Tag Archives: Babylonian Exile

Matthew 2: 13-23 Hearing Hope in Tragedy

Jean-Marie Pirot (aka Arcabas) The angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph in a Dream

Matthew 2: 13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This is a scripture shaped story. In ten short verses Matthew will reference two of the major events in the story of Israel and Judah: the Exodus narrative where God takes Israel out of its slavery in Egypt and the Babylonian exile, already highlighted by one of the major breaks in the genealogy in Matthew 1: 1-17. Matthew will adopt a practice used frequently throughout the bible using the language and imagery from one event and recasting it to bring additional light on the meaning of a current event. Matthew is not looking for prooftexts to prove a point but instead is using this recasting to shed additional light on a densely packaged story which is full of meaning.

Joseph, as in Matthew 1: 21-22, is once again approached in a dream by the angel of the Lord and twice in these ten verses the angel’s message in a dream will set Joseph, Mary and Jesus in motion on a path that will model the story of Israel in Genesis through Joshua. Joseph, like his namesake, will go down to Egypt but unlike the Joseph in the book of Genesis he is not going as one going into slavery but instead as a refugee fleeing the murderous policies of a paranoid king. Jesus has been linked to God, David, and here again he is linked to Israel and their story.

Scripture is again given a voice to interpret what is happening in this narrative when Hosea 11:1 is quoted: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea 11 taps into the central defining event for the Jewish people, the Exodus, and uses that event to engage the struggle of the people of Israel in the time before they are conquered by Assyria (722 BCE). In Hosea, God refuses to give up on this people even though they have abandoned God’s ways. Within this chapter in Hosea God proclaims that he will call them back from Assyria and Egypt and they will return to their homes. More than simply the remnant of Judah, in this story somehow all of Israel now has an opportunity to return. Egypt is also one of the major sites for diaspora Judaism and as Jesus, embodying Israel, goes to Egypt we also tap into Hosea’s hope that, “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.” (Hosea 11: 11)

In addition to tapping into the larger context of Hosea, the quotation of Hosea brings us into the larger narrative of the Exodus and this story will recast the Exodus narrative in some powerful ways. Within this echo of Exodus we see the king of Judea, Herod the Great, acting in the role of Pharaoh by ordering the death of infants who he fears will challenge his power. With Herod now being cast as Pharoah, Jesus now occupies the role of Moses who is saved from the murderous policies of a tyrant, and yet ironically this new Moses is saved by going to Egypt. The rhetorical effect of this is similar to the way the Civil Rights movement was able to use the way the United States adopted the Exodus narrative as their own in being the new Israel and instead prophetically cast the leaders who opposed the Civil Rights movement as embodying Egypt instead.

Francois-Joseph Naves, The Massacre of the Innocents (1824)

Knowing some of Herod the Great’s story may make the actions attributed to Herod in Matthew’s gospel understandable in his worldview and yet this story seems shocking to our modern ears. While the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is not recorded in any sources external to Matthew, I do believe it is consistent with not only Herod but also the violent nature of the ancient world. Bethlehem was a small town and the number of children killed would have been smaller than an event like Columbine or Sandy Hook in our times, yet for the people of Bethlehem (and Columbine and Sandy Hook and others) these children would become one more example of the terror that violence can bring into families and communities without notice. As humans we attempt to make sense of these stories of violence and Matthew attempts to do this by linking this prophetically to the reign of terror in Egypt. Herod in this story is not a ‘King of the Jews’ but is instead a new Pharaoh whose policies bring death to those he is to shepherd.

I think we also need to remember that the world at the time of Jesus was a violent place and that there were no news reporters to carry the violence to the broader world. In recent times we saw ISIS beheading people as a terrorist act and are rightly horrified, but I think it is worth remembering that in Jesus’ time beheading was a noble way to die, especially in light of crucifixion and other practices. The ancient world was a violent world and the death of innocents rarely makes it into recorded history. Yet, within the gospels we do see a willingness to embrace the prophetic voice that was willing to challenge those in power and in many ways by his very being Jesus becomes a challenge to the Herods of the world.

Scripture speaks for a second time in this section by quoting Jeremiah 31: 15, and with this quotation the additional frame of the Babylonian exile is introduced into the narrative. Rachel crying for her children would be particularly poignant for Bethlehem because it is the site where Rachel is buried according to Genesis 35: 19-20:

So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb which is there to this day.

