The biblical prophet Jeremiah is perhaps best remembered for his doomsday prophecies. He criticized his generation for their wayward behavior, and then watched them fall at the hands of their geopolitical enemies. Needless to say, Jeremiah lived through a tumultuous time in world history. He begins prophesying during the rule of Josiah, King of Judea, when the people of Israel were caught in the middle of a struggle among the major world powers- Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia (Judea essentially formed the buffer zone between the three empires). And he prophesies his last forty years later, after the destruction of the Temple and the exile of his people.
The placement of the Kingdom of Judea is not incidental. In 605 B.C.E., when the Egyptians were en route to aid the Assyrians in their battle against the Babylonians, at Carchemish, on the border between Turkey and Syria, King Josiah tried to interfere with their progress, a delay that would help the Babylonians. The attempt cost him his life, at Meggido, at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho. But the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Carchemish. The remaining Egyptian forces returned home; the Assyrian Empire came to a decisive end; and the Babylonians continued their conquest of all local territory – to the great detriment of the Jewish people.
Babylon- The Foe From the North
When Nebuchadnezzar and his army appeared on Judah’s horizon, Jeremiah was convinced that the awful “Foe from the North” (Jeremiah 1-14) was God’s appointed agent of the judgment that would soon fall upon an unrepentant people. The prophet saw the task of announcing the imminent arrival of that danger as a leading feature of his mission to his nation and to the surrounding world. With Jerusalem’s surrender to the Babylonians in 597 B.C.E., and the deportation of King Jehoiachin and other leading citizens, Jeremiah’s warnings seemed to be confirmed. The prophet lamented the suffering of his people, and at the same time, he saw expression of the divine verdict in their exile. The messages he sent to the people of Israel in Babylonia convey this conviction. They also reveal his recognition that God, whom they had worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem, is too great to be localized. The exiles would be able to reach Him even in their new condition, far away from the soil of Israel and Judah.
Messages to Babylon- Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles
The Book of Jeremiah records that after the first wave of exile, which included the deportation in 597 B.C.E. of King Jehoiachin, Jeremiah sent the following message “…to the priests, the prophets, the rest of the elders of the exile community, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon—after King Jeconiah [a reference to Jehoiachin], the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judea and Jerusalem, and the craftsmen and smiths had left Jerusalem” (29-1)-
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon- Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper (29-3-7).
What is remarkable about the letter is that it instructs the exiles to settle into their new environment, rather than to reject it. Jeremiah knows that the stay in Babylon will last for seventy years, and he therefore instructs the people to prepare for the long haul. The message reflects Jeremiah’s favorable posture toward the Babylonians; it also reflects his realistic appraisal of the situation, and his desire to help his people accept their circumstance.
Jewish Life in Babylon- The Epistle of Jeremiah
Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles of chapter 29 served as the basis of the apocryphal work, The Epistle of Jeremiah. The later text is presented as if it were a copy of Jeremiah’s letter, but it expounds further, and with significant differences.
One difference is that The Epistle of Jeremiah is addressed to the exiles who will be taken to Babylonia, not to those who are already there. The purpose of the letter, therefore, is not comfort and encouragement, but to inform them explicitly that their fate is from God, even as it goes on to instruct them how to function as Jews in captivity. The following excerpt is illustrative-
This is the epistle…to certify them, as it was commanded him of God. So when you come unto Babylon you shall remain there many years, and for a long season, namely, seven generations; and after that I will bring you away peaceably from there. Now shall ye see in Babylon gods of silver, and of gold and of wood, borne upon shoulders, which cause the nations to fear. Beware that you in no way be like the strangers, neither be afraid of them when you see the multitude before them and behind them worshiping them. But say in your hearts O Lord we must worship Thee….(chapter 6-1-6)
I still fail to see how this citation supports the claim that the purpose of the letter is to tell them that their fate is from God. And in failing to see that, it’s hard to see that the Epistle is oh so different from the original text (i.e- Jeremiah’s letter of ch. 29).
