Monday, April 28, 2014

Jeremiah 32 - 34 -- The Prophet in the City Under Siege

These three Chapters are unified by their setting.  It's the tenth year of Zedekiah, the eighteenth of Nebuchadnezzar, and the mighty Babylonian has Jerusalem under siege.  Outside the walls, two smaller walled towns (Lachish and Azekah) are all that hold out; all of the other villages of Judah, and the farms and fields, have abandoned to the conquerers.  Jeremiah, deeply unpopular with the king for his constant prophecies that the city is about to fall -- as if that weren't perfectly obvious to everyone -- is under custody in the royal palace.

Jeremiah 32 is labelled "Jeremiah Buys a Field" in the NIV, and lo and behold it really is about a real estate transaction.  Jeremiah takes a break from doom-laden geopolitical predictions to prophesy that his uncle is going to come and offer him a deal on a field.  About then, Jeremiah's uncle shows up and offers to sell him a field.  The text goes into a fair amount of detail about the transaction, which is to the tune of 17 shekels of silver.

11 I took the deed of purchase—the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions, as well as the unsealed copy— 12 and I gave this deed to Baruch son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and of all the Jews sitting in the courtyard of the guard. 
There is a point to all this, and it is spelled out in a subsequent conversation between Jeremiah and God.  It is this: that although Judean property values are taking a real beating right now, with the invasion and the imminent sack of the capital, that God's long-term plan is to restore the kingdom.  Jeremiah isn't crazy to buy land at a time like this; if he hangs on to that deed, he or his heirs will eventually have a field worth probably quite a bit more than 17 shekels, in a peaceful and prosperous new Judah.

Jeremiah 33 is a monolog by God, as told to Jeremiah, about the plan for restoration.  A new theme is introduced here, in which God is essentially saying "OF COURSE there's going to be a restoration of Judah, because of my covenant with David!"  That covenant, he says, is every bit as binding as the covenant between God and day, and between God and night.

Back in Jeremiah 11, God had told Jeremiah that the covenant was "broken" because of bad Israelite behavior.  When I go back and look closely, though, he doesn't specify that he's renouncing his end of the bargain, just that he's going to punish the humans for renouncing their end of it.

Jeremiah 34 is a two-parter.  In the first six verses, Jeremiah has some good news for Zedekiah for a change.  Nebuchadanezzar isn't going to kill him, just take him to join the other exiles in Babylon.  He will die peacefully, and be remembered fondly.  It does not say whether this had an effect on Zedekiah's defense of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile -- in the second half of the chapter -- Jeremiah had passed on a decree from God that all Hebrews were to free all of their Hebrew slaves.  Everyone agreed to this, but then some of the slaveholders reneged.  It seems like it would be hard to re-enslave people, but it was probably made easier by everyone being confined in a small city under siege.  God is very angry about this new disobedience, and makes a statement that sounds in the NIV a little bit like the dialogue of an action movie hero during the revenge scenes:
you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine.  (34)
Jerusalem will fall, Zedekiah will be exiled, and the re-enslavers are destined for particularly nasty ends.

Sidebar: it's interesting that this passage wasn't picked up on more (as far as I know) back when people argued about whether or not the Bible justified slavery.  Context makes it hard to really use the Bible to argue for or against much of anything, I've been finding, but as an out-of-context one-liner it's about as powerful of an anti-slavery statement as they come.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Jeremiah 27-31: Jeremiah Becomes an Optimist

Jeremiah -- Duccio, 1311.
Jeremiah 27 is another self-contained story about Jeremiah's work in the tough business of prophecy.  One day, God tells him to make himself a yoke, put it on, and then go around to all of the ambassadors to Judah from all of the small neighboring kingdoms.  He is to tell all of these dignitaries that their kingdoms must submit to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, or be laid waste.

So Jeremiah obeys, and brings the same message to King Zedekiah, and also to the priests and people in the streets.  He especially cautions them against other prophets who don't agree with him; they were not sent by God, and are wrong.

Jeremiah 28 discusses one rival prophet in particular.  This guy, Hananiah, has an act where he says that within two years, God will relent and break the yoke of Babylon over Judah and other countries, and release the exiles from Babylon.  Jeremiah says, essentially "yeah, that would be great, but I'll believe it when I see it."  Hananiah grabs Jeremiah's yoke -- he's apparently still wearing it -- and breaks it on the ground to illustrate his "broken yoke" concept.  At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way (11), and you have to think that Hananiah has won the day, at least in terms of putting on a good show for the crowd.

