Many folks have argued, rightly, that a basic understanding of Scripture is necessary for an appreciation of the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West. Stephen Prothero, author of the remarkable American Jesus, makes a similar argument in Religious Literacy. Like it or not, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are simply part of how we communicate. From “eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek,” our literature and our everyday language are bathed in biblical images and phrases. See, for instance, this stanza from Poe’s “The Raven”:
`Prophet!’ said I, `thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore -
Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!’
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’
This stanza is, of course, nonsensical unless one has at least become aware of the cry of Jeremiah/God* in chapter 8. Until I was researching for Sunday’s sermon, I actually had no idea that Poe referenced Jeremiah. I suppose that means that, while I am not totally biblically illiterate, I am poorly read!
We must also remember, however, that Poe’s raven was wrong. There is a balm in Gilead!
*Many scholars have noted that the line between the prophetic voice and the divine voice is, in Jeremiah, much less pronounced than in other prophets. I first came across this in Gerhard Von Rad’s The Message of the Prophets, but I’ve noticed in in many other commentaries as well. The Old Testament lection for this coming Sunday (Jeremiah 8:18-9:1) is a prime example of this mixing and mingling of voices. I suppose this could be exegetically troubling, but I prefer to think it is theologically hopeful. As we see in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is capable both of mourning His own and of creating a different future for His wounded and broken people.