Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jeremiah 38:1-41:18


The chronological order of the book of Jeremiah is often confused. At the end of chapter 37 Jeremiah was in prison. At the beginning of chapter 38 he seems to be out and about, preaching his message of capitulation to the Babylonians freely. Four officials take exception to Jeremiah's pronouncements and, with king Zedekiah's permission, lower him into a cistern where, sinking into the mud, he is left to starve to death. This is a literal and figurative low point in Jeremiah's career.

A foregiener, an Ethiopian servant named Ebed Melek ("Servant of the King") gets Zedekiah's permission to free Jeremiah. Indecisiveness may be one of Zedekiah's problems. The contrast between the duplicitous king and the forthright foreign servant couldn't be clearer.

In verses 14-28 we read that Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah and held another private conference with him in the temple. Jeremiah's advice is the same as ever: surrender to the Babylonians and live. Zedekiah is afraid to do so. Jeremiah tells Zedekiah that the women of his household will be taken captive, Zedekiah himself will be captured, and the city of Jerusalem will be burned. Zedekiah tells Jeremiah to keep this conversation secret.

Chapter 39 gives a brief account of the fall of Jerusalem which was told in greater detail in 2 Kings 25 and 2 Chronicles 36. When Zedekiah attempts to escape the besieged city, he is captured by the Babylonians, forced to watch his sons killed, then blinded, shackled, and taken to Babylon.

The Babylonians (they may be "Chaldeans" if your Bible hews closely to the Hebrew text) destroy Jerusalem and deport its wealthy and powerful citizens.

In chapter 39 the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar in the Hebrew) rewards Jeremiah's pro-Babylonian preaching by freeing the prophet from prison and handing him over to Gedaliah who, we will learn, was appointed governor over Judah by Babylonians. Jeremiah speaks a propitious oracle concerning Ebed Melek.

Chapter 40 tells a somewhat different story concerning Jeremiah's release. Here he is found among the captives being taken to Babylon but is freed and handed over to Gedaliah.

Either way, Jeremiah stays behind in Judah. Back in chapter 24 he had referred to those who did not go into exile as "bad figs." Here they appear to be the fortunate ones though things will soon go badly among them.

After verse 6 Jeremiah vanishes from the narrative for a while. Governor Gedaliah encourages the people, as Jeremiah did, to serve the Babylonians. Jews who had fled into neighboring lands return to Judah:

[T]hey all came back to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah, from all the countries where they had been scattered. And they harvested an abundance of wine and summer fruit.
      (Jeremiah 40:11)

Good fortune does not reign long. Gedeliah refuses to credit reports that a certain Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, is plotting to kill him.

In chapter 41, Ishmael assassinates the governor and thereby ends "even limited Judean autonomy in the land" as a note in the Jewish Study Bible puts it. This is the "culmination of the events associated with the destruction of the Temple and the exile."

Ishmael compounds his crime by murdering 70 mourning pilgrims who come to offer gifts at, we must suppose, the ruins of the temple. The motive for Ishmael's act is not clear. He dumps their bodies in a well. Another 10 pilgrims are spared, apparently because they buy their lives with the promise of hidden wealth. Ishmael takes the people of Mizpah, what's left of them, captive. A man named Johanan commands an army that rescues the Mizpahites. Ishmael escapes.

Now fearing that the Babylonians will send armies to end all of this internal strife, the rescued Mizpahites take it on the lam. The story isn't ended but the chapter is. So we'll leave off with a cliffhanger....

Next: Jeremiah 42-45

No comments:

Post a Comment