Scripture Mastery Context(s) Series: Jeremiah 16:16 – Should Missionaries be Hunting & Fishing?

“Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks” (Jer 16:16 KJV)

Seminary instructors, both full-time and volunteer, have urged countless students to commit this verse to memory in an effort to show that: “In the last days the Lord will send missionaries to gather Israel.” [1]  Even those who may have missed out on seminary needn’t look far to find this verse evoked in discussions surrounding missionary efforts (though interestingly enough it is absent from Preach My Gospel). “[T]he fishers and hunters described in Jeremiah 16:16 are missionaries of the Church,” the Old Testament: Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual explains. In like manner, if one follows the footnote attached to the word “fishers”  in the LDS edition of the Bible one will find the note “TG Missionary Work.” Similar usage of this verse occurs, both explicitly and implicitly, within various sermons, addresses, and commentaries by a multitude of LDS leaders and/or authors. [2]  Within this interpretive tradition I have heard it explained that this verse shows that some missionaries, often those serving “high baptizing missions,” will have “great success” just as a fisher brings in many fish using a net. [3]  On the other hand, some missionaries will have “limited success” as they “hunt out” those to hear the Gospel one by one. While this verse may coincidentally serve (with a bit of re-contextualizing and some creative exegesis) as a metaphorical spectrum to explain the baptism rates of full-time missionaries, an examination of the literary and historical context of this verse raises some interesting questions with regard to hunting and fishing among other things. [4]

On the whole, the Book of Jeremiah shows evidence of a complex literary history. [5]  Not only are there repeated passages (e.g. Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon” in Jer 7:15//Jer 26:1-9), but there is also significant difference with regard to length and organization between the Hebrew text (what is referred to as the Masoretic Text [MT]) and the Septuagint text (LXX) (a 3rd–1st century BCE collection of translations of the Hebrew into Greek). Interestingly, fragments of Jeremiah discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls often agree with the LXX text. Since the early twentieth century, many biblical scholars have identified three major types of material in Jeremiah: (1) prophecies, perhaps composed by Jeremiah himself (often referred to as “Source A”), (2) biographical narratives about the prophet; perhaps recorded by his scribe Baruch (“Source B”), and (3) material attributed to later Deuteronomistic hands who edited and expanded the work (“Source C”). More recently, however, scholars have been less sure that such strictly defined “sources” can be identified with any level of consistency or confidence. With regard to the structure of Jeremiah, it can be divided into 6 sections: I. poetic oracles against Judah (chs 1–25), II. prose narratives relating encounters with other prophets (chs 26–29), III. what is often referred to as the “Little Book of Consolation,” a (somewhat contextually odd) collection of hopeful prophecies about the future for Israel and Judah in the midst of more negative prophecies (chs 30–33), IV. a number of prose narratives concerned with Zedekiah and the fall of Jerusalem in 586 (chs 34–45), V. a section of oracles against surrounding nations, not unlike that of Isaiah or Amos (chs 46–51), and finally, VI. an appendix that follows 2 Kgs 24:18–25:30 in re-telling the events surrounding the fall Jerusalem (ch 52). [6]

Jeremiah 16 comes in the middle of the first section of poetic prophecies spoken againstJudah and Jerusalem (though with occasional oracles of hope), and within that section, begins a small collection of utterances attributed to Jeremiah (16:1–17:18). As one focuses in on v 16, the composite nature of Jeremiah becomes more apparent. Preceding v 16 are 3 divine prohibitions directed towards Jeremiah forbidding him to marry and have children (vv 1-4), attend morning feasts to lament the dead (vv 5-7), and attend feasts of a more joyful nature (vv 8-9). These instructions that in essence cut off a people from YHWH’s prophet are followed by an inquiry by the assumed audience (“why does YHWH speak all of this great evil against us?” [7]), a response that answers the question (because of unfaithfulness), and an announcement of a coming exile (vv 10-13). In the midst of such judgments, vv 14-15 come as a sudden surprise with their joyful promise of a new gathering. Even more curious, vv 16-18—rather than continuing with the celebratory tone of vv 14-15—hearken back to the somber mood of the judgement riddled  vv 1–13 (the mood will again change back to one of hope before the conclusion of ch 16; see vv 19-21). This abrupt change has led some commentators to conclude that v 16 originally came immediately after v 13 with vv 14-15 being a later (perhaps Deuteronomistic/exilic) addition. [8]  This does seem to explain the similar themes of judgement found in both vv 1-13 and vv 16-18:

