the Problems and Prospects for Reading Jeremiah
The term prophet focuses on two kinds of roles in the Pentateuch: intercessor (Gen 20:7; cf. Abraham’s intercession and concerns in Gen 18) and messenger of God’s word (see esp. Exod 7:1; Deut 13:1-5; 18:9-22). The writing prophets of the Hebrew Bible especially exemplify their function as messengers of God’s word. Likewise, the book of Jeremiah houses an impressive collection of sermons, poems, oracles, and narratives from across his career. Jeremiah often situates his message in the long line of messengers God has sent to warn his people. Yet, Jeremiah’s role as intercessor is featured in a significant way in the book.
The most notable testimony to Jeremiah’s intercession for Judah is known as the confessions which are housed in chapters 11-20 (see 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:12-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18). The confessions are not sermons and do not reflect a “public” part of Jeremiah’s ministry. These “private” confessions have become public by being integrated into the main body of Jeremiah’s sermons and oracles in the book.
The confessions embody the challenges the prophet was told he would face from the beginning of his call (Jer 1). If some of the confessions are Jeremiah’s responses to his suffering at the hands of those who rejected his word, they also represent his ongoing and sometimes difficult struggle with the message God had sent him to deliver.
Jeremiah’s role as intercessor is repeatedly met by God’s response that he will not listen to any more prayers for the people (see esp. 7:11; 11:14; 14:11). Jeremiah becomes increasingly agitated and despairs both for the people, the divine blockade against his intercession, and the suffering he has to bear as messenger of the word of judgment and doom.
Jeremiah’s confessions have central role in the book (see von Rad, II: 201-6; esp. 204; Rendtorff 2005, 212-15). To make sense of Jeremiah requires making sense of his difficult role as frustrated intercessor.
Jeremiah is an intercessor under pressure.
Contents of Jeremiah (MT)
2-18 oracles against Judah and Jerusalem from the time of Josiah and Jehoiakim
19-24 from the time of Jehoahaz, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah
25 retrospective of first twenty-three years, and message of judgment against Jerusalem and the nations
26-35 narratives of prophecies of judgment and deliverance
36-45 narratives of Jeremiah’s sufferings
46-51 oracles against the nations
52 historical appendix [See conclusion at the end of Jer 51.]
See detailed overview of the contents of Jeremiah.
The historical setting of Jeremiah is the last days of the kingdom of Judah (overview). After the fifty-five year rule of Manasseh, Amon ruled for two years and was assassinated. Josiah became king at the age of eight in 639 bce, about the same time that Assurbanipal gained control of the throne in Assyria. Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s rule (627). The death of Assurbanipal in 627 marked the beginning of the breaking apart of the once mighty Assyrian empire.
Josiah’s signature work is the religious reform he mandated on the heels of the discovery of the torah (Deuteronomy) in the temple by Hilkiah in 622 (see 2 Kgs 22:8-13). Josiah’s sweeping reforms not only overturned the rampant polytheistic practices instituted under Manasseh, but included tearing down the numerous shrines to various gods which Solomon had established all over Jerusalem hundreds of years before. The monotheistic reforms of Josiah mark a highpoint in the Hebrew kingdoms. Zephaniah’s ministry is often thought to be in support of Josiah’s reforms.
Meanwhile things were quickly changing in Mesopotamia. Nebopolassar defeated the Assyrian army outside Babylon and declared himself king of Assyria in 626, part of the events leading to the fall of Nineveh in 612, to a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, and perhaps Scythians (see Nahum). In response Egypt joined Assyria to march on Carchemish. To prevent their success Josiah went to battle against Pharaoh Neco at Megiddo in 609, slowing the Egyptians, but being wounded and dying from the battle (see 2 Chron 35:20-24).
Jehoahaz took the throne for three months in 609. Pharaoh Neco deposed him and took him to Egypt where he died. In his place, Neco installed Eliakim who he renamed Johoiakim (see 2 Kgs 23:31-35). In spite of Jerusalem’s precarious political situation many retained a strong sentiment of the inviolability of the city. Prophets like Jeremiah and Uriah preached against this naïve view with no success. Uriah was executed (see Jer 26:20-23) and Jeremiah was delivered from death with some effort (see 26:1-19; also see Habakkuk).
