Lecture 18. Literary Prophecy: Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum and Habbakuk


Professor Christine
Hayes: We were talking last time about prophets of the
Assyrian crisis. We’ve talked about two of the
northern prophets, Amos and Hosea,
and we started talking about Isaiah who was a southern
prophet, a prophet in Judah; and we’ll be talking now about
the second southern prophet of the Assyrian crisis.
That is Micah, or Micah.
And he is said to come from the
town of Moreshet, which is about 25 miles
southwest of Jerusalem. So he’s in Judah,
and he’s the last of the eighth-century prophets.
He’s quite different from the
city-bred Isaiah. He seems to have been a rural
prophet who spoke for the poor farmers.
Now, he’s prophesying in the second part of the eighth
century, so 740 to about 700. He’s attacking the northern
kingdom, although he’s a southern prophet.
He attacks Israel for
idolatries and says that the kingdom will surely fall because
of these. So he also follows the other
prophets, as we’ve seen, in condemning the people for
their moral failings. The greedy landowners,
the dishonest merchants, the aristocracy,
they’re all targets of his denunciations as are other
leaders: the priests, the judges, royalty,
the royal house as well as other false prophets.
But the greatest contrast
between Isaiah and Micah–if you want to differentiate these two
southern prophets of the Assyrian crisis in your
mind–the greatest contrast lies in his view of the city as
inherently corrupt. It’s inherently sinful;
it’s inherently doomed to destruction.
Isaiah had preached the inviolability of Zion and Micah
is sharply critical of the Davidic dynasty.
He ridicules the idea of the inviolability of Zion.
He ridicules the belief that
the presence of the sanctuary in Jerusalem somehow protects the
city from harm. He says, on the contrary,
that God will destroy his city and his house if need be.
Micah 3:9-12:
Hear this, you rulers of the House of
Jacob, You chiefs of the House of
Israel, Who detest justice
And make crooked all that is straight,
Who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity!
Her rulers judge for gifts,
Her priests give rulings for a fee,
And her prophets divine for pay; Yet they rely upon the Lord,
saying, “The Lord is in our midst;
No calamity shall overtake us.” Assuredly, because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field, And Jerusalem shall become
heaps of ruins, And the Temple Mount
A shrine in the woods. A stark contrast then between
Isaiah who trusts and has confidence that God will never
allow His holy city to be destroyed,
his sanctuary to be destroyed. His presence in the midst of
the city is a guarantee that it will survive.
And Micah says: it’s no guarantee of anything.
One of the most famous passages
in the Book of Micah is in chapter 6–eight verses in
chapter 6–and this is a passage that takes the form of a
covenant lawsuit, which we’ve talked about
before, and the structure is as follows (I’ve put it up on the
white board there): The first two verses are the
issuing of the summons, the summons to the case.
So the prophet here is acting
as God’s attorney and he summons the accused and he summons the
witnesses–those would be the mountains,
who are to hear the case against Israel,
God’s case against Israel: Hear what the Lord is
saying: Come, present [My]
case before the mountains, And let the hills hear you
pleading. Hear, you mountains,
the case of the Lord– You firm foundations of the
earth! For the Lord has a case [=a
lawsuit] against His people,
He has a suit against Israel.
So those are the opening verses and in verses 3 to 5 we then
move on to the plaintiff’s charge, God’s charge or
accusation. And this is given,
again, through the attorney. He appeals to Israel’s memory
of all of the events that have manifested his great love for
her. That begins with the exodus of
course and continues with the entry into the Promised Land and
he says Israel seems to have forgotten all of these deeds
that God has performed on her behalf,
and the obligations that those deeds obviously entail.
Israel’s conduct in response to
this continuous benevolence on God’s part is appalling.
In verses 6 to 7 you have the
defendant’s plea. This is Israel speaking,
but Israel really, of course, has no case to
plead. And Israel knows that her only
choice is to try to effect reconciliation but she doesn’t
know where to begin. Verses 6-7:
With what shall I approach the Lord,
Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt
offerings, With calves a year old?
Would the Lord be pleased with
thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for
my transgression, The fruit of my body for my
sins? And the prophetic
attorney–because the prophet is here acting as the attorney–in
verse 8, responds to this. “He has told you,
O man, what is good, And what the Lord requires of
you: Only to do justice
And to love goodness, And to walk humbly with your
God.” [See note 1] And the word that has been
translated here as goodness, is this word hesed.
This is a word that we
discussed last week in relation to Hosea, and it’s a word that
seems to refer to that covenantal loyalty,
the loyal love of covenantal partners.
This is a classic passage that really typifies the prophetic
emphasis on morality or the primacy of morality in prophetic
thought. The book of Micah itself
structurally alternates three prophecies of doom with three
prophecies of restoration or hope.
So it’s doom, restoration,
doom, restoration, doom, restoration.
These last prophecies tell of
the glory of Zion to come in the future.
