Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Louis Stulman, Jeremiah (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005). Pp. xxi + 400. Paper, US$39.00, UK£29.99, CAN$56.99. ISBN: 0-687-05796-5.

The Book of Jeremiah is like the surrealistic drawings of M.C. Escher: At the moment you think you have found the right perspective to interpret the image, a look at the next section of the image distorts your overall view. This chaotic presence of the pertinent biblical book has inspired scholars to elaborate sophisticated theories on the emergence of the text by assuming a variety of authors and/or redactors. In other words Jeremiah-the book-is seen as the result of a traceable trajectory through history. Dissatisfied with this approach and especially by the fact that a set of competing redactional theories that can neither be reconciled nor verified are present, scholars are moving in different ways. Some try to save the historical Jeremiah while others concentrate on the text in its final form.

In the context of this shifting landscape, the commentary by Louis Stulman is like a breath of fresh air. His commentary is based on the ideas he published in his short but inspiring monograph Order amid Chaos (1998). Stulman construes the Book of Jeremiah as a coherent whole in which various and sometimes-dissonant voices can be heard. He accepts that this variety is partly based on the redaction process of the material, some passages stemming from pre-exilic times, others from the exilic age, and not a few from the tradition inspired by the person Jeremiah. Stulman construes the editors of the book as collectors, wanting to save every word that Jeremiah assumingly had spoken. The editors, however, were more than mere collectors, which can be deduced from the fact that they composed, or tried to do so, a coherent whole.

Stulman offers a set of arguments for his view that the Book of Jeremiah is a consciously composed text. His main argument is based on the overall structure of the Masoretic Version. Stulman divides the book into two parts. The first part-Chapters 1-25-being some sort of coping with the disaster; the second-Chapters 26-53-being a sign of hope for the disenfranchised exiles.

Part 1: 1-25
Dismantling Judah'ss Idolatrous World
Part 2: 26-52
Rebuilding out of the Ruins
1 Programmatic Introduction
Judah'ss new place among the nations
Programmatic Introduction
A Sign of Hope
2-6 Unit One
Judah's departure from YHWH
Unit One
Conflicting theologies of hope
7-10 Unit Two
Dismantling the temple
Unit two
The Book of Consolation
11-17 Unit three
Dismantling the covenant
Unit three
Moral instructions for the new community
18-20 Unit four
Dismantling insider privileges
Unit four
The Baruch narrative: Hope lies with the Babylonian exiles
20-24 Unit five
Dismantling the monarchy
Unit five
God's reign over the nations
25 The conclusion:
The fulfillment of God'ss plan for Judah among the nations
Final words:
An ending with embryonic beginnings

At first sight this scheme is impressive, especially since it is underscored by the following remarks. (1) The prose-sermons, traditionally seen as deuteronomistic intrusions, function as pillars in the architecture of the Book of Jeremiah. Stulman construes them as some sort of hermeneutical clues to the interpretation of the Book. (2) The person of Jeremiah as messenger and message is a striking theme in the composition. Stulman does not suggest that the present image of Jeremiah in the Book would equal the historical person. The message about a free, passionate and unrestrained God is mirrored in the passionate persona of the other main character throughout the Book. (3) Stulman refers to a series of prominent literary motifs throughout the Book, such as the theme of the ‘nations’ or the ‘enemy from the North’.

Based on this view about the literary and thematic coherence of the Book of Jeremiah, Stulman articulates the main theme of what he sees as a prophetic drama. Part one presents the dismantling of Judah's cherished beliefs and social structures. In other words, Jeremiah deconstructs the civil religion of ancient Israel since it will not be of any help in the crisis at hand, or even worse, relying on the traditions is one of the reasons for the divine punishment. The second part reveals that devastation is not God's final word. In various ways the second part offers hope, especially to those in exile, of a new world to come.

I am not convinced by Stulman's diptych, since it is too much of a straightjacket to me. Especially the second part of the Book of Jeremiah is too complex to reduce its contents to a simple set of themes. Besides, his division of Jeremiah 26-52 into five units embedded in a prologue and an epilogue is quite arbitrary. The Book of Consolation consists, in my opinion, of Chapters 30-31. It is not clear to me why Stulman separates Chapter 51 from 52. As Kessler has recently shown these two final chapters form a larger unit. The inter-connections between the five units in both parts are rather loose and based on interpretation.

In the main body of his book, Stulman offers a commentary on all 52 chapters within 375 pages, which means that not every detail is discussed in depth. For instance, a translation with philological remarks is missing, but readers interested in that are referred to the splendid commentaries by Holladay and McKane. In accordance with the format of the AOTC-series the commentary consists of literary and theological remarks. Stulman's observations on the micro-level are often conclusive or at least inspiring. Of course I do not agree with him on every occasion. I find his negative view on the exile as a wearisome time slightly outdated, for instance. His work, however, certainly will serve the target-group of this series.

One final note: Stulman's attention to the ethical dimensions of the message of Jeremiah, that of the prophet as well as the Book, is quite commendable. The criticism of both illicit cult and social culture is highlighted. Both are not mere misdemeanors but disasters to God. One sentence summarizes correctly the message of Jeremiah in all its actuality for our present time: “Spirituality divorced from ethical behaviour, particularly a commitment to economic/social justice, is a perverse departure from God's word and therefore lies at the heart of the nation's problems” (p.19).

Bob Becking, Faculty of Humanities Utrecht, the Netherlands