THE PROPHET JEREMIAH
The Book of Jeremiah ( a 52 chapter book) was not written chronologically. Thus placing the book in precise historical context is problematic in the political and national events, traumatic and world shattering for Jeremiah and his fellow Hebrews. LA major portion of his book is devoted to his reactions to these events so we must attempt to place them within the context of his Jeremiah’s lifetime. Biographical information regarding Jeremiah is not scarce as with many other prophets however the information is not described chronologically and thus can be confusing.
In 687 B.C.E., several decades after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel (722 B.C.E.) Menasseh (687- 642) was crowned King of Judah, He is portrayed as an evil king who enabled the Assyrian religion’s idol worshipping into Judah. Menasseh’s was succeded by his young son Josiah who reformed the ancient Jewish religion. In the year 622 (he was then 26 years of age) while rehabilitating the Temple, a scroll was discovered (most today’s scholars believe this to have been the Book of Deuteronomy) and it was publicly read. King Josiah was astounded by the discovery that certain aspects of the reigning religion were inconsistent with the direction of the Book. Hence he centralized the sacrifices to be offered only in Jerusalem and introduced the institution of pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Passover celebration. At this time Assyria was beginning to feel the brunt of Babylon and these developments allowed Judah the freedom of relative independence. In 612 Assyria was defeated by Babylon, but a conflict between Babylon and Egypt resulted in the death of in 609. His son Jehoahaz was subsequently appointed king, three months later he was deposed by the Egyptians and his brother Jehoiakim was appointed by the Egyptians.
Jeremiah was more angry, more wrathful and more embittered than any other prophet. He life coincided with the greatest catastrophe in the lifetime of any prophet. For the people of Judea he was, as he admitted a failure, albeit a heroic failure. His words were never heeded. He was equally the savior of exilic Israel.
Jeremiah lived in a period of tragedy for the Judean nation - Judah lost its independence and became subject first to Egypt and later to Babylon and ultimately suffered destruction. The world events including three major empires, Assyria, Babylon and Egypt. The Kingdom of Judah, a tiny land and people surrounded by these Empires. Decades Before Jeremiah’s birth Assyria had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel (the ten lost tribes) decades before Jeremiah’s birth and only the smaller Kingdom of Judea had survived. Ultimately the Kingdom of Judea was destroyed during his lifetime. Egypt an Empire that had existed for several millennium and which had played a major part in Israel’s history, was likewise defeated by the Babylonia, a new world power during his lifetime. . During the wars between these empires the Kingdom of Judea retained its independence and King Josiah reformed its religion. The Kingdom of Judea was then defeated, Jerusalem and God’s Temple were destroyed in 587 B.C.E. This was an unequivocal political and religious failure for the people. The inviolability of Jerusalem and the Temple had been confirmed by both Isaiah as well as by the Assyrian failure decades earlier. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, an unthinkable event, suddenly questioned the very survival of the Hebrew religion. The proponents of the Davidic covenant could proffer no plausible and acceptable explanation of the catastrophic events. Only Jeremiah (and later Ezekiel) voiced an explanation based on religious grounds. The ultimate survival of Judaism can be attributed in no small measure to Jeremiah’s presentation of the catastrophe. He stated that the judgment ultimately came from God. Jeremiah who recognized that the current order had ended, did not engage in defining a future world order as did Ezekiel. Jeremiah marks the beginning of the possibility of an inward and personal relationship with God - independent of Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah can well be regarded as a very inner directed and private man. The rituals of the Temple – when unaccompanied by appropriate faith and ethical behavior appeared empty to him and he therefore rejected tem. No prophet before Jeremiah had been so daring and revolutionary to declare that God ‘did not need’ the Temple. And for 2,500 years his exilic theology held true. The Jewish survived despite a majority of Jews never again lived in the land of Israel.
The question posed in the Book of Jeremiah is: what is the will of God? That in itself is the question of theodicy. However Jeremiah’s life characterized by suffering raise the question on a directly personal basis. His complaints against God, in their intensity can only be compared to those of Job.
Jeremiah was a priest and a prophet; his opponents were priests and ‘prophets’ who chose to be ignore to his preaching. In the early stages of his career he was protected by the Princes; however when he favored peace with what he called God’s servant, Nebuchadnezzar, he was accused of treason.
Jeremiah was born in Anatoth a village located north of Jerusalem. His is the first instance within the classical prophets of a messenger of God whose life and being bear equal weight to his message. (That holds equally true of Moses, but his status exceeds that of a classical prophet.) Jeremiah life in fact fuses with his message; his life in permeated by Faith alternated by Doubt. He experiences personal insult and is grieved by the people’s sins. He craves the friendship and goodwill of his neighbors, yet he cannot disregard the evil perpetrated by them. The evil he decries so eloquently focuses on disobedience to basic social ethics; failure to protect the poor, the orphans and widows. He is preoccupied and obsessed with social justice. He is not primarily troubled by the evil government practices (as was the case of Elijah and Amos) but rather the people themselves who have become infected with evil - a social disease of individuals ho corrupted themselves and in turn the government . The reforms instructed by Josiah had either failed to make the people ‘holy’ being inherently insufficient and/or seem to have been rejected by Josiah’s successors.
We are told that God spoke to Jeremiah in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (1:2) i.e. 627BCE. Most scholars believe Jeremiah to have been a mere youth at the time of his call. In as much as Josiah began his renewal in 622, one can assume the king to have been devoted to renewal and it would be equally logical for his prophet equally devoted to renewal. The question which begs to be answered is: why does Jeremiah fail to praise or even comment on Josiah’s renewal call? No positive comments appear regarding Josiah, in fact one finds only criticism of the Temple (7:1-15 and 26:1-24). Several explanations can be postulated: Jeremiah as a messenger of God may have been a perfectionist, hence nothing was good enough. Alternatively the renewal may have been purely ritualistic hence it would have failed to affect a meaningful change in the people’s heart. While these explanations are somewhat plausible it appears that the answer lies in the numbers. Jeremiah’s ministry took place after the reign of Josiah.
King during Jeremiah’s lifetime was Josiah’s son Jehoiakim. Josiah’s reforms remain unmentioned because they had already been rejected by his son. W.L. Holladay 1 suggests that year 627 was not Jeremiah’s call but his birth. In 622 when Josiah’s reforms were at their highest point Jeremiah was a mere five year old child. This seems to be the most plausible explanation as to why Josiah is not mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.
In God’s call to Jeremiah He says to him ‘before I formed you in the belly I knew you, and before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you and I ordained you as a prophet to the nations’ (1:5) (Jeremiah is also distinguished by being the only prophet to have a ‘prenatal commissioning’. 2 Jeremiah is the only prophet to spoken to non-Jews). Perhaps the critical words of God message are you are ‘to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’ (1:10). This is a very paradoxical and confounding mission. This will in fact foretell Jeremiah’s life. However he was not cognizant of the implications of to ‘break down and destroy’, vis a vis both to Judea and his personal life. The ‘building’ and ‘planting’ could be to allusions to the exiles in Babylon and based on the new covenant. However for the young Jeremiah such events lay far in the future.