Postscript- The Challenge of Exile
Although Scripture contains loan words from other languages, the Bible was written in Hebrew. Aramaic is employed extensively in later biblical books such as Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel – but it is used rarely throughout the rest of the Bible. The entire Pentateuch contains two isolated Aramaic words. In the prophetic books, there is one single verse in Aramaic. Not surprisingly, in light of the exile and Jeremiah’s realistic approach, that verse is found in Jeremiah-
Thus shall you say to them- Let the gods, who did not make heaven and earth, perish from the earth and from under these heavens. (Jer.10-11)
The verse is situated in a chapter that deals with the fallacious nature of paganism. However, Targum Jonathan (an Aramaic translation of the Bible) maintains that this verse is part of Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles that is presented in chapter 29, presuming that the letter was written in Aramaic as the lingua franca of the time. He explains-
This is the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent to the elders of the Babylonian exile…- If they say unto you while you are among them, serve idols, children of Israel, you answer them- the idols that you are worshiping are not able to bring rain upon the earth and make the fruit grow… May they and their worshipers be wiped out from under these heavens.
The Targum adds several interesting details in this translation of Jeremiah 10-11. By postulating that the Aramaic text was part of Jeremiah’s missive, the translation interprets the condemnation of idolatry as instructions as to how to engage in polemic. Jeremiah supplies the exiles with a response to the gentiles who prevail upon them to worship idols – and in their own language, no less. Note that, according to the Targum, the proof of the true God is His creation of heaven and earth. Only One who brings forth rain from the sky and fruit from the ground shall be worshiped.
The obvious question is why the prophet would anticipate that the people of Israel would fall prey to idol worship in the Diaspora. After all, the reason they were exiled in the first place is that they served alien gods – one would think that the people would have learned their lesson! Nechama Leibowitz, in her commentary on the prohibition of idolatry as found in Deuteronomy (4-27-31), suggests that idol worship in exile is not a repetition of the previous crime, but a form of punishment. When the people lived in their own land, they were able to serve God with all their hearts and all their souls. Thrust into exile, however, the people suffer confusion in their worship for not having made the proper choice when they were free to do so. Don Isaac Abarbanel explains that this confusion is manifest in the Spanish Inquisition, when the Jews were forced to choose between the cross and the sword. By contrast, Moses Mendelssohn expressed this confusion in the painful experience of total assimilation (The Biyyur). These different explanations reflect the personal experiences of the commentators, respectively – Abarbanel in Spain of 1492, and Mendelssohn at the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe. And both are the experiences of exile, dependent on the prevailing surrounding culture, instead of the preferred Jewish society in the Land of Israel.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Jeremiah’s Fateful Choice
Clearly, Jeremiah maintained a correspondence with the Jews in exile. But what do we know about the prophet’s own experience of exile? It was during the second wave of exile that Jeremiah suffers his own fear and trepidation, sitting among the chained prisoners. This second wave began when Jehoiachin’s successor, the puppet King Zedekiah, tried to throw off the Babylonian yoke. Nebuchadnezzar seized the event as an opportunity to eliminate the problem of a rebellious Jewish people in Judea. For two years, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, until the city finally fell in 586 B.C.E. Many Jews were killed, and most of those who remained were carried off into exile.
As one who had dedicated his life to saving his people, Jeremiah must have been crushed when he saw his prophecies come to pass. Although he had predicted the punishments that his nation would endure, he loved his people and sought their repentance, not their suffering. Even he did not imagine the atrocities he witnessed. He has been unsuccessful in his mission. He therefore sits among the chained and weeping prisoners, evidence of his failure, and mourns- “Oh, who will make my whole head run water, my eyes a font of tears then would I weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jer. 8-23). Together, they arrive at death’s door. And here, Jeremiah’s prophetic foresight fails him. He only wonders what the future holds for him and his nation. He does not distinguish between the two, and his angst is unbearable. The kindest sentence he can imagine is to be banished forever from their homeland.
