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Symbolic Acts: Helpful, but Potentially Deadly


Lesson #6, for discussion on Sabbath, November 7, 2015

The prophet Jeremiah was fond of symbols and that spells trouble for a believing community that wants to keep the whole tribe together. That’s because symbols, whether enacted or visual, split the crowd right down the middle. Concrete thinkers often treat them too rigidly whereas abstract thinkers are too easily inclined to shrug and not take them seriously enough.

One of my favorite illustrations describing the difference uses a map-reading metaphor to depict the contrast, comparing the concrete thinking of the fundamentalist with the abstract thinking of the rationalist: “The fundamentalist [is] one who says that the Ordnance Survey maps are true and therefore although motorways appear to be black asphalt, they are really blue, while the rationalist sees the map with its blue motorways as simply a primitive pretty picture.”1

This week’s glimpse of Jeremiah provides the opportunity for us to see how symbols can be helpful, but also deadly. Differences in personalities and cultures can lead to significant distortions. This week’s lesson opens with a symbol from outside Jeremiah. We will look at that symbol, and three more from Jeremiah itself. In each case, we will ask what the proper application is likely to be, but also what improper applications might come to mind.

1. Question: The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9). How does one go about determining the proper meaning and application of an ambiguous symbol like the serpent?

Note:The role of the serpent in Scripture and in culture is ambiguous. Here are two paragraphs from the chapter, “Whatever Happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” in Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Chapter #3). They speak specifically to the ambiguity of the serpent image:

In Genesis 3, an unbiased reader will strongly suspect the animosity which exists between the serpent and God, pointing in the direction of a full-fledged Adversary relationship. But the serpent figure is, in fact, an ambiguous one in the Old Testament.  The serpent attack recorded in Numbers 21 is successfully warded off by Moses’ raising a brass serpent, the later symbol of the opponent of God! There is even evidence to suggest that the people began to worship this serpent; thus it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).

The first clear identification of the serpent as Satan in Judeo-Christian writings does not come until Revelation 12:9. In that passage there is no doubt: the Dragon, the Serpent, the Devil, and Satan are all one and the same. Considering the strong role that the serpent plays in Christian interpretation, it is perhaps surprising that his identity is never really clarified in the Old Testament. An explanation might lie in the fact that in Egypt, the serpent is both a symbol of a good deity and of an evil one. The biblical writers thus could not really develop the serpent motif without raising the specter of dualism or something worse.2

The next two symbols, “The Potter’s clay” and “Smashing the Jar” stand in a certain tension with each other, pointing, on the one hand, to the possibility of change in the yet malleable clay, but, on the other, to the impossibility of change in the jar that was smashed.

2. Question: The Potters Clay (Jer. 18:1-12). How does one know when God can take a bad situation and make something good out of it as in the case of the still malleable clay? Does the jar that was smashed point toward a situation where change is no longer possible?

Note:Jeremiah’s listeners seem to have taken issue with Jeremiah’s symbol that suggested the possibility of change. “It’s no use,” they said, and continued in their evil ways (Jer. 18:12). Remarkably, the Apostle Paul seems to have taken this very passage and turned it on its head, arguing for something very close to predestination (cf. Romans 9:19-21)! That is what is so intriguing, challenging, and potentially dangerous about the use of symbols. They can be very helpful, but they can also lead astray.

Two modern quotations have a bearing on this idea of God making something good out of something bad, one from George MacDonald, and one from Paul Tournier:

George MacDonald: “It is so true, as the Book says, that all things work together for our good, even our sins and vices. He takes our sins on himself, and while he drives them out of us with a whip of scorpions, he will yet make them work his good ends. He defeats our sins, makes them prisoners, forces them into the service of good, and chains them like galley slaves to the rowing benches of the gospel ship. He makes them work toward salvation for us.”3

Paul Tournier: “The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil we do. I have been struck, for example, by the numbers of people who have been brought back to God under the influence of a person to whom they had some imperfect attachment. . . . Our vocation is, I believe, to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of raw materials.”4

3. Question: Smashing the Jar (Jer. 19:1-15). From a Christian perspective, is there ever a time when things are hopeless for a person or a community? What are the circumstances that reveal that a fate is fixed? Would the book of Jonah provide some “hope” for apparently hopeless situations?

Note:Within the passage describing the smashing of the jar in Jeremiah is an intriguing reference to human sacrifice. Jeremiah was taking the jar to the valley of Hinnom because that was where Israel had practiced child sacrifice. Jer. 19:5 states that God had never commanded child sacrifice. But Ezek 20:25-26 states that bad laws – including the command to sacrifice their children – came from God  in order that he might horrify them. That’s a classic theocentric approach which contrasts with the more anthropocentric approach of Jeremiah. One can find both perspectives in Scripture.

4. Question: The Linen Belt (Jer. 13:1-11). Is contact with surrounding culture always deadly as this symbolic act of the buried linen belt suggests?

Note:One can think of examples where God’s people were a blessing to another culture, rather than the other culture being only a curse to God’s people. That was true of Daniel in Babylon. Similarly, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jer. 29:4-23) asks them to pray for the city in which they found themselves. That was no less a city than Babylon.

In sum, we simply need to recognize that symbolic acts recorded in Scripture offer the believing community rich opportunities for careful pondering and prayerful discussion.  Jeremiah’s situation was incredibly grim. Yet the Lord gave glimmers of hope – for him and for us.

1. C. S. Rodd, ed., Expository Times, Mar. 94, 179, citing a medical doctor on Genesis: Jeffrey Boss, Becoming Ourselves: Meaning in the Creation Story (Mathew Lampson, 1993).

2. Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?(Energion 2011), 45-46.

3. George MacDonald, “The Bloodhound,” in The Curate’s Awakening (Bethany, 1985), 200.

4. Paul Tournier, Person Reborn, 80-81, via Philip Yancey, Reaching for an Invisible God, 264.


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