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].
Jeremiah is fearless in denouncing the faithlessness of both the people and the noblemen. It is righteousness and knowledge of Him that God wants, and it is in these alone that man can take pride: “Thus saith the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; But let him that glorieth glory in this, That he understandeth, and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice and righteousness in the earth; For in these things I delight, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 9: 22-3).
How can Israel, the prophet declares, forsake their true God when the pagan nations, though they worship worthless gods, remain true to the religion of their ancestors “Hath a nation changed its gods, Which are no gods? But My people hath changed its glory for that which does not profit” (2: 11). “For My people have committed two evils; They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (2: 13).
In English a “Jeremiah” is a person given to woeful complaining but, in fact, for all the denunciations of his people, Jeremiah sounds a note of encouragement and of hope. God, he says, remembers the loyalty of their ancestors and He will restore the exiled people to their land in the future. “And the word of the Lord came to me saying: Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus saith the Lord: I remember for thee the affection of thy youth, the love of thine espousals; how thou wentest after Me in the wilderness; in a land that was not sown” (2: 1-2). “But fear not thou, O Jacob [a poetic term for the people Israel, from the patriarchal stories] My servant, neither be dismayed, O Israel; For, lo I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid” (46: 27).
Jeremiah preaches not only to the nation but to the individual who is acceptable to God when he repents of his evil deeds. Even while addressing the nation as a whole, he breaks off to address himself to the individual whose temptations he recognizes: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And it is exceeding weak–who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (17: 9-10).
Jeremiah 32 tells how, in the year 587, during the siege of Jerusalem, when Jeremiah had been put in prison because he had foretold that the city would fall, he redeemed a piece of land so as to keep it in his family, as evidence of brighter days to come when the people would once again have possessions in the land of their fathers. This chapter, containing details of how lands were bought and sold in ancient times, is used in the Talmudic literature as a source for the laws of buying and selling property. The final verse of this chapter became a key text for Jewish philosophical reflection on the doctrine of divine omnipotence: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is there any thing too hard for Me?”