From honor challenge to false prophecy: rereading Jeremiah 28' s story of prophetic conflict in light of social-science models.
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 is Zechariah, where the Hebrew text reads nevi'im [prophets]).
In the Hebrew text of the book of Jeremiah, Hananiah is not explicitly labeled a false prophet but rather, and Importantly, as one who lies to the people and leads them to trust in a falsehood (sheqer). The difference may be subtle, but it is important, and it suggests that something other than an exclusively theological reading of the text should be undertaken to shed additional light on this dramatic exchange. Truth-telling and lying affect social order and solidarity.
The biblical writer underscores the integrity of Jeremiah. Such a favorable portrayal of Jeremiah serves the purpose of showing Jeremiah to be an honorable figure and the one to whom, in this exchange with Hananiah, not only the people of Jerusalem and Judah, but the nations as well (Jeremiah 27), should give ear. By the way the narrator has crafted the episode it was clear to all concerned that Jeremiah, not Hananiah, was to be identified as the prophet of YHWH whose word they should follow. There are obvious clues in the text, such as when Jeremiah warns the leaders of the nations of those who "prophesy falsely" (Jer 27:14; cf. v.9, 16) and when Jeremiah calls Hananiah a liar (Jer 28:15). But there are other clues that are evident when we reread the text in its cultural context, and it is to these cultural interests that we will turn.
Anthropologically speaking, intermediaries such as these figures named in Jeremiah 27-29 appear only in those societies where certain conditions are met, including the necessity of the services such figures provide. According to Wilson, they are most active when communities are experiencing social instability brought about by such experiences as economic upheaval, natural disasters, cross-cultural contact, and war. (6) Since many pre-modern societies interpreted such negative events as evidence of divine displeasure, it was precisely under these conditions that a community would seek out means for communicating with the gods in order to discover the divine will and perhaps appease the divine wrath. It comes as no surprise, then, to witness a surging number of prophets at work in Judah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries. Such a volatile situation was further confused by the competition between intermediaries, each claiming to speak the word from YHWH. Jeremiah 28 narrates one encounter between two of these opposing prophets, Jeremiah and Hananiah.
Social science models: a contribution to interpretation
Much has already been done to bring the anthropological model of honor and shame to the interpretation of the Bible, with the majority of early work being done in New Testament studies. (7) However, since culture changes slowly, it is here presumed that the social world of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel's monarchic period is continuous with that of the New Testament. Honor and shame have been recognized as fundamental values in the ancient Mediterranean world. (8) Honor, which may be either ascribed (inherited) or acquired, is understood to be one's own claim to worth within a society, together with a recognition of that claim to value by others; that is, one's claim to status must be publicly recognized. Halvor Moxness has put it quite succinctly, writing that honor is "fundamentally the public recognition of one's social standing." (9) On the one hand, ascribed honor ordinarily refers to that status one gets by birth: the higher in the village's social hierarchy one's family of birth, the higher one's honor ranking. Acquired honor, on the other hand, is the claim to worth and its social recognition to which one is entitled as a result of excelling in the on-going social interaction known as challenge and riposte. A challenge is any effort to impinge on the honor of another. Challenges typically take the form of a word, action, or gesture and may be either positive (a compliment or gift) or negative (insult, threat, physical assault). Riposte refers to the response, retort, or reaction from the one challenged and ordinarily appears as either a refusal or inability to respond, a rejection of the challenge, or a counter-challenge. Depending upon how successful one is in these exchanges, one's honor ranking may be modestly enhanced or diminished. If one is able to best another in challenge and riposte, and thereby increase one's own honor, the other suffers a corresponding diminution in honor. (10) Since many anthropologists argue that honor is at stake in nearly every social interaction in Mediterranean society (in antiquity and into the present), an interpretation of the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah would benefit from the application of the honor/shame model and attention to the social interaction of challenge and riposte.
