Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion (Oxford University Press).
Jeremiah was the prophet born in Anathoth, about three miles north of Jerusalem, whose ministry began in the 13th year of Josiah king of Judah (i.e. 627 B.C.E.), and extended for a period of over 40 years. The book of Jeremiah contains much biographical and autobiographical material, so that more is known about Jeremiah’s life than about any other of the great literary prophets.
Little is told of Jeremiah’s activity during the reign of Josiah, whose grandfather Manasseh, during a reign of 40 years, had led the people astray from monotheism to idolatrous worship on the “high places.” Josiah’s reformation consisted of the restoration of monotheism and the centralization of worship in the Temple. Many of the people, however, continued to follow the ways to which they had been accustomed during the reign of Manasseh, and against them were directed Jeremiah’s castigations.
Michaelangelo’s depiction of Jeremiah
From the beginning Jeremiah witnessed the downfall of the Assyrian Empire in 606 B.C.E.; the death of Josiah in 605 B.C.E.; the destruction of the Jewish State by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.; and the carrying-away of most of the people in captivity to Babylon. Jeremiah himself was taken to Egypt by fugitive Judaeans [those from the territory of Judah, later called the Jews after their return from exile] where he died, according to the legend, a martyr’s death.
Biblical scholars have seen the book of Jeremiah as comprising four major collections: 1. chapters 1-25, consisting of smaller units centered on the judgment announced against the nation; 2. chapters 26-36, comprising oracles and sayings within a narrative framework; 3. chapters 37-45, dealing with Jeremiah’s life from the siege of Jerusalem to his final ministry in Egypt; 4. chapters 46-51, a separate section containing oracles against the nations. The book ends with a chapter (52) consisting of a historical appendix. This last section has a close parallel in the historical account in the second book of Kings (24: 18-25: 30). Jeremiah is held by tradition to be the author of the book of Lamentations [another biblical book, included in the Writings, or Ketuvim section].
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