Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Jeremiah

The audience of the preaching and the book of Jeremiah

Jeremiah’s ministry to the people of Israel took place over the course of some forty years, beginning in 627 B.C.E. and continuing through the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. We don’t know the end-date of his ministry or his life, but Jeremiah 40-44 report some prophetic activity after the fall. Many texts give us examples of this preaching, particularly in Jeremiah 1-20. But the audience for this preaching is different from the audience of the book (with some overlap), which is “finished” by other editors/authors sometime after his death. The date of the completion of the book is not known, but at least one major edition was addressed to the exiles in Babylon (see 1:3) and they are a “new audience” for the earlier words of the prophet.

The Babylonians

The Babylonians are the dominant foreign power during much of Jeremiah’s ministry and play a prominent role in the book. The Assyrians had dominated the region during the seventh century B.C.E., but were defeated by the Babylonians at the battle of Nineveh (612 B.C.E.). Nebuchadnezzar ascended the throne of Babylon in 605 B.C.E., and he set his sights on further conquests. Babylon defeated Egypt and its allies at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. and secured control of the region, including Israel. When King Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylonian rule in 601 B.C.E., Babylon moved against Jerusalem, which fell in 597 B.C.E., and put Zedekiah, another son of Josiah, on the throne. Zedekiah also rebelled against Babylon, despite Jeremiah’s counsel, and Babylon responded by razing the city and the temple, humiliating the Davidic king, and sending many Israelites into exile (587 B.C.E.). Babylon appointed a leading Judean citizen, Gedaliah, to govern Judah; but within a few years anti-Babylonian zealots assassinated Gedaliah, and more Judeans were exiled to Babylon (approximately 582 B.C.E.). Other Judeans, ignoring Jeremiah’s counsel, migrated to Egypt and took Jeremiah with them (40:7-44:30). Jeremiah apparently died in Egypt.

The Book of Consolation

Jeremiah 30-33 (some include only chapters 30-31) is often referred to as the Book of Consolation. Written in both poetry and prose, the oracles announce God’s future restoration of Israel, and the narratives are a concrete symbolization of God’s new possibilities for Israel. That these materials are included at this point in the text is something of a puzzle, but may be an indication that even in the midst of the certain judgment to come, God’s saving will was at work on behalf of the people of God. The oracles are usually placed in the second person direct address. As such, they become a very personal word from God to a people who are enduring deep suffering.

The book’s rhetorical strategy

As noted, the book of Jeremiah is addressed to the exiles in Babylon in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem. The book is thus addressed to the people of God at a time when they have been traumatized by these disastrous events. The book is most basically concerned to address itself in as forthright a way as possible to these survivors. It seeks to use the heritage of Jeremiah to address ongoing personal, spiritual, and religious needs of a devastated and questioning community. Their most compelling question is one that regularly punctuates the text (for example, 5:19; 9:12; 13:22; 14:19; 16:10; 22:8): “Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through?” (9:12). The book stakes a theological claim that these events occurred not because Israel’s God was incompetent or uncaring, but because the people of God were unfaithful. The intended effect is to bring to the shamed and hurting exiles a clear word about the kind of God who has been active among them, a God who will, finally, make all things new. To that end, language is used in a starkly realistic way, through the use of vivid portrayals, piercing images, and harsh, outrageous metaphors. This language is used especially to highlight the people’s infidelity and to depict the horrendous judgment through which they have passed. The suffering of the people is fully recognized. But because of the suffering of God in and through their experiences, their tears will not have the last word.

The call of Jeremiah as literary convention

The report of the call of Jeremiah is outlined in ways similar to other divine calls (for example, Moses in Exodus 3; Isaiah 6). The common elements in the calls include: the divine encounter (Jeremiah 1:4); the introductory word (1:5a); the commission (1:5b, 10); the objection (1:6); the divine reassurance (1:7-8); the sign (1:9-10, 11-16). The “objection” component is important, not least because it helps readers to see that, though Jeremiah was called by God from his mother’s womb, the call was still able to be resisted (see also 20:7-8).

The formation of the book of Jeremiah

The formation of the book of Jeremiah has been the subject of considerable debate. Scholars generally agree that the book achieved its present form over an extended period of time, continuing beyond the time of Jeremiah himself, but the details are disputed.

Several prominent sources have been suggested: the poetic oracles, especially in Jeremiah 2-25; the prose accounts of the ministry of Jeremiah, especially chapters 26-29 and 34-45; various editorial reworkings. The formation of the book has been described as “a rolling corpus” (William McKane, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986] vol. 1, p. 1). That is, a nucleus of basic texts has been built up over time by other texts, at each stage of which further reflections are generated. This process was somewhat haphazard, with the result that clarity and coherence are not always present.

The Greek translation of Jeremiah

An especially striking characteristic of Jeremiah is the significant difference between the Septuagint (or LXX, the Greek translation) and the original Hebrew. The LXX is one-seventh shorter than the Hebrew; the latter has 3,097 words that the LXX does not have, while the LXX has 307 words that the Hebrew does not have. The LXX has the same number of chapters, but they are somewhat differently arranged; the most striking is that Jeremiah 46-51 in the Hebrew is placed after 25:13a in the LXX (and in a different order). The LXX normally expands on the Hebrew text in the Old Testament, but not in Jeremiah. This suggests to many scholars that the LXX was an earlier version of Jeremiah and not a later shortened version. This may mean that the LXX translation took place before the book had been completed, but it is difficult to say.

