The Function of Symbolic Actions in Jeremiah
The recorded prophecies of Jeremiah describe a troubled, yet passionate man, in a position between his people and Yahweh, called to proclaim the Lord’s message, a message which causes the people to reject him. Desperately desiring his people to believe the message he proclaimed, Jeremiah employed various ways of communicating his prophecies, attempting to persuade his people to repent from their prideful and idolatrous ways, lest they receive the punishment he prophecies. Repeated several times throughout his career are what are known as ‘prophetic actions’, in which the prophet dramatically acts out the prophecy (Jer. 13, 19, 32).
This essay analyses part of the debate surrounding the function of these prophecies, attempting to argue for Friebel’s proposed ‘Rhetorical Nonverbal Communication’ hermeneutical approach as an appropriate understanding of these actions. Friebel’s approach is centered on the idea that these prophetic actions were intended to be seen as persuasive devices, used to further convince the prophet’s audience to believe the prophet. The essay will analyze this approach in light of other approaches, examples in the Old Testament, and the specific examples in Jeremiah, specifically chapter 13.
Function of Old Testament Prophetic Actions
Jeremiah was not unique in his prophetic actions, and “was in a long tradition which continued after his death,” as other prophets, such as Isaiah and Ezekiel also performed prophetic actions. The functions of these actions, however, are as diverse as there are actors. Many commentators have attempted to place an over-arching paradigm to these prophetic actions, but due to such diversity, no commentator has yet been successful. Friebel details several of these paradigms, concluding that most fall short.
The first and most common of these is the “causal link”. According to Carroll, “These are not just actions which illustrate words with gestures but are part of the creation of the thing itself – they make things happen.” In other words, the actions essentially cause the prophecy to come true, or “have an efficacy in their very happening; that is, they set in motion that future they portray.” If the prophecy is already in being in some way, it is assumed that it is unavoidable.
As Friebel highlights, this limits the prophecies to one sort of prophecy, that of foretelling. Hence, this excludes prophetic actions that include references to the past and present. For example, in Jeremiah 13, there are references to the past, in that Israel once – like the loincloth – was in a very intimate position with Yahweh; and references to the present, in that Israel, having been removed from Yahweh and influenced by pagan customs, is now ruined and worthless. Thus, the ‘causal link’ paradigm fails to relate to all symbolic actions.
Stacey argues for the symbolic actions to be “best understood, not as introductions of future events, but as dramatic expressions of present ones,” and “a theological reflection rather than a prediction.” Or, as Stacey’s wife later argued,
They are not to be understood as mere visual aids – illustrations or ‘acted parables’ – intended to bring home to the prophet’s audience in a memorable way the significance of his message. Nor should they be seen (like instrumental magic) as bringing about the events they symbolize: they did not cause things to happen! Rather these things are dramatic presentations of the truth, an unveiling of what already exists in the divine intention.
These actions do not cause the event, but express the reality of that event. Friebel argues that this approach neglects major aspects of the purpose of the action. Stacey’s paradigm overlooks the communicative and persuasive aspects of the action, of which Friebel argues is the primary purpose of the act. As the causal link paradigm negates the past and present, this paradigm largely negates the future.
Jonah was commanded to prophesy destruction to Ninevah, yet this prophecy obviously left room for repentance, as the ‘great city’ repented and was not destroyed. Along with the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel which declared the future destruction of Israel, and of the prophecies (such as Jeremiah 13) which partly deal with the past and the present, it is obvious that no over-arching paradigm can be placed over the prophecies of the Old Testament. Friebel proposes what he labels ‘Rhetorical Nonverbal Communication’ as a hermeneutical approach to interpreting the prophetic actions. In this, he leaves room for differentiation, but focuses on a) their communicative aspects and b) their persuasive purposes. Rather than placing an over-arching paradigm on all the actions, his approach “views the prophetic sign-actions through a broader lens,” and allows for the many aspects of these actions to be analyzed within their own contexts, with an appropriate focus on their persuasive nature.
Prophetic Actions in Jeremiah
Jeremiah employs prophetic actions regularly throughout his prophetic career. As has been discussed, the functions of these actions vary depending on the context. This essay shall now explore three examples of these actions, before turning its focus to an exploration of the function of the linen loincloth in Jeremiah 13. The first of these actions is found in chapter 16, where Yahweh forbids Jeremiah from marrying and having children, and from attending weddings and funerals. Gowan notes that some prophetic actions have incredible affects on the prophet and literally change their lives. Hosea’s prophetic action was to marry his unfaithful wife, and Isaiah went naked and barefoot for three years. In similar fashion, Jeremiah was commanded not to marry or have children. Not to have a wife or children was considered a curse in the Ancient Near East, thus the commandment of celibacy “made his life a picture of the terrible fate that awaited the nation.” Jeremiah was to experience the grief of losing a family, the grief that the whole nation would soon be experiencing.
