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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

Jeremiah and Lamentations

This is a difficult and somewhat long reading for this week, and yet it is fitting that it lands for us as we look toward Holy Week. To read Jeremiah, and the Lamentations that have been traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, is to work through some of the most vivid and painful poetry and prose of the entire Bible. Jeremiah is writing just before and then during the Babylonian exile of 587 BC. Though the writings under his name were likely compiled later both from his own work and those of his followers, there is a personal note throughout that is quite riveting. Jeremiah opens with his call narrative, the story of his being chosen a prophet, about which he wants to make two points: he tried to turn down the job ("Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."), and he believes himself to have been chosen even before his birth. The relationship continues to be one of great personal cost to Jeremiah, as narratives of incidents of both violence and imprisonment are scattered through the book, along with poetry lamenting the pain he causes and is caused by his role as a prophet. See chapter 20 for a powerful example. See also chapter 29, his advice to the exiles to "build houses," "plant gardens," and "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile" - i.e. plan to live in Babylon for some time - as an example of the painful prophecies he must offer his people.

Lamentation is Jeremiah's primary mode, hence the tradition of assigning the book of that name to his authorship as well. Most likely it is instead a compilation of materials from a variety of sources. Both books, however, should be sampled liberally for their wrenching invocations of suffering, self-castigation, and hopelessness coupled with some of the most beautiful moments of faith and hope. These are not books to read through in one sitting; rather, dip and skim in and out, keeping an ear out for the multiple voices and perspectives. They strike me in totality as an Impressionist painting, with swaths of light and dark colors commingling to create a luminous whole.