The Politics and Prophecy of Jeremiah
The prophecies of Jeremiah are inextricably intertwined with the politics of his era. This paper will explore the role of prophets, like Jeremiah, the personal background of Jeremiah, and how his prophecy was shaped by the politics of his time.
I. The Role of the prophet in the Bible
The word, prophet, in modern context brings to mind a fortune teller, magician or miracle worker. In the ancient world of the bible, the word prophet meant something very different. Before power was centralized under the rule of a monarch, villages of ancient Israel “delegated the host to help them determine which strangers were their friends and which were their enemies” (Benjamin, 1993, p. 211). As power became centralized in the hands of the king, Israel “delegated the prophet to help them determine which foreign nations were their friends and which were their enemies” (Benjamin, 1993, p. 211).
The prophet was a highly trained political advisor who learned his skill through either a teacher, father, school or guild. He studied the politics and international relations of Israel and its neighbors in order to advise and at times criticize the covenants entered into by the monarch and neighboring powers. His prophecies were predictions of near future consequences of current crises involving the political and economic decisions of the king (Benjamin, 1993, pp. 211-212).
II. Personal Background of Jeremiah
Jeremiah was born in the city of Anathoth, a few miles from Jerusalem in approximately 650 BCE (Brettler, 2005, p. 173; Coogan, 2006, p. 373). According to the book of Jeremiah, he began to prophesy in 627 BCE, the thirteenth year of king Josiah’s reign and finished around the time of the temple’s destruction in 586 BCE (Coogan, 2006, p. 368). Jeremiah was not only a prophet, but also a priest and came from a politically well-connected family of priests and court officials. It was Jeremiah’s family connections that saved him from imprisonment and execution for treason under the reign of king Jehoiakim (Friedman, 1987, p. 107; Hayes, 1986, pp. 462-463). Jeremiah remained in Judah after the destruction of the temple and later fled to Egypt with other Judean refugees where he died in 570 BCE (Hayes, 1986, p. 496).
III. The Politics of Jeremiah
a. International Politics
The primary international powers during Jeremiah’s life were Babylonia, Assyria
and Egypt (Hayes, 1986, p. 439). The three fought for power for many years before and during Jeremiah’s life (Hayes, 1986, pp. 444-445). Extra-biblical sources, such as the Babylonian Chronicles evidence a cooperative alliance between Assyria and Egypt from approximately 642 through 612 BCE (Hayes, 1986, pp. 441-451).
Although Judah had its own king, in reality, it was under Assyrian and later Egyptian control. Judean soldiers served in the Egyptian army, and Egypt controlled the via maris, the primary trade route along the coast (Hayes, 1986, p. 452). During king Josiah’s reign, Assyria became more involved in external conflicts and Egypt was permitted to take control of Syria-Palestine, including Judah. Egypt was more laissez faire than Assyria, which is perhaps why Josiah was able to make significant religious reforms during his reign (Friedman, 1987, p. 81; Hayes, 1986, p. 454).
Power continued to shift between Babylonia, Egypt and Assyria until the fall of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh in 612 BCE. The Babylonian Chronicles detail the victory at Nineveh, and the ultimate collapse of the Assyrian empire. During this time, many, including Jehoiakim, the king appointed by Pharaoh Neco II, hoped to remain under Egyptian control. However, many others, including Jeremiah, foresaw the rise of Babylonia to power and its ultimate control of Judah. The struggle between those supporting Egypt and those supporting Babylonia was a central political issue during Jeremiah’s time (Hayes, 1986, pp. 450-451).
b. National Politics of Judah
The national politics within Judah were influenced not only by international events but also by the domestic policies of the king. This paper will focus primarily on the reign of kings Josiah, Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim, the time period leading up the destruction of the temple.
