Robert Carter ~ Steinbeck and the Prophet Jeremiah

Our two boys, Brennan and Jared, enjoy different types of food. Jared, our younger, has a palate mostly formed by traditional foods that most millennials in Western culture crave. Brennan, on the other hand, has always had a curious, gourmet tongue. We shouldn’t have been surprised at his pre-teen culinary adventures or his fascination with the TV show Master Chef; even as a toddler he would eat Pad Thai and Jambalaya. Sometimes, just for fun, we would offer him lemons or limes cut into wedges so that we could witness the uncontrolled pursing of his entire face that would quickly follow his bite. He’d always go back for more, though! Sometimes we would all take turns with wedges of lemon, the objective being not to allow the acidity of the fruit to pucker our faces. We never succeeded in the challenge—we all scrunched. The reaction was as swift as it was lemon_cutuncontrollable. When we bit down on the lemon, we’d pucker. Watching someone else might bring a slight sympathetic pursing to our own lips, but not much. To get any measurable effect, we had to actively participate.

Jeremiah 31 comes out of chronological order, for it clearly belongs to exilic Judea. Babylon has captured Jerusalem, ransacked its resources, brutally massacred many of its people and carried captive the balance (except a few poor farmers who were left behind as caretakers of the demolition). Even though Jeremiah is not one of those exiled to Babylon, he continues to provide prophetic hope to his forlorn people through letters sent to his people. In this particular letter, Jeremiah becomes the linkage between God’s promises for yet-to-be newness and the embittered exiles who are certain that they are unfairly suffering for the sins of previous generations. A creative proverb was gaining popularity among these disenfranchised refugees—everybody was sharing it on their Facebook wall: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29b).

Taken literally, we can argue that this proverb is incorrect, for we’ve done our own experiment, and we know that the sour grapes (or lemons) must touch our own tongues to cause any measurable biological reaction. But we know better, don’t we, than to get technical with this proverb? We recognize symbolism, poetic license, and language usage well enough to know that this carefully-crafted proverb is intended for greater application. And we also know that it’s frighteningly accurate when understood in its intended literary form! Ever wonder what it feels like to be Hitler’s grandchildren, left with the emotional burden of his bigotry? Try to look a Native American in the eye without remembering that your forefathers confined them to their reservations. Your ancestors are long gone, but you still bear the burden of their wrongdoing.

This proverb was accurate in the immediate context of the exiles referenced in this passage, especially for those born in their Babylonian displacement.  Their forefathers’ persistent, generational disobedience brought God’s judgment and the loss of their fortunes. These exiles found themselves part of a foreign culture—one that threatened to erase their Jewishness. It didn’t seem fair that they were paying the bill for their ancestors’ sins.

This maxim is also accurate in the larger context of our world— Adam and Eve ate “sour grapes” and the world’s teeth have been set on edge ever since. In addition to the broad-spectrum brokenness of the post-Eden world, Adam and Eve’s disobedience also unleashed what theologians call “original sin.” Every child comes with his own inherited capacity for evil. The seed is there. Yes, the proverb is accurate, but that doesn’t make it seem any fairer.

Then we pause to look at ourselves, our families, our churches, and our communities; this adage proves true for us, too. We tend to embody the brokenness of our parents. Their sins seed ours; their failings escalate ours.  And we cry, “Foul!” Why should their evil actions become our burden?