Now this matriarch of the Jewish people which cried out at the at the loss of her children during the deportation to Babylon mourns with the mothers who have lost their children as a result of the actions of Herod. Now Herod who attempts to build his credentials as the King of Judea by building the temple is also framed as Nebuchadnezzar who is the destroyer of Jerusalem and the temple. Yet, within this particular choice in Jeremiah is the broader context of hope coming out of the destruction, Rachel’s weeping proceeds a prophesy of the end of the exile. As the next two verses of Jeremiah can state:

Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy;  there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country. Jeremiah 31: 16-17

The allusions and quotations of scripture in this chapter point to something larger that Matthew wants to communicate about who Jesus is and how he embodies Israel’s story. Matthew’s carefully constructed gospel wants us to understand through tapping into key portions of Israel’s story a bigger picture of who Jesus is and what he will mean for Israel and by extension for the rest of the world. As Richard B. Hays can describe Matthew as an interpreter of scripture:

Matthew is not merely looking for random Old Testament prooftexts that Jesus might somehow fulfill (as is sometimes suggested); rather, he is thinking about the specific shape of Israel’s story and linking Jesus’ life with key passages that promise God’s unbreakable redemptive love for his people. That is why Matthew’s comments on Herod’s slaughter of the children by selecting a citation from the same chapter in Jeremiah that also promises “a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (Jer 31:31) (Hays, 2016, p. 116)

O. Wesley Allen highlighted that Matthew modifies his normal word pattern when introducing a direct quotation from scripture. Normally Matthew will say that something happens ‘so that’ (Greek hina) but instead Matthew simply says “then (Greek tote) was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah.” For those who are familiar with the recurring pattern in scriptures it shouldn’t be surprising that God’s action to set people free is met by violence by those invested in the current order. Yet, even though this violence may be a response to God’s initiative that does not make it God’s will. The slaughter of the innocents may be in Matthew’s view a fulfillment of scripture but unlike the other places where scripture is quoted it doesn’t link this to divine causality. (Allen, 2013, p. 32)

Herod the Great’s death makes the return of Jesus and his family to Israel possible. Herod’s death doesn’t remove his family from the scene and Herod Archelaus (simply called Archelaus here) is reigning in Judea. We aren’t given any clues why Herod Archelaus would be perceived as a threat and his brother Herod Antipas (ruling in Galilee) was not, perhaps it was merely a return to Bethlehem that would have caused questions by those in power. Joseph continues to be guided by the angel of the Lord appearing to him in dreams and this places the family in Nazareth for the beginning of the Jesus’ adult story. Perhaps to answer the perception we see in the gospel of John voiced by Nathanael, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1: 46) Matthew includes this what final attribution to the prophets that Jesus will be called a Nazorean. Matthew is referencing the tradition of Nazorites who were set aside for the Lord as holy (see Numbers 6, both Samson and Samuel were Nazorites).

Even though Matthew will reference multiple pieces of scripture and allude to two major stories of the Jewish people to frame this passage he is also communicating that in Jesus, God is doing a new thing. The original texts will have their meaning broadened and expanded upon. As Anna Case-Winters can state,

For Matthew, new meaning break forth from these texts as God is doing a new thing. Matthew reimagines these texts, if you will, to make a theological claim that God is at work in all these happenings and is bringing to fulfilment what was promised of old. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 32)

Even though the Herods of the world may seem to be the ones who wield power in these texts, Matthew wants us to understand that God is at work in ways that may seem hidden, but which to a person familiar with the rhythms of scripture are familiar. God is speaking both through scripture, the angel of the Lord, through dreams and the stars in the heavens for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. The king of the Judeans may be acting as Pharaoh, but God has heard the cries of God’s people and even in this time to use Martin Luther’s words in a Mighty Fortress “this tyrant’s doomed to fail: God’s judgment must prevail! One little word shall triumph” (A Might Fortress is our God, verse 3 Fredrick H. Hedge translation)

Jeremiah 39: The City Falls

Jeremiah 39: 1-10 The Destruction of Jerusalem

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

In the ninth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem and besieged it; 2 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, on the ninth day of the month, a breach was made in the city. 3 When Jerusalem was taken, all the officials of the king of Babylon came and sat in the middle gate: Nergal-sharezer, Samgar-nebo, Sarsechim the Rabsaris, Nergal-sharezer the Rabmag, with all the rest of the officials of the king of Babylon. 4 When King Zedekiah of Judah and all the soldiers saw them, they fled, going out of the city at night by way of the king’s garden through the gate between the two walls; and they went toward the Arabah. 5 But the army of the Chaldeans pursued them, and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho; and when they had taken him, they brought him up to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, at Riblah, in the land of Hamath; and he passed sentence on him. 6 The king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah at Riblah before his eyes; also the king of Babylon slaughtered all the nobles of Judah. 7 He put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him in fetters to take him to Babylon. 8 The Chaldeans burned the king’s house and the houses of the people, and broke down the walls of Jerusalem. 9 Then Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard exiled to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained. 10 Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.