“[Y]ou [Israel] have acted worse than your ancestors—and each one of you are walking after the stubbornness of his evil heart—such that you do not listen to me [YHWH]. Thus, I will hurl you out of this land upon a land you do not know, neither you nor your ancestors—and you will there serve other gods day and night—in which, I will show you no mercy.” (Jer 16:12-13)

“‘Behold, I am sending for many fishers,’ declares YHWH, ‘and they will fish them—and after this, I will send for many hunters—and they will hunt them from upon each mountain and from upon each hill, and from the cracks of the rocks.’” (Jer 16:16)

However, this mixing of moods is not unknown to biblical literature or even Jeremiah (cf. Jer 20:7-18). [9]  Whatever the case may be, it appears that v 16 was not meant to bring hope to Israel. This seems clear from the next verse that adds crucial context to v 16: “For my [YHWH's] eyes are upon all of their ways; they are not hidden before me [YHWH]—and their iniquities are not concealed from in front of my eyes.” (Jer 16:17). Though the image of being “hunted” and “fished for” does not mandate a scene as hostile as that of the medieval Aramaic Targum Pseudo-Jonathan—supplying the word “killers” for “fishers”—these verses do seem to paint a picture of an enemy force (Babylonians?) under the control of YHWH, carrying out a military operation that involves the capturing of Judah’s population, an event that no doubt would have included people dying. Not quite the hope-filled message that we would want to share with the world.

This brings me back to my original musings about a missionary-oriented reading of Jer 16:16. Far from God promising that “hunters” and “fishers” (complete with black name tags) will bring a particular group or individual a message of hope—of contemporary prophets, visions of the deity, latter day scripture, etc.—the author of Jer 16:16 speaks of God distributing deserved punishments. How exactly does this relate to missionary work? Surely there are myriads of examples where multiple meanings and/or interpretations seem justified, but does a missionary-centered reading of these verses just go too far? Where (if any) is the line between applying scripture to our own situation—”liken[ing] all scriptures like unto us” (1 Nep 19:23)—and responsible contextualization?

Maybe we should just stick to “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19 KJV)?

____________________________________

[1] See the back of the Scripture Mastery card for Jer 16:16 under the heading: “Doctrinal Teaching.”

[2] For example, see “Jeremiah 16: Hope in the Latter Days,” in Old Testament: Seminary Student Guide (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2002), 158; Victor L. Ludlow, Unlocking the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1981), 181-82; Russell M. Nelson, “The Gathering of Scattered Israel,” Conference Report (Oct 2006); Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Pulling in the Gospel Net,” Conference Report (Oct 1986); LeGrand Richards, “Be Ye Prepared,” Conference Report (Oct 1981); “Prophecy,” Conference Report (Apr 1974). A less explicit reference to Jer 16:16 can be found in Orson Pratt, JD 2:226. R. Galbraith has noted perceived echoes of Jer 16:16 in two of Joseph Smith’s sermons though I find his assessment questionable at best, see Richard C. Galbraith, Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1993), 41 n15, 313 n3. The use of Jer 16:16 to discuss missionary efforts is often discussed within the larger concept of the “gathering of Israel” as can be seen in many of the above examples. Interestingly, Gospel Principles uses Jer 16:14-15 to discuss the “gathering of the House of Israel,” but does not evoke v. 16.

[3] Those I have heard this interpretation from are usually measuring “success” by the number of individuals that they teach and baptize and/or see baptized.

[4] For an LDS author who has pointed out the contextual problems with interpreting Jer 16:16 as having to do with missionary efforts, see David Rolph Seely, “I Am With Thee, To Deliver Thee: Jeremiah 1-20,” in Kent P. Jackson, ed., Studies in Scripture: Volume Four – 1 Kings to Malachi (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1993), 214-34 (227-28).

[5] The following have been helpful to me in surveying the scholarly issues and questions surrounding the book of Jeremiah: Michael D. Coogan, “The Book of Jeremiah,” in The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (2nd ed.; New York: Oxford, 2011), 364-74; Robert Davidson, “Jeremiah, The Book of,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York: Oxford, 1993), 343-47; William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah Chapters 1-25 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986); Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah Chapters 26-52 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989); Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 21A; New York: Doubleday, 1999); Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Jeremiah,” in Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds., Women’s Bible Commentary (Expanded Edition; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 178-86.

[6] For this ordering of the structure of Jeremiah see Coogan, The Old Testament, 365.

[7] Unless indicated, all translations are mine.

[8] For example, see J. Philip Hyatt, “The Original Text of Jeremiah 11:15-16,” Journal of Biblical Literature 60 (1941), 57-60. Holladay notes that the text in vv 14-15 is also found with minor variation in 23:1-6. He judges the ch 23 occurrence as “appropriate in the context of other restoration material in 23:1-6,” but suggests that vv 14-15 in the ch 16 context “have been inserted secondarily.” Holladay, Jeremiah 1, 476.

