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The Book of Jeremiah
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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Jeremiah. An ot book of propc oracles attributed to the Judean prophet Jeremiah (seventh-sixth century b.c.).
The Prophet: Jeremiah of Anathoth was the son of Hilkiah. He was of priestly extraction, perhaps descending from David’s priest, Abiathar, who was expelled by Solomon to Anathoth where he owned a field (1 Kings 2:26-27). This may explain the vivid memory of the fall of Shiloh in Jeremiah (7:12, 14; 26:6, 9), because Abiathar himself was the great-grandson of the Shilonite priest Phinehas, son of Eli.
Still young, Jeremiah was appointed prophet in the thirteenth year of Josiah (627/6 b.c.). Hence he was born sometime between 645 and 640. He first prophesied in Anathoth, provoking the anger of his villagers and family (11:21; 12:6). He then moved to Jerusalem, a one-hour walk from home. Some of his prophecies against the nations (e.g., 49:1-5) and those of restoration to Ephraim (31:1-21) as well as his indictment of the Judean policy of alliance with Egypt against Assyria (2:14-19, 36-37) certainly belong to his first period, up to the fall of Nineveh in 612 and the death of Josiah in 609.
In those early years, Jeremiah perhaps belonged to a guild of professional prophets. He repeatedly mentions such a group alongside the priests as connected with the Temple (23:11) and as vindicating its sanctity (26:7-16) and integrity (27:16-18; 28:3). In time Jeremiah broke away from them, but his early prophecies of salvation and victory, and his prayers against the drought (14:2-10; 14:19-15:1) attest to the legacy of traditional prophecy embedded in his message.
In the reign of Jehoiakim (608-598 b.c.), Jeremiah was already a mature man and prophet, well versed in the international events that led to the battle of Carchemish in 605 (46:2-12). He collected his previous sayings into one scroll (chap. 36) and dared to assault the king (22:13-19) and the Temple (26:1-19) with it. At that time he found friends and protectors within the noble families of Jerusalem, the sons of Shaphan (26:24; 36:10, 25) and of Neriah (36:4).
Jeremiah’s stature grew even more in Zedekiah’s reign (597-587 b.c.). Repeatedly, he warned the king from revolting against Babylon (27:12-15). The revolt broke out, yet the king kept consulting him, either by messengers (37:3-10) or personally (37:17-20). The ministers wanted Jeremiah dead but did not dare kill him. Charging him with desertion to the enemy, they jailed him in a pit-house where he would starve to death (37:11-16), but the king moved him to a better prison, ‘the court of Guard,’ where he received food until the fall of Jerusalem (586 b.c.; 37:21).
The Chaldeans freed Jeremiah from prison, committing him to the care of their Judean governor, Gedaliah, son of Ahikam (39:14). After the latter’s assassination, the remnants decided, against Jeremiah’s oracle, to flee to Egypt, taking along the prophet and his secretary Baruch. The presence in the book of Jeremiah of several oracles from this ‘Egyptian’ period (43:8-44:30; 46:13-26) proves that Jeremiah and Baruch did not die a violent death after the exile. The legend about their being lynched by the Jewish mob originated in the late Jewish interpretation of the prophets as martyrs who died for their faith’s sake.
The Book of Jeremiah
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
I. Visions, prophecies of judgment, and personal laments (chaps. 1-24)
A. Jeremiah’s consecration as prophet (1:1-10)
B. Vision of almond rod and prophecies of judgment (1:11-15:21)
C. Jeremiah’s vocation (16:1-21)
D. Judgment against Judah (17:1-27)
E. Sayings about potters and judgment (18:1-19:15)
F. Personal lament of Jeremiah (20:1-18)
G. Judgment against Judah (21:1-23:40)
H. Vision of baskets of figs and prophecies of judgment (24:1-10)
II. Speeches of and stories about Jeremiah (chaps. 25-45)
A. Speeches against Judah and against the nations (25:1-29:32)
1. Episodes from the time of Jehoiakim (25:1-26:24)
2. Episodes from the time of Zedekiah (27:1-29:32)
B. Prophecies of restoration and comfort (30:1-33:26)
C. Episode from the time of Zedekiah (34:1-22)
D. Episodes from the time of Johoiakim (35:1-36:32)
E. Biographical materials (37:1-45:5)
III. Prophecies against the nations (chaps. 46-51)
A. Oracles against Egypt (46:1-28)
B. Oracles against the Philistines (47:1-7)
C. Oracles against Moab (48:1-47)
D. Oracles against the Ammonites (49:1-39)
E. Oracles against other peoples (50:1-46)
F. Oracles against Babylon (51:1-64)
IV. Historical appendix (chap. 52)
The Book: The book of Jeremiah is the only reliable source about the prophet and his message, but a critical-historical examination of this source reveals its many textual and historical difficulties. The structure is relatively clear: Chaps. 1-24 contain visions and prophecies of judgment as well as personal laments. Chaps. 25-45 contain speeches of Jeremiah and stories about him, all dated. Within this section there is a further definable subunit, chaps. 30-33, which contain prophecies of restoration and comfort arranged around the consolation story of chap. 32. Chaps. 46-51 contain prophecies against the nations. Finally, chap. 52 is a historical appendix.
