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)?

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[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.

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