THE LETTER OF JEREMIAH
INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS
ANTHONY J. SALDARINI
The Epistle of Jeremiah survives in Greek as well as in many versions, such as Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Latin. In some Greek mss (e.g., Alexandrinus, Vaticanus) and in the Syriac Hexapla and the Arabic, the epistle is separated from Baruch by Lamentations. In later LXX and other Syriac mss and in the old Latin, the epistle comes right after Baruch. In the Vulgate, the KJV, and Catholic Bibles, the epistle is included as chapter 6 of Baruch, which itself follows Jeremiah.
GENRE AND LITERARY STRUCTURE
The superscription of the epistle (v. 1) identifies it as a copy of a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah to Judean prisoners who were about to be shipped to Babylon. The next six verses (vv. 2–7) directly address the exiles in a form consistent with a letter and also provide a narrative framework for the document. However, the rest of the epistle consists of satirical parodies and polemics against idols and prophetic admonitions and warnings,2 all of which have literary links with the Hebrew Bible, especially the book of Jeremiah. Whether the epistle is thought of as an ancient letter depends on how flexibly the letter genre is understood. The first seven verses of the epistle parallel the letter Jeremiah sent to the Babylonian exiles (Jeremiah 29), and the epistle is clearly meant to supplement the materials found in the book of Jeremiah. Although the epistle’s language is very much like a tract, it also addresses the exiles in its exhortatory refrains as one would address the recipients of a letter.
After the introduction (vv. 1–7), the polemics, instructions, and exhortations may be divided into ten sections: vv. 8–16, vv. 17–23, vv. 24–29, vv. 30–40a, vv. 40b–44, vv. 45–52, vv. 53–56, vv. 57–65, vv. 66–69, and vv. 70–73. Each division concludes with a refrain, which argues that the statues of the gods are not really gods and, therefore, should not be feared: "From this it is evident that they are not gods; so do not fear them" (v. 16; similarly vv. 23, 29, 65, 69); "Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?" (v. 40; similarly vv. 44, 51, 56, 72). Similar rhetorical questions and statements also appear within sections four (v. 30), six (vv. 47, 49, 51), and eight (vv. 59, 64). These refrains keep before the reader the main themes of the epistle, "beware of becoming at all like the foreigners or of letting fear for these gods possess you" (v. 5), and "It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship" (v. 6). The fear motif comes from Jeremiah 10, which has influenced the whole epistle: "Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,/ and they cannot speak;/ they have to be carried,/ for they cannot walk./ Do not be afraid of them,/ for they cannot do evil,/ nor is it in them to do good" (Jer 10:5, italics added; cf. Ep Jer 5, 70). Thus the Epistle of Jeremiah, despite its repletion, transmits a unified message within the Jeremiah tradition. The Targum on Jer 10:11 says that the Aramaic slogan in that verse was quoted from this epistle, but the Targum is a late and unreliable source for this kind of information. However, the theme of Jer 10:11, "The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens" (NRSV), fits well the content and focus of the epistle.
Within this narrative and thematic framework, the epistle’s polemical observations and arguments are repeated frequently, often without discernible order. This repetition has led commentators to outdo one another in criticizing it. Ball wonders how a work "so formless, so confused, so utterly destitute of the graces of style" could have been preserved in the Alexandrian canon. "We are presented with a voluble but ill-connected succession of propositions, bearing little visible relation to each other beyond general animus against idolatry." Torrey agreed more briefly: "It is a formless composition, rambling and repetitious."7 Carey Moore describes the epistle more precisely: "Apart from a not infrequent uncertainty as to the antecedents of its pronouns, the text is intelligible enough; but its images, analogies, and comparison are rarely new and never memorable. After the first three or four stanzas there is no further development or progression of thought; rather, the same old observations and arguments are rehashed."
Others have seen more structure to the argument. The Greek conjunctionγάρ (gar, "for") links arguments and observations in vv. 7, 8, 17, 24, 30, 50, 53, 60, 66, and 70. (These connectives are not always translated in the NRSV.) Similarly, the connective particle δέ (de) appears in v. 43 and the conjunction οὖν (oun, "therefore") in vv. 49, 51, 56, and 64. Although the lines of argument and coherence are often unclear, a recent study has divided the argument into two parts (vv. 8–29 and 30–73), with each subdivided into three sections (vv. 8–16, 17–23, 24–29 and vv. 30–65 [with subdivisions], 66–69, 70–73.) Suffice it to say that the epistle marshals abundant, related evidence against the reality of the gods, but it lacks a tightly structured argument.