If an interaction is to present a challenge to one's honor, two conditions must be met. First, an honor challenge can only take place between social equals. Secondly, recalling that one's honor ranking is a claim that is publicly acknowledged, the challenge must be issued publicly (11) With regard to the first condition, the figures of Jeremiah and Hananiah are presented in the book of Jeremiah as equals. Prophets may function at any level of the social structure and may be found in connection with any group in the society. Wilson uses the categories of central and peripheral describe the social standing of a given prophet relative to the center of the society's social, religious, and political power structure (one's social location). (12) In this scheme, those prophets who carry out their activities close to the centers of power may be called central intermediaries or central prophets. These figures often play regular roles in the religious establishment and enjoy a certain amount of social prestige and political power. They control political succession, maintain the status quo or regulate social change, and represent the official link between their societies and the divine realm. At other end of the spectrum are peripheral prophets who are far removed from the centers of power and who tend to operate instead on the margins of society. As such, these figures usually have no authority within the society as a whole and possess (in the view of those at the center) little status or political influence. In their role as intermediaries, these prophets often seek to improve their status and that of their support group and to encourage social change.
It should be noted that the distinction between these two types (central and peripheral) is not absolute; some intermediaries may be seen as either peripheral or central, depending on the point of reference used to make the classification. From the standpoint of society's religious and political elite (that is, from the center of power), prophets on the fringes of the society are indeed peripheral. They are viewed as nuisances and tolerated but can usually be ignored because they are considered to have no real political or religious power. On the other hand, from the standpoint of the marginalized group supporting a peripheral prophet, that prophet is of central importance since he represents a means by which the group may address the whole society. Finally central intermediaries may have once been peripheral figures, or vice versa. Such may have been the experience of Isaiah of Jerusalem, as well as Jeremiah.
Determining the social location of Jeremiah is notoriously difficult but a case can be made for interpreting him as a peripheral prophet. To begin the application of this honor/shame model to Jeremiah 28, one learns that while the center of Judean society is Jerusalem, Jeremiah comes from the city of Anathoth some 5 km northwest of Jerusalem. Geography alone, however, does not make Jeremiah a peripheral intermediary. In biblical tradition, Anathoth is remembered as the village to which Abiathar, one of David's high priests, was exiled at the time of Solomon's succession to the throne (1 Kgs 2:26). A supporter of Adonijah in his quest for David's throne, Abiathar is one of the losers when Solomon eventually becomes king. He escapes a death sentence but is banished from Jerusalem, the center of political, economic, and religious power. Jeremiah's association with "the priests who were in Anathoth, in the land of Benjamin" (Jer 1:1) makes him an ideological outsider to the Jerusalem establishment and may account for the prophet's critical stance against the Jerusalem temple, priesthood, and monarchy that typifies Jeremiah's oracles and sermons throughout the book.
As Wilson notes, a peripheral intermediary must have a support group of some kind for validation, developmental guidance, and vocational support. (13) In Jeremiah's case, various individuals came to his aid, including Baruch son of Neriah, his scribe, and Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian eunuch who rescued Jeremiah from the cistern (Jeremiah 32). There are also more politically connected individuals named throughout the text who appear to support Jeremiah to one degree or another In Jeremiah 26, "the officials and all the people" rise in defense of Jeremiah against the death sentence recommended by the priests and the prophets (26:11). At the very end of chapter 26, a certain Ahikam son of Shaphan enters in support of Jeremiah. According to the Deuteronomistic History, this was an important family--yet, perhaps, not a family with powerful, central connections in the administration of Judah after the death of Josiah in 609 B.C.E. Shaphan was a royal secretary to Josiah and appears in 2 Kings 22 when the temple repairs are begun. Ahikam, his son, was among the officials sent by Josiah to consult YHWH through the intermediation of the prophetess Huldah. A third prominent member of this family is Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, who was appointed governor over the people remaining in Judah by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. This was a family of central importance during the reign of Josiah which, apparently, fell out of favor during the reigns of Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. This appears to point to a fractured political leadership in Judah in the years leading up to the Babylonian conquest and exile. Jeremiah, a peripheral prophet from Anathoth, seems to have found support from others in Jerusalem who had once been powerful allies of the central administration but who were similarly marginalized, relative to the monarchy, priesthood, and prophetic advisors, in the years after 609 B.C.E.
