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.

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