[9] See Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20, 766-67 on this point.

  • The Yellow Dart

    MormonDeadhead,

    Thank you for this post and for continuing your series on Mormonism’s current Scripture Mastery texts and their original historical and literary contexts as well the Mormon interpretive traditions that surround their usage in contemporary LDS communities. You raise important theological questions that deserve careful attention. The issues of Scriptural authority and hermeneutics are ones I have wrestled with and thought about for some time. (see my several posts on these kinds of subjects here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/author/theyellowdart/; see especially, “Understanding the Scriptures and Apostasy Theologically From a Canonical Perspective (Part 1)”; “On Biblical Scripture”; “Isaiah 7:14 and Scriptural Hermeneutics”; “Scriptural Authority, Normativity, and Hermeneutics: Women and the Priesthood”; and “(Re)writing the Bible in Antiquity and Today”).

    Proof-texts combined with interpretive traditions that fail to adequately grasp the historical and literary context of their source abound in virtually all Jewish-Christian religious traditions that take the Bible as canonical, religiously authoritative Scripture. Moreover, persons – scholars included – necessarily read some part of their contemporary experience into the texts they read and study – and I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, provided that one attempts to place controls on it (hence the great need for rigorous discussions of theory, hermeneutics, and methodology). Indeed, the modern day setting provides the basis for the types of issues and the various questions that one brings to the study of (ancient) texts in general, and of the Bible in particular. The philosophical scholarship and literary theory studies devoted to these issues of hermeneutics and semiotics is vast and important.

    When I look at this problem from a theological perspective, I am interested in the fact that modern Mormons, regardless of the original historical and literary contexts, have read this text as a proof-text that applies to missionary work. The question for me then becomes, what has lead modern LDS Christians to interpret this text in such a way? Discerning the meaning of Scripture in its original historical and literary contexts is important for theological discussion and reflection, but is insufficient from a theological perspective that takes t/Tradition seriously (as, e.g., many Mormons, Jews, and Catholics do). I think it is important to look at how an interpretive tradition grew organically (although not deterministically) from the text from which its draws.

    I would ask a number of theological questions while diachronically tracing this interpretation and the interpretive stages that lead to this interpretation from a historical perspective: Does it occur outside Mormon contexts? Where does it originate, or at least what is its earliest attestation? If it does begin outside of Mormonism, how does it develop within Mormonism once it is taken over? What are the hermeneutical moves that the interpreters who use the text for this kind of interpretation making, and why? What in the proof-text itself lends itself to this kind of interpretation? How does the text and its interpretation work within the Canon? That is, what kind of canonical pressure does or can the other elements of the Bible (and by extension the LDS standard works) exert on the text to allow for this kind of reading? In what kinds of contexts can such interpretive strategies be valid? And many others questions.

    I think that this text can remain in usage for Scripture Mastery (it certainly is not the only Scripture Mastery proof-text used to prove a point that it in its original and historical context cannot make). But before the text is used as a proof-text for a particular point, the layers of interpretation throughout the history of the text’s existence – all historically conditioned – need to be placed in view as clearly as possible. When one does this I think that the beauty of Scripture and its ongoing interpretation by Tradition can be more fully appreciated, and so lend itself to more meaningful theological reflection and discussion.

    I believe that texts can have relevance for modern readers, but such relevance requires a hermeneutic that can give the text meaning in the reader’s contemporary context – a “hermeneutic of retrieval,” if you will (to use Levenson’s phrase, IIRC). The historical-critical method, as important as I think it is, only gets one so far in this direction, for after it breaks down the text into its historically conditioned parts it is not always able to piece it back together and to make it relevant for modern readers – and this is especially the case for modern religious readers who take the Bible (or other Scriptural texts) as important to their faith and daily praxis. Hence I think a more canonical approach that takes Tradition seriously (such as I have outlined elsewhere and cited above) can help in this movement from past to present relevance.

    Thanks again for helping me to continue to think about these issues. I appreciate any insights or corrections you might have.

    Best wishes,
    TYD

  • The Yellow Dart

    And I would also note that the recontextualization and the reuse of Scriptural texts (from the more modern canonical perspective) occurs within the Bible itself, thus lending a precedent of sorts (and encouragement) to the (re)use of Scripture for purposes other than those originally intended by the author in t/Tradition as new contexts and situations arise (if one can speak of authorial intention and gaining access to it anyway). Scripture is dynamic in this way.

