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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 Historical Background of the Book

When was the book of Baruch written? Evidence must be indirect, for there are no references to contemporary events in the book. Historical inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the introduction (e.g., that Baruch lived in Babylon rather than Egypt, contrary to Jer 43, 6 , and the strange “fifth year” in 1, 2) indicate the book was written long after the early sixth century when the historical Baruch lived. Since the prayer in chapters 1 and 2 (especially 1, 15–2, 5 ) depends on Daniel 9 (ca. 164) and the wisdom poem ( 3, 9–4, 4 ) depends on Sirach 24 (ca. 180), Baruch must have been written after the completion of these works, unless the two sources were in existence before the composition of the books in which they now appear. Many scholars therefore suggest that the date of composition was sometime in the late second or early first centuries.

What had happened in the history of Israel from the sixth to the second centuries to make the book of Baruch possible? The Babylonian exile is conventionally dated 586 to 539. Babylonian deportations in the early sixth century impoverished Jerusalem and Judah. The Temple ceased operation, and the economy was devastated. In 539 the Persians entered Babylon and effectively ended the empire. The period from 539 to 333 is known as the Persian period and the period from 333 to 63 as the Hellenistic (Greek) period. The defeat of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian greatly benefited people in Judah and in the exiled community. Cyrus authorized the rebuilding of the Temple and the return of the sacred vessels, and permitted the return of the exiles (Ezr 1, 1–4; 6, 1–5 ). Most exiles stayed where they were, however, and the Diaspora (dispersion) communities in Babylon and elsewhere grew and flourished in the centuries that followed. Only in 520 was the Temple rebuilt (on a very modest scale), a sign of the practical difficulties in returning to normal and a sign too of the animosity of neighboring peoples. The rebuilt Temple became the center of the restored community, even though, as Isaiah 56 through 66 clearly shows, the people struggled with different visions of restoration.

The postexilic period was a time of literary creativity. Most Old Testament books underwent final editing at this time, including the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomistic History, and the prophetic books. Other books were composed later in this period, among them Chronicles and Ezra‐Nehemiah. Some of the late books looked back at the preexilic period with awe and reverence, regarding its literature as timeless standards. Their authors paid homage to the golden‐age works by allusions and borrowings. The attribution of the book of Baruch to the sixth‐century secretary of Jeremiah is an example of such reverence. Another indication is Baruch's multiple allusions to Deuteronomy (especially Dt 28 and 30 ), Jeremiah (e.g., Jer 8, 1; 11, 17; 24, 7.9; 31, 33 ), Deutero‐Isaiah (Is 40–55 ), and Daniel (especially Dn 9 ). Among the abiding concerns of exilic literature were the Jerusalem Temple, the meaning of exile, and the problem of authority in a changed society. With the disappearance of the old institutions of religion and government in Judea, where was the divine presence to be found and who had religious authority? Related questions were where wisdom was to be found and the location of authoritative teaching or torah. These concerns are addressed in the book of Baruch.

In the course of time, the Persian Empire expanded westward and came into conflict with Greece, which eventually led to the defeat of the Persians. In 333 Alexander the Great swept down the coast of the western Mediterranean and conquered the Phoenician coast. Jerusalem surrendered and became a province in yet another empire, the Ptolemaic empire (capital in Egypt) and then the Seleucid (capital in Antioch). More important, it came under the influence of Greek culture. The new culture raised several points relevant to the book of Baruch. One was the question of Jewish identity. New centers of Judaism rivaled Jerusalem: Alexandria in Egypt and Babylon in Mesopotamia. As most Jews now lived outside the boundaries of Palestine and did not speak Hebrew, the question of what made a Jew became pressing. What was the relation of the diaspora communities to the Jerusalem and the Judean community? When would the exile completely end so that Judah might be independent and have its own king? Was the period of divine wrath ongoing? These questions concerning the identity of Judah among the nations appear in the book of Baruch.

Analysis of the Book

  • 1. Introduction ( 1, 1–14 ). According to the opening lines of Baruch, on the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Baruch read the book to Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) and to all who could come—nobles, princes, elders, everyone high and low. Jehoiachin was the Davidic king who had been exiled to Babylon in 598/597 and represented hopes for a restored monarchy (2 Kgs 25, 27–30; Jer 52, 31–34 ). When they heard it, they wept, fasted, and prayed, and then took up a collection for the high priest and the people in Jerusalem. Baruch arranged for the return of the silver vessels that Nebuchadnezzar robbed from the Temple. The verses evoke golden‐age scenes of leaders gathering the people and speaking authoritative words to them, for example, Moses in Deuteronomy, King Josiah in 2 Kings 22–23 , and (in a reverse of the present scene) Baruch reading the book to the unreceptive King Jehoiakim in Jeremiah 36 . Baruch here speaks with scriptural authoritativeness; such is the sense of verse 3 , literally “Baruch read the words … in the ears of all the people who came to hear the book.” Not only do Baruch and the people send vessels to Jerusalem; they also send money for offerings, suggest what the Jerusalemites should pray for (the welfare of the king and the forgiveness of the sins of the exiles), and even write a prayer for Temple worship ( 1, 10–14 ). The latter is not a private prayer; it is to be read on feast days in the Temple. The text of the prayer follows in 1, 15–3, 8 , which links the first and second parts of the book.

