Jeremiah 20

Fire in the Bones

Commentaries by Timothy Gorringe

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Francisco de Goya

Fuego / Fuego (Fire Fire), c.1824–28, Black chalk, lithographic pencil, on white-grey laid paper, 188 x 151 mm, Musée du Louvre, Paris; RF 38975, Recto, Michèle Bellot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

A Burning Fire Shut up in My Bones

Commentary by Timothy Gorringe

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In 1793 Francisco de Goya painted Fire at Night (Banco Inversion-Agepasa, Madrid) which appears to represent a fire in a hospital or mental asylum, with people being carried out, and desperate to escape. Thirty years later, near the end of his life, Goya was a refugee from political terror in Spain, and this drawing, Fuego / Fuego or ‘Fire Fire’, made in chalk and crayon, dates to this period. It appears in an album, along with pictures of inmates from an asylum. The drawing shows a figure with his arms outstretched like the pueblo Christ in Goya’s The Third of May (1814)  and runs, or stumbles, engulfed with fire and smoke. Is he escaping? Or raising the alarm?

Jeremiah seeks to do the former and certainly does the latter.

He cries:

If I say, I will not mention the NAME, or speak any more in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. (Jeremiah 20:9 own translation)

We might think of the seventeenth-century French theologian Blaise Pascal’s conversion: ‘Fire. God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not of the philosophers and the learned’ (1966: 309). Of Moses on Horeb. And of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews: ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29).

The Word consumes Jeremiah. He is alight with it. We talk of someone being ‘on fire’ when they are consumed with passion for something. But this is not Jeremiah’s situation. He flees from the fire like the figure in Goya’s sketch. Or he runs crying ‘Fire, fire!’.

Jeremiah is a quiet man. He wants to live with his community, cultivate his garden in Anathoth. No chance. The Word will not allow it. The NAME says:

I am making my words in your mouth fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them. (Jeremiah 5:14)

The people of Israel are accused of sacrificing their children by fire, and the NAME threatens fire in return, but the fire comes through the prophet. Ostracism, book burning, and attempts to kill him are the result—fleeing from fire to fire.



Hughes, Robert. 2003. Goya (London: Harvill Press)

Pascal, Blaise. 1966. Pensées, trans. by Alban J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

Rembrandt van Rijn

Slaughtered Ox, 1655, Oil on panel, 95.5 x 68.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris; M.I. 169, Gérard Blot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Cursed be the Day on which I Was Born

Commentary by Timothy Gorringe

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Rembrandt van Rijn painted The Slaughtered Ox (1655) at a time of great personal strain, when his house had been repossessed and he had lost almost everything. The picture may be a memento mori, a reflection on mortality. The servant girl just visible at right, peeping around the carcass, may be intended to underscore the contrast between life and death. The furious brushstrokes of this picture, suggests Simon Schama, both ‘bring the creature to life as well as display its death, like a flayed and mutilated martyr’ (1999: 599).

God’s Word brings life, but it also eviscerates:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

We might almost say it is like a butcher’s knife. Jeremiah is a flayed ox, hanging open. The Word turns him inside out. It alienates him from his community. It leads him to curse the day on which he was born. ‘For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long’ (Jeremiah 20:8). From Abraham through Jeremiah to Jesus, and beyond, this has been the experience of the Jewish community.

The hind legs of the ox strapped to the timber, splayed apart, suggest also the cross of so many medieval and Renaissance images, and indeed Rembrandt’s own depictions of crucifixion.

The cross refers not just to Jesus but to discipleship (Mark 8:34). When Jesus calls a person, wrote the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the twentieth century, he calls them to come and die (Bonhoeffer 1966: 76). Jeremiah’s story begins with his call. The Word comes to him, possesses him, and calls him. The last we hear of Jeremiah is his being dragged off to Egypt, the land of bondage. The Word that calls him calls him to come and die.

But as this Rembrandtian echo of the Christian cross may intimate, it is in dying that the flayed and mutilated martyr will surely live.



Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1966. The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM)

Schama, Simon. 1999. Rembrandt’s Eyes (London: Allen Lane)

Marc Chagall

Solitude, 1933, Oil on canvas, 102 x 169 cm, Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Gift of the artist, 1953, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Avraham Hai / Tel Aviv Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

Why Did I Come forth from the Womb?

Commentary by Timothy Gorringe

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Marc Chagall, an artist of Belarusian Jewish origin, painted this picture two years after his first visit to Israel. A rabbi sits draped in a prayer shawl, clutching the Torah scroll, his head in his hand. It is the pose Rembrandt van Rijn gave to Jeremiah in his painting Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Chagall may have known it.

