Jeremiah - Introduction
Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, a priest at Anathoth ( 1.1 ), a town just north of Jerusalem; he may have been a descendant of the priest Abiathar, who was banished by Solomon to Anathoth (1 Kings 2.26,27 ). The chronology of Jeremiah's life suggested by the superscription ( 1.2–3 ) raises a number of problems. If Jeremiah's ministry began in 627 BCE, the thirteenth year of King Josiah's reign ( 1.2 ), he would have been active for over four decades. Despite the efforts of some scholars to interpret chs 2–6 and perhaps portions of chs 30–31 as the prophet's early preaching during Josiah's reign, no material in the book can be unequivocally assigned to that time. Even more enigmatically, although the prose sermons and biographical narratives in the book bear strong linguistic resemblance to Deuteronomy and the so‐called Deuteronomistic History (Joshua–2 Kings), Jeremiah is inexplicably silent regarding Josiah's religious reform inspired by the discovery in the Temple of the “book of the law” in 622 BCE (2 Kings 22–23 ). These difficulties lead some scholars to regard 627 BCE as the date of Jeremiah's birth ( 1.5 ) rather than as the beginning of his public career. He died sometime after 586, presumably in Egypt.
No matter which date is chosen, the important events that form the backdrop of Jeremiah's preaching are clear. Jeremiah spoke in the context of the last years of the existence of Judah as an independent political entity: the final decade of the seventh century BCE and the first decades of the sixth century. These were the years during which the growing power of the Babylonian Empire became more and more threatening to Judah, culminating with the siege of Jerusalem in 597 (during which the king, Jehoiakim, died and his son Jehoiachin [Jeconiah or Coniah] assumed the throne). Jehoiachin was deposed and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah, and the deposed king and a portion of the ruling classes (including the priest‐prophet Ezekiel; see Introduction to Ezekiel) were exiled to Babylon. The ensuing decade saw increasingly desperate attempts on the part of Judah to free itself from Babylonian control, but a final revolt by Zedekiah (based partly on promises of help from Egypt that were unfulfilled) brought about the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the city and the Temple in 586, at which point the rest of the rulers were exiled as well. Though Jeremiah wished to remain in Judah with Gedaliah, the governor appointed by the Babylonians, Gedaliah was assassinated, along with a contingent of Babylonian soldiers. Fearing indiscriminate reprisals by the Babylonians, many of the remaining Judean leaders fled to Egypt, taking the protesting Jeremiah with them ( chs 40–44 ).
Understanding the history behind the book of Jeremiah, and how the prophet's statements relate to that history, is made more difficult by the complexity of the organization of the book itself. Alongside the typical prophetic oracles, which are in poetical form, Jeremiah also contains a good deal of prose—often written in the third person, influenced by the language and theology of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History, and including the historical appendix (ch 52 ) borrowed from 2 Kings 24.28–25.30 . An apparently artificial system of superscriptions and chronological notes may have been inserted to make the book conform to the Deuteronomistic History. There are also many doublets ( 7.1–15 || 26.4–6; 7.32 || 19.6; 16.14–15 || 23.7–8 ). Finally, the relationship between the standard Hebrew text and other ancient versions of the book is confusing. All these qualities suggest that the book represents the product of continuing editorial activity lasting well into the Hellenistic period (see 33.14–26 ). According to the structure imposed on the book by the prose superscriptions, it consists essentially of a collection of oracles against Judah and Jerusalem, which Jeremiah dictated to his aide Baruch ( 1.4–20.18 , from the time of Josiah and Jehoiakim; 21.1–25.14 , from the time of Zedekiah); narratives about Jeremiah's prophetic activity (chs 26–35; 36–45 ); and a group of oracles against the foreign nations ( 25.15–38; chs 46–51 ), together with an introduction ( 1.1–3 ) and the historical appendix (ch 52 ).
Scholars offer various models to explain the formation of the book. Some point to what they consider to be signs that the book was compiled over time from smaller collections of oracles. One clue to such smaller collections may be the first two scrolls of judgment oracles that Jeremiah is said to have dictated to Baruch (ch 36 ). The second scroll ( 36.32 ) could have formed the nucleus for the material now found in 2.1–20.18 . Another small collection may have been the scroll of consolation ( 30.1–3 ), which in its original form probably contained much of what is now in chs 30–31 . Against this view, however, others point out that the narrative concerning Baruch's scrolls may not be reliable as a guide to the history of the formation of the book because it occurs in the prose narratives of chs 36–44 , which are slanted in favor of Babylonian exiles. Also, the narrative clearly contrasts the behavior of King Jehoiakim, who burns the scroll on which the prophet's words were written (ch 36 ), with the account of Josiah's reaction to the discovery of the scroll of the law (2 Kings 22–23 ) and may therefore have been written with this aim in mind. If the book of Jeremiah cannot be traced to Baruch's two scrolls, it presumably grew by means of successive additions and redactions of some now unidentifiable core of Jeremiah's preaching.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for this redactional model is that the present Hebrew text differs substantially from the ancient Greek version (the Septuagint) in both content and order. Thus the Septuagint does not contain several passages (for example, 33.14–26 ) and combines the oracles against the foreign nations into a single section following 25.14 , though in a different order. In addition, there are many smaller differences from verse to verse. Some fragments of the text of Jeremiah in Hebrew found among the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the standard Hebrew text, but, remarkably, others reflect the text tradition represented by the Septuagint. It is likely, then, that these two text traditions represent the contrasting editorial work on the book of Jeremiah that took place in Egypt (the Septuagint tradition) and in Palestine or Babylon (the traditional Hebrew text).
Much of Jeremiah's prophetic preaching is based on the theme of the covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel and Judah. Drawing on traditions at home in northern Israel, Jeremiah considered the covenant to be a conditional one, which could be broken by the people's persistent apostasy. Influenced by Hosea, Jeremiah used imagery of the people as an unfaithful wife and as rebellious children (chs 2–3 ). Such infidelity made judgment virtually inevitable. In his vivid poetic oracles Jeremiah dramatizes the grief experienced by God, prophet, and people (e.g., chs 4–6 ). Interspersed with the words of judgment and anguish, however, are a number of references to repentance and the renewal of the covenant relationship. Because of the complex ways in which the book has been edited, it is difficult to determine whether Jeremiah considered it possible that the people's repentance might forestall judgment or whether he considered repentance and a new beginning possible only after judgment had fallen. In the prose narratives about Jeremiah during the siege and fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah is represented as insisting that there would be a future for the people in the land of Judah even after the Babylonian conquest (chs 32, 42 ). The theme of restoration is strongest in chs 30–31 , where a future is envisioned in which a new covenant will be made with Israel and Judah, one that will not be broken ( 31.33 ).