The second symbolic action can be found in chapter 19, where we read of God commanding Jeremiah to 1) buy a potter’s earthenware jug, 2) take a crowd to “the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, 3) proclaim the Lord’s words of disaster and judgment due to their idolatry, 4) smash the jug, and 5) repeat the Lord’s words of judgment. The purpose of this passage is fairly straight forward. The question, however, is to do with the function of the action.
Dearman notes that the potter’s workshop carries connotations of God’s sovereignty and his being the creator, readily able to remake and reform. However, he merely classifies the act as a “parable in action.” Thus, he essentially argues the act was purely educational in nature. Clements, perhaps more successfully, argues that the function of this act was “about seeking an opportunity to startle his audience with his message,” thus closely aligning itself to Friebel’s proposed ‘Rhetorical Nonverbal Communication’. The act is persuasive and visually shocking – evidenced by the audience’s reaction.
The third can be found in chapter 32, and is the seemingly obscure act of purchasing land, despite Jeremiah’s claim that Judah will shortly be conquered. Clements notes Leviticus 25:25-31, in that, according to the Law, the next of kin has privileged rights of purchase. He argues, then, that Jeremiah must have been the nearest of kin. Martin Wang, however, postulates the idea that “Hanamel was not a sympathizer of the prophet’s ministry, and might have been an enemy,” and thus was testing Jeremiah – if Jeremiah truly believed what he was prophesying, the purchase would be a waste of money; if Jeremiah refused the right of purchase, he would be breaking the Law. Wang’s argument is based on a) the problems Jeremiah had had with his kinsmen from Anathoth and b) the fact that it is unlikely that, as a cousin, Jeremiah would be the next of kin.
However, no matter which interpretation is better, the symbolic act itself is still profound. Jeremiah purchased the land and used this act as a way to project hope. The exile into Babylon will surely come, but Yahweh will not abandon them completely, for they will return to somewhat normality after the exile. Furthermore, Jeremiah acted as redeemer in the purchase, or,
in other words, it was a redeeming action rather than a simple transaction concerning the land. In this prophetic symbolic action, Jeremiah not only dramatized the hope for the future by buying the piece of land at his home town in the present hope-less situation, but he also enacted the redeeming purpose of Yahweh by fulfilling the obligations of the ‘redeemer’.
In this action, Jeremiah lives out Yahweh’s will. This is easily compared to Hosea’s symbolic action of forgiving his unfaithful wife. Again, this action has strong links with the Rhetorical Nonverbal Communication approach, being persuasive in nature, i.e. Jeremiah claiming he can truly sympathize with Yahweh.
Jeremiah’s first symbolic action is recorded in 13.1-11. Here we read of three commands, Jeremiah’s obedience to each of those commands and an explanation of these actions. Cohen reflects upon these three commands and three acts of obedience as an example of Jeremiah’s empowerment despite difficult circumstances. Further, Dearman notes that the passage is written in an autobiographical style, thus something of the character of Jeremiah himself is revealed, i.e. emphasizing Jeremiah’s call to prophecy and his obedience to Yahweh. This further adds to the persuasiveness of this action, as this is not merely something Jeremiah does, but is something he feels.
Biblically, clothing is commonly used to represent identity. As Clements further notes, “the loincloth is the most private and personal of the garments a person wears,” thus Jeremiah’s loincloth represents the intimate relationship Israel once had, and was intended to have, with Yahweh. Evidently, relating Israel to a loincloth would have been shocking to some, and seeing that loincloth be destroyed would have undoubtedly been even more shocking. Southwood argues for this passage to be interpreted, less as prophesying an actual event to come, and more as a condemnation of Israel’s pride. He concludes, “the symbolic action…threatens Judah with an invasion from Babylon as a consequence of her apostasy from Yahweh to whom she had formerly clung closely and safely.” It is probable that Jeremiah’s intention with the prophetic action was to intentionally be controversial, in order to persuade the Israelites of their pride and idolatry. Therefore, as Friebel states,
The sign-acts were simply one of the prophetic means of communicating various kinds of messages, and that prophetic proclamation intentionally sought to persuade the receiving audiences through a whole variety of rhetorical strategies available to the prophets.
