Jeremiah: The Weeping Prophet

Père-Lachaise,_Weeping_(10148139953)

The Book of Jeremiah is one of the most important and most interesting books in the Old Testament. In addition to being the longest book in the Bible (in Hebrew word count), there are actually two different “canonical” versions of the book. The Hebrew version, which is the basis of most modern translations, is about 1/7 longer than the Greek (Septuagint/LXX) version, which was translated from Hebrew some time in the 2nd or 1st century BC. While there are often minor differences between the LXX and the Hebrew versions of OT books, Jeremiah’s case is unusual in that the difference is pretty substantial and it is the Hebrew version that is longer. As a general rule, the LXX is expansionistic–meaning it tends to expand on the Hebrew text–and, also as a general rule, the shorter version tends to be the earlier version (basically, texts tend to grow over time, rather than shrink, because of scribal glosses and insertions). That means that the Greek version of Jeremiah may be the more “original” version. But it gets more interesting. Not only is the Greek version shorter, it also arranges Jeremiah’s prophecies in a different order. The Book of Jeremiah consists of three major sections, which in the Hebrew version are arranged as thus: Prophecies of doom for Judah and Jerusalem (chs. 1-25), prophecies of restoration (chs. 30-33), prophecies of doom for other nations (chs. 46-51). There are prose narratives about Jeremiah’s life and other filler material in between these sections, but these are the major collections of prophecies. But in the Greek version, the arrangement is different: Prophecies of doom for Judah and Jerusalem (chs. 1-25), prophecies of doom for other nations (chs. 26-32), prophecies of restoration (chs. 37-40). But wait, there’s more! When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, among them were fragments of the Book of Jeremiah, written in Hebrew, that correspond to the shorter, differently arranged Greek version. Taken together, what all of this means is that there were likely two “original” Hebrew versions (what scholars call a Vorlage) in circulation in Palestine during the Second Temple period. Apparently different versions of the Bible are not a recent development! The different arrangements reflect different decisions made by scribal editors in how to tell Jeremiah’s story and present his prophecies. Neither one is “right” or “wrong.” They are just different, and each gives a different tone to the book. This evidence also confirms something scholars have long believed about how prophetic books (and other biblical books?) were written. Rather than being the work of a single person, such as the prophet himself, prophetic books were edited (or “redacted”) together later by scribes, who compiled together anthologies of the prophet’s words, along with some stories about the prophet (Jeremiah has an unusually large amount of this material). Books of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, were more of a group project than a solo work.

So much for the Book of Jeremiah. What about the prophet? According to Jeremiah 1:1, Jeremiah began his prophetic career during the reign of Josiah, who reigned from 641-610 BC. Following the disastrous reign of his grandfather Manasseh, who worshipped foreign gods, installed idols in the temple, practiced sorcery, and even burned his own son as a sacrifice (2 Kings 21:1-18), Josiah launched a series of reforms in response to the discovery of a long-lost Law book (seemingly Deuteronomy) that was found in the temple (2 Kings 22:3-23:27). So great were Josiah’s reforms–at least in the eyes of the author(s) of 2 Kings–that it is written of him that “There’s never been a king like Josiah, whether before or after him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, all his being, and all his strength, in agreement with everything in the Instruction from Moses” (2 Kings 23:25 CEB). Josiah’s “goodness” makes Jeremiah’s call to become a prophet during his reign all the more mysterious. Why would God call a prophet to proclaim judgment on Judah during the greatest revival in the nation’s history? To be fair, while Jeremiah received his call during Josiah’s reign, there are no accounts in his book of him preaching against Josiah, specifically. Scholars have long wondered what, if any, relationship Jeremiah may have had to the reforms of Josiah. There is a high degree of similarity between the themes of Josiah’s reforms and those found in Jeremiah’s preaching. Both seem to have been heavily influenced by the Book of Deuteronomy. Presumably Jeremiah would have been a supporter of the reforms, but we have no direct evidence of his involvement.

What is clear is that the reforms died with Josiah. When he was killed in battle by Pharaoh Necho (2 Kings 23:29; 2 Chron 35:20-24), his son Jehoahaz became king, but he was removed from the throne by Necho after only 3 months. In his place, another of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim, became king. Jehoiakim returned to many of the practices of Manasseh, with the result that God renewed his resolve to destroy Judah, which had originally been decreed during the reign of Manasseh (2 Kings 21:10-15) but which had been delayed–but not averted–by Josiah (2 Kings 23:26-27). Herein, perhaps, lies the key to Jeremiah’s commission during Josiah’s reign. Although Josiah was a reformer and a good king, the sin of Judah was too deep to be cured by a few decades of revival. The reforms were only skin-deep (Jer 3:10 calls Judah’s repentance “insincere”), and once Josiah died, Judah reverted back to the status quo. Josiah’s descendants–Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah–all followed in the ways of Manasseh. God, of course, knew what would happen, so Jeremiah became a prophet of doom before there was an apparent need for one.

Jeremiah’s career would be defined by the destruction and exile that had been decreed during Manasseh’s reign. Although Josiah delayed it, it still came. In 597 BC, Babylon conquered Jerusalem, took much of the upper class prisoner, and set a new king (Zedekiah) on the throne. They returned again in 586 BC, this time to destroy the city and deport still more of the population. This event, known as the Babylonian Exile, is one of the central themes of the Old Testament. Reading Jeremiah, alongside Deuteronomy and the historical books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings (sometimes called the “Deuteronomistic History”), we see a coherent theological message emerge. The Exile was God’s punishment for Israel breaking the covenant made at Mt. Sinai, expressed in the commands of the Torah. Deuteronomy 28 lists a variety of “curses” that will befall Israel if they break the covenant, the last of which is being ripped from the land God gave them and scattered among the nations. Jeremiah’s prophecies are the final warning siren before that final curse falls. It is the great prophetic tragedy in the Old Testament. Even so, it is not all doom and gloom. Jeremiah does see a future for Judah. Jeremiah reminds the people that God’s ultimate plan is for their well-being (Jeremiah 29:11). God will bring the exiles back and restore the kingdom of David with a new covenant (Jeremiah 30-33). Deuteronomy, too, held out this hope (Deut 30:1-5). But before that would happen, there would be 70 years of exile in Babylon (Jer 29:1-10). That was the main focus of Jeremiah’s prophetic career. It is what made him an outcast, an outlaw, and a weeping prophet.

—-For Further Reading—-

Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Fortress, 2004.

Grabbe, Lester L., ed. Good Kings and Bad Kings: The Kingdom of Judah in the Seventh Century BCE. T & T Clark, 2007.

Lundbom, Jack L. Jeremiah 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible 21A. Yale Univ. Press, 1999.

_______. Jeremiah 21-36: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible 21B. Yale Univ. Press, 2004.

_______. Jeremiah 37-52: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible 21C. Yale Univ. Press, 2004.

Melvin, David P. “Jeremiah, Book of.” Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press, 2016.

Redditt, Paul L. Introduction to the Prophets. Eerdmans, 2008.

Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (3rd ed.). Fortress, 2012.

 

 

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