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Jeremiah by Melvin Sensenig

Jeremiah, called as a prophet by Israel’s god Yahweh, was something of a visionary in Judah. In the ancient Near East, an important prophetic function was assisting kings with divine guidance for military conquest. Some previous Israelite prophets had fulfilled such a role. Yet, in the face of impending exile and following Yahweh’s command, Jeremiah refused that role. Instead, he charted a new course for the people of Judah that persisted through exile, something no other ancient Near Eastern religion accomplished. Jeremiah foretold military defeat resulting in the destruction of the temple (Jer 7, Jer 26) and exile. Following this would come a new reality, a new covenant (Jer 31:31-40)—one without the ark of the covenant (Jer 3:16)—and uncertainty regarding the throne of David (Jer 36:30). These prophecies angered some other prophets and priests and led to conflict (Jer 26-28).

What was the turning point in Jeremiah’s struggle with other prophets in Israel?

Jeremiah’s opponents finally hauled him before the assembly in the temple (Jer 28). Though the priests and prophets demanded his death, the officials and lay people decided in favor of Jeremiah. However, this did not vindicate Jeremiah’s message, for another prophet, Uriah, with a similar message, suffered death by the same assembly (Jer 26:20-24). Jer 27-28 describes a significant conflict between Jeremiah and the prophet Hananiah, both disagreeing over the fate of King Jehoiachin, whom the Babylonians had taken into exile. Jehoiachin had become a focal point for widely divergent hopes among various groups of Judean exiles. Many still cherished some hope that Jehoiachin would return and lead a renewed Judah after Yahweh had ended the punishment of exile. They clung to the hope of Yahweh’s promise that there would always be a descendant of David to sit on the throne of Israel (2Sam 23:5, 2Kgs 8:19, Jer 17:25).

Yet, Jeremiah had already prophesied otherwise in Jer 22:24-30 Jehoiachin would never return. He would never have a son sitting on the throne of Israel, and the queen mother would suffer exile (sons were necessary to provide a legitimate heir to the throne, and identifying the queen mother was often a way to legitimate royal succession).

Not surprisingly, when Jeremiah and Hananiah face off (Jer 28), the fate of Jehoiachin is at stake. Jeremiah holds to his former prophecy and reiterates that Jehoiachin will never return. Yet Jeremiah seems unexpectedly uncertain after the confrontation, allowing Hananiah to have the last word (Jer 28:11). Only later, after receiving a new divine oracle, does Jeremiah come back to reaffirm his prophecy.

Eventually, Jeremiah also went into exile, but in Egypt not Babylon. Some of the Judahites took him prisoner when they were attempting to avoid going to Babylon as Jeremiah had directed. Yet in the end, Jeremiah was correct, passing the test of a true prophet given in Deut 13:1-5 and vindicating the judgment of the people and officials in Jer 26:11. Jehoiachin never returned from Babylon, nor did his mother. One of his offspring, Zerubbabel, became a Judean governor when the exiles returned (Hag 1:14), but there was no king from his line. Jeremiah points forward to an unknown righteous “Branch” who would resume the Davidic kingly line (Jer 23:1-6, Jer 33:14-26), although he gives few clues about the identity of this person. Some readers later connected Zerubbabel, whose name means “seed of Babylon,” to the resumption of the kingly line based on Hag 2:23, although nothing further appears in the canonical record on this possibility.

Was Jeremiah ever aware of his vindication?

After the Judeans take Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch to Egypt, there is no biblical account of his death. Some later Christian interpreters, possibly following Jewish sources, claimed he received martyrdom in Egypt. We do not know how much communication passed between Jews in Egypt and Babylon, although certainly there was some, as Alexandria and Babylon became the centers of Jewish scribal activity after the fall of Jerusalem.

Alexandria eventually produced the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. In contrast to the Greek, the Hebrew version, likely produced in either Judah or Babylon, contains a longer version of the book of Jeremiah that follows a different order. This Hebrew version (the Masoretic Text) became the basis for the book that eventually attained canonical status. All this likely happened, however, after Jeremiah’s death. The task of collecting, editing, and summarizing his works went to scribes. The family of Shaphan had been Jeremiah’s main protectors while he was in Judah, and they appear to have become caretakers of his works after his departure. Baruch was a son of Shaphan, as was Seraiah, Baruch’s brother, who appears in Babylon in Jer 52.

These scribes, or scribes from their circles, likely added a conclusion to the book of Jeremiah (Jer 52). It closely resembles the end of 2 Kings, much as Isa 36-39 draws on 2Kgs 18-20. From what scholars know from Babylonian history, not every detail of Jeremiah’s prophecies against Babylon and Jehoiachin came true exactly as he had said. Nevertheless, the scribal editors observed that Jeremiah was right about Jehoiachin’s end and Babylon’s triumph. They probably believed this vindicated Jeremiah and appended Jer 52 in testimony to that belief, although Jeremiah himself may well have been long gone by then.

Melvin Sensenig, "Jeremiah", n.p. [cited 15 Dec 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/jeremiah

Contributors

Melvin Sensenig

Melvin Sensenig
Teacher, Temple University and Albright College

Melvin Sensenig teaches in the Religion Departments at Temple University and Albright College. He is the founding pastor of two urban churches, first at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island, and then Christ Presbyterian Church in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he continues to serve as pastor.

Jeremiah resisted the normal category of ancient Near Eastern prophets and spoke of a new future and a new covenant for the people of Yahweh.

Did you know…?

  • Jeremiah's life was often compared to Moses’, and some think he may have been the “prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:18.
  • Jeremiah was a skilled poet, rhetorician, and orator, using techniques honed in the ancient Near East long before his time. Many think he could rank with the greatest orators of later Greece and Rome, such as Aristotle and Quintilian.
  • Jehoiachin, the king at the center of the conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah, was said to have given the keys of the temple back to God because the Jews were unworthy of them (Leviticus Rabbah 19:6). Others claimed he had brought the ark from the temple in Jerusalem to Babylon and erected a synagogue there. He was associated with great scholarship and teaching in exile.
  • The Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jehoiachin over two hundred times and describes him as “righteous” and “good.”
  • Jehoiachin also appears as an important transitional figure in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Some aspects of the account of Jehoiachin may have served as a template for the portrayal of the kingship of Jesus in the New Testament book of Acts.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Jer 7

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Jer 26

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Jer 31:31-40

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Jer 3:16

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Jer 36:30

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Jer 26-28

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Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

Jer 28

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Jer 26:20-24

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Jer 27-28

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2Sam 23:5

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2Kgs 8:19

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Jer 17:25

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Jer 22:24-30

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Jer 28

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Jer 28:11

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Deut 13:1-5

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Jer 26:11

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Hag 1:14

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Jer 23:1-6

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Jer 33:14-26

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Hag 2:23

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Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

Jer 52

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Jer 52

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Isa 36-39

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2Kgs 18-20

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Jer 52

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A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Deut 18:18

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