JEREMIAH: THE FATE OF A PROPHET, by Binyamin Lau. Translated by Sara Daniel. Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013. Pp.230. $24.95 (hardcover)
The book of Jeremiah is one of the most challenging to approach in all of scriptures due to its enigmatic arrangement, wide historical context and challenging material. Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau does an incredible service in taking the book of Jeremiah and rearranging the chapters into sections that parallel the prophet’s life and placing the prophet’s words in the surrounding historical context. Set within this broader context we see the struggle of the prophet as he moves from soaring hope for the reunification of Israel and Judah through the disillusionment with the nationalistic struggles of Judah and eventually into the despair of the Babylonian exile. Rather than producing a commentary which deals with each chapter of Jeremiah, Rabbi Lau produces a narrative using: the text of Jeremiah, the recorded memory of the events in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles in conversation with other historical sources and other prophets active at various points in Jeremiahs long career as well as the Rabbinic tradition of interpretation. The end result is a coherent and tragic narrative of a disparaged and disgraced prophet who tried desperately to eliminate the social injustices and corruption of his people and to save the Temple from its impending doom.
The introduction of the work argues that the modern context the prophet might be understood as the public intellectual who must summon all of their intellectual powers and persuasive skills to convince their audience of the truth of their words. Lau argues that prophecy does not depend upon being accepted and among the prophets only Jonah was able to fulfill his mission by convincing the people of Nineveh to see the error of their ways (xiv-xv). Yet the prophet must love the people enough to pay the personal price for their visions, and even be willing to be declared an enemy of the people. Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, as the narrative will tell, will come at a high personal cost.
The book is divided between the three primary kings that Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry took place under: Josiah, Jehoiakim, Zedekiah. Part I begins by setting the stage with the story leading up to the time of Josiah by dealing with his predecessors. Briefly touching on the conflict between Samaria and Judah, in the context of the Assyrian domination of the Trans-Euphrates region, we see a picture of a divided people where savage wars between the nations of Judah and Israel overshadow the blood ties that once united them. (3) During the miraculous salvation of Jerusalem, in the time of Isaiah the prophet and the reign of King Hezekiah, we see the entry of Babylonia into the Judean world with Merodoch-Baladan’s delegation to Hezekiah. When Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, ascended to the throne in 697 BCE he attempted to put the nation of Judah back on its feet but could not resist the lure of Assyrian culture and began to forfeit the cultural and religious heritage of Judah. It is within this context, after a brief reign by Amon, that Josiah becomes king in 640 BCE and the story of Jeremiah’s prophetic career begins.
Jeremiah’s prophetic calling occurs in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign, or 626 BCE, which is a time of great change in the region. This is the time when King Josiah has begun to cleanse and purify Jerusalem from Assyrian culture and worship. The young king is also sending envoys to Samaria to attempt to reunite the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. This grand dream of King Josiah to bring the people of Judah and Israel back to being one kingdom and worshipping the Lord only can be understood within the horizon of the crumbling of the Assyrian empire which is waging a war of attrition on its northern border. (10) Jeremiah’s ministry begins prophesying the unification of Israel and Judah, appealing to their shared ancestor Jacob. Jeremiah is captured by this vision and is convinced that God’s promise to rebuild after the destruction will soon be realized. Yet, as Jeremiah begins to yearn for this change he recognizes a discrepancy between the king’s attempted reforms and the other local leadership who still continue to represent the sinful generation of Manessah, yet Jeremiah believes that God is about to get rid of these shepherds and gather the scattered flock from Samaria. Jeremiah’s most optimistic words go out to the cities of Samaria, but in Judah and particularly in his own homeland of Benjamin Jeremiah witnesses a people “engrossed in their own land and wealth, wrapped up in everyday life, and awash in paganism.” (33) Throughout the remainder of the reign of Josiah and his attempts to reform Judah, Jeremiah will become increasingly distraught over the superficiality of these reforms among the leaders, priests and the people. “Jeremiah sees behind this façade and recognizes the falsity and the hypocrisy, the thin veneer of piety serving as a fig leaf for corruption and warped social values.”(49) When King Josiah dies in 609 BCE, while going out to confront Pharaoh Necho, Jeremiah’s observation of the shallowness of the reforms of Josiah bear their unfortunate fruit as the new king sets the nation on a very different course.
Part II deals with the reign of Johoiakim (609-598 BCE) and his pro-Egyptian regime. This is a time where Egypt experiences a renewal of power and influence. Egypt lays a heavy tariff on Judah, which Johoiakim passes onto the people of the land. “Jehoiakim strikes a winning combination: economic reliance on Egypt, spiritual and national reliance on the Temple, and a general atmosphere of compliance with the leader. What can go wrong?”(78) Jeremiah’s prophecy rails against all three of these items stating that reliance on Egypt will lead the king and his followers to their demise, that the temple is like the tabernacle at Shiloh that was destroyed by God after it was corrupted by the high priest’s sons, and the king and his loyalists will fall into the hands of Babylonia. Jeremiah finds himself struggling against the leaders of his nation, the priests and other prophets and is viewed as a traitor to the very people he is attempting to save from their coming doom. Jeremiah finds himself caught between the message of impending doom he feels compelled to pronounce and the persecution this pronouncement brings. The nation’s ability to rely on Egypt falters in 605 when Nebuchadnezzar begins his conquest, and Judah becomes subservient for three years, but in 601 when Egypt enjoys a brief resurgence Judah again sides with Egypt and rebels against Babylon. Jeremiah is able to see Babylon as the instrument of the Lord’s judgment and yet he still holds a single thread of hope that the people will repent and the terrible coming destruction of the Babylonians will be averted. Yet, in 597 Nebuchadnezzar in a brief campaign recaptures the rebellious cities of Judah the reign of Jehoiakim and the three month reign of his successor Jeconiah come to an end and the time between the two exiles begins under the Zedekiah, who was Josiah’s youngest son, after he swore loyalty to Babylon.
Binyamin Lau continues to masterfully tell the story of Jeremiah and the people of Judah in the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the final deportation of the Judean people as a punishment for breaching of their treaty with Babylon. King Zedekiah finds himself surrounded by those who have seized power in the leadership vacuum left by the Babylonians taking most of the previous leaders into exile in 597 BCE. When Babylon returns to the north in 594, Judah finds itself with the other nations in the area becoming a part of an Egypt led alliance. To the consternation of many of the leaders in the land as well as many other prophets, in particular Hananiah, Jeremiah continues to proclaim that the nation is to serve the King of Babylon and live and he passionately pleads for the city to turn from its course and avoid the destruction that is coming. Yet again the prophet’s words will fall on deaf ears. Even though King Zedekiah has some sympathy for Jeremiah and his prophesy the king finds himself powerless in the face of those who are leading the nation on a path of confrontation once again with Babylon. Even after Jeremiah’s words come true with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BCE, the people still refuse to pay attention to the prophet who for decades has tried to save the city and temple from this fate.
Jeremiah’s story is one of bitter disappointment. Throughout the story and prophecy of Jeremiah, Rabbi Lau is able to illuminate parallels in modern day Jerusalem. “The streets of Jerusalem still throng with false prophets who earnestly claim, ‘the tradition of our forefathers is in our hands; the Third Temple shall not be destroyed!’ Once again they seek to lull us into a sense of false security, to make us forget the grave responsibility we shoulder: to be worthy of this national home, the Jewish state.”(225) It is also very easy to make connections between the political and religious movements in modern day Israel and similar political and religious rhetoric in the United States. This is an insightful journey into the world of the prophet and illuminating in approaching not only Jeremiah but the world of the Hebrew Scriptures.