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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Biography of Jeremiah

More than any other prophet, Jeremiah made himself the message. His own life, especially his anguish over the ruin of Israel, was the palette supplying the colors of his preaching. His inner life is revealed in the very first chapter, where he wrestles with his call to be a prophet. His laments in chapters 11 to 20 are the most famous examples of his highly personal understanding of the prophetic task of proclaiming the divine word as it guides history. One can say that the events that would later happen to the people first played themselves out in Jeremiah's life, so that he could reflect on them and prepare the people for what was coming.

Jeremiah's ancestry can be traced back to Eli, the priest in charge of the sanctuary at Shiloh (1 Sm 1–4; 14, 3 ). King Solomon exiled Eli's great‐great‐grandson, Abiathar, to Anathoth, a town three and a half miles northeast of Jerusalem (1 Kgs 2, 26 ). Jeremiah hailed from this town ( 1, 1 ). Jeremiah's name, like most names of the time, is a sentence name, derived from the Hebrew verbal root rûm, “be high, exalted, rise.” It means “May Yahweh (‐iah) exalt/raise him up” (Jerem‐), expressing the hope that the Lord would give him honor during his life.

Politics helped forge the message of Jeremiah. As Assurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, grew old, the empire began to disintegrate. In Jerusalem, King Josiah repudiated the Assyrian gods. To have done so earlier would have been considered treason by Assyria and would have cost him his throne. In the year that Assurbanipal died (627), civil war wracked the empire and Babylon, Assyria's ancient rival to the south, secured its independence. That same year Jeremiah received a call to prophesy (Jer 1, 1–14 ), and in 621 King Josiah inaugurated his great “Deuteronomic reform” (2 Kgs 22–23 ). The collapse of the Assyrian empire enabled him to invite the northern tribes, formed into Assyrian provinces a hundred years earlier (2 Kgs 17 ), to join to the kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah 30 and 31 preserve some of his preaching of this time. Jeremiah also condemned idolatry at Jerusalem (Jer 2–6 ). Tragically, Josiah was killed by the Egyptians in 609 (2 Kgs 23, 29f ) and was eventually succeeded by his son Jehoiakim whom Jeremiah severely criticized (Jer 22, 13–19 ). Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar, had become the world power in place of Assyria. When Jehoiakim revolted, the Babylonians recaptured the city, plundered it, and took many prominent Israelites into exile. Jeremiah urged the next king, Zedekiah, to refrain from joining the Egyptian party in another revolt. Weak and easily swayed, Zedekiah secretly consulted Jeremiah but took public positions against him (Jer 38 ). In July 586 the Babylonians stormed the city and a month later burned Jerusalem and its Temple to the ground. After the king witnessed the slaughter of his sons, the Babylonians blinded him and carted him off into oblivion (2 Kgs 25; Jer 52 ).

Jeremiah was treated well by the Babylonians, probably because he persistently urged Judah to submit to them. The Babylonians gave him the choice of either enjoying a palace in Babylon or remaining behind in the land. He chose the latter ( 40, 1–6 ). When the remnant in Jerusalem rejected his advice and fled into Egypt, they dragged the prophet with them (Jer 42, 1–43, 7 ). There Jeremiah died, to become a tradition and a book.

The character of Jeremiah shines from every page of this extraordinary book: joyful optimism (31); honest, painful struggling with God ( 12, 1–5; 15, 10–21; 20, 7–18 ); courage in confronting kings (37); anguish over the tragic fate of Jerusalem ( 8, 18–9, 10 ); perseverance amid continuous rejection ( 20, 9 ). At times he is petulant and revengeful as his confessions show ( 12, 1–5; 15, 10–21; 17, 12–18; 18, 18–23; 20, 7–18 ).

Jeremiah responded sensitively to life and beauty, to the growth and blossoming of nature: the almond tree's first flowering in spring ( 1, 11 ); the silence of the air when the last bird has flown away ( 4, 25 ); the gurgling freshness of spring water ( 2, 13 ). Celibacy was not an easy decision, and he felt its loneliness severely ( 16, 1–4 ). Paradoxically, it bonded Jeremiah with the people in their most difficult moments of loss and so led the way to peace with God.

Stylistically, Jeremiah extended the vocabulary of prayer in Israel, contributing especially to the individual lament (more precisely, petition with extended complaint) and the argumentative questioning of God. Moses argued with God ( Ex 32, 11–14 ). So did Jeremiah's contemporary, Habakkuk, who devoted two chapters of his prophecy to such challenges. Jeremiah's confessions, however, pushed this moment of defiance to its extreme. Job further developed the genre, demanding an audience with God to press his case (Job 13, 14; 19, 26; 31, 35–37 ).

Jeremiah's life spanned a tumultuous age in religion, politics, and war. It began with national independence and religious revival, and it saw the downfall of the Assyrian empire and its replacement by the Babylonian empire. The period witnessed the defeat and violent death of Josiah, the collapse of his reform, ineffective Judean kings, and the Temple's disintegration in fire and smoke. From this vantage point, one can understand Jeremiah's emotional highs and lows, admire his passion and courage, and appreciate his ability to find grounds of hope.

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