The city finally falls, the event which Jeremiah has foretold but also dreaded has finally occurred. Nebuchadrezzar’s army besieges the city of Jerusalem for a year and a half. The parallel telling of this event in 2 Kings 25 also relates, what we learned in the previous chapter of Jeremiah, that food had run out and that at the time the city wall is breached the people are beginning to starve. After a year and a half under siege this part of the narrative shows this final collapse happening with little resistance. The King Zedekiah and the remnants of the army and the officials flee by night, the officials of Babylon set up court in the gate of the city, and even in their fleeing we get the impression that Zedekiah and they are quickly overtaken as they attempt to flee across the Jordan river to Arabah. The punishment of the leaders is swift as the sons of the kin and the nobles of Judah, the leaders who had continued to push for resistance to Babylon, are killed when Nebuchdrezzar passes sentence in Hamath (Syria). Zedekiah is blinded and bound, most likely to be led back through the capitol of Babylon as a spoil of war to show how the might of Babylon has humiliated the Judeans who opposed them. In contrast to the first exile where the majority of the people are left in Judea, now this time Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, is charged with organizing a massive exile of those who survived the siege as well as those who fled and surrendered to Babylon. Only the poorest are left, these meek who inherit the earth, the pastures and the vineyards that were once owned by the powerful. Perhaps these are some of the slaves who were freed only to be brought immediately back into captivity (see Jeremiah 34), or those who suffered the loss of everything in the long costly war brought onto them by their leaders. Regardless, for the majority of the Judeans heading into exile it is a bitter pill to swallow. As Psalm 137 laments:

 By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
 On the willows there we hung up our harps
 For their our captors asked us for songs,
 And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall
How they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to the foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
 (Psalm 137)

The promise of Jerusalem, the temple, the Davidic dynasty have all failed as the people are marched into a foreign land as exiles. They will have to begin to rediscover who they are as the people of God, and what it means to be the chosen people without the land, a temple or a king. But for this moment they are entering a season of lament and grief. We know from earlier in Jeremiah hope will rise again, but in the midst of the desolation of despair the people may only be able to sings songs of lament and utter prayers of vengeance.

Jeremiah 39: 11-18 Protecting Jeremiah and Ebed-melech

11 King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon gave command concerning Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, saying, 12 “Take him, look after him well and do him no harm, but deal with him as he may ask you.” 13 So Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, Nebushazban the Rabsaris, Nergal-sharezer the Rabmag, and all the chief officers of the king of Babylon sent 14 and took Jeremiah from the court of the guard. They entrusted him to Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan to be brought home. So he stayed with his own people.

15 The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah while he was confined in the court of the guard: 16 Go and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian: Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to fulfill my words against this city for evil and not for good, and they shall be accomplished in your presence on that day. 17 But I will save you on that day, says the LORD, and you shall not be handed over to those whom you dread. 18 For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have trusted in me, says the LORD.

On the orders of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, Jeremiah is sought out by the officials present in Jerusalem for protection. Jeremiah is freed from his confinement in the court of the guard and placed under the care of Gedaliah who is left in charge of the devastated city and land. Jeremiah is protected, and perhaps for many of his own people this only furthers their conviction that he is a traitor, yet he is sheltered and protected in the midst of the destruction and allowed to remain with the Judean people in the land. Although we only hear the promise of protection to Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian who pulled Jeremiah out of the cistern in Jeremiah 38, he also is promised his life and protection. In contrast to King Zedekiah who heard Jeremiah’s message several times and did not listen and is forced to watch his sons killed and led to Babylon in chains, now this servant of the king who is not a Judean and is a eunuch does hear and inherits his life, the same promise that Jeremiah made again to the king in Jeremiah 38.  This is not a story where Jeremiah or probably Ebed-melech live happily ever after, but in the midst of the death that surrounds them they live and they endure in the midst of the destruction of the nation and city around them.

Jeremiah 29: A Letter to the Exiles and the Recurring False Prophets

Letter to the Exiles


Jeremiah 29
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.
10 For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
15 Because you have said, “The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,”– 16 Thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who live in this city, your kinsfolk who did not go out with you into exile: 17 Thus says the LORD of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be an object of cursing, and horror, and hissing, and a derision among all the nations where I have driven them, 19 because they did not heed my words, says the LORD, when I persistently sent to you my servants the prophets, but they would not listen, says the LORD. 20 But now, all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon, hear the word of the LORD:

The beginning of this chapter spends a long time situating when this letter is sent by royal courier to the people (predominantly the elites of Judean society) already in exile in Babylon after the first deportation in 597 BCE and the second invasion and massive deportation in 586 BCE. Here in the beginning of chapter 29 we can see some glimmers of hope for those already in Babylon. The Jewish people in Babylon now are charged with constructing their identity in the midst of exile, of getting on with their lives: planting gardens, building homes, getting married and having children for this will not be a short exile. They are to learn how to be the people of God as a minority culture in a very different culture. In their time they are to learn to embrace the exile as the place where God has placed them, that this is indeed from God and to oppose the exile is to oppose God. Also there is a hope in the long term for a restoration to their homeland, but the time is not near and certainly not now. For those already in exile Jeremiah writes a letter intending to bring comfort.
The Babylonian exile is a very productive time for the exiles, most scholars agree that this is when much of the Hebrew Bible reaches its final form. There are still books written after the exile, but being a conquered people in a foreign land caused the people to bring the traditions together to pass on their identity to their children and their children’s children. They became for the first time people of the book, rather than people of the land or oriented around the temple or the city of the Davidic dynasty. In particular these elites who are taken away in the first exile are the bearers of the hope for the future and, despite appearance to the contrary, are objects of God’s affection. Even in exile they are still the chosen people and they have a calling in the exile.
Even in exile they are to be a blessing to the nation they are exiled to. They have to learn how to be faithful to their identity as people of God, and that involves also seeking the well-being (shalom) of the city they are sent to. In contrast to the message they may be hearing from their own kin still in Jerusalem and Judah, they are bearers of God’s blessing. Those still in Judah and Jerusalem still have very dark days ahead, there is still more judgment before they can receive the consolation in the exile, but for those already in the exile they can begin the process of settling into their identity in the midst of the empire. Moving on with their lives in a new place, finding their new identity and holding fast to the covenant and promise that God intends for them.

