Jeremiah 7:? The Israelites? "Edifice Complex"

The prophet takes on the people's mistaken assumption that they can safely persist in unethical behavior--and that God would never destroy the Temple.

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In the year 609 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah rebuked the people of Israel in Jerusalem for their misplaced sense of confidence that the merit of the Temple would somehow prevent God's wrath against their unacceptable behavior. Chapter 7 of Jeremiah includes what is known as Jeremiah's Temple sermon (7:1-15) as well as a series of thematically connected material (7:16-8:3) which some modern scholars consider separate from the original sermon.  The chapter as a whole presents a stunning prophetic censure of a misplaced emphasis on forms and structures (literally) instead of appropriate ethical and ritual behavior.

Jeremiah is commanded by God to speak these words at the Temple gates:

"Hear the word of the Lord, all of you of Judah who enter through these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Fix your ways and your acts and I will cause you to dwell in this place. But do not trust in deceitful words saying 'The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, these are the Temple of the Lord" (7:1-4).

Apparently, the Jerusalemite audience that Jeremiah addresses is skeptical about  the prophet's warnings of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. How could God destroy God's own house!? Why should we not assume that the Temple worship will continue to atone for our sins?

"The Temple of the Lord"

Traditional commentators provide different explanations of  Jeremiah's dramatic, threefold repetition of the phrase "the Temple of the Lord." The thirteenth century Italian commentator Isaiah ben Elijah di Trani understood the threefold reference as alluding to the three pilgrimage festivals: even if you come to Jerusalem three times a year, do not count on being saved if you have not reformed your behavior.  Less creative, but perhaps more to the point, Moses Alshikh (early seventeenth century Safed) reads the final repetition, "these are the Temple of the Lord" as referring to the people:

"Do not think that the Blessed One calls it the Temple of the Lord, that God actually dwells in a house; God dwells in people who, by acting righteously are themselves the Temple. That is to say, since you are not righteous, God has no Temple, so what does it matter if the building called the temple is destroyed, since it is not God's true dwelling."

Jeremiah continues his rebuke with specific, although perhaps hyperbolic, claims against the iniquity of the people:

"Look, you are putting your trust in a worthless lie. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn sacrifices to Baal, and follow other gods to your own detriment, and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears my name and say 'We are safe!,' in order to go on doing all of these abominations?!" (7:8-10)

The prophet's language clearly hearkens back to the Ten Commandments, "Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not testify falsely…" (Exodus 20:13).  The eighteenth century Galician commentator R. David Altschuler,  noted the strange phrase "in order to go on doing…" and claimed that the Temple had become a reason for doing the abominations, since the people "knew" they would be forgiven (Metzudat David).

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.