Within these collections, the arrangement was apparently determined by a concentric principle, sometimes referred to as inclusio, according to which similar material was set at both edges of one corpus. The first collection, chaps. 1-24—apart from the consecration (1:4-10)—starts and ends with visions (almond rod, baskets of figs), each of them followed by ‘And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said…’ (1:11; 24:3). The second collection, chaps. 25-45, is enclosed by two stories of the fourth year of Jehoiakim (25:1; 45:1). This collection is composed of single episodes (chaps. 25-29; 32; 34-36) and a continuous biography (chaps. 37-44). The single episodes also reflect a concentric pattern, starting and ending in the fourth year of Jehoiakim (25; 36). They are arranged as following: five episodes from Zedekiah’s reign (27; 28; 29; 32; 34) are enclosed by four from the time of Jerusalem (25; 26; 35; 36). The restoration collection surrounds chap. 32, as noted. The collection of the oracles against the nations (46-51) begins and ends with major powers; it begins with Egypt, which was defeated by Babylon, and ends with the latter.
A different order obtains in the Septuagint. In this version, the oracles against the nations come between 25:13 and 25:15. This order is secondary, as it follows a pattern by which later scribes arranged other prophetical books (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah): rebuke and doom against Israel; rebuke and doom against the nations; restoration. Yet another arrangement, a chronological one, is manifest in 1:2-3 and 40:1. According to it, chaps. 1-39 contain prophecies up to the fall of Judah, while chaps. 40-44 contain prophecies from the fall on.
Single sayings of Jeremiah were often arranged together due to the association of key words. For instance, the two laments of 20:7-9, 10-12, first joined because of the similar expressions ‘entice…prevail’ (vv. 7, 10), were then added to the Pashhur incident (19:1-20:6), because of the common key word ‘terror all around’ (20:3, 10).
The growth and formation of the book can be reconstructed as follows. Single sayings of the prophet and episodes from his life were at first recorded on relatively short scrolls. The sayings, from one to ten verses, were generally abstracts of longer oral pronunciations. The recording of both genres is plausibly attributed to Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, son of Neriah. This point is sufficiently proved for the sayings by Jer. 36:2, 4, 18, 28, 32. As for the episodes, the fact that the oldest is from the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim (26:1), shortly before Baruch first appeared at Jeremiah’s side (36:1-4; 45:1), indicates Baruch as a very probable author.
In the next stage these original records were transmitted by Deuteronomistic disciples who reworked them according to their literary and religious concepts. Both episodes and sayings were reworked into speeches, as with 37:3-10 which was reshaped in 21:1-7, or 21:11-12a which was rephrased in 22:1-5. Other times the Deuteronomist contributions were rather limited, adding half a verse, as in 21:12b, or a few words, as in 22:17. But all in all the Deuteronomist reworking is ubiquitous, changing as it did the whole aspect of the book. The aims of these editors were the following: the interpretation and updating of prophecies, as in 22:25, 27 which expand 22:24, 26; theodicy as in 22:8-9, added for that end to 22:6-7; unequivocal support of the Josiah covenant (11:1-14); the bestowal of a preferential status to the exiles of 597 b.c. as against those who were left in the country or who emigrated to Egypt (24:6-7, 9-10; 29:10-14, 16-20); and the emphasis on human free will, the opportunity to repent, and an ever readapting divine retribution—tenets common to most Deuteronomist sermons in Jeremiah (e.g., 7:1-15 which expand 7:4, 9-14). The Deuteronomist editing of Jeremiah extended over a long period, its apex being in the early fifth century.
