Can You See What Jeremiah is Saying? Finding the Literary Structure in a Book Where Structure is Often Missed

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This post is part of a series of resources for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. This month I am focusing on Jeremiah.


Whenever I teach hermeneutics or lead Bible studies, I want to help students of the Bible find the “breaks” in the text. Where does the human author insert literary devices to help the reader follow his message? In John’s Gospel, for instance, he organizes his introduction to Jesus around four days (John 1:19–51), and then he puts the wedding at Cana on the third day (2:1), which in context is the seventh day. In this way, John helps his audience know how he is ordering his material.

Such arrangement does not automatically produced meaning, but ignorance of an author’s literary structure will delimit our understanding. If we cannot see how the biblical author is writing, we won’t get what the author is saying. In any study of Scripture then, we must labor to understand the literary structure of a text. Sometimes this is easy, as in passages like Psalm 136, which repeats the refrain “for his steadfast love endures forever” (ESV) and follows the order of Israel’s history. But in other books, it is more difficult. And it is arguable that the book of Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books in the Bible for ascertaining a literary structure.

The reasons for this difficulty are manifold. First, Jeremiah is, by word count, the longest book of the Old Testament. And as we saw with Isaiah, it is a challenge to see the message of books so large. Second, the chronology of Jeremiah is difficult. The book does not proceed in historical order, and as a result some commentators (e.g., John Bright) have attempted to interpret the book by changing its order to match Israel’s history. This destroys the literary structure, however. As higher-criticism reigned over the last two hundred years, commitment to reading the Bible on its own terms was ignored and the mind of the interpreter trumped the words of the author. This will miss the message of the Bible and so we cannot follow those who rearrange the text.

Size and chronology are challenging in Jeremiah, but the greatest difficulty in finding the meaning of Jeremiah comes from divergent manuscripts. That is, when we compare the Hebrew text to the Septuagint (the Greek translation), we find that significant portions of the book are put in different order. This reminds us that the final form of the Bible came as a result of an editing process (cp. the arrangement of the Psalter), but leaving aside the formation of the final form, different final arrangements make it difficult to affirm a structure with certainty. And then, if meaning is tied to literary structure, then how should we can have confidence in finding a singular message about Jeremiah?

A Single Yet Complex Narrative about the Word of God

Enter Andrew Shead. In his book, A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, this Australian biblical scholar offers a proposal for reading Jeremiah. Noting the challenges of structuring this book, and the way that the Masoretic Text (MT) and the Septuagint (LXX) do not match in their structures, he offers a compelling argument for reading  Jeremiah as “a single narrative about the word of God” (65). (N.B. He also explains how to relate the MT to the LXX, pp. 47–52).

In this definition, single does not mean simple. It simply means that in the ostensible chaos of the Jeremiah manuscripts, there is order. The order is complex, but with a rigorous study of the literary devices in the book and with an eye to the way in which the word of God works in the life and ministry of Jeremiah, we can find a satisfying literary structure.

So, in what follows I will outline his criteria for discovering a literary structure in Jeremiah. Then, I will adapt this literary structure to provide a reading strategy for Jeremiah.

Organizing the Book

For starters, Shead wisely reminds us that “few biblical texts have been written so tightly that one and only one can be meaningfully assigned them” (66). Thus, his proposal and my dependence on it are just that—a proposal. Literary structures are always exercises in interpretation, not inerrant roadmaps to the books of the Bible. Still, with that caveat in place, it is right and responsible to look for order in God’s Word. With that in mind, let’s consider the four features of Jeremiah that Shead denotes as significant.

First, there are section breaks in Jeremiah.  

These literary devices organize the book and serve as headings and subheadings. If we remember that biblical authors did not have a caps lock button on their keyboard, we will begin to look for ways they denote sections in their books by way of repeated words or phrases. In Jeremiah, Shead suggests that book is organized around “Disjunctive Headings” and “Narrative Formulas.”

In his estimation, these are the primary way to see arrangement, and he defines these two literary devices as follows.

Disjunctive Headings. These are literary devices that “make a clean break from what came before. . . . Grammatically, they are not complete sentences but headings, or superscriptions, and they are typically translated, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD’” (67). In Jeremiah, we find these headings in 7:1; 11:1; 18:1; 21:1; 30:1; 32:1; 34:1, 8; 35:1; 40:1.