These restoration passages may seem a little out of keeping or
out of step with the scathing denunciations or condemnations
of Judah in the other parts of Micah’s prophecy,
and so some scholars have suggested that those restoration
passages and those references to God’s unconditional promise to
preserve the Davidic kingdom, and the optimistic predictions
of universal peace–these must be interpolations by a later
editor. And it’s true that certain
parts we see again in Isaiah. But this is always a very
difficult case or issue, because we know that the
prophetic writings do fluctuate wildly between denunciation and
consolation. So I think that a shift in
theme alone is not ever a certain basis for assuming
interpolation–outright contradiction perhaps–but a
shift in theme or tone is never a solid basis for assuming
interpolation. Anachronism is a very good
guide to interpolation. So Micah explicitly refers to
the Babylonian exile, of course, and that’s going to
be in 586 and he’s in the eighth century.
He’s also going to refer to the rebuilding of the walls of
Jerusalem. The walls of Jerusalem aren’t
even destroyed until 586 for anyone to even speak about
rebuilding them, so those little units or
passages may of course represent late editorial interpolations.
But in its present form–in
that nice structure of alternation of denunciation,
restoration, denunciation,
restoration, a pattern that happens three
times–that structure, is I think typical of the
common paradox that we find in the prophetic writings where
they try to balance God’s stern judgment on the one hand,
his punishment, with his merciful love and
salvation of his people. A further paradox lies in the
very preservation of prophecies like Micah’s prophecy.
These prophecies were probably
preserved by priests in the temple, even though priests were
very often among the targets of the prophets in their
denunciations, particularly Micah.
Alright, so we’ve talked about
the prophets who responded to the Assyrian crisis towards the
end of the eighth century, two in the north,
two in the south. Jerusalem survived the siege of
701 when the Assyrians laid siege in 701.
And that gave credence to the royal ideology,
the idea that God was with Zion,
was with Jerusalem, and was with the House of David
and would preserve them, but even so Judah moves into
the next century, into the 600s in a considerably
weakened state after the siege. And it’s during that
century–the first half of the next century–that Assyria
reached the zenith of its power. In Judah, you have King
Manasseh reigning. Now, King Manasseh reigned for
nearly 50 years. We’re not sure of exact dates,
but somewhere around the 690s to the 640s, about 640:
50 years. Now remarkably,
the Deuteronomistic historian devotes only 18 verses to this
king who reigned for 50 years and all of those verses are
entirely negative. And that’s in great contrast to
their treatment of his father, Hezekiah, and his grandson who
follows him, Josiah. Manasseh was apparently a loyal
vassal of Assyria, and according to the biblical
writer he reversed the reforms of his father Hezekiah who is
said by the writer to have destroyed idolatry and so on.
But he is said to have reversed
that and to have adopted Assyrian norms.
As we move through this century and move towards the latter half
of this century, Assyria, which has overextended
itself is beginning to decline and some of the other states in
the Ancient Near East are able to break away.
First Egypt breaks away; Babylon breaks away.
Josiah comes to the throne in
Judah in 740. He sees Assyria’s weakness.
He decides to take advantage of
that and asserts Judean independence,
carries out a series of reforms–we’ve talked about
several times–in 622, which include purging the cult
perhaps of Assyrian religious influences, centralizing worship
of Yahweh only and in Jerusalem, and so on.
So this centralization of the cult served probably a political
agenda as well, of asserting independence from
Assyria. Assyria is continuing to
decline towards the end of this century and in 612 the capital
Nineveh will fall. The Babylonians manage to
conquer the Assyrians by destroying Nineveh;
it’s actually an alliance of Medes and Babylonians.
So things are going quite well.
Josiah is king;
he’s a favored king, but just a few years later he
will die in a battle against the Egyptians at Megiddo.
So a little bit of historical
background for you as we talk about the next prophets.
Alright, so Josiah,
the king who’s highly favored will die in 609.
Now, Zephaniah was a Judean prophet who prophesied during
the reign of King Josiah. So we’re going to be moving on
now to Zephaniah and Jeremiah, as the prophets of the
Babylonian crisis–and we’re going to throw in a couple of
prophetic characters along the way,
but they will be the two main prophets of the Babylonian
crisis, obviously in the south–all we have now is a
southern kingdom, Judah–but I’ll be picking up
on two other prophets in a moment as well.
So he prophesied during the time of King Josiah.
Some of his prophecies seem to
date to the time, we think, before Josiah’s
reforms in 622. And those prophecies tend to be
very pessimistic and very grim. Judah is condemned.
It’s condemned for apostasy;
it’s condemned for decadence, all of the things that
flourished under King Manasseh. God is wrathful and his wrath
is imminent. There will be a universal
destruction according to Zephaniah.
All life, animal and human, will be exterminated.
