Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Historical Background to Jeremiah


[The Revised Common Lectionary has nine readings from Jeremiah
and Lamentations between August 25 and October 20, 2019.] 
A historical Jeremiah?  Since the 1980’s there have been major differences among scholars who deal with the history of ancient Israel.  The “minimalists” have denied the historical value of the Hebrew scriptures because they are too distorted by their religious propaganda.  The “maximalists” insist that much of the Biblical writings is essential to understand what was really going on in the religious history of the Biblical peoples.  
An account of this newest chapter in “the warfare of science with religion” is given in John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel, Eerdmans, 2005.  A more recent major reference work on how the various periods of Israelite “history” look since the conflict began is given in Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel’s Past, Eerdmans, 2011. 
The following essay on the historical context of Jeremiah’s prophetic work is based almost entirely on Biblical texts, but these texts come from the most fully documented period of the history of Judah before the Greek era.  The “minimalists” have taken their shots at the historical Jeremiah, and he has virtually disappeared as an actual figure from some recent commentaries and histories.  However, as is often the case, the truth almost certainly lies between these extremes, and in time less biased historians will probably recognize that Jeremiah made a few powerful contributions to understanding the demise of the Kingdom of Judah.  
[This essay is descended from an article I wrote in 1977, “The Political Background of Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon,” in Scripture in History & Theology, Essays in Honor of J. Coert Rylaarsdam, The Pickwick Press, pp. 151-166.  Brief versions were also used as Special Notes in Biblical Words (Lectionary Studies) for Protestants for the Common Good, beginning in 2010.  The most original part of the argument is that concerning the political significance of Josiah’s two marriages, which I originally worked out in seminars I taught on Jeremiah between 1961 and 1968.]  
His time.  The heading of his book says Jeremiah prophesied from the thirteenth year of King Josiah, through the rest of that king’s reign and also through the reigns of his two sons, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (Jeremiah 1:1-3).  That places him around the years 628 to 586 BCE.  
However, the most significant event of that period was the reform carried out by King Josiah around the year 623, and an important question about Jeremiah is how he stood on that reform.  The long background to that reform can only be tentatively discerned, but it probably began in the ninth century in the northern kingdom (the religious purge of King Jehu).  Likewise, the aftermath of the reform continued well past Jeremiah’s time, to at least the middle of the 6th century (completion of the Deuteronomistic History – contained in Deuteronomy through II Kings).  
We will begin with the earlier background to the reform.  

The Yahweh-Only Religious Movement  

The most distinctive long-term development in Israelite religion and history was the emergence and progressive articulation of the Yahweh-Only religious movement and its associated political parties. (This was recognized in an early thesis by Morton Smith, Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament, Columbia University Press, 1971.) The prophetic movement behind the Elijah-Elisha traditions led to the great religious purge carried out by the Jehu dynasty in the northern kingdom of Israel, a dynasty that ruled from about 839 to 747 BCE.  [Dates follow the Hayes-Hooker Chronology.] The purge is narrated in II Kings 9-10.  Besides wiping out the previous royal dynasty, that purge made overt service of the Ba‘al of Tyre a death-penalty offense.  
Religious triumph, however, meant political disaster.  Jehu’s revolution destroyed the political balance that Omri had created in the 880s BCE, with the result that the kingdom of Israel, for a time, fell into decline and subjection to Aramean and Assyrian powers.  Nevertheless, that purge gave impetus to the Yahweh-Only religious policy, which would make its own history later on.  In the meantime, after two generations the dynasty of Jehu recovered considerable power and prosperity.  Gradually the original religious zeal was compromised by increasing social injustice in a wealthy and increasingly class-divided society.  This led to the extreme prophetic critiques delivered by Amos and Hosea in the last generations of the northern kingdom (760-722 BCE).  
After the judgment of Yahweh had fallen on the northern kingdom, its Yahweh-Only heritage, carried on by itinerant Levitical priests from the north, was adapted and integrated with a Jerusalemite viewpoint and became the basis of religious reforms by (probably) Hezekiah in 705-701 and (certainly) Josiah.  Josiah’s reform escalated from 628 to 623 and prevailed until 610, when everything was derailed by Josiah’s death at the hands of Pharaoh Necho II.  
Uncompromising insistence on the Yahweh-Only religious policy was the central thrust of the intermittently renewed reform movements (embodied, sooner or later, in Deuteronomy).  This policy was reinforced by the elimination of all places of animal sacrifice outside a single Yahweh sanctuary – the Jerusalem temple in Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s times.  

