Examining Biblical Literature: Jeremiah

This post is a part of a read-through series where I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts, which give slight historical background, a literary synopsis, and interesting observations for each text.

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The book of Jeremiah is a massive work of ancient literature. The final form of the text was compiled in the middle of the 6th century BCE after the destruction of Jerusalem’s wall and temple in 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah was from a family in the priestly caste and grew up just south of Jerusalem. He did not want to be a prophet who preached the doom of Jerusalem. Because of this he challenged God’s goodness[1] and even tried to keep silent about the messages God gave to him.[2] Eventually, after years of obedience to God in preaching, Jeremiah recognizes the people of Jerusalem simply reject the teachings of God and he accepts that God must punish the people of God to teach them, discipline them, and purify Israel.[3]

There is a lot to the book of Jeremiah. Much more than I am able to provide in an overview synopsis. For a more in-depth study of the Jeremiah text I recommend James E. Smith’s The Major Prophets. Smith provides an affordable and worthwhile overview of major themes and sections of Jeremiah that balances academic rigor while making the information accessible enough for preachers and Sunday school teachers.

Below are the twelves themes from Jeremiah that presented themselves to me in the most interesting ways. The references below are by no means extensive enough to be comprehensive of all the interconnections to other Old Testament texts or even internally in Jeremiah. These texts are simply examples that express the observation I am making.

Observations:

