Walter BRUEGGEMANN, Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah. Ed. Patrick D. MILLER. Minneapolis, Fortress, 2006. pp. xvi + 212. $35.00 ISBN 978-0-8006-3561-9.
Reviewed by Robert L. HUMPHREY, Southern New Hampshire University, 2500 North River Road, Manchester, NH 03106.

The fifteen essays collected in this book provide snapshots of Brueggemann’s engagement with the prophet Jeremiah spanning a period of twenty years (1983-2002). The essays are not arranged chronologically but in thematic sections. The essays in the first section take a close look at how Jeremiah is being read and interpreted by other scholars, those in the second section provide a more detailed reading of texts and Jeremiah’s place in the larger scheme of things, and in the last section, Brueggemann grapples with the significance of the word of Jeremiah for today.

In his foreword, Miller points out that Brueggemann gets into Jeremiah’s skin and helps us do the same. “Brueggemann’s empathetic interpretation is such that often one cannot sharply separate the voice of the prophet and the voice of his interpreter” (p. viii).

In his preface, Brueggemann traces his long personal and scholarly occupation with Jeremiah, the dramatic turn that took place in Jeremiah studies in 1986 with the publication of commentaries by Carroll, Holladay, and McKeane, and the more recent turn from historical-critical methods to postmodern approaches which has meant a turn from the person of Jeremiah the prophet to the book of Jeremiah, especially the latter part of the book with its message of hope.

The first section of essays, entitled “The Word Spoken through the Prophet,” reviews scholarly work on Jeremiah. Of particular interest is Brueggemann’s trenchant critique of the commentaries of Carroll, Holladay, and McKeane which he characterizes as “intense criticism, thin interpretation” in contrast to the expository presentation of Clements with which he has much sympathy. This essay, written in 1988, signals the approach which Brueggemann has rather consistently taken to Jeremiah. His question is, “How could it be that the text of Jeremiah might redescribe our human life to permit new perceptions, new actions, new compassions, new obedience, new hopes?” (p. 37).

This agenda is carried forward in the second section of essays entitled, “Listening for the Prophetic Word in History.” These sometimes rather dense essays are more accessible to a specialist than the general reader, but at times they flash into poetry as they do in Brueggemann’s remarks to the National Council of Churches on the occasion of the dedication of the NRSV. “Israel and the church have on their hands a haunting text, filled with dark shadows and an inscrutable presence, not predictable, not held in our ideology, not confined to our familiar worlds. This haunting text, which always surprises us at the edge of reality, is inhabited by the Holy One who makes a restless home in the text....The text is characteristically remote, not obvious and available. It is more a night creature, never quite in our grasp or fully focused in our vision. We hear the haunting sound’s of God’s ‘otherness’; we find our principal delight in our uneasiness” (pp. 139-140).

This uneasiness continues in the third and last section of essays entitled “Carrying Forward the Prophetic Task.” In these essays Brueggemann attempts to interpret the significance of Jeremiah’s words for us today, a task he had earlier accused other commentators of falling short of. Topics include a sustainable alternative community, world peace, hope and despair, and prophets and the makers of history. The section concludes with a 1993 interview with Brueggemann himself.

In “A World Available for Peace” Brueggemann translates the prophetic words of Jeremiah into the situation of our own day. “The economic resources of our great nation are used on foolishness in a world of fear—have you no shame? Violence and terror grow because we are so fearful of our markets and our affluence in the world—have you no shame? Our country supports tyranny and torture in the name of democracy—have you no shame? We have enormous well-being, and yet people live in poverty and in hunger and without homes—have you no shame?” This was written in 1988, yet rings even truer in 2007.

The final essay of this collection is an interview with Brueggemann that originally appeared in the U.S. Catholic, “Why Prophets Won’t Leave Well Enough Alone”. Brueggemann repeats many of the themes he had earlier identified in Jeremiah’s words and suggests that the issue that prophets must address today in U.S. society is consumerism—consumerism that leads to militarism. “We must hold up covenant over and against commodity. We live in a society where everything and everybody is turned into a commodity. Our neighbor becomes a commodity to be bought and sold and discarded. Now from the ground up, what biblical faith wants to argue is that you’re never going to have enough commodities to be either safe or happy. You’re going to have to look for your safety and your happiness somewhere else, namely in covenantal relationships” (pp. 210-211).

Most readers of this review will agree with Brueggemann’s assessment of the prophetic task today, but they may have some difficulty wading through the argument of some of the more technical essays in this collection.

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