Review of R.J.R. Plant, Good Figs Bad Figs

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

       
R. J. R. Plant, Good Figs, Bad Figs: Judicial Differentiation in the Book of Jeremiah (LHBOTS, 48; New York: T & T Clark, 2008). Pp. XV + 224. US$140. ISBN 9780567026873.

Sparked by Walter Brueggemann's remark “that at the edge of Yahweh's judicial work, more than justice is possible” (Old Testament Theology: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997] 274), Plant explores matters of divine judgment in Jeremiah. By judicial differentiation, Plant's title refers to problems of divine justice. Does God punish all the people in a blanket condemnation, or, in dispensing punishment and salvation, does God differentiate between the righteous and the wicked and between individuals and whole communities?

Although dense with textual and linguistic detail, this revised dissertation, completed at the University of Edinburgh under David Reimer and Graeme Auld (2003), is readable and especially strong in its close attention to details of the text. It will be helpful to anyone working with the text of Jeremiah, but probably only affordable by some libraries. Plant begins with an overview of God's exercise of judgment across the Old Testament canon and then plunges into divine judgment passages in Jeremiah.

Jeremiah makes the perfect test case for the pursuit of matters of divine justice, since this prophetic book is awash in contradictory oracles and stories that assign responsibility for the nation's fall to various segments of the society. Plant rejects a redaction-critical approach because that method is circular, identifying redactors and then assigning passages to them. He attempts, instead, a synchronic reading of judgment texts (Jer 1-20, 21-24, 27-29, 37-45; 30-33), but in places, he reverts to dating texts to assign priority of importance, such as in his treatment of chapters 21-24.

For each passage, Plant provides detailed textual notes (with special attention to the plusses of the Masoretic Text in relation to the Old Greek), an exegesis, observations about the passage's coherence and redaction, a section about judicial matters, and a section of summary conclusions. This systematic structure contributes to the volume's worth as a helpful research tool.

On the main subject of the study, Plant uncovers an increasingly complex assignment of divine judgment across the book of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 1-20, judgment largely falls in undifferentiated fashion upon everyone because the whole nation rejects the prophet and his word. By contrast, in chapters 21-24, Plant finds a hermeneutical conversation among Judean groups regarding who is the true Israel and who deserves punishment, the exiles or those who remain in the land. Rather than granting definitive interpretive power to Jeremiah's vision of the basket of figs that grants superiority to the good figs deported to Babylon and condemns the bad figs remaining in the land (Jer 24), Plant proposes that 23:1-8 holds central interpretive status in this larger section. This passage in chapter 23 places divine judgment upon shepherds for failing to govern the flock in righteousness, so God differentiates here.

In Plant's view, God's promise of salvation to the misled flock in chapter 23 makes relative the more sweeping condemnation in the vision report of chapter 24. There the bad figs who remain in the land will “become a curse in all the places where I shall drive them” (24:9). But God's promise to gather in the flock in chapter 23 governs the interpretation of the vision report, in part, because the vision report is dated to sometime after 597. In this reading the bad figs to be scattered in 24:9 are included in the promised rescue of the flock in chapter 23. Within the larger unit (chaps. 21-24) matters of divine judgment and salvation are, therefore, unsettled by chapter 23 rather than finally determined by the vision of the figs.

In the second half of the book of Jeremiah (chaps. 26-52), Plant finds blanket judgments give way further to increasingly particular judgments against specific groups of people. And in cases where God does issue wholesale judgments against a particular party, such as those who remained in the land, righteous exceptions, like Ebed-Melek and Baruch, immediately qualify those judgments. “Yahweh's wrath is not wholly indiscriminate” (p. 186).

Although Plant's literary privileging of differentiating judgment texts over more sweeping judgment texts is open to debate, his larger argument that pro-Babylonian exiles do not win the day in Jeremiah, challenges the long-reigning views of Pohlman, Carroll, and others and points Jeremiah research in a new direction. That the book of Jeremiah is not ultimately an advocacy for the returned Exiles makes sense to this reviewer on grounds that in several biographical texts Jeremiah chose to remain among the people of the land (Jer 37-40). Plant rightly discovers the presence of no winning claim to power, but instead a multi-voiced argument.

Plant's larger thesis that God does distinguish between the wicked and the innocent  in passing judgment and promising salvation is surely correct and contributes additional evidence to what is already a given in Jeremiah studies. The book is pluriform, multi-vocal, and gives evidence of competing, unsettled, contradictory perceptions of the nation's fall, the culprits responsible for it, and God's response to it. Plant defends God from charges of injustice, but the book of Jeremiah itself makes that a principal task on different grounds. Competing portraits of God and claims about divine judgment in the book of Jeremiah leaves the figure of God open-ended in the face of catastrophe, even as it seeks to explain it. In the process, the book searches for explanation and never settles on any single one. Rather than defending a God who finally punishes the wicked and saves the righteous, perhaps it would be better to ask if the theology of a punishing God offers sufficient explanation of catastrophe.

Kathleen M.O'Connor, Columbia Theological Seminary