  1. The mercy that God offers to his people is not passively received but must be intentionally seized upon. The gratuity of God’s action is that he offers us this gift of salvation at all.[4]
  2. There are texts that deliberately prioritize the Babylonian exiles over the Jews left in Jerusalem. Those Jews left behind by the Babylonians to care for the land ended up abandoning the land, even as Jeremiah told them not to, and went to Alexandria.[5]
  3. There are a plethora of similarities and allusions to earlier prophetic texts. Such as Nahum’s depiction of nations shamed as female genitalia made public and like a whore in 13:26-27. Joel’s image of the nations as locusts in 46:23 and (with Nahum) lions in 50:17. Habakkuk’s representation of the nations as wilderness in chapter 17. There is a parallel to Zephaniah’s use of human sacrifice in chapter 46:7-12. Jeremiah 23:14 and 50:40 references Sodom and Gomorrah as a warning of utter, divine destruction just as Nahum used them, but Jeremiah adds that the cities are condemned on account of their sexual sin of adultery and their empty life of selfishness and lies. Lastly, we find an interesting quotation from the book of Micah in 26:18.
  4. Jeremiah 10:11-15 and 16:14-21 continues the prophetic theme introduced by Habakkuk that idols are empty things without value to worship. The nations worship these idols and profit nothing. There is no benefit to the worship of the false gods. Put another way, there is no knowledge of the Creator gleaned from the worship of the idols even if they may be connected to some transcendental truths about the creation.
  5. A major image Jeremiah tries to project to his audience is that the sin of humanity, both the people of God and the nations, effects creation. Our sin has cosmic influence, polluting the good land God has provided. As the Creator god he allows the consequences of our sin to effect things beyond ourselves, including the gifts he has provided.[6] Jeremiah expresses this destruction of the land in the same language of un-creation as Joel.[7] Jeremiah seems to even go so far as to show the story of Israel’s chosen status in Abraham and Moses being reversed.[8] This might be one of the first clues that the story of Israel was being understood as recreation of the fallen creation.
  6. There is a strange reality spoken of by Jeremiah about those who are considered false prophets in Jerusalem. Chapters 8:8-13 and 14:13-18 make clear the priests and prophets in Jerusalem believed they were teaching the Scriptures rightly and they were having genuine existential experiences. Those who were leading Israel into destruction were sure of their beliefs based on spiritual experiences and readings of their texts. This is an unbelievably foreboding warning to all exegetes and charismatics in our contemporary age! The culturally desired answers that seem to come out of the Scriptures, even if coupled with experiences that actually seem to be interaction with God may not actually the truth that is from God. The fundamental difference between them and Jeremiah, or any prophet right with God, is their faithful obedience to what has been revealed before. These false priests and prophets did not believe God would discipline the people for idolatry, but the history of Israel should have taught them the opposite. They refused to listen, learn, repent, and obey, and therefore, while the words they used were from Scripture and they believed their experiences were from God, they were spiraling into destruction away from God.
  7. I found it interesting how an Ethiopian eunuch’s faithfulness to God’s prophet in Jeremiah 38 is a judgment on Jerusalem’s temple system and leaders by being a public contrast to their disobedience and evils towards Jeremiah. Could this theme be a secondary echo in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip in Acts 8?
  8. The parallels between the destruction of Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51 to Babylon’s downfall in Revelation 17-18 are worth working through. There are also slight differences, such as what the cup is and whose hand it held in. There is no good End for the nations who do not worship God; another parallel to Zephaniah’s and Habakkuk’s understandings of eschatology.
  9. Jeremiah offers Israel hope in his remnant theology.[9] This remnant theology uses language similar to Joel’s Spirit renewal in the midst of judgment and Zephaniah’s purification of Israel through judgment. Remnant theology seems to be a synthesis by Jeremiah of prior prophetic teachings on judgment and renewal based on trustful hope in God as the Creator god. This begins to sound very similar to Habakkuk’s preaching, which Jeremiah would have personally witnessed in Jerusalem parallel to his own ministry. Closely tied to remnant theology, and in many ways being born out of it, is Jeremiah’s theology about the restoration of the land and all creation.[10] As the remnant of Israel is restored by God the land and all creation are restored with the people of God. The blessing of being a purified people is complimented by the Creator as he creates for them a blessed land and creation for them to thrive within. In every way a new creation is formed by God through his act of future salvation, which is assured now that judgment has begun.
  10. Jeremiah 36 gives an illuminating account about how some prophetic texts would have been composed and distributed in the ancient world. They were accounts of visions or messages from God that were written and sent to the authorities or individuals they were addressed. A second copy would then be made as a record in case the first was destroyed and for the people of God to have a copy of God’s declaration for the future. There are also a number of hints to the composition of sections of Jeremiah occurring after the initial sequence of events the section is depicting, allowing for theological interpretation of the events to occur from the perspective of the prophet. Even some, such as chapter 52, showing later additions to the main body of text.
  11. These last two observations are more personal and are based on my own enjoyment of the text of Jeremiah. I found it relieving, in the midst of such judgment and disappointment, that God and Jeremiah could have a sense of humor. The couple of places this shines through the strongest are in 34:17 and 37:16-17. In 34:17, God is unhappy that the prophets keep proclaiming that Jerusalem will be free from the oppression of Babylon so he declares through Jeremiah they will be free indeed—free to die by the sword and in suffering! In 37:16-17, Jeremiah has been unjustly placed in the dungeon and the king comes to him secretly asking if there is a message from God to which Jeremiah says, “There is! You will fall to Babylon.” The same message he has been proclaiming for years.
  12. After such a long journey through Jeremiah my favorite text ended up being 10:23-24:

I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself,

That it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.

Correct me, O LORD, but in justice;

Not in your anger,

Lest you bring me to nothing.

Close to this text is 17:9-10 about the heart’s deceitfulness and the need to trust God to lead us, and 30:23-24 where God says the people of God will only understand the anger of God at the End of all things when its purpose has been fulfilled. A stark reminder that I cannot find the answers of divine salvation for the cosmos within myself. If I try look within for answers I will simply find nothing because that is where humanity is from and it is where we return if the Creator does not renew and sustain us by his own life.

 


[1] 4:10, 12:1-4.

[2] 20:7-18.

[3] 18:1-23.

[4]3:6-4:4, 15, 29, 34-35, 36:1-3.

[5] 24, 39-44.

[6] 5:23-25, 23:16-40.

[7] 4:19-26, 12:1-17.

[8] 9:12-16.

[9] 5:10, 31:1-40.

[10] 23:1-8, 30:1-31:40, 32:36-33:26.

