Jeremiah, Truth and Intelligence

JeremiahA couple of months ago I had a post talking about how Hebrews talk about things being true. While my focus was on common Mormon expressions like “I know the Church is true” the basic principle applies to many scriptures. That includes famous Book of Mormon ones like Alma 32. The basis for most of the post was an interesting book by the philosopher Yoram Hazony. He argued in his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture that there was an unique philosophy present in the Old Testament that had been largely neglected by western philosophy in preference to Greek notions. I only discussed the first less controversial part of the book. There he largely is just discussing the Hebrew notion of truth which is somewhat similar to the more Aristotilean notion of essence. Objects (not words or propositions) are true when they show themselves over time to be how they present themselves.[1]

The majority of Hazony’s book is a tad more controversial. Primarily because he’s arguing for a more coherent and consistent philosophy behind scripture. Many, best exemplified in Jon Levenson’s review, see Hazony as not giving enough attention to the different authors making up even a single book of scripture let alone the Bible as a whole. That is by focusing on the unity of scripture he misses the competing and different views in the texts that make up scripture.

All that said though, I think how Hazony reads Jeremiah is still worth considering. Even if many scholars might dispute Hazony’s more conservative approach of reading everything in Jeremiah as if it were written by Jeremiah in a coherent fashion. I say that because even if we must read Hazony with a certain suspicious stance, how he reads Jeremiah is extremely interesting.

His basic argument is that Jeremiah sees prophecy as calling people to use their minds and conduct independent inquiry. While I’m skeptical of how far Hazony pushes it (in contrast to how Mormons are apt to read the text) it’s still worth considering. A great place to see Hazony’s view is to look at his reading of Jeremiah 6:16-19. Allow me to quote from the NIV translation.

16 This is what the Lord says:

“Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.
    But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
17 I appointed watchmen over you and said,
    ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’
    But you said, ‘We will not listen.’
18 Therefore hear, you nations;
    you who are witnesses,
    observe what will happen to them.
19 Hear, you earth:
    I am bringing disaster on this people,
    the fruit of their schemes,
because they have not listened to my words
    and have rejected my law

In analyzing this passage Hazony says the following:

 What role does Jeremiah see the cries of the prophet as playing in the individual’s efforts to discover truth and do justice? An important passage teaches that while prophecy can perhaps be of some assistance, Jeremiah sees every man as having the capacity for independent inquiry, and the obligation to pursue it whether he has heard the voice of the prophet or not:

Let’s look, first, at the second verse in this passage, 6.17, which refers explicitly to the place of the prophet in assisting individuals in recognizing the truth. Here, Jeremiah has God saying, “I set watchmen over you” – referring to the role of the prophets by means of the metaphor of the sentries on the city wall, whose job it is to blow the shofar as a warning sign when trouble comes.13 The sentry’s blast is not, of course, a substitute for one’s own knowledge: To hear the blast of the horn from within the depths of the city is not the same as standing on the wall, as knowing what is actually happening outside the city, as knowing what must be done, as taking action. Indeed, the figure of the watchman suggests only a very limited function that the prophet can perform: He can warn the king and the people of trouble that is coming, drawing their attention to that which is most important when their thoughts would otherwise be elsewhere. In the eyes of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others who speak of the role of the prophet in this way, prophecy is understood as having the power to serve as a “wake-up call.” But this wake-up call, even where it is effective, is not itself capable of delivering the truth that is needed. It is only a call to get to work, a call to redouble one’s efforts, a call to seek the truth now.

Compare this now to the preceding verse, 16.16, in which there is no reference to prophets. Here God speaks directly to the people, as it were, without mediation. And here his message is that the people of Jerusalem, as individuals, should investigate things for themselves: “Stand on the roadways and see,” Jeremiah tells them, “and inquire of the paths of old which way is the good.” Here, as elsewhere in Scripture, wisdom is to be found in the streets – a metaphor that refers to those experiences in the daily life of a people that are public and accessible to everyone.14 Everyone has the ability to stand out on these streets “and see” for themselves what path leads to life and the good and what does not. Everyone can inquire into the comparative worth among the different paths that have been handed down of old. Finally, everyone can try these roads out themselves, walking on them, and experiencing “rest for your souls.” On this view, the quest for truth is once again seen as being prior to acts of justice and righteousness: One must first “Stand on the roadways and see,” and “inquire of the paths of old which way is the good”; and only then, having seen for oneself and inquired for oneself, can one walk on those paths that are good. Moreover, the quest for truth that Jeremiah here describes is an essentially empirical one. Every person has the capacity to go into the street, open his eyes, and examine different ways in which a person can behave, and the different ways in which he can live. The truth will become known to those who stand and look, who inquire and compare. The difficulty lies not in the impossibility of the task, but in the resistance of the people to the very activity of independent inquiry, which alone can save them.

