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Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau

The prophet Jeremiah lived in the dark, tumultuous period that led to the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. He lived a painful journey from hopeful youth who dreamed of the reunification of the kingdoms to rejected prophet who tried desperately to eradicate the corruption and social injustice rampant in society.

In “Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet,” a new release from Maggid Books, Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau gives us a narrative account of national struggle, social degeneration and political strife that is both accessible to and thrilling for the contemporary reader. The following is an excerpt for reflection as we begin the Three Weeks.

Throughout biblical history, prophets have repeatedly failed to penetrate the collective consciousness. Moses, the greatest of the prophets; Elijah and Elisha, the oratory prophets; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other twelve literary prophets – none was successful in getting his message across and inspiring the people to repentance. Jonah is perhaps the only prophet who may be said to have fulfilled his mission, making the people of Nineveh see the error of their ways.

The words of the prophets have been preserved for us, their distant descendants, so that we may learn what is right in the eyes of God and man. But in their own days, in real time, there is hardly a prophet who has redressed the social, religious, or political wrongs of Israel; the prophets barked, but the caravan kept moving. Moreover, when a prophet dared to deviate from his usual message of morality and challenged the existing order, he was declared an enemy of the people. Thus, the prophet Amos was banished by the priest of Bethel, Amaziah, in the name of King Jeroboam: “Get thee out, seer!” (Amos 7:12).

The comparison of the prophet to a public intellectual is intended not to diminish the importance of the former, but to emphasize the responsibility of the latter. While the significance of the prophetic overture “Thus said the Lord” may be disputed, and it is difficult to distinguish a true prophet from a false one, certain hallmarks of true prophecy may be found. First among these is the prophet’s readiness to pay a personal price for his vision; thus the “prophet” who is eager to reinforce the dominant zeitgeist and the prevailing mores – who tells the people exactly what they want to hear – is immediately suspect.

One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon is the story of King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah, who joined forces to free their territories from the Arameans. Before making the final decision to wage war, Jehoshaphat asked Ahab to seek the word of God. Ahab acceded to his ally’s request: “Then the King of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, ‘Shall I go to Ramoth-Gilead to battle, or shall I withhold?’ And they said, ‘Go up; for the Lord shall deliver into the king’s hand’ ” (I Kings 22:6).

When the press all sing the same tune, something rings false; the king of Judah indeed suspected that the four hundred “prophets” were merely pandering to the king of Israel. He could see that their unanimous declaration had more to do with choreography than with actual prophecy.

When Jehoshaphat asked if any others claimed to be a “prophet of the Lord” (22:7), Ahab admitted that there was indeed another prophet who had not been summoned, “for I hate him, for he foretells for me not good but evil” (22:8). Ahab preferred the cheerleading of false prophets to the foreboding word of God, and hated the bearers of such warnings.

The story goes on to describe how the hated prophet, Micaiah son of Imla, is summoned to prophesy before the king. The four hundred reiterate their prophecy, calling, “Go up to Ramoth-Gilead and be victorious, for the Lord shall deliver into the king’s hand!” (22:12), and one of their number, Zedekiah son of Kenaana, triumphantly brandishes a pair of iron horns, declaring, “With these shall you gore Aram!” (22:11).

When the king asks for Micaiah’s prophecy, he weakly repeats the words of his false peers: “Go up and be victorious, for the Lord shall deliver into the king’s hand” (22:16). Sensing that Micaiah’s words are disingenuous, the king urges him to deliver the true message of God. Micaiah then pours forth a terrible vision of Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd.

Upon hearing Micaiah’s words, the king of Israel irritably turns to the King of Judah: “Didn’t I tell you that he wouldn’t prophesy any good about me, only evil?” (22:18). Micaiah, undeterred, ominously describes God sitting on His throne, asking the heavenly hosts,

“Who will entice Ahab to ascend and fall in Ramoth-Gilead?” One said this and one said that. Then a spirit came…and said, I will entice him…I will go out and be a false spirit in the mouths of all his prophets.” And [God] said, “You will succeed in enticing him. Go out and do so.” [22:20-22]

The strength of the prophet as public intellectual derives from his faith and his deference to the word of God. His intent is never to mollify the masses. Four hundred prophets forecasting in perfect unison do not a true prophecy make. Does society want to hear that other still, small voice? Generally not. Wherever the government, press, and tycoons form a controlling triad, any dissenting opinions will be quickly snuffed out. Worse, prophets are sometimes bought off by interested parties and, through the combined forces of money and media, forcibly mold public opinion.

The voice of God should therefore be sought in those discordant voices that do not toe the party line. Of course, prophetic opposition is not necessarily right. Sometimes the ruling power finds itself torn between two opposing prophets, unable to declare a winner. Jeremiah himself faces such opposition, clashing with serious prophets who present their own systematic worldview, and it is wholly unclear which of them is the true messenger of God.

However, there is another criterion for a true prophet. He must love his people. Even when the harshest reproach is called for, the prophet must consider himself a divine emissary whose role is to help redeem the people, not to stand aloof and condemn. Indeed, journalists today take on the role of moral and social critics, though more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing. Criticism based on love, of the kind that distinguished Jeremiah, is not often found.

Why Jeremiah?

