Rethinking the Land in Jeremiah 12

My first encounter with climate change came through Bad Religion’s “Kyoto Now!” At 12 or 13 years old, these lyrics rang in my in head: “In your dreams/You saw a steady state a bounty for eternity/Silent screams/but now the wisdom that sustains us is in full retreat/….Alien/We need a fresh and new religion to run our lives/Hand in hand/the arid torpor of inaction will be our demise.”[1]

As ice melts, forests burn, and the planet swelters, it is easy for many Christians to think that we need a fresh, new religion. We’ve been seduced by the “mythological, hopeful beast,” as evidenced by an addiction to fossil fuels.[2] The careless exploitation of the environment has long been couched in Christian platitudes. The Western Church’s empty expressions which extol the environment merely as our dominion demonstrate an underdeveloped view of the world. Despite that, perhaps what believers needs is not a new religion, but old wisdom.

A common perspective in Christian theology is the subordination of land to human and spiritual forces, which is rooted in Greek philosophies.[3] The natural is denigrated for our own benefit, on the assumption that people and acts can be understood in an intelligible manner when abstracted from the natural world. I believe the necessary corrective to this perspective is to understand that land as an entity we are in relationship with. This is a corrective that Indigenous theologians are already offering the Church, if only more believers would listen. Land is not just soil, but land includes all that live in it, on it, and above it. Indigenous theologians Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George E. “Tink” Tinker are unambiguous in their affirmation that land is alive (“both in a literal and figurative sense”) and “[is] the embodiment of spiritual power;” consequently, all of the earth is a gift, unable to be truly possessed.[4] Creation is to be treated respectfully and with a sense of responsibility to it.[5] Humanity occupies a niche in a cosmos that is “sacred and alive,” a cosmos which reacts to human activity, and (perhaps most importantly) a cosmos which broadly demands reciprocity.[6] Reciprocity assumes agency – the land gives not because it is required to, but because it has agreed to do so. Humanity’s unique position in this cosmos is not one of superiority, but typically one of befuddlement as people appear to be the one element on the land which is unsure of their place in the world.[7]

In comparison, it’s more likely to see land discussed in a way in keeping with capitalistic understandings of land as a resource. It’s not uncommon to see Western theologians speak of the environment as an inert blessing owned by God and rented out to peoples: land is understood merely as a blessing to people or as a possession which God allows people to use. Even when seemingly grounded in theism, this is fundamentally an anthropocentric understanding of land. The relationship is akin to a landlord and renter, while the land is simply a good in such a transaction. Theological language needs to be reworked to ensure that we are understood as being part of the created order and that we are in relationship with the rest of creation.

The natural reply one might expect, though, is that to read the Bible with Indigenous views of land in mind might bring animism into Biblical faith or that such an effort would be tantamount to paganism. But that assumes that the canon is devoid of such perspectives and, indeed, that the Bible predominately mirrors our own beliefs. However, the Bible preserves prophetic voices that more resemble the Indigenous perspective than the perspective of the mainstream Church. And Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry is one such instance.

In Jeremiah there are strong emphases on “knowing and clinging to God” and the importance of being on the land.[8] Broadly speaking, the failings of the people had a direct effect on whether or not they will continue to have place on “their God-given land.”[9] However it would be a mistake to assume that the land is without a role in this. Within Jeremiah “Earth is portrayed as having emotions” as it “suffer[s] and mourn[s]” while being obedient to “God’s commands.”[10] For the prophet, the earth mourns because it is deprived of “the creative order of the covenantal relationship between the people and Yhwh” which causes the land to “raise its voice in grief due to its separation from the people.”[11] These are themes that are present in Jeremiah 12, and special attention will be given Jeremiah and God’s discourse in that chapter.  

Jeremiah starts the conversation by simply asking: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (v. 1, English Standard Version). God is accused of “planting” a sinful people who are far from God (v. 2). Jeremiah implores Them to “set [the unjust] apart for the day of slaughter” (v. 3), and offers a plea on behalf of the land: “How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it the beasts and the birds are swept away, because they said ‘He will not see our latter end’” (v. 4).

It doesn’t take long for us to see an issue with how this verse is commonly interpreted. There is a tendency to assume that Jeremiah is actually speaking about his own situation or this is actually a prayer for the people. Verse 4 is too commonly treated as a non sequitur. But I don’t believe it’s an intuitive reading to regard Jeremiah’s closing statement as unrelated. My objections can be summarized quite briefly. First, if Jeremiah 12:1-4 continues the narrative of the previous chapter, there is no need for Jeremiah to pray for his own deliverance because he has been promised deliverance (11:21-23); he also knows that praying for the people will be fruitless (v. 11:14).  Second, if these verses are not related to the narrative found in the previous chapter, there is no need for Jeremiah to be obtuse and he could frame his concerns in a more straightforward manner. Thirdly, as God speaks to Jeremiah, the focus does not shift to speak of the prophet or the poor. Instead, as God speaks, They focus largely on how the wicked will be brought to submission by both the nations and nature.

Because it is commonly assumed that Jeremiah’s subject is not actually the land itself, God’s response to Jeremiah is often framed as if the Lord is dodging the question (or, at best, offering an extremely glib response). One commentator summarizes God’s response simply: “Cheer up, Jeremiah. The worst is yet to come!”[12] But if readers assume that Jeremiah’s concern for the land is genuine, that Jeremiah legitimately hears the sorrows of the land, then the chapter is much more cohesive and less ambiguous than commonly assumed. Throughout the entire chapter, there is “concern for a land that mourns (12.4, 11), and for the land as heritage (12.7-9, 14-15)” which form “interlocking themes across the chapter.”[13] If the land is excluded from discussions on God’s justice, then the result is a narrow understanding of how God’s presence is felt in the land. Throughout the chapter God speaks of both people and land as Their own inheritance – both are God’s possessions to be passed down. This brings to the forefront the brutal tragedy of Jeremiah’s ministry: God’s treasured possessions will be ravished. 