So, as we saw in the book of
Amos this Day of Yahweh, this Day of the Lord,
which has been so eagerly awaited,
will not in fact be a day of triumph, but a day of dark
destruction and despair. Zephaniah 1:15-18,
That day shall be a day of wrath,
A day of trouble and distress, A day of calamity and
desolation, A day of darkness and deep
gloom, A day of densest clouds,
A day of horn blasts and alarms–
Against the fortified towns And the lofty corner towers.
I will bring distress on the
people And they shall walk like blind
men, Because they sinned against the
Lord; Their blood shall be spilled
like dust, And their fat like dung.
Moreover, their silver and gold
Shall not avail to save them. On the day of the Lord’s wrath,
In the fire of his passion, The whole land shall be
consumed; For He will make a terrible end
Of all who dwell in the land.
You can see why people didn’t enjoy listening to these
prophets, but at the same time, like the other prophets,
Zephaniah also offered hope. There will be a humble remnant
which will seek refuge in God. These Jewish exiles,
he says, will be delivered from their oppressors and even
Gentiles will join in the worship of God.
Zephaniah 3:11-13: “In that day,
You will no longer be shamed for all the deeds
By which you have defied me. For then I will remove
The proud and exultant within you,
And you will be haughty no more On my sacred mount.
But I will leave within you
A poor, humble folk, “–this idea of purging the
dross and leaving the pure remnant–“And they shall find
refuge In the name of the Lord.
The remnant of Israel
Shall do no wrong And speak no falsehood;
A deceitful tongue Shall not be in their mouths.
Only such as these shall graze
and lie down, With none to trouble
them.” There will also be an
ingathering of any exiled. Verse 20:
“At that time I will gather you,
And at [that] time I will bring you [home];
For I will make you renowned and famous
Among all the peoples on earth, When I restore your fortunes
Before their very eyes.” There’s one passage in
particular that seems extraordinarily joyous.
It seems to announce the
salvation as happening now, as present and so a lot of
scholars think that this was Zephaniah’s reaction to Josiah
and Josiah’s reform which seemed to him to perhaps be the very
salvation for which the nation was longing.
Chapter 3:14 and 15: Shout for joy, Fair Zion,
Cry aloud, O Israel! Rejoice and be glad with all
your heart, Fair Jerusalem!
The Lord has annulled the judgment against you,
He has swept away your foes. Israel’s Sovereign the Lord is
within you; You need fear misfortune no
more. So, this sounds very much like
a reaction to these reforms initiated by Josiah.
This is hailed as the very
restoration of God’s presence in the community of Judah that was
desired. The judgment has been annulled,
these terrible things I’ve been prophesying will not happen.
Another short prophetic book we
should mention now is the Book of Nahum.
It’s very different from the other prophetic books.
It doesn’t really contain
prophecies and it doesn’t really upbraid the people for their
failings, which are two things that most
of the other prophets do. The Book of Nahum is a short
little book and it’s really a series of three poems and the
first one is an acrostic poem, an alphabetical poem–each line
beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew
alphabet–and these poems rejoice over the fall of Nineveh
in 612, the capital of the cruel
Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were actually
quite widely hated in the Ancient Near East.
They were noted for their
exceptional brutality, their inhumanity,
particularly in their conquests and empire building.
They deported populations
wholesale; they were guilty of all sorts
of atrocities like mutilating their captives;
they would butcher women and children–all sorts of
horrendous deeds. We have lots of testimony about
this, both in Assyrian sources but other Ancient Near Eastern
sources, texts as well as artwork.
So Nahum, in this poem, is celebrating the avenging and
wrathful God who has finally turned around to destroy this
terrible enemy of Israel and indeed the world.
According to Nahum,
it’s quite true that God had used Assyria as his tool.
He had used Assyria to
discipline the kingdom of Israel–they did destroy
Israel–and to discipline Judah for Judah’s sins.
But God is ultimately the
universal sovereign and so Assyria’s savagery–even if it
was part of God’s disciplining of his children is–Assyria’s
savagery is itself something that must be punished.
So for Nahum,
the fall of Nineveh is God’s vengeance upon Assyria for her
barbaric inhumanity. The Book of Nahum has often
been praised for its very vivid poetic style.
It describes these armed legions that march against
Nineveh and plunder its treasure,
and some of the most exciting archaeology that’s been going on
has been the digging up of Nineveh.
I think the dig has obviously stopped for reasons having to do
with the climate in that part of the world,
but the findings of Nineveh and the sacking of Nineveh–how
shallow pits were dug and treasures thrown into them and
covered over by the gates of the city as people were fleeing,
and many of these things– when you read the description of
Nineveh and look at some of the archaeological data,
it’s quite fascinating. But Nahum looks forward to a
happy era of freedom for Judah and he says in 2:15:
“For never again shall the wicked come against you.”
Well, this isn’t true,
and in fact, in a few years Josiah’s going
to be killed. Judah’s going to be made
subject to Egypt and in fact Babylon.