More False Prophets

21 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: I am going to deliver them into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall kill them before your eyes. 22 And on account of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: “The LORD make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire,” 23 because they have perpetrated outrage in Israel and have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them; I am the one who knows and bears witness, says the LORD.
24 To Shemaiah of Nehelam you shall say: 25 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: In your own name you sent a letter to all the people who are in Jerusalem, and to the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, and to all the priests, saying, 26 The LORD himself has made you priest instead of the priest Jehoiada, so that there may be officers in the house of the LORD to control any madman who plays the prophet, to put him in the stocks and the collar. 27 So now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who plays the prophet for you? 28 For he has actually sent to us in Babylon, saying, “It will be a long time; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce.”
29 The priest Zephaniah read this letter in the hearing of the prophet Jeremiah. 30 Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 31 Send to all the exiles, saying, Thus says the LORD concerning Shemaiah of Nehelam: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, though I did not send him, and has led you to trust in a lie, 32 therefore thus says the LORD: I am going to punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants; he shall not have anyone living among this people to see the good that I am going to do to my people, says the LORD, for he has spoken rebellion against the LORD.

Even in the midst of this time between the exile we continue to see false prophets who will continue to encourage a false version of hope. Ahab, Zedekiah, and Shemaiah are the latest examples mentioned. Ahab and Zedekiah are mentioned at the end of the letter that begins the chapter while Shemaiah is mentioned in a second letter included in the chapter. The accusations against Zedekiah and Ahab also include personal accusations of morality as well (committing adultery with their neighbors’ wives) and while we will never know about what actually happened to these false prophets spoken of only here their punishment is one of particular horror (being roasted on the fire). Shemaiah once again tries to get Jeremiah punished for speaking words that would have been considered treasonous by many of his contemporaries. Jeremiah we see again at least has some who listen to him or respect him. Zephaniah reads to Jeremiah the letter and Jeremiah is captured again by the word of the Lord and utters condemnation against Shemaiah. These false messengers continue to confuse the people and allow them to hear the words that are more palatable and trust in them even when they are not true. In our own context there are many times I could point to where pundits or politicians or even religious leaders have obscured or overstated ideas that fit their view of the way things were or told people what they wanted to hear. But for those who claim the role of prophets their words are to come from God even when the message God has is one nobody seems to want to hear.

Jeremiah 24-Exile, Figs and Reversals


1 The LORD showed me two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the LORD. This was after King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the artisans, and the smiths, and had brought them to Babylon. 2 One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. 3 And the LORD said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.”
4 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 5 Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. 6 I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. 7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
8 But thus says the LORD: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat King Zedekiah of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who live in the land of Egypt. 9 I will make them a horror, an evil thing, to all the kingdoms of the earth– a disgrace, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. 10 And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they are utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.

This vision takes place in the time between the initial exile of 598 BCE and the final massive deportation of 587 BCE. In 598 BCE, when the Babylonians come and deal with the people of Judea and the city of Jerusalem without the Judeans being able to effectively oppose them they take the elite of the land into exile leaving Zedekiah to reign in place of the removed Jeconiah. For the elite taken into exile it seems like the ending of everything they know, but they are the basket of good figs. This is the same exile spoken of, for example, in the beginning of the book of Daniel:

3 Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. (Dan 1:3-4)

With the officials, the artisans and the smiths taken into exile with King Jeconiah, what remains to surround the newly appointed Zedekiah are those who have risen to fill the void of power left by the removal of the elite. As Binyamin Lau describes it:

Whereas the exiled leaders had the capacity for leadership, their replacements come from the dregs of society, seizing the leadership vacuum as an opportunity to accumulate power. Violence and aggression prevail as paupers become princes overnight. Might makes right. King Zedekiah, young, weak, and bankrupt, cannot control the situation. (Lau, 2013, p. 131)

To those in exile there is now a word of hope. With their homes, wealth, position and status gone now God will act on their behalf to bring them back, to plant and to give them a new heart. Perhaps in the exile they will again find what it means to be the people of God. But for those still in Judah, the new officials of Zedekiah, the city of Jerusalem and the people of the land the nightmare is not over. Zedekiah will be led once again into conflict with Babylon and Babylon’s answer will be decisive. At this time where the people remaining in the land probably look upon those in exile as cursed and themselves as blessed, Jeremiah points to the opposite reality. Their horror still remains to come, they are not yet ready to receive a word of hope. Their course will still rely upon Egypt rather than the Lord. Just as the Assyrians became the instrument of judgment for the northern kingdom of Israel according to the prophets of that time, Babylon is the instrument of God’s judgment for Jeremiah. To oppose Babylon is to oppose God’s will at this time. The baskets of figs, good and bad point to a reality that defies the reality the people are experiencing at the time. The first harvest of the people out of the land become the first-ripe figs and in Jeremiah’s world of absolutes those left on the tree have spoiled and the time when they are swept away is quickly approaching.