In form and content the Epistle of Jeremiah is closely related to the Hebrew Bible and other Second Temple literature. The rejection of statues and images of God as well as of other gods is found in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:3–5; Deut 5:7–9) and other biblical laws (Exod 34:17; Lev 19:4; 26:1; Deut 4:16, 23; 27:15). But the Epistle of Jeremiah addresses the danger of idolatry in exile (cf. Deut 4:27–28) more specifically by drawing upon the prophetic and cultic polemics against idols (Pss 115:3–8; 135:15–18; Isa 40:18–20; 41:6–7; 44:9–20; 46:1–8; Hab 2:18–19). These materials have been drawn into the Jeremiah tradition and organized under the influence of the polemic against idols in Jer 10:1–16 and the letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29. Presumably the author of the Epistle of Jeremiah sought to address new dangers by gathering and reinterpreting the anti-idol materials in the prophets, especially Jeremiah. The epistle was one of a number of Second Temple compositions that addressed the problem of idolatry through polemic and parody (see Wis 13:10–19; 15:7–13; Bel and the Dragon; Jub. 12:2–5; 20:8–9). The author, who probably wrote in Hebrew, used the Hebrew version of Jeremiah, not the Greek. The image of the scarecrow in the cucumber patch (v. 70) comes from the Hebrew of Jer 10:5, but is missing in the Greek.
In a recent study, R. G. Kratz argues that the Epistle of Jeremiah is an orderly interpretation and rewriting of Jer 10:1–16 for a new situation rather than a random borrowing of themes and motifs. Thus Jer 10:2–3a and Ep Jer 4–6 each introduces its respective polemics. Jeremiah 10:3b–5a (along with Jer 10:9, 14) provided the themes of the first part of the epistle (vv. 8–29), and Jer 10:5b–16 the themes for the second, longer and more complex part (vv. 30–73). Kratz places the epistle within the chronological framework of the Jeremiah tradition, which was itself undergoing extensive editing during the Persian and Greek periods. The writer of the epistle was adapting the Jeremiah tradition to his own situation in the third century bce, which required long-term resistance to idolatry. Thus the Epistle of Jeremiah is not a pale imitation of Jeremiah; rather, it is part of a vital and developing complex of prophetic traditions that were giving guidance to Jewish communities in the Hellenistic age.
LANGUAGE, DATE AND PLACE
The Epistle of Jeremiah has survived only in Greek as part of the LXX. The earliest ms evidence for the epistle is a very fragmentary copy of vv. 43–44 in Greek. However, a number of peculiarities in the Greek suggest that it was translated from a Hebrew original.14 The clearest translation error, corrected by most English versions, is found in v. 72. The Greek reads, literally: "From the purple and marble that rot upon them [the statues of the gods] you will know that they are not gods." Since marble does not rot, the statement is incoherent. However, the Hebrew word for "marble" or "alabaster" (שׁשׁ šeš) also means "linen," which here would refer to the statues’ clothing, which does rot. Similarly, in v. 12 the Greek says literally that the statues "cannot save themselves from rust and food" (the NRSV’s "rust and corrosion" comes from a Greek variant reading). The translator probably read the Hebrew letters מאכל (mʾkl) as מאכל (maʾkăl), "food," rather than as מאכל (meʾokel), "the devourer," that is, a moth. Thus the Hebrew original referred to rust corroding the metal overlay of the statues and moths eating away at the clothing. Elsewhere, in the middle of an argument that the statues of the gods are powerless, they are said to be "like crows between heaven and earth" (v. 55), an unusually obscure simile. However, the Hebrew consonants for the word "crows" (ערבים ʿrbym) could easily have been confused with "clouds" (עבים ʿbym) by the translator. Other suggested mistranslations are less certain but improve the text. In "for just as someone’s dish is useless when it is broken" (v. 17), "someone’s dish" (כלי אדם kly ʾdm; lit., "dish of a man") in Hebrew may have resulted from a misreading of כלי אדמה (kly ʾdmh), "ceramic/earthen disk" (lit., "dish of earth"). In general, the Greek of the epistle has many Semitic characteristics and can be easily retroverted into Hebrew, so the likelihood of a Hebrew original is generally accepted.
