Historical Background:

The Letter of Jeremiah is a short text which claims to be written by the prophet Jeremiah and sent to the Jewish Exiles who lived in Babylon. Exilic texts and post-Exilic texts closer to the destruction of Jerusalem are primarily focused on understanding why and how God could allow his people to coming into such suffering. The Letter of Jeremiah does not focus on this issue, rather it focuses on teaching Jews how to understand the idols of the nations around them. This is a good indicator that the text is written after the struggle with understanding the Exile, but now the theological struggle of the Jews is how to understand how to live in the world where they are a small minority among larger, more powerful nations and peoples.

Some take the reference in verse three, “you will remain there for many years, for a long time, up to seven generations,” which would be 280 years, as indicating when the text was written. This would place the text about 317 BCE. I believe the phrase is more hopeful than that. I think the reference to “seven generations” would likely be hoping that by 317 BCE the Exile would have come to an end. This would mean the Letter of Jeremiah was probably written sometime in the early to mid-300s, but the final compilation and circulation of the text would have happened sometime before or in the late-300s.

Literary Synopsis:

The Letter of Jeremiah actually seems to be a written homily or sermon, more than a letter. This sermon lays out its intent right at the beginning; to convince Jewish Exiles among the nations that they have good reason to reject the idea that idols are gods worthy of worship. Idolatry was the reason for the Exile and so recognizing that punishment comes because of idolatry means the exiles should understand why the idol-worship deserves punishment. The Exiles should not fear these gods, but they should fear God who is able to punish Israel if they fall into idol-worship again.

The writer of the Letter of Jeremiah then goes into a number of reasons why the idols are not gods:

  1. vv. 8-16, Humans must care for the idols. They must be cleaned and clothed because they are unable to provide for or care for themselves.
  2. vv.17-23, The idols sit in the temples like useless objects. They have no life and do nothing, even the creatures of the earth do not show them respect, such as birds, bats, and cats. This is most likely giving a humorous reason why the idols must be cleaned by their priests since these animals likely leave droppings on or around them.
  3. vv. 24-29, The priests of these idols do not even truly show respect for their “gods” because they steal from them by using offerings to the idols for themselves. It is a sin that these priests act so selfishly and do not use the money for the poor and need. These idols are also unholy in their interaction with females by allowing when on their menstrual period to profane their sacrifices. Even more, the idols feel nothing as they are created by humans. All in all, the Jewish exiles should not think they will offend these empty idols.
  4. vv. 30-40a, What is more the idols do not even have the power to act in the world. They are not able to form or destroy nations, they cannot rescue the oppressed, and they are not able to judge those who are unfaithful to them.
  5. vv. 40b-44, The idols’ lack of power is revealed by the reality that their priests cannot heal through prayer and instead they spend their time chasing pleasure with prostitutes.
  6. vv. 45-59, These idols, which are laden with gold and jewels and fabric, are not able to protect themselves from looter or thieves. They cannot even stop these looters from destroying them in the process of taking the treasure off of them as objects. The writers states it is better to be object that is a tool useful for work than an idol that is useless in this world.
  7. vv. 60-73, The Sun, Moon, and Stars are way more powerful than the empty idols in temples, but they are useful and obey the Creator god, the God of Israel.

In the end, the writer makes clear throughout his letter that the idols are not gods. These “gods” have no power because they are not there. They have no power, no substance, and are in the imaginations of the humans who worship them. The Jewish Exiles need not fear that they will offend the gods of other lands as they are enslaved in those places. Instead, they should take courage know that Israel’s God is the Creator god who made the Sun, Moon, and starts, which many worship with idols, and they should reject idolatry completely because on account of it God has sent them into the Exile.

Observations:

  1. This is first sense of a development of preaching as we would recognize it. This text is a short, expressive piece focused on a very particular topic. It is influenced by the prophetic proclamations to encourage and declare things to the people of God, but this teaching makes no claim to be from God directly. The claim that the letter comes from the prophet Jeremiah is its implicit attempt at garnering some authority. Does this indicate an increase in Jewish theological conversation and opinion based on the received texts from the Exile and Post-Exilic period?
  2. The Letter of Jeremiah seems to reveal a theological certainty about monotheism in 2nd Temple Judaism. The writer uses language from former texts like Psalm 135, Habakkuk 2, Jeremiah 10, and Isaiah 46. The focus of all of these texts is on the lack of substance in the idols. The idols are not gods and they have no power as such. The assumed sacramental thought process of the ancient world that God, or the gods, permeated throughout creation indwelling and controlling things by means of their power would find great offense at this writers statements. The writer, by saying the idols have no gods in them or through them and have no power, is consequently and implicitly claiming that there are no gods behind the idols either. The gods of the nations simply do not exist. They are an idea in the minds and behaviors of the humans who worship useless objects. This Jewish critique of polytheism will only grow strong as we approach the 1st century CE.
  3. The writer explains that the idols lack major indicators of divine presence in and through them: 1) divine activity and response,[1] 2) holiness in relation to female bodies,[2] and 3) care for the poor and needy.[3]

***************************

This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.



[1] Passim.

[2] 1:11, 29, 42-43.

[3] 1:28, 33, 38, 54.

Posted by Justin Gill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s