Jeremiah, Book of

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The contents, structure and composition, and theology of the Book of Jeremiah are discussed here.


Jeremiah can be divided into five parts according to each section's general theme. These include oracles against Judah and Jerusalem, oracles against the Nations, prophecy of Israel's and Judah's salvation, the story of the persecution of Jeremiah, and an appendix concerning the end of the Kingdom of Judah.

Oracles against Juda and Jerusalem (1.125.13b). With rare exceptions the oracles collected in the section are attacks against the political and religious errors of the chosen people; the collection probably dates from the first edition of the book by Baruch (ch. 36). The heading (1.13) is an editorial composition that shows an unawareness of the prophet's role in the events at Mizpah and Egypt (ch. 4044). The vocation account (1.419) assumes two forms: a dialogue with Yahweh (1.410, 1719) and visions (1.1116). The prophet's predestination and God's help in the accomplishment of his mission, which will be mainly for condemnation, are especially emphasized.

The following chapters (26) contain Jeremiah's first warnings under Josiah, but before the Deuteronomic reform of 621 b.c. In the form of a trial, Jeremiah reproaches judah for its foreign alliances and its idolatry, which break the Sinaitic covenant (ch. 2). see covenant (in the bible). He then makes an urgent appeal for conversion (3.14.4), but this is humanly impossible; God is going to accomplish it through His mercy. The poem recalls Osee's preaching: Israel's alliance with Yahweh is the result of love by divine covenant.

The religious apostasy will be punished by an invasion coming from the north; the scourge is described in a long and vividly colored poem (4.56.30).

The "lion" from the north used to be identified with Assyria, or Babylon, but since B. Duhm's Das Buch Jeremiah erklärt (Tübingen 1901), the Scythians have attracted exegetes' attention. According to Herodotus the Scythians invaded Palestine between 630 and 625 b.c., but since such an invasion is not otherwise assured, it is more probable that Jeremiah had no particular people in mind when he composed his poem. His faith in God's justice assured him that a war would correct Judah's crimes; this is why he used such general terms in describing the scourge.

On the whole, ch. 7 to 20 date from the reign of Johoiakim: Josiah's reform had failed, and Jeremiah had to combat infidelities of all kinds. The "Temple Sermon"(7.18.3) attacks the superficiality of the cult, since cult could be a guaranty of salvation only if it were a genuine expression of interior religious values. Jeremiah, like the other prophets, does not reject the cult in itself, but only the legalistic counterfeits employed in carrying it out. Circumcision is criticized for the same reason (9.2425). His plea for the covenant (11.114) is still a much-discussed problem, Jeremiah's attitude toward Josia's reform being one of its elements. The discourse is probably authentic and clearly shows that the prophet supported Josiah's policy. Under Johoiakim, however, he became painfully aware of the reform's failure.

During Johoiakim's reign, Jeremiah's severe warnings led to repeated persecutions of him. The interior crises that resulted are described in his "Confessions"(11.1812.6; 15.1021; 17.1418; 18.1823; 20.718). His faith in God and in his mission conquered these temptations to abandon his task.

The prophet proposes the same severe judgment in parabolic sermons (13.114; 18.112) and by symbolic, prophetic actions (19.120.6); in fact his life itself assumed a prophetic character (16.118).

The last part of this section (ch. 2124) dates on the whole from the reign of Sedecia. It begins with the king's consulting of the prophet during the siege of the city in 588 b.c. (21.110). Then various oracles condemning the last kings of Judah are collected (21.1123.8), except the one concerning the "future King" that belongs to the theme of royal, Davidic messianism (23.18). Oracles against false prophets follow (23.940) and are of interest because they raise the question of the true nature of prophetism in Israel. Jeremiah here contrasts the traits of true prophecy with those of professional prophets who flatter the sinful people and play on their hopeful imaginations. The last discourse (25.113b) is a heavily glossed summation of Jeremiah's activity up to the year 605-604.

