Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Carol Dempsey, Jeremiah: Preacher of Grace, Poet of Truth (Interfaces; Collegeville: The Liturgical Press 2007). Pp. xxxii + 124. Paper, US$15.95. ISBN 0-8146-5985-3.

A goal of the Interfaces Series, edited by Barbara Green, is to bring faculty research interests into conversation with teaching and learning. Each of the series' fifteen books focuses on a biblical character who “‘interfaces’ with his or her historical-cultural world and its many issues” (p. x). Carol Dempsey, a seasoned professor of college students, meets the goals of the series with suggestive interpretations and lively writing. This book will be immensely helpful in undergraduate classrooms and adult faith formation groups because it treats Jeremiah as vulnerable, suffering, and God-besotted.

Like the life of Jesus, the life of Jeremiah has undergone many conflicting assessments from that of pietistic biography, to historically reconstructed prophet, to symbolic cipher that acts as a magnet for accruing traditions. Dempsey stands somewhere in the middle of this dispute. She joins her voice with those of other interpreters for whom Jeremiah is a literary persona who delivers prophetic words to audiences before, during, and after the Babylonian invasions.

After locating the prophet within the history of Judah, Dempsey uses rhetorical and narrative criticisms to analyze the literary portrait of Jeremiah. She writes clearly about the connotations of language, delineations of rhetorical units, and literary techniques, such as, the shifting and merging of poetic voices, narrative movement, and elements of characterization. She also expands usual textual resources for discussing the character of the prophet. Besides drawing on texts where the prophet figures prominently—the call narrative, biographical accounts, and the confessions—she also uses other passages where Jeremiah is a background figure. It is not only Jeremiah's prayers of lament assigned to him by first-person speech that make him a person of prayer but also other prayers where connections to this voice are not clear, such as the psalm in Jeremiah 10. Dempsey's assignment of texts to Jeremiah himself that arguably belong to other voices in the book make him an all-encompassing presence in the book. In her hands, Jeremiah functions in relation to his book as Moses does in relation to the Pentateuch; Jeremiah is the book's underlying force and spirit, and all texts somehow flow from him and reveal his character. At the same time however, the conflict among voices in the text disappears.

Dempsey emphasizes Jeremiah as a lover of God, an observation she expands for contemporary readers. The book's prayers, along with its language of wounded love, make Jeremiah a “mystic” figure, a contemplative prophet, an intuitive receiver of visions, and an absolutely faithful spokesperson for God. In his prayerful, contemplative life, Jeremiah functions as a model for his audience and for contemporary readers.

As a literary figure, therefore, Jeremiah is a multifaceted symbol for Dempsey rather than simply a prophet set against the people. Stories and poems about Jeremiah's suffering work are not primarily reports of historic events or comments on the prophetic role; they are also expressive of the suffering of the people. Jeremiah suffers for the pain of the people in the balm of “Gilead” poem (8:18) and participates in the wounds of the Judean community in the first-person lament over “my hurt” (10:19-20).

Influenced by the writings of Walter Brueggemann, Dempsey is primarily concerned with theological appropriation of the text. She builds on Jeremiah's relationship with God and depicts that relationship in appealing fashion, greatly diminishing some of the book's harsh theological rhetoric while inviting readers into Jeremiah's life in ways that will enhance spirituality and appreciation for the text.

Although Dempsey makes clear that Jeremiah is a poetic as much as an historical figure, this perspective is not consistently clear. The marriage metaphor material (2:4-3:10), for example, provides “insights” into the character of Jeremiah and what type of person the historical Jeremiah might have been.” (p. 20). The prophet is “wedded to God” and committed to restoring relationship between God and the people. But in the marriage poetry, the main character is God, while Jeremiah himself is nearly invisible, functioning as prophetic spokesperson rather than as independent character.

Although it is possible to quibble about assignments of passages to Jeremiah himself and to challenge particular exegetical decisions, Dempsey is masterful is making Jeremiah approachable for contemporary audiences.

Kathleen M. O'Connor, Columbia Theological Seminary