The Superscription of the Book of Jeremiah   Leave a comment

Above:  Jeremiah

Image in the Public Domain

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READING JEREMIAH, PART I

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Jeremiah 1:1-3

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The first three verses of the Book of Jeremiah identify the prophet, his father, the prophet’s hometown, and the timeframe of his prophetic ministry.

Jeremiah (“YHWH will exalt”) ben Hilkiah hailed from Anathoth, about three and a half miles northeast of Jerusalem.  The father, Hilkiah, was a priest.  Hilkiah and Jeremiah were outside of the priestly establishment in Jerusalem.  Therefore, this Hilkiah was not the high priest Hilkiah (2 Kings 22:3-23:37) who found the scroll of Deuteronomy in the Temple, brought that scroll to King Josiah (r. 640-609 B.C.E.), and participated in Josiah’s religious reformation.

Hailing from Anathoth was significant.  Anathoth was one of the cities assigned to Levitical priests in Joshua 21:18.  After the death of King David, King Solomon had exiled the priest Abiathar (1 Samuel 22:20-22; 1 Samuel 23:6, 9; 1 Samuel 30:7; 2 Samuel 8:17; 2 Samuel 15:24, 27, 29, 35; 2 Samuel 17:15; 2 Samuel 19:11; 2 Samuel 20:25; 1 Kings 1:7, 19, 25, 42; 1 Kings 2:35; 1 Kings 4:4; 1 Chronicles 15:11; 1 Chronicles 18:16; 1 Chronicles 24:6; 1 Chronicles 27:34; Mark 2:26) to Anathoth for supporting Adonijah in the struggle for succession (1 Kings 2:26-27).  Jeremiah, therefore, was also a member of a priestly family.  He understood the ancient traditions of Israel, as well as the foundational character of the covenant in the life of Israel.

The superscription also defines the period during which Jeremiah prophesied:  from the thirteenth year (627 B.C.E.) of the reign (640-609 B.C.E.) of King Josiah of Judah through “the eleventh year of King Zedekiah,” “when Jerusalem went into exile in the fifth month” (586 B.C.E.).  We read in Chapters 39-44 that Jeremiah prophesied after the Fall of Jerusalem, too.  The list of kings names Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah.  That list omits Jehoahaz/Jeconiah/Shallum and Jehoiachin/Jeconiah/Coniah.  Yet, as the germane note in The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition (2014), points out, few of the prophecies in the Book of Jeremiah date to the reign of King Josiah.

Jeremiah prophesied during a turbulent and difficult period of decline–mostly after the fall of the Assyrian Empire (612 B.C.E. and before the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.). In the wake of King Josiah’s death, Judah had become a vassal state of Egypt.  Pharaoh Neco II had chosen the next two Kings of Judah.  Jehoahaz/Jeconiah/Shallum (2 Kings 23:31-35; 2 Chronicles 36:1-4; 1 Esdras 1:34-38) had reigned for about three months before becoming a prisoner in Egypt.  Then Neco II had appointed Eliakim and renamed him Jehoiakim (r. 608-598 B.C.E.; 2 Kings 23:36-24:7; 2 Chronicles 36:5-8; 1 Esdras 1:39-42).  Jehoiakim was always a vassal while King of Judah.  After being the vassal of Neco II of Egypt for about three years, he became a vassal of the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian Empire in 605 B.C.E.  He died a prisoner in that empire.

Two more Kings of Judah reigned; both were vassals of the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian Empire.  Jehoiachin/Jeconiah/Coniah (2 Kings 24:8-17; 2 Kings 25:27-30; 2 Chronicles 36:9-10; 1 Esdras 1:43-46) reigned for about three months before going into exile in that empire.  The last King of Judah was Zedekiah, born Mattaniah (2 Kings 24:18-25:26; 2 Chronicles 36:11-21; 1 Esdras 1:47-58).  He reigned from 597 to 586 B.C.E.  The last events he saw before Chaldean soldiers blinded him were the executions of his sons.

The Book of Jeremiah is one of the longest books in the Hebrew Bible; it contains 52 chapters.  The final draft is the product of augmentation and editing subsequent to the time of Jeremiah himself.  In fact, Jeremiah 52 is mostly verbatim from 2 Kings 24:18-25:30.  Also Jeremiah 52:4-16 occur also in Jeremiah 39:1-2, 4-10.  Chronology is not the organizing principle of material in the Book of Jeremiah; jumping around the timeline is commonplace.  For example, the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) occurs between Chapters 32 and 33, as well as in Chapters 39 and 52.  Some ancient copies are longer than other ancient copies.  None of the subsequent augmentation and editing, complete with some material being absent from certain ancient copies of the book surprises me, based on my reading about the development of certain Biblical texts.  I do not pretend that divinely-inspired authors were mere secretaries for God.

Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel made a germane and wonderful point in The Prophets, Volume I (1962), viii:

The prophet is a person, not a microphone.  He is endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not his own that accounts for his greatness–but also with temperament, concern, character, and individuality.  As there was no resisting the impact of divine inspiration, so at times there was no resisting the vortex of his own temperament.  The word of God reverberated in the voice of man.

The prophet’s task is to convey a divine view, yet as a person he is a point of view.  He speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of his own situation.  We must seek to understand not only the views he expounded but also the attitudes he embodied:  his own position, feeling response–not only what he said but also what he lived; the private, the intimate dimension of the word, the subjective side of the message.

Those paragraphs applied to all the Hebrew prophets.  They applied to Jeremiah with greater poignancy than to the others, though.

I invite you, O reader, to remain with me as I blog my way through the book of the “weeping prophet.”

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 6, 2021 COMMON ERA

PROPER 5:  THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, YEAR B

THE FEAST OF FRANKLIN CLARK FRY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA AND THE LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA

THE FEAST OF SAINT CLAUDE OF BESANÇON, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST, MONK, ABBOT, AND BISHOP

THE FEAST OF HENRY JAMES BUCKOLL, AUTHOR AND TRANSLATOR OF HYMNS

THE FEAST OF JOHANN FRIEDRICH HERTZOG, GERMAN LUTHERAN HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM KETHE, PRESBYTERIAN HYMN WRITER

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