    But again, being of aware of these kinds issues is important so as to not have the rug pulled out from under you.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • Grant

    I have found that a useful place to begin tracking non-LDS early nineteenth-century biblical interpretation is Adam Clarke’s multi-volume commentary (1810-1826), which is conveniently online. At Jer. 16:16, Clarke writes:
    “Verse 16. I will send for many fishers-for many hunters, [which can be paraphrased as] I shall raise up enemies against them some of whom shall destroy them by wiles, and others shall ruin them by violence. This seems to be the meaning of these symbolical fishers and hunters.”
    This doesn’t sound much like missionary work, so the Mormon reading may be distinctive.

  • Joe Spencer

    This is perfectly parallel to the way Latter-day Saints have interpreted Isaiah 5:26-30 (see also 2 Nephi 15:26-30). It is unmistakably a prophecy of destruction—the Lord calling distant nations to come lay waste to Israel—but it is consistently interpreted as a prophecy of latter-day missionary work. This is all the stranger because James E. Talmage introduced the idea that the war imagery here (with horses’ hooves, bent bows, the roaring like lions, etc.) was all a primitive attempt to describe the trains Isaiah saw in vision, carrying missionaries to the extremes of the earth.

    The fact that we have done this several times over—prophecies of war against Israel interpreted as prophecies of latter-day missionizing—is curious. Is there an underlying reason? What might be learned if one were to dig out the interpretive tradition’s roots. Does this kind of interpretation appear among other conservative Christian groups, particularly the eschatologically minded, in the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century? And how far back does this interpretive tradition go in Mormon history?

    I’m intrigued.

  • http://timesandseasons.org Ben S

    I’ve often used Jer 16:16 as my in-class go-to obvious example of re-reading scripture into another context. That and 1Nephi 19:23.
    I once traced the LDS history of interpretation of the Isaiah passage Joe mentions, and have seen both interpretations. Reynolds, for example, says it’s the Assyrians. My younger brother took the Isaiah class from Ludlow, who spoke on both interpretations.

  • MormonDeadhead

    TYD,
    Spot on! This post took a lot longer to write than I ever anticipated; much of that had to do with the questions that you lay out in your comment. Finding some sort of relationship between historical critical approaches and canonical/theological approaches has proved to be a most difficult task for me. I think you’ve really identified something in the very act of recognizing oneself as an (biased) interpreter/reader of scripture. This leads me to ponder about how a SS/GD setting might differ if all were aware that texts must be read and therefore interpreted. As a side, some of the more interesting discussions I’ve recently had in church settings involved an analysis of the interpretive tradition of a particular text. Thx for the comment!!

    Grant,
    I also checked Clarke’s and wondered if the mission-oriented interpretation was unique to LDS. I also checked half a dozen or so of the more popular evangelical Bible commentaries that I know of—none of which had any sort of evangelizing element in its discussion of Jer 16:16. Future Jer 16:16 part II post perhaps ….

    Joe Spencer,
    Yes, I thought much about the the Isa 5/2 Nep 15 vv while doing this post. It is puzzling, especially since it seems to be the “not so pleasant” bookend of the much more pleasant Isa 11:10-12//Nep 21:10-12 (particularly in the BoM). Why not use the more pleasant version for missionary work if we want to talk about an ensign that isn’t the Assyrians coming to mow us down? Also, perhaps I have been wrongly attributing the horses’ hoofs = trains, etc. to Marion G. Romney? Do you have a source on the Talmage bit? I would be interested. PS/Sidenote: I have very much enjoyed your “An Other Testament”, thx!

    Ben S.,
    Not that you can speak for your brother, and perhaps something of an answer is contained in TYD’s comments above, but it seems really difficult to see how Isa 5 could be read as both, just contextually speaking. I’m not doubting Ludlow has a way or that it can’t be done, just wondering how it works. It’s seems that if one could recognize the Assyrian interpretation, then a missionary interpretation would be difficult, no?? Again, maybe I need to be thinking more in a scripture-as-polyphonic/history of interpretation way.

    Thank you for the comments everyone!

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  • AnotherDamnMormon

    The tradition of linking this scripture with Peter’s call to be a “fisher of men” goes back at least to 1726 when Bach used both as movements in his Cantata BWV 88. The lovely first movement uses a German translation of Jeremiah 16:16 as the text: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uW17dEAzSo
    ^Note the Dore engraving in the backround of this upload is also of the NT scene. A translation of the entire cantata is here:
    http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/BWV88-Eng3P.htm
    It is interesting that the text doesn’t support an conversion explicitly, but rather a return to God’s grace through repentance. In modern LDS parlance, this is reactivation not missionary work, perfecting the saints not proclaiming the gospel.

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