God’s inheritance, in this case God’s people, is given up to judgement. The judgement against Judah is abandonment, which causes the kingdom to fall into enemy hands. However, Judah has become like a lion against God. The kingdom is like an untamed bird that will be attacked by birds of prey. As God’s rebuke to the nation develops, the reader begins to see that creation will also judge the rebellious kingdom: the land itself is invited to be part of attack against Judah (vv. 10-13). The kingdom is surrounded as the nations, animals, and land itself all prepare to besiege God’s people.

Just as Jeremiah had brought forth a complaint about God’s justice on behalf of the land, God offers a response for the land. What is noteworthy is that Jeremiah and God have both heard the land’s cries loud and clear. That the land cries out is not in dispute. What is disputed is what the cries mean. When Jeremiah hears the land cry, he interprets that to mean that its helpless and in need of his intercession; God’s reply highlights that the land is empowered. God points out that the land has the good sense to mourn its plight: “Desolate, the whole land, because no one takes it to heart” (v. 11, New American Bible Revised Edition). The cries do not mean the land is weak, it means the land is dismayed that the people ignore it. Likewise, who is to blame for the degradation of the land is contested. Jeremiah blames the unjust – their sins had brought about the present condition – while God compares the desolation of the land to “the sword of the Lord” (v. 12, ESV). The sorry state of the land is God’s proof that the land is fighting back. Terence Fretheim concludes that “this grieving, angry God bears some responsibility for the wasted land.”[14]

God’s role in the land’s desolation is a contrasted to how the sinful people react. While sinners “deny any connection between [the plight of the land and creature] and their sin…. God does take some responsibility for the land.”[15] In fact, God will use the situation to correct the people’s sin. In this respect, the land and the creatures on the land are not different from the nations in other prophetic contexts: agents of God’s judgement. However, while the nations God employs to judge God’s people are typically treated as sinful creatures which inevitably overstep their bounds; the land and the animals are obedient agents. As a result, the land is no mere victim: “the land is depicted as resisting the destruction resulting from human activities” while being “caught in the middle.”[16] The land is shaped by its relationship to both God and people, but it has a distinct relationship with both. God appears to affirm that the land will become an active partner in bringing about justice.

God’s plan for justice reaches its fullness in verses 14-17. The nations and creation will mete out justice for God and the land has an opportunity to exact some measure of restitution. Yet, Elmer Martens notes that these verses complicate God’s answer to Jeremiah “by changing the agenda to a discussion of compassion.”[17] God will have compassion on Judah. Even more shocking, God will have compassion on the nations on those “who touch the heritage that I have given my people Israel to inherit” (v. 14). This also marks a shift in the meaning of heritage/inheritance. Previously in the chapter, inheritance had referred to Israel and God’s rejection of it. God abandoned God’s inheritance, it roared at God like a lion, and the inheritance was surrounded by birds of prey seeking its life; but in verses 14-15, the land is God’s inheritance that will be returned to the people. In short: God will give God’s inheritance to God’s inheritance. Inheritance here refers to a gift which is passed on from generation to generation.

Just as God had planted the unjust ones whom had taken root (v. 2), God promises that Judah will be “plucked” from exile and returned to the land (v. 15). The surrounding nations are also included in this oracle. The nations had taught God’s people how to worship other gods, but God’s inheritance will bless the nations as they teach them to worship Yahweh, and if they keep their Baals they will be plucked just as Israel had been – though their fate seems to be destruction, rather than exile (v.16-17). This further emphasizes the shift in meaning for God’s inheritance: in vv. 5-13, God’s inheritance (people) has been designated for judgement; in vv. 14-17, God’s inheritance (land) becomes the designated locus of God’s justice and compassion.

Rethinking how the Bible is to be contextualized as we consider the state of the planet does not require a complete abandonment of the theologies that came before. But we are required to rethink the assumptions we carry with us. Rethinking how we read Scripture is an important step in learning to see the world in a new light.  

[1]. Bad Religion, “Kyoto Now!,” by Greg Graffin, recorded 2001, track 7 on The Process of Belief, Epitaph.
[2]. Ibid. 
[3].  Vine Deloria Jr., The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1979. Reprint, Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2012), 55.
[4]. Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, George E. “Tink” Tinker, A Native American Theology, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 126-7.
[5]. Ibid., 33. 
[6]. Ibid., 41.
[7]. Ibid., 39. 
[8]. Elmer A. Martens, Jeremiah, Believers Church Bible Commentary, (Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 1986), 21.
[9]. Ibid., 24.
[10]. The Earth Bible Team, “The Voice of Earth: More than Metaphor?” 23-8, The Earth Story in the Psalms and the Prophets, vol. 4 of The Earth Bible, ed. Norman C. Habel, (Cleveland, OH: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 27.
[11]. Val Billingham, “Some Ecological Perspectives on Jeremiah and Exile.” Colloquium 45, no. 1 (May 2013): 19.
[12]. F. B. Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, vol. 16 of The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1993), 140.
[13]. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12,” 97.
[14]. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12,” 101.
[15]. Ibid., 104.
[16]. Ibid., 107.
[17]. Elmer A. Martens, Jeremiah, 100.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s