The Book of Jeremiah
From Babylon to Brooklyn, Inquisition to pogrom, Jews have always managed to prosper. It’s pretty remarkable: No matter where we are, and no matter what dreadful conditions we’re living under, Jews have thrived as traders, shopkeepers, bankers, doctors—without losing our distinct identity as Jews. … Why is the religion so mobile? Let me offer three theories (all made up on the spot, so don’t hold me to them). First, necessity: When you’re being exiled and pogrommed, you learn to adapt fast. Second, culture: Because it’s a religion based on writing and argument, Jews have always had high literacy rates and well-developed analytical skills, which served them in business and the professions. And, third—well, third is right here in Chapter 29. Maybe this mobility is a tenet of the faith. Read this extraordinary passage, pulled from Jeremiah’s letter to Judeans exiled in Babylon.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. … Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
This is very powerful advice, and runs against modern victimology theory, which teaches that you can’t move forward until you avenge a past wrong. Jeremiah is saying, essentially, get over it, and find a new way to live for God. The passage perfectly predicts the next 2,500 years of Jewish history. Jews have always found ways to be at home away from home, to be at once Jewish and American—waiting for Zion, but living for today.
Chapter 30 and Chapter 31
God loves to play the dozens. He has a way with the put-down, mocking His own Israelites for their cowardice: “Can a man bear a child? Why then do I see every man with his hands on his loins like a woman in labor?”
On the upside, after He finishes taunting, He renews His promise to redeem them from exile.
God promises a new covenant. It will be just like the one He used to have—the one we broke—except this one will last forever. A theological question: Has that new covenant started yet? I imagine that Christians believe Christ establishes that covenant, right? Do Jews believe it has started? If not, what are we waiting for? A Messiah? A U.S. victory in the World Cup?
Also, a puzzling theological-scientific sidebar. God doesn’t say the covenant will last “forever.” He says it will last until “the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored.” He presumably means forever, assuming that such measuring and exploring would be impossible. Now, I’m no astronomer, but my sense is that universe-measurement is pretty well-developed science. And geologists are investigating pretty deep down below, too. I know, I know—it was a metaphor! But that’s one of the glories of living in a scientific age: Our knowledge is reaching beyond the limits of our ancestors’ imaginations. (Before anyone bites my head off, I also recognize that knowing the size of the universe in light years doesn’t prove or disprove anything about the true nature of God.)
There’s also a sublime exchange between God and Jeremiah. An Israelite asks Jeremiah if he should go through with a real estate deal involving Israelite land—a chancy proposition given that Babylon is about to overrun the territory and enslave the entire population. But the Lord instructs Jeremiah that the land sale should proceed. Jeremiah is befuddled by this. The prophet lavishly, excessively, sycophantically praises God for his wisdom and greatness—a suck-up that goes on forever—and then at the end of it, Jeremiah asks, essentially: What the heck are you talking about? Why should the Israelites do land deals when they’re about to get obliterated? The Lord, sounding a bit like I imagine James Brown did, first replies, “Behold I am the Lord. … Is anything too wondrous for me?”
God goes on to tell the prophet that, yes, Jerusalem is about to be obliterated, but this will signify only a brief interruption in the Israelites’ time in Zion. This land purchase should go through, because when God’s done with the Babylonians, when He has laid them to waste, the Israelites will return to their land, and all their old contracts and land arrangements will apply.
If you’re seeking scriptural support for Israel’s divine right to land, it doesn’t get any stronger than this. Even more than God’s original grant of land to Abraham or the conquest of the Promised Land after Exodus, this passage guarantees permanent, divinely authorized inhabitation in Zion. No interruption—whether Babylonian or, presumably, Arab, whether 70 years or 700 years—cancels Jewish ownership.
Chapter 33 and Chapter 34
God is furious at His people for a whole new reason, and this time it’s hard not to sympathize with Him. If you remember from way back in Leviticus, Chapter 25, God orders the Israelites to free all Israelite slaves every 50 years. (Yes, the Israelites enslaved one another.) In the middle of the disastrous war, King Zedekiah calls for such a slave amnesty, presumably to reduce domestic turmoil. But as soon as the bondsmen are set free, their masters immediately round them up and force them back into slavery. This not only makes a mockery of God’s law, it’s also pretty stupid public policy. No wonder He redoubles His commitment to sack Jerusalem.
A big, obvious metaphor.
More than any other, Judaism is a religion of books, Torah, Talmud, Midrash. … The Bible often celebrates the strength of the Jewish attachment to the text. Remember back at the end of 2 Kings? King Josiah rediscovers the book of Deuteronomy and is so moved by reading it that he rededicates the entire kingdom to God. Chapter 36 is another such episode. At God’s order, Jeremiah writes a scroll of all his prophecies, then has his sidekick Baruch read it aloud to a crowd at the temple. The king’s advisers seize the scroll, and the king orders it read to him. As each page is finished, the king tears it out and tosses it in the fire. Bad move, king! Jeremiah, unbowed, simply rewrites the scroll. This is a profound notion: No matter what kings may do, the book will survive. God’s word endures, stronger than fire.
Chapter 37 and Chapter 38
Jeremiah, out for an errand, is arrested by guards who believe he’s trying to defect to the Babylonians. He is thrown into solitary. But King Zedekiah, who is clearly something of a masochist, asks for his advice again. As with all the other times King Z asked for counsel, Jeremiah tells the king that Jerusalem will fall and the king will be captured.
A little later, Jeremiah encourages everyone to surrender to the Babylonians, which really infuriates the king’s court. He is arrested again and chucked into a cistern, where he starts to sink in the mud—a bad way to die. An Ethiopian eunuch rescues him, with the king’s help. The king requests his advice again. Jeremiah tells him to surrender. The king ignores him and asks him to pretend that they never had a conversation.
The relationship of king and prophet is perverse and fascinating. The king’s advisers loathe Jeremiah and want him dead. But the king can’t help himself. He recognizes Jeremiah’s holiness, but not enough to actually follow his instructions. So Jeremiah is constantly barraging the king with bad news, the king is nodding gravely, and then failing to muster the courage to act. (It’s rather like presidents and Social Security reform. They know the problem is real, and they know they should do the right thing, but they just can’t pull the trigger.)
What happens to the feckless king? Jerusalem is sacked. He and his family are captured. His sons are executed in front of him. Then the Babylonians blind him, fetter him, and ship him off to Babylon. By contrast, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar orders Jeremiah treated like a VIP—further evidence that the Babylonians considered him an ally, and thus he was a traitor to his people.
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