Review of Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah (Ed. Patrick D. Miller; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).  Pp. xvi + 255.  Hardcover, US $35.00, CAN $42.00.  ISBN 0-8006-3561-2.


This book is a collection of Walter Brueggemann’s famous articles on the book of Jeremiah.  This volume is indicative of his great capacity as a theologian, whose aim is to present a way to read Jeremiah as a prophetic word meant for us today.  Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that in general he takes a synchronic approach to the book of Jeremiah and a very critical stance against contemporary scholarship for its failure to offer a comprehensive theological reading of Jeremiah for today’s readership.  Brueggemann has criticized the major commentaries written by Holladay, Carroll and McKane: Holladay’s work is limited in many ways due to his focus on the historical Jeremiah and his exclusively historical-literary approach to the book.  Carroll’s work deals only with the ideology of the redactors in relation to the process of the formation of the book of Jeremiah.  McKane’s work is too academic to make any theological interpretation of the book available for its readership.  One may choose not to follow Brueggemann’s theological approach to Jeremiah, but his argument is worth considering since it has generated a good amount of dialogue among scholars during the past few decades.  The ongoing dialogue between Brueggemann and Carroll in particular is well known indeed.  Against the alleged ‘unreadability’ of the book and the function of the redactors’ ideology in the formation of the book of Jeremiah, which are the major arguments made by Carroll, Brueggemann has asserted that Jeremiah is readable and must be made accessible to today’s readers, and that modern scholarship must pay due attention to the theological claims of the book.  Brueggemann’s emphasis on theological interpretation is manifest in his treatment of the seemingly disharmonious statement in Jer 4:27, “I will not make a full end,” which is embedded in the so-called earlier and authentic Jeremianic message of doom.  Here he notes that these two contradicting voices of ‘end’ and ‘not end’ provide greater rhetorical power: “Such a text as these invites living with unresolve that may, in this case, be a God-given, God-enacted unresolve” (p. 93).  Those who read this volume can easily see that Brueggemann works with his conviction that a prophetic word is never a human word with an ideological claim but the word of God with a theological claim.

Although Brueggemann’s approach to Jeremiah is very theocentric, this does not mean that he completely disregards historical-literary questions.  He often brings the historical and the theological readings together in his interpretation.  For example, he does not deny the pro-Babylonian golah perspective in Jeremiah, which modern scholarship attributes to the redactor’s ideology.  For Brueggemann, however, this perspective is part of the theological claim that God chooses the marginal in exile over the established in the land.  In other words, what Brueggemann objects to is not the presence of a redactional ideology per se but the reduction of theology into mere ideology: “our intention here is to push beyond historical-literary issues to theology proper (p. 118).”

Those who are familiar with Brueggemann’s works on Jeremiah would find this volume very typical of him.  There remain some questions, however.  Does Brueggemann believe that the redactors’ ideology in Jeremiah is to be regarded as non-prophetic and non-theological?  Does he assume that the redactors did not have a prophetic mind in shaping the life and ministry of Jeremiah?  Does he want to argue that the redactional ideology merely represents the voice of the status quo?  According to Brueggemann, prophetic ministry is about offering an alternative interpretation of the contemporary reality or a powerful vision for the future.  Is this not, however, the task of the redactors in some respects?  Even Carroll himself does not consider ideology as the last word in the book of Jeremiah and does not assume that the redactors’ ideology is completely devoid of theology.  Brueggemann’s argument would have been more powerful if his emphasis on the theological interpretation of Jeremiah had been more receptive and complementary to the ideologiekritik of the book of Jeremiah.  It is certain, however, that this volume has a great value of its own to the degree that it serves as a good corrective to modern scholarship that tends to lose interest in hearing and interpreting Jeremiah theologically for today’s readership.

Briana Lee, Knox College, Toronto