The book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1)

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Virtually no one disputes that the book of Jeremiah was written by Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah (Jeremiah 1:1). The prophet Jeremiah dictated most of his prophecies from Jerusalem to his faithful secretary, Baruch, who wrote them down verbatim (36:4). Jeremiah wrote these words over the course of his prolonged ministry (ca. 626-580 B.C.). Jeremiah 52, an addendum (see 51:64 cf. 2 Kings 24:18-25:30, which is nearly identical, was added, possibly by Baruch, some time after Jehoiachin’s release from captivity (ca. 560 B.C.).

Reclusive, analytical and self-critical by nature – he has aptly been called “the weeping prophet” – Jeremiah also preached an unpopular message.The people of Judah were in apostasy, God would not protect them and they were obliged to submit to Babylonian demands. Above all, and despite the promise that some day God would give Israel a new covenant (Jeremiah 31), the prophet’s overall message was one of doom and gloom: Jerusalem was soon to fall. Because of his negative stance, Jeremiah was widely despised and continuously in danger (11:18-23, 26:8, 38:6). On at least one occasion the text of his message was destroyed by the king (36:20-24). Even Jeremiah’s scribe, Baduch, was dismayed about his own future (Jeremiah 45). Jeremiah, an old man, lived to see hios words fulfilled and Jerusalem destroyed.

The precise shape of Jeremiah’s work is problematic; since two distinctly different versions of his book have survived. One, in the standard Hebrew version known as the Masoretic Text, is the basis for our English translation of the book. The other, found in the Septuagint, appears to represent a variant edition. The Septuagint version is shorter than its counterpart from the Masoretic Text, and its chapters are laid out in a somewhat different order. Many interpreters believe the Septuagint version of Jeremiah to have been based on an alternative Hebrew text. How do scholars account for the two distinct versions of this expanded prophecy, and how can we be certain that what we read is what the prophet intended? The turmoil surrounding Jeremiah’s life and that of his book probably accounts for the two different versions. No doubt more than one collection of his messages was in circulation as Jerusalem fell and the Jews were scattered (Jeremiah himself was taken captive to Egypt, Jeremiah 43). Thus, it is not surprising that different “editions” of hos work were copied and handed down (see The problem of the Septuagint Version of Jeremiah under Jeremiah 29).

Jeremiah began hos ministry during the thirteenth year of king Josiah (640-609 B.C.) and continued preaching through the reigns of Jehooahaz (609 B.C.), Jehoiakin (609-598 B.C.), Jehoiachin (598-597 B.C.) and Zedekiah (597-586), living on into the first years after the fall of Jerusalem. His ministry covered a broad time period – in excess of 40 years – and his book is a compilation of his messages  and of accounts of incidents throughout his life.

Jeremiah was written to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem, its capital city.

Jeremiah wrote during a period of political and military unrest, during which the entire region, including the small and vulnerable state of Judah found itself at the mercy of the day’s superpowers – Assyria, Egypt and, increasingly, Babylonia – as they vied for domination.

Ironically, Jeremiah’s ministry began during the time of Josiah’s attempt to reform the nation of Judah and purge it of idolatry (2 Kings 22-23). Yet, the prophet’s message, with its focus on judgement, was consistently rejected by the people. Despite Josiah’s attempts to turn Judah back to God, the people were obstinate and complacent, fully meriting the sentence that would befall them.

Be alert for Jeremiah’s frequent self-revelations. What was his ostensibly dour individual all about underneath that rough exterior? Look for passages that reinforce his deep love, not only for the God he extolled, but also for his countrymen and women. Marvel as he prayed for his people, despite God’s instructions that he not bother to do so (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11).

Pay attention to the role of symbolism and the use of visual aids in this rich book. What personal sacrifices did Jeremiah make in order to follow God’s leading (e.g. 16:1-4)?

Look for the ever-present juxtaposition of judgement with the invitation to repentance, which, if sincere, might have been expected to postpone the otherwise inevitable.

Finally, watch for clues about Jeremiah’s perception of God, who to him was ultimate and supreme, not only over His own people, but over all the nations.

Did you know that the ancient world considered child sacrifice a supremely, religious act, since it gave the god what was most precious to the worshipper (7:31)? Did you know that “Jew” is a shortened form of “Judahite” (an inhabitant of the kingdom of Judah, where a remnant of the Israelites was still living)? The Recabites related to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro the Kenite. Though not ethnic Jews, this nomadic tribe lived among or near the Israelites and zealously attempted to be faithful to the Lord (35:2). Did you know that the name Ben-Hadad designated a king as the adopted “son” (ben means “son”) of the Aramean god Hadad? Comparable to the term pharaoh in Egypt, several kings from Damascus used this title/name (49:27). Did you know that a little known fact of ancient shepherding is that a goat would often lead a flock of sheep (50:8)? Did you know that mashes were sometimes set on fire to destroy the reeds in order to prevent fugitives from hiding among them (51:32)?


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