Examining Biblical Literature: Habakkuk

Habakkuk is a fascinating text struggling to understand how Israel’s god can be the good, just and all-powerful Creator while there is suffering and evil permeating his creation. Habakkuk was written in the early 6th century BCE. It is the first prophetic text to shift from reflecting on the evils and sufferings created by the Assyrian captivity to reflecting on the exile of the southern kingdom, Judah, at the hands of Babylon. Three times the armies of Babylon came to Jerusalem and took away slaves, with the last date coinciding with the destruction of the wall and temple of Jerusalem: 597, 587, and 582 BCE. Written at least after the first enslaving deportation in 597 BCE, and possibly after the second in 587, the prophetic text of Habakkuk is the reflection of Israel’s surprise and confusion about how Israel, particularly Jerusalem where God’s Temple sits, could be subjected to  such pain and humiliation at the hands of a pagan empire. Habakkuk sees the inevitable destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of these pagan armies, but he demands the Creator god answer how there can be this much suffering and evil in his creation, especially against his own chosen people!

Habakkuk is a prophet who challenges the god of Israel. The prophets first challenge is, How long will the Creator god allow injustice and evil in his creation?[1] This is a pointed theological issue because the answer could be that Yahweh, even as Creator, is not able to control the evil in creation as the stories that will be compiled in Genesis suggest. Maybe God is not able to overcome or control the suffering or evils of this world. This is a theological inquiry about how powerful and sovereign Yahweh the Creator truly is. God’s response is that these sufferings and evils at the hands of the Babylonians are his own action.[2] He, as Creator, has chosen to create Babylon and send its armies to Jerusalem. Ironically, God points out that the Babylonian power he has given to them to overthrow kings and cities has become their god.[3]

Habakkuk’s response is twofold. He can understand and accept that God has ordained another nation to punish Israel for her unfaithfulness because he is the Rock upon which the nation is built. In this light he trusts that Israel will not perish completely, instead they will be disciplined.[4] But, Habakkuk struggles to understand how a God, if he is completely good, is able to allow for the other nations to exalt their actions as worship to other gods? Put another way, If the Creator god is good how do evil men, such as the Babylonians, even exist in this creation?[5] Doesn’t the Creator god actually create the evil of idolatry by allowing evil men to worship their power as a god?[6]

God’s response to Habakkuk is that there is an appointed end for all things. If anyone doubts this they should simply wait a little longer because the end comes for all.[7] God reveals to the prophet that there is an End, an eschatology for all peoples. The evil one, represented by Babylon in the text, has a way of life that is bent, broken, and evil. The innocent people of God will find sustained and enduring life in the End because they are upright, or righteous, by following the straight paths of God in faithful obedience.[8] The evil actions of Babylon reveal now the kind of End that will come to it. On account of Babylon’s greed and violence the oppressed peoples will rise up and destroy it. The evils that are the content of the Babylonian way of life will rebound onto it and destroy all who participate in it.[9]

Then the text of Habakkuk reveals something theologically profound. The Creator god does not have the nations come to their eschatological Ends without purpose or to simply be burnt up as in fire and come to nothing. The Creator god is creating nations, allowing their expansion, and bringing about their Ends for the purpose of filling creation with knowledge of his own presence.[10] The nations must learn, through trial and error, that only Yahweh their Creator can bring them the knowledge of how to live in his creation in peace and life. No idol worshipped as a god can reveal a good End for the nations. Only the Creator god can lead the nations to life when they come to worship him.[11]

Habakkuk ends with the prophet worshipping God for his wisdom out of fear of this creative work.[12] Habakkuk employs some of the most vivid apocalyptic imagery found in the prophetic literature thus far as it describes God’s terribly creative work of making the nations rise and fall.[13] The prophet ends the oracle by making a statement of allegiance to Yahweh, the Creator god. This is the purpose of the text: to reassure those in the southern kingdom of Judah near Jerusalem that the God of Israel is still the Creator who is in control of his creation no matter the circumstances.[14] Habakkuk offers a theological understanding of Israel’s suffering. The prophet would have the people of God declare themselves dedicated to faithfully obeying God in their way of life and worship so that the eschatological End of Israel is life with God beyond the End of Babylon. Babylon and its evil’s will come to an End formed by its own wicked ways, but those right with God will find life in faithfulness in the Creator’s good way of life in his creation.

