Walter Brueggemann, a Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming

Walter Brueggemann, a Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming

John F. Craghan

Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998. Pp. xiv + 502. Paper, $32.00.

This work is the one-volume commentary that previously appeared in two volumes: viz., Jeremiah 1-25 in 1988 and Jeremiah 26-52 in 1991. Like its predecessors, the one-volume format employs the RSV as the basic translation. As will be noted below, Walter Brueggemann pursues the rhetorical-critical approach to the text of Jeremiah that is heavily indebted to the work of his mentor, James Muilenburg.

In a very useful introductory essay Brueggemann discusses recent Jeremiah study. He points out three important yet significantly different commentaries that initially all appeared in 1986. These are (1) volume one of W. L. Holladay’s commentary in the Hermeneia series (followed by volume two in 1989), (2) R. P. Carroll’s commentary in the Old Testament library series, and (3) volume one of W. McKane’s commentary in the International Critical Commentary series (followed by volume two in 1996). (To these we may now add J. R. Lundbom’s commentary on Jeremiah 1-20 in the Anchor Bible series.) Brueggemann characterizes Holladay’s work as an effort to uncover the direct and concrete connection between the text and the specific historical context. He sees Carroll’s interpretation as an advocate for social values and interests that are undeterred by historical facts. Finally, he views McKane’s scholarship as a successful undertaking that pays particular attention to the dynamic development of the book. For Brueggemann the cumulative effect of these studies is to undermine the influence of the historical-critical method on Jeremiah studies. “[T]he book of Jeremiah is not a `record’ of what happened, but rather a constructive proposal of reality that is powered by passionate conviction … (p. ix-author’s emphasis). On the one hand, there is an overwhelming departure from what might be labeled the old Mowinckel consensus. On the other hand, there is evidence of a much more dynamic and processive literary formation of the book.

Brueggemann’s approach to the text is clearly by way of rhetorical criticism. Such an approach pays great attention to grammatical nuances as well as to images and metaphors. Examples of this type of criticism include the repeated use of strong pronouns in 17:14-18, the device of homonym in 22:20-23, and the employment of the absolute infinitive of zkr in 31:20. In this work Brueggemann rightly suggests that feminist readings focusing to the considerable extent on sexual imagery merit the interpreter’s concern (e.g., the work of K. O’Connor, G. Yee, and others). The result of this rhetorical-critical methodology is that “one takes the `world’ offered in the text as a possible alternative world without excessive reference to external historical factors and without excessive interest in questions of scholarship (p. 15). What emerges from the text, therefore, is more a portrait of the prophet than a factually precise objective report.

In this rhetorical-critical analysis of the text of Jeremiah, Brueggemann is eminently successful. The reader senses the passion of the text with its emphasis on God’s abrasive freedom in an ideology of temple and court. A passage such as 32:16-25 that is often dismissed as late, tendentious rhetoric assumes a new life when one attends to “the delicate, torturous struggle of the text to find hope in exile” (p. 305).

Instead of a reprint of the 1988 and 1991 volumes with an introductory essay one might prefer a commentary in which the author would have engaged in an appropriate critique of the other Jeremiah studies mentioned above. To be sure, Brueggemann does refer to Holladay and Carroll. But there is not the kind of dialogue that seems merited by the sheer quantity of these works. Certainly such a venture would be indeed daunting for the author. At the same time it would have been a necessarily enriching enterprise for the scholarly world. After all, “de Jeremia nunquam nimis.”

John F. Craghan

St. Norbert College

De Pere, WI 54115

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