Jeremiah 22: Justice, the King and Judgment

Justice and the Covenant

Gustav Dore, Jeremiah Preaching (1865)

Gustav Dore, Jeremiah Preaching (1865)

1 Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, 2 and say: Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David– you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. 3 Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. 4 For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. 5 But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation. 6 For thus says the LORD concerning the house of the king of Judah:
You are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon;
but I swear that I will make you a desert, an uninhabited city.
7 I will prepare destroyers against you, all with their weapons;
they shall cut down your choicest cedars and cast them into the fire.
8 And many nations will pass by this city, and all of them will say one to another, “Why has the LORD dealt in this way with that great city?” 9 And they will answer, “Because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD their God, and worshiped other gods and served them.”
10 Do not weep for him who is dead, nor bemoan him;
weep rather for him who goes away, for he shall return no more to see his native land.

Two conflicting views of reality are coming into conflict between the prophetic and the royal ideologies of the day. Jeremiah’s worldview comes out of the Mosaic and particular the Deuteronomic covenant where the covenant is conditional, if the people live into the vision that God has set before them they will be bless and if they do not they shall be cursed. For example the structure of Deuteronomy 28 illustrates this well:
If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; 2all the blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey your God:….
But if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you:
Deuteronomy 28: 1,2,15
And the prophetic voice interprets these obligations primarily not in terms of cultic actions but in terms of living in justice/righteousness (justice and righteousness are the same word families in both Hebrew and Greek). In contrast the royal ideology views God’s commitment as unconditional, so long as there is a Davidic king and a temple God will not forsake God’s people. The prophet Jeremiah tries again and again to call the people and the rulers back to the vision of justice and righteousness. They are charged again to not shed innocent blood, to care for the weakest of the society, the widows and orphans, and their success is conditional upon their living out of this justice. In contrast to the desire to accumulate more and more wealth among the elite as a way of securing their position, Jeremiah points to the practice of justice and righteousness as a condition for their security which ultimately comes from God. Numerous passages throughout the prophets echo this sentiment, perhaps one of the most well known being from Amos:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5: 24

The King Of No Account

Vultures around a Dead Donkey

Vultures around a Dead Donkey

11 For thus says the LORD concerning Shallum son of King Josiah of Judah, who succeeded his father Josiah, and who went away from this place: He shall return here no more, 12 but in the place where they have carried him captive he shall die, and he shall never see this land again.
13 Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages;
14 who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion.
15 Are you a king because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well.
Is not this to know me? says the LORD.
17 But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.
18 Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” or “Alas, sister!” They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, lord!” or “Alas, his majesty!” 19 With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried– dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem.
20 Go up to Lebanon, and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan;
cry out from Abarim, for all your lovers are crushed.
21 I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said,
“I will not listen.” This has been your way from your youth,
for you have not obeyed my voice.
22 The wind shall shepherd all your shepherds,
and your lovers shall go into captivity;
then you will be ashamed and dismayed because of all your wickedness.
23 O inhabitant of Lebanon, nested among the cedars,
how you will groan when pangs come upon you, pain as of a woman in labor!
24 As I live, says the LORD, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off 25 and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But they shall not return to the land to which they long to return.
28 Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot, a vessel no one wants?
Why are he and his offspring hurled out and cast away in a land that they do not know?
29 O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!
30 Thus says the LORD: Record this man as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah.

Much of the ire of the prophets is directed at the kings, and we need to remember that this is a time much different from our own. In an age where the vast majority of the population was illiterate and relied on the kings and the elites of the society to establish the systems of justice that the society operated within. As Brueggeman accurately states, “The conduct of the king is decisive for the weal or woe of the entire social system.” (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 194) and so here at the end of the Davidic monarchy, at the point where the elites are being taken into exile, including King Jehoiakim and his son Jeconiah (here referred to as Coniah) who is contrasted to his well respected father/grandfather Josiah. He is of no account, he will not have the honors he desires, instead of an honorable death Jeremiah declares he will have the death of a donkey—simply thrown beyond the gates. God is done with Jeconiah, ready to cast him off. In contrast to Josiah who rebuilt the temple, his son and grandson are accused with surrounding themselves with luxury far greater. This is not a new critique, it goes at least as far back as Solomon when the amount of resources placed into the temple is compared with the amount of time and resources that go into the construction of Solomon’s houses. Yet in contrast to Jeremiah’s words at the end of this chapter about his being recorded childless, when the people return to Jerusalem under the Persian empire it will be Zerubabbel, the grandson of Jeconiah will be leading the people home. The grandson of the one who if he was a signet ring on the LORD’s finger he would be cast off will experience the reversal of being the signet ring that is put back on after the exile is over.