1. The Reign of King Josiah (640-609 BCE)
King Josiah’s reign was a time of religious reform and Jeremiah was generally quite favorable towards Josiah (B.Gittlen, personal communication, Nov 9, 2020). Josiah, inspired by the Deuteronomic text found in the temple, prohibited temple worship in locations other than the temple of Jerusalem (Friedman, 1987, p. 81). This reform also centralized economic and political power in the hands of the priests of Jerusalem (Friedman, 1987, p. 81).
2. The Reign of King Jehoahaz ( 609 BCE)
King Josiah was killed in battle at Megiddo for challenging Pharaoh Neco II and allying Judah with Babylonia (Benjamin, 1993, p. 231). The people of Judah viewed Josiah as a hero, and appointed his younger son, Jehoahaz, to be his successor. This infuriated the Egyptian pharaoh, Neco II, who captured Jehoahaz, confined him to Riblah and demanded the people of Judah pay a fine for their insubordination (Hayes, 1986, p. 461).
3. The Reign of King Jehoiakim ( 609-598 BCE)
Pharaoh Neco II then appointed a king of his choosing, Josiah’s oldest son, Jehoiakim (Hayes, 1986, p. 461). Jehoiakim’s authenticity would be called into question by Jeremiah and the people of Judah because he was appointed not by God, but by the pharaoh of Egypt (Benjamin, 1993, pp. 230-231). Jehoiakim levied a tax on the people of Judah in order to pay the fine to Egypt, and he remained a loyal Egyptian vassal for the next four years (Hayes, 1986, pp. 465-466). In 605 BCE, the Egyptian army, which included many Judean soldiers, lost a crucial battle at Carchemish to Babylonia. Although Jehoiakim hoped Egypt would ultimately prevail, he temporarily shifted his allegiance, and paid tribute to Babylonia between 604 -601 (Hayes, 1986, p. 466 ).
IV. Selected Prophecies of Jeremiah
Jeremiah addressed the politics of his time through his prophecy. Several themes in his prophecy include the forces from the north (Jeremiah 1:13-15,4:5-6:30), the temple sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-34) and the baskets of good and bad figs (Jeremiah 24:1-10). These prophecies speak to the events and political realities of his time.
a. The forces from the north
In his earlier prophecies, Jeremiah spoke of an unidentified enemy from the north. This could refer to the Scythians, a barbarian tribe that posed a threat to Judah during the reign of King Josiah, approximately 620 BCE. The Scythians were ultimately bribed by Egypt to retreat and never threatened Judah (Hayes, 1986, pp. 453-454). The forces from the north more likely referred to Babylonia after the fall of Egypt in 605 BCE at Carchemish (Hayes, 1986, p. 466).
b. Jeremiah Chapter 7: The Temple Sermon and the Trial of Jehoiakim
Jeremiah represented a minority who supported Babylonia under the reign of King Jehoiakim. His prophecies were so controversial, that when the scroll of Jeremiah was read aloud to Jehoiakim, he ordered the scroll immediately destroyed, and charged both Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch with treason (Hayes, 1986, p. 465). Jeremiah and Baruch went into hiding and avoided arrest, thanks to an advance warning from Jeremiah’s family members (Hayes, 1986, p. 463). While in hiding, Jeremiah not only reconstructed the original scroll but revised it, adding passages calling for the assassination of Jehoiakim (Hayes, 1986, p. 466).
One of Jeremiah’s most controversial prophecies is known as the temple sermon (Hayes, 1986, pp. 464-465). A plain reading of the text indicates it is about temple sacrifice. However, when read in light of the political circumstances, it could be interpreted to mean much more (Benjamin, 1993, pp. 230-236).
1. Interpretation 1: Religious and Social Reform
In this prophecy, Jeremiah warns against mindless attachment to the physical structure of the temple and the rote performance of ritual sacrifice. One interpretation is that Jeremiah was preparing the people for life in exile, without the temple. Jeremiah warned that the people could not fulfill their covenant with God by temple sacrifice alone, without also pursuing social justice and ethical reform. (Glass, 2015, p. 40).