Given this, it is no surprise that when Jeremiah comes to his conclusion three verses later, in 6.19, it is not the deeds of the Jews that he sees as bringing about the evil that is to come, but their thoughts: “See how I bring evil upon this people, the fruit of their thoughts.” For Jeremiah, it is not the brutal deeds of the men of Jerusalem that are the arena of the real drama that unfolds as the destruction of the city draws near. The real drama is the struggle over their thoughts, over their ability to distinguish in their own minds between that which is really to be relied upon, and counted as knowledge, and that which is vain and worthless. What is coming is “the fruit of their thoughts” – of thoughts that might have been found wanting, had they been examined.

The common Christian way to read this is in terms of a fideistic faith. One puts aside the untrustworthy mind in preference to the heart. (Arguably this is what Kierkegaard argues) Hazony is having none of this though.

If one assumes that these faculties can operate more or less independently of one another, then one can imagine setting aside the corrupt reasonings of the mind in favor of a pure and obedient faith, which believes without trying to understand, and which is located in the “heart.” Jeremiah, however, knows of no such possibility, because he knows of no such distinction between the mind and the heart. For Jeremiah, even if the mind is deceitful above all things, it still cannot be set aside in favor of another faculty of belief, for there is no other faculty of belief. To him, the human mind – the very same faculty that does the thinking and reasoning – is also that with which we believe. To say, as Jeremiah does, that the mind as deceitful is just to say that what is believed is the product of deceit. So Jeremiah can hardly be calling on the people to obey and believe instead of going after their deceitful thoughts, for it is precisely their capacity to obey and believe in anything real that he suspects.

Second, Jeremiah cannot be calling on the people to a blind obedience and faith because even if such a thing were desirable, there would be no way to know whom to obey and what to believe. For the problem of knowledge as it appears in Jeremiah’s orations is thoroughgoing: It challenges the content of Scripture as it appears to us because those who grasp the Tora may not know its meaning (“Those who grasped my teaching did not know me”); and it challenges the content of prophecy as it appears to us because the prophets may not have God’s word (“A vision of their own mind they speak”). This is not because the priests and the prophets are dishonest men, although there are dishonest men among them. It is because the mind is deceitful above all things. And as both the Scriptures and God’s word are understood only by means of the human mind, prophet and priest are deceived as to its meaning. But if one cannot rely on the prophet or the priest to get God’s word right, then there is nothing at all to be gained by an unthinking acceptance or blind obedience to Scripture or prophecy. If it is not the truth that one is accepting or obeying, then to accept it or obey it is worthless or worse.

All this means that Jeremiah has no recourse but to seek a resolution to the problem of knowledge within the context of a theory that views the mind as being deceitful in the things it presents. If there is a way for human beings to attain truth, it will have to be by way of the flawed mental apparatus with which God has equipped us.

Now of course Mormons will differ with Hazony here. We think it’s direct knowledge by the spirit that allows us to do this. So don’t think I’m not aware of Hazony’s problems here. Hazony adopts a view of a kind of natural law that is opposed to the artificial and untrustworthy laws people make.[2] As he see it for Jeremiah to depart from what is beneficial by nature leads us to pain and hardship such that even our arbitrary inclined minds can’t mistake. He quotes Jeremiah 4:18.

18 “Your own conduct and actions
    have brought this on you.
This is your punishment.
    How bitter it is!
    How it pierces to the heart!”

It is by consequences that we know. Hazony then quotes Jeremiah 2:17-19. “Your evil will chastise you, and your backslidings will reprove you, and you will know and see that evil and bitter is leaving the Lord your God.”

 Here, then, is Jeremiah’s answer to the question of whether we can escape the false words and false understandings that result from the arbitrariness of our minds. True, the mind is deceitful, and when it fixes on a mistaken way of seeing things, even painful consequences will not suffice to shake them loose. But God’s word is like a hammer that shatters rock. It enters the world and takes on a reality so overwhelming that false conceptions, no matter how tightly we cling to them, are destroyed before it. Once freed from these false conceptions, a new understanding can arise in the minds of men, one that reflects the truth. Knowledge, then, may elude the men of a given time and place. But it is coming. And all men, it would appear, have a chance of attaining it “in the end.” When, precisely, is the “end” of which Jeremiah speaks supposed to come about? The expression Jeremiah uses in this passage, be’aharit hayamim, can be read to mean, literally, “in the end of days,” and later readers have often understood this expression apocalyptically, as though Jeremiah were speaking here of the last days of the world. But this is a misreading of the Hebrew, and there is in fact no reason to think Jeremiah has such a distant future in mind. The word aharit (“end”) is also used, by Jeremiah as well as by other biblical authors, as a term to refer to what happens “in the end” – which is to say, at the end of the particular story being told. Jeremiah uses this term in this way, for example, when he asks the people “What will you do when the end of it comes [le’aharita]?” And when he presents God as entertaining, with respect to Israel, “thoughts of peace and not evil, to give you a future [aharit] and hope.” Jeremiah does not, in these passages, call on the people to think about the end of the world. He just wants them to think about how things are going to turn out, and not just about the way things look today. In the same way, the passage quoted above informs the people: “In the end, you will consider this and understand.” This is to say that in the aftermath, once the Babylonians have destroyed the city, the people will understand those things that had been so difficult for them to see before.

