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)
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.”
7O Lord, 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.
12O Lord 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?