Oracles against Nations (25.13c38; ch. 4651). This second section presents great divergences between the Masoretic Text (MT) and the Septuagint (LXX). In the Greek, the oracles are placed immediately after the oracles against Juda, as in the works of other prophets. Most exegetes consider this to be the primitive order of the book. It is difficult to find a reason why the Hebrew transferred them to the end (ch. 4651). The order of the oracles is different also in the two traditions: the LXX follows a logical order according to the historical importance of the nations while the MT adopts a geographical order going from south to north and from west to east. Finally, the section's authenticity is greatly disputed; some expositors have rejected it completely as a later addition (Duhm, Smend, Stade, etc.); others now hold it authentic but replete with additions. The long poem against Babylon (50.151.58) was undoubtedly composed later than Jeremiah.

The judgment of the nations (25.13c38) is a summation of all this type of preaching: the theme of "the cup of divine wrath," symbolizing God's vengeance against the neighboring countries that had dealt harshly with the Chosen People, is the burden of the text. Israel's God, then, is the master of all nations and of history.

Israel's, Judah's Salvation (ch. 2635). Jeremiah's mission was not only to destroy a present evil, but also to build up a promising future (1.10). Persecuted for his initial severe message (ch. 26), he attacks the groundless hope of escape proclaimed by the professional prophets (ch. 2729). Judah's restoration can be secured only by its subjection to Babylon. The prophet graphically plays out this drama by a symbolic act (ch. 27), then envisions an exile of undetermined duration (70 years: 29,10;25.11). Next, in exquisite poems that come very likely from the first years of his ministry, he proclaims the return of the northern kingdom, Israel: once its purification has been achieved, its return will be a new Exodus (30.131.22). Short oracles follow in which Juda also shares in this rebirth (31.2340).

The oracle of the New Alliance is especially important (31.3134). It is the same as the covenant of Sinai, yet it is new because it reaches into the depths of man's heart and can never be broken. Its fulfillment is accomplished in Christ's coming (Lk 22.20; 1 Cor 11.25; Heb8.812).

Finally, oracles concerning Judah's future were pronounced during the last siege of Jerusalem (ch. 3233); but the glorious future is possible only if Judah remains faithful (ch. 3435).

Jeremiah's Passion (ch. 3645). In style and subject this section forms a homogeneous whole, the work of one author, Baruch. He tells the story of the persecutions his master suffered, especially at the king's court during the last storming of Jerusalem (588-587 b.c.) and during the few months following its fall. The narration is a precious source for reconstructing the history of these troubled years. One must wait for the New Testament to see such detailed biographical narrations. An oracle in favor of Baruch completes this section (ch. 45).

Appendix (ch. 52). This chapter reproduces, with some variants, 2 Kgs 24.1825.30 that relates the destruction of Juda. Obviouslly the addition's purpose is to illustrate the fulfillment of the prophet's message. The list of deportees in vv. 2830 is a unique source that can hardly be questioned. A third deportation in 582-581 is recorded here, and according to Josephus (Ant. Jud. 10.181182) might have coincided with an anti-Babylonian rebellion of Transjordanian states.

Structure and Composition

Even a cursory analysis of the book reveals that its production was quite complicated. There are numerous doublets (6.1215 and 8.1012; 10.1216 and 51.1519;16.1415 and 23.78; 17.34 and 15.1314; 23.1920 and 30.2324; 30.1011 and 46.2728; 49.1921 and 50.4446). Also, the Greek text is an eighth shorter than the Hebrew, suggesting that the work underwent several redactions.