Vitebsk, Chagall’s birthplace, is in the background, under a smoke-filled sky which reaches down and envelops the town, as it would envelop so many places in the next dozen years. The work may also evoke the pogroms which marked Russian Jewish existence in the first half of the twentieth century, and the turmoil of Stalinist Russia, which affected Chagall's family and friends.

Chagall called the picture ‘solitude’, but the impression is one of melancholy, almost of despair (cf. Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I). The rabbi has his arm round the scroll, as though encircling the body of a loved one. A scroll of Jeremiah’s words would be shredded and burned by King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36)—it needs protection. The Torah scroll has a unique significance for Judaism: when the Temple was destroyed, and many were in exile, the Torah scroll, read in the synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath, became the heart of Israelite practice and kept later Jewish identity alive. The scroll records God’s Word, which humans live by and prophets internalize and announce (Deuteronomy 8:3; Jeremiah 15:16).

Two of Chagall’s favoured symbols accompany the rabbi in this picture.

The first is a violin—so characteristic of klezmer music (a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe), so expressive of passion and yearning, so capable of giving voice to the inexpressible. Its importance in this tradition may help explain why so many great violinists have been Jews. Is this musicality also a testimony to the way that the Word pushes to the edge of what can be said; the Word giving place not to silence (Wittgenstein 1963: 151), but to music?

The second symbol which re-appears in so many of Chagall’s works is a white heifer. Is this the heifer of Hosea 4:16—Israel run wild—as Jeremiah saw it? Or one of the cows that belonged to Chagall’s Uncle Neuch back in Vitebsk? Or one of the heifers whose terrified cries disturbed Chagall in his Paris studio, next door to the abattoir?



Chagall, Marc. 1989. My Life (Oxford: OUP)

Cassou, Jean. 1965. Chagall (London: Thames and Hudson)

Panofsky, Erwin. 1923. Dürers ‘Melencolia I’: eine quellen- und typengeschichtliche Untersuchung (Leipzig: Teubner)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (London: RKP)

Francisco de Goya :

Fuego / Fuego (Fire Fire), c.1824–28 , Black chalk, lithographic pencil, on white-grey laid paper

Rembrandt van Rijn :

Slaughtered Ox, 1655 , Oil on panel

Marc Chagall :

Solitude, 1933 , Oil on canvas

The Fire of the Word

Comparative commentary by Timothy Gorringe

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The book of Jeremiah begins: ‘The words of Jeremiah’. But his words are dependent on another Word, the Word of YHWH (Jeremiah 1:4), which makes history (1:10).

This Word, though, brings trouble to its speakers. The impact of the Word on Jeremiah is recorded in the so called ‘confessions’ (Jeremiah 11:18–12:6; 15:10–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–18.), the most intense of which is Jeremiah 20, the subject of this exhibition.

Marc Chagall understood the theology of the Word. Chagall remembered from his Vitebsk childhood how ‘[e]very Saturday Uncle Neuch would put on a tallit, any tallit, and read the Bible aloud’ (1989: 25). Chagall was not a practising Jew, but the Bible, which included the Jew Jesus, remained a primary source of inspiration throughout his life. Of all the great artists of the twentieth century, it might be that only Chagall—brought up amongst Hasidim, hearing Torah every Sabbath from his grandfather and uncle—could have created a Musée Biblique like that in Nice. Throughout his work his rabbis hold, flee with, expound, the Torah.

Uncle Neuch was a cattle dealer—cows were part of Chagall’s childhood. ‘The symbol gives rise to thought’ (Ricoeur 1967: 11). Chagall’s symbolic universe is not precise allegory but a dense, polysemic, world. Here, sacrifice is certainly in the background.

‘Uncle Neuch played the violin, like a cobbler’. The fiddler also accompanies all Chagall’s work, joy and tragedy, yearning, the permanent imprint of his Russian youth.

In Paris Chagall spent much time in the Louvre.

Rembrandt entranced me. Only Rembrandt could have known what the old grandfather, butcher, tradesman and cantor thought while his son played the violin beside the window, beside the dirty window panes covered with raindrops and finger marks. (Chagall 1989: 107)

This explains why we have to turn from Chagall to Rembrandt. Amongst the goyim, Rembrandt is the most Jewish of painters.

There are two pictures of a slaughtered ox ascribed to Rembrandt, one in the Louvre and one in Glasgow (although the authenticity of the Glasgow picture is questioned). The Glasgow painting (possibly by a pupil) has a sleeping child in front of the ox, and a maid stooping down to a basket—perhaps a cradle—in the background. This emphasises the memento mori theme. Human beings are ‘like the beasts that perish’ (Psalm 49:12). There are contemporary paintings of a slaughtered ox which make this more explicit (for instance, by Martin van Cleeve) but by and large in seventeenth-century Dutch painting the message is more subtle.