The epistle can be assigned no secure date. It has been most frequently placed in the Hellenistic period (332–63 bce). The Qumran Greek ms fragment of vv. 43–44 mentioned above was copied in about 100 bce. The epistle may be referred to in 2 Macc 2:2, which recounts that Jeremiah "instructed those who were being deported [to Babylon] not … to be led astray in their thoughts on seeing the gold and silver statues and their adornment" (NRSV). The cover letter of 2 Maccabees (2 Macc 1:1–9) is dated in 124 bce, and the letter it introduces (2 Macc 1:10–2:18) is generally thought to be earlier, perhaps soon after the rededication of the Temple in 164 bce. These two pieces of external evidence suggest that the Epistle of Jeremiah was composed in the second century or earlier. Some commentators have taken the reference to seven generations (v. 3) literally and calculated a period of 280 years from 597 or 586 to the late fourth century (317 and 306 bce). But chronological notices of this kind are conventional and symbolic. Jeremiah speaks of seventy years (Jer 25:12; 29:10) and three generations (Jer 27:7). Daniel reinterpreted this period into seventy weeks of years (Dan 9:2, 24–27), and it may be that the author is here engaged in a similar enterprise. If so, then such chronological notices are not accurate indicators for the document’s date of composition. The content and purpose of the epistle, to delegitimate other gods so that Israel will not worship them, are so general that they may pertain to any time in the Persian and Greek periods.
The narrative framework of the introduction refers to the Babylonian period and to Babylonian gods. More substantively, the types of statues, processions, dressing, feeding, and care of the gods that are alluded to and mocked in the polemics of the epistle (vv. 15–22, 29–39, 40–44, 57–58) match closely what we know of Babylonian worship. But Babylonian worship continued throughout the Persian and Greek periods, and Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, and Mesopotamians worshiped and used statues of gods in analogous and similar ways. In addition, polemics and parodies against the gods were common in Hellenistic literature.18 Thus the author of the Hebrew original of the epistle may have been in the Babylonian or Judean Jewish community. There is no sign of specifically Egyptian influence except for the mention of cats (v. 22), which were first domesticated in Egypt.
The extensive attack on the Near Eastern gods supports the main theme and goal of the Epistle of Jeremiah: that Israel should worship only the God of the Bible (v. 6) and not fear foreign gods (v. 5). The list of polemical charges brought against the statues of the gods is long, detailed, and repetitious. In general, the author lists exhaustively the gods’ lack of all the attributes and aptitudes generally expected of gods in the ancient Near East. In making this attack, the epistle contrasts the ancient intuition of divine power and presence in the statues with the perceptible inactivity of those images of the gods. The author repeats constantly that the gods are made of wood overlaid with gold and silver (vv. 30, 39, 55, 57–58, 70–71) and that they, far from being creators, were made by human craftsmen (vv. 4, 8–9, 39, 45–47, 50, 57) who themselves will die (v. 46). The gods cannot care for themselves or help themselves in time of crisis (vv. 12–15, 18–21, 24, 27, 55). They cannot move, but must be carried (vv. 4, 26–27, 55, 68) and must be clothed by humans (vv. 9–11). They cannot speak, see, or touch (vv. 8, 19, 41); in short, they have no breath or life within them (vv. 25, 27).
These gods cannot do good or evil for their worshipers or for themselves (vv. 34–38, 48–49, 53, 64, 67). They do not rule the heavens (vv. 60–63), make or break kings (vv. 34, 53, 66), fight wars, enforce judgments, help their clients, or protect themselves from theft (vv. 14–15, 18, 53–55, 57–59). Their wooden cores, metal plating, and clothing deteriorate (vv. 12, 20, 72). They are served by dishonest priests who steal from them (vv. 10, 28, 33). Their cults are improper and impure (judged by biblical standards), because priests have torn clothing and shaved heads (vv. 31–32) and because impure women and prostitutes serve them (vv. 11, 29–30, 42–43). As a result, these gods bring dishonor and shame upon their worshipers (vv. 26, 39–40, 47, 72–73).
Ball, Charles J. "Epistle of Jeremy." in Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Edited by R. H. Charles. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913. Still significant for its detailed textual notes.
Fitzgerald, Alysius. "Baruch." New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Edited by Raymond Brown et al. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990. A short introductory commentary with the Letter of Jeremiah positioned as chapter six in the commentary on Baruch.
