The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Like the vegetarian, teetotaling, non-smoking, pacifist parents of Eustace Clarence Scrubb in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Prophet Jeremiah wears a pair of special underpants (Jer 13:1-13). Here the Iron Age seer’s similarities with Harold and Alberta cease, however, and if this detail of Jeremiah’s oracular vesture would appear unseemly as divinely revealed matter—decorum in prophetic fashion should not stray from conventional camel-hair garments—one might recall that Isaiah, for a period, wore no underwear (or overwear) at all (Is 20:3). Like everything else in their lives, prophets’ closets can be co-opted to manifest a message from God.

Go buy yourself a linen loincloth; wear it on your loins, but do not dip it in water. There is more than a lack of laundering here, as though Jeremiah were just asked to act like a hygienically delinquent college freshman. In the biblical mind, the presumption is clear: bodily discharges will render the cloth not simply dirty but ritually unclean, no longer a thing that has access to God’s holy presence. Water is the solvent specifically legislated in Leviticus to expunge the ­resulting uncleanness. Refusing this treatment, then ­stuffing the loincloth in a hole obviously only makes the matter worse, as the filthy thing rots and becomes good for nothing—unable to be restored to use, beyond repair for entrance into the divine presence.

To be in this way entirely outside the reach of any cleansing is a theme and image of sin for Jeremiah. Though you scour it with soap, and use much lye, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God (Jer 2:22). Besides stressing the nasty nature of the filth, the enacted riddle of the loincloth goes beyond this moral message, however. God announces a most curious thing: For, as close as the loincloth clings to a man’s loins, so had I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord; to be my people, my renown, my praise, my beauty. But they did not listen. The Lord proclaims that he himself wears his people like a garment, a thing unspeakably intimate, whose failure to cling to him exposes God himself to open shame before the world. Like an unclean and even uncleanable thing, he is forced to throw them away for their rotten stains. The mystery that here goes unspoken, yet belongs to the logic of the prophecy, is that the Lord will be re-clothed in fitting glory. He will not allow this shame to perdure. For a moment, like Isaiah, he stands in his people shamed before the nations. Yet, if no fuller on earth can make these garments white, the Lord will simply put on new human clothes to be fittingly covered in glory and praise.

As we the baptized are clothed in Christ, so first was the Eternal Word. Those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor (1 Cor 12:23); thus the Father covers his shame with his beloved Son. The human nature of Jesus, sinless and immaculately clean, clings so tightly to the one true God that, though on the cross he be exposed like a prophet and stripped to become the symbol of the shame and stain of sin, yet he clings to him still, even in that place, and is never cast off from the glory of the divine presence.

The 18th-century philosopher J.G. Haman saw in Jeremiah’s “old rags” an image for the humble nature of the revealed Word: the extreme and even shocking lowliness of Scripture’s way of speaking. It is the same rhetoric of the Incarnate Word, a humility more wonderful than Joseph’s colored coat.

 

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.