It is similarly difficult to determine Hananiah's social location, although in his case the problem is the paucity of information available about him. This Hananiah appears only here in the Hebrew Bible (other Hananiahs appear elsewhere). In Jeremiah 28 he appears in a central location, the Jerusalem temple, in the company of the priests and "all the people." Read in the context of Jeremiah 27, however, it is reasonable to conclude that the narrator intends for the reader to see in Hananiah a particular example of those prophets, soothsayers, and diviners against whom Jeremiah rails in chapter 27 These are all central intermediaries, providing counsel to the kings of the surrounding nations (27:3-11), King Zedekiah of Judah (27:12-15), and to the priests of the Jerusalem sanctuary (27:16-17).
More importantly, however, is the way in which the storyteller has introduced Jeremiah and Hananiah. While few of the following observations are entirely novel, most interpreters overlook their fuller social significance. (14) First, both figures are introduced as "prophets" throughout the chapter. (Recall that in the LXX, Hananiah is introduced as a false prophet [pseudoprophetes] in Jeremiah 28:1. Nowhere in the LXX version of the story is "prophet" used as a title, as it is in the Hebrew Bible [e.g., "the prophet Hananiah," or "the prophet Jeremiah"; see LXX Jeremiah 35]). Second, each prophet bears a fine Yahwistic name: according to BDB, "Jeremiah" means something like "YHWH loosens" or "YHWH exalts" (BDB 941), while "Hananiah" means "YHWH has been gracious" (BDB 337). Third, each prophet comes from a similar geographic location. While Jeremiah comes from the village of Anathoth, Hananiah is associated with Gibeon. That is, not only do both prophets come from outside Jerusalem, they also both come to Jerusalem from villages in the old tribal territory of Benjamin. Holladay observes that "the propinquity of the origins of the two prophets might have sharpened the tension of their exchange." (15) Fourth, both prophets appear as messengers of YHWH, with each prophet introducing oracles with the messenger formula: "Thus says YHWH." In fact, what distinguishes the one prophet from the other in this narrative is solely the content of the message each gives.
All of this supports the claim that the honor challenge in Jeremiah 28 is between equals and is, therefore, a genuine challenge to which Jeremiah must respond. It is also clear from the text of Jeremiah 28 that the exchange between the two prophets is no private matter but a public encounter, thus meeting the requirement of the second condition that the interaction in which one's honor is challenged must be public. According to 28:1, Hananiah addressed Jeremiah "in the house of YHWH, in the presence of [literally, "in the eyes of"] the priests and all the people." A neatly identical scenario is set in verse 5, introducing Jeremiah's reply. Finally, Jeremiah 28:7, 11 further underscore the public nature of this exchange, referring to "the hearing [literally, "ears," verse 7] or presence ["in the eyes of," verse 11] of all the people."
Chapter 27 provides the context for interpreting the honor challenge in Jeremiah 28. The setting is, ostensibly, Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E., during the reign of Jehoiakim (according to the Hebrew Bible), where Jeremiah appeared wearing "bonds and bars" to symbolize "the yoke of the king of Babylon" and addressed envoys from the surrounding nations, announcing to them that "all these lands" have been given by YHWH into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon. Submission to Babylon would mean remaining in one's homeland, whereas those who rebel against Babylon would be punished by means of the sword, famine, and pestilence "until [YHWH] has destroyed them by his [Nebuchadnezzar's] hand." Jeremiah further announced that those intermediaries who had counseled "you shall not serve the king of Babylon" were prophesying a lie/falsehood (sheqer). Next, Jeremiah addressed Zedekiah directly, advising the same submission to Babylon and promising similar national deliverance and survival for Judah. Finally, Jeremiah addressed the priests and "all the peoples," warning them of prophets who speak falsely concerning the temple vessels remaining in Jerusalem and say that the temple vessels would not be taken away.