The book was open to expansions during the entire Persian period (late sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.). Jewish religious propaganda of the Second Temple period is extant in 10:1-16. The expectation of a David redivivus in 30:8-9 is typical of an editorial stratum of other prophetical books (cf. Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24-25; Hos. 3:5). The liberation of Jeremiah by the Chaldeans in 39:14 has been reworked into a martyrological legend (39:11-12; 40:1-6) where the prophet attains an international status while the archenemy Nabuzaradan confesses the supremacy of the Lord’s word (cf. Dan. 2-4; 6).
Finally the book was organized into the collections identified above. The lateness of this operation is proved by the fact that all layers— original elements, secondary expansions, reedited pieces, and late additions—are represented in every collection. At that final stage some small topical collections were put together: droughts (14:1-15:4), kings (21:11-23:8), prophets (23:9-40), restoration (chaps. 30-33), and a partial biography of Jeremiah during and after the fall of Jerusalem (chaps. 37-44).
Interpretation: Jeremiah’s message is difficult to assess even after the recovery of his original words. In the course of his career, which extended for more than forty years, Jeremiah’s political attitudes certainly changed more than once. While at first he criticized the alliance of Josiah with Egypt in the revolt against Assyria (2:14-19, 36-37), he later joined in the enthusiasm of the renewed conquests, announcing revenge to the neighbors-inheritors of Israel (49:1-5) and the return of the Israelite exiles (31:1-21). The death of Josiah, whom he esteemed (22:15-16), must have been a traumatic event for Jeremiah. He sought and found the reason for this event—sin in the land—and his political outlook conformed to this perception. There are many indications in chaps. 25; 26; 36; and 45 that Jeremiah expected a total destruction to come upon Judah in the wake of the first campaign of Nebuchadrezzar to the west (604), following his victory at Carchemish. But the disaster was averted by the prompt submission of Jehoiakim—an event that again affected the prophet’s views: from now on Jeremiah constantly predicated submission in order to prevent destruction (27; 29; 34; 37-38; 42). Thus, his definition as a Judean Cassandra (i.e., a prophet of evil who is not believed), due to his early visions (chap. 4), is ironically improper. Jeremiah realistically understood the necessity of submitting to the rule of the Babylonian Empire. This line was continued by Deutero-Isaiah, who expected the restoration to occur in the frame of another world power: the Persians.
Embedded in Jeremiah’s diatribes there is much of permanent value about concepts and institutions. Jeremiah denounces piety when its object is a syncretistic worship in the open (2:23-25; 14:10) and stigmatizes bravery and dispatch, if their end is adultery (23:10). For him royalty is not expressed by luxurious palaces, but by timely justice to the oppressed (22:14-16; cf. 21:11-12). Sanctity does not grant immunity to transgressors (7:4, 9-14), and not even to buildings dedicated to God. Prophecy is tested by the personal conduct of its bearers (23:14) and their faculty of turning people back from evil (23:17, 22), because this is God’s will. Revelation does not come in a state of torpor, because the word of the Lord ‘is like fire,…and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces’; it stirs the whole of the prophet’s being (23:29). Most important of all, Jeremiah deepens the concept of repentance (2:33-35; 3:1-5, 12b-13, 19-20—all one piece). He rejects the easy, elegant recantation that confides in God’s mercy and rather looks for true contrition, for the pains of remorse, and their outcome—tears of despair (3:21-4:1).
Jeremiah’s concept of repentance plausibly explains his attitude to the great religious revolution that occurred in his time, the unification of worship in Jerusalem. If he condemned the syncretistic worship in nature (2:20, 23; 3:2; 13:27), he certainly could only welcome a reform forbidding all sacrifice outside of a single temple in Jerusalem. But Jeremiah could not be satisfied with that. Ceremonies, conventions, processions, headed by the old establishment of elders, priests, and prophets (2 Kings 23:1-2) were for him a parody of repentance, and therefore unacceptable. His exacting moral demands could not be easily grasped by the Deuteronomist editors of the book who therefore coined them in a more formal way: ‘the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem…have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers’ and broken the covenant (11:10). On the other hand Jeremiah’s legacy was fully realized by a later prophet: ‘rend your heart and not your garments,’ says Joel (2:13), and his call was echoed and made normative in the rabbinic teaching (m. TaÔan 2:1). Jeremiah is cited twice in the Gospel of Matthew (2:17; 27:9); some people had also identified Jesus with Jeremiah the prophet.
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer