11 March 2012

Jeremiah (ספר יִרְמְיָהוּ‎)

The Five Books of
Moses (Torah)
The Eight Books of
the Prophets (Neviim)
The Eleven Books of
the Writings (Kesuvim)

1.       Genesis
6.      Joshua
14.  Psalms
2.      Exodus
7.      Judges
15.   Proverbs
3.      Leviticus
8.     Samuel
16.  Job
4.      Numbers
9.      Kings
17.   Song of Songs
5.      Deuteronomy
10.  Isaiah
18.  Ruth

11.  Jeremiah
19.  Lamentations
12.  Ezekiel
20. Ecclesiastes
13.  The Twelve (minor prophets) Trei-Assar (1. Hosea, 2. Joel, 3. Amos, 4. Obadiah, 5. Jonah, 6. Micah, 7. Nahum, 8. Habakkuk, 9. Zephaniah, 10. Haggai, 11. Zechariah and 12. Malachi)
21.  Esther
22. Daniel
23. Ezra/Nehemia
24. Chronicles

The eleventh book in Hebrew Bible and the fifth one under the eight books of Prophets (Neviim) is Jeremiah with 52 chapters and 1364 verses. Prophet Jeremiah is supposed to have lived during the time of King Josiah, King Jehoiakim and at a time when the Jewish Kingdom fell to Babylonians (6th to 7th century B.C.) (*, *). Jeremiah is particularly known as a prophesier of bad things to come. It seems the Yahweh had chosen him to covey the bad news of the impending punishment of invasion and subjugation of the Jewish land by foreigners (Babylonians). What runs through the Book of Jeremiah is prophecies regarding the fall of Jerusalem, eventual captivity of Jews in Babylonia, on the impending God’s judgment and on the fall of Egypt, to name a few. In his lifetime, Jeremiah had to deal with the false prophets and their allegations as well and in the end prove their fallacies to his people.

Oh that my head were waters, 
and mine eyes a fountain of tears, 
that I might weep day and night 
for the slain of the daughter of my people!
(Jeremiah 9: 1)
Prosecution and suffering of prophets at the hands of detractors is nothing new and Jeremiah was not an exception to this. However, no other prophet of the Old Testament seems to have suffered so much like Jeremiah.  These sufferings are narrated through the Book of Jeremiah (Tamil: எரேமியா). He was cursed (15:10), captured and threatened with capital punishment (26:8,24), imprisoned (32:2,3; 37:15), bound to chains (40:1) and was even exiled to Egypt (43:6-7) where he supposed to have died. And this was largely due to his prophecies on the coming of capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (25:11). Grieving over his people’s negligence of the Lord’s covenant with them and the impending consequence the Lord has destined on them, Jeremiah is supposed to have cried with tears rolling from his eyes. The first verse in Chapter nine records this event and for this reason Jeremiah is often called the “Weeping Prophet”.

(1) Similes that resemble those in Tirukkural

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments has many a parallel with the Tamil classic Thirukkural. The parallels do not come in equal proportion from all the books of the Bible. Thirukkural being an ethical treatise, most of the similarities come from the Hebrew Books of Writings (Kesuvim) which includes the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs, Psalms etc. The rest of the books in Hebrew Bible is dominated with information on war, animal sacrifice, prophecies, divine punishments, temple rituals, sundry laws and the like. Thirukkural has nothing to do with all these. Though I came across a Kural like verse or two scattered among the books of Torah and Neviim, the Book of Jeremiah was an exception. I found nearly 10 verses that resembled the Kural at least in the level of the simile. Though many of them differed in “உவமேயம்”, they resembled a great deal in “உவமையணி”. Given below are seven of those similarities:

Verses in Jeremiah
Couplets from Thirukkural
Dress up and lead

Now, gird up your loins and arise,
And speak to them all which I command you.
Lord himself will lead the way……

The Lord himself will wrap his robes
And lead the one bent on social service. * (SS, PS)

குடிசெய்வல் என்னும் ஒருவற்குத் தெய்வம்
மடிதற்றுத் தான்முந் துறும்.  (1023)

The wicked are like fowlers

For wicked men are found among my people;
They lurk like fowlers lying in wait.
They set a trap; they catch men.
A posting ascetic is one among them…..

A posing ascetic who sins secretly is like a fowler
Hiding in bush to trap birds.
*  (KV)

தவமறைந்து அல்லவை செய்தல் புதல்மறைந்து
வேட்டுவன் புள்சிமிழ்த் தற்று.   (274)

Sense of shame

Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
They do not even know how to blush.
(6:15; 8: 12)
“Being ashamed” (நாணுடைமை) is a quality…

Real shyness is to shy away from shameful acts.
The rest are like shyness of pretty women. (NV)

கருமத்தால் நாணுதல் நாணுந் திருநுதல்
நல்லவர் நாணுப் பிற.   (1011)

Tongue and the heart

Their tongue is a deadly arrow;
it speaks deceitfully;
With their mouths they speak cordially
to their neighbors,
But in their hearts they set traps for them.
But a slandering tongue reveals a mean heart …

The meanness in the heart of one posing virtuous,
shall be known by his slanderous tongue. (NV)

அறஞ்சொல்லும் நெஞ்சத்தான் அன்மை புறஞ்சொல்லும்
புன்மையாற் காணப் படும்.  (185)

Bad habits die hard

Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard its spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.
That’s why Valluvar said:

He is a fool, who tries to open the eyes of a fool,
for a fool sees things only his own way. * (VS)

காணாதான் காட்டுவான் தான்காணான் காணாதான்
கண்டானாம் தான்கண்ட வாறு.  (849)

The path may be slippery

Therefore their way shall be to them
like slippery paths in the darkness,
into which they shall be driven and fall,
For I will bring disaster upon them
in the year of their punishment…. (23:12)
Slip not in life, so seek the help of the upright….

Words from the lips of upright men
are like a steadying staff in a slippery place. (SS)

இழுக்கல் உடையுழி ஊற்றுக்கோல் அற்றே
ஒழுக்க முடையார்வாய்ச் சொல்.  (415)

An army can roar like the sea

They are armed with bows and spears;
They are cruel and without mercy.
They sound like the roaring sea
as they ride on their horses;
They come like men in battle formation
to attack you.
So what if they roar ……….

So what if an army of rats roar like the sea?
The hiss of a cobra will silence it. (SS, PS)

ஒலித்தக்கால் என்னாம் உவரி எலிப்பகை
நாகம் உயிர்ப்பக் கெடும். (763)

(2) The Prophetic call

In no major religious tradition of the world have I come across story of God descending on earth and speaking directly to people. It has always been through a prophet, avatar, sage or saint. "I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him." (Deut 18:18). In other words, a prophet is a mouthpiece of God. Since he redirects the transcendental message he received through inspiration, he is also called a Messenger. In Arabic, both the words nabi (نبي) and rasūl (رسول) are used intermittently to mean Prophet and Messenger.

Most prophets of the Semitic world were ordinary men and women. They were called upon to be a spokesperson of God at a time when they were completely unprepared. The Bible and the Quran contain information on how these prophetic calls came to various prophets. Here is the one that narrates the first call for prophet Jeremiah:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“…….I have appointed you a prophet to the nations”
Then I said, “”Alas, Lord God!
Behold I do not know how to speak,
Because I am a youth” (Jeremiah 1: 5-6)

A voice says, “Call out”.
Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
(Isaiah 40: 6)

There is no doubt that this was indeed a prophetic call. What about the following verse from the Book of Isaiah, I dealt last week?

The entire vision will be to you like the words of a sealed book,
which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying,
“Please read this,” he will say, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”
Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate,
saying, “Please read this.” And he will say, “I cannot read.”
(Isaiah 29: 11:12)

Muslims have for long interpreted this reference in the Old Testament as a prophecy about their prophet Muhammad. It is true that this verse has a striking resemblance to the biographical information we have about the prophet, supported by a verse in the Quran itself. Let us look at the first verse from Chapter 96 (Name: Iqra or Alaq):

Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created.
He created man from a clot.
Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable
Who taught with the pen.
Taught man that which he knew not.
(Quran 96: 1-4)

This is widely recognized as the first verse revealed to prophet Muhammad by Angel Gabriel during one of his days of spiritual contemplation in the Hira’ cave in the hills of Mecca. It has been said that Muhammad was taken aback by this command and responded saying “I cannot read”. As it is said in Thirukkural “Though unlettered, listen” (கற்றிலனாயினும் கேட்க Kural 414), the prophet had to ‘listen’ to the commandment he received in his vision.  This experience of prophet Muhammad has been narrated in Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet) and his ancient biographies. One of the Hadith compilers al-Bukhari gives a version of this story which is attributed to ‘A’isha, the wife of the Prophet:

Narrated 'Aisha:
The commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah's Apostle was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food like-wise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, "I do not know how to read”.

The Prophet added, "The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, 'I do not know how to read.' Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, 'I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?' Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, 'Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists) has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous’ (96.1, 96.2, 96.3). Then Allah's Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadija bint Khuwailid and said, "Cover me! Cover me!" They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, "I fear that something may happen to me." Khadija replied, "Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your Kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones."
This event of the frightened and sweating prophet being covered up has also been summed up in the following verse in the Quran:
O you who covers himself [with a garment],
Arise and warn
And your Lord glorify
And your clothing purify
And un-cleanliness avoid.
(Quran 74: 1-5)

However, as I mentioned in my previous posting on the Book of Isaiah last week, the Christians and Jews are not willing to accept this verse (Isaiah 40: 6) as a prophecy about Muhammad. They claim that the verse from Isaiah (29: 11-12) speaks about the Jews who make lame excuses for not accepting Isaiah's prophecies (*).