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim (605), Nebuchadnezzar (who had recently succeeded Nebopolassar) defeated Egypt at Carchemish (46:2). In 604 Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Ashkelon (perhaps alluded to in 47:1-7). In the course of things Jehoiakim became Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal for three years until he rebelled (see 2 Kgs 24:1). Jehoiakim was killed and replaced by his son Jehoiachin. His three month reign ended when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin, the queen mother, and a large group of rulers, nobility and leading citizens of Jerusalem in to captivity in Babylon in 597, including Ezekiel of the Zadokites (see 2 Kgs 24:10-17; Ezek 1:2-3).
Zedekiah was installed as king of Jerusalem. Among the political currents was a pro-Egyptian party, along with wishful thinking. Many began looking for a speedy collapse of Babylon, prompting Jeremiah to write a letter telling the Hebrew exiles of 597 to settle in Babylon (see 29:1-3). In light of the short-lived rebellion in Babylon in 594, ambassadors from Edom, Ammon, Moab, Tyre, and Sidon came to Jerusalem to work out details of a conspiracy against Babylon. Jeremiah donned a yoke and spoke God’s word against the plan (see 27:1-7). It may be in the aftermath of putting down the rebellion that Jehoiakim traveled to Babylon to affirm his loyalty (see 51:59).
In 588 Nebuchadnezzar marched against peoples of Syria-Palestine, began a thirteen year siege against Tyre, and besieged Jerusalem. During the siege the people of Jerusaelm repented and released their slaves and the Babylonians were called away to fight the Egyptians under Pharaoh Hophra (Apries). When the siege was temporarily lifted the people re-enslaved those they had released and Jeremiah warned them that the Babylonians would be back (see 34:21-22; 37:6-10). When Jeremiah decided to go to Anathoth he was arrested and thrown into a cistern (see 37:16; 38:6). At the initiative of Ebed-melech, Zedekiah had Jeremiah moved to the court of the guard (see 38:7-13). During the siege of Jerusalem Jeremiah purchased land in his home town Anathoth, to symbolize hope for return (see 37:11; 32:6-15). Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed in 586 (see 39:1-2).
After the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the citizens, Gedaliah was made governor over the poor people left behind (see 39:10). Jeremiah joined Gedaliah in Ramah. When Gedaliah was assassinated a large group of people fled to Egypt to escape the expected vengeance of the Babylonians. Jeremiah accompanied them to Egypt even while he advised them unsuccessfully to turn from their idols and remain in the land of promise (see 41-44). Since nothing else is heard about Jeremiah it is presumed he died in Egypt. The trouble is likely a factor in a third group of Judeans exile by the Babylonians in 582 (see 52:28-30). (The above summary is indebted to Lundbom 1992, Soderlund 1982, Freedman 1949.)
Also see overview of the last days of Jeremiah, table of dates of the Hebrew kings, the chronological list of the empires, and the chorological table of the book of Jeremiah.
The book of Jeremiah is often viewed in terms of the difficulties it presents to interpreters.
“The book of Jeremiah is long, complex, and difficult. To the modern reader it appears to be a repetitive mess, a mixture of poetry and prose, in no particular order, but containing traces of attempts to collate and give some order to parts of the material …. The reader who is not confused by reading the book of Jeremiah has not understood it!” (Carroll 1989, 9)
The book of Jeremiah is “a hopeless hodgepodge thrown together without any discernible principle of arrangement at all” (Bright 1965, lvi)
“The book of Jeremiah appears to be in great disarray. Materials seem to be out of order chronologically, and there is no clear logic to their organization.” (Frick, 389)
“The complicated literary history of the book [of Jeremiah] may be an indirect reflection of the chaos of the time, but it also reveals a kind of open-ended understanding of a “book.” Rather than being a finished composition, it was rather something like a hypertext, which subsequent authors and editors felt free to revise and expand.” (Coogan 2009, 299)
Among the difficulties is that the dated materials of book of Jeremiah are not in chronological sequence.