There are many echoes here of Alma 32 and Alma’s direction to take a test so we can know of his words. Indeed Alma 32 lines up very well with Hazony’s main argument. The main difference is that while Hazony sees God making rational arguments in the Old Testament such that natural experience will let people know the truth, the Book of Mormon sees personal revelation as an intrinsic part of this process of inquiry.

[1] See the original post for more examples. I also discussed it at my old blog. A lot of the points in this post were in a post at the old blog from a year ago on Jeremiah and Epistemology.

[2] You can see elements of this in John Locke as well as many other figures including arguably even Augustine.

7 comments for “Jeremiah, Truth and Intelligence

  1. October 4, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Are you saying that we need to put forth personal effort to learn the truth, and risk learning something not taught in Sunday School? Heresy.

  2. Clark Goble
    October 5, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Well I think his argument is a little more than that. As I said it is controversial on its own terms but also Mormon terms in certain ways. However the basics if perhaps narrowed more than Hazony takes it is important. It’s the idea that much of God’s commands are tied to consequences and are intrinsically knowable. Alma 32 makes the same point.

    Now there may be some things where that’s not true of where we have to take a bit more faith. (It’s for this reason that I’d love to know how Hazony reads Job where God is presented as unknowable in a way perhaps opposed to how Jeremiah presents him)

    I’d add that this has long been a part of the Mormon psyche going back at least to LeGrand Richard’s A Marvelous Work and a Wonder where utilitarian arguments are made to justify commands given by revelation. (I should note as an aside that I think if anything Mormons have gone a tad too far in this direction – especially relative to the Word of Wisdom)

  3. Carey F.
    October 18, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Clark — what source would you use to support your claim, “We think it’s direct knowledge by the spirit that allows us to do this.”

    I suppose I do hear this from time to time, but I’ve always just accounted that to people not being familiar with more nuanced views of faith and knowledge.

  4. Clark Goble
    October 18, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Carey, not entirely sure what you’re objecting to. I was just referring to the idea of personal revelation or communication to know if the things a prophet says are true. Hazony is saying we know by looking at classes of consequences of the predictions on their own terms. That is a prophetic statement is effectively interpreted the same as a secular statement via secular means. That is in terms of consequences or classes of consequences and patterns therein.

    Now I certainly don’t want to devalue traditional more empirical or especially pragmatic ways of knowing. Neither do I want to claim God will always clearly answer our questions about everything. (He certainly doesn’t for me) I do think though that if a prophet is making a controversial claim that our prior way of determining if he is right is via the spirit.

    Of course in practice I think things often are a more subtly blending of the empirical and spiritual ways of knowing. Certainly it’s frequently that way in my life.

    More significantly I think this is taught in various ways in the Old Testament. That is while I think Hazony raises a great point about the OT he expands it too much. Not just overlooking the competing authorship issue but the very different sorts of assertions in the text.

  5. October 19, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    But if “in practice…things often are a more subtly blending of the empirical and spiritual ways of knowing”, which I also find to be the case, then shouldn’t that temper the claim that “it’s direct knowledge by the spirit”. I’m much more comfortable with the language in Alma 32 where the end result is to say something is Good rather than to claim to have direct knowledge. Alma even limits this when he talks about what is learned to being confined to a given sphere. I find Alma 32 to be more harmony with what Hazony is arguing.

  6. October 20, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    A very timely and powerful message for me, especially the part about how the fruit of our thoughts will be the cause of our destruction. It’s as if the Lord spoke right to me!

    Thanks for following your inspiration.

  7. Clark Goble
    October 23, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    Well, I guess I’m still not sure of the objection. While sometimes things are a mix, that doesn’t mean the spiritual part can’t be broken out nor that there aren’t clear spiritual manifestations as well. I’m not trying to make a one size fits all solution here. I’ll be talking a lot about epistemological issues in the future so maybe I can clarify that more in those posts.

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