At the time of Josiah’s death (609), Assyria had already been conquered by Babylon (612). Jeremiah would then be eighteen years old (accepting that he was born in 627) and at the outset of his career. Jeremiah responds to God `I do not know how to speak, I am too young’ (1:5), an interesting analogy to Moses saying `Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh . . . I am not a good speaker’ (Ex.4:10). God responds I will put words in your mouth’ (1:8), nearly identical to the words God said to Moses (Deut. 18:18). [Note: If the scroll which was discovered was the Book of Deuteronomy, these words of Moses would have been familiar to the Judeans.]
Jeremiah was convinced that the people of Judea were evil. ‘Circumcise yourselves to YHVH and remove the foreskins of your hearts’ (4:3) That was his motto to the people. But Jeremiah was highly skeptical as to the possibility of the reality of change. ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the panther his stripes? Then may you do good who have become habituated to do evil’ (13:23). Not only are the people’s hearts uncircumcised but equally their ears. ‘To whom should I speak and testify, in hope that they might hear? Their ear is uncircumcised and they cannot listen, the word of God is to them an embarrassment and they have no respect for it’ (6:10). When we review Jeremiah’s very personal ‘prayers’ or ‘confessions’ we read of a man who believed that the covenant between God and H/his people had been broken. He felt most isolated as one still connected to the covenant. In that sense his plea is highly individualistic. In this sense today he would be considered a fundamentalist, because he believed in the absolute truth of his path. Hence inasmuch as he chosen the only correct path, it followed that the people were on the incorrect path. He criticized the priests who led the Temple, the Monarchy and thereby the ‘nationality’ of the Judean state. He said the covenant was personal and each individual was personally responsible for his own behavior. In retrospect we now know that he was indeed correct.
Is he desperate or fatalistic? He is a man filled with gloom (15:16). He sees that the nation itself might be destroyed as was the fate of the Kingdom of Israel. He prophecies the destruction of the Davidic monarchy, the symbol of chosen-ness and the Temple, the symbol of the covenant. He witnessed the greatest catastrophe in the history of Judea. He heard God utter ‘shall I not punish them’ (5:9), ‘shall I not avenge Myself’ (5:29 and 9:9) as well as the actual cancellation of the covenant (12:7). His theology is based on events that had already transpired in the history of the Kingdom of Israel years earlier as well the major tragedy in his own lifetime - the siege of Jerusalem and the exile of the elite to Babylon. The disbelief and the lack trust of the people must have been overwhelming to him. He was explaining political history as he saw it just as Amos and Hosea had explained the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. The events were God inspired. His words as we understood them where explaining political reality, not theology. However there were factions who reversed his thinking. They extrapolated that just as God had saved Judah from the Assyrians God would save them from Babylon.
For Jeremiah nothing less than a new world order and reform would effect the changes necessary. Jeremiah never declare an apocalyptic war as was done by Ezekiel (chapters 38-39), nor did he speak of the ‘Day of the Lord’ (except once) a la Isaiah, Zephaniah and Micah, nor did he speak of miraculous transformations as did Hosea, Isaiah and Amos however his hopelessness suggests it. ‘I make My word in your mouth a fire and this people wood and I will consume them’ (5:14). One senses the feeling that Jeremiah sees his mission as hopeless and doomed to failure. Was his mission to pronounce God’s judgment upon the people or to convert them to repentance? Impressed by the flexibility built into potters house where a poor specimen can be decimated and replaced by a superior piece of pottery and started anew. ‘Can I not like this potter do with you, house of Israel? Like the potter’s clay are we in My hand’ (18:6). However Jeremiah did not simply pronounce, he also argued with God. He did not wish to undertake the mission. He continually questioned God. His calling often interfered with his self interest as a human being; he strove to live in peace with his fellow man. Was his desire for the approval of man contrary to God’s demands? Perhaps not. God Himself seems assumes a stance of disappointment than anger. ‘What wrong did your fathers find in Me . . .(2:5). You ‘My people are foolish’ (4:22) like lost sheep (50:6).
Was Jeremiah obedient to fulfilling his mission or was he rebellious against God? Did he questioning the judgment or rather the people’s ability to repent? ‘There are no grapes on the vine, and no figs on the fig tree and the leaves are withered’ (8:13). He borrows his language from the world of the metal assayer. ‘They are wholly intractable stuff, traders in slander, brass and iron all, corrupt in life. The bellows snort from the fire, the lead is consumed. In vain does one smelt and smelt, their vileness will not be removed. Rejected silver men call them for God rejects them all’ (6:27-30). Are these the direct words of God or are did they colored by a personal note? We know that God’s prophets had a pathos or sympathy with God. The people of the world (or more particularly the Hebrew people) sinned against God, thus God was ambivalent to His people. The same truth applies to Jeremiah. He experienced ambivalency, but most often repulsed by them. He was also alienated from them.
Jeremiah believed he spoke God’s word. Yet his reward was none but scorn, persecution and near death. In his lifetime he failed to be heard. Posthumously his predictions of destruction tragically materialized and thus he became the theologian of God’s punishment, wrath and exile.
THE TEMPLE SERMON
In the year 609, the year of Josiah’s death, Jeremiah delivered his first major preaching at the Temple gates.
On the occasion of the holiday of Tabernacles (Succoth) immediately after Jehoiakim is crowned king (7:2-15; 26:1-6). He calls his people to repent. `Reform the whole pattern of your conduct, so that I may dwell with you in this place. . . Do not pit your trust in that lie: This is the Lord’s Temple, This is the Lord’s Temple, This is the Lord’s Temple. . . No! Only if you really reform your whole pattern of conduct - if you really behave justly one towards another . . . No longer oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow nor shed innocent blood in this place, nor follow other gods to your own hurt . . . Only then can I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers of old for all time to come. . . Is my Temple a den of thieves? . . . I will make Jerusalem like Shiloh‘(7:3-12). Jeremiah exposes the of a false sense of security. He begs the people not to believe that the existence of the Temple will protect them. It is a false sense of security. This sermon clashes with the official theology. God Himself will destroy the Temple. Jeremiah urges the people to return to the Mosaic covenant based on the understanding: Protection is granted by God to those you follow His rules.
The people and their leaders believed that the Temple and its sacrifices ensured them a guarantee of God’s protection. This is a Davidic covenant, which appears to be unconditional. When Jerusalem was saved from the Assyrians in 700 God said ‘I will defend this city, save it, for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake’ (2 Kings 19:34) and indeed Sannacherib departed. Hence the concept of Jerusalem’s impregnability. Earlier prophets had suggested that the sacrifices were not of ultimate importance to God (Amos 5:21 and Isaiah 1:11-14) however none had ever put forward the ‘blasphemy’ that the Temple itself could be construed as less important than ethical behavior. Jeremiah prophesized that the Temple in itself was not an unconditional guarantee of salvation. The sole guarantee was following God’s word. A message of such radical proportion was dangerous to the messenger and resulted in Jeremiah’s being arrested by the priestly officials who declared `for this you must die!’ (26:8). He is accused of prophecy against the Temple and the City as well as of blasphemy and treason.
