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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Historical Background

To understand Jeremiah's ministry, one must have some grasp of events in Israel and Judah (the southern and northern kingdoms) from the time of Isaiah in the late eighth century to the Babylonian Exile (conventionally 586 to 539). Isaiah of Jerusalem, whose words and deeds are recorded in Isaiah 1–39 , exercised his prophetic ministry from ca. 738 to the rebellion of 701 and possibly to the death of King Hezekiah in 687. His successor, Manasseh (687–642), was weak, choosing submission rather than resistance to Assyrian rule. He is remembered in the Bible as a faithless and false leader (2 Kgs 21, 9–17; Jer 15, 4 ). During the first three quarters of the seventh century, the Assyrian Empire flourished in the eastern Mediterranean. It even conquered Egypt and, for a time, occupied it. Assurbanipal (669–ca. 627) was the last great Assyrian king. After him, the empire, already overextended, collapsed with exceptional speed. In 612 a coalition of King Cyaxares of Media and King Nabopolassar of Babylon brought it down, and the entire Near East celebrated.

The long dominance and sudden collapse of the Assyrian empire are sensitively reflected in Judean politics. In 640, at the age of eight, Josiah came to the throne aided by people eager for reform, but Assyrian power kept him quiet in his early years. Beginning in 627, the year of the death of Assurbanipal that precipitated the rapid slide of Assyria, Josiah led a resurgence of national and religious rebuilding. He restored the old boundaries of the kingdom of David, annexing the former Assyrian provinces of Samaria, Gilead, and Galilee (2 Kgs 23, 19 ). Further impetus was given to his reform when, in 622, workers restoring the Temple found an ancient law book. The book was the nucleus of Deuteronomy and became the basis of religious reform (2 Kgs 22, 1–23, 27 ). Unfortunately, the promising reform was cut short by Josiah's unexpected death at the hands of the pharaoh Neco in 609 (2 Kgs 23, 28–30; 2 Chr 35, 20–24 ). At about the same time, Babylon began its rise to power in the west. First Egypt and then (after 605) Babylon became the dominant power in Palestine.

Where was Jeremiah during these extraordinary events? Even though he was commissioned a prophet in 627 and thus lived through Josiah's reform (Jer 1, 2; cf. also 3, 6; 36, 2 ), he is, surprisingly, not recorded as supporting it with his preaching. Some scholars suggest he rejected Josiah's reform efforts as too little too late, although it is more likely that his oracles in support of it have been reused and applied to the new situation following Josiah's death. A good example is the famous “Book of Consolation” in chapters 30 and 31 , which seems to have been addressed originally to “Israel,” that is, the Northern Kingdom, the inhabitants of Samaria, Gilead, and Galilee, whom King Josiah invited into his Davidic empire. In several passages (e.g., Jer 30, 3.4 ), the phrase “and Judah” seems tacked on to “Israel” (Northern Kingdom), the group originally addressed.

After the tragedy of 609, Josiah's son Jehoahaz (also called Shallum) succeeded him as king, but within three months the Egyptians replaced him with Jehoiakim, another son of Josiah. Judah paid tribute to Egypt. Jehoiakim was denounced by Jeremiah for using forced labor to build himself a fine palace ( 22, 13–19 ). When the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at the decisive battle of Carchemish (605), Babylon became the major political power in the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean coast), and Jehoiakim duly transferred his loyalties to the victorious power. In the same year occurred the famous incident of Jehoiakim burning column by column the scroll containing Jeremiah's preaching ( 36, 1.23 ). He was offended by Jeremiah's prediction that Babylon would destroy Israel. Harboring hopes of independence, Jehoiakim revolted after three years. Nebuchadnezzar responded with troops from Moab, Ammon, and Aram, though Judah limped on for a few more years (2 Kgs 24, 2; Jer 25, 11 ). Jehoiakim died in 598, either by natural causes (implied by 2 Kgs 24, 6 ) or after being captured by Nebuchadnezzar and taken to Babylon (2 Chr 36, 5–8 ). His son Jehoiachin succeeded him, reigning only three months before he too was taken to Babylon in 597 with other leaders. The prophet Ezekiel was in this deportation. Nebuchadnezzar installed yet another son of Josiah, Zedekiah, as vassal king. Jeremiah wrote down his vision of the good and bad figs ( 24, 1–10 ) to tell the exiles that God would make them the basis of a remnant in preference to those who stayed behind in Jerusalem. Rumors of revolt were rife in Jerusalem. Such rumors provoked Jeremiah's symbolic action of carrying the ox‐yoke ( 27, 1–22 ), his confrontation with the prophet Hananiah ( 28, 1–17 ), and his letter to the exiles ( 29, 1–32 ).

Finally, in July 586, the unthinkable happened: the walls of Jerusalem were breached, the city was set afire, and the Temple was looted and destroyed. The rebellious King Zedekiah was captured and forced to look on as his two sons were murdered; then his own eyes were put out, and he was taken in chains to Babylon (2 Kgs 25; Jer 39, 7 ). After Jerusalem fell, the Babylonians, grateful for Jeremiah's exhortations to his countrymen to submit to them, freed him from the prison where he had been consigned (Jer 39, 11–14; 40, 1–6 ).

Nebuchadnezzar established his seat of government at Mizpeh and appointed Gedaliah, a member of an important Judean family, as governor (2 Kgs 25, 22–26 ). Gedaliah, however, was assassinated by Ishmael and other fanatical nationalists ca. 582 (Jer 40, 7–43, 7 ). Fearful of another Babylonian deportation, a group of prominent Judeans fled to Egypt and took a reluctant Jeremiah with them (Jer 43, 8–44, 30 ). Active for a while in Egypt, he finally disappears from the historical record.

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