Some prophets were defrocked or harmed because of their prophecies. First and foremost among these few was Jeremiah. As a prophet, his life was endangered more than once. The inner truth that burned within him took him to such extremes that he eventually betrayed the Kingdom of Judah. Under siege, during an attempt to expel the enemy from the walls of Jerusalem, he called for his people to cross the battle lines and surrender. He thus became despised and disparaged in the streets of Jerusalem, a menace to the public good. All rejected him – kings, priests, noblemen, and the masses.

Three kings were subject to the prophecies of Jeremiah: Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah. The first barely acknowledged him, possibly due to his tender age; the second sought to eliminate him in order to ensure the stability of his reign; the third actually believed him, but could not overcome his own weakness and fears.

The priests of the Temple regarded Jeremiah as one regards a gadfly – a pest and troublemaker. The Temple wardens restricted his every step. Among the noblemen there were different leanings; some pandered to the king, while most took a belligerent stance against the rising Babylonian Empire. For the latter, Jeremiah was a menace. And the masses? They behaved as masses do. At times they sought to kill the prophet; other times they needed him desperately, their loyalties changing with the wind.

Among the people, Jeremiah’s most formidable opponents were the false prophets. They aroused the men of Zedekiah’s time to rebel against the Babylonians and encouraged the king to form a pro-Egyptian alliance with the surrounding nations. For Jeremiah, these false prophets were the true enemy.

Jeremiah’s descriptions of idol worship in the streets of Jerusalem leave no room for doubt regarding its ubiquity within the city. Josiah’s reformation is still in its infancy, and great efforts must be made to convince people to cast away the idols of their fathers. In chapter 10, Jeremiah uses three rhetorical strategies to help purge the land of idolatry: public relations, parody, and prayer:

Hear the word that the Lord has spoken to you, O House of Israel. Thus said the Lord: Learn not the way of the nations, and fear not signs in the heavens, though the nations fear them. For the laws of the peoples are empty: a tree from the forest is cut down, the work of a craftsman’s hands, with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; with nails and hammers they reinforce it, that it not teeter. They are like a rigid post and cannot speak; they must be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not fear them, for they can do no evil, nor can they do good. [10:1-5]

Jeremiah turns to the “House of Israel,” a collective name for the kingdoms of Judah and Ephraim, and appeals to them to abandon the ways of foreign nations. He contends with those who plan their every move based on the constellations. Astrology was well developed in Babylonian religion, and his plea not to fear the heavens may be the first indication that the people are beginning to absorb a new and increasingly prevalent pagan culture. Jeremiah’s call to Israel not to fear heavenly signs is echoed in a later, well-known rabbinic saying: “Israel is not subject to constellations.” A midrash depicts the human experience of divination based on the stars:

R. Eliezer says: A solar eclipse is an ominous sign for the nations of the world, and a lunar eclipse is an ominous sign for the enemies of Israel [a euphemism for Israel itself], for Israel is likened to the moon, and the nations of the world to the sun…. If [the eclipse] is in the west, it bodes ill for those in the west; if it occurs at the zenith, it bodes ill for the whole world. If its face looks like blood, the sword is coming to the world; if it looks like sackcloth, famine is coming to the world…. When Israel carries out the will of God, [it] shall not fear, as it says, “Thus said the Lord: Learn not the way of the nations, and fear not signs in the heavens, though the nations fear them” – the nations will fear, but [Israel] will not. [Tanna DeVei Eliyahu Zuta 16]

After addressing those who place their faith in horoscopes, Jeremiah turns to those who worship idols of wood and stone. A similar style of mockery can be found in Isaiah 44 as well as other prophetic works. Jeremiah describes the absurdity of idol worship: The worshippers themselves cut down trees, carve statues out of the wood, decorate them with gold and silver, hammer them full of nails, and finally, worship their own creations. Israel’s faith in the God of heaven and earth contrasts with prostration before replaceable, man-made statues: “But the Lord, God, is true, the living God and King of the world; at His wrath the earth shakes, and the nations cannot withstand His fury” (Jer. 10:10).

At this point in the chapter, a verse appears in Aramaic, beckoning to the idolaters in the lingua franca of the era, confronting them with the futility of their service: “Tell them this: these gods, which did not create the heavens or the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (10:11).

Later, Jeremiah prays for Israel to be released from the all-absorbing grip of pagan ritual: “The portion of Jacob is not like these, for He is the Maker of all, and Israel is the tribe of His inheritance – the Lord of Hosts is His name” (10:16).

Jeremiah concludes his prayer with the famous words that made their way into the Haggadah:

Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You, and upon the families who do not call Your name. For they have devoured Jacob, devoured him and consumed him, and have made his homeland desolate. [10:25].

This verse calls on God to avenge the tribes of Jacob, who were devoured by the nations. With this call for revenge, Jeremiah concludes his prophecy against idol worship.

 

“Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet” is available at www.korenpub.com and at Jewish booksellers everywhere.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau is an Israeli community leader, educator, and rabbi. He is the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, founder of the Moshe Green Beit Midrash for Women’s Leadership at Beit Morasha’s Beren College, and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati, and received a Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University. “Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet” is available at www.korenpub.com and at Jewish booksellers everywhere.


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The prophet Jeremiah lived in the dark, tumultuous period that led to the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. He lived a painful journey from hopeful youth who dreamed of the reunification of the kingdoms to rejected prophet who tried desperately to eradicate the corruption and social injustice rampant in society.

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