Jeremiah is reported to the King, is arrested and is tried for treason against the government. Jeremiah defends himself declaring to the Princes (the elites) `It was God who sent me to prophesize (26:12). If you put me to death you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves, upon this city, and upon its inhabitants’ (26:15). They respond that they will not sentence him to death for he spoke in the name of God (26:16). The Princes relegate to the priests and their prophets the responsibility for Jeremiah. He is forbidden entry by the priests from entry into the Temple. Jeremiah’s anti-establishment sermon enraged King Jehoiakim (21:11-14; 22:13-19) who had rejected his father’s (King Josiah) reforms. Jeremiah notes that yet another anti-establishment prophet Uriah was killed. (26:20-23).
Jeremiah’s next major act is to dictates a scroll to Baruch (36:1-8). The precise contents of this scroll remain unknown. Many scholars believe it that it included various statements to be found elsewhere in the Book of Jeremiah. The key to this scroll is the condemnation of Judea’s transgressions and God’s request or demand that the people ‘return to Me and I will forgive you, otherwise I will destroy you’. The scroll was probably written in the year 604 immediately after the defeat of Egypt by Babylon. It was read at the Temple by Baruch on a fast day, ‘Yom Kippur’ (the Day of Atonement) inasmuch as Jeremiah’s presence the Temple had already been forbidden.
The main theme is the personification of Evil idolatry (1:15-16) and that the people, God’s heritage, have become an abomination (2:7). The Priests, the teachers and the [false] prophets all portrayed as liars (2:8). This scroll can be viewed as a major anti monarchy and anti Temple document.
Jeremiah declares in the scroll that because of your evil I have put you away and given you of bill of divorce - a breaking of the covenant (3:8). And then comes the warning. If you do not return ‘I will bring evil from the north and a great destruction. . . The destroyer of the nation is on his way . . . your cities shall be laid to waste without an inhabitant. The King shall perish and the heart of the princes and the priests shall be astonished (4:6-9). ‘The whole earth shall be a desolation and more of it I will remake’ (4:20). I looked to the earth and see a formless void and to the heavens and their light was no more.(4:23). The whole city shall flee from the horseman and bowmen . . . every city shall be forsaken (4:29). The ‘Bat Zion’ one his most extraordinary poetic metaphors - the daughter of Zion - as the one who bewails herself. ‘For this is the day of the Lord, God of hosts, a day of vengeance, that he may avenge himself of his adversaries, and the sword shall devour and it shall satiate and be made drunk with their blood’ (46:10).
‘If you return (shuva) I will be merciful (3:12,14) and I will return you to Zion (3:14). ‘If you will return (‘ta’shuv) O Israel said the Lord, return to me’ (4:1) . Then all the nations shall return to Jerusalem (3:17) What will become Jeremiah’s motto is then stated ‘circumcise yourselves to the Lord and take away the foreskins of your heart ... lest my fury come like fire and burn so that no one can quench the fire because of your evil’ (4:4).
When the scroll was read to King Jehoiakim he orders it to be burned, piece by piece (36:21-25).3 The king ordered the arrest of Baruch and Jeremiah, but they fled. The burning of the scroll ordered by the King entails a flagrant rejection of God as God authored the scroll. Burning it is a rejecting of God. Jeremiah furiously stated that as retribution the King would not have successors, his dead body would be denied burial and ‘I will punish . . . his offspring and his servants for their iniquity; I will bring upon them, and open upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem and upon the men of Judah, all the evil I have pronounced against them (36:29-31). The stage is set for the transition from a warning to a prophecy of Judgment and Doom. A certain irrevocable process has occurred; the King’s actions represent a point of no return.
Jeremiah’s perception of his role had changed. He no longer was preaching for repentance, he was now convinced that the end was near and inevitable. God declared that he would no longer accept Jeremiah’s prayers for the people (7:16, 14:11-12, 15:1). He could no longer consider himself like Moses who had always interceded for the people (15:1). This may have been the greatest disappointment in Jeremiah’s life. Jeremiah is told by God not to marry. (Jeremiah is the only unmarried prophet in Israel. 4) God then adds that Jeremiah is not to visit mourners nor to participate in celebrations (16:1-8) These prohibitions to withdraw from familial and social intercourse had a exert profound and deeply disturbing effect on Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is then instructed by God to write a second scroll in the year 600 or perhaps even later, after the fall of Jerusalem and perhaps even after the Letter to the Exiles. (The second scroll may have seemed to Jeremiah to like the second set of Tablets given by Moses/God after destroying the first set.) Once again the contents of the second scroll are not revealed and thus we must surmise. ‘But where are the gods that you have made? Let them arise if they can save you in your times of trouble (2:28). You have polluted the land with your whores and wickedness. Therefore there is no rain (3:2-3). The House of Israel and the House of Judah have dealt very treacherously with Me (5:11). I shall make my words in your mouth fire and this people wood and it shall devour you (5:14). A people will come from the north country, a great nation . . . they have no mercy . . . daughter of Zion. (6:22-23). You my people will be called false silver (6:30).
The first siege of Jerusalem (598-597) began shortly after the burning of the first scroll and the writing of the second scroll . Jehoiakim died in 598 (it is unclear whether by assassination or otherwise) and his son Jehoiachin was crowned. Jeremiah’s response to these events was yet an additional prediction of desolation from the north (10:17-22). And he tells the new King ‘be humble . . . for Judah will be carried away’ (13:18-19) and you will be captured by Nebuchadnezzar and you shall be childless and there die. (22:25-30). In the year 597 the elite of the Jewish population, including the new King Jehoiachin who was exiled into Babylon. The King’s brother - Zedekiah - was placed on throne by the Babylonians. The Jews now had two centers, Jerusalem and Babylon and two Kings.
The pressing issue of the day was which was the true center? Did Zedekiah and his followers believe their lack of exile was proof that they were the ‘true believers’ and the ‘exiled brethren’ were the ‘guilty ones’? If they so believed Jeremiah informed them otherwise. He had a vision of figs - ripe ones and putrid ones (24:1-10). The putrid ones represented Jerusalem while the ripe ones were Babylon - the exiled were the ‘true believers’.
In the year 594 when an uprising against Nebuchadnezzar began in Babylon, a faction within the exiled community began to agitate to return to Jerusalem and resume their rightful places. Several minor neighboring states convened in Jerusalem to consider rebellion against Babylon. It is unlikely that King Zedekiah favored this, nevertheless
Hebrew powers exited who favored the return of King Jehoiachin to power (Chapters 27-28). Jeremiah wore a collar of throngs and yoke pegs as a sign of his displeasure, the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar and requested the other ambassadors of the other states to follow suite. Jeremiah, the prophet to the nations, spoke to the nations of God’s dominion over the entire world and His giving the world to Nebuchadnezzar. The potential rebellion in Jerusalem collapsed simultaneously with the collapse of the rebellion in Babylon. Jeremiah called Nebuchadnezzar to a be ‘servant of God’; therefore opposition to Babylon was an offense against God.