Harrington, Daniel J. "Letter of Jeremiah." In Harper’s Bible Commentary. Edited by James L. Mays. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. A brief introductory commentary that emphasizes the meaning of the text.
Moore, Cary A. Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions. AB 44. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. Provides a general introduction and moderately detailed textual notes. Sparing interpretation.
Nickelsburg, George W. E. "The Bible Rewritten and Expanded." In Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period. Edited by Michael E. Stone. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984. A short introduction to the Letter of Jeremiah in light of the state of scholarly knowledge and discussion in the early nineteen eighties.
———. Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981. Contains a short discussion and summary of the Letter of Jeremiah.
Schürer, Emil, Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Martin Goodman. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 b.c.–a.d. 135). Vol. 3.2. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1987. An update of a (seriously flawed) classic early twentieth century German work providing a summary and cursory discussion of the Letter of Jeremiah. Valuable for its discussion of the use of the book in early Christianity and patristic writers.
Outline of the Letter of Jeremiah
I. Letter of Jeremiah 6:1–7, Narrative Introduction
II. Letter of Jeremiah 6:8–16, First Instruction
III. Letter of Jeremiah 6:17–23, Second Instruction
IV. Letter of Jeremiah 6:24–29, Third Instruction
V. Letter of Jeremiah 6:30–40a, Fourth Instruction
VI. Letter of Jeremiah 6:40b–44, Fifth Instruction
VII. Letter of Jeremiah 6:45–52, Sixth Instruction
VIII. Letter of Jeremiah 6:53–56, Seventh Instruction
IX. Letter of Jeremiah 6:57–65, Eighth Instruction
X. Letter of Jeremiah 6:66–69, Ninth Instruction
XI. Letter of Jeremiah 6:70–73, Tenth Instruction
The Letter of Jeremiah 6:1–7
As was noted in the Introduction, even though this work is called a letter, it contains admonitions, exhortations, and especially polemics against idolatry. The epistle is meant to fit into the sequence of events found in the book of Jeremiah. The letter of Jeremiah to the exiles settled in Babylonia (Jeremiah 29), on which this work is modeled, is addressed to the Judeans already taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in the first exile (597 bce; see 2 Kgs 24:10–17). This epistle precedes that letter, since it is addressed to "those who were to be taken to Babylon as exiles," before they were led away. However, it is also possible that the author envisioned the second exile, which followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 bce. After Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the bodyguard, took Jerusalem (2 Kgs 25:8–12; Jer 39:1–10), Nebuchadnezzar ordered Jeremiah’s release from jail and offered him transport to Babylon if he wished; but Jeremiah chose to stay in Mizpah with Gedaliah, who was appointed governor (Jer 39:1–40:6). This scenario from the biblical book of Jeremiah provides a context for Jeremiah to address a letter to the exiles as they are gathered for the trip to Babylon. Similar apocryphal expansions of the Jeremiah stories can be found in the Greek and Hebrew versions of Jeremiah and in the Jeremiah Apocryphon found at Qumran (4Q385). According to the Qumran text, Jeremiah traveled to Babylon before he was taken to Egypt (see Jeremiah 43 for his exile in Egypt).
The first statement of the epistle (v. 2) gives the deuteronomic explanation for exile: sin. The prediction that the people will remain in exile for a long time (v. 2) agrees with Jeremiah’s letter (Jeremiah 29) in which he advises the exiles to settle down in Babylon and build houses, families, and gardens. Twice the book of Jeremiah predicts an exile of seventy years (Jer 25:12; 29:10) and elsewhere indirectly alludes to three generations (Jer 27:7, extant only in the Hebrew). Here the author, writing much later, extends the time of exile to seven generations in order to encompass his own time. All these round numbers, along with the further revision in Dan 9:2, 24–27 to "seventy weeks of years," only approximate the length of exile.