Nonetheless, Jeremiah does have vision of the distant future, in light of the distant past. He hears the voice of the matriarch Rachel, weeping for the children she has lost. The image is that Rachel’s biological children Joseph and Benjamin symbolize the descendants of the tribes of Ephraim (one of the two tribes linked to Joseph) and Benjamin who dwelled in the Northern Kingdom and the Jerusalem area respectively. Rachel herself is thus transformed into the queen-mother who longs for the reunification of the two kingdoms, and portends their return to the land. But one cannot escape the tragedy of Rachel’s own life. Jeremiah himself seems to identify strongly with her suffering, and realizes that those who await their fate at Ramah will identify with her as well. He couches his words of consolation to them in a message of comfort to her, as it were-
Restrain your voice from weeping.
Your eyes from shedding tears;
For there is reward for your labor
Declares the Lord
They shall return from the enemy’s land
And there is hope for your future
Declares the Lord,
The children shall return to their country.
When Jeremiah himself is then approached by the chief executioner of Babylon, however, he is certain that his end has come. To his great astonishment, Nevuzaradan unlocks the prophet’s chains, and speaks respectfully, as befits the prophet of the Lord. Jeremiah likely found it difficult that the Babylonian validated his prophecies, when his own people had found it so difficult to give his words credence, but Nevuzaradan acts on his perception of the prophet’s worth. He offers Jeremiah the freedom to go wherever he wishes. And although he will be forced to confront the painful diminution of the nation and the country’s utter desolation, Jeremiah decides to cast his lot with the remnant of the people who stay in the land. He will minister to those few who will try to regroup and rebuild a modest Jewish presence, preserving the memories of kingdoms past. Essentially, he experiences exile in his own land, suffering with those who remained, while providing them encouragement to keep an eye towards the future.
Chapter 40 of Jeremiah recounts the historic conversation-
…Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, set him free at Ramah, to which he had taken him [Jeremiah], chained in fetters among those from Jerusalem and Judah who were being exiled to Babylon.…The chief of the guards took charge of Jeremiah, and he said to him, “The Lord your God threatened this place with this disaster; and now the Lord has brought it about. He has acted as He threatened, because you sinned against the Lord and did not obey Him. That is why this has happened to you. Now, I release you this day from the fetters which were on your hands. If you would like to go with me to Babylon, come, and I will look after you. And if you don’t want to come with me to Babylon, you need not. See, the whole land is before you go wherever seems good and right to you.” But Jeremiah still did not turn back. “Or go to Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan, whom the king of Babylon has put in charge of the towns of Judah, and stay with him among the people, or go wherever you want to go.” The chief of the guards gave him an allowance of food, and dismissed him. So Jeremiah came to Gedaliah son of Ahikam at Mizpah, and stayed with him among the people who were left in the land. (Jer. 40-1-6)
Jeremiah’s Failed Optimism- A Midrashic Trip to Babylonia
The biblical version of Jeremiah’s decision places the prophet’s encounter with Nevuzaradan at Ramah – he opts to remain in the land. The midrashic account in Pesikta Rabbati (26), however, teaches that Jeremiah is transported to Babylonia with the exiles, and it is there that he is given the chance to return to the land. The midrash is not quibbling over geography, however. It comments on Jeremiah’s strength of personality in a substantive way.
Firstly, let us note that Jeremiah’s imprisonment was at the hands of King Zedekiah, and not those of the conquering Babylonians. The king’s unwillingness to hearken to the words of prophecy – to the extent that he locks up the messenger as a traitor to the crown! – is disheartening. And so we see the degree of opposition Jeremiah faced in trying to convince his people of God’s message-
…[When] the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the prison compound…. for King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him, saying, “How dare you prophesy-…‘I am delivering this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall capture it. And King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape…he shall be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon….When you wage war against the Chaldeans, you shall not be successful’” (ch.32).
The midrash here suggests that Jeremiah’s containment in Jerusalem protects the city from utter destruction. Thus, though the biblical text speaks of Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel visiting the prison and selling him real estate in Anatot, the midrash explains that God commands Jeremiah to leave Jerusalem and go to Anatot to buy land from Hanamel. The significant difference is that the midrashic approach implies that it was only with the prophet’s divinely ordered departure from the city that Nebuchadnezzar could make the final break into the city-
As Jeremiah left Jerusalem, an angel descended from on high and placed his feet on the walls of Jerusalem and broke through them, he then called the troops to come and enter the house whose master had left, to sack it and destroy it, to enter the vineyard and cut down the vines since the watchman had left it and gone…
The midrash explains the implications of Jeremiah’s role as protector of the city as well- the Babylonians cannot claim that they conquered the Jerusalem on their own. Rather, they needed God’s assistance to induce Jeremiah to leave before they could deliver the final blows. Moreover, they needed angelic assistance to accomplish their destructive goals-
…the enemies took counsel from the wise men as to how to burn the Temple. While they were deliberating, they looked heavenward and saw four angels descending, holding four torches of fire that they used to light the four corners of the Temple to burn it.