Another difficulty is that two different versions of the book of Jeremiah circulated in antiquity.V
What is a book or a scroll? To speak of a book evokes both a physical and a metaphysical notion (see Barton). To refer to a book connotes coherence and closure as well as location. My sensibilities are somewhere between Barton’s statement, “Books just were untidy, and were allowed to be so” (14), and looking for the ironies and subtleties expected by the “assumption of literary unity” which thinks of the individual books with individual authors and all that means.
Is the book of Jeremiah as “book” in the full sense of the term? I will work with Jeremiah as a book, yet recognizing it has lesser coherence and closure than the other prophetic books of scripture.
(1) My approach at present is not to try to “solve” the problem of the book of Jeremiah, and discover the structure and tightly argued message.
(2) Here are some of the reoccurring themes I see within the book: the restoration of the northern kingdom to Davidic rule (2-6, 30-31); turn from sin so God may deliver you from destruction; submit to Babylon and live under its rule because Babylon’s dominion is a certainty; the Lord will judge the nations and Babylon, when he has finished using them for his purposes; the people of God will one day return to obey Torah, though kingdom not always emphasized thus sounding like postexilic situation under Persians and Greeks (esp. LXX says Sweeny); the Davidic dynasty will rise again (esp. MT says Sweeny 2005). Or, if the book is approached in forward moving historical context, the lesser emphasis on the monarchy over and against the earlier prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah) could be explained by a combination of the prophet hailing from Anathoth rather than Jerusalem and the winding down of classic prophecy (see von Rad, 2: 192-93).
Several sections of Jeremiah seem to be organized around literary form or thematic associations. That is, the book indicates editorial shaping and intentionality is organizing the material, at some level. Thematic similarities are seen: ► harlotry in (2-3); ► allusions to northern kingdom of Israel (2-6; 30-31); ► enemy from the north (4-10); ► the “confessions” punctuate chaps 11-20, namely, “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (11:18-23; 12:1-6), “Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me” (15:10-14, 15-21), “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed” (17:14-18), “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah” (18:18-23), “I have become a laughingstock all day long” (20:7-12, 14-18) (for discussion of the confessions, see von Rad, 2: 201-206); ► parabolic images include loin cloth vision (13:1-7), Jeremiah unmarried (16:1-4), potter’s workshop (18:1-12), broken pot (19:1-20:6), basket of figs vision (24:1-10), wine drinkers vision (25:15-38); ► utterance to kings (21:1-23:8), to prophets and priests (23:9-40); ► narratives concerning Jeremiah (26-19; 39-44); ► false and true prophets and Babylonian captivity (27; 28; 29); ► consolation (30-31, 32-33); ► and oracles against the nations (46-51).
(3) Provisionally, I take a view, more or less along the lines of the heading (1:1-3) that the book presents sermons and narratives from Jeremiah’s four plus decades of ministry (see notes on heading). Through this tumultuous period for Judah, and Jeremiah personally, his messages were directed against rapidly changing and deteriorating situations. The diversity of the last days of Jerusalem, and all that this means, is reflected in the multiform and diverse oracles and stories, and even (an apparently) disjunctive structure to the book.
(4) In sum, rather than seeing Jeremiah (LXX or MT) as a book in the sense of a tightly argued message, is to see it as a witness to moments in God’s contextualized word. What would be the function of such a “book”? Perhaps to inspire ongoing reflection, conversation, and faith among the people of God, as they contemplate their identity, meaning, purpose, and destiny.
How did the work of the prophet Jeremiah become a book?
One view is that the book of Jeremiah is comprised of type A, B, C materials; A, Jeremiah’s own poetic prophecies and confessions in the first person; B, third person biographical narratives about Jeremiah, presumably by Baruch; C, the Deuteronomistic prose sermons which effectively align the book with the Deuteronomistic Narrative (see Mowinckel 1914; Carroll 1989, 32-33; Kessler 2004, 4-5, 163-64).