THE LETTER TO THE EXILES
With the issue of which center was the real Hebrew center and the potentially rebellious movement in mind Jeremiah wrote his famous letter to exiles (chapter 29). Documents in ancient times were countersigned by witnesses as testimony to their authenticity. Jeremiah declared that had God witnessed his letter (29:23). Jeremiah instructs the exiled Jews to submit and moreover declared the exile God’s will. This statements is both political and religious in nature. In the letter to the exiles in Babylonia Jeremiah says ‘build houses . . . plant orchards . . take wives and have children . . . pray for the [Babylon] for with its welfare is yours. . . When you pray for Me I will hear, when you seek Me you shall find, when you seek with all your heart I will reveal Myself to you’ (29:5-7,12-13). ‘Do not live your days moping for Jerusalem. Live your lives there, in Babylon and live them fully and learn a new prayer, Pray for the peace of Babylon instead of the old prayer Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. 5 The notion to pray for your capturers instead of Jerusalem is a new theology. Inherent in this is the idea that exile is not death, it is the new path for Judea. Citizenship and the following of God’s commandments are not intertwined. God is as near to you as you are to Him. Hence Sinai is in a desert, unlike Zion. It is not the Temple or its geography that is important, rather ones closeness to God. A spiritual encounter may indeed be easier in a desert. ‘The people . . . found grace in the desert . . . again I will build you and you shall be built, O virgin of Israel you shall be adorned . . . Come back, O virgin of Israel to these cities return’ (31:2,4,22). Spiritual return may be easier on virgin ground which for Jeremiah means righteous. Can you only become virgins as a citizen of a different country, as a servant of God’s servant? In the face of the death of the Davidic line some viewed the exile as a question of the survival of the people; Jeremiah calmly declared that the People of Israel can rest assured that deliverance would come.
This may be part of the new covenant that Jeremiah preached later.
Nevertheless Jeremiah stresses the need to beware not to adapt the ways of the nations (10:2-3) particularly the abominations of their gods. He uses an interesting pun in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonian Jewry. ‘The gods who the heavens and earth did not make, let them perish from the earth and from under the heavens’ (10:11). 6 This letter may be seen as a new Jewish theology. Jeremiah does not simply reject exile; he both recognizes its merits while simultaneously its danger. The danger is less than the danger of living in Jerusalem under the illusion of God’s protection. Jeremiah predicts that Zedekiah and his followers will fail; the Babylonian exiles will survive.
Jeremiah defines the religion independent of the nation and the land. This is not a new ideology, for it would have been obvious to the Patriarchs who developed their religion independent of the land. However dating from the time of David and the building of the Temple the Judaic religion had become a national religion and was intimately tied into the nation and its state. It was unthinkable to the Judeans of the day that religion could survive – independent of the existence of the Temple. No prophet prior to Jeremiah had ever stated so radical a concept so bluntly. Isaiah and Amos indeed had talked about the destruction of Jerusalem and the ‘Day of the Lord’. However they did not foresee a religion independent of the institutions of the state. In the past destruction of the Kingdom of Israel was tantamount to destruction of the people. Judaism in the northern lands failed to exist. However Jeremiah’s message was based on the reality of a living exile in Babylon.
For Jeremiah, the election of Israel by God is independent of the nation state or the promised land. Yet he promised the exiles return in seventy years, a symbolic number. When the exiles were offered the opportunity to return ( in the days of Cyrus, Emperor of Persia and Ezra and Nehemiah) – prior to the completion of the seventy years, the majority chose not to return. Was this choice justified by Jeremiah’s letter?
Jeremiah states that the prophets of optimism are false and cause him anguish. “My heart is broken because of the prophets, all my bones shake (23:9) . . . the prophets of Jerusalem commit adultery and walk in lies . . . they are like the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (23:14). God Himself says they ‘make My people forget My name’ (23:27) and lead My people astray by their lies (23:32). Still wearing his collar Jeremiah met with Hananiah, the optimistic prophet in the Temple area. Hananiah proclaimed the termination of the exile in two years; he then broke Jeremiah’s collar. Jeremiah accused him of being a false prophet and predicted his death within the year. Hananiah was not prophesizing to a false god such as Baal, he was praying to the Lord and believed he was a true prophet. He preached the protection of Zion, the trustworthiness of God and His unconditional promises to Israel. He believed his prophecies to be true. The conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah appears to be a legitimate difference of opinion regarding political strategies, handling the Babylonian Empire. Martin Buber called Hananiah a patriot. 7 Either strategy may have been correct. Hananiah, in fact won the debate but lost the war; two months later Hananiah died. This was, of course, a conclusive validation of Jeremiah.
For many years Jeremiah believed the Babylonians to be God’s instrument for punishing the Judeans. He also believed resistance to be futile, given the qualities of the Babylonian army and its powerful leader Nebuchadnezzar. He said ‘See I have set before you the way of life and the way of death’ (21:8-9) an interesting comparison to Moses (Deut. 30:19). He is purported to have advised desertion to soldiers and civilians. By doing so he was a traitor in terms of the war party. However he was correct, rebellion was not a viable option. The surrender of the state would not be the loss of the religion, but the destruction of the state and the people, as had happened to the Kingdom of Israel, might.
Jeremiah’s position and that of the non-institutional prophets was that the state was of far less importance than the religion of the people. He believed that fighting Babylonia (as had happened with Assyria earlier) could indeed annihilate both the nation and the people. He deeply believed that the religion of Israel vastly outweighed the concept of nation. He himself was not deserter, but he did continue to try to convert the people and the government to his views.
THE SUFFERING SERVANT PRAYERS
The destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple had impacted both the Judeans and on the personal life of Jeremiah. It is quite self evident that all this is personified in his relationship with God. Prophets have a personal relationship with God however none expressed himself through crying and screaming to God. The Book of Jeremiah embodies a permanent record of this relationship. One can not be entirely certain when these five prayers were composed, however it is plausible that they occurred following the incidence with Hananiah where Jeremiah was accused of being a false prophet, yet prior to the siege of Jerusalem when the new covenant was developed by Jeremiah.
Both the dialogues with God and well as Jeremiah’s monologues with God are in the form of prayers and express his suffering and tortured life. They are introspective, self revelatory and biographical, and actually assume more the form of private cries of distress than prophetic warnings.
A prophet is called by God, hence God is the initiator. In praying Man is the initiator, he chooses to stand before God. Thus these prayers by Jeremiah are not uttered as a prophet but in the role of mere human being. He appeals and prays to God (in each prayer God is the addressee - thus it is a prayer) as a suffering human being not in his function as a prophet to the people of Israel, but perhaps as a complaint to the One who gave him the mission, which he considers to have been a failure. Had he not been called by God as a prophet he would not be besieged by these problems. Indeed he is the first prophet to be a suffering servant to God. With the possible exception of Job not one in biblical literature has experienced such personal acute pain which affected his personal religious experience. It is unbearable and beyond his ability to withdraw it.
