with less depth and dimensionality than it should be.

A second reason the impact of this book may be less than seismic is that, for a collection aimed at “nonspecialists” (xi) and thus at readers who may not know of other resources on Jeremiah, it is regrettable to find work only by northern-hemisphere males whose essays are quite noticeably not in conversation with women scholars, scholars of color, and scholars from the global South. (The work of Brueggemann should be commended as a notable exception on this point.) Many women have worked hard on the Book of Jeremiah over the last two decades. Yet the bibliography for the entire volume lists only a single work each by Alice Ogden Bellis and Kathleen O’Connor, and the author index adds only two more names, Barbara Bozak and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. The insularity of this scholarly conversation constitutes a serious disadvantage for a volume that is attempting to mediate synchronic approaches to a new generation of readers.

Nevertheless, the book does succeed in highlighting issues in what might be termed conservative or traditional Jeremiah studies, and it provides an inviting and accessible way into those issues. Countering the claim in Troubling Jeremiah that “ ‘innocent’ readings of Jeremiah” can no longer stand (Diamond, 32), these essays insist that the retrieval of an innocent notion of coherence is both possible and desirable. The volume thus represents a daring, even polemical move in contemporary Jeremiah scholarship, and as such, it is clearly worthy of attention. Jeremiah studies can only benefit from the lively dialogue that is sure to follow.