On that day, says the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the LORD, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the LORD of hosts. Haggai 2: 24

And the harsh words of Jeremiah about the type of death Jehoiakim (or Jehoiachin) would receive seem also not to come to pass as the ending of 2 Kings points to:

27 In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, King Evil-merodach of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, released King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison; 28 he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes. Every day of his life he dined regularly in the king’s presence. 30 For his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, a portion every day, as long as he lived. 2 Kings 25: 27-30

Jeremiah 21: The Kingdom Laid Low


Jeremiah 21

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur son of Malchiah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, saying, 2 “Please inquire of the LORD on our behalf, for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon is making war against us; perhaps the LORD will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done, and will make him withdraw from us.”

 3 Then Jeremiah said to them: 4 Thus you shall say to Zedekiah: Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I am going to turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls; and I will bring them together into the center of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence.

 7 Afterward, says the LORD, I will give King Zedekiah of Judah, and his servants, and the people in this city– those who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine– into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, into the hands of those who seek their lives. He shall strike them down with the edge of the sword; he shall not pity them, or spare them, or have compassion.

 8 And to this people you shall say: Thus says the LORD: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. 9 Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. 10 For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the LORD: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.

                11 To the house of the king of Judah say: Hear the word of the LORD, 12 O house of David! Thus says the LORD:

Execute justice in the morning,

and deliver from the hand of the oppressor

anyone who has been robbed,

or else my wrath will go forth like fire,

and burn, with no one to quench it,

because of your evil doings.

                13 See, I am against you, O inhabitant of the valley,

                O rock of the plain, says the LORD;

you who say, “Who can come down against us,

or who can enter our places of refuge?”

14 I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, says the LORD;

I will kindle a fire in its forest, and it shall devour all that is around it.

A little context helps to make sense of this passage. So many times people had not wanted to hear Jeremiah’s words but now the king sends Passhur, a different Passhur from the previous chapter, and Zephaniah to seek the prophet’s words. King Zedekiah was appointed in the time between the two exiles as a puppet king of the Nebuchadrezzar, a child of Josiah was left to rule over a bankrupt kingdom with most of its leaders taken into exile into Babylon after the first time the Babylonians conquered the city, and as Rabbi Lau paints the picture

Whereas the exiled leaders had the capacity for leadership, their replacements come from the dregs of society, seizing the leadership vacuum as an opportunity to accumulate power. Violence and aggression prevails as paupers become princes overnight. (Lau, 2013, p. 131)

In the nine years between 597 and 586 BCE the majority of the people of the land remain in Judea, but there are many who long for Judea’s former status as an independent nation. In 594 BCE there is a regional summit of the nations in the region in which the leadership sets a pro-Egypt and anti-Babylonian policy. When Judea begins to delay making its payments of dues to the Babylonian empire they are slow to respond, trying to resolve things diplomatically, but by 588 BCE it is clear to the Babylonians that more drastic measures are called for and they launch a punitive campaign against Judah. Every hope seems dashed, the support they desired from Egypt has not been delivered, the Babylonians are rolling over the fortified cities to the north of Jerusalem and nothing seems to be stopping their advance, so Zedekiah sends to Jeremiah in a last gasp of hope.

This is the time immediately before the final exile in 586 BCE the king and his entourage see the writing on the wall and hope for a rewrite, but God is not giving them the answer they seek. There is no undoing the bad decisions of the past, the ways they have trusted in their own strength or their alliances with other nations and not in God and no eleventh hour return is going to stay the consequences of their actions at this point. Even beyond surrendering the people to the consequences of their own actions, God is against the people at this point. The only way out the prophet gives is surrender, to abandon the city and beg for the mercy of the Babylonians. There is a way to life, but it leads through the death of all that is known before. The last sprout of the Davidic line of kings is about to be chopped down, the city left as a waste and the people of the land will soon be landless. They are entering the time of broken dreams and hopes were all that is to be seen in the immediate future is desolation and despair. This is not the end of the story, but it is the hell that the people and the prophet will endure in their immediate future and their only hope is that, as in ages past, their God will look down and see their oppression in a foreign land and bring them out once again with a mighty hand.