God instructs Jeremiah to ‘pray for these people, neither lift up or cry or pray on their behalf, do not intercede with Me, for I will not hear you’ (7:16). Such a position is diametrically opposed to that of Moses who always interceded for the people. Did Jeremiah despair of God or decide that he and only he ‘knew’ God? How does one survive with such conviction? No life exists for Jeremiah beyond his relationship with God. In this sense his mission as perceived by him more challenging than Moses’ mission. Moses, family revolved around, a wife, children, a brother and sister. Jeremiah is bereft of family or social relations (at God’s request). He has nothing but God, an impossible companion! His perception of the world drastically differs from that of from his fellow Judeans. He knows that destruction is inevitable because they have broken the covenant. This divine consciousness which pervades Jeremiah’s being imbues him with a sensitivity which A.J. Heschel called the ‘pathos’ of God. Jeremiah viewed the apathetic indifference of H/his people as the voice of God and as such he differs from us. 8 He may have been inspired by Moses, Amos and Hosea, but he has absorbed God into his unconscious and becomes more God-intoxicated than any other prophet. Were any of his words originally his own? Jeremiah has a more suffering relationship to God and is not just as a prophet, a much more dangerous task. He represents every man’s suffering and pain. He wishes to be the ‘vengeance’ of God. In this he cannot succeed. God’s anger may be righteous indignation toward injustice; Jeremiah’s anger may be as well. But his anger is also human. When he says ‘avenge me’ he is a suffering human being - not one who is God-intoxicated.
However his failure does not emanate from himself ‘You know what comes from my lips, it is ever before You’ (17:16). He is appealing to the righteous Judge (11:20). He may well be the model of the ‘suffering servant’ developed by second Isaiah. These ‘confessions’ portray Jeremiah as the most self-revealing of all the prophets. Jeremiah opens his soul in these statements. And yet we do not truly know why he wrote these confessions. He may have proclaimed these statements as messages for a later generation. Jeremiah appeared to believe that only he was left as the ‘remnant’. When challenged to identify a single non sinful man he is unable to do so (5:1). It seems plausible that this attitude likely was spurred by disparate incidents in his life. 9 Without the confessions we would be ignorant of the prophet’s despair and troubles. And he would not be the unique prophet that he is.
The confessions in their entirety can be viewed to have one common basic objective. Jeremiah demands of God to prove that I am the righteous prophet and not one of the false prophets.10 Jeremiah depicts himself as innocent and faithful - ‘I was like a lamb’.(11:19, see also 12,3, 15:10, 18:20). They torment me, punish them ‘Let us destroy the tree with the fruit’ (11:19). They are false prophets, they achieve popularity because they tell people what they want to hear. But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a terrible thing; they commit adultery, walk in lies, they strengthen the hands of evil men’ (23:14). They are tied into the priests, also telling the people what they want to hear - God has elected them and will protect them from all their enemies. The King and his sycophants support this corrupt establishment. Jeremiah is the exception. He tells us ‘My heart, within me is broken because of the prophets, all my bones shake . . . all because of the Lord and because of His holy words . . . the land is full of adulterers . . For both prophet and priests are profane, yes, in My house I found their wickedness . . .they prophesied in Baal’ (23:9-13). Jeremiah theme is based on truth and falsehood.
Jeremiah’s condemnation of Judea, the King, the priests and other Temple prophets further aggravates his already tainted reputation among the people. His message was always ‘turn back’ (23:22) but no one could hear him. The popular leaders repeatedly incanted ‘peace, peace’ yet Jeremiah insisted that without ‘turning back’ there could be ‘no peace’ (6:14). Indeed one must consider the inevitable existential position of a prophet. Rarely is he recognized in his lifetime. It is not possible to objectively judge or differentiate between true visions (from the mouth of God - 23:16) and false visions. It is quite possible that Hananiah did indeed see the visions he proclaimed. Jeremiah is aware of this. He speaks of morality, justice and righteousness, the others speak positively of people’s lives. Some prophets indeed speak in riddles (Hosea) and through dreams (Ezekiel) as God Himself proclaims earlier in the same verse. When God says through Jeremiah ‘am I a God of near and not a God of the far’ (23:23) He is saying it is not easy to see and find Him (although it is easy for God to find His prophet) can anyone hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him (23:24). God’s relationship with his true prophet is neither easy nor popular. ‘I am against the prophets that steal my words’ (23:30). ‘God’s word is ‘like fire, like a hammer that shatters the rock’ (23:29).
On one occasion God responds ‘it shall be well with my remnant, I shall cause the enemy to treat you well’ (15:11). But on other occasions God does not respond to Jeremiah’s prayers. ’Vindicate me (17:9-18), they torment me, punish them (18:18-23). Cursed is my life ( 20:7-18). One could construe that Jeremiah is begging for death. Jeremiah believes that God is the origin of his mission; he therefore demands God’s vengeance on his enemies. He says ‘heal me’ Lord and I shall be healed’ (17:14). ‘Do not be a terror to me’, can God be his enemy 11 but then says ‘Let my foes be put to shame and not me . . . bring upon them the day of evil’ (17:18). You know they wish my death, forgive them not (18:23). He is clearly ambiguous about his personal position and his prophetic mission.. In all five confessions he equates his enemies as God’s enemies. We do not know the order of these prayers and hence it if not clear whether God responds to Jeremiah’s prayers. As noted by many scholars these prayers bear a striking resemblance to a lawsuit brought to God, the Righteous Judge. He protests his innocence, and condemns his adversaries. He asks for mercy for himself ‘Heal me . . .and I shall be healed, save me and I shall be saved’ . . . Let them be ashamed that persecute me, but let me not be shamed, Let them be dismayed, but let me not be dismayed’ (17:17-18).
The theme of self pity is inherent in these prayers. Yet his mission was composed of opposing objectives, ‘to pluck up and to break down . . . to build and to plant’ (1:10). To do this in times of peace would have been impossible. Unfortunately he spent most of his life in the ‘pluck up and destroy’ mode. Who - of his own free will - would chose such a mission? Who wished to hear such a message. ‘To whom can I speak and testify and be heard? Their ’ear is uncircumcised and they can not listen’ (6:10). Jeremiah tells of his grief at the breaking of God’s covenant. ‘Grief overwhelms me. . . . I am utterly broken in the breaking of the daughter of my people. . . Would my head were water and my eyes a spring of tears. I would weep day and night for the slain daughters of my people’ (8:18-23). These lamentations are similar to those he may have written in the Book of Lamentations over the destruction of Jerusalem. In this he sympathizes with God. ‘I have left my house, abandoned my inheritance, given over to her enemies my dearly beloved’ (12:7). When Jeremiah asks God to avenge his enemies, is he acting as God’s representative and asking for God to avenge God’s enemies or is he speaking more personally? Perhaps that is what God meant when He said ‘If you return, I will restore you’ (15:19) as has been suggested by Heschel He was asking above and beyond his mission, for vengeance.
Jeremiah suffers from existential pain and loneliness; feels truly alone in the world. As a human being he reacts to the seeming injustice of his position. Believing in a God of justice he feels like Job, his theological successor. Both tried to understand a world that is not just. 12 ‘Why do the wicked succeed and all those who commit evil flourish’? (12:1) Despite God, by definition being right ‘You have to be in the right O Lord . . . nevertheless I will bring certain cases to Your attention (12:1). If God is justice then Jeremiah has a right to accuse Him. ‘Should evil be awarded with good. I speak for good’ (18:20). They ‘build a trap for me . . . they wish my death’ (18:22-23). As Job (and Jesus) he accuses God of having forsaken him. ‘For You have filled me with gloom [and are] ‘as undependable waters’ (15:17-18). God’s first response to Jeremiah’s addresses his complaint about his family and neighbors (11:18-20). Stop talking to them, ‘I will bring evil to the men of Anatoth’ (11:23). ‘O Lord You have seduced me, and I am seduced; You have raped me and I am overcome’ 13. . . Daily I have been an object of ridicule . . the word of the Lord has become for a constant source of shame’ (20:7-8). The term used by Jeremiah as translated by A.J. Heschel is ‘raped by God’ is extraordinary. 14 As Job becomes a public spectacle 15 so with Jeremiah.