The Political Parties in Jerusalem-Judah  

Josiah’s era (641-586 BCE) was marked by conflict between two political parties with their respective policies.  One party was conservative, following the policies of Josiah's grandfather (or great-grandfather) Manasseh (reigned 698-644 BCE) who remained a tribute-paying vassal of Assyria during his long reign.  The other party emerged (or revived) during Josiah's reign, as Assyrian power began to decline.  The strength of this other party was based in the landed gentry of Judah, "the people of the land," and it was this party that carried out the "reform" of Josiah.  The reform unified the sacrificial offerings of the kingdom of Judah, banning all places of sacrifice except Jerusalem.  Many of the old priesthood of the city-state of Jerusalem opposed this reform, and lined up regularly in opposition to Josiah's reform. (More on this below.)   
Josiah was eight years old at the beginning of his reign (II Kings 22:1), and political guidance was in the hands of his mother and other court counselors.  Josiah’s mother was Jedidah, daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath (II Kings 22:1).  (Bozkath was a town in southern Judah between Lachish and Hebron.)  The counselors working with Jedidah included, sooner or later, Shaphan, who is later portrayed as reading the Law scroll to Josiah (II Kings 22:10).  
Two political marriages.  That there was political turmoil in the palace leading up to Josiah’s kingship is shown by the assassination of Josiah’s young father at the hands of his own “servants.”  However, “the people of the land” intervened, executed the assassins, and put Josiah on the throne (II Kings 21:23-24).  What immediately followed were two political marriages, carried out while Josiah was still a teenager.  One was when Josiah was fourteen years old, and a second, quite different, marriage when he was sixteen years old.  
The first marriage was to Zebidah, daughter of Pediah of Rumah.  She gave birth to Eliakim (later throne name Jehoiakim) when Josiah was fourteen years old.  (II Kings 23:34 and 36 show that Jehoiakim was 25 years old when Josiah died at 39.)  Subsequent events show that this marriage represented continuation of the old Manasseh policy, very opposed to Josiah’s reform movement.  
The second political marriage, two years later, was to Hamutal, daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.  (Jeremiah of Libnah was a near neighbor of Adaiah of Bozkath, Josiah’s maternal grandfather.  Both these men were “people of the land,” who supported Josiah’s reform; see II Kings 23:30.)  Hamutal gave birth to Jehoahaz when Josiah was sixteen years old.  (II Kings 23:31.  Jehoahaz was 23 years old in the year Josiah died at 39.)  At Josiah’s death, the people of the land put Jehoahaz on the throne instead of his half-brother, Eliakim, who was two years older, 23:30.  
This second marriage clearly embodied a change of policy from the first marriage. Judging by everyone’s later conduct, this marriage marked a policy change that led directly to the religious-political reform, which was carried out in Josiah's adulthood.  When he reached maturity, he took over the direction of the reform policy himself (II Kings 22:3, and compare II Chronicles 34:3).  That reform, initiated by his advisors in the second marriage, established the “Deuteronomic” religious policy as the law of the land.  
The scroll story.  The story of finding the scroll of the law of Moses in the temple (II Kings 22:3-23:3) is a public justification for adopting a radically new law of the land. The story of the scroll may be fiction, but the story exists because there really was a law that needed a divine sanction! The reform involved extensive innovations in the institutions of Judean life, and appeal to newly recovered authoritative commands from God was needed. Most scholars agree that the scroll referred to in the story contained at least substantial parts of Deuteronomy, especially chapter 12, about the single place of sacrifice. The public justification for Josiah’s reform was based – at least in part – on those Deuteronomic texts.  
The book of Jeremiah places Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet in the year 628, the thirteenth year of Josiah, when the king was twenty-one years old and the Yahweh-Only policy for the kingdom of Judah was building up to its climax.  Many of Jeremiah’s poetic oracles (as in Jeremiah 2-6) were delivered to support Josiah’s reform, though they have all been re-oriented to later situations in Jeremiah’s career (as the detailed story in Jeremiah 36 makes clear). 
Jeremiah’s really serious activity, however, came immediately after Josiah’s death.  

