Buckle your Bible belts; we are in for a bumpy ride.
The book of Jeremiah is difficult on many levels, not least of which is its organizational structure, or lack thereof. In her introduction to Jeremiah for the New Interpreters Study Bible, Kathleen M. O'Connor, notes:
Although individual poems and narratives throughout the book are powerfully clear and coherent, the book as a whole can easily confuse readers....Modern linear reading conventions are simply inadequate for making sense of the material.
In other words, the book is a mess.
Scholars have identified at least three layers of material in Jeremiah.
- Poetic oracles that come from Jeremiah himself.
- Biographical material by the prophet's secretary, Baruch
- Prose sermons added by later redactors who share the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy.
Louis Stulman's introduction to Jeremiah in the CEB Study Bible notes:
Some recent interpreters suggest that the book's jumbled order reflects the lived chaos of a crushed and defeated people. Ironically, then, the meaning of the book may be found in its lack of structure!
This is a beguiling idea, though I think that the book's incoherence is more likely a by-product of the process which gave it form than a deliberate rhetorical strategy.
The prophet Jeremiah was active in Jerusalem during the years before its destruction by the Babylonians. When the kings of Judah sought aid from the Egyptians, Jeremiah warned against the strategy. He counseled submission to the Babylonians. He witnessed war, siege, the destruction of the temple, and three deportations of Judahites by the Babylonians.
The introduction to Jeremiah in the Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible says:
[Jeremiah's] prophecies explain that this chaos was God's divine judgment on the people of Judah because they were unfaithful to God. Most of Jeremiah's listeners thought he was a heretic who opposed the popular religious understandings and practices of the day. Some people thought he was insane. His friends and family stayed away. Religious leaders called for his death.
Jeremiah was depressed, angry, and insecure.
We will be "treated" to some of the prophet's personal laments.
In the People's Bible Companion, Angela Bauer-Levesque writes.
As a point of caution, the rhetoric used to express the message of having strayed from God’s way is full of powerful and problematic images. Addressed to a predominantly male audience, gendered and racialized metaphors invite the hearers to imagine being raped by divine power and shamed publicly.
For the most part, the book of Jeremiah is unremittingly gloomy. There is a small ray of hope in chapters 30-33. These chapters are sometimes called the "Book of Comfort." Their placement at the center of the book may be intended to emphasize their message.
The book of Jeremiah is about 1/8 shorter (c. 2700 words) shorter in the Greek Septuagint (and Bibles based upon it) than in the Hebrew of the Masoretic text (and Bibles based upon it). The material in these two sources also occurs in different order. A Hebrew manuscript that conforms closely to the Septuagint version was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Fragments of a version more like the Masoretic text were also found there. Concordia Publishing House's The Lutheran Study Bible cites the fourth century translator Jerome as suggesting that the Septuagint version is a condensation of the Masoretic text. I think it more likely that there were simply two different recensions of Jeremiah in circulation at an early date. The longer version found its way into the Masoretic text; the shorter was translated into the Septuagint. The people of antiquity were far less concerned with finding an authoritative original text than we moderns seem to be.