The topic of the Epistle of Jeremiah is a simple deuteronomic problem (v. 4): The people will be tempted to assimilate into Babylonian culture and worship their gods. They will experience the attractions of worship and ritual, including gold- and silver-plated wooden statues (common in Babylon; see Isa 40:19; Jer 10:3–4), festival processions (known from Mesopotamian reliefs and Isa 46:1), and popular reverence for these gods ("fear" means awe, respect, reverence, acceptance). The solution to this problem is to remain distinct from the Babylonians and not to fear their gods. The instruction not to fear the Babylonian gods will be repeated in five of the ten refrains that end the sections of the epistle (vv. 16, 23, 29, 65, 69). When attracted by a festival procession and the religion of the native population, Israel should affirm its commitment to God alone: "It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship" (v. 6; cf. Deut 6:4 and the commandments in Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7). In response, God will watch over faithful Israel through the agency of an angel, connoting divine presence and care (v. 7), just as God cared for them during the exodus (see Exod 14:19; 23:20, 23; 32:34, where the angel is a euphemism for God’s activity; for a later understanding of angelic guardians, see Tob 5:4–5). The Greek verb for "watching over" (ἐκζητῶν ekzetōn) Israel’s lives has an added connotation of judicial investigation and accountability for any harm done (to or by the exiles?). The rest of the epistle exhorts the exiles to reject other gods by convincing them that God alone is genuine and powerful and that other gods are inauthentic. (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
The Letter of Jeremiah 6:8–16
The author argues for his position (the Greek sentence begins with "For" [γάρ gar]) by mocking the statues of the gods and the people who attend to them. His conclusion is repeated at the beginning and the end, "they are false" (v. 8) and "they are not gods" (v. 16); and his advice, "do not fear them" (v. 16), corresponds to his theme in the opening narrative (vv. 5–6). He proves his position by describing the gods and their worshipers. The gods need to be clothed and adorned like children (vv. 9, 11), they get dirty and must be cleaned, and they deteriorate through the attacks of rust on their metal plating and moths on their clothing (v. 12; see the Introduction for this interpretation of "corrosion."). Although they bear royal, judicial, and military insignia (vv. 12, 14–15), these gods cannot execute the guilty or defend themselves. The priests steal the gods’ wealth (v. 10), sometimes for prostitution (v. 11). Ritual prostitution in the gods’ temples may be implied by the Greek word τέγος (tegos), translated as "terrace" (lit., "roof," but used in idiomatic speech for any roofed building or hall, like a temple, and also for a brothel). Herodotus reports that ritual prostitutes, the "brides of Bel," slept in the top level of Bel’s great pyramid temple in Babylon.22 In summary, the gods and their priests are inauthentic, fradulent, deceptive, and corrupt. (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:17–23
The physical realities of the temple statues prompt the second series of satirical attacks. The initial thesis (v. 17), a proverbial simile that they are as useless as broken ceramic pots (cf. Jer 19:11; 22:28; Hos 8:8), is supported by the helplessness of the temple statues and leads to the concluding refrain that the gods are neither real nor to be feared (v. 23). Ironically, the worshipers who venerate the gods stir up dust, which gets in the gods’ eyes (v. 18) and prevents them from seeing the light of the many lamps in the temples (v. 19; cf. Ps. 115:5); nor do they know that their faces are blackened by the smoke of those lamps (v. 21).
The comparison in the second half of v. 18 is unclear both in Greek and in the NRSV. Probably it refers to a person who has insulted a king and is jailed in a walled (lit., fenced or fortified) courtyard (αὐλαί aulai) whose gates are secured as he awaits death. Jeremiah was confined in such a courtyard (Jer 32:2). The temple statues of the gods are similarly locked up like prisoners, but ironically the walls keep the robbers out, rather than keep them in. The gods cannot move (v. 4) or defend themselves (v. 15). In fact, the argument continues, living things attack the gods. Since the gods are made of wood, like the temple (cf. v. 8), insects eat their wooden "hearts" along with their robes (v. 20; cf. v. 12) and thus destroy them. Birds land on them, with the implication that they deposit feces there, and "cats" (mentioned only here in the LXX) climb on them. The beleaguered temple gods are the opposite of a real and powerful God and thus do not deserve to be feared (v. 23). (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:24–29
