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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Tragedy.


From the beginning to the end of its fifty-two chapters, the subject of Jeremiah is the fall of Judah to Babylon in the sixth century BCE. This national catastrophe and subsequent struggles for survival were the catalysts that produced the book, and they haunt every chapter. Events reflected here reach a climax in the siege and fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, but international and internal troubles afflicted the nation well before and after that defining period (Herrmann 1986: 7–27; Hayes and Miller 1986: 416–36; Ackroyd 1968: 50–61).


The waning of the Assyrian empire in the late seventh century BCE opened the door to competition between Egypt and the emerging neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) empire for dominance in the region. In response to international pressure, Judah divided into political factions that supported Egyptian or Babylonian alliances. Many in the Judean governing classes were pro-Egyptian, whereas Jeremiah and his followers, including some leading families, supported Babylon. A decisive victory over Egypt at Carchemish in 605 gave Babylon control of the region but did not quiet the political strife in Judah.


In 597, Judah revolted against Babylonian sovereignty. This resistance provoked an invasion of Jerusalem, the capital city, and led to the deportation of King Jehoiachin and other leaders, and the installation of puppet King Zedekiah upon the throne (2 Kings 24–5; Seitz 1989a ). A second Judean revolt under Zedekiah caused an even more disastrous attack on Judah and Jerusalem ten years later. After a long siege, the Babylonians breached the city walls in 587/6. They burned the king's palace, destroyed the temple, and exiled more citizens to Babylon. The Babylonians then appointed Gedeliah governor of conquered Judah, but a group led by a surviving member of the royal family assassinated him and massacred his entourage. Inner anarchy triggered a third invasion and deportation in 582.


Historians judge that exilic life in Babylon was not as onerous by ancient standards as it might have been (Hayes and Miller 1986: 430–5). Judean exiles settled, married, and may even have engaged in business dealings with the native population. Rather than submit to Babylon, however, some Judean survivors escaped to Egypt and forced Jeremiah and his companion Baruch to accompany them (Jer 43 ). About life in Egypt and in occupied Judah little is known, though the book of Lamentations is traditionally ascribed to a remnant in Judah.


Many aspects of this version of Judah's history evoke heated debate among historians. One problem is that the chief sources of information about these events are biblical texts that receive scant corroboration from other sources and which themselves are fragmentary, contradictory, and interpretative rather than descriptive and referential. Biblical texts are not historical documents in the modern critical sense. They do not narrate events to tell precisely what happened. As theological literature, they portray events to interpret and explain them, to persuade the community to act in particular ways, to challenge and shape its identity, and to sow seeds for a new future (Perdue 1994: 7–11).


What this brief narrative does reveal, however, is that the book of Jeremiah emerged from perilous, chaotic, and conflictual times (Seitz 1989a ). Prior to 587, Judah experienced occupation by foreign powers who interfered in internal affairs, exacted tribute and political allegiance, and created long-lasting internal divisions. The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 587 caused starvation and death for many, destroyed national and family life, and shook theological and political foundations of the people's identity. Survivors lost loved ones, land, and livelihood; many were deported. Beyond physical and emotional devastation, there was also symbolic wreckage. The destruction of palace and temple meant the collapse of political, ideological, and theological symbols that had long provided identity and stability for the nation (Stulman 1995 ). Because national identity had been linked to YHWH's promises to dwell in the temple and to protect the Davidic monarchy (2 Sam 7; Isa 1–12 ), the loss of these institutions and of the promised land led to profound upheaval. Nor did conflict abate after the invasion during the exilic period. Events called out for interpretation; survival of the community was in serious doubt; new leadership and symbolic understandings needed to emerge.


From this maelstrom of suffering and confusion came questions of ultimate meanings. Where was the covenant God who gave them land and promised to be with them? Had God abandoned them, abused them, forgotten them, or was God merely powerless to prevent the crushing of the chosen people? The book and its multiple voices compete to explain events, to argue about divine justice, and to point the way to survival.

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