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?

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