By 605 Babylon manages to extract tribute from Judah as a
vassal. So in a way,
we have here really a glaring error and it’s important to note
that this error in Nahum–it wasn’t updated,
it wasn’t repaired in order to protect his prophetic
reputation. So we see this interesting
tension. We sometimes see prophetic
books being edited, revised, having interpolations
put into them, partly out of this conviction
that their words must be relevant and continue to have
some relevance; and other times,
there seems to be good evidence that prophetic oracles were
preserved rather faithfully. But with the fall of Nineveh,
national confidence was probably boosted and then things
quickly turned sour with the death of Josiah in 609,
which was a terrible shock. You have Judah lying trapped,
as it were, between two great powers: Egypt in the southwest,
Babylon in the northeast. And in 605, as I said,
Babylon managed to defeat Egypt and reduce Judah to the status
of a tributary vassal under the King Jehoiakim.
King Jehoiakim rebels and in response, the Babylonians lay
siege to Jerusalem. There will be two sieges of
Jerusalem by the Babylonians just as we’ve had two sieges
earlier–two sieges: one in 597,
one in 587, both under Nebuchadnezzar.
He lays siege to Jerusalem in 597, and doesn’t destroy
Jerusalem. He kills the king,
takes the king’s son into captivity in Babylon and
installs a puppet king, still under the assumption that
things could be kept under control.
So the puppet King Zedekiah is on the throne but he also
decides to rebel and assert Judah’s independence against the
Babylonians. So Nebuchadnezzar returns,
and this is in 587. And now the city is in fact
captured, the sanctuary is completely destroyed,
and the bulk of the population is exiled and this is what
brings to end nearly 400years of an independent Hebrew nation.
The Book of Habakkuk was
written during this period, so 600 to the
destruction–somewhere in those years.
That’s the period in which the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem
twice. Habakkuk is another unusual
prophetic book. It doesn’t contain prophecies,
so much as it contains philosophical musings on God’s
behavior. And we’re going to see this
increasing now as we move into the next section of the Bible
when we complete the prophetic section.
We’ll be encountering writings of very different genres and
some of them do contain these philosophical musings on God’s
conduct. Habakkuk 1 and 2 are a kind of
poetic dialogue between the prophet and Yahweh,
and the prophet complains bitterly about God’s inaction.
Verses 2 and 3 of the first
chapter: How long,
O Lord, shall I cry out And You not listen,
Shall I shout to you “Violence!” And you not save?
Why do You make me see iniquity
[Why] do You look upon wrong?– Raiding and violence are before
me, Strife continues and contention
goes on. And skipping down to verses 13
and 14, You whose eyes are too
pure to look upon evil, Who cannot countenance
wrongdoing, Why do you countenance
treachery. And stand by idle
While the one in the wrong devours
The one in the right? You have made mankind like the
fish of the sea, Like creeping things that have
no ruler. Well, God responds to these
charges by saying that the Babylonians are the instruments
of his justice even though they ascribe their might and their
success to their gods, rather than to Yahweh.
Now, we’ve already seen in
other books the idea that a conquering nation is serving as
the instrument of God’s punishment.
But Habakkuk is a little bit unusual because he doesn’t couch
this idea in the larger argument that Judah deserves this
catastrophic punishment. There’s a great difference
between Habakkuk and the Deuteronimistic historian,
for example, because Habakkuk doesn’t assert
that the people are suffering for their sins.
Habakkuk is struggling with what appears to him to be a
basic lack of justice. The Deuteuronomistic historian
wants to assert God’s justice, and whatever suffering happens
is justifiable. Habakkuk is resisting that idea
and we’re going to see that resistance really come to a
climax next week when we talk about the Book of Job.
Habakkuk in 1:4 struggles with
this, “…decision fails / And justice never emerges.
/ For the villain hedges in the
just man– / Therefore judgment emerges deformed.”
It’s not merely that the wicked
and the righteous suffer the same fate, it’s that the wicked
really seem to fare better than the just and that reduces
humankind to the level of fish and creeping things for whom
sheer power and not morality is the principal consideration.
Now, having made this charge,
Habakkuk awaits God’s answer. In chapter 2:1-5 he says,
I will stand on my watch, Take up my station at the post,
And wait to see what He will say to me,
What He will reply to my complaint.
The Lord answered me and said: “Write the prophecy down,
Inscribe it clearly on tablets, So that it can be read easily.
…the righteous man is
rewarded with life For his fidelity.
How much less then shall the
defiant go unpunished,… Not a terribly deep answer.
The righteous simply have to
have faith that justice will prevail and this faith has to
sustain them through the trials that challenge that very idea.
We’ll see a deeper answer to
this same problem in the Book of Job.
The third chapter then shifts gears.
So much so that once again scholars say it must be an
interpolation. But again, I would warn that
dramatic shifts in tone and theme are not that uncommon in
the prophetic books and we have to be careful.
But in this third chapter, God is described as a warrior
god. He thunders from the east,
he hurls his spear, he seeks vengeance on Israel’s
oppressors. It may be that this is some
editor’s attempt to respond to Habakkuk’s skepticism that
Yahweh will bring justice–and bring it soon– that he’s
waiting: how long? why is this taking you so long?
