Monday, May 26, 2014

Jeremiah 46 - 52: The words of Jeremiah end here

These Chapters are the final seven in the Book of Jeremiah.  The end kind of snuck up on me, if that’s a coherent thing to say about a Book I started reading in October 2011.

Destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule. From the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Bad News for Iron Age Man

Chapters 46 through 51 are prophecies of destruction for all of the kingdoms great and small throughout what we call the Middle East.  They are written in poetic style, and are dire, the kind of thing an orator would shout in order to make people tremble.  There’s a lot of repetition of metaphor and phrasing, which adds to the impression that we’re reading a speech, or perhaps a tirade.  To a present-day reader, or at least to me, these chapters are at once unpleasantly vindictive and dull.

Chapter 46 dooms Egypt.  Chapter 47 dooms the Philistines.  Chapter 48 dooms Moab, and the first half of Chapter 49 dooms the Ammonites, although both Moab and the Ammonites get very brief footnotes stating that their fortunes will be restored in the future.  Jeremiah 49, a long chapter, continues with the doom of Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, and Elam; Elam has the footnote about restoration, but not the others. 

Alas, Babylon

Chapters 50 and 51, which are both quite long, are all about the destruction of Babylon.  This is interesting, because elsewhere in Jeremiah it has seemed like God was very much on Babylon’s side.  Now that Babylon has been used as a tool to smite sinful Jerusalem, however, that deal is off, and Jeremiah states at great length that Babylon will now fall in its turn.  God is once again on the side of the Jews, and the destruction of Babylon will release them to return to Jerusalem. 

Now, assuming that the text of the Book of Jeremiah was actually written in advance of the events it prophesies – and honestly, I think that what we know about subsequent events from reading Ezra and Nehemiah has to raise some suspicions about this – it is fair to observe that for as lengthy as the description of Babylon’s downfall is, it is extremely vague yet with a real flavor of imminence.  Really bad things of some sort are going to happen to Babylon, and soon.  But in reality, it would be several decades before Babylon experienced the scale of reversals that Jeremiah is laying out here.  To be perfectly frank about it, even leaving out the details doesn’t make these prophecies particularly convincing.  The timing is just off.

Some Helpful Context

Chapter 52 is an afterward.  In fact, Chapter 51 ends with a statement that The words of Jeremiah end here. (64)  Then, there is a very modern-seeming summary of the history of Judah from the rise of Zedekiah to the exile in Babylon.  Zedekiah, if you wondered, ends up in prison for the rest of his life.  Jehoiachin, who had been King of Judah before him, gets sprung after thirty-seven years in prison and lives the rest of his life as a royal guest.

The most interesting thing about this chapter is that it gives numbers on the Babylonian exile.  Now, keep in mind that the Bible tells a fairly unambiguous narrative about what happens to the Jews: they are taken in exile into Babylon.  There are scattered mention of a few poor farmers and stragglers left behind, but really, everybody who is anybody is taken by force to Babylon.  That is how I have always understood the story, and that is how I have read it in the Bible.  Which makes this passage rather startling:
So Judah went into captivity, away from her land. 28 This is the number of the people Nebuchadnezzar carried into exile:

in the seventh year, 3,023 Jews;29 in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year, 832 people from Jerusalem;

30 in his twenty-third year, 745 Jews taken into exile by Nebuzaradan the commander of the imperial guard.

There were 4,600 people in all.
Wow.  Even at the much smaller scale of urban settlement in Biblical times, and even if 4,600 people is meant to indicate only heads of household, that’s just not a very large number of people.  I think that’s very interesting.  Do you think it’s interesting?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Jeremiah 45: Should you seek good things for yourself?

Jeremiah 45 is so short, and so quirky, that I’ll just give it to you in full.

When Baruch son of Neriah wrote on a scroll the words Jeremiah the prophet dictated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, Jeremiah said this to Baruch: 2 “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: 3 You said, ‘Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ 4 But the LORD has told me to say to you, ‘This is what the LORD says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. 5 Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the LORD, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’” 
Now this is a common enough kind of reasoning. We all think it and say it sometimes: “Quit your complaining, buddy, everybody’s got problems.” But for some reason it seems incongruous spelled out so plainly here in scripture. Perhaps that’s because it is generally more of a formula for shutting down someone else’s grievances then a philosophical stance in its own right.

In any event, Jeremiah is rather in the catbird seat when it comes to employer-employee relations with his scribe: “Yes, you DO have to put in more unpaid overtime. God says so. Stop grumbling.”

Jeremiah 45 is not a particularly popular passage, so far as I can tell. Like the rest of the potentially distressing material that makes up the bulk of the Book of Jeremiah, it is basically invisible in the roseate world of Christian imagery. So here’s my humble contribution.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Jeremiah 39-44: Judah After the Conquest

Ilya Repin, Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem
For the last few weeks, the Book of Jeremiah has consisted of episodes and narratives that were in no particular sequence.  We've jumped back and forth over a period of ten or fifteen years, watching the holy man Jeremiah rail against rich and poor alike during the death throes of Judah.

