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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
Like Isaiah the various parts of Jeremiah are a bit bewildering. The book starts out clearly enough with a statement of the time Jeremiah was active (about 627-580 BCE) as a prophet in Jerusalem followed by a first person account of his call. But the rest of the book seems to be a jumble of oracles against Judah and Jerusalem coupled with lamentations about their coming doom, accounts of incidents in Jeremiah’s life scattered here and there, a lengthy section of dire prophecies against various nations conquered by Babylon followed by a collection of “illogically arranged and somewhat reduplicated” (as a footnote in the Oxford Annotated Bible puts it) oracles foretelling the coming end of Babylon, and in the final chapter a straightforward historical account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. There is even one seemingly out of place verse (10:11) written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew! One oracle against Edom is also found in Obadiah.
One explanation for the seemingly scrambled order of Jeremiah as well Isaiah and some other books of the OT has to do with the way scrolls were assembled, with sections of parchment sewn together to make up the final scroll. It may be that the various bits that make up the book were sewn together without much regard for logical order. Perhaps it was more important to gather the various parts together to ensure preservation than it was to figure out the sequence. Once the text in the scroll was regarded as sacred it could not be altered and so was copied over and over again unchanged.
Interestingly both the Greek Septuagint and the several Dead Sea Scrolls of Jeremiah, which are much older than any other extant copy of the Hebrew text of the Bible, are significantly different from the Masoretic text upon which modern OT translations are based, being about 13% shorter as well as differently arranged. One Dead Sea Jeremiah scroll, with a date of 200 BCE or earlier making it one of the oldest known biblical texts, interestingly has multiple added corrections. In one place the original copyist left out a lengthy section which a later scribe restored by squeezing part of the missing section between already written text, then spilling it sideways along the margin and upside down at the bottom of the page.
I wonder if the Aramaic verse of Jeremiah 10:11 might be indicative of copyist error. Perhaps it was originally a marginal note that was mistakenly inserted into the text by a later scribe.
Accounts of incidents involving Jeremiah contain specific details and names of the people involved. The stated month and year of a confrontation between the prophet and a priest in the temple translates to August 597 BCE. A story of Jeremiah’s purchase of property from a cousin contains the most detailed account of a business transaction in the Bible. Jeremiah’s words are noted as being recorded by his associate, Baruch, who is the probable author of the biographical sections of the book.
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah responds to his prophetic call by claiming he is unable to convey the message of Yahve to Jerusalem. But Yahve touches his mouth to “put words in it” (1:7) and Jeremiah begins a lengthy career as Yahve’s messenger to people who don’t want to hear what he has to say. He speaks out against the priests and prophets associated with the temple. The rulers of Jerusalem regard Jeremiah’s advice that they surrender to the besieging Babylonians as treasonous. He is continually persecuted, barred from the temple, beaten, imprisoned, and threatened with death. A scroll he sends to be read to the king is burned. During the siege of Jerusalem Jeremiah is put into a cistern (which was nearly empty because the Babylonians had cut off the water supply), sunk in the mire and left to die until an Ethiopian (not necessarily from Ethiopia which sometimes seems to refer to Egypt or another part of Africa) eunuch from the royal household rescues him.
The prophet calls down divine justice on his persecutors: “Therefore deliver up their children to famine; give them over to the power of the sword, let their wives become childless and widowed. May their men meet death by pestilence, their youths be slain by the sword in battle” (18:21). At times he gives in to despair: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! . . .Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (20:14,18).
But Jeremiah continues proclaiming “Thus says the Lord!” Yahve demands that his people “truly execute justice . . . not oppress the alien, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood . . . and not go after other gods” (7:7). Yahve’s chosen people have forsaken the covenant they made with him, worshipping other gods which “are as many as your cities.” As did other prophets, Jeremiah denounces the temple cult - Yahve does not want burnt offerings and sacrifices but obedience. The temple is no longer the dwelling place of Yahve but a “den of robbers” (7:8), a text which many centuries later Jesus would quote as he drove the money changers out of the temple. The people of Judah have “burned incense to other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands (idols)” (1:14). Worst of all they have sacrificed their own children as burnt offerings to their false gods.
Interestingly, Jeremiah’s description of the worship of “The Queen of Heaven” indicates that it, unlike the male dominated cult of Yahve, actively involved women. Which would explain why the prophets so frequently mention women in their denunciation of the worship of “false gods.”
As happened to the shrine of Israel at Shiloh, so too the desecrated Jerusalem temple will be destroyed. Judah failed to learn from what happened to her sister, Israel, who also “played the harlot” (3:1) with other gods and was destroyed. Yahve will “bring evil from the north and destruction . . . to make your land a waste; your cities will be ruins” (4:6-7). Babylon is the instrument of Yahve in punishing his unfaithful people.
But Yahve will “will not make a full end of you” but will send his unfaithful people to “serve strangers in land that is not yours” (5:18) after which he “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and will bring them back to their fold . . . and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed” (23:3-4). Although the old covenant has been broken, there is the promise of “a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (31:31). Jeremiah advises compliance with the Babylonians, writing to those who had been taken captive to Babylon to say that they should settle there while awaiting the promised return to Jerusalem which will be restored.
The concluding chapter of Jeremiah is a straightforward historical account of the fall of Jerusalem, with the city along with the temple and its furnishings, which are described in detail, destroyed. There are three removals of Judean captives to Babylon with their total number listed as 4600. Which rather surprised me. In my Adventist education I heard repeated references to the “Babylonian captivity” which seemed to imply that most of the population of Judah was carried away by their conquerors.
But Jeremiah makes it clear that only the elite, ruling class was made captive. Most of the rest of the population of Judah remained under the administration of a Judean governor appointed by Babylon. Jeremiah was offered the option of staying in Judah which he chose, going to live with the governor with whom he had family connections. He continued to counsel cooperation with Babylon. But then the governor was assassinated during a revolt after which a group of people fled to Egypt for safety. For reasons that are not clear in the text, Jeremiah along Baruch also went to Egypt despite having repeatedly warned against fleeing there. Once in Egypt he continued to issue prophetic messages denouncing the refugees for worshipping Egyptian gods, which made him no more popular with his fellow exiles who responded by saying that they turned to other gods because Yahve had failed them.
The account of Jeremiah’s life fades out in Egypt with his ultimate fate unknown.
© 2021 James Moyers