(3) Circumcision: Ritual and Spiritual

I am not here to dwell into the merits and demerits of a physical circumcision here. Though invariably all Muslims are circumcised, it is not act that needs to be compulsorily done. It is only a Sunnah. In fact the word “circumcision” does not occur in the Qur’an and yet all Muslims carryout this ritual without fail. It was only Jewish practice which the pagan Arabs adopted upon conversion to the new Abrahamic religion called Islam. We see such parallels of the followers of a faith adopting the practice or avoiding a practice that is not in the scripture. The Sikhs for instance consider beef eating an admonishment and avoid it though their scripture Guru Grant Sahib does not forbid eating beef. In fact there is no sanctity attached to the cow in Sikhism. It is only an dogma the Sikhs inherited from the community of Hindus in whom the religion evolved. Now let’s see what the Book of Jeremiah has to say about circumcision:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD;
Remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
Lest my wrath go forth like fire,
And burn with none to quench it,
Because of the evil of your deeds.
(Jeremiah 4:4)

What is this circumcision of the heart? When all Jews have been circumcised physically, why is their Lord insisting on circumcising the heart? How can that, something internal, be performed without performing a major surgery? Will anyone survive if his/her heart is circumcised? In any case the heart has no foreskin. There is one more verse in Jeremiah itself that speaks about circumcision. Let’s see if this would throw more light on this dictum of cardiac circumcision:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD,
When I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh—
Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab,
And all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair,
For all these nations are uncircumcised,
And all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”
(Jeremiah 9: 25-26)

Here we get some clue to what the Israelite Lord is demanding from his followers. In fact circumcision of the heart has been mentioned in Deuteronomy also (10: 16 and 30: 6). Literal circumcision is recommended because the foreskin is said to be (ritually) unclean. When Jews were admitted to the covenant with Yahweh, they were expected to be cleansed of their pagan or gentile background and then get admitted to the fold. One of the symbolic ritualistic purification of this covenant insisted upon by Yahweh was circumcision of the foreskin. However, over the years during the Biblical times, the Jews followed all external rituals but at the expense of internal cleanliness. Valluvar said “He who lives truly in his own heart, truly lives in the hearts of all people” (294) but the Jews indulged in idol workshop and forgot their Sabbath with the Lord in spite of being physically circumcised. In other words, they were spiritually not circumcised. And that’s what I believe is meant by circumcision of the heart.

We can explain this by citing parallels from the other religious traditions. The overindulgence in rituals at the expense spirituality has been emphasized in many religions. These are usually insisted upon by reformers who came at a later stage or rebels who opposed to dominance of priests who tried to restrict all religious activities to themselves. Undoubtedly, Jesus was one among them though he himself was circumcised. There are a number of New Testament references which imply that physical circumcision is no longer important. “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19) (see also Galatians 5:6; Colossians 2:11; Romans 2:29)

If circumcision makes one clean, one may ask, why did God create man with a foreskin in the first place? In fact there is this interesting saying attributed to Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

His students said to him, “Is circumcision of benefit to us or not?”
He said to them,     
“If it were of benefit, their father would have them born from their mother already circumcised.
            Rather, it is the true circumcision in spirit that is worth something.”
(Gospel of Thomas, 53)

We see an interesting parallel from the scripture of Sikhs, attributed to Saint Kabir. What was attributed to Jesus in the first century A.D. is also attributed to the 15th century saint Kabir. He also reiterates that God should have created man circumcised if He wished men to be so.

Because of the love of woman, circumcision is done;
I don't believe in it, O Siblings of Destiny.
If God wished me to be a Muslim, it would be cut off by itself.
If circumcision makes one a Muslim, then what about a woman?
(Guru Grant Sahib, pg. 477)

Ceremonial bathing in sacred tanks of Temples and sacred rivers is a ritual in some of the religions of Indian religions. Everyone indulges in this ritual though, more often than not, they are unclean internally. “புறந்தூய்மை நீரான் அமையும்; அகந்தூய்மை வாய்மையால் காணப் படும் said the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar (It means:Water ensures external purity and truthfulness shows the internal” – Kural 298). Likewise, the circumambulation of the Ka’ba at Mecca is a ritual Muslims perform every year during their annual pilgrimage but that in itself is not an end to ‘salvation.’ The great Persian saint, Maulana Rumi wrote: "O man, circumambulate the secret Ka’ba of the heart, unlike the Ka’ba of Khalil - for God made the Ka’ba of the human heart." Here we see a similarity between circumcision and circumambulation. If the foreskin is flesh, heart is the spirit. And all those who circumcise, circumambulate and bathe are directed to focus on cleansing their hearts instead. And what is the specialty of the heart? As Thirumoolar said, “He is the Great Light that fills the heart” (நெஞ்சு நிறைந்தங்கு இருந்த நெடுஞ்சுடர்) (Tirumandiram, 2094).


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