    The key to the opening scene is that Baruch, the secretary of the great Jeremiah and his sometime spokesman, is the speaker. Baruch's interpretation of the prophet's famous letter to the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29 is accepted as authoritative by the leaders in Babylon: “Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own.‐Thus says the Lord: Only after seventy years have elapsed for Babylon will I visit you and fulfill for you my promise to bring you back to this place.… Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the Lord, and I will change your lot; I will gather you together from all the nations and all the places to which I have banished you, says the Lord, and bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you” (Jer 29, 7–15 ). Baruch apparently reinterprets “seventy years” to mean an indefinite period of time. Daniel 9, 20–27 had famously reinterpreted the seventy years to seventy weeks of years, that is, seven times seventy (= 490 years), but Baruch's interpretation is even more open‐ended. According to him, the exiles must serve the king of Babylon for “many days” (Bar 1, 12 ). The wrath of God has not yet turned away from the exiles ( 1, 13 ). In the meantime, Baruch advises fervent prayer ( 1, 15–3, 8 ) and, in the following passages, teaches the exiles how to seek life‐giving wisdom in this less than perfect situation.

  • 2. A prayer that the Lord might relent and once again be gracious ( 1, 15–3, 8 ).It is assumed that prayer offered in the Jerusalem Temple is more efficacious than private prayer. The confession acknowledges that the people have sinned and that the covenant curses listed in Deuteronomy 28 have been unleashed. All the ills that have come upon the people are deserved; no excuses are offered. The first part of the poem ( 1, 15–2, 5 ) is to be said by the people of Jerusalem, and the second part by the exiles ( 2, 6–16). 1, 15 (“Justice is with the Lord, our God; and we today are flushed with shame, we men of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem”) matches 2, 6 (“Justice is with the Lord, our God; and we, like our fathers, are flushed with shame even today”), suggesting that both verses begin parallel sections. Furthermore, 2, 13–14 indicates that the exiles are speaking, so it is natural to regard 2, 6 as the point where the exiles' prayer begins. The prayer draws heavily on Daniel 9, 78.10–14 ; almost every word in Daniel finds an echo in Baruch. Jeremiah and Deuteronomy are also quarried. In the prayer, the people give up all claims of righteousness and place all hopes of rescue in the character of God, the Lord's care for his good name.

  • 3. Wisdom is to be found in Israel's law ( 3, 9–4, 5 ).Where can wisdom be found? Always elusive (Job 28 ), life‐giving wisdom is especially hard to find in the exilic crisis. After the prayer, which gives up all human sources of salvation ( 1, 15–3, 8 ), the book begins a new section with the authoritative command, “Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life” ( 3, 9 ). It is an apt summons, for the people live in a foreign land, virtually among the dead ( 3, 11 ). The charge that they “have forsaken the fountain of wisdom” ( 3, 12 ) is probably an allusion to Jeremiah 2, 13 , “Two evils have my people done: they have forsaken me, the source of living waters; they have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water.” Borrowing from the wisdom poem in Job 28 (among other biblical texts), the poem insists that human beings cannot lay hold of wisdom by their own efforts; it must be given by God. God has in fact given wisdom to Israel—in the form of their torah or law: “[Wisdom] is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; all who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her. Turn, O Jacob, and receive her: walk by her light toward splendor” ( 4, 1–2 ). Baruch here draws on Sirach 24 (ca. 180), which also teaches that divine wisdom is to be found in the law given to Israel, “All this [wisdom] is true of the book of the Most High's covenant, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the community of Jacob” (Sir 24, 22 ).

