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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Jeremiah - Introduction

The book of Jeremiah was written for people in the throes of suffering. A historical tragedy underlies the book. In the sixth century BCE, Babylon invaded the nation of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem. The political structure of the country collapsed and, after resistance broke out, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. Accusation, anguish, and grief run through Jeremiah, but hope and promises of a new future appear as well. The book is an honest, artistic, and sometimes chaotic response to the collapse of the nation during and after the invasion. It seeks to help the community survive that tragedy by retelling it, interpreting it, and imagining a world beyond it.

The book of Jeremiah gathers together a complex collection of poems, stories, and sermons associated with the prophet * Jeremiah as speaker and actor. A quick review of the book reveals a mixture of prose narrative * and poetry. The first chapter alone, for example, contains a brief prose introduction ( 1.1–3 ), a poem in which God and Jeremiah speak to one another ( 1.4–10 ), followed by a further prose narrative that describes Jeremiah's visions ( 1.11–19 ). The poetry is largely made up of prophetic oracles. Oracles are poems of judgment and accusation, and sometimes of healing, spoken by a prophet on behalf of God. There are liturgical poems, laments * by Jeremiah, by God, and by the people. The prose passages include stories about Jeremiah and sermons attributed to Jeremiah. These various literary types are scattered about in the book, except for a few obvious groupings of similar material such as the Oracles against the Nations (chs. 46–51 ). Both the variety of literary types and their apparent lack of order make reading and interpreting the book difficult.

In the past, scholars have explained this literary disarray as the result of a long process of writing. For most of the twentieth century, interpreters thought that the book contained several levels of material deriving from different historical periods. First was the poetry, thought to be Jeremiah's own words, delivered orally to Judahites in the time before the Exile * in 587 BCE. To this were added stories about Jeremiah recorded by his companion Baruch. Next came sermons that are assigned to Jeremiah but were thought to have come from a later writer, perhaps from a group influenced by the theology and language of the book of Deuteronomy. The value of this theory about the writing of the book is that it explained some difficulties of reading. The book does not move in order because poems, stories, and sermons from different times and places were added to each other without narrative intention. Interpreters who held this view were interested in the history behind each story or poem rather than how the literature fit together.

In a modification of this theory, one commentator proposed that the book was composed through a process that resembles a snowball rolling down a hill. To a core collection of Jeremiah's poems were added more poems, stories, and sermons by later followers of the prophet. From this perspective, little coherence can be found in the book. But more recently, scholars have begun to find order that is more poetic than chronological or thematic. This coherence or unity appears in images, metaphors, * and the interplay of voices.

The book is like a conversation among many people as they struggle to survive the invasion and interpret their situation. Besides the voice of Jeremiah, there are other literary characters or voices in the book. Speeches are assigned to the people, to figures like Baruch, Jeremiah's companion, to the nations, and to the city of Jerusalem, which is portrayed as a woman called “daughter Zion.” The most frequent speaker—indeed, the most important and dominant voice—is God.

The book divides into two major sections or “books”: chs. 1–25 and 26–52 . Within these two larger parts are smaller literary divisions.

As may be obvious from the brief outline of the book, the material contained in it cannot be reduced to a few isolated themes. Instead, there are a number of interwoven themes that appear, fade, and reappear. These include dramatic accusations of the nation for its sins, poetic portrayal of the military battle that will destroy them, accusation of breaking the covenant relation with God, instructions about how to survive the disaster, and promises that God will ultimately reverse their circumstances and turn their suffering to joy.

The book's primary theological concern, however, is to defend God from accusations of injustice. People in the ancient world believed that if disaster occurred, it must be because God or the gods caused it. The book of Jeremiah tries to show that God was not unjust in punishing Israel for its sins. The historical collapse of the nation and the destruction of Jerusalem happened not because God was careless, unfaithful, or cruel, but because the people of Israel turned away and sought other gods. But the story does not end there: There will be a future.