  • As Steve stumbles back to his college dorm at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning he wonders, “Would I be this way if mom hadn’t regularly put whiskey in my baby bottle?”
  • Esther continues to consume three times the daily amount of sugar recommended even though she is borderline diabetic. “Mom and grandma did the same thing. They drew me into this love for sweets. Sure they both lost limbs and died at a young age. That’s normal around here, you know.”
  • Twenty-five-year-old Mike finds himself frequently captivated by sadistic fantasy and wonders if he is destined to join his incarcerated father someday.
  • Bill and Paula, a young couple, struggle to manage their money. They’re always paying their utility bills after the disconnect notice arrives. It’s stressful and aggravating; yet, in a weird kind of way, it seems normal to them. That’s the way their parents did it.
  • Thirty-five-year-old Sally wonders why she always hits her electric locks on the car when a black man crosses the street. She doesn’t feel racist! But why does she do it, then? Her reaction is quite different when a white man crosses in front of her—little fear there. Then she recognizes how the media portrays black men as criminals. She recalls how her mom and grandma taught her to be spooked by men of different color. Chagrined, Sally looks in the rear view mirror long enough to catch her daughter covering her eyes. “The cycle is complete,” Sally thinks, “I’ve taught my daughter the same racism that I learned from my folks.”
  • Anthony swings the punch that he vowed he’d never throw. He never wanted to be like his volatile, out-of-control father. Now at the age of thirty-five he’s looking more and more like him!
  • Rhonda finds herself belittling her husband again—right to his face and in front of her kids. She wonders why she behaves so poorly. Then she recalls, “Mom always did this to dad, and so did grandma. It’s not my fault,” she reasons, “that this behavior comes instinctively!”
  • Patrick, a middle-age father, shudders in horror as he steps away from his 14-year-old daughter’s bedroom. He had done the unthinkable. He swore that he would never do to his children what his father had done to him and his siblings. It’s as if he took his rightful place in a messed-up genealogy.
  • Eli reels in a large catfish from the Ohio River. Then he throws it back fuming, “It kind of stinks that our forefathers polluted this river to the point that we can’t even keep the fish.” Leaving, he throws his trash from lunch in the water’s flow—“Why not? It’s already polluted!” Besides, that’s what his uncles do…
  • Evelyn, a young grandmother, seems to intuitively know how to manipulate, effectively employing passive-aggressive measures to control her husband, adult children, nieces and nephews. She always gets her way, but it creates co-dependency, anger, and hostility. She often loathes her behavior—she knows it’s not right. How did she ever get started down this path? Then she realizes that her mom and grandmother had the same skill set.
  • Judge Conley looks at his docket, quickly recognizing the last name of the defendant in the narcotics distribution charge. “Must be Paul’s son,” the judge thinks! “It’s the family business, I guess! Like father, like son!”

The exiles welcomed the proverb because they felt that it effectively expressed both complaint and defense. Their complaint asserted, “It’s not my fault!” Their defense reasoned, “I can’t be any different! I’m part of a domino effect that began in the Garden of Eden. I didn’t put my domino in position—dad and mom, community and nation did that for me! I can’t break the cycle—why even try? As messed up as my life appears, it actually feels kind of normal and comfortable to me!”

So why would God take issue with the exilic usage of this proven-true proverb? Is God denying this thing we call generationalism? No, here’s why God was getting fed up with this Babylonian meme…

The proverb ignores personal responsibility. It was true that the exiles were suffering for their parents’ sins; but it was also true that they, too, were continuing to participate in the same kinds of broken ways in their new environment. While they obsessed with the grapes their fathers consumed and the resulting puckering that it brought to their lives, they were reluctant to acknowledge that they also ate the same kind of fruit—just from better-groomed vines. The net result was the continued contortion of life. Their denial allowed them to color their newly-formatted quests for power, sensuality, and pleasure in lighter tones that passed undetected. For this reason, God was tired of the proverb—it avoided personal responsibility, placing all the blame on the previous generation!

The proverb ignores “free will.” Verse 30 uncovers a new understanding of personal choice and consequence given to each individual. You are not confined to the composite of your upbringing. You are not doomed to repeat the sins of your father or mother, uncle or sister. You have the ability to make personal choices of which only you will be accountable.

51r57tjwb0l-_sx322_bo1204203200_John Steinbeck composes his monumental book, East of Eden, with amazingly accurate sociological and theological expression. This story, a retelling of Genesis 3-4, is set in Northern California’s Salinas Valley during the early 20th century. Before moving to the Salinas Valley, the good-hearted Adam Trask lived on a farm in Connecticut that had been willed to him by his father, a crook in his own right. Meanwhile, Steinbeck begins to develop another character, Cathy, a young girl who from birth possesses an innate capacity for manipulation and deceit. After killing her parents in a fire she set, stealing their money, and leaving town, Cathy sets a trap whereby she seduces a brothel owner for her financial benefit. When this brothel owner discovers Cathy’s evil intentions, he beats her severely, leaving her for dead.  Soon after Adam finds her, nurses her back to life and marries her. Cathy never returns Adam’s love; she only marries him because she knows he is her ticket out of Connecticut where rumors are starting to gain traction that perhaps she is not the innocent, bereaved daughter after all. Once the Trasks arrive in the Salinas Valley, Cathy discovers to her horror that she is pregnant. She unsuccessfully attempts to abort the fetus, delivering twins instead. Cathy refuses to even gaze at the twins, telling Adam she has never loved him or the boys. Soon afterwards, she abandons her family, never returning. Cathy changes her name to Kate to mask her identity, moves to Salinas proper where she resumes her work as a prostitute, manipulating and ultimately poisoning her Madam so that she can take over the business. Her work culminates in the blackmailing of many of the influential men of the area.