Thus, when Hananiah appears with a prophetic message that stands in direct contradiction to that of Jeremiah, the stage is set for an honor challenge. Publicly, Hananiah challenges Jeremiah by delivering a counter-message: Jeremiah is wrong about Babylon. He does not call Jeremiah a liar, or suggest that Jeremiah speaks falsely. The audience, however, is faced with two apparently legitimate but conflicting prophetic words. Jeremiah replies (his riposte) with a wish that Hananiah's message were right, but launches immediately into the outline of a specific criterion for determining an authentic prophetic word: a prophecy of peace can only be validated (and must be) by its fulfillment; a prophecy of judgment or destruction requires no such validation. Jeremiah, in essence, has met the challenge offered by Hananiah, and, in fact, has raised the stakes by introducing the necessity of fulfillment for Hananiah's prophecy of peace.
Two observations are in order about what follows next in the story. At first, Hananiah says nothing; he is effectively silenced by Jeremiah. When, however, Hananiah does finally respond, he becomes physical, seizing the yoke Jeremiah has been sporting upon his neck and breaking it. His actions are accompanied by the words: "Thus says YHWH: Just like this I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon within two years from upon the back of the neck of all the nations." Then Jeremiah departs (Jer 28:11). At this point, it is likely that modern, western readers of the story will interpret this exit as a defeat for Jeremiah: Hananiah has apparently won the game, and Jeremiah has lost honor. This would not have been the case, however, in the honor/shame culture of antiquity. Unable to match wits (which is what challenge-riposte actually tests), Hananiah resorted to violence. Hananiah's temporary silence, followed by his escalation of the exchange beyond mere words to violence, would suggest to the audience that Jeremiah had, in a sense, already been victorious. (16)
Not only does Hananiah contradict the message Jeremiah announces, he also assaults the prophet. He violates Jeremiah's personal space when he reaches out and seizes the wooden yoke resting on Jeremiah's neck and breaks it. So, not only does Hananiah challenge Jeremiah verbally (by way of the direct contradiction of messages), he also attacks him physically. And in an honor/shame culture, as Malina and Neyrey note, "a physical affront is a challenge to one's honor; unanswered it becomes a dishonor in the judgment of the people who witness the affront." (17) All of this, too, happens very publicly. It may also be significant that the assault attacks the head (neck) of Jeremiah. The yoke, of course, functions as a symbol for the submission of the nations to Babylon. Just as an oxen lowers his head to assume the yoke, so do the nations and their leaders bow before the authority of Nebuchadnezzar. It is an expression of dishonor that Hananiah wishes to deny. Malina and Neyrey observe the following, which may be used to interpret the treatment of Jeremiah by Hananiah in this story:
Honor is frequently symbolized by certain bodily features and the treatment given one's physical person. A person's body is normally a symbolized replication of the social values of honor. The head and front of the head (face) play prominent roles. ... Honor is displayed when the head is crowned, anointed, touched, or covered. Dishonor, however, is symbolized when the head is uncovered or made bare by shaving and when it is cut off, struck, or slapped. (18)
To this, one might add bowing--metaphorically--in submission to another authority. For Hananiah to seize the yoke resting upon Jeremiah's neck is to challenge the latter's honor, even as it represents a refusal of Jeremiah's message from YHWH.
Has Jeremiah suffered dishonor at, quite literally, the hands of Hananiah? Jeremiah departs apparently in order to return another day to the temple complex, freshly commissioned with another word from YHWH and now saddled with an answer to Hananiah's physical assault, as well as with an iron yoke and a new challenge to Hananiah. He answers Hananiah's earlier violent affront: "Listen, Hananiah, YHWH has not sent you, and you have caused this people to trust in a lie" (28.15). Malina and Neyrey indicate that "lying and deception are inherently challenging" since "to deceive or lie is to deprive another of respect, to refuse to show honor, and to humiliate ... in the competition for honor." They continue, however, with the observation that "lying is not a dishonorable action for the one who lies, but rather a challenge." (19) Hananiah has challenged Jeremiah by speaking falsely. In essence, in his next riposte Jeremiah engages in a bit of name-calling, and with only the slightest subtlety, calls Hananiah a liar, which is, in fact, "a great public dishonor." (20) At stake in this exchange is the truth, not as some philosophical concept, but as a social good. The people gathered in Jerusalem ("insiders"), and most certainly the king and the priests, were entitled to the truth, the authentic word of YHWH. (21) According to Jeremiah, by failing to speak truthfully Hananiah acted dishonorably and violated the social norms on which the community depended for its stability.