There is an intensity about the Rembrandt painting which has echoed down the years: both Chagall and Francis Bacon took it up (Chagall Flayed Ox 1947, Paris; Bacon Crucifixion 1965, Munich). Rembrandt’s painting is literally visceral. It certainly captures the rawness, the exposed heart, of Jeremiah’s confessions. In a world where many wanted to turn the Word made flesh back to simple word, ‘in flourish and arrogant crook’ (Muir 1960: 228), Rembrandt all his life looked at enfleshed human beings, and above all himself, with honesty, but also with compassion. The Slaughtered Ox, I suggest, is not only about animals, nor is it only a vivid still life, but above all it is a commentary on the pain of life, and therefore of death, a pain Rembrandt felt at the time (Visser ‘t Hooft 1960: 19), and Jeremiah also knew.

Rembrandt was important to Francisco de Goya too (Hughes 2003: 23), but there is no allusion to him in Fuego / Fuego. Fire as a metaphor for the encounter with God recurs again and again through Scripture, from Moses at the burning bush to the author of Hebrews. Goya’s deepest religious expression may not be found so much in his more conventional Crucifixion as in The Third of May, his protest against political injustice.

Jeremiah too insisted that to know God was to do justice (Jeremiah 22:16). Goya may not have had the profound religious sensibility of either Chagall or Rembrandt (cf. Hughes 2003: 99–100). Nevertheless this image evokes, better than any other I know, the experience of Jeremiah: a fire pent up in his bones. Fleeing fire only to encounter fire:

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire. (Eliot 1963: 221)

Jeremiah knew this and so did Rembrandt. Who knows whether Goya did? But this late, hurried image, catches the terrifying nature of fire, and the desperation of flight.



Chagall, Marc. 1989. My Life (Oxford: OUP)

Eliot, T.S. 1963. Collected Poems (London:Faber & Faber)

Friedman, Mira M. 1984. Marc Chagall’s Portrayal of the Prophet Jeremiah (Deutscher Kunstverlag), pp. 374–391

Heschel, Abraham J. 1962. The Prophets: An Introduction, 2 vols (New York: Harper)

Hughes, Robert. 2003. Goya (London: Harvill Press)

Kochan, Lionel. 1997. Beyond the Graven Image (London: Palgrave Macmillan)

Muir, Edwin. 1960. Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber)

Rad, Gerhard von, and D. M. G Stalker. 1967. Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd)

Ricoeur, Paul. 1967. The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper & Row)

Visser ’t Hooft, Willem Adolph. 1960. Rembrandt and the Gospel (New York: Meridian Books)

Next exhibition: Jeremiah 31:1–26

Jeremiah 20

Revised Standard Version

20 Now Pashhur the priest, the son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things. 2Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord. 3On the morrow, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, “The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, but Terror on every side. 4For thus says the Lord: Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends. They shall fall by the sword of their enemies while you look on. And I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon; he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall slay them with the sword. 5Moreover, I will give all the wealth of the city, all its gains, all its prized belongings, and all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hand of their enemies, who shall plunder them, and seize them, and carry them to Babylon. 6And you, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house, shall go into captivity; to Babylon you shall go; and there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely.”

7Lord, thou hast deceived me,

and I was deceived;

thou art stronger than I,

and thou hast prevailed.

I have become a laughingstock all the day;

every one mocks me.

8For whenever I speak, I cry out,

I shout, “Violence and destruction!”

For the word of the Lord has become for me

a reproach and derision all day long.

9If I say, “I will not mention him,

or speak any more in his name,”

there is in my heart as it were a burning fire

shut up in my bones,

and I am weary with holding it in,

and I cannot.

10For I hear many whispering.

Terror is on every side!

“Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”

say all my familiar friends,

watching for my fall.

“Perhaps he will be deceived,

then we can overcome him,

and take our revenge on him.”

11But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior;

therefore my persecutors will stumble,

they will not overcome me.

They will be greatly shamed,

for they will not succeed.

Their eternal dishonor

will never be forgotten.

12Lord of hosts, who triest the righteous,

who seest the heart and the mind,

let me see thy vengeance upon them,

for to thee have I committed my cause.

13Sing to the Lord;

praise the Lord!

For he has delivered the life of the needy

from the hand of evildoers.

14Cursed be the day

on which I was born!

The day when my mother bore me,

let it not be blessed!

15Cursed be the man

who brought the news to my father,

“A son is born to you,”

making him very glad.

16Let that man be like the cities

which the Lord overthrew without pity;

let him hear a cry in the morning

and an alarm at noon,

17because he did not kill me in the womb;

so my mother would have been my grave,

and her womb for ever great.

18Why did I come forth from the womb

to see toil and sorrow,

and spend my days in shame?