Jeremiah and Baruch

Jeremiah is the only prophet who has a personal secretary and companion. We know little about him, however. Baruch is given an explicit role in the transmission of Jeremiah’s oracles (see 36:4, 32). Baruch is often given a considerable role in the composition of other parts of the book, especially those prose sections that portray Jeremiah’s activities (see 36-45), but this is speculative. Jeremiah does speak a specific word of the Lord to Baruch in Jeremiah 45. Later Jewish literature develops the relationship between Jeremiah and Baruch (see the deuterocanonical book Baruch), and some tendency exists to read that later material back into the life of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah and its readers

Texts are not autonomous, independent of those who read them, nor can they communicate without a reader. So, to at least some degree, meaning is not simply found in the mind of the author, nor is it inherent in the text. The meaning of the text is the result of the conversation between the text and its readers. As a result, no single meaning is available in any text; indeed, meaning changes over time, even for the same reader, because readers change. Meanings of texts, then, will always be open-ended to some degree; they are not fixed and stable. At the same time, while the texts can mean many things, they cannot mean anything. Constraints on meaning possibilities exist; these include the text itself, historical background information, and the many and diverse communities within which readers and texts reside.

Jeremiah and the theological task

The book of Jeremiah is filled with theological reflection, that is, reflections about God and the divine-human relationship. The word “theology” for what the Bible contains has been suspect in scholarly circles, not least because that word is thought to introduce subjective factors into an “objective” or “descriptive” enterprise. But it has increasingly been evident that every reader of the text, from whatever angle, introduces subjective factors into biblical study, whether admitted or not. At best, one might attempt a relatively objective approach. Theological analysis is not innately any more subjective than historical or literary study. In view of such analysis, most scholars recognize that it is no longer appropriate to distinguish between what the text meant and what the text means. All questions asked of the text are contemporary questions, and all results of our work are, finally, constructive.

Jeremiah in other ancient literature

The tradition of Jeremiah as a “weeping prophet” is reinforced by 2 Chronicles 35:25 and the introduction to the book of Lamentations in the Septuagint, which ascribes that book to Jeremiah. Several apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books imagine varying accounts of his ministry (for example, Baruch; the Letter of Jeremiah; 2 Maccabees; 2-4 Baruch). Jeremiah is mentioned in the New Testament only in Matthew (2:17; 16:14; 27:9). Citations of Jeremiah in the New Testament are relatively infrequent. The most famous uses of Jeremiah are the references to the new covenant (1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:5-6; Hebrews 8:8-12; 10:16-17), after which the New Testament derives its name.

Jeremiah’s laments

Six texts in Jeremiah 11-20 have been identified as the laments or “confessions” of Jeremiah. They usually include 11:18-20; 12:1-4; 15:10, 15-18; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18 (other texts also have been so designated, for example, 4:19-22; 8:18-9:1). These blunt and intense laments belong to the same genre as many lament psalms (for example, Psalm 13). These texts are grounded in the personal prayers of Jeremiah. They reflect Jeremiah’s calling to be a spokesman of God to a people antagonistic to such a word and to the one who bears that word. These prayers reveal how he feels in being squeezed between an insistent God and a resistant people.

Luther on Jeremiah

Martin Luther already recognized the complexity of the formation of the book of Jeremiah. His preface to the book includes these comments: “So, it seems as though Jeremiah did not compose these books himself, but that the parts were taken piecemeal from his utterances and written into a book. For this reason one must not worry about the order or be hindered by the lack of it” (Luthers Works, 35:280-281).

The portrayal of Jeremiah

Jeremiah is unique with respect to the amount of material that speaks about the prophet’s personal journey. At the same time, the book betrays no interest in giving readers a biography of the prophet (witness the lack of reference to his birth and death). Considerable scholarly disagreement exists regarding the extent to which the book’s portrayal corresponds to reality. Some scholars think the book narrates the story of the prophet in a relatively straightforward way. Others think that the portrayal of the prophet has been idealized, with only shadowy links to historical reality. Most scholars find their way between these two poles. The book presents us with both a powerful personality and an interpretation of his person and ministry. The result is that Jeremiah emerges as both more than and less than the actual historical prophet. All personal matters about the prophet are not presented for biographical purposes, but are in the service of the word of God that the book puts forward for its readers.

The speaker of Jeremiah

Sometimes Jeremiah speaks in the first person, as in his call (1:4, 11). At other times, the story is about Jeremiah, presented in the third person, especially in the last half of the book (see, for example, 25:1; 27:1). Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch is often thought to be responsible for the third person narrative. At other times, readers cannot clearly sort out whether it is God or Jeremiah who is speaking (4:19-22; 8:18-9:3).

The structure of Jeremiah

The structure of the book of Jeremiah is something of a puzzle, not least because of the inconsistent chronological ordering of materials (for example, 21:1-2 is dated around 588 B.C.E.; 24:1 then is dated in 597 B.C.E.; 25:1 then jumps back to 605 B.C.E.). It is probably best to divide Jeremiah into two major blocks of materials (chapters 2-24 and 26-51, with chapter 25 a hinge), with an introductory and a concluding chapter. The first half of the book emphasizes judgment (though promise themes are present); the last half stresses salvation. Scholars sharply disagree regarding the flow of thought within these two halves of the book. In any case, the book does not present a single argument in any usual sense or a clear historical development; it might be best to think of a kaleidoscopic or impressionistic portrayal of this highly conflicted time of Israel’s life and thought.