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.

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