Haftarat Mattot—Jeremiah: Doomed to a Calling

August 3, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Mattot | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 1:1-2:3.

Jeremiah discovers his calling in this week’s haftarah:

The word of God happened to me, saying:

     Before I enclosed you in the womb, I knew you.

     And before you went out from the womb, I consecrated you;

     A navi to the nations I appointed you. (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

navi (נָבְיא) = prophet. (Plural = neviyim (נְבִיאִים).)

There are two kinds of neviyim in the Bible: those who have ecstatic experiences of the divine but do not speak for God; and those who serve as mouthpieces or translators for God, giving God’s messages to other people. Jeremiah is the second kind of navi, like Moses, Bilam, Samuel, Natan, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, the first Isaiah, Micah, and Nahum before him.

Jeremiah is an adolescent when he hears God tell him he is a navi.

And I said:

     Ahahh! My master, God!

     Hey! I do not know how to speak,

     Because I am a youth. (Jeremiah 1:6)

Ahahh (אֲהָהּ) = a cry of alarm, like “oh no!” or “alas!”

Jeremiah does not want the job.

While Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by claiming his speech and his tongue were heavy, Jeremiah protests that he would be a poor speaker because he is too young.

Perhaps he is wise for his age and knows speaking out effectively against what others are doing requires insights that come from experience. Of course, that wisdom would actually make him more qualified!

More importantly, God consecrated him as a navi before he was born. The language in these poetic verses reflects an observation that we explain today through genetics: human beings are born with genes for certain talents and dispositions, which change from potential to actual in the right environment. Skills can be developed through education and practice, but you can become a stellar dancer only if you were born with certain physical traits, a stellar mathematician only if you were born with certain mental traits, a stellar prophet only if you were born with—what?

My guess is that a competent navi must be born with both the kind of intelligence needed by translators and eloquent speakers, and an unusual spiritual sensitivity.  Jeremiah must have had a way with words as a child, and he must have experienced glimpses or echoes of a reality behind our mundane reality.

People enjoy using their talents. So why is Jeremiah horrified at news that he must serve as a navi?

The haftarah opens by stating that Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, which scholars date to the 620’s B.C.E. Two neviyim are already active in Jerusalem at that time: Zephaniah (who has his own book) and Huldah (who is mentioned only when she utters a prophecy for King Josiah five years after Jeremiah’s call, in 2 Kings 22).

King Josiah began his reign at the age of eight, and while he was growing up, Zephaniah was predicting a day of reckoning when God would wipe out Jerusalem, Judah, and most of the world for injustice and idol worship, while giving refuge to a small number of survivors.

When Jeremiah is called to prophesy, Josiah is 21 and has not yet begun his campaign of wiping out the images, shrines, and priests of other gods. The kingdom of Judah is still full of polytheists worshipping Baal, Ashtoret, Molekh, Khemosh, Milkom, and various astral deities. Furthermore, the political situation in the region is shifting. The Assyrian Empire, which had earlier swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel and made Judah its vassal state, is weakening. Wars are brewing between powers bigger than the little state of Judah. It would be all too easy for a sensitive person to imagine God using foreign armies to punish and destroy the Israelites.

Jeremiah probably expects that the speeches he must make as a navi will be at least as grim and unwelcome as Zephaniah’s. If Jeremiah hopes that at least his private life will continue as before, that hope probably dies when he hears God’s response to his attempt to excuse himself on the grounds of youth.

prophet 1And God said to me:

     Do not say “I am a youth”

     Because anywhere I send you, you will go,

     And anything I command you, you will speak.

     Do not be afraid in front of them,

     Because I will be with you to rescue you –declares God. (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

Theoretically Jeremiah could refuse the call, but God already knows Jeremiah will obey—and that he will need rescuing from “them”, people who have not yet been named. In case Jeremiah did not get the hint, later in this haftarah God says:

     And they will attack you

     But they will not vanquish you

     Because I will be with you—declares God—to rescue you. (Jeremiah 1:19)

How reassuring!

prophet 2Jeremiah rants against dishonesty, injustice, and the worship of other gods until King Josiah is killed in 609 B.C.E. During the reigns of the next four kings of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon vanquishes the old Assyrian empire and his army conquers Judah, putting Jerusalem under siege in 589 B.C.E.

Jeremiah blames idol-worship for the Babylonian attack, and advises each successive king of Judah (Yeho-achaz, Yehoyakim, Yehoyakin, and Tzidkiyahu) to surrender and make Judah a vassal of the new Babylonian empire. He knows it is the only way to save lives and preserve Jerusalem and its temple.

Despite all of Jeremiah’s prophesies, the people do not repent, and none of the kings submit to Babylon.  The Jerusalem faction that opposes surrender flogs, imprisons, and attempts to murder Jeremiah, so he will stop interfering with their power over the king.

prophet 3When the Babylonians finally do raze Jerusalem and its temple, and kill or take captive most of its leading citizens, all Jeremiah can do is save the lives of a few people who helped him. He spends the rest of his own life in exile in Egypt, prophesying about other countries whose kings do not listen to him.

Maybe Jeremiah glimpses his own future when God first calls him to serve as a navi. That future would make anyone cry Ahahh!

*

When I was young, I was one of many Americans who believed that if you discovered your true calling and did it, you would be successful and happy. The 1970’s and 80’s were the era of “Do your own thing” and “Follow your bliss”.

Gradually I realized that even when you pursue work you have a talent for and are passionate about, the world does not always rearrange itself to give you a clear path. Some individuals are lucky; I believe my father was born to be an engineer, and he had a profitable and satisfying career in that field. Some are unlucky, and pursue what speaks to their innermost heart only to end up broke and miserable. In some countries, those who pursue the work of a prophet speaking out against the government end up imprisoned (like Jeremiah) or killed (a fate he narrowly escaped).

And some people never try to pursue their calling, either because what they were born to do is something society expects from them anyway, or because they run away from the first intimation that they might have a calling.

What if you realized, with deep inner clarity, that you were called to devote your life to work that would lead to frustration and failure like Jeremiah’s?

Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies

January 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Bo, Ezekiel, Jeremiah | 7 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 46:13-28.
The Death of the First Born by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. 1