Essentially, the midrash recognizes the Babylonian’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as divinely ordained, and therefore refuses to countenance that the enemy succeeded in wreaking havoc by their own strength alone.
God’s command that Jeremiah go to Anatot, however, reveals far more than the prophet’s removal from the city at the time of the final push for destruction. Firstly, we are reassured that despite the destruction, “houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land” (32-15). We also discover the prophet’s fundamental optimism, even in the face of his own dismaying prophecies-
Jeremiah thought to himself, “Perhaps God is negotiating. Why else would He tell me to buy the field?”
Jeremiah surmises that God has reconsidered. He is encouraged by the command, seeing in it implications that the great destruction has been called off. Why else would he be investing in real estate? According to the midrash, Jeremiah is further convinced of God’s change of heart on his journey back to Jerusalem-
…he lifted his eyes and saw smoke rising from the Temple. He said to himself, Israel has repented, they are bringing sacrifices, the smoke of the incense is rising.
It would seem that the prophet of doom and destruction is an incurable optimist. Despite forty years of frustration, of striving desperately and futilely to help his people repent, he still believes in them. He is unconditionally confident of the people’s interest in doing the right thing. When he sees the smoke rising from the Temple Mount, he ignores his own prophecies, and concludes that the people are finally serving God appropriately. That is, until he sees the destruction of Jerusalem before his own eyes. As he draws closer, he can no longer be mistaken by what his eyes behold, and he cries out to God in his disappointment- “You have enticed me, O Lord, and I was enticed; You overpowered me and You prevailed” (20-7). He suffers betrayal by his own optimism. And in his despondency, he sets out to join his people in their suffering of exile-
He…began to cry…“Which route have the sinners taken? By which route have the forsaken journeyed? I shall go and lose myself with them.” He set out with them and saw the path drenched with blood, corpses everywhere. He placed his face against the ground and saw limbs, legs of infants and children who were taken into captivity, he laid upon the earth and kissed them, When he arrived in Babylonia, he embraced his people and kissed them and cried with them and they with him. He said to them, “my brethren, my people, my children, such a terrible thing has befallen you since you did not heed the words of my prophecy…”
The description is not without pathos. Jeremiah loves the people of Israel profoundly. Though the great prophet has been vindicated by history, seeing his predictions come true leaves him heartbroken. The Jewish people were in his care, and he is devastated by their pain and suffering. He wanders along, kissing the wounded and crying over their terrible fate. And when Nevuzaradan offers him the choice of staying in Babylonia or returning to the Land of Israel, he returns, though with a heavy heart. With the remnant there, he will help rebuild the nation and implant them on their soil. Unfortunately, the exiles are crestfallen.
…When they saw Jeremiah leaving them, [the exiles] let out a collective moan. Loudly, they wailed and said, “our father Jeremiah, how can you leave us?” And they cried, as it says- “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137-1). Jeremiah answered, “I bring the heavens and the earth as my witness that had you wept like this once while you were still in Zion. you would not have been exiled.” Jeremiah walked along crying and said, “woe unto you, the most cherished of nations…”
Jeremiah remains the spiritual father of the people of Israel, and they are his spiritual children. Despite their transgressions, the people’s love is as strong as Jeremiah’s. And in his love for them, relates the midrash, he feels their pain as his own. He cries together with them, as much as he guides them through the darkness of the Babylonian exile. But there is more. As God’s prophet, Jeremiah’s love and compassion echo that of the Almighty. When he assures his people that they will return home and again know peace, he carries the promises of God- out of their darkness will come light, and out of their destruction, rebirth.