Jeremiah 36: The Consumed Scroll and The Indestructible Words

Orthodox Icon of the Prophet Jeremiah

Orthodox Icon of the Prophet Jeremiah

 

Jeremiah 36: 1-8 Perhaps They Will Turn

In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD:2 Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. 3 It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

 4 Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the LORD that he had spoken to him. 5 And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am prevented from entering the house of the LORD; 6 so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the LORD’s house you shall read the words of the LORD from the scroll that you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the people of Judah who come up from their towns. 7 It may be that their plea will come before the LORD, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the LORD has pronounced against this people.” 8 And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the LORD in the LORD’s house.

 

In a final plea for the attention of the people, Jeremiah is instructed to write down the words he has received from the Lord throughout his ministry so that they can be delivered in total to the people of Jerusalem and Judah. Jeremiah’s ministry has been a visual and oral one up until this point but we see a transition as the words of the Lord become written down so that they are not lost with the prophet. This is the dangerous move from proclamation to print, where the words given the prophet are collected and become scripture. We don’t know the form of exactly what Baruch will write down on dictation from Jeremiah, but in the waning days of King Jehoiakim and the independence of Judah perhaps there is one final hope that the words will be received and judgment can be averted.

For roughly forty years Jeremiah has been the prophet of the Lord, and for all that time he has been unheard by those with the power to change the course of the people. Yet, the Lord and the prophet still desire a turning, some glimmer of hope in some future reconciliation. The relationship cannot remain as it is, with the people placing their trust in the land, the city of Jerusalem, the Davidic king and the temple along with political alliances with Egypt and not living into their identity they were called to in their covenant with God. Things cannot remain how they are and so there is one cumulative reminder of the consequences of the path that lies ahead. The words once spoken are now written so that they can be heard and spoken again and again. Knowing the previous story perhaps it is a desperate gambit by the prophet with little chance of success, but the reality of the coming dread is such that every option must be exhausted before surrendering to the despair of the siege and desolation of the land and people.

As Walter Brueggemann talks about this text in his article “Haunting Book-Haunting People” this scroll, created through the fidelity of Jeremiah and Baruch and designed to evoke a massive change in the people while sounding like a threat is actually an act of grace. (Brueggemann, 2006, p. 133f) And this unique text, which is the only text in the Hebrew Scriptures that shows the process of moving from proclamation to text so that the haunting text can continue to bring its haunting message to us today. By this text of Jeremiah which has been handed down from generation to generation, often neglected and sometimes wrestled with invites us into the haunting relationship between God, the people and the prophet and in its own poetic way invites those willing to engage it into dialogue between God, the people, the leaders and we who receive it and either suppress or profess it.

Jeremiah 36: 9-19: A Final Hearing

 9 In the fifth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, in the ninth month, all the people in Jerusalem and all the people who came from the towns of Judah to Jerusalem proclaimed a fast before the LORD. 10 Then, in the hearing of all the people, Baruch read the words of Jeremiah from the scroll, in the house of the LORD, in the chamber of Gemariah son of Shaphan the secretary, which was in the upper court, at the entry of the New Gate of the LORD’s house.

            11 When Micaiah son of Gemariah son of Shaphan heard all the words of the LORD from the scroll, 12 he went down to the king’s house, into the secretary’s chamber; and all the officials were sitting there: Elishama the secretary, Delaiah son of Shemaiah, Elnathan son of Achbor, Gemariah son of Shaphan, Zedekiah son of Hananiah, and all the officials. 13 And Micaiah told them all the words that he had heard, when Baruch read the scroll in the hearing of the people. 14 Then all the officials sent Jehudi son of Nethaniah son of Shelemiah son of Cushi to say to Baruch, “Bring the scroll that you read in the hearing of the people, and come.” So Baruch son of Neriah took the scroll in his hand and came to them. 15 And they said to him, “Sit down and read it to us.” So Baruch read it to them. 16 When they heard all the words, they turned to one another in alarm, and said to Baruch, “We certainly must report all these words to the king.” 17 Then they questioned Baruch, “Tell us now, how did you write all these words? Was it at his dictation?” 18 Baruch answered them, “He dictated all these words to me, and I wrote them with ink on the scroll.” 19 Then the officials said to Baruch, “Go and hide, you and Jeremiah, and let no one know where you are.”

 

As King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon begins his campaigns and cities and empires begin to fall there is a gathering in Jerusalem and a time of fasting. It is into this time of fasting that Baruch, the scribe who has recorded the words of Jeremiah, enters the temple and proclaims the words to the people in the chamber of Gemariah. The words dictated by Jeremiah do fall initially on some sympathetic ears, first Micaiah the son of Gemariah (the son of the one whose chamber Baruch read from, probably indicating some sympathy for Jeremiah in advance) and then later in the king’s house by several of the named officials. Jeremiah, even though he had run afoul of the king was still valued by some within the royal court and once they confirm the origin of the scroll they decide that the king does need to hear the words given through Jeremiah and Baruch.

These officials know that these are dangerous words that will likely be ill received by the king, but they courageously are will both to bring news of these words to the king and to instruct Baruch and Jeremiah to go into hiding. The officials do not even know where Baruch and Jeremiah are, but the words themselves are so important that just as Micaiah brought word to them, now they feel compelled to bring word to the king.

The text is a threat to the status-quo, the trusting in Davidic lines, temple and land as well as alliances with Egypt which have been the strategy of King Jehoiakim’s reign. The words are a risk for Jeremiah, even more for Baruch, and now for these officials who now prepare to take this challenge to the king.

 

Jeremiah 36: 20-32 The Burning of the Scroll and the Enduring Word

 20 Leaving the scroll in the chamber of Elishama the secretary, they went to the court of the king; and they reported all the words to the king. 21 Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. 22 Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. 23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier. 24 Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments. 25 Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. 26 And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king’s son and Seraiah son of Azriel and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest the secretary Baruch and the prophet Jeremiah. But the LORD hid them.

27 Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 28 Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned. 29 And concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah you shall say: Thus says the LORD, You have dared to burn this scroll, saying, Why have you written in it that the king of Babylon will certainly come and destroy this land, and will cut off from it human beings and animals? 30 Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah: He shall have no one to sit upon the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night. 31 And I will punish him and his offspring and his servants for their iniquity; I will bring on them, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and on the people of Judah, all the disasters with which I have threatened them– but they would not listen.

            32 Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the secretary Baruch son of Neriah, who wrote on it at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah had burned in the fire; and many similar words were added to them.

 

The king mistakenly believes that if he can destroy the words of the text that the status quo can be maintained. Rather than engage the haunting words he destroys them, personally cutting them and throwing them into the fire where they are consumed. After the scroll is burned up, against the protests of Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah, the next command to his sons is to seek out Baruch and Jeremiah. Not only must the message be eliminated, the messengers must be silenced as well. Yet the word of the Lord is not so easily eliminated, it will continue its haunting presence. Eliminating the threatening words will not eliminate the armies of Babylon, and burning the text does not eliminate even it. Instead of reducing the words spoken through Jeremiah, dictated by Baruch now a new scroll is produce which also has many similar words added to it, and the judgment against Jehoiakim is particularly harsh. His line will come to an end in disgrace, and according to Jeremiah’s words he will not even be buried but left out in the open for his corpse to be consumed by the elements. These words, as haunting and inconvenient as they may be will not be ignored or eliminated.

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