Why are you not acting?
And this image of an avenging
warrior God answers Habakkuk’s opening question:
How long will God stand by and watch while the Babylonians rape
and pillage? But on the other hand,
it’s possible that it’s Habakkuk himself and again the
book exhibits that same paradoxical tension we’ve seen
through so many of the prophetic books.
Specifically, he holds out the paradoxical
view that God’s justice is slow in coming but the righteous must
have complete faith in its ultimate execution.
But he’s raised the issue of
theodicy, the problem of evil, the problem of suffering.
Ultimately, he sees the
problem’s resolution only in some vision of the future–an
avenging God, when justice will be done.
That is typical of some texts
that we will see later, particularly apocalyptic
literature, which is going to emphasize
patient waiting for an end time when there will be a cataclysmic
final act that will bring justice and judgment.
Now the prophet,
who lived at the time of the final destruction of Judah,
saw the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in
587 was the prophet Jeremiah, another long prophetic book.
So we have our three long
prophetic books, Isaiah of the Assyrian crisis,
Jeremiah of the Babylonian crisis,
and Ezekiel writing from exile in Babylon.
Jeremiah was born of a priestly family in a village near
Jerusalem, Anathoth, and he began prophesying while
he was still a boy. Now, he was a contemporary of
King Josiah and so he saw the renaissance that briefly
occurred under his guidance: the sweeping reform,
the eradication of Assyrian influences that had been
welcomed by King Manasseh, the renewal of the covenant,
all of these activities that are so highly favored by the
biblical writer. And when Josiah died,
Jeremiah also lamented his passing, along with the rest of
the nation. Jeremiah witnessed the final
destruction and the exile. The Book of Jeremiah is a
collection of very different types of material.
There’s really no clear
organization, there’s no clear chronological
order, not the kind of thing you can just sort of sit down and
read from beginning to end and hope it’ll make sense.
There are prophecies,
there are oracles and diatribes against foreign nations,
there are stories, biographical narratives,
there’s some poetry, and at the very end a little
brief historical appendix which really resembles 2 Kings:
24 and 25. So the literary history of the
book itself is also quite complex because there’s great
variation in our ancient witnesses.
The Septuagint, which is the Greek translation
of the Bible–third century BCE Greek translation of the
Bible–its Jeremiah is much shorter than the Hebrew version
of Jeremiah and it’s arranged differently;
internally, the arrangement is different.
There are also significant differences between the Hebrew
text that we have now and some fragments of Jeremiah that have
been found among the Dead Sea scrolls.
So this attests to the very open-ended nature of written
compositions in antiquity. We find three main types of
material, however, in Jeremiah.
(1) The poetic oracles that generally are attributed to
Jeremiah; Then (2) biographical anecdotes
and narratives about him, which are attributed to his
amanuensis and assistant whose name I don’t think I put up
here. Baruch ben Neriah,
ben simply meaning son of, so Baruch,
the son of Neriah, whose name comes up quite a bit
in the Book of Jeremiah. And he is a scribe who assists
Jeremiah, and it’s thought that perhaps the biographical
narrative sections were composed by Baruch ben Neriah.
Then we also have (3) certain
editorial notes about Jeremiah that are in the style of the
Deuteronomistic historian, Deuteronomistic editor.
Jeremiah, in general,
seems to have very close connections with the language
and the ideology of Deuteronomy. So if we look quickly at the
structure of the book, for the most part,
the first 25 chapters, Jeremiah 1 through 25 contain
an introduction and an account of Jeremiah’s call,
but then also poetic oracles with some biographical snippets
thrown in there as well. Not snippets
narratives–biographical narratives as well as poetic
oracles. In 26to 29 we have stories of
his encounters–I should say run-ins–with other prophets and
with authority figures of various types.
Chapters 30 to 33 are oracles of hope and consolation;
34 to 45 are more prose stories, and these stories
center around and after the time of the final destruction.
Then we have several chapters,
46 to 51 that contain oracles against nations.
Some of these, scholars think,
might be from other writers and then again, as I say,
it concludes with this historical appendix about the
fall of Jerusalem that’s extracted from 2 Kings.
Now, Jeremiah preached the
inevitable doom and destruction of the nation because of its
violation of the covenant, which was the very charter for
her existence, and his descriptions were quite
vivid and quite terrifying. He denounced Israel’s leaders,
the professional prophets in particular with whom he has many
encounters. The professional prophets are
liars, he says, because they prophesy peace.
He has some negative references
to priests as well, but he’s especially critical of
King Jehoiakim who’s the son of Josiah.
He can be compared to Micah because he also attacked this
idea, this popular ideology of the inviolability of Zion.
As long as injustice and
oppression are practiced in Judah, the presence of the
temple is no guarantee of anything.