Thus, by becoming violent and by telling a lie, in essence Hananiah has issued another counter challenge to Jeremiah. In order to maintain his honor and keep the game of challenge and riposte going, Jeremiah is obligated to respond. He does this by publicly declaring the truth to all, "Listen Hananiah, YHWH has not sent you, and you have caused this people to trust in a lie ... within this year you will be dead."
In this rereading of Jeremiah 28 I have analyzed the exchange between Jeremiah and Hananiah using the social science model of honor/shame in order to expand our understanding of this story in its ancient cultural context. A case can be made for the propriety of reading Jeremiah 28 as an honor challenge, which results in a grant of honor to Jeremiah and the loss of honor for Hananiah. One of the outcomes of the narrator's work has been to portray Jeremiah as an honorable figure in society who, by this interaction and ritual, preserves his reputation by engaging Hananiah in a game of challenge and riposte--and being victorious. Jeremiah's success is further demonstrated by Hananiah's separation from the community by death, a development that significantly reduces the threat of "other prophets" in Jerusalem (according to Jer 37:19, Jeremiah's opponents have disappeared and his is the lone prophetic voice in the ear of Zedekiah). (22) When Jeremiah labels Hananiah a liar on the basis of the content of his prophesy, he insinuates that the word Hananiah speaks is not a word commanded by YHWH. It is not too much to imagine that out of this social interaction in Jeremiah 28 there eventually arose among the leaders in exilic or post-exilic Israel the notion of false prophecy (a capital offense), and of a "false prophet," who does not speak the true word of YHWH must (following Hananiah) also be subjected to the death sentence.
(1.) This project was supported by a Summer Research Fellowship from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, Crawfordsville, Indiana 47933.
(2.) See John H. Elliott, What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? (Minneapolis: fortress, 1993), 17-35.
(3.) Ibid., 37.
(4.) Ibid., 14.
(5.) Jer 5:31; 6:13: 8:10; 20:8:23:14, 25-26.32: 27:10, 14-16:28:15: 29:9, 21, 23, 31.
(6.) Robert R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 31.
(7.) See especially Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights From Cultural
(8.) Malina, New Testament World, 27-57; see also David G. Gilmore, "Anthropology of the Mediterranean Area," Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 11 (1982), 175-205.
(9.) Halvor Moxness, "Honor and Shame," in Richard Rohrobaugh, ed., The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 20.
(10.). Malina and Neyrey, "Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts," 30-31. See also "Honor/Shame" in John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, eds., Biblical Social Values and Their Meaning: A Hendrickson, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 95-104.
(11.) Malina, New Testament World, 33-35.
(12.) Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel 38-40, 69-88; idem, Sociological Approaches to (he Old testament GBS (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984), 74-76.
(13.) Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, 51-52.
(14.) See already Burke O. Long, "Social Dimensions of Prophetic Conflict," Semeia (21):Anthropological Perspectives on Old Testament prophets (Robert C. Culley and Thomas W. Overholt, eds., Chico: Scholars Press, 1982), 42-44.
(15.) William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 2, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 198), 127-128.
(16.) Bruce J. Malina and Richard R. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, .second edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 372.
(17.) "Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts," 35.
(18.) Ibid., 35.
(19.) Ibid., 37.
(20.) Malina, New Testament World, 42.
(21.) Malina and Neyrey, "Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts," 37.
(22.) Already in the last part of Jeremiah 29, a certain prophet named Shemaiah is rebuked for also prophesying when, in fact, he had not been divinely commissioned (cf. Deut 18:20), with the result that the people had been led to trust in a lie. As with Hananiah, Shemaiah and his descendants are prohibited from witnessing the good that YHWH will do for the people.
Mark W. Bartusch
Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana
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|Author:||Bartusch, Mark W.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2009|
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