After Josiah’s Death – Jeremiah vs. Jehoiakim  

With Josiah’s death, the people of the land placed his second-oldest son on the throne (first son of Josiah’s second marriage).  That reign lasted only three months, just long enough for Pharaoh Necho II, who had killed Josiah, to get back from a Mesopotamian campaign and remake Judean affairs in a pro-Egyptian image. 
Pharaoh eliminated Josiah’s second son and put his oldest son (from Josiah’s first marriage) on the throne, and laid a very heavy tribute on the people of the land, who had supported Josiah.  (All this is in II Kings 23:29-35.)  Necho II – and with him Josiah’s oldest son Jehoiakim – was clearly opposed on political grounds to Josiah’s reform.  
As soon as Jehoiakim was enthroned, by Pharaoh’s command, Jeremiah (by Yahweh’s command) delivered his “Temple sermon” (Jeremiah 7:1-15).  It is important to recognize that this sermon was delivered immediately after Jehoiakim had reversed Josiah’s reform.  Jehoiakim had restored the temple to its pre-Josiah status – annulling the union of the temple’s sacred realm with all the rest of Judah.  
Jeremiah’s sermon was a fundamental attack on the popular belief that Yahweh would protect Jerusalem – location of Yahweh’s exclusive temple – against attacks from the nations.  Yahweh’s word, as Jeremiah heard it in 610 or 609, was that the Jerusalem temple could be abandoned just as the Shiloh temple had been abandoned many centuries before.  (We have not only a Deuteronomic version of the sermon in Jeremiah 7:1-15 but also a narrative of both the sermon and its almost fatal sequel in Jeremiah 26.  The reference to “Shiloh” as rejected by Yahweh is explained in I Samuel 4-6.)  
For the rest of Jehoiakim’s reign (11 years), Jeremiah is radically opposed to the royal administration and its pro-Egyptian anti-Babylonian policy.  Everything in Jeremiah’s book is consistent on this opposition to Jehoiakim and his anti-Josiah policy.  (The only exceptions are the elaborate oracles against Babylon [Jeremiah 50-51 in the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah 27-28 in the Greek Bible].  These oracles originated a couple of generations after Jeremiah, when Babylon was about to fall to Persia, 539 BCE.)  
Scholars have often thought that Jeremiah could not be radically critical of the temple establishment (in the Temple Sermon) and also support a policy (Josiah’s) that made the Jerusalem temple the supreme center of Yahweh worship.  A little-recognized feature of Josiah’s reform reduces this apparent contradiction.  
City vs. Kingdom = Zion vs. Deuteronomy  
The reform of Josiah created a sharply new power relationship between the kingdom of Judah and the old city-state of Jerusalem (“Zion” in the liturgical language of the Jerusalem establishment since ancient times).  Josiah’s reform had merged the religious administrations of all the other Judean Yahweh sanctuaries.  The sacred domain of the Jerusalem holy place now encompassed the formerly separate sacred spaces of such cities as Lachish and Hebron.  No practicing priests were allowed in those places – because they were forbidden in the scroll of the law of Moses.  The entire kingdom was turned into a single cultic realm. The former local priests were combined in some manner with the older priestly orders of the Jerusalem temple (see II Kings 23:8-9).  
This complex and very loaded situation broke down immediately after the death of Josiah.  The old city-centered priestly power groups seized the opportunity to support Jehoiakim’s return to the pre-Josiah religious conditions.  The Zionists returned to their ancient liturgies – mimicked by the prophet in his temple sermon:  “the temple of the Lord [only two words in Hebrew], the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4, NRSV).  
A core of recalcitrant Zionists had remained opposed to the reform led by the people of the land.  Though the reform had retained the divine right of the Davidic dynasty, it had altered some age-old privileges of the Zion tradition and/or the Zadokite priesthood.  (The old city-state, including the temple, had always been the private property of the house of David, not included in the tribe of Judah.)  The religious-political unification of the realm by Josiah’s reform was reversed by Pharaoh and Jehoiakim.  The ancient holy city was once again religiously separate from its more distant outlands.  It was this return to independence for the city establishment that Jeremiah opposed – not the centrality of Jerusalem in Josiah’s reform. 
Thus, Jeremiah was always a consistent and emphatic supporter of Josiah’s reform, of the entire Yahweh-Only policy and ethos which was embodied in the Deuteronomic scroll of the law of Moses. 
In Josiah’s time Jeremiah shared with other prophets in poetic oracles preaching the absolute necessity for Lady Zion to return to her faithfulness to Yahweh (most clearly in Jeremiah chapters 2-6).  After Josiah’s death, Jeremiah became a public scandal (witness his situation after the sermon, in Jeremiah 26:16-24).  He had to go into hiding from the wrath of Jehoiakim (36:5 and 19), and generally stood as a minority opposition to the current political and religious establishment.  (See the image of the prophet as a besieged fortress for God in Jeremiah 1:18-19.)  