This instruction, beginning with the connective "for" (γάρ gar), continues the previous argument: The gods are so helpless that their precious gold plating (cf. v. 8) must be polished. The expression "for even when they were being cast, they did not feel it" (v. 24) makes little sense, because the statues were not cast; rather they were made from wood overlaid with gold. Probably the Greek writer mistranslated the original Hebrew, which read, "when they were polluted [חללו ḥālĕlû], they did not feel it," as when they produced/cast [חוללו ḥôlĕlû], they did not feel it. A series of sarcastic contrasts (vv. 25–27) devalue both the statues and their attendants. Although the statues are expensive to buy, they lack life (v. 25; cf. Ps 135:17; Jer 10:14), so that offering them gifts is like the traditional offering of gifts at the graves of the dead (v. 27), a practice common in the Near East but resisted by the Hebrew Bible (Deut 26:14; Ps 106:28). Because they lack locomotion, the statues must be carried (v. 26; cf. vv. 4, 68) and set up by others. This immobility dishonors their worshipers, who participate in the charade by picking up the statues if they are ignominously dropped. The author also condemns the corrupt priests for stealing sacrifices (cf. v. 10) and their wives for preserving excess meat rather than giving it to the poor (v. 28). Finally, Babylonian rituals are judged by biblical norms: Women who are ritually impure through childbirth or menstruation (see Lev. 12:2–5; 15:19–20) touch the sacrifices (v. 29). (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:30–40a
The attack on Babylonian rituals continues. Women serve in the temples (v. 30), contrary to biblical law, which does not allow women even to enter the inner precincts of the Jerusalem Temple. Priests preside with their heads uncovered, hair and beards shaved, and clothes torn, howling and shouting (vv. 31–32). Shaved heads and beards, disheveled hair, torn clothing, and even flesh wounds were normal and accepted signs of mourning in the Near East (Job 1:20; Jer 41:5; 48:37), but certain of these practices were forbidden to Israelites (e.g., "shaven temples," a rite of hair cutting, in Jer 9:26; 25:23; 49:32) and to priests serving at the Temple (Lev 10:6; 21:5, 10; Deut 14:1; Ezek 24:17; 44:17–20) because they were associated with mourning rituals for the Babylonian dying and rising god, Dumuzi or Tammuz (vv. 31–32; cf. Jer 16:5; Ezek 8:14).
The priests are again accused of stealing from the gods (v. 33; cf. vv. 10, 28) and their worshipers of shaming themselves (v. 39) because these gods lack divine attributes (vv. 34–38). These gods cannot repay good and evil, make or break kings (1-2 Samuel), guarantee a vow, make a person wealthy (2 Sam 2:7), save the weak or preserve human beings from death (Deut 32:39; Ps 49:15), give sight to a blind person, rescue someone in distress, or aid the helpless widow or orphan (Ps 146:8–9). The final comparison of gold- and silver-plated wood statues with inert stones (v. 39) is drawn from Hab 2:19. (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:40b–44
The priests bring dishonor on their own gods (vv. 40–41), just as the gods shame their worshipers (v. 39), by vain efforts to cure mute people through a mute god. "Chaldeans" here probably refers to religious specialists who engaged in divination and magic. "Bel" (Isa 46:1; Jer 50:2; 51:44), more properly "Belu," is the Babylonian equivalent of "Baal," meaning "Lord," and refers to Marduk. The Greek pronominal subjects and objects in vv. 40–41 are very unclear, as is the NRSV interpretation of them. In v. 41, either the statue of Bel is brought to the mute person or the person is brought to Bel’s temple. When Bel and the mute person are together, either Bel is entreated to speak or to enable the person to speak, but Bel cannot understand in either case. Verse 41 seems to mean that even this ineffective appeal to Bel does not cause the Chaledeans to perceive the impotency of Bel and abandon their gods, as the author would expect, because the Chaldeans have no understanding. Thus they are taken in by their gods and do not recognize acts of worship and reverence as false.