Mowinckel’s list of source B, with qualifications, is 19:1-2, 10-11a, 14-20:6; 26; 28; 29:24-32; 36; 37:1-10, 11-16, 17-21; 38:1-13, 14-28a, 28b; 39:3, 14; 40:2-12, 13-43:7, 8-13; 44:15-19, 24-30 (see Mowinckel 1914, 24), and source C is 7:1-8:3; 11:1-5, 9-14; 18:1-2; 21:1-10; 25:1-11a; 32:1-2, 6-16, 24-44; 34:1-7, 8-22; 35; 44:1-14 (see 31).The type C materials have been much contested, whether they are inventions of the Deuteronomists, or if Jeremiah used prose for his sermons (ipsissima verba), or if the Deuteronomistic prose sermons are based on Jeremiah’s preaching, that is, if they embody “the gist” of what he said (ipsissima vox) (this latter view championed by J. Bright, Jeremiah, AB, lxxii; yet, see my note on Mowinckel 2002 in bibliography).
Moshe Weinfeld affirms the type C material in line with Deuteronomic themes (see Weinfeld 1972, 27-32), both of which can been seen as sharing characteristics of ancient Near Eastern covenantal forms, and the like (see 138-146). Ernest Nicholson works through the type B and type C materials demonstrating that both seem to be the work of the Deuteronomists. Thus, for Nicholson there are two main stages to the production of the book, the materials from Jeremiah and Baruch, and the Deuteronomistic narratives, sermons, and framing (see Nicholson 1970). Nicholson thinks that some of the Deuteronomistic materials are based upon Jeremiah’s preaching and events from his life, yet repeatedly emphasizes that these are put to use to instruct and offer hope to the exilic readership. (For a helpful brief overview of the discussion see Wilson 1999.)
The comparisons of Jeremiah and Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic Narrative can provide a helpful perspective for interpreting Jeremiah. Yet, the purpose of many of the studies noted above is inadequate. The question of authentic versus Deuteronomistic materials and how these relate to “authorship” of the book drove much of these comparisons in the twentieth century. The scriptures affirm “the Deuteronomic framework as an authentic interpretation of Jeremiah’s ministry which it used to frame the earlier poetic material” (Childs 1979, 346, and see 342-54). Jeremiah pictured himself within a long tradition of torah preachers. The continuity between Jeremiah and Deuteronomy and the earlier preachers heightens the rejection of his message, a central aspect of the book itself.
Another view of the development of the book is known as “rolling corpus,” that is, Jeremiah’s poetry generates poetry and prose, among scribal redactors and editors (see McKane, 1: l-lxxxiii). McKane works closely with the Septuagint and the Masoretic versions of Jeremiah to demonstrate kinds of expansions.
Robert Wilson examines several so-called C passages seeking to detect their purpose. In the case of Jer 7 and Jer 32, the didactic prose seems to function to clarify, interpret, apply, and strengthen selected elements in the ambiguous dialogical poetic A materials that precede these passages. Wilson sees these as located specifically in these contexts with somewhat common purposes. Wilson’s selective approach to other C materials located among the B materials, however, do not function in the same manner. Thus, for Wilson, the C materials are not all of one piece. While some seem to clarify Jeremiah’s poetic sermons and oracles other parts seem to be developed in stages more like McKane’s rolling corpus (see Wilson 1999).
More than one version of the book of Jeremiah has survived from antiquity. The Masoretic Text and the Septuagint bear witness to two ancient editions. See diagram and illustration of the plurality of text traditions of Jeremiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also see side by side overview of the differences between the Septuagintal and Masoretic versions of the book of Jeremiah.
For other introductory materials see the numerous introductions to the prophets, von Rad, 2: 191-219, Lundbom 1992, Freedman 1949, Soderlun 1992, and Carroll 1989. See working bibliography concerning the book of Jeremiah with emphasis on the diversity of the ancient witnesses.
 See dated headings; also see Smelik, 7, in Kessler 2004; Biddle, in New Oxford Annotated Bible (2007), 1074.
 See John Barton, “What Is a Book?: Modern Exegesis and the Literary Conventions of Ancient Israel,” 1-14, esp. 2, in Johannes C. de Moor, ed., Intertextuality in Ugarit and Israel (Leiden: Brill, 1998). Also, on this issue and several important points about anachronistic thinking amongst interpreters, see Robert A. Kraft, “Para-mania: Beside, Before, and Beyond Biblical Studies,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007): 5-27.
 My concern here is Jeremiah as a book in a general sense. Elsewhere I deal with the ancient versions of Jeremiah preserved in the LXX and MT.
Copyright © 2010, 2011, 2014
Gary E. Schnittjer