Adam is left (along with his housekeeper, Lee) to name his boys, Aron and Cal, and do his best to raise them amid his deep depression. From an early age, Aron reflects Adam’s good-heartedness while Cal replicates his mother’s manipulation, lack of compassion and cruelty. When Cal discovers that his mother is not dead as he was told but rather a Madam at one of Salinas’ brothels, he determines to meet her. After his encounter, he is convinced that he is doomed to follow in Kate’s pattern of brokenness, deceit, manipulation and anger. Adam’s housekeeper, Lee, who has extensively researched the biblical story of Cain and Abel, advises Cal that God intends each person to choose his own moral destiny rather than be controlled by the legacy of his parents. This idea, captured by the Hebrew word timshel (meaning “you may”) in Genesis 4:7, counters Cal’s fatalistic idea that he has inherited his mother’s evil and is without hope in his own destiny. Readers catch a sliver of that hope for Cal as the story concludes; when dying Adam raises his hand at Lee’s request to bless Cal, he whispers one word, “Timshel.”

Cal seems to be the embodiment of this proverb quoted in Jeremiah. Cathy ate sour grapes, and Cal’s teeth were set on edge. Not only had he inherited sin through both his parents; he had also inherited a DNA strand that disposed him to operate in strikingly similar ways to his mother despite the fact that he was raised by Adam and his good housekeeper, Lee, entirely in Cathy’s absence. Steinbeck refuses to leave Cal in his hopelessness. Instead, with pure literary genius, he infuses the narrative with Lee’s extended Biblical conversations, highlighting Cal’s ability to choose for himself what kind of man he will be.

And so God pushes back against this Jewish truism because it fails to recognize our powerful endowment by our Creator to make personal choices that defy the stack of cards we have been dealt.

Our Wesleyan Arminian doctrine is important here.  On the one hand, it informs us that all are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and that all have sinned—no exceptions (Romans 3:23). This is bad news! On the other hand, it refuses to leave us in the position of hopelessness and helplessness, no matter how malformed we are from birth. This is good news! God’s Word reminds us that we are a people with amazing individuality (free will) to choose our own actions (Jeremiah 31:30).  God has not predetermined who will push back against sin. We alone make that choice.

The proverb ignores God’s planned newness. God determines to provide for the Cals (and you and me) of our world to be something different than heredity would seemingly allow. Jeremiah 31:31-34 sums up the way free will overtakes both inherited sin and negative imprinting.It’s not by laws on the books, by gritting one’s teeth, or by a nagging spouse. God’s plan, rather than utilizing coercion, is about newness gifted to us just as undeservedly as our inherited sin. This newness is accomplished through his healing forgiveness for the puckering of our lives (both through the sour grapes our fathers ate and the ones we willfully chewed on our own). How can this be? Through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, Eden’s toppling dominos are disrupted. The sin that threatened to irrevocably give bad direction to our life became subject to the grace of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.

We accept personal responsibility for the way we have personally leaned into the brokenness that came upon us at birth, both through heredity and imprinting. Then we make a choice out of our free will not to walk in those same kinds of fatalistic patterns. Most importantly, we understand that this cannot and will not happen through our own power alone. It will only come about through God’s newness breathed into our hearts. Jeremiah calls this the “new covenant” written into our minds and hearts. Ezekiel pictures this newness as a “heart of flesh” that replaces the old stony heart (Ezekiel 36:25-27). The Apostle Paul thinks about this newness as the transformation of a “renewed mind” (Romans 12:2).

The next time I brave an un-sugared lemon, lime, sour grape, or persimmon I’ll cringe from top to bottom, and it’s going to remind me of how crinkled my life is by heredity and imprinting. But I hope it also brings an internal “thanks be to God” as I remember the promise of newness God gives for “teeth set on edge.”

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