Similarly women at the temples compete with one another for partners in ritual prostitution (vv. 42–43; cf. v. 11) and do not recognize their worship as false or question their gods. The cords around the women sitting in the passageways (v. 42) were probably worn around their foreheads as a sign that they were prostitutes (see v. 11 and Jer 3:2 for prostitution). Evidence for temple prostitutes in the ancient Near East and in Israel (Deut 23:17–18; 2 Kgs 15:12; 22:17; 23:7; 24:20) is plentiful, but the connection of such prostitution with fertility cults is very unclear. Sometimes prostitutes were used to support the temples. In other cases, individual women had intercourse to fulfill a vow. The burning bran (v. 42; bran is chaff, the outer covering of the wheat kernel) may have been used as an aphrodisiac. Herodotus describes the practice of a prostitute’s waiting in the temple to be led away by a man for intercourse as a once-in-a-lifetime ritual practiced in Babylonian temples of Ishtar Mylitta, whom he identified with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. His interpretation of the temple women’s sexual activity may not be accurate, since they could have been women fulfilling a vow. Needless to say, biblical law, the prophets, and the author of the Epistle of Jeremiah (v. 44) strongly reject such fertility practices. (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:45–52
The author implicitly contrasts the Babylonian gods with the biblical creator God. God created the world and lives forever, but the statues of the gods were created by artisans (Ps 115:4; Isa 40:19; Jer 10:9), who themselves soon die (v. 46). These created gods mislead and dishonor the craftsmen’s descendants. The biblical God rules the world with power to destroy all opponents, in contrast to the statues of the gods, which must be hidden by their priests during war (v. 48). The public, international forum of war unmasks the gods’ fraudulent claims to divinity. (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:53–56
The powerless gods of the previous instruction cannot appoint a king (cf. v. 34) or see that justice is done for themselves or others (cf. v. 14) or give rain (Deut 11:14; 28:12; Ps 147:8), as Near Eastern gods are expected to do. The statues of the gods, previously shown to be subject to dust, corrosion, and war, are now threatened with incineration in temple fires that they, unlike their priests, cannot escape. The odd simile that they are like crows between heaven and earth (v. 55) is probably based on a mistranslation of the orginal Hebrew "clouds" (see the Introduction on language). Thus the gods are powerless (v. 54), like clouds drifting in the sky. (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:57–65
This instruction contains two parts, (1) the helplessness and uselessness of statues of the gods (vv. 57–59) and (2) their inferiority to heavenly bodies, which are under God’s control (vv. 60–64). Each part concludes that the gods are false (vv. 59, 64), and the whole section ends with the usual refrain not to fear them (v. 65). The charge that the gods can be robbed of their goods and stolen entirely has appeared several times previously (vv. 10, 15, 28, 33, 48). Similarly, the contrast of useful household items (a utensil, door, or column) with useless statues of the gods appeared earlier (vv. 17–18) and is common in other polemics (e.g., Wis 13:12–15; 15:7–8). The contrast between a king and a false god (v. 59) is cogent, but it does not fit the context. Perhaps the Hebrew for a "wooden staff" (מקל maqqēl) or a "spindle" (פלך pelek) has been confused with the word for "king" (מלך melek). If so, all four useful household items in v. 59 (staff/spindle, utensil, door, and pillar) would be made of wood.
God commands the sun, moon, stars, lightning, and wind as they travel over the whole world (vv. 60–62) and heavenly fire when it strikes the earth (v. 63). The image of the sky and storm god ruling the world and executing justice is common in the Near East and in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exodus 15; 19:16–19; 1 Kgs 18:44–45; Psalms 29; 135:7). The creation story carefully subordinates powerful heavenly bodies so that they will not be worshiped (Gen 1:14–18). Here these heavenly powers are magnified in contrast to the unimpressive and powerless gods, which are dismissed as unable even to decide a case or do any good (v. 64), much less rule the cosmos. The criteria for a true God include ruling the heavens, guaranteeing justice, and protecting worshipers; the statues of the gods fail on all counts. (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:66–69
The Greek conjunction "for" (γάρ gar) connects this instruction to the previous one, and the pronominal subject of the first verb refers back to the noun "false gods" (οἱ ψευδεῖς θεοί hoi pseudeis theoi) in v. 59 (the noun "idols" in NRSV v. 63 is not in the Greek). Polemics continue showing that the statues of the false gods have no power over the earthly or heavenly order. The gods cannot curse or bless kings (v. 66; cf. vv. 34, 53). That they do not give light like the sun and the moon (v. 67) recalls the ironic comment that priests light lamps for them in their temples, but the gods cannot see (v. 19). The unclear observation that "they cannot show signs in the heavens for the nations" (v. 67) may refer to the use of heavenly bodies to predict the future or as signs of divine pleasure and displeasure (cf. Jer 10:2). However, the expression "signs in nations in heaven" probably springs from a confusion in the translation of the similar Hebrew words for "nations" (עמים ʿamîm) and "heaven(s)" (שׁמים šāmayim). Finally, and strikingly, these false gods are lower than heavenly bodies, human beings, and even wild animals, who can run for cover (cf. vv. 4, 26). (See Reflections at 6:70–73.)
