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? Continue reading