From honor challenge to false prophecy: rereading Jeremiah 28' s story of prophetic conflict in light of social-science models.

Author:Bartusch, Mark W.
Position:Essay
 
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The story of Jeremiah and Hananiah is perhaps the Bible's classic narrative about prophetic conflict. Unfortunately, many readers and interpreters overlook the details in the exchange between the central characters in the story and instead look to the end of the story to see what it says about the phenomenon of false prophecy in ancient Israel. This is understandable, especially when Jeremiah 28 is read, first of all, theologically and, secondly, canonically in light of such texts as Deuteronomy 18:18-22. These verses, situated as they are in Israel's ostensive early history, are ordinarily understood as the criteria for determining true or false prophecy. Thus, later interpreters will come to think of those intermediaries who do such things as speak in the name of other gods, or speak presumptuously a word that does not come from YHWH, or pronounce an oracle that does not come true, as false prophets. And false prophets shall die. However, what I propose here is that the details of the narrative in Jeremiah 28 suggest that what is at stake in the scenes between Hananiah and Jeremiah is not some abstract theological principle but honor; and that a particular social-science model provides a useful lens through which to reread this narrative of prophetic conflict, so that even before the passage of time validates Jeremiah's message, audiences come to see him as an honorable person in the community and a faithful spokesperson of YHWH.

We are fundamentally social beings who live in a particular context, and our work of interpreting the Bible does not take place in a vacuum. It is also a fallacy to think that anyone is able to offer an entirely objective interpretation of a (biblical) text. Even practitioners of the historical-critical method do well to identify the various factors that comprise their social location (gender, race, ethnicity, religious commitment, age, education, class, cultural traditions, and the like) and to be self-aware of how these aspects of their being shape the way they read and understand the Bible. The social-scientific study of the Bible appeared as an important, complementary methodology in the later decades of the twentieth century. (2) Social-science critics are careful to recognize and admit chat differences exist between the interpreter's context (social location) and the context of the biblical text and its author. (3) As western readers and interpreters of the Bible in the twenty-first century, we live in asocial, political, religious, and cultural context significantly different from the world of the Bible. A principle goal of social-scientific criticism is to understand the text in terms of the social and cultural system in which it was written. As Elliott states, this method is intended "to yield an understanding of what authors said and meant within the contours of their own environment." (4) In order to find out what a text meant in its original context, we need to have some familiarity with the social and cultural world of the Bible. Learning about the values of honor and shame in the ancient world will better allow us to hear and understand a biblical text as its original audience would have experienced it in their particular context.

It is my thesis that what we witness in Jeremiah 28 is Jeremiah and Hananiah engaged in (1) a defense of honor, as a final result of which (2) Hananiah is dishonored and revealed to be a liar. By employing the honor/shame model for interpretation, we can better understand the cultural concerns and social circumstances that gave rise to the formulation of the narrative as it has been preserved, as well as its goal or purpose. The primary goal of the exchange between Jeremiah and Hananiah is to resolve an immediate crisis over prophetic leadership in Judah and Jerusalem at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. and to restore order to the threatened community. By his success in this interaction with Hananiah, Jeremiah shows himself to be an honorable person whose actions conform to the social standards of the day and whose truthful speech represents the values of Judean society. I will introduce briefly and examine several features of this model, apply them as reading lenses to the biblical text of Jeremiah 28, and indicate how rereading this familiar narrative of prophetic conflict in light of them contributes to a more authentic and culturally aware understanding of the narrative.

It is unclear at what point in time the notion of false prophets/false prophecy appeared in ancient Israel. I imagine that a secondary contribution of this study may be to ground more clearly the location of the notion of false prophecy within the cultural con text of ancient Israel and its literary tradition, in particular, along a trajectory from Jeremiah 28 to Deuteronomy 18. Theology grows out of a specific cultural reality and the particular social experience of++ a community. My suggestion is that the theological reflection on the phenomenon of false prophecy that was later canonized in Deuteronomy 18 had its origins in the cultural context of Judah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E. The Book of Jeremiah includes frequent use of "sheqer" ("falsehood, lie") and frequently associates the concept with prophets or other intermediaries. (5) Thus, it may be that the concern over "false prophecy" and "false prophets" arose around the time that the Book of Jeremiah was being composed or redacted, that is, sometime during sixth century B.C.E., (interestingly, this was also the probable time for the redaction of the book of Deuteronomy). Also, no other book in the Hebrew Bible takes such a critical stance against "other" prophets and their message as does Jeremiah. Something, apparently, was going on at this time that brought this concern to the center of attention. It is less than certain that Jeremiah 28 illustrates the principles or criteria enumerated in Deuteronomy 18. To the contrary, I think it may be better to see the book of Jeremiah as a stage along the way toward the development of the notion of "false prophecy." And apparently only by the time of the LXX was the "false prophet" idea sufficiently understood that the label could make its way into the biblical tradition [pseudoprophetes is used of Hananiah in the LXX [Jer 35:1]; beyond Jeremiah, the only other prophetic book in which a form of this word occurs...

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