Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Israel's Open Sore in the Book of Jeremiah

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Israel's Open Sore in the Book of Jeremiah

Article excerpt

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Perhaps more than other figures in the Hebrew Bible, prophets experience the limits and burdens of the human body. As recipients of the divine word, they recognize their physical inadequacies to bear it.1 Prophets also recognize the power of bodies to communicate messages and evoke feelings in their audience. Isaiah walks around naked for three years as a sign to Egypt and Nubia that they will be captured by Assyria (Isa 20). Ezekiel lies before an inscribed brick for 390 days on his left side and 40 days on his right to enact the siege of Jerusalem (Ezek 4:1-8). Disturbing images of exposed, mutilated, and dead bodies appear throughout the prophetic books. The prophets describe dead bodies strewn across the earth, piled into heaps, torn apart by birds and beasts, and even cooked into a bloody stew, 2 as well as naked bodies that are subject to scrutiny and shame (Hos 2; Ezek 16:22). These bodies comprise a corporeal prophetic rhetoric that, as Yvonne M. Sherwood observes, "refuses to pander to the eyes" and "produces unbearable visions and unseeable spectacles," which are part of a "highly disturbing discourse, traumatized by diseased and dying bodies, fraught with leaking wails against abjection."3 The prophets rely on this discourse in order to affect their audience-to induce shock and shame-and to initiate and sustain reform, as Isa 66:23-24 illustrates:

New moon after new moon, Sabbath after Sabbath,

All flesh will come to worship before me, says YHWH.

They will go out and look at the corpses of those who rebelled against me.

Their worms will not die; their fire will not go out.

They will be a horror to all flesh.4

Jeremiah may be the most embodied of the biblical prophets. His prophetic role clearly impacts his body. Once God's words enter Jeremiah's body, they burn within him (Jer 5:14), at times causing him delight (15:16), at times causing him physical distress (20:9). God commands Jeremiah not to marry and have children, thereby curtailing bodily pleasures and functions (16:2-3).5 Like other prophets, Jeremiah uses his body to communicate and engages in sign acts. He wears and then buries linen underwear, smashes clay pots, and places a yoke around his neck (chs. 13, 18, 19, 27, 28). He also relies heavily on disturbing corporeal rhetoric such as the frequently evoked image of birds and beasts that consume Israel's unburied dead (7:33, 16:4, 19:7, 22:19, 34:20). Another prominent feature of Jeremiah's corporeal rhetoric is the image of the incurable sore. Though other prophets conjure this image, Jeremiah uses it again and again to describe sinful Israel, and once to describe Egypt and Babylon.6 Broken and bruised, the body afflicted with these running sores cannot be treated or healed. Jeremiah 30:12-15 provides an example:

Thus says YHWH:

Your rupture is mortal; your bruise infected.

There is none to judge your sore; healing is not possible for you.

All your lovers have forgotten you, they do not seek.

I have struck you with an enemy's blow, a cruel chastisement,

For your great iniquity, your many sins.

Why do you cry over your wound, your mortal wound?

Because of your great iniquity, your many sins, I did these to you.

This passage includes key elements shared by other passages in Jeremiah depicting the sore: the sore is incurable (Jer 8:22, 14:19, 15:18, 46:11, 51:9); there is an implied relationship between the sore and sin (10:24, 14:20, 51:9); there is an implied relationship between God and the sore (10:24, 14:19, 51:10); and the wound provokes an emotional response (8:21, 14:17, 51:8). This passage also captures a core ambiguity about the nature of the sore, whether it results from injury or illness, which I discuss below.

In the present analysis of the image of the incurable sore as it appears in the book of Jeremiah, I do not address each example of the sore in its immediate literary context. …

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