Between Prophecy and Destruction and Israel Today
M. Eliany ©
Prophet Jeremiah counseled kings to stay away from conflicts between great powers and neighbors to save Israel, but they did not follow his advice and considered him a nuisance.
The young prophet is not eager to prophesize. He knows prophets pay a heavy price ('Behold, I cannot speak for I am a child’, Jeremiah 1: 6-7), but God insists and Jeremiah has no choice but carry the mission (‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth’). The prophet concedes and does not take a wife or bear children, to save them suffering (Jeremiah16: 1-4).
But in spite of the duty to warn Israel of an approaching disaster, he wishes them a better future. He observes that Leah and Rachel’s children differed, Joseph was a food supplier while Judah - a teacher, and he wishes to bring them together into one nation under the leadership of Josiah to make them stronger. For this reason, the prophet sets aside prophecies of destruction, to comfort Rachel’s children, Joseph’s, Ephraim’s and Manasseh’s, exiled by Assyrians, to predict their return to a unified Israel, where justice and fairness reign (Jeremiah 23).
But while wandering between Anatot and Jerusalem, the prophet observes hypocrisy and flawed morality everywhere, despite Josiah’s reform (Jeremiah 5: 1-5). The prophet vacillates between hope and despair, and seeing people immersed in wrongdoing (Jeremiah 7), he warns them: not to take pride in wisdom, wealth or might but in loving-kindness, justice and righteousness (Jeremiah 9: 23).
And disturbed, the prophet concludes: what was will be, for young and old gallop like horses in a race of lies (Jeremiah 8: 4-10). And not to bear bad news to his people, he wishes himself death, not to be associated with evil doers (Jeremiah 8: 23).
Egyptians install Jehu-Yakim king. Evil and forcefulness takes hold in the country. So the Prophet cries out at the Temple: ‘without righteousness and justice, the Temple offers no protection, and will suffer destruction like Shiloh’s’. And priesthood and crowds alike call for his death (Jeremiah 26). But his life is spared as judges rule in his favor, believing that prophecy can inspire righteousness, which in turn prevents destruction (Jeremiah 26: 16). But as soon as the prophet wins recognition, he prophesizes destruction once more, shattering a ceramic pot at the Valley of Hinnom, renamed the Valley of Death, to symbolize the approaching destruction and dispersion in exile (Jeremiah 19 and 20).
As prophesized, Nebuchadnezzar defeats Egypt and conquers Jerusalem and the region. Israel’s leadership is amazed to see Jeremiah's prophecy fulfilled. Nevertheless, the king does not follow the prophet’s advice, and brings disaster on himself and his people (Jeremiah 26). Jerusalem surrenders without war and its elite, headed by King Jehu-Yakim, goes to exile in Babylon (Kings II: 24, Jeremiah 22).
Nebuchadnezzar appoints Zedekiah, son of Josiah, King, expecting his loyalty. Recalling Josiah’s reform, Jeremiah wishes the people of Israel mend their ways but they don’t. Forcefulness and exploitation remain so widespread, the Prophet likens the People in Israel to rotten figs, while the exiled give him hope, they would repent and return to Israel to see it redeemed (Jeremiah 24).
A feud develops between the Babylonian exiles and residents of Israel. The exiles want to maintain their birthright, while residents, tasting the benefits of power, want to keep it for themselves. The concerned prophet reminds the feuding parties that rights are earned through good deeds, justice and righteousness (Ezekiel 11 and 33). But behind the power struggle between the exiles and residents, lies the temptation to resist the Babylonian occupation (Jeremiah 29). Royalists in the Babylonian Diaspora and Israel call for a rebellion against Babylon. But Jeremiah objects to it, for fear it would bring about the final destruction of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 27).
Jerusalem joins the rebellion. As prophesized, it pays a heavy price. Last minute payers prove useless and neighbors fail to provide any help (Kings II, 25, Jeremiah 14, 21, 34, 27, Ezekiel 17). Jeremiah pleads for surrender to save Jerusalem (just like Joseph Ben Mathatiahu). He is imprisoned and pays a heavy price (Jeremiah 37, 38). But he does not give up hope for renewal and buys a field in Anatot (Jeremiah 32, 33).
The King realizes Jerusalem will be destroyed as prophesized, but he does not have the courage to surrender or stand up to the zealot advisers, who led him into a failed rebellion. The King escapes to Amon, gets caught, witnesses the slaughter of his sons, and blinded, he is led to exile (Jeremiah 29).
Babylonian soldiers, aided by Edomites destroy Jerusalem, burn its houses and lead its inhabitants into exile. Prophet Ezekiel describes the destruction as an act of God, without mentioning Babylon’s involvement (Ezekiel 9).
Many Israelis understand that there is no alternative to surrender, and voluntarily go to exile. But royalists resist occupation to no avail. Eventually, the king and his supporters flee, get caught and punished. Gedaliah is appointed to manage what is left. But zealot royalists are not prepared to allow anyone who is not of royal descent to rule Israel. They murder Gedaliah, shed innocent pilgrims’ blood, rob them, and then seek refuge in Egypt (Kings II 25, Jeremiah 41). Paradoxically, survivors too fear Babylonian vengeance and decide to seek refuge in Egypt. And the broken Prophet goes along (Jeremiah 42, 43).
Life in Egypt offers some comfort and survivors turn to adoration of foreign Gods, despite the prophet’s warnings (Jeremiah 43, 44). But as prophesized, Babylon conquers Egypt, and drives the remaining survivors to exile in Babylon. The prophet sticks by his people and goes with them. Without Temple and Prophets, Judaism goes through a significant transformation: learning and the learned take centre place (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 16).
Fundamentalism and injustice led to the destruction of the First and Second Temples. A fanatic minority led Israel into destructive wars. Zeal left no room for wisdom or common sense, ignoring that man must at times humbly submit to domination.
Today, like yesterday, Israel must stay away from war. It must not get involved in regional feuds. Had Israel followed its prophets’ advice, there would have been no destruction of any Temple, dispersion would have been of minor significance, and exile would have been brief. Israel must learn from its past. What was will be. History may repeat itself. But we remain masters of our destiny. If we manage to build a fair society and find a way to live in peace with our neighbors, zealots may not be able to bring upon us destruction once more.
P.S. I drew on biblical sources but relied especially on Benjamin Lau, Jeremiah, 2010, published by Chemed Books of the Yediot Aharonot Hamad.