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Jeremiah 16: A Vision of Resurrection, But Only Through Death

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn 1630

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn 1630

The word of the LORD came to me: 2 You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place. 3 For thus says the LORD concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: 4 They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall become food for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth.
5 For thus says the LORD: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament, or bemoan them; for I have taken away my peace from this people, says the LORD, my steadfast love and mercy. 6 Both great and small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them; there shall be no gashing, no shaving of the head for them. 7 No one shall break bread for the mourner, to offer comfort for the dead; nor shall anyone give them the cup of consolation to drink for their fathers or their mothers. 8 You shall not go into the house of feasting to sit with them, to eat and drink. 9 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to banish from this place, in your days and before your eyes, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.
10 And when you tell this people all these words, and they say to you, “Why has the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? What is the sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?” 11 then you shall say to them: It is because your ancestors have forsaken me, says the LORD, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law; 12 and because you have behaved worse than your ancestors, for here you are, every one of you, following your stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me. 13 Therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your ancestors have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.
14 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” 15 but “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors.
16 I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. 17 For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. 18 And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.
19 O LORD, my strength and my stronghold,
my refuge in the day of trouble,
to you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say:
Our ancestors have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.
20 Can mortals make for themselves gods? Such are no gods!
21 “Therefore I am surely going to teach them, this time I am going to teach them my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the LORD.”
This is a really harsh passage, and there have been a number of these harsh passages in the book and in the life of Jeremiah. Here Jeremiah is commanded not to share in the joy of others in the community, not to have the joy of a wife or family, but to live in preparation for the coming destruction. He is a contrast to the people around him, and his life of sorrow is a message to the surrounding world in the midst of its feasting and celebration. It is a hard life as a prophet, a life that no one would choose on their own if they knew what it would entail. Jeremiah will suffer, and perhaps not having a family prevents the deeper suffering of seeing the ones you love wounded by the convictions you are called to live out of, yet this is a call to a very lonely life and profession. Yet, he is the bearer of a message of the death of not only an age, but of people: of families and friends, of a way of life, of the world as it is known. It is a death so profound that it overwhelms the past stories that made the people who they are and strips away all the things that held the community together.
It is a time of death, but in the middle of this chapter we also see the glimmer of a resurrection. For the new covenant between God and God’s people to come to light the current relationship has to die. For something truly new to be born something old is having to give way. The people who have trusted in Kings, in land, in the Temple and the temple cult are about to have all these things stripped away and as exiles in a foreign land only then will they refind who they are. The promised new identity will be so strong that no longer will they point to the Exodus as their defining story but rather the regathering of the people after the Babylonian Exile as God brings them home from all the places they have been.
Yet the passage closes again with the death and with the fishers and hunters who are seeking out the people. Much as the narratives at the end of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) sometimes called the Olivet Discourses point to a similar seeking:
Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and the one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. (Matthew 24: 40f)
And I think Jesus is also pointing towards the coming destruction of the city and temple that will come in the Jewish War around 70 CE. Yet Jeremiah continues to wrestle with God and enters once more into the language of lament in 19-20 hoping and praying for a merciful turn, yet perhaps God sees that it is only through death that a resurrection will be possible, only through exile that the people can return to their new home, and only through the loss of the old relationship that a new relationship can be born, and only through the loss of these idols (or things that the people have placed their trust in) that they can once again see the living God. As Isaiah states:
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots. (Isaiah 11:1)
Without making the too quick jump to Christ, that many Christians naturally make with this passage, let us also consider that for Jeremiah and Isaiah who would see the house of Jesse, the line of David kings cut off and reduced to a stump, that it would take the death of this line before the people could see new life. There is no avoiding the harshness and the pain of this passage, but without the hope of new life, resurrection or the shoot that comes out of the stump; without the hope of the return from the exile that will outshine the remembrance of the journey to the promised land from Egypt-without these things the journey into the loneliness and brokenness that Jeremiah and the people will encounter is senseless hell. It only is bearable in the hope that God will once again create life out of death.

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Review of Jeremiah: The Fate of A Prophet by Binyamin Lau

Jeremiah the Fate fo a Prophet

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.

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The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 3b: The Exile, Reconstructing Identity-Narrative, Practice and Hope

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage that they bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfares of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29. 4-7 NRSV

Even when the world as you know it ends, life still goes on, and we have to make sense of the conflict, the struggle and our place within it.  The communal memory becomes important, the stories parents have told their children, the history of families. In the midst of competing narratives what is the story that one can identify with? With the loss of the Davidic monarchy, the temple, the land of their ancestors the people did something amazing, they recast their identity.  They dug deep into their narrative, they began bringing together their stories, and in fact much of the Old Testament is brought together at this point. Stories of creation and exodus begin to be the patterns in which the present is made sensible and the community begins to come up with answers to the hardest question, “why did this happen?” They don’t come up with just one answer, they come up with many. They bring together their stories and the Torah (typically translated into English as law, but it is a term that is much more than what we understand as law in our context) begins to be center of their life.  Practice and story come together to bind together this community in exile.

This does not mean that everyone agrees, there is not a central authorizing authority for the narrative at this point, it is constructed mainly by the remnant of the elite (everyone else would have been illiterate at this point) from both the priestly and prophetic side. Some of the central ideas to emerge include:

Justice: a sense of living in harmony (shalom) with God’s desire for the way things are to be structured in society. This includes a strong sense of economic justice, compassion for the widows, orphan, immigrant, and the dispossessed. It is from this vision that many prophets operate out of, and this is a central image for the prophetic hope. The new Jerusalem, the new Israel is to be a place of justice where the nations around can look and say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 3b, NRSV) and within God’s plan the nations will stream to Jerusalem.