The Pro-Babylonian Foreign Policy  

Josiah’s foreign policy had always been consistently pro-Babylonian (a reversal of the pro-Assyrian policy his great-grandfather Manasseh had maintained for over fifty years).  Accordingly, Jeremiah always advises the Judeans to accept Babylonian suzerainty and live at peace with those overlords to whom Yahweh had given world-rule for the time being (see numerous references to Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon in chapters 21-29).  
After eleven years of Jehoiakim’s reign, Jerusalem was besieged and captured (but not destroyed) by Nebuchadnezzar, shaper of the new empire based on the city-state of Babylon.  Jehoiakim’s royal household was taken into captivity to Babylon, along with many other elite and valuable ruling class and artisan people (597 BCE; II Kings 24:14-16).  (There were three exiles of Judeans, 597, 586, and 581, see Jeremiah 52:28-30, where the numbers are probably heads of households.  The city of Jerusalem was destroyed after the second exile.).  
Josiah’s other son from his second (pro-Babylonian) marriage, Zedekiah, was not included in the exile to Babylon.  Instead, he was put on the throne as Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal.  The old distinction between the two marriages of Josiah persisted.  The pro-Josiah, pro-Babylonian policy was favored by sons from the second marriage; the pro-Egyptian, anti-Babylonian policy by the son and grandson of the first marriage.  

The end.  Nevertheless, the younger son of Josiah's second marriage failed to toe the line of his father.  Jeremiah labored to convince him to keep faith with Babylon, but, after resisting once or twice, Zedekiah was lured away to rebellion by chauvinistic nobles and took his kingdom into revolt, an eighteen-month siege of Jerusalem, and disaster.  The city was taken, its houses and temple burnt, its walls destroyed, and its leaders executed or exiled.  (Jeremiah 27-28 on resisting rebellion; Jeremiah 52 [a copy of II Kings 25] on the disasterous end.)  

Conclusion  

Jeremiah was thus an increasingly conspicuous advocate of the religious policy of the Yahweh-Only tradition that saw the Jerusalem temple as “the place that Yahweh your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name there” (Deuteronomy 12:5, NRSV modified).  Jeremiah, however, insisted that Yahweh’s protection of that holy place would always be contingent on Israelites keeping the Ten Commandments (Jeremiah 7:9-10).  Even with that contingency, Yahweh would find ways to maintain, even through exile to distant lands, some remnant of the old covenant promises.  (See Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29.)  
Jeremiah’s mission from Yahweh was “to pluck up and to pull down, / to destroy and to overthrow, / [but also] to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).  (The fragments of Jeremiah tradition looking to a hopeful future are collected in chapters 30-33.)  
It is clear that the Deuteronomistic movement, carrying on the Yahweh-Only tradition, kept seeking ways to build and to plant, even beyond the great tragic end of Jerusalem.  They had already shaped the traditional stories and records of Israel into a mega-narrative consistent with the program and priorities of Josiah’s reform (the “Deuteronomistic History,” the core narratives of Deuteronomy-II Kings).  After Jeremiah’s time they produced an extended version of that history, incorporating the disasters of the post-Josiah period.  
Along the way, those reform advocates had found, or developed, a major ally and fellow traveler in the prophet Jeremiah, with his scribe Baruch. 

Finally, Jeremiah himself ended in exile – though ironically his exile was in Egypt instead of in Babylon (chapters 43-44).  Nebuchadnezzar had offered him VIP treatment anywhere in the empire (40:2-6), but the old prophet chose to slug it out with the remnants left in the land, who in turn betrayed him and drug him off to Egypt, still a suffering servant of Yahweh’s word. 

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