There is no single paradigm that can be placed over all the prophetic of actions in Jeremiah, or in the Old Testament, that can fully explain the function of each action. As has been discussed, the function of each action can only be examined within their own context. The common link between them is that – just like the all the prophecies, acted or spoken – they were employed as persuasive devices. Jeremiah deeply desired his people to believe his prophecies, yet they continually rejected him. He used prophetic actions as an attempt to convince his audience that he was, in fact, a genuine prophet, who was desperate for them to head his warnings and repent of their idolatry and pride. Where one proposed paradigm excelled, it failed to be relatable to all prophecies. Friebel’s approach of describing prophetic actions as ‘Rhetorical Nonverbal Communication’ is the most appropriate approach, and allows for each prophecy to be understood within its own context. The function of Jeremiah’s prophetic actions were not to cause, or force, the prophecy, nor to merely reveal a truth, but to persuade his audience of his validity.
Carroll, Robert P. Jeremiah. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1986.
Chisholm-Jr., Robert B. Handbook on the Prophets. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.
Clements, R. E. Jeremiah Interpretation, Edited by James L. Mays. Louisville, USA: John Knox Press, 1988.
Cohen, David J. “A Prophet in Motion: The Counterpoint of Speaking, Acting and Reflecting.” In On Eagles’ Wings: An Exploration of Strength in the Midst of Weakness, edited by David J. Cohen Michael Parsons. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008.
Dearman, J. Andrew. Jeremiah, Lamentations The Niv Application Commentary Series, Edited by Terry Muck. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.
Fretheim, Terence E. Jeremiah. Georgia, USA: Smith & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2002.
Friebel, Kevin. “A Hermeneutical Paradigm for Interpreting Prophetic Sign-Actions.” Didaskalia Spring (2001): 25-45.
Gowan, Donald E. Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
Hooker, Morna D. The Signs of a Prophet: The Prophetic Actions of Jesus. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1997.
Southwood, Charles H. “The Spoiling of Jeremiah’s Girdle (Jer. Xiii 1-11).” Vetus Testamentum 29, no. 2 (1979): 231-237.
Stacey, W. D. Prophetic Drama in the Old Testament. London: Epworth Press, 1990.
Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980.
Wang, Martin Chen-Chang, “Jeremiah’s Message of Hope in Prophetic Symbolic Action”, biblicalstudies.org.uk http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/ (accessed 07/04/2011).
 J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980). 71.
 Such as Stacey. and Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah (Georgia, USA: Smith & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2002).
 Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1986). 295.
 Fretheim. 204.
 Friebel. 29. If the prophecy has occurred in ‘miniature’, it is argued that it becomes inevitable, and, in fact, more powerful, impacting and efficacious then had the action not occurred.
 Ibid. 31.
 Stacey. 273-74.
 Ibid. 274.
 Morna D. Hooker, The Signs of a Prophet: The Prophetic Actions of Jesus (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1997). 4.
 Friebel. 34.
 By this, he simply means, when referring to prophetic actions, these actions should be understood as being persuasive and an effective form of communication.
 Friebel. 37.
 Donald E. Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998). 109-110.
 Thompson. 403.
 R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, ed. James L. Mays, Interpretation (Louisville, USA: John Knox Press, 1988). 101.
 To clarify, this is not the second symbolic action of Jeremiah, rather it is the second symbolic action being analysed in this essay. This also holds for the other symbolic actions to be discussed.
 NRSV: “Go and buy a potter’s earthenware jug”; NIV: “Go and buy a clay jar from a potter.” The point of this jug/jar is that it can easily be smashed.
 J. Andrew Dearman, Jeremiah, Lamentations, ed. Terry Muck, The Niv Application Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002). 188.
 Ibid. 186.
 Clements. 119.
 Ibid. 194.
 Ibid. 15.
 David J. Cohen, “A Prophet in Motion: The Counterpoint of Speaking, Acting and Reflecting,” in On Eagles’ Wings: An Exploration of Strength in the Midst of Weakness, ed. David J. Cohen Michael Parsons(Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008). 23. Cohen states, “These actions…assume that the prophet is empowered enough to perform these tasks. In other words, this is an empowerment for ministry that emerges from a divine-human dialogue about a seemingly hopeless situation,” (p. 23).
 Dearman. 143.
 Ibid. 146. For example, Is. 61 speaks of believers rejoicing in the clothing of salvation; Gal. 3.27, Christians are clothed in Christ.
 Clements. 85.
 Cf. Robert B. Chisholm-Jr., Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002).
 Charles H. Southwood, “The Spoiling of Jeremiah’s Girdle (Jer. Xiii 1-11),” Vetus Testamentum 29, no. 2 (1979). 233. To clarify, Southwood doesn’t argue against the theory that the prophecy has to do with a future event, but that the prophecy is more focussed on Israel’s pride, the exile being an inevitable consequence.
 Ibid. 235.
 Friebel. 44-45.