Observations:

  1. The use of the eschatological end of nations is the same theological shift Zephaniah pioneered. While Zephaniah focused on depicting how the Creator will, on account of his justice, reshape at least remnant parts of the nations into worshipping elements of creation, Habakkuk reveals that the Creator does not determine the eschatological End for the nations he creates. It is their way of life that determines their End.[15] The Creator simply holds the cup of consequences and enforces the End they choose in his creation.[16]
  2. The intimate presence of God as Creator in the development of nations is the very moment God is hidden from those very nations.[17] No doubt this is the text Paul is reflecting on in Romans 1:16-32. God’s presence is clearly perceived in the formation of the nations, intuited as the very structure of all creation, yet the nations turned and worshipped their created idols rather than their own Creator. For both Habakkuk and Paul, it is the way of life of the nations that reveals what eschatological End they are participating and manifesting already.
  3. This theological contention, that the nations’ communal ways of life form their eschatological Ends, echoes themes found in both Genesis and Deuteronomy. A significant purpose of Genesis is as an etiology, an account of how things came to be the way they are, concerning where the nations came from and why they are the way they are.[18] Deuteronomy reveals the way of life in the people of God covenantally determines the realities of God’s relationship to them in blessings or curses. Habakkuk, following Zephaniah’s interpretive perspective, reveals the Creator god’s justice means he will treat the nations just as he does Israel. If the nations do not obey his way of life for creation then they will destroy themselves. But his desire as Creator is that they learn of his presence with them in creation and turn to worship him,[19] which will naturally change their way of life. The nations are created by the god of Israel, Yahweh the Creator god, but the nations choose to live in abhorrent and unnatural ways in his creation leading to their destruction. Their evil behavior in this world forms their own eschatological End of destruction.
  4. There are also couple of interesting possible allusions to Genesis’ creation accounts. First, there is at least a conceptual similarity between Habakkuk 3:13b and Genesis 3:15, where the head of the enemy is being crushed. The End of the evil nations will be their destruction by the Creator god’s enforcement. This is salvation for God’s people. Their judgment is actually a part of the ongoing creative and sustaining act of Yahweh.[20] The second allusion is the ending phrase of God’s creational involvement in nation building in 3:15, “You trampled on the sea with your horses, upon the raw creative material of the many waters.” Habakkuk seems to be concluding that the Creator god’s continued work of forming and shaping the nations is actually his forming creation from the primordial waters of the sea as talked about in the Genesis creation account. As the nations are recreated and do evil, their destruction is a witness that the Creator is still present and shaping his creation. He brings these evil ways of life to an End because he is purging evil from his creation. Only those who live in his good ways will find the End of life and not destruction.

 


[1] 1:2-4

[2] 1:5-11

[3] 1:10-11

[4] 1:12

[5] 1:13

[6] 1:14-17 referring back to 1:9-11.

[7] 2:2-3

[8] 2:4

[9] 2:5-12

[10] 2:13-14

[11] 2:15-20

[12] 3:2

[13] 3:3-15

[14] 3:16-19

[15] 2:4, 8, 10

[16] 2:15-17

[17] 3:3b-4

[18] By way of example from Genesis: 1) Canaan in 9:18-27, 2) Israel in 12:1-3, 3) the Ishmaelites in 16:1-16, 4 & 5) the Moabites and the Ammonites in 19:30-38, 6) the Midianites in 25:1-6, and 7) the Edomites in 25:19ff, 27:1-40, 36:1-42.