Has his Lover forgotten him? ‘The Lord made known to me and I knew’ (11:18). Jeremiah bemoans his fate as a prophet – wishing it were otherwise – but it cannot
be. ‘If I say I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name, there is in my heart a burning fire, shut up in my bones, I am weary with holding it and I can not’ (20:9). This sentiment is reiterated by Jeremiah as he chants ‘my heart is broken within me, all my bones are out of joint . . . like a man overcome by wine’ (23:9). Jeremiah then responds that God ‘is on my side, my mighty warrior and my foes will stumble’ (20:11).
In his final confession, Jeremiah moans ‘Cursed be the day I was born. . . cursed the man who brought my father ‘good news’ . . . May he be cursed . . . I wish I had died in my mother’s womb. . . (20:14-17). He is in total despair. 16 He God’s curse on him from the day of his birth. Job said ‘Let the day I was born perish and the night when it was said a child was conceived’ (Job 3:3) and why ‘not the doors of my mother’s womb close . . . why did I not die in the womb, why did I not die when I came out of the belly’ (Job 3:10-11). Did Job not know the language of Jeremiah? Jeremiah clearly feels persecuted; he is a sensitive human being who suffers deeply from being scorned and mocked. He is wounded by hatred and contempt. His motives are misconstrued and it is not accepted that he acts in good faith. His enemies wanted to assassinate him (11:18 ff). God’s response from a previous prayer minimizes of Jeremiah’s complaint. ‘If you return I will restore you’ (15:19). Such a response to God’s suffering prophet – focusing on Jeremiah’s repentance must have been devastating to Jeremiah. It is not surprising that Jeremiah’s desperation leads him close to suicidal.
The theological meaning of the confessions is ‘I am truly alone’! He is the suffering servant of God. ‘My anguish, my anguish, I writhe in pain. The walls of my heart beat wildly’ (4:19). ‘Anguish as of one bringing forth her first child’ (4:31). ‘My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me’ (8:18). He feels he was born alone ‘born in disgrace’ (15:15). At one point he buries his linen cloth to symbolize the burying of the people (13:1-7). At another point God tells him ‘Expect nothing . . . count yourself fortunate that I will preserve you alive’ (45:5). If indeed the mission of the prophet is ‘to inspire the people . . . to impassion the people with understanding for God’ 17 as stated by Heschel then one must conclude that during his lifetime Jeremiah failed. However he is indeed God’s prophet and his prophecies later came true.
DESTRUCTION OF JERUSALEM AND THE NEW COVENANT - 588-587
The second siege of Jerusalem began in the year 589 and continued for two and one half years. During that time Jeremiah was approached several times by King Zedekiah to intervene with God in order to save Jerusalem. Jeremiah responded to the King that resistance was futile. He was arrested several times and threatened with death. No one believed Jeremiah. The King was caught trying to escape (34:4; 52:10; 2 Kings 25:7), his children were killed, he is blinded and Jerusalem and the Temple were reduced to ashes.
Jeremiah talks of the breaking of the covenant by Israel and later of the restoration of Israel and the New Covenant. Jeremiah was sent to warn the people and appeal for repentance and warn of the consequences of non repentance. No interventions were successful. Jeremiah prophesies at the Temple, wrote a scroll which was burnt, wrote a second scroll, Babylon conquered Jerusalem, the King was exiled – all to no avail. ‘You walked after vanity’ (2:5), you played the harlot (2:20), betrayed Me (3:20), and then divorced Me (3:1).
After the destruction of the Temple Jeremiah declared that restoration will eventually come. ‘Once more I will build you securely. . . Once more you will cover with vineyards over Samaria’s hills. . . . On Ephraim’s hills Let us rise and go up to Zion to YHVH our God’ (31:4-6). ‘Hark in Ramah is heard lamentation, bitter weeping. It is Rachel weeping over her children, refusing comfort. Refrain from weeping . . Their return from the enemies land’ (31:15-16). I have heard Ephraim moaning. . . Restore me and I will return; You are YHVH, my God. For after I turned I was sorry, I smote my thigh; In shame and confusion I bear the reproach of my youth. Is Ephraim my favorite son . . . Thus does My heart yearn for him’ (31:18-20). Come back you virgin of Israel to these cities return . . You erring daughter’ (31:21-22)
These statements of restoration which allude to the northern tribes - lost over one hundred years earlier - are a symbol for Judea’s being returned. Rachel - the grandmother of Ephraim - who died in exile weeps for her own descendant. Ephraim symbolizes not merely the northern tribes, but in this case Judea. Ramah is in the land of the tribe of Benjamin, thus another symbol of Rachel’s children, those lost in an earlier desertion by God.
However a new covenant will be required. The original covenant based on the idea of an external institutional relation with God. Jeremiah focuses on the internal relationship, an inward covenant of the heart. He is less interested in the Temple, the sacrifices, and legal proscriptions. This was the covenant as defined by Moses. However at a later date a revised covenant was developed through the Davidic monarchy. This centered on the Temple built by David’s son and successor King Solomon and the cult of the Temple. It is this cult that Jeremiah rejected in his first significant preaching at the Temple gates. Had Jeremiah preached that the promise was canceled, rescinded or merely postponed and revised? ‘He has violently taken away His tabernacle . . . the Lord has caused the festivals and Sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion and has despised in indignation the king and the priests’ (Lam. 2:6). Your prophets have seen vain and foolish things and they have not told of Your iniquities and told you to turn away from our captivity (2:14). Thus both the priests and prophets are condemned by Jeremiah. God has not rescinded his promise; you have broken the contract. The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron and with the point of a diamond; it is graven upon the tablet of their heart (17:1). ‘The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant ‘ (Jer. 11:10). The people seemed not to realize that God did not want the ‘rich man to glory in his riches,. . . [but to understand] that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice and righteousness in the earth’. (9:23), a Lord of ethical behavior, not of ritual ‘your burnt offerings are not acceptable to me (6:20).
Hence, the need for a new covenant. From the perspective of Jeremiah the promise was not rescinded but rather the people had broken it. The people turned away from Me you used your liberty for your own pleasure (34:16). Despite My being a husband to them and taking them out of the land of Egypt, they broke my covenant (31:32). ‘It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors’ (31:32). ‘I will give them one heart, and one way . . . I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them . . . but I will put my fear into their hearts, that they shall not depart from me’ (32:39-40). This appears to be a new covenant where the circumcised heart rules. Man’s freedom, accountability, self-determination here at last take a back seat’. 18 This new covenant will be new knowledge; to love and be loved by God. In the days of the restoration ‘David. . . shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’ (33:15).
The original idea of a new covenant came from Hosea where he stated ‘’I will betroth you to myself for ever, I shall betroth you in righteousness and justice, and faithful love’ (Hos. 2:19). It was followed by Ezekiel (Ez. 11:19-20, 36;26-28). This may possibly be based on the depressive tone of Jeremiah who believes that the people are incapable of change. However Jeremiah’s new covenant was never instituted, the new world order never materialized.