From Jeremiah 39 to Jeremiah 44, we get a sustained history of the final fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and then some of what happened afterwards.  As is often the case, what happens once the war is over is even more unpleasantness.  Once a power structure has been toppled, people tend to go about looking for ways to take advantage of the situation, and this has not often boded well for the average Joe.

The Fall of Jerusalem

The Babylonians put the city under siege in the 10th month of the 9th year of Zedekiah's reign, and the siege lasts until the 4th month of the 11th year -- the last month, as it turns out -- of the reign.  (39:1-2) That's a year and a half of siege, and if you've ever looked into pre-modern warfare, you can imagine that it must have been one grim and horrible year.  If you haven't ever looked into pre-modern warfare, here's how a siege works: a large and confident army surrounds your city, and since you can't get to the fields or the outside world, you slowly run out of food.  Your weakened, starving, tight-packed population becomes a ripe breeding ground for disease, and lots of people start dying horribly.  Nevertheless, you try to hold out for as long as humanly possible, because as soon as they get inside the walls your invading guests are going to vigorously work off their frustrations about having been kept waiting so long.

When Jerusalem falls, Zedekiah and his court try a night escape through a back gate, but the slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes and also killed all the nobles of Judah.  Then he put out Zedekiah's eyes and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon. (39:6-7)
Babylonians catch up with them and take him to Nebuchadnezzar at a place called Riblah.  Now, in Jeremiah 38 Jeremiah had promised Zedekiah that the Babylonians wouldn't kill him.  And they don't.  Nebuchadnezzar only

Back in Jerusalem, the Babylonians burn the city and tear down the walls.  Most of the people who lived in town are marched off to Babylon, where they will join the Jewish community that has been in exile already for a decade or two, since the first sack of Jerusalem.

Zedekiah brought before Nebuchadnezzar
Life Under Gedaliah the Governor

An official named Gedaliah is named Babylonian governor of the district.  The population that is left is rural and poor, and there are hints that they actually have a pretty good deal for a while.  Some people move into the abandoned towns, and there is a good harvest with fewer mouths to feed.  Jews who took refuge from the war in neighboring kingdoms come back to Judah.  Remnants of the Judean army straggle in from the wilderness.  Jeremiah himself sticks around.  Things go well for about seven months.

Gedaliah seems like a pretty humane governor, but he is also overconfident, and when people tell him that neighboring kings may want to take him out of the game, he just doesn't believe them.  So when one Ishmael son of Nethaniah, working for the king of the Ammonites, brings a band of thugs to his headquarters, he sits down with them to a meal.  Presumably relying on the element of surprise, Ishmael ruins the banquet by assassinating Gedaliah, slaughtering his entourage, and even killing the small Babylonian garrison.

Ishmael is a real rotter, and when a religious procession arrives at the encampment the next morning, he invites them in and then kills 70 of the 80 (ten of them are able to bribe him into letting them live).  He fills a cistern with the bodies of everybody his men have killed in the last few days.  Then he rounds up everybody whom he hasn't killed, and sets out for the Ammonite kingdom.

An army officer from the old army of Judah named Johanan organizes a posse, basically, and soon catches up with Ishmael.  Ishmael is forced to let his captives go, but he and his men escape across the border.

Should We Stay or Should We Go, Now?

Johanan, having almost accidentally made himself the de facto leader of what's left of organized Judean society, now has a real dilemma on his hands.  If he and his group stick around, they run the risk that Nebuchadnezzar will not be interested in the details of Gedaliah's assassination, but will take reprisals against everyone who was around when it happened.  Too, it must have seemed like any attention from Babylon was likely to result in more people being taken into exile.  Some of the group are in favor of trusting to the Babylonians; others for hoofing it to Egypt.  Johanan asks Jeremiah what he thinks.

"O Remnant of Judah," says Jeremiah, "the Lord has told you, 'Do not go to Egypt.'" (42:19)  Jeremiah says this in no uncertain terms, throughout Chapters 42, 43, and 44.  But they have already made up their minds, and make for Egypt.  Jeremiah tells them they will regret it.

In Chapter 44, an interesting argument breaks out about idolatry.  Jeremiah says that their current predicament is punishment for the women having worshiped the "Queen of Heaven," and for their husbands knowing about this and not having stopped them.  "We were actually doing pretty well when we worshiped the Queen of Heaven," some of the people answer.  "It's after we stopped that all of these terrible things happened." (44:15-19)  Jeremiah's response is that God's memory is long enough to allow for a delayed response.  Then he makes a prophecy: as soon as the Judeans get comfortable in Egypt, the reigning Pharaoh will fall, and the resulting chaos will be bad news indeed.

But that's where the run of historical narrative breaks off, and Jeremiah 45 jumps back to recount a trivial incident from many years earlier.  We'll pick up from there next week.

Carl Ebert, Jeremias Klagenlieder auf den Trümmern von Jerusalem.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Jeremiah 35 - 38: Four Short Stories about Jeremiah

One of Marc Chagall's several paintings of Jeremiah
Each of today's four Chapters is a self-contained short narrative about Jeremiah's adventures around Jerusalem.

