Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Bob Becking, Between Fear and Freedom. Essays on the Interpretation of Jeremiah 30-31(Oudtestamentische Studiën 51; Leiden/Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004).  Pp. ix + 338. Cloth €95.00, US$128.00.  ISBN 90-04-14118-9.

            In his densely packed essays on Jeremiah 30-31, often called Jeremiah’s “book of consolation,” Becking sets out to interpret the text with methodological clarity.  Borrowing a metaphor from Mark Smith that biblical studies are currently like a mall with competing shops set next to each other in profusion of confusion, Becking lays out his step-by-step method.  Competent interpretation requires the interpreter to recognize patterns of communication in the text and to find ways to interpret social codes by examining modes of expression common to the ancient Near East.  Becking gives this approach specificity by promising to do syntactical analysis, to discover inner dynamics of the texts, to refrain from the intermingling of methods, and to engage in sub-dialogue with other readers.  By dialogue with readers, he does not mean reader-response analysis of interpreter but refers to dialogue with the history of interpretation, expressed here largely in terms of the last century or so.

            I do not believe methodological purity is possible, nor do I think Becking accomplishes it, though I would never accuse him of being unclear.  Rather than thinking of interpretive methods as a confusing mall, I prefer the analogy of the text as a conversation partner--complex, multi-layered, contradictory, and amenable to dialogue and analysis from multiple directions at once--because this is the nature of poetic literature.  But having stated my bias, I, nonetheless, congratulate Becking on what he has accomplished, that is, a comprehensive, thoroughly documented exegesis of Jeremiah’s two chapters that yields theological reflection.

            The book’s interpretative starting point is the matter of the literary coherence of the whole.  The problem, according to Becking, is the presence of thematic dissimilarities wherein Jeremiah speaks of punishment and misery alongside hope and comfort, on the one hand, and syntactic similarities across the units, on the other.  Becking finds and illustrates literary unity.  Jeremiah 30-31 form one canto, divisible into ten sub-cantos and further divisible into canticles and cola.  Becking analyses five subcantos (30:5-31:37) in chapters four through nine of his book.  The last chapter constructs theological conclusions emerging from the exegesis.

Becking’s first three chapters survey Jeremiah’s text in search of macro structures.  A careful study of textual variations leads him to prefer the Hebrew text to the Greek.  The former is not an abridged version of the Greek, and, he rightly asserts, deciding which version is original is impossible.  After dividing the text into ten subcantos by means of Hebrew Peuha and Seuma markings, he analyses poetic features that further enable him to distinguish the text’s subdivisions.  These include uses of particles, prophetic formulae, types of parallelism, and other syntactic division markers.  

Presented in detailed charts, this work is like extensive exegetical notes one creates but then summarizes to spare the reader.  Their benefit, of course, is to create clarity, making Becking’s work helpful both for reference and as an instructional tool for graduate students.  His interpretation of the subcantos includes source-critical and syntactical investigations, word studies, and comparative study of ancient Near Eastern texts in relation to Jeremiah’s language, motif, and themes.  This comparative work makes a new and significant contribution to the study of the chapters.  But missing is any study of how Jeremiah’s chapters echo, allude to, and reverse other Jeremiah verses outside the book of consolation.

In each of the five subcantos, Becking finds a double thematic pattern that he calls Transformation I and II.  Transformation I, the first part of each subcanto, focuses on distress and looks back at history, and Transfomation II, the second part, presents hope for the future.  This pattern, consistent across the chapters, does not require redaction-criticism to explain it because it is the thematic design of the text.  From these transformations follow theological conclusions.  Becking argues that Jeremiah 30-31 does not present a paradoxical God--punishing and comforting at the same time--but rather testifies to a changing, passionate God who responds to human situations as required.  This God restores cosmic order and new life in the days to come.

Once separate essays, Becking’s chapters are now skillfully integrated into a developing argument.  But, as Becking makes his case for methodological clarity and step-by-step investigation, the effect is to splinter Jeremiah’s beautiful, lyric poetry into small shards.  The book does amplify the rich complexity of the poetry in new ways, but the analysis never draws the many splintered details back together to show how, as Becking claims, interpretation is art as much as painstaking science.  It often seems as if Becking studies the notes and rhythms of a detailed musical score--cantos and canticles--and does not quite arrive at the sounds.    

Kathleen M. O’Connor,
William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary
Decatur, GA 30030 USA