American white evangelicals have been recently up in arms, yelling at teachers and being rude at school board meetings, attempting to ban books from classrooms and school libraries, demanding gagging orders forbidding teachers to talk about race or LGBT issues. Dozens of innocent books have been banned.And it did not stop at school boards! There are now more than 150 legislative bills introduced in 38 states of our union that attempt to censor what teachers are allowed to say or teach in their classrooms.
It is quite upsetting but also mildly amusing coming form specifically those groups. How come these racist fundamentalists don’t know their bibles? Or are they just hypocrites and their “Christianity” is just a cloak for bigotry and racism? In the Bible there is a story about censorship with a lesson they certainly should hear and learn.
In Jeremiah 36 we hear how scribe Baruch wrote down Jeremiah’s prophecy King Jehoiakim, probably unable to read, asked it to be read to him, and as they were reading it, the king would use his knife and cut it and burn it piece by piece until he burned the entire scroll. King thought, that was the end of it.
But God commanded Jeremiah: Get another scroll and write in it all the words that were in the original burned scroll. And so Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to his scribe, and he dictated and Baruch recorded all that has been burned. Only this time, it has been substantially expanded!
So here you have it! The Bible itself is teaching that burning books and censorship are impotent and futile. And that is something you might not know about the bible. And that is also good news for all freedom loving people everywhere. Freedom loving, free consciousness loving, free spirit loving, freedom of speech loving. And for us in our current context there is reassurance to fight back censorship. Any racist attempts to censor black history will NOT succeed.
And if you read this far: there is another interesting biblical exegetical aspect and theological insight.
The story about the burning of a prophetic scroll from Jeremiah 36 has a close antipodal parallel in the 2 Kings 22 in a story about the discovery of the Torah scroll in the temple supposedly at the time of king Josiah.
Modern scholarship suspects that both these stories are in fact much later literary fictions. They required certain conceptual and mentality preconditions among the authors as their audience. It could have been written and made sense to the readers only after they encountered and became familiar with the Babylonian legal tradition and especially after they experienced the Persian administration relaying on written documents.
The Persian setting - after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah - is to me the terminus post quem and possibly a much later moment for creation of these literary fictions. They are two complementary parts of the same biblical sermon teaching something similar to this - When encountering a challenging, uncomfortable writing – we all can chose – do we want to be like Josiah embracing the text and learning from it or do we want to be like Jehoiakim burning it?
Recognizing this connection and dating this dual sermon to the Persian period or even later makes this argument only stronger and more plausible. This late Persian, and possibly even Hellenistic homily about two approaches to the challenging message is another aspect you might not know about the Bible. It might be a literary fiction but at the same time a powerful encouragement not to burn, ban or censor uncomfortable books but to study them and take them seriously.