[19] 2:13-14, 20

[20] 3:12-14

Exploring (Extra)Biblical Literature: Ahiqar

The text of Ahiqar is one of the most ancient surviving texts of the middle eastern region. It is an extra biblical story normally placed in the category of Old Testament Pseudepigraphal works. Ahiqar was compiled sometime in the 7th through 6th centuries BCE. Ahiqar is actually not a story from Israel, but is a late Assyrian text made up of two sections. The first part is the narrative of Ahiqar and the second half is made up of proverb sayings. Ahiqar was such a popular Assyrian text that copies reached to Greece and have been found throughout Turkey, Syria and the Canaanite lands, the Eastern European churches, the Mesopotamian regions, even Egypt and Ethiopia.[1]

The narrative is about a man named Ahiqar who is an old and wise advisor to the Assyrian kings. Ahiqar has no sons so he adopts his nephew, Nadin, who he trains in all his wisdom. Ahiqar then presents Nadin as his replacement in the court. The king is pleased with Nadin and blesses Ahiqar with retirement. Sadly, Nadin poisons the king against Ahiqar by saying the old man is stirring the people into rebellion as he sits at the palace gates. The king sends a general to execute Ahiqar, but when found Ahiqar convinces the officer that he is loyal to the king and to instead hide him away until the day the king wishes for Ahiqar’s advice again. Later, when the king runs into a matter he needs advice about he laments his rash action of executing the wise Ahiqar. The officer then proclaims he has found Ahiqar alive bringing him out of hiding. Ahiqar then helps the king and exposes the wickedness of Nadin, who is then punished. Some texts include a long section where Ahiqar shames his nephew before the court by lecturing him on his evils.

Some scholars see parallels to the story of Esther in Ahiqar. They posit that the struggle between Mordechai and Haman might be modeled after the conflict of Ahiqar and Nadin. There is a general parallel of wisdom overcoming adversity in these two stories but this is not enough specific material to demand dependence of Esther on Ahiqar. Esther falls into the narrative category and format well worn by other stories, which included Ahiqar, in order for it to become a popularly told and circulated.

The second half of the Ahiqar text is made of proverbs. Their form and length are very similar to the books of Proverbs and Sirach. In fact, a number of proverbs are similar between Ahiqar and some phrases in the Old Testament and Apocryphal writings. Even these, though, do not seem to create a direct dependence of any biblical text on Ahiqar and is more an attestation to the general popularity of these particular proverbs in the ancient middle east. Just a few observations about the proverbs section:

  1. Similar to Proverbs and Sirach, Ahiqar encourages physical discipline of sons: “Spare not your son from the rod; otherwise, can you save him from wickedness? If I beat you, my son, you will not die; but if I leave you alone, you will not live.”[2]
  2. Like many wisdom texts, Ahiqar emphasizes control of the mouth. I found this text powerful in an age of social media where it is easy to slip any thought into public view. “My son, do not utter everything which comes into your mind, for there are eyes and ears everywhere. But keep watch over your mouth, lest it bring you to grief! Above all else, guard your mouth; and as for what you have heard, be discreet! For a word is a bird, and he who releases it is a fool. Choose the sayings you shall utter, then speak them to your brother to help him. For the treachery of the mouth is more dangerous than the treachery of battle.”[3]
  3. The centrality of family provision is encouraged. The provision should be achieved by any means available. Take advantage of and grasp every opportunity. “Hear, oh my son: Harvest any harvest, and do any job; then you may eat your fill and provide for your children.”[4]
  4. The posture of a good man is humility. There is also an interesting parallel on this topic to Jesus’ saying in Matthew 23:12. “Do not despise that which is your lot, nor covet some great thing which is withheld from you.”[5] And, “If you wish to be exalted, my son, humble yourself before [the god] Shamash, who humbles the exalted and exalts the humble.”[6]
  5. Freedom is more important than easy provision in slavery. But, could this also be a critique? As in, only a stubborn fool chooses freedom over the provision offered in servitude? “A man said on day to the wild ass, ‘Let me ride you, and I will provide for you!’ The wild ass replied, ‘Keep your care and fodder; I want nothing to do with your riding!’”

 


[1] James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1st ed (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1983), 480.

[2] Ahiqar 81-82.

[3] Ahiqar 97-99.

[4] Ahiqar 127.

[5] Ahiqar 136.

[6] Ahiqar 149-150.