Themes of hope appear throughout the book in surprising positions—for example, juxtaposed with poems of judgment and accusation. These hopeful themes come to a climax * in a section called the “Little Book of Consolation” (chs. 30–33 ). There restoration and joy replace accusation and judgment; there the future is imagined as a festive garden filled with feasting. It is curious that the book of Jeremiah does not place hope at the end, as modern western writers might do, but just after the middle. This central placement of hope means that hope is still surrounded by themes of tragedy, sorrow, and judgment. Some scholars have suggested that this literary arrangement reflects the psychological and spiritual reality of the book's audience in Exile. In captivity, they are caught between tragedy and a new vision of the future.

“Oracles Against the Nations,” prophecies of doom against Israel's enemies, come toward the end the book (chs. 46–51 ). These poems may provide hope for the exiles, for in these chapters the vanquished nation changes places with its enemies. The book's conclusion offers a low-key description of the invasion of Jerusalem by Babylon (ch. 52 ). The account of the invasion almost exactly duplicates the depiction in 2 Kings 25 . It provides the book of Jeremiah with a sobering last word. Since the chapter, and thus the book, ends with the release of the Judean king from Babylonian prison, the chapter may also suggest hope for the exiles. In the king's survival, exiles may anticipate their own survival.

Jeremiah's ministry is described as beginning in the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and extending to the “captivity of Jerusalem” in 587 BCE (Jer 1.1–3 ). These were troubled times. The weakening of control by the Assyrian empire over Israel in the late seventh century BCE led to competition between Egypt and the emerging neo-Babylonian (also called “Chaldean”) empire for dominance in the Mediterranean region. Within Judah, leading groups split between support of Egypt or Babylon. Many in the royal governing party were pro-Egyptian, whereas Jeremiah and his followers were pro-Babylonian. In 605, Babylon won a military victory over Egypt and control of Judah, but internal strife among Israel's factions continued.

In 597, Judah revolted against Babylon. In response, Babylon invaded Jerusalem, the capital city, and deported the king and other leaders. The Babylonians installed Zedekiah as a puppet king, but in 587 Judah revolted again. When the Babylonians invaded a second time in 587, they destroyed mercilessly. The Temple, * palace, and parts of the city were razed; more of the leading citizens were deported to Babylon. Gedaliah was made governor of the occupied land, but he was assassinated, and a third invasion and further suffering and deportations occurred in 582.

Some survivors remained in the devastated land; some escaped to Egypt; some settled into exile in Babylon. The Babylonian exiles were not released from captivity until 50 years later (537). It was probably during the aftermath of invasion, destruction, and deportation that the book of Jeremiah was compiled in an effort to help the survivors deal with the tragedy. The book reflects conflicts among various surviving groups. It portrays Jeremiah on the side of Babylon and opposed to Egypt and those who escape there.

The relationship of the book to the prophet Jeremiah is greatly disputed. Until recently most interpreters traced the book's poetry to Jeremiah and saw in ch. 36 an account of the book's dictation to Baruch, who wrote it on a scroll. A few interpreters thought that Jeremiah even wrote prose portions of the book, but that view has not gained much acceptance. More recently, commentators have found it difficult to decide what role Jeremiah and Baruch had in the book's writing, since evidence is limited largely to the book itself. Some of the stories may be symbolic, and the poems attributed to Jeremiah may have been written by others in order to convey theological and political messages to the community at different times during its struggles for survival. Rather than trying to pin all the poems, stories, and sermons directly to events in Jeremiah's own life, current interpreters try to make sense of the book as it stands. Jeremiah's life plays a major symbolic role in the book. The sufferings that happen to him happen to the people. His survival in captivity provides hope to the exiles—that they too will survive if they listen to the voice of God expressed in Jeremiah's book.

Chart Kings of Judah mentioned in Jeremiah

King Josiah 640–609 BCE Jehoiachin (Coniah) 598–97
Jehoahaz II (Shallum) 609 Zedekiah 597–587
Jehoiakim 609–598 Gedaliah (governor) 587–582
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