In Jeremiah 35, the prophet - acting under God's instructions, as always - invites the Recabite family, a tribe of nomads who have had to retreat inside the city walls to get away from the besieging armies, to a little reception at the Temple.  (We have weirdly precise information about where this gathering took place: in Hanan Igdaliahson's room, the one next to the administrative offices and above Maaseiah Shallumson's room.  You know the one.)  Once they arrive, Jeremiah offers them some wine.  "Sorry," they say, "we don't drink.  Our great-great-grandfather (or thereabouts) always said that we should never drink, never farm, and never build houses, and that's been the way we roll ever since."

The Recabites are compared very favorably with the Israelites in general.  The later are always refusing to do what God set down in the rules, whereas the former have been very loyal to the family policy set down by their ancestor.  Because of this, Jeremiah tells the family that they have special favor in God's eyes.

Jeremiah 36 is set in the time of King Jehoiakim, which I believe means it's before the first sack of Jerusalem.  It is about the power of the written word.  Jeremiah has been warning and rebuking for years, but he's been doing it orally, and at the beginning of the Chapter God suggests that they should write it all down.  Jeremiah gets a secretary named Baruch -- it's not clear whether he is illiterate, or just prefers to dictate -- and he recounts all of his prophecy while Baruch writes everything down.  Then he sends Baruch down to the Temple to read it all out to the people.

Some higher-ups from the administration hear Baruch reading, and they are a little alarmed.  They ask him to come to the palace and read the scroll to them behind closed doors.  They think its rather inflammatory, and that the king is going to need to hear about it.  They take the scroll, and tell Baruch and Jeremiah that they should both lie low for a while. 

King Jehoiakim hears the scroll read in his winter quarters, where he has a nice fire going.  He doesn't like what he hears, and every time there's a break in the scroll, he cuts off the part he just heard and throws it on the fire.  After it's over, he commands the arrest of Baruch and Jeremiah, but they had taken the hint about hiding, and can't be found.  While they are hiding, Jeremiah dictates his prophecies again and Baruch writes down a fresh scroll.  This time, though, there's a bit added at the end about how nasty things are going to happen to King Jehoiakim.

In Jeremiah 37 we jump forward several years to the reign of King Zedekiah, a puppet ruler whom Nebuchadnezzar sets up in Jerusalem after the first sack and exile.  Unlike Jehoiakim, Zedekiah likes Jeremiah, and gives orders that he is to be tolerated and fed.

The Babylonian army has dominated the remains of the Judean Kingdom for years at this point, but they hear that Egyptian troops might be moving through Sinai to support Judah, or (more likely, it seems to me) to grab a piece of the spoils.  The Babylonians march south to meet the threat.  Jeremiah decides he'll take advantage of the clear countryside to go take care of some business matters in the territory of Benjamin.  He's accosted on his way out of the city, however, and accused of trying to desert to the Babylonians.

WHAT AN OUTRAGEOUS ACCUSATION!  HOW COULD ANYONE SAY SUCH A THING WITH A STRAIGHT FACE?!?!  Nevertheless, he is so accused, and he gets beaten up and thrown into jail for a while.  Zedekiah eventually springs him out.  Jeremiah tells Zedekiah that he's pretty sure he'll "meet an unfortunate accident" if he is returned to prison, so this is how Zedekiah ends up decreeing that Jeremiah should live in the courtyard of the guard barracks.  (I had thought this was a strange arrangement in previous chapters.  Since the Book of Jeremiah jumps back and forth in time, a lot of things don't really make sense until you read the things that happened earlier, in a later chapter.)

When we read Jeremiah 38, for instance, we get some insight into why the prophet might have been suspected of desertion to the Babylonians in Jeremiah 37.  He's going around preaching that:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’
Many in the administration and military feel that this kind of message is bad for morale, and they have Jeremiah imprisoned in a dry cistern.  Zedekiah orders him to be hauled back out, and sits down for another talk with him.  Jeremiah tells Zedekiah what he probably already knows: if he puts up a fight against the Babylonians, everybody in the city is going to die; if he surrenders the city, the Babylonians will be relatively chill -- they've got a progressive (as these things go) multi-ethnic empire going, and will probably just bring the skilled workers and intelligentsia back to work in their capital.  In their sophisticated, prosperous, cosmopolitan capital, with its great parks and schools.  It doesn't sound all that bad, really.

Zedekiah admits to Jeremiah that he is personally afraid of how he'll be treated by the Jews who are already in exile in Babylon.  This is reasonable; as the Marshall Petain of the Judean state, Zedekiah is open to accusations of having usurped the throne of David as well as collaborating with the Babylonian conquerors.  Jeremiah reassures him that he'll be all right.

Zedekiah points out that Jeremiah probably shouldn't pass on the details of their little conversation to anybody, and Jeremiah sees the wisdom of a little discretion -- not usually his strong suit.  And with that, today's reading comes to an end.