Athur Kacker, By the Waters of Babylon (1888)
Jeremiah 44: 1-14 Forty Years and Nothing Changed
The word that came to Jeremiah for all the Judeans living in the land of Egypt, at Migdol, at Tahpanhes, at Memphis, and in the land of Pathros, 2 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: You yourselves have seen all the disaster that I have brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Look at them; today they are a desolation, without an inhabitant in them, 3 because of the wickedness that they committed, provoking me to anger, in that they went to make offerings and serve other gods that they had not known, neither they, nor you, nor your ancestors. 4 Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, “I beg you not to do this abominable thing that I hate!” 5 But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their wickedness and make no offerings to other gods. 6 So my wrath and my anger were poured out and kindled in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; and they became a waste and a desolation, as they still are today.
7 And now thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel: Why are you doing such great harm to yourselves, to cut off man and woman, child and infant, from the midst of Judah, leaving yourselves without a remnant? 8 Why do you provoke me to anger with the works of your hands, making offerings to other gods in the land of Egypt where you have come to settle? Will you be cut off and become an object of cursing and ridicule among all the nations of the earth? 9 Have you forgotten the crimes of your ancestors, of the kings of Judah, of their wives, your own crimes and those of your wives, which they committed in the land of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 10 They have shown no contrition or fear to this day, nor have they walked in my law and my statutes that I set before you and before your ancestors.The word that came to Jeremiah for all the Judeans living in the land of Egypt, at Migdol, at Tahpanhes, at Memphis, and in the land of Pathros, 2 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: You yourselves have seen all the disaster that I have brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Look at them; today they are a desolation, without an inhabitant in them, 3 because of the wickedness that they committed, provoking me to anger, in that they went to make offerings and serve other gods that they had not known, neither they, nor you, nor your ancestors. 4 Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, “I beg you not to do this abominable thing that I hate!” 5 But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their wickedness and make no offerings to other gods. 6 So my wrath and my anger were poured out and kindled in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; and they became a waste and a desolation, as they still are today.
11 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am determined to bring disaster on you, to bring all Judah to an end. 12 I will take the remnant of Judah who are determined to come to the land of Egypt to settle, and they shall perish, everyone; in the land of Egypt they shall fall; by the sword and by famine they shall perish; from the least to the greatest, they shall die by the sword and by famine; and they shall become an object of execration and horror, of cursing and ridicule. 13 I will punish those who live in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, 14 so that none of the remnant of Judah who have come to settle in the land of Egypt shall escape or survive or return to the land of Judah. Although they long to go back to live there, they shall not go back, except some fugitives.
The book of Jeremiah really doesn’t have just one ending but three, one coming in chapter 45, one at the end of 51 at the conclusion of the judgments on the nations and then chapter 52 gives a final ending narrating what happens back in Babylon. Maybe this reflect the unresolved nature of the people and their relationship with God in the light of the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem, the kingdom of Judea, the Davidic line of kings, the temple and all these markers of identity that made them the people of the LORD. But as we plummet towards the end of the story of the last remaining group not in Babylon, a group that once sought Jeremiah’s word and now rather than a small remnant we find settlements in three cities and perhaps a larger emigration to Egypt after the confusion of the last several years. It is a group that has already heard and ignored Jeremiah’s words that their actions of turning to Egypt will mean famine, the sword and pestilence. In the midst of this refugee group in Egypt we see Jeremiah dealing with some of the same issues as the beginning of his ministry.
Forty years earlier, when Josiah was king and led a reformation of the temple and worship in Jerusalem and turned the people back to the LORD and away from the practices of adopting the customs and worship of the Assyrians now returns again as they encounter Egypt and its lifestyle, culture and religions. As Benyamin Lau describes it:
Jeremiah wanders around his people in shock. All the reformations of his beloved Josiah are instantly forgotten. The idolatry he had witnessed in his childhood, the legacy of Manasseh, has been resurrected in a different form. He finds himself back where he started forty years earlier, only now he is weary, broken, and drained of all hope. For the last time he summons the strength to warn the people against going astray in Egypt to learn from the sins of their forefathers. (Lau, 2013, p. 216)
At stake are different readings of history and the times. Jeremiah reads the events of the past in light of the LORD’s judgment on the people for turning away from the covenant, law, decrees and worship of the LORD. The group of people who are gathered together one last time to hear the prophet’s final recorded words to them read the events of the last several years in a different light.
Jeremiah 44: 15-23 Different Readings of Reality
15 Then all the men who were aware that their wives had been making offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: 16 “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we are not going to listen to you. 17 Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. 18 But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.” 19 And the women said, “Indeed we will go on making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her; do you think that we made cakes for her, marked with her image, and poured out libations to her without our husbands’ being involved?”
