Opening The Old Testament
A Return to Chaos? Reflections on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Listen now to Jeremiah in the light of that climate scenario I have just painted. "I looked on the earth, and look! It was tohubohu, and at the skies without light. I looked at the mountains, and look! Quaking! And at the hills, reeling and rolling! I looked and look! No one at all! All the birds of the skies had fled! I looked and look! The vineyard was desert; all its cities were smashed before YHWH, before God's awesome anger!" (Jer. 4:23-26) The key to this very dark picture is found in Jeremiah's use of a memorable figure from Genesis 1. The words I have translated "tohubohu" (yes, that has become an English word!) is a direct transliteration of three Hebrew words "tohu wabohu," found only in Genesis 1:2 and here in Jeremiah. In the Genesis account, tohubohu (often translated "waste and void" or similar words—I imagine the words are chosen merely for their sound which is decidedly spooky!) is an attempt to describe the earth before the creative God gets hold of it. That earth is dark and chaotic with a howling wind roaring over the endless waters of the vast deep. Into that monstrous place God brings first "light," and the world we know begins to form.
Jeremiah proclaims that the evil of Jerusalem is so terrible that the earth itself is returning to the chaos of the beginning, a world that does not know YHWH, a world on the verge of a return to chaos. In this new/old, terrible world, the skies are devoid of light (like the world at its origins), the birds have disappeared from the skies, and human beings are not present. Monstrous evil, says the prophet, can lead to monstrous results. This is no simple announcement of human sin that results in merely human consequences; human sin can lead to cosmic cataclysm where all ecological facets are compromised.
Surely, only a prophet with prophetic sight can see such vast implications in a world gone bad. But is that so? Must we wait for great and eloquent prophets to warn us of the consequences of our wanton actions? Can you and I not gain at least a measure of prophetic sight? It is far past time for us as a world to take with the greatest seriousness the threats to the ecological envelope in which we all live. Without doubt, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, along with all humans are under threat from the certain heating of the planet. It is time for us to act. No more gas guzzling cars! No more reliance on oil and gas and coal as the only and future sources of our energy needs! We need massive changes in our behaviors if we all are to live on this blue ball of earth. We all need to be prophets as we sharpen our eyes and find conversion in our hearts to the love and service of our earth, rather than its unimpeded exploitation.
"For thus says YHWH, 'The whole earth will be desolate; all of this I will do'" (Jer. 4:27)! However, that is only one way to read this verse. The NRSV translates it, "The whole land will be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end." This is a possible reading of the text, though it does appear a bit incongruous in the midst of all those harsh pictures of doom and destruction. And yet, is not YHWH a God always in search of ways "not to make a full end"? Is not this YHWH always anxious for us to wise up, to start doing good, to change our lives in ways so as to see the truth and to act on it? Must we make a return to chaos? Is that our inevitable fate? The hot wind is blowing on the earth. What will we do in the face of its roaring blast?
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.