Judah will suffer the fate that she deserves for failure to
fulfill her covenantal obligations.
So God tells Jeremiah to go stand at the gate of the temple
and speak these words, and this is a passage that’s
often referred to as the “Temple Sermon.”
It’s from chapter 7: Thus said the Lord of
Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your
actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.
Don’t put your trust in
illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord,
the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are
these buildings.” No, if you really mend your
ways and your actions; if you execute justice between
one man and another; if you do not oppress the
stranger, the orphan, and the widow…
You hear the language of Deuteronomy right?
Those three are always together
in Deuteronomy, drawing very heavily on the
same language. If you do not oppress the
stranger, the orphan, and the widow;
if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place;
if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt –then
only will I let you dwell in this place,
in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time.
See, you are relying on
illusions that are to no avail. Will you steal and murder and
commit adultery and swear falsely,…
Again, allusion to the Decalogue, right?
Those four terms in the
Decalogue. Will you steal and murder
and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal,
and follow other gods whom you have not experienced,
and then come and stand before Me in this house,
which bears My name and say, “We are safe”?
[Safe] to do all these abhorrent
things! Do you consider this House,
which bears My name, to be a den of thieves?
As for Me, I have been
watching–declares the Lord.
So he attacked this doctrine of the inviolability of Zion and
that would have been iconoclastic to say the least.
But he pointed to history as
proof for his assertion. He cites the example of Shiloh
as an example. You remember during the period
of the Judges when the Ark of the Covenant was peripatetic and
would stay at different places, but for some time it came to
rest at Shiloh with the priest Eli and his sons.
And in that time,
the Philistines managed to destroy the sanctuary and
capture the Ark and carry it off into Philistine territory.
So the presence of the Ark of
the Covenant is no guarantee of anything, and the belief that
God would not allow his temple, his city, his anointed ruler to
be destroyed, Jeremiah says,
is a deception. It’s an illusion.
His political message resembles
very much the message of his predecessors.
He says that the nation’s pathetic attempts to resist the
great powers and to enter into alliances with the one against
the other–these were all completely futile.
And to dramatically illustrate
the destruction and the slavery that were inevitable,
he paraded around Jerusalem, first in a wooden yoke and then
in an iron yoke. He does this in chapters 27 and
28. This is a symbol of the
slavery, the yoke of the master that is to come.
In chapter 27:6 he claims that God has power over all the Earth
and has given the Earth to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon,
God’s servant. As you can imagine,
referring to the destroyer of the nation as God’s servant
would have been shocking, not to say dangerous.
You can imagine parallels in
our own time, where people would see the God
most commonly understood to be the God of most Americans being
the one who orchestrated attacks against us.
It would have that same kind of feel and power to people,
and in several passages Jeremiah exhorts the king to
submit to the Babylonian forces. This is acceptance of God’s
will, the forces that are surrounding Jerusalem.
To ensure the preservation of
his words, which were not popular, Jeremiah had his
amanuensis Baruch write down everything that God spoke to
him. Chapter 36 gives us an insight
into this process. It’s kind of interesting
because Jeremiah’s words are transcribed.
God specifically tells Jeremiah how to do this.
“Get a scroll,” he says, “and write upon it all the
words that I have spoken to you–concerning Israel and Judah
and all the nations–from the time I first spoke to you in the
days of Josiah to this time” (36:2).
Now it’s the time of KingJehoiakim and then in verse
4 we read, “So Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah;
and Baruch wrote down in the scroll, at Jeremiah’s dictation,
all the words which the Lord had spoken to him.”
Now, Jeremiah is in hiding at
this time because he’s politically very unpopular,
so he instructs Baruch to take the scroll to the temple and to
stand there and to read it to the people.
The king’s officials are there. They report to the king about
the subversive message which has been delivered by Baruch.
So Baruch goes into hiding;
the scroll is torn into strips and burned.
God orders Jeremiah to get another scroll and repeat the
process, and he does. Verse 32 of chapter 36,
“So Jeremiah got another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch
son of Neriah. And at Jeremiah’s dictation,
he wrote in it the whole text of the scroll that King
Jehoiakim of Judah had burned; and more of the like was
added,” – so, and then some.
They came back with even more. So it’s possible–some scholars
suggest–that what was written, would have been the contents of
chapters 1 to 25 which really contains the oracular material,
the oracles. But in any event,
this story gives us some insight into the process of
prophecy. It doesn’t appear to have been
really off the cuff. The compositions of the
prophets were literary compositions that were committed
to memory; they could then be dictated
again. And on an archaeological note,
I should point out that one of the most exciting finds,
I think, is a clay–in 1975 they found a clay bulla which is
like a clay imprint of Baruch son of Neriah,
the scribe – that’s what it says on the clay imprint.
Another one was found in 1996.
It was said to be found in a
burnt house in Jerusalem, which would have been around
the time of the destruction. And it just showed up on the
antiquities market, so some question whether it’s
genuine or not. The second one that was found
has a fingerprint on it and people say, well,
that could be the fingerprint of Baruch son of Neriah.