Additionally, Shead notes variations on this basic formula. In Jeremiah 25:1 and 44:1, the words “from the Lord” are missing. And in Jeremiah 45:1; 46:13; 50:1; 51:59, we find this kind of formula, “The word which the Lord spoke.” (67)

Narrative Formulas. Less prominent than disjunctive headings, these “narrative formulas incorporate a discreet unit into the larger unfolding narrative, . . . Grammatically, they form complete narrative sentences, and translated ‘The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah [or, to me], saying’” (66). In Jeremiah, we find these formulas in Jer 1:2 (variation), 4, 11, 13; 2:1; 13:3, 8; 16:1; 18:5; 24:4; 25:3 (in a speech); 28:12; 29:30; 32:6 (in a speech), 26; 33:1, 19, 23; 34:12; 35:12; 36:27; 37:6; 39:15 (transposed); 42:7; 43:8. (67, notes by Shead)

Additionally, Shead finds “four variant Narrative Formulas that share some features of the Disjunctive Heading, but grammatically they are sentences rather than headings” (68).

As noted above, these literary features are observable in the text; they are not restricted to some outside literary convention of the time. That said, their prominence in Jeremiah is sufficient to arrange the text such that with these bolded (Disjunctive Headings) and italicized (Narrative Formulas) headings, we can begin to see how Jeremiah holds together.

Second, there are chronological and personal markers in Jeremiah. 

More simply, dates, people, and places will structure various parts of Jeremiah, especially when “oracles and events are dated relative to a kings’ reign” (68). Three examples of this can be found in the opening verse of three different sections of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25–34; Jeremiah 35–44; Jeremiah 45–51).

Jeremiah 25:1

1 The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah (that was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon),

Jeremiah 35:1

1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah:

Jeremiah 45:1

1 The word that Jeremiah the prophet spoke to Baruch the son of Neriah, when he wrote these words in a book at the dictation of Jeremiah, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah.

In these Disjunctive Headings, the date is also given, adding further clarity on how to read the book. It is not strictly linear, but like many prophetic (and apocalyptic) books, it presents salvation and judgment from multiple angles and to multiple people.

Third, there are different literary genres in Jeremiah.

 As with all books of the Bible, genre matters. But in Jeremiah, various genres serve to organize the flow of thought. First, Shead identifies in Jeremiah “three different types of literary genre: poetry, sermonic material in the style of Deuteronomy, and biographical narratives” (68). Next, he shows how these genres organize sections. For instance, in chapters 11–24, we find a pattern where the “prose both structures and interprets the poetry.” Even more,

We have seen the way a sermon initiates each of the units beginning at 7:1; 11:1; 18:1; 21:1; we have also seen that prose accounts of prophetic sign acts (13:1-11; 16:1-13; 19:1-15) serve to subdivide two of these units. It remains to be observed that in each of the five units thus created within chapters 11–20 there is a lament, or “confession,” of the prophet (11:18 12:6; 15:15–18; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–18). (93)

In short, Jeremiah does more than contain different genres, it organizes the book with different genres. By paying attention to these changes in voice, we can get a closer look on the message of Isaiah.

Fourth, there are various themes that collect in various parts of Jeremiah.

Themes play a role in Jeremiah and in every book of the Bible. Such identifiable themes (e.g., marriage, temple, judgment, new covenant, etc.), however, are best constrained by and/or contained within the literary structure of a book. That is to say, themes and concepts are not as strong as repeated words or literary devices for organizing a book.

That said, thematic content, like the word of God in Jeremiah, does add light and weight to the message. As Shead rightly notes, themes are “less objective” on the whole, but they play an important role in “ty[ing] together intervening material” (68). Thus, identifying themes in Jeremiah is important, but subsidiary to the grammatical markers.

All in all, these four features of Jeremiah help us see the arrangement of the book. And with these features in place, we can see that the book of Jeremiah has four main movements (chs. 1–24; 25–34; 35–44; 45–51) with a number of sub-points outlining each (e.g., the book of consolation in Jeremiah 30–33). Overall, the book is a war of words, whereby God destroys his people (1–24), the false prophets (25–34), the unrighteous king (35–44), and the nations (45–52) with his word and then offers the promise of a future salvation.

The Structure Leads To The Storyline

Tomorrow, I will outline the book of Jeremiah, but for now, it is worth knowing that Jeremiah does show signs of order. And knowing, as they say, it half the battle. The other half of the battle is seeking to know the Lord and the words by which makes himself known. To that end, let us pick up Jeremiah and read, so that we can boast in the Lord who has spoken to us.

23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23–24)

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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