20 Then Jeremiah said to all the people, men and women, all the people who were giving him this answer: 21 “As for the offerings that you made in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, you and your ancestors, your kings and your officials, and the people of the land, did not the LORD remember them? Did it not come into his mind? 22 The LORD could no longer bear the sight of your evil doings, the abominations that you committed; therefore your land became a desolation and a waste and a curse, without inhabitant, as it is to this day. 23 It is because you burned offerings, and because you sinned against the LORD and did not obey the voice of the LORD or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his decrees, that this disaster has befallen you, as is still evident today.”
The people answer Jeremiah’s prophecy with a very different reading of reality. From their perspective, prior to Jeremiah’s prophecies, prior to the reformation of Josiah and under the reign of Manasseh forty years ago things were pretty good. The people had adopted a pro-Assyrian policy, adopted their customs and practices and along with that portions of their religious practice. Until that time, in the memory of the people, things went well for Judah. After Josiah’s death at the hands of Egypt and the rise of the Babylonian empire, while they had ceased worshipping the Assyrian gods/goddesses (although apparently the remembrance of the practice and probably the practices themselves lingered). The queen of heaven probably referred to Astarte, a fertility goddess but could also refer here in Egypt to Isis, but somehow there is an amalgamation between the worship of the LORD the God of Israel and this other deity. The people defiantly resist Jeremiah, claiming ‘we will go on making offerings.’
It is easy to imagine the allure of the culture and worship in Egypt as well as the practices from the past when times seemed easier and more secure being very attractive to the people. It’s also not hard to imagine the allure of a fertility cult at any point in society. Yet, in the midst of these final words between the people and Jeremiah we see the people interpreting reality in light of their prosperity of the past while doing these practices and Jeremiah seeing the judgment of the recent past in light of these practices. Judaism probably was not as monotheistic throughout its history prior to the exile as it became when it emerged again from the exile in Babylon. Yet in the book of Jeremiah this is a new low point, the people feel no need to apologize for their actions or cover them up. They are claiming a new identity in the new land, they are choosing to no longer be the people of the LORD. Perhaps this is that moment where something so drastic has happened that the parent has disowned the child and this is the counter story to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Regardless for this portion of the exiles, who disobeyed Jeremiah’s prophetic words against going to Egypt and now are adopting new practices in this new land the dissolution in nearly complete.
Byzantine Fresca of Joshua from Hosias Loukas Monastery in Boetian, Greece
Jeremiah 44: 24-30: Choose This Day Who You Will Serve
24 Jeremiah said to all the people and all the women, “Hear the word of the LORD, all you Judeans who are in the land of Egypt, 25 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: You and your wives have accomplished in deeds what you declared in words, saying, ‘We are determined to perform the vows that we have made, to make offerings to the queen of heaven and to pour out libations to her.’ By all means, keep your vows and make your libations! 26 Therefore hear the word of the LORD, all you Judeans who live in the land of Egypt: Lo, I swear by my great name, says the LORD, that my name shall no longer be pronounced on the lips of any of the people of Judah in all the land of Egypt, saying, ‘As the Lord GOD lives.’ 27 I am going to watch over them for harm and not for good; all the people of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall perish by the sword and by famine, until not one is left. 28 And those who escape the sword shall return from the land of Egypt to the land of Judah, few in number; and all the remnant of Judah, who have come to the land of Egypt to settle, shall know whose words will stand, mine or theirs! 29 This shall be the sign to you, says the LORD, that I am going to punish you in this place, in order that you may know that my words against you will surely be carried out: 30 Thus says the LORD, I am going to give Pharaoh Hophra, king of Egypt, into the hands of his enemies, those who seek his life, just as I gave King Zedekiah of Judah into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, his enemy who sought his life.”
At the end of a very different story in the book of Joshua, Joshua presents the people with a choice:
Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24: 14f)
At the end of Jeremiah the people have made a choice, and it is a different choice. Every action has consequences in the world of Jeremiah, but Jeremiah has played his part and done his job. Jeremiah is finished with this people. “By all means, keep your vows and make your libations!” but the consequence of this choice is that the people are no longer to use the name of the LORD. They are no longer Israel, or Judah without their relationship to the God of Israel. Once again the words come prophesying the war, famine, and disease that will reduce the people in Egypt greatly. These words are followed up by a series of events that unfold in the near future when Pharoah Hophra is killed in a rebellion in 569 BCE and then Nebuchadrezzar invades in 568/67 BCE shattering the illusion of the safety of the Egyptian empire. (Elizabeth Actemeir, et. al., 1994, p. VI: 874) From the brokenhearted prophet there is one more word of promise not for the people but for Baruch as the story closes and then inhales for a final scream of judgment against the nations. Light will re-emerge, there will be a hope for the future but it will not be seen by those in Egypt, nor quickly by those in Babylon. The Judean refugees in Babylon will go through a long process of reconstructing their identity as a people no longer identified by land, the temple and its worship or the Davidic king. Now they must begin the long process of gathering their stories, figuring out who they are and imagining a new future for themselves and their LORD.