2. Interpretation 2: The Trial of Jehoiakim
In ancient times, the temple had not only a religious function, but also a legal one
(Benjamin, 1993, p. 230). Trials before the divine assembly court took place at the temple, and prophets had the role of delivering the legal verdict in cases before the court (Benjamin, 1993, p. 218). Although there are no written details of the trial, the book of Jeremiah does contain a written account of Jeremiah’s verdict against king Jehoiakim for his failure as a leader and loyal servant of the people (Benjamin, 1993, pp. 230-231).
Although Jehoiakim vowed allegiance to God and the people at his coronation, he was in fact appointed by and owed his allegiance to Pharaoh Neco II (Benjamin, 1993, p. 462; Hayes, 1986, p. 231). Some accepted this appointment as the reality of Judah’s vassalage to Egypt, while others, including Jeremiah saw Jehoiakim as illegitimate (Benjamin, 1993, p. 232). As soon as Jehoiakim became king, he levied heavy taxes on the people of Judah (Hayes, 1986, p. 462). Instead of fulfilling the state’s obligations to the poor, as the king would have promised to do at his coronation, Jehoiakim, a servant of Egypt, committed to turning over the majority of Judah’s wealth, temple offerings and production to Egypt (Benjamin, 1993, p. 232).
Jeremiah’s prophecy in chapter 7 is not solely an indictment of the people for improper worship. It is also an indictment of Jehoiakim who did not feed or protect the people of Judah but instead, taught them to “ steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Ba’al and go after other gods” (Jeremiah 7:8-9; Benjamin, 1993, p. 232). Jeremiah’s verdict against Jehoiakim is not “ simply a call for religious conversion, but political revolution (Benjamin, 1993, p. 234). Jeremiah tells the people in essence that God has withdrawn his support from this temple and this government, in hopes that the people will withdraw their support by withholding taxes and rebelling against the king (Benjamin, 1993, pp. 234-235).
c. Two baskets of Figs (Jeremiah 24)
In chapter 24, Jeremiah prophesies about two baskets of figs, one filled with luscious figs and the other with inedible, very bad figs (Jeremiah 24:1). God tells Jeremiah that the good figs are the “captives of Judah” exiled to Babylonia, while the bad figs are those who remained in Judah and those who fled to Egypt (Jeremiah 24:5, 24:8).
This prophecy reflects the Babylonian policy of selective population transfer. Royalty, military and the scribes were exiled to Babylonia to prevent rebellion in Judah. The farmers and producers stayed in Judah to continue production to serve the Babylonian empire (B. Gittlen, personal communication, Nov 9, 2020). The prophecy continues that for the good figs, the best possible future would come to pass. Babylonia would become the new center of Judean culture. The people in exile would plant new fields and celebrate new beginnings (Jeremiah 29:5–6; Claassens, 2019, p. 3). The bad figs, on the other hand would suffer, “… famine, and pestilence… till they be consumed from off the land that I gave unto them and to their fathers” (Jeremiah 24:10). Ironically, Jeremiah chose to stay behind in Judah. Claasens believes Jeremiah’s choice to stay was a “profound act of solidarity with the poor (Claassens, 2019, p. 3).
The role of the prophet in ancient Israel was very different from the modern idea of prophecy. The prophet of the bible was a highly trained political advisor, well versed in the politics, economics and the social realities of his time. Jeremiah’s prophecies can only be understood within the historical, political and social context of the time in which he lived. The power struggles between Assyria, Egypt and Babylonia shaped his prophecy regarding threat from forces in the north. Judah’s vassal status to Egypt, and Pharaoh Neco II’s appointment of Jehoiakim influenced Jeremiah’s harsh verdict against not only the temple, but also the king. The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem shaped Jeremiah’s prophecy about the future of Judah in exile. The modern reader can enjoy a deeper appreciation of Jeremiah’s prophecy, when read with an understanding of the politics of his time.
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