The task of creating a new covenant required Jeremiah to think of himself as a ‘new Moses’. Early in his life the scroll of Deuteronomy was rediscovered in the Temple and was the basis of Josiah’s reforms. Upon initially being favored by God of his mission he responds to God `I do not know how to speak, I am too young’ (1:6). This is comparable to Moses saying `Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh . . . I am not a good speaker’ (Ex.3: ). God responds to Jeremiah ‘I have put words in your mouth’ (1:9), these words are almost identical the words God said to the prophet who is to come (Deut. 18:18). Neither Moses nor Jeremiah was truly incapable of the verbal tasks required by their missions. Jeremiah learns to speak God’s words through his experiential suffering. William Holladay enumerates a number of striking parallels which exist between Deuteronomy (the newly found scroll) and words used uniquely by Jeremiah.
1. The word ‘natash’ as forsaking God is only to be found in Deut 32:15 and Jer. 15:6.
2. The word ‘zeraim’ as strange gods in Deut. 32:16 and Jer. 2:25, 3:13.
3. The words ‘lo elohim’ as non-gods in Deut. 32:17,21 and Jer. 2:11, 5:7, 16:20.
4. The words ‘ki aish karakha ba’api’ - for a fire is kindled in my anger in Deut. 32:22 and Jer. 15:14, 17:4.
5. The words ‘Ya’binu La’akhritem’ to discern their end’ Deut. 32:29 and to see our end in Jer. 12:4.
6. The words ‘where are their gods . . . let them rise up and help you’ Deut. 32:37-38 and ‘where are your gods . . . let them save you’ Jer. 2:28.
Holladay concludes that ‘No pre-Jeremianic prophet offers parallels to the Song of Moses [Deuteronomy chapter 32] to this degree. 19 The beginning of the Song of Moses is ‘Ha’azinu’ Listen O Heavens (32:1) and in Jeremiah it is ‘Shommu’ Be astonished O Heaven’ (2:12. 20 Jeremiah tells us ‘Your words were found and I ate them and Your words became to me a joy and to the delight of my heart; for I am called by Your name, O lord, God of hosts’ (15:16). The words to which Jeremiah refers are the scroll of Deuteronomy that were a joy to him and the delight of his heart. This suggests the enormous impact of the scroll of Deuteronomy on Jeremiah. He then refers to God’s name, a critical issue in Moses’ bringing down the second set of Tablets as noted in an earlier chapter and in the Davidic covenant. When Jeremiah read that God promised Moses to ‘raise up’ a prophet from among your brothers like you and I will put my words into his mouth’ (Deut. 18:18) he believed the reference was to himself. Jeremiah tells us that God responded by ‘putting] words in your mouth’ (1:8). Holladay also compares the influence of Deuteronomy 12-26 of the poetry of Jeremiah. 21 Circumcise your heart is a key to Jeremiah new covenant, this idea was also stated in Deuteronomy (10:16).
What is the New Covenant? It is both a national religion and a personal individual religion. By creating a new covenant Jeremiah is again Moses-like. 22 The new covenant is not a legal contract but a personal covenant. It is a sign of hope, chapters 30-33 are sometimes referred to as the ‘Book of Consolation’.
The main theme of the new covenant is - turn inward - to the heart. Jeremiah no longer believes people can be good on their own free will . Only with a covenant inscribed in their hearts can they be good and obedient to their God. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good, But I will put my fear in their hearts and they shall not depart from me’ (32:40) It is an inward Torah installed in an inward heart . ‘But this shall be the covenant that I shall make with the house of Israel. I will put my law in their inward parts and write in their hearts and write it in their hearts’ (31:33). All individuals shall know me, and because the Torah is inward, not written on a tablet of stone but on the heart you will never forget me. ‘They will no longer need to teach one another, and every man his neighbor, to know YHVH, but all shall know me, from the least to the greatest, said YHVH for I will pardon their guilt and remember their sins no more’ (31:34). This aspect of Jeremiah’s prophecy can not be said to have been accomplished yet. However Jeremiah optimistically buys the land of his cousin in Anatoth (32:9-15). And he continues to elaborate on the mercy of God (32:16-25).
‘Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and rule wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. . . The Lord is our righteousness (23:5-6). ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill my promise and bring you back to this place’ (29:10). ‘For out of the north . . . behold I am stirring up against Babylon a great company. It was Persia and Cyrus (538 B.C.E.) who defeated Babylon and enabled the Jews to return to the Land of Israel. However this was too late for Jeremiah, although he predicted it. ‘I will save you from afar, and your offspring from the land of captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. For I am with you to save you says the Lord’ (30:10-11).
The people’s faith in Jeremiah’s prophecy was restored too late. He lived under the protection of Gedaliah appointed as Governor of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar. The survivors were able to form a new community under his direction. Jeremiah himself bought land in his home from a near relative (32:6ff). This purchase concludes with a vision in which the Lord says ‘Yet again shall houses, fields and vineyards be bought in this land’. Jeremiah envisions restoration within the promised land, though significantly different from its previous status.
FLIGHT TO EGYPT -
The assassination of Gedaliah forced Jeremiah to finally leave Jerusalem. He was exiled against his will to Egypt. This act encompasses the final and last failure of Jeremiah’s life. The leaders of the community responsible for Gedaliah’s death feared retaliation from Babylonia and fled to Egypt. They sought counsel from Jeremiah and he inquired of God (42:1-7). Jeremiah’s exile to Egypt where the Israelites had slaved for 400 years was the final blow to Jeremiah’s life. Was it God’s will? Was it to be comparable to the exile to Babylon, a request of God? Jeremiah believed not; whereas Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant - the King of Egypt certainly was not – how could a Pharaoh be the servant of God? Jeremiah believed going to Egypt was rebelling against God. However the leaders rejected Jeremiah’s prophecy. Once again he is called a false prophet. They took Jeremiah and Baruch in exile to Egypt with them.
On route to Egypt at the Royal Palace of Taphanhes Jeremiah sees a vision. Take great stones and bury them secretly. Nebuchadnezzar will build a throne palace on these stones and invade Egypt. This event occurred in the year 568 presumably after Jeremiah’s death. (43:8-13)
Jeremiah then composes a letter to Jewish residents in Egypt. In it he writes of a great gathering of Egyptian Jews, primarily women who were reviving the cult of the ‘Queen of Heaven’, an idolatrous religion, probably based on the goddess Ishtar. (44:20-28). Jeremiah sees them about to sacrifice to the Queen of Heaven. ‘You women have spoken with your mouths . . To burn sacrifice to the Queen of Heaven . . By my great name I swear, said YHVH that my name shall no more be heard in the mouth of any man of Judah in all the land of Egypt’ (44:25,26).
Jeremiah, the person disappears from history – we do not know of his death. His tortured tragic life represents the tortured tragic life of his people and their destruction as a nation, but not as a religion. He became the ‘Prophet of Exile’. While he is unique, he stands in line with the tradition of previous prophets. He draws from Moses as well as the latter prophets Hosea, Amos and Isaiah. Isaiah’s suffering servant would seem to come from the life of Jeremiah. It is likely that the author of the Book of Job was aware of Jeremiah’s confession in 20:14-18.
