The Complete Book of Jeremiah

The First, and Only, Divine Apology
What's really in the Good Book.
Jan. 31 2007 1:41 PM

The Complete Book of Jeremiah

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The Book of Jeremiah

Chapter 40 and Chapter 41
The Judeans are offered one final chance to stay in the Promised Land, but they blow it. When the Babylonians conquer and sack Jerusalem, they leave a Jewish regent, Gedaliah, to run the place. He promises the few Judeans who haven't been exiled that they will keep farming and thrive. Things are looking up in God's country.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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But Gedaliah turns out to be a fool, laughing off reports that sinister Ishmael plans to assassinate him. Of course, Ishmael promptly murders him, then plunges Judea into a sad, brutal civil war. Ishmael pointlessly slaughters pilgrims on their way to the Temple and tosses their bodies in a cistern. Finally, noble Johanan rallies the army and overthrows Ishmael. (I love this story because I have a beloved uncle-in-law named Johanan, who would also rally an army against a tyranny, given half a chance.)

Chapter 42 and Chapter 43
Then the Judeans make their terrible mistake. Johanan asks Jeremiah make an inquiry to God: What should the Judean remnant do now? Should they stay in Zion under Babylonian rule or flee? Jeremiah prays for 10 days, at the end of which God tells him that the Judeans must stay in the Promised Land. God promises that if they remain, He will "rebuild" them and make them a great people once again. Then God does something astonishing, something He has never done before: He says sorry! He concedes that the Babylonian invasion—the overthrow of the Israelites He had planned for so long and with such evident enthusiasm--was actually a big mistake. (Hmm. Does that sound like another Iraqi invasion we've heard a lot about recently?) God announces, with as much humility as the maker of the universe can muster, "I regret the punishment I have brought upon you." I always thought that being God means never having to say you're sorry, but apparently even the big guy is prone to regret.

Question: Is this the only time God apologizes in the Bible? It's the only sorry I can remember, but my memory is a sieve. Usually He just brushes off mistakes and starts over—even when He really overdoes it, as with the flood. After all, He can tell himself that it's never His fault. We have always screwed up and deserve the smiting. So, why would He start feeling sorry now?

Anyway, back to the mistake. The Lord urges Johanan and his people to remain in Zion and threatens horrible punishment—famine, war, pestilence—if they run off to Egypt, Babylon's main rival.

All of God's contrition goes for naught. Johanan simply doesn't believe Jeremiah is speaking the truth. "You're lying," he tells the prophet. He's sure that Jeremiah is fabricating God's word. Johanan suspects that Jeremiah is setting him up for the Babylonians, that as soon as Johanan tries to remain in Judea, the Babylonians will slaughter and exile him and his small band of followers. So, Johanan and his remnant disobey Jeremiah and the Lord, and escape from Judea to Egypt, leaving the Holy Land empty of Israelites. After all that work of Exodus and conquest, the last Jews in the Promised Land are returning to Egypt! How sad is that!

This is an important missed opportunity. We have to ask ourselves: Why would Johanan dismiss Jeremiah as a liar and assume the prophet was actually setting a Babylonian trap for him? The answer, I think, is once more the troublesome personality of Jeremiah. The superficial lesson of this episode is that Johanan doubted God's prophet and disobeyed Him. But I think the more profound lesson concerns the tragedy of Jeremiah. He's a terribly ineffective prophet, not because he's wrong, but because he doesn't know how to sell his message. He doesn't know how to win friends and influence people. He has been so negative and so unpleasant with the Judeans that he doesn't have any social capital. He has no buddies, no allies, no supporters. Is it any surprise the Judeans view  him with suspicion? So what if he's always right? He's just rotten to deal with. Moreover, he has a long history of siding with the Babylonians, so it's understandable that Johanan suspects him of being a double agent. The Book of Jeremiah is supposed to be about our failure. Really, it's about his.

God is infuriated that Johanan rejected his order and vows to wipe out the Judean Egyptian colony. Now that His chosen people have been scattered to Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, He decides that only the Babylonian Jews will survive and return to Israel. The others will disappear, lost to history and to the Lord.

Chapter 44
The Egyptian refugees especially tick off the Lord by worshipping a new goddess, the Queen of Heaven. This is a moment of tragicomic sexism: Only the wives are worshipping the Queen of Heaven. The husbands are fecklessly doing nothing to stop them. Jeremiah, who seems to have sojourned down to Egypt with Johanan's crew, tells the Queen worshippers that they've made their final mistake. He advises them, Go ahead, worship your Queen of Heaven, and see if she helps you! But don't come crying to the Lord when she ignores you. The Lord is finished with you—you picked the wrong god.

The Babylonians invade Egypt and capture the Pharaoh. In the grimmest possible coda, the Judeans who fled to Egypt end up being conquered by the Babylonians after all. This is what we call cosmic irony, or a cruel Godly joke. The Judeans went to Egypt to escape a Babylonian conquest. But instead they fall victim to the Babylonian sword in Egypt. That's what you get for flouting a direct order from the Lord.

Chapter 45
One of the shortest, and also one of the least interesting, chapters in the Bible.

Chapter 46 through Chapter 49
Jeremiah prophesies the ruin of the Egyptians, Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites. (Oh, and the Edomites, too. Don't forget the Edomites!) You know the drill: "laid waste"; "the hour of their doom"; distressing cry of anguish," etc., etc.

The most interesting detail: It describes Moab as a man. Nations are always women in the Bible. Why would Moab be male?

Chapter 50 and Chapter 51
Another bad-news prophecy, this time for the Babylonians. Big Jer also prophesies the return of the Jews to Zion, which will follow the Persian conquest of Babylon.

There is one particularly spectacular metaphor, in Chapter 50:17, describing the earlier defeat of the Israelites:

"Israel are scattered sheep, harried by lions. First the King of Assyria devoured them, and in the end, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon crunched their bones." Crunched their bones—that's a phrase to remember!

The Lord's rage against Babylon is something fierce. The prophecies against the Moabites and Philistines were a Cabbage Patch picnic compared to his molten anger against Babylon. He hates them more than He hates anyone. Here's one verse:

Babylon shall become rubble,
a den for jackals,
an object of horror and hissing,
without inhabitant.

Now imagine 64 such verses, and you get a sense of His fury and of how grim these chapters are to read. Mitch Albom, it ain't.

Chapter 52
Jeremiah wraps up by duplicating a chapter from 2 Kings about the Babylonian conquest. I am so glad to be done with this gloomy prophet.

On to Ezekiel, where things may perk up. According to several reader e-mails, Ezekiel's Chapter 23 is the sexiest in the Bible!

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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