Anyway, this is the fun stuff
you get to do if you do archaeology, but there are
plenty of people who think that these probably are the seals of
the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, that he would have used to
stamp anything that he would have transcribed or written.
So Jeremiah was rejected;
he was despised; he was persecuted by fellow
Judeans. Naturally, they would have seen
him as a traitor. He was flogged,
he was imprisoned. Often in his life he was in
hiding, he was a very troubled person and he lived in very
difficult times. But we also get an insight into
his emotional state which we don’t from any of the other
prophets. He suffered immensely;
he weeps over Jerusalem in chapter 8 and 9.
We get a sense of the turmoil that he suffers,
particularly because of a group of passages that are referred to
as the Confessions of Jeremiah and these are sort of scattered
throughout–some in chapters 11 and 12,
15,17, 18,20, but these are passages that
reveal his inner state. Some people question their
authenticity, but in any event they paint a
very fascinating portrait of the prophet.
He curses the day that he was born;
he accuses God of deceiving him, of enticing him to act as
God’s messenger only to be met with humiliation and shame,
but he can’t hold it in. God’s words rage inside him and
he must prophesy. It would be better had he not
been born at all than to suffer this ceaseless pain.
Chapter 20:7-18,
just selections from there: You enticed me,
O Lord, and I was enticed; You overpowered me and You
prevailed. I have become a constant
laughingstock, Everyone jeers at me.
For every time I speak I must
cry out, Must shout, “Lawlessness and
rapine!” For the word of the Lord causes
me Constant disgrace and contempt.
I thought, “I will not mention
Him, No more will I speak in His
name”– But [His Word]
was like a raging fire in my heart,
Shut up in my bones; I could not hold it in,
I was helpless. I heard the whispers of the
crowd– Terror all around:
“Inform! Let us inform against him!”
…Accursed be the day
That I was born! …Accursed be the man
Who brought my father the news And said, “A boy / Is born to
you,” And gave him such joy!
Let that man become like the
cities Which the Lord overthrew
without relenting! …Because he did not kill me
before birth So that my mother might be my
grave, And her womb big [with me]
for all time. Why did I ever issue from the
womb, To see misery and woe,
To spend all my days in shame!
Nevertheless, despite all of his very harsh
criticisms of the establishment authorities,
the royal house and even scribes, other prophets who are
labeled as liars by Jeremiah, his words were preserved by
scribes, by the Deuteronomistic editors.
Shortly after the fall of Judah, Jeremiah was taken
forcibly to Egypt. And he lived his final years
out in Egypt. He didn’t give up his job
though. He kept denouncing people.
We have records of his
denouncing his fellow Judean exiles down in Egypt for
worshipping the Queen of Heaven and as before,
it seems very few heeded him there.
But like the earlier prophets, Jeremiah also balanced his
message with a message of consolation,
and there are some very interesting and unique features
of Jeremiah’s message of consolation.
These passages are found particularly in chapters 30 to
33 where we have more hopeful prophesies.
He envisages a restoration; the exile will come to an end,
and in fact Jeremiah is the first to actually set a time
limit to what we might refer to as the dominion of the
idolaters; the idolaters holding sway over
God’s people, and that time limit he says is
70 years. Jeremiah writes a letter to the
first group of deportees, so remember the first siege in
597? You have the king killed,
his son and many people taken into exile in Babylon.
Jeremiah, from Jerusalem,
writes a letter to that first group of exiles and it’s quite
remarkable, it’s found in chapter 29,
and it’s quite remarkable for its counsel, its advice to the
exiles to settle down in their adopted home and just wait out
the time. There is an appointed end.
He warns the people not to
listen to prophets who say you will return shortly,
it’s just a lie. The Israelites have to serve
the king of Babylon and by doing so they will live.
So in Jeremiah 29:4-7,
“Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel,
to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to
Babylon,” –he’s writing to the exiles:
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…”
Instead of seek the welfare of Jerusalem, 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. In other words,
you’re in for the long haul. And you shouldn’t be deceived
by the idle dreams or the false prophets who tell you that
return is imminent. God has other plans.
They are plans for welfare,
not for evil, and they will give you a future
and a hope. At the end of 70 years,
Jeremiah said, there will be a great war of
all the nations and Judah and Israel will be returned to their
land. Zion, he declared,
would be acknowledged as the Holy City and a new Davidic king
would reign. A new covenant would be made
with Israel as well. And this time,
Jeremiah says, it’s a covenant that will be
etched on the heart, encoded as it were into human
nature. Jeremiah 31:31-34:
See, a time is coming–declares the Lord–when
I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the
House of Judah. It will not be like the
covenant I made with their fathers, when I took them by the
hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt,
a covenant which they broke, so that I rejected
them–declares the Lord. But such is the covenant I will
make with the House of Israel after these days–declares the
Lord: I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and
inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God,
and they shall be My people. No longer will they need to
teach one another and say to one another, “Heed the Lord”;
for all of them, from the least of them to the
greatest, shall heed Me–declares the Lord.