His message of repentance to the Israeli people had failed. Sometimes he is satisfied with his solitary suffering ‘visit me graciously . . . for your sake I suffer’ (15:15), Your word is a delight (15:16). But he also feels himself to be a failed prophet. He wants to reject his role ‘I will seek to forget Him and speak no more of His name’ (20:9). But he cannot because of ‘a burning fire in my breast’ (20:9). He cries then of his disappointment ‘O Lord You have seduced me, and I am seduced; You have raped me and I am overcome’ (20:7). At times he wants God to protect him from them ‘They digged a pit to entrap me . . . May they stumble and fall before You’ (18:22-23). They wish ‘to wreak revenge’ [on me] . . . But God is on my side . . . my foes shall stumble’ (20:10-11). At times his disappointment is so deep as to curse the day he was born and almost to curse his mother for letting him be born. ‘Curse the day I was born . . .Cursed the man you brought to my father the good news . . . [would] that my mother had been my grave and her womb pregnant for ever’ (20:14,15,17).
At times Jeremiah wants God to destroy the world for his, Jeremiah’s sake, as an act of vengeance for his personal suffering. ‘Avenge Yourself on my persecutors, and be not long suffering (17:15), ‘destroy them’ for my sake (17:18), and ‘Let me see Your vengeance on them; For on You I call my complaint’ (20:12). He prays to be healed and saved, in an extraordinary prayer ’Heal me God and I will be healed, Save me and I will be saved for You are my hope’ (17:14). Does he want his heart to be healed and saved or his desperate position in the world to be changed?
God responds ‘If you return, I will return you and you will stand before me . . . Your enemies shall return to you, not you to them . . . for I am with you to save and help you’ (15:19-21). God is responding to Jeremiah’s quasi-resignation from his position as God’s prophet. He complains to God of his suffering, he is impatience for the arrival of ‘Day of the Lord’ and he seeks vengeance for himself; these positions can be viewed as a rejection of his mission.
From much of Jeremiah’s statements to God he see how the ‘messenger’ impacted the ‘message’. He feels God has destroyed his life. His life is one of agony. His own family members in Anatoth despise him. He refuses to marry and have children and he even refuses to attend funerals. The only comparable figure in the Tnakh is Job, suffers from fellowmen because he is a righteous man. He hates his mission, but cannot forsake it. He attempted but is unable. He seeks vengeance on his enemies (the false prophets, his own clan in Anatoth and the priests).Vengeance is not part of his mission, but he is a human being, jeered, scorned, arrested, beaten and sentenced to death and finally exiled to the despised Egypt.
While in his confessions Jeremiah becomes the suffering servant, he never wished the destruction of the people of Israel. He prays that God is deceiving him ‘surely You have greatly deceived this people and Jerusalem saying You shall have peace whereas the sword reaches into your soul’ (4:10). He laments for his people ‘My bowels, my bowels. I writhe in pain. My heart, My heart moans within me. . . . Destruction upon destruction for the whole land is spoiled’ (4:19-20). ‘O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night for the slain daughters of my people’ (7:21-22).
Jeremiah was a prophet endowed with monumental faith. Despite opposition from all camps he was convinced that he was right and that only he spoke God’s truth. He argued with God because of his suffering and he did not want to take on the mission. But he never disputed God about the need for the mission. By still seeking the restoration of his people and by creating a new covenant he is indeed a true believer and a true man of faith.
He ends his life saying ‘Behold I have sworn by my great name, says YHVH, that my name shall no more be invoked by the mouth of any man of Judah in all the land of Egypt, saying ‘As the Lord YHVH lives’ (44:26). Just as Moses discovered the name of God Jeremiah extinguished it. A fitting end for a suffering servant.
1 Holladay, W.L., Jeremiah (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986,
Vol. I and II) and Holladay, W.L., Jeremiah, A Fresh Reading (The
Pilgrim Press, N.Y., 1990).
2 From Herbert Marks, in Schwartz, Regina, ed. The Bible and the Text, (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990) pg. 68.
3 Scholars contend as to whether the scroll is immediately burnt or three years later in 601 when Egypt temporarily defeats Babylon.
4 A medieval Midrash suggests that Ben Sira was Jeremiah’s son through his daughter, whom he impregnated unintentionally through semen in a bath. Jeremiah’s having a daughter suggests that he was married. That the Talmud believed that impregnation could be conceived through bathwater is known from a discussion in which ben Zoma stated that a Cohen could marry a non-virgin if she claimed that she was a virgin and was pregnant. From Kahn, S.M., Reproducing Jews, (Duke University Press, Pittsburgh, 2001) quoted in a review by Galina Vromen in Ha’Aretz, July 20, 2001, pg. B12.
5 Holladay, Fresh Reading, pg. 110.
6 Translated by Holladay, Fresh Reading, pg. 106.
7 Buber, M., Biblical Humanism, (London, 1968) pg. 169.
8 Moore, D. J. The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel, (Fordham Univ. Press, N.Y., 1989) pgs. 78-79.
9 There are enormous difficulties in where the confessions begin and end, what historical events precipitated them and can the non verse parts be considered part of the confessions. These are carefully discussed in many scholarly works and the arguments can be summarized in O’Connor, K.M., The Confessions Of Jeremiah, (Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1988) and Diamond, A.R., The Confessions of Jeremiah in Context, (JSOT, Sheffield, 1987). These scholarly disputations while fascinating on there own do not really impact our work. This is particularly since this book accepts the texts of the Tnakh as written and does not concern itself with who wrote what and when.
10 O’Connor pg 86-89.
11 A question Job will ask again.
12 One expects Job read Jeremiah before he cursed his own birth. Why did light ‘not shut up the doors of my mother’s womb. . . Why did I not die in her womb . . .before I came out of her belly? (3:10-11)
13 Translated by Heschel, A.J., The Prophets, Vol. I, pg. 113. The term in Hebrew for rape is the one used when Amnon raped his half sister Tamar.
14 As Crenshaw notes it can only be compared to God’s deciding to Kill Moses right after giving him his mission (Ex. 4:24-26). He also suggests that the sexual innuendoes may have become in Christianity a sexual relationship with God (i.e. Nuns being Jesus’ bride). In Crenshaw, J.L., A Whirlpool of Torment, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1984) pg. 38-40.
15 Job 17:6.
16 O’Connor, Confessions, pg. 93.
17 Heschel, Vol. I pg. 115.
18 A Theology of Exile, pg. 179.
19 Holladay, W.L., Jeremiah and Moses, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 85, pgs. 19-21.
20 Noted by Judith Elkan, in European Judaism, Vol. 32, 1, Spring 1999, pg. 40.
21 Holladay, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, pgs. 556-560.
22 It should not be surprising that centuries later two new Jewish groups would think of themselves as being part of a new covenant - the Essenes and the Christians. And still much later, in the early twentieth century, the fundamentalist anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim and their Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum would think of themselves as the new being of a new and lonely remnant of Israel. See article by the author of ‘Fundamentalist’ in Ateek, N., Prior, M., Holy Land.(Melisende, London,1999).