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)