Purity/Holiness: For us there is often a tension between Purity/Holiness and Justice, but it was not necessarily seen that way by the Jewish people.  Especially for priests there are practices that are to be done to prevent the contamination of unholiness from infecting them as a people and making them repulsive to the holiness of God. It also becomes a powerful way of distinguishing between themselves as a Hebrew people and the nations around them who are the Gentiles, the unclean ones.  This tends to be more of a priestly focus and there are conflicts between which will dominate going forward, but at the root both justice and holiness are practices which distinguish them from the hostile surrounding culture.

With these two distinctive directions emerges a new strand of a hope for a new beginning, a new temple, a New Jerusalem, a new anointed (and Davidic) king, a messiah.  Wrapped up within the memory of the stories of creation and the exodus of the people from Egypt hope springs forth of a return home and a new beginning:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make away in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people who I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. Isaiah 43.18-21

2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55, which reflects the time of preparation for the return home, while Isaiah 1-39 deals with the time before the exile) in particular is full of this vibrant hope, along with other voices.  Empires rise and empires fall, and a generation later Babylon falls to Persia (modern day Iran) and Cyrus (who Isaiah interestingly calls Messiah/Christ-same word in Hebrew/Greek) makes possible the beginning of a return home.  Their stories and practices have maintained their identity and given them hope of a new beginning. With the return to Jerusalem, the land, and the possibility of reconstructing the temple comes yet another transition.  It is to that transition that we turn next.

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The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 3a: The Exile, the Crisis of Collapse

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. In the willows there we hung up our harps.For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. 

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said,

 “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!   Psalm 137 NRSV

In 721 BCE, after roughly 200 years of separation from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Northern Kingdom Israel falls to the Assyrian Empire (which has its origins in the Northwestern Part of modern day Iraq) and the Northern Kingdom is effectively absorbed into the Assyrian nation.  Somehow Judah holds on, even though it becomes completely surrounded by the Assyrian Empire.  Empires come and go, and power shifts to the Babylonian Empire (which has its origins in modern day Southern Iraq) without going into the bloody details: Jerusalem falls, the temple is destroyed, the Davidic monarchy effectively ends and the people of Judah are taken into exile or captivity in Babylon.  The loss of king and temple, as well as the land cause a crisis of authority which leads to one of the most constructive and important periods in Judaism.

The loss of home is catastrophic, it leads to a ton of questions about the future and there may not be any good answers at that point.  The closest cinematic example I could come up with was the loss of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof where families try to make the best of their coming exile, belittling what they are leaving behind-and yet families are broken apart, scattered across the world, many will never see each other again.

Something as catastrophic to not only the physical well-being but also to the communal consciousness can lead to several outcomes, many of which do emerge in this time. One response of the conquered is to assimilate with the conqueror, to align oneself with the victor, to adopt their values and practices and to set aside at least a portion of one’s previous identity to become a part of something different.  This is the perceived response of the Northern Kingdom by the Southern Kingdom-they stay on their land, intermarry with the Assyrians, and what emerges will be a hybrid people-no longer really Jewish, already separated from the Davidic monarchy and the temple hundreds of years before they become the other…the Samaritan (yes this is where those Samaritans that Jesus runs into in the New Testament come from).  But to be fair, a large number of the Judeans also assimilate into Babylon, only a small portion of the Judean people will return to their homeland at the end of the exile, most will remain dispersed throughout the nations.

In the lead up to the exile, the prophetic voice becomes very harsh in its critique of the monarchy, temple, the lack of economic justice within the nation, and the perceived idolatry of the shepherds of the nation.  This is the time where the first parts of Isaiah, much of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and many of the Minor Prophets become active in the memory of the people. The prophetic voice leads the way pointing to the ways in which kings and priests, throne and temple have not only failed as sources of authority but are at the very heart of the crisis viewed as a judgment from the LORD.  The prophets announce condemnation for the shepherds (the leaders, the authority in throne and temple) as one example among many:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings: but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you ruled them.  So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd: and scattered wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. Ezekiel 34.1-6 NRSV

 Instead of coming to believe that somehow their God is weaker than the gods of the Assyrians or the Babylonians, something amazing happens in the prophetic imagination (to use Walter Brueggemann’s keen words) and they begin to understand the transitions and the conflict around them as a part of God’s work—that behind Assyrian and Babylonian is the Lord of hosts (literally the Lord of armies-typically we think of this as heavenly armies, but I am beginning to think that in there is something more earthly to this term than often given credit). The coming destruction is a judgment particularly on the leaders, but also within all this death is the chance for something new: a fresh start, a redefinition, a chance to redefine and re-imagine what it means to be the chosen people.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.  He led me around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord. Ezekiel 37.1-6 NRSV

The prophetic voice will help the people re-imagine a new way forward, a way that is so critical to the way we understand things that we need to take some time with it.  Hope will not die, in fact it will be reborn in a new and powerful way and the people will understand themselves as a chosen people, but what that means takes a dramatic turn in the exile.  To that we shall turn next.

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