Soon, though, God speaks to Jeremiah again.  He says to tell Hananiah that he has only broken a yoke of wood, but that God will put all the nations in a yoke of iron in submission to Nebuchadnezzar.  (Interesting aside: I will even give [Nebuchadnezzar] control over the wild animals. (14))  Interestingly, that's not what Jeremiah actually says to Hananiah.  What Jeremiah says is that Hananiah is a liar, and so God is going to kill him.  Two months later, Hananiah dies.

We need a little context for this, and it is a shame that is has been years now since I read the bits in Kings and Chronicles that talk about the last days of independent Judah.  But it's clear from the text here in Jeremiah that we are now in a kind of middle period, where Babylon has a pretty good yoke in place and a lot of the artisanal class has been relocated to that city, but there is still at least a nominal kingdom in place in Jerusalem.

This is clear in the introduction to Jeremiah 29, which is a letter Jeremiah sends from Jerusalem to the exile community in Babylon.  In a helpful aside, it is explained that this was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem. (2)  He sends his letter with some messengers whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. (3)  So, again: a lot of people, including the king, have been taken to Babylon, but there is another king in place in Jerusalem as well.

The letter itself is interesting.  It tells the exiles to settle down in Babylon and make themselves comfortable, because it's going to be seventy years before their children and grandchildren return.  But they should be happy, because God is happy with them.  On the other hand, God really hates the Judeans who did not go into exile, and are still in Jerusalem: I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth and an object of cursing and horror, etc., etc. (18)  And people who have prophecies different from Jeremiah's are the worst of all. 

We've seen before, in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, that when the exiles return from Babylon they are going to bully the non-exiles into submitting to a re-imposition of the strict laws of Moses.  So what we have here in Jeremiah 29 is an idea that, either before the fact, or after the fact, or both, can serve to justify the supremacy of the returning exiles.  If Jeremiah says that God hates those who stayed behind in Jerusalem, then the returnees are clearly in the right.

A passage from Jeremiah's letter to Babylon, radically excised from
context and overlain on an attractive nature picture to imply a feel-good
message directly from God to the reader.

This brings us to Jeremiah 30 and 31, where the tone of the book changes from persistent gloom-and-doom to a rapturous, lyric invocation of how awesome life is going to be after the captivity is over.  People will sing and dance, and there will be lots of good food, and everyone is going to be very, very happy.  It is actually a rather charming portrait of an imagined rural utopia.

What Does Jeremiah Say About Christianity?

Nothing.  Now, people who know more about traditional Christian Bible study than I do have told me that the importance of the Old Testament in Christianity is that it contains prophecies of the coming of Jesus Christ and his teachings.  I wonder if people have interpreted this passage in that light:
31:31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”
Especially with that reference to a "new covenant," you could interpret these verses to preface the coming of something a little more like Christianity, a little less like the laws of Moses as laid out in the Pentatuch.  

The problem is, you can only do that if you pluck the passage out of its context in the rest of Jeremiah 30/31.  In that context, it is clearly one of a good many predictions about what is going to happen, not in the distant future of anno domini, but seventy years from now, when the exiles return.  That makes the events of the prophecy more than 500 years too early to refer to Christianity.  Sorry.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Jeremiah 26 -- The People vs. Jeremiah

So let's see, where were we?

Rembrandt - Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630
Jeremiah 26 is a self-contained chapter which tells of an incident in the life of our Judean prophet.  At the beginning of the chapter, God tells Jeremiah to go around Judah and tell people on their way to the temple that because they have broken his laws and commandments, he will destroy their civilization.  Jeremiah obeys, and the people become very angry with him.  By the time the guard is sent in, there are a lot of people calling for him to be put to death for what amounts to treason, the preaching of doom against his own country.

Jeremiah's defense is twofold.  First, he says that he didn't predict an inevitable doom; Judah can opt to reform your ways and your actions (13) and still come out all right.  Secondly, he was just saying what God told him to.  They can execute him if they want to, but that would be spilling innocent blood and only make things worse for them.

There follows a brief debate.  People remember how Micah prophesied doom in the time of King Hezekiah, but Hezekiah let him off the hook.  On the other hand, Uriah son of Shemaiah prophesied doom in the time of King Jehoiakim, and Jehoiakim actually sent goons down to drag him back from hiding in Egypt so he could have him ignominiously executed.  In the end, the leadership decides on forebearance, and so Jeremiah was not handed over to the people to be put to death. (24)

The story ends there, and you kind of have to wonder what happened next.  If you represent what's left of the civil authority in fast-declining Judah, and you've got a public pariah on your hands, what do you do with him?  Keep him under lock and key for a few weeks to give everybody a chance to cool down, maybe?  We're not told, and we're certainly not likely to find out.