Literary Forms. With S. Mowinckel [Zur Komposition des Buches Jeremiah (Kristiania 1914)] one can distinguish three principal literary forms or sources: poetic oracles (125; 3031; 4651), biographical stories (2629; 3645), and deuteronomist sermons (7.18.3;11.114; 16.113; 17.1927; 18.112; 19.120.6; 21.110; 22.15; 25.113b; 32.12, 616, 2444; 3435). The authenticity of the first source is no longer disputed, while the second source is attributed to Baruch. The origin of the deuteronomist discourses is still debated; some label them pure deuteronomic interpolations, while others consider them later editions of Jeremian sermons in the style and spirit of Deuteronomy. It is probable that they have a style quite common in Juda during the seventh and sixth centuries (W. O. E. Oesterley and T. H. Robinson) and connected with liturgical assemblies (A. Weiser). Deuteronomy and these sermons are two different examples of the style. For this reason one may legitimately reject as unauthentic only the following passages: 3.1418; 9.1115; 10.116; 12.1417; 16.1921;17.511, 1927; 22.89; 23.1920, 3340; 31.3840; 32.1725, 2941; 50.151.58; 52.

Compilation of Sources. Chapter 36 relates the story of the book's first editions; in 605 Jeremiah dictated his threats against Judah and Jerusalem to Baruch. They are found generally in ch. 1 to 25. Other partial compilations can be traced, such as discourses attacking kings and prophets (2123), symbolic actions (1820), Jeremiah's confessions scattered through the book's first section, salvation oracles for Israel (3031) and Judah (3235), Baruch's biographical accounts (3645), and oracles against the nations (4651). The book's present form must have been fixed sometime after the Exile [see E. Podechard, "Le Livre de Jérémie" Revue biblique 37 (1928) 18197; O. Eissfeldt, Einleitung in das AT 3 (Tübingen 1964) 47192].


Jeremiah's theological contribution was not original; he did not advance much beyond his predecessors, but his different approach to sin and conversion is worthy of note.

Sin. Jeremiah proposed traditional themes with an original insistence by emphasizing the interior spirit that should vivify religious life. Thus, God's knowledge of man reaches into the depths of his thoughts and heart (1.510; 11.20; 12.3; 17.16; 18.23); correspondingly, man's knowledge of God must spring from the heart (31.3134). As a consequence, more than any other prophet, Jeremiah delved deeply into the problem of sin. He saw it as a refusal to know God (2.68), an apostasy (2.1112), an ungrateful desertion of God (2.1719,32;3.21). Sin is an unnatural perversion (2.11, 21). Its universality in Juda led the prophet to describe it as almost an innate quality in man (13.23) although there is no clear idea yet of original sin.

Conversion. In contrast, Jeremiah greatly developed the idea of conversion, which he believed impossible for man left to himself. Conversion could be accomplished only if God changed man's heart (3.14.4). In this connection his Messianism remained within the perspectives of the Davidic dynasty that must endure, but the future king would reign with justice according to the terms of the covenant (23.56; cf. Is 9.56; 11.14). His eschatology also remained within the normal sequence of history; the world would not end, but a new epoch coinciding with the return from the Exile would begin (23.18;30.1021; 31.1014, 2325; etc.) and would be marked by the conclusion of the New Alliance (31.3134).

See Also: jeremiah; lamentations, book of; jeremiah, letter of; baruch, book of.

Bibliography: p. volz, Der Prophet Jeremia (2d ed. Leipzig 1928). f. nÖtscher, Das Buch Jeremias (Bonn 1934). a. gelin, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 4:857889. a. weiser, Das Buch der Propheten Jeremia, 2 v. (Göttingen 195255). a. penna, Geremia (Turin 1954). w. rudolph, Jeremiah (2d ed. Tübingen 1958). j. paterson, "Jeremiah," Peake's Commentary on the Bible, ed. m. black and h. h. rowley (London 1962) 465489. g. p. couturier, The New Jerome Bible Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1990) 265297. l. boadt, Jeremiah 125/2652, 2 v. (Wilmington 1982). e. w. nicholson, Jeremiah 125/2652, 2 v. (Cambridge 1973, 1975).

[g. couturier]