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Sunday, October 16, 2016

The 'Am and the Yam

In my ongoing effort to read through the Bible in Hebrew, I just finished Jeremiah 5. One of the things that struck me about it this time through was the contrast between God's control over nature (v. 22) and God's people's ability to resist God (v. 23). God sets the sand as a boundary for the sea, and the waves of the sea can't pass it however much they may rage, but "this people" does manage to "turn aside and go away" from God's purposes.

In Hebrew, the word for "people" and the word for "sea" rhyme: "'am" and "yam." So the contrast comes through more sharply, at least to me (not being a Biblical scholar, I'm never sure if what I think I'm getting from the Hebrew is really what an expert, or an ancient reader, would get from it). Of course one possible theme here human beings' unique capacity to resist God through the exercise of their free will. But there's a further irony, because the passage is specifically speaking about God's people, whom God has chosen out of the nations.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the sea is portrayed as a symbol of the forces of chaos and evil, and specifically of the "heathen" nations who do not have a covenant relationship with God and who often persecute God's people. The tossing waves here remind me of the raging heathen kings in Psalm 2.

But the bitter message of this section of Jeremiah, I think, is not just that God's people outdo the forces of nature in their capacity to defy God, but that the heathen nations are paradoxically more submissive to God than Israel is. The Babylonians have just been described (in v. 15) as a nation God is bringing against Judah. In all their heathen rage, they are doing God's will. But "this people" manages not to.

Not much, it seems, has changed. Those of us aghast at the way large segments of conservative American Christianity have sold themselves to Donald Trump should remember that this is a very old story.

And, of course, we should watch for ways in which we, ourselves, manage to resist and betray God's purposes for us and for the world through us.

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