LETTER OF JEREMIAH 6:70–73
The tenth and final instruction does not provide a summary or conclusion to the letter, but reinforces previous themes with new images. The first of three similes, the scarecrow in a cucumber patch, is drawn from the Hebrew version of Jer 10:5, which stresses the muteness and immobility of a (carved?) "post" used as a scarecrow. But the author of the Epistle of Jeremiah applies this simile to a favorite theme, that the gods cannot guard themselves or prevent robbery (cf. vv. 15, 18, 57, 59). Second, the gods are compared to a thorn bush in a garden (v. 71), which is out of place and fit only to be fouled by perching birds. (Ordinarily thorn bushes were used as hedges around a garden.) Finally, and most dismally, the gods are like an unburied corpse (v. 71), abandoned under cover of darkness. In a society that respected its dead and valued proper burial, this is the ultimate dishonor and show of contempt. In Amos 8:3 a series of disasters signifying social dissolution include "dead bodies [which] shall be many, cast out in every place." Jeremiah predicts that victims of famine and sword during war will be thrown out into the streets with no one to bury them (Jer 14:16), and Baruch makes the disinterment of the bones of kings a symbol of the destruction of Judean society (Bar 2:25). In the penultimate verse, the gods’ lack of immortality, a requirement for authentic divinity, is symbolized by the rotting of their royal purple and linen clothes. In the end, the statues of the gods will be consumed—literally "devoured."
Although the epistle lacks a satisfying conclusion, the final two verses repeat and intensify the theme of dishonor. The gods are a reproach to the lands where they are present (v. 72; cf. v. 47). A reproach refers to something disgraceful or dishonorable that causes people to reject or rebuke the land and people associated with these false gods. In an honor/shame society, such an object of reproach taints the public standing of everyone and thus is a much more serious matter than in modern Western society, which emphasizes personal guilt. "Reproach" is the catchword that leads to the final verse (v. 73), which does not repeat the usual refrains that concluded the previous nine instructions. Rather, the author implicitly compares the just person who has no idols with all those mentioned in the epistle who have gods made of wood plated with gold and silver. The word "idols" (εἴδωλα eidōla) is used only here in the Epistle of Jeremiah, despite the NRSV’s insertion of the word into its translations of vv. 44 and 63. Although the introductory narrative of the epistle aims its polemic against Babylonian gods in the time of Jeremiah, the author must have lived later when some Jews were in danger of bringing statues of the gods into their homes. Against this practice, the author holds up the wisdom ideal of the just person who retains his or her honor by avoiding any "reproach"—that is, any dishonorable or disgraceful thing or behavior. Here dishonorable behavior is owning and worshiping idols. If those addressed in the Epistle of Jeremiah follow this advice, the author’s long and repetitious polemic will have achieved its goal.
Much of the content, attitudes, and tactics in the Epistle of Jeremiah strike the modern reader as inappropriate or irrelevant. The temptation to worship gods other than the biblical God died out with the demise of polytheism in the West. The epistle’s sharp rejection of other religions does not fit the pluralistic and ecumenical temper of our times. Contemporary theologies seek to understand, to learn from, and to accept as authentic other religions and their cultures. The polemics and parodies in the Epistle of Jeremiah misrepresent the views of others and so contradict our standards of rationality and fairness. Sarcastic, nihilating attacks on others’ views and practices remind us of the worst in political ads and recall the destructive effects of Christian anti-Semitism throughout history, especially during the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.
For all its limitations, the Epistle of Jeremiah communicates a sharp, robust appreciation of God’s vitality and power. The author defends his core theology with a determined exposition of God’s reality and sovereignty in the face of massive cultural bias against monotheism in the ancient world. In the contemporary West, denial of or inattention to God has replaced polytheism as the major threat to the worship of God. Yet this change in orientation does not leave the biblical tradition silent. The epistle witnesses to a creative reinterpretation and reuse of Jeremiah and other biblical texts in order to counter the long-term threat of idolatry in the Hellenistic Empire. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other Second Temple literature witness to a similar rewriting of biblical texts to meet new challenges. Analogously, in our "Hellenistic" world two millennia later the Epistle of Jeremiah can give some guidance for a Christian response to the modern world. The polemical ripostes against false gods may be turned metaphorically against those things and obsessions that relativize or blot out God in our culture and personal lives. The critique of Babylonian cultic practices may uncover a superficial, self-serving religiosity that estranges people from one another, from their world, and ultimately from God. The promise that God will watch over the Judeans even while they are in exile may encourage confidence in a God often perceived as absent rather than present. Finally, the fundamental fidelity to God’s covenant with Israel, which underlies the theology and exhortations of the epistle, continues to support Christian life today, even in a world very different from that of the Epistle of Jeremiah.
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