    Three points about this wisdom poem should be noted. First, it comes immediately after the community confession of helplessness and blindedness, suggesting that wisdom is God's answer to the people's quandary. The hymn sings of the inaccessibility of wisdom and nonetheless asserts it can be found. This is just what the community, adrift, needed to hear. Second, the focus on torah was an important religious development in early Judaism. The old markers of community identity no longer played the role that they once did—the Temple, a common land, a king and independent government. New boundary markers were necessary so that the community might define itself among the nations. Among the new markers were the law or torah and the Scriptures. What was written could be read by people of different lands, cultures, and languages. Eventually, the word torah came to be applied to the Pentateuch, the great authoritative narrative. Third, the wisdom hymn associates wisdom preeminently with one nation, Israel. Previously, wisdom was more “international”; to pursue it was the duty of every human being. The “nationalizing” of wisdom can be seen as early as Deuteronomy 4, 6 , probably from the sixth century: “Observe [the statutes] carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.'‐” In a memorable phrase, Baruch says that to live according to the wisdom of the torah is to “walk by her light toward splendor” ( 4, 2 ). Israel has the great privilege of knowing what is pleasing to God ( 4, 3 ).

  • 4. A poem of encouragement( 4, 5–5, 9 ).Like the two preceding sections, this section alludes to the writings of the golden age, especially Isaiah 40 through 55 . Isaiah personified Babylon (Is 37 ) and Zion (Is 49, 14–26; 54 ) as queens, imagining them as wives of the national god and mothers of their citizens (cf. Ps 87 ). With the destruction of the city and the exile of its citizens, each personified city lost her husband and her children. In Isaiah 40 through 55 , Woman Zion is assured by her Lord that her children will return. Isaiah 60 and 62 envision the return of Zion's exiled children and her husband: “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: Your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses” (Is 60, 4 ), and “No more shall men call you ‘Forsaken,' or your land ‘Desolate,' but you shall be called ‘My Delight,' and your land ‘Espoused.' For the Lord delights in you, and makes your land his spouse” (Is 62, 4 ). In Baruch, personified Zion is not yet fully restored. Despite her great suffering, however, she thinks only of the suffering of her children. With great compassion, she explains their real situation to them: their sins angered the just God who punished them by bringing a distant nation against them ( 4, 15 ). Zion intercedes with God on their behalf ( 4, 17–20 ), setting an example of hope ( 4, 21–26 ) and faithfulness ( 4, 27–29 ). Though bereft of her children, Zion continues to act as a true mother of her children.

    The second section of the poem of consolation ( 4, 30–5, 9 ) is addressed to Zion. Reprising a key verb from Zion's speech, “Fear not, my children; call out to God! He who brought this upon you will remember you” ( 4, 27 ), the new poem begins by responding to her, “Fear not, Jerusalem! He who gave you your name is your encouragement.” The second part of the poem is the divine answer to the words of Woman Zion in 4, 5–29 . She had told her children she was interceding for them with sackcloth and prayer ( 4, 20 ) and expressed her steadfast hope they would return to her. The second section ( 4, 30–5, 9 ) assures Zion that her hope will come true. Three verbs in the imperative mood introduce the three sections of the speech: (1) “Fear not, Jerusalem” in 4, 30 ; (2) “Look to the east, Jerusalem! behold the joy that comes to you from God” in 4, 36 ; and (3) “Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children” in 5, 5 . Section 1 asserts that Zion's enemies will be punished; section 2 that her children will return and that she can take off her widow's garments; and section 3 that the hills and valleys have been leveled to make a beautiful highway for the exiles to walk as they return home to Zion. Baruch here draws on Isaiah 40 through 55 .

  • 5. The Letter of Jeremiah. In Roman Catholic Bibles, the Letter of Jeremiah is often printed as chapter 6 of Baruch. Protestant editions of the Bible place both Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah among the Apocrypha, and print the Letter of Jeremiah as a separate work immediately after Baruch. Addressed to the exiles in Babylon like Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah develops themes of Jeremiah's famous letter to the exiles (Jer 29 ). The Letter of Jeremiah interprets Jeremiah's “seventy years” (Jer 25, 11–12; 29, 10 ) as seven generations (Bar 6, 3 ). Its chief concern, however, is in launching a satiric attack on idols (Jer 10, 2–16 ): avoid divine images and worship Israel's God exclusively. In the exilic and post‐exilic periods Israelite thinkers became more reflective about their monotheistic faith. Part of that reflection was expressed in satirical attacks on divine images, which were, in the ancient Near East, the normal means of encountering the deity. Jeremiah 10 and Baruch 6 are not the only satires on divine images in the Bible. Others are found in Deuteronomy 4, 27–28; Psalms 115, 4–8; 135, 15–18; Isaiah 40, 18–20; 44, 9–10; 46, 1–7 . The Letter of Jeremiah consists of ten warnings, all but the last ending in a refrain that the statues are not divine and that people should not “fear” them, that is, accord them divine honor.

    The work is attributed to Jeremiah because it furthers his work of preaching to the exiles. It was known to the author of 2 Maccabees 2, 1–3 , and must therefore have been written toward the end of the second century. The original language seems to have Hebrew or Aramaic, for the extant Greek occasionally reflects Semitic syntax.

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