So this is a remarkable idea. It seems to express some
dissatisfaction with the element of free will,
which is otherwise so crucial to the biblical notion of
covenant and morality: the idea that humans freely
choose their actions. After all, when you think about
some of the major themes set out in the Hebrew Bible at the very
beginning in the opening chapters,
this would seem to be a cardinal principle:
choice. But free choice does mean of
course that there will be bad choices and there will be
disobedience and evil, and people can get tired of
that and Jeremiah was. So his utopian ideal is
inspiring, but it does eliminate the element of free will.
It seems to describe a
situation in which humans are almost hardwired to obey God’s
covenant. That’s a tension that will also
be developed in some later texts.
I just note it here. In a very beautiful passage,
Jeremiah describes a future restoration of the temple,
the bringing of offerings again, the singing of psalms and
praise, and this is in contrast to chapter 25.
There, in chapter 25, he warned that God will banish
“the sound of mirth and gladness,
the voice of bridegroom and bride,” leaving the land a
desolate ruin. Now in his oracle of
consolation Jeremiah says, Again there shall be
heard in this place… in the towns of Judah and the streets
of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man,
without inhabitants, without beast–the sound of
mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and
bride, the voice of those who cry, “Give thanks to the Lord of
Hosts, for the Lord is good,
for His kindness is everlasting!”
as they bring thanksgiving offerings to the House of the
Lord. For I will restore the fortunes
of the land as of old–said the Lord [Jer 33:10-11].
So just to kind of summarize these prophets leading up to the
time of the destruction (because next time we’ll be talking about
the exile and later the return): The fall of Jerusalem shattered
the national and territorial basis of Israel’s culture and
religion. The Babylonians had burned the
temple to the ground, they carried away most of the
people to exile, to live in exile in Babylon,
leaving behind mostly members of the lower classes to eke out
a living as best they could. And it was the completion of a
tragedy that had begun centuries earlier and it was interpreted
as a fulfillment of the covenant curses.
It was the end of the Davidic monarchy, although the
Deuteronomistic historian does close with this note,
that the son of Jehoiakim was alive and living in Babylon,
kind of holding out hope that the line hadn’t actually been
killed out, hadn’t been completely wiped
out. But the institution seemed to
have come to an end for now. It was the end of the temple,
the end of the priesthood, the end of Israel as a nation,
as an autonomous nation, and so the Israelites were
confronted with a great test. As I’ve stressed before,
one option would be to see in these events a signal that
Yahweh had abandoned them to, or had been defeated by,
the god of the Babylonians, and Marduk would replace Yahweh
as the Israelites assimilated themselves into their new home.
And certainly there were
Israelites who went this route, but others who were firmly
rooted in exclusive Yahwism did not,
and they’re the ones who left us their literature.
How could this faith survive
outside the framework of Israelite national culture,
away from the temple and the land, uprooted and scattered?
Could Israelite religion
survive without these national foundations and institutions and
on foreign soil, or would it go the way of other
national religions? You hear the pain and the
despair that would have been experienced at this time in the
words of the Psalmist, Psalm 137 which is written at
this time: By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat, sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion. There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres, for our captors asked us there
for songs our tormentors,
for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of
Zion.” How can we sing a song of the
Lord on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour. It was the message of the
prophets that helped some Israelites make sense of their
situation in a manner that kept them distinct and invulnerable
to assimilation. And this was probably the
reason for the preservation of the prophetic writings,
even though they had often been despised or unheeded in their
own lifetimes. Yahweh hadn’t been defeated,
they claimed. The nation’s calamities were
not disproof of His power and covenant, they were proof of it.
The prophets had spoken truly
when they had said that destruction would follow if the
people didn’t turn from their moral and religious violations
of God’s law. So that rather than undermining
faith in God, the defeat and the exile when
interpreted in the prophetic manner,
had the potential to convince Jews of the need to show
absolute and undivided devotion to God and His commandments,
so that paradoxically the moment of greatest national
despair could be transformed by the prophets into an occasion
for the renewal of religious faith.
The great contribution of the prophets was their emphasis on
God’s desire for morality as expressed in the ancient
covenant. The great contribution of
Jeremiah was his insistence on God’s everlasting covenant with
his people, even outside the land of Israel
and despite the loss of national religious symbols–the temple,
the Holy City, the Davidic king. And this insistence that the
faithful person’s relationship with God wasn’t broken,
even in an idolatrous land, when added to Jeremiah’s notion
of a new covenant, provided the exiles with the
ideas that would transform the nation of Israel into the
religion of Judaism. Next time we’re going to turn
to two post-destruction prophets who also helped the nation
formulate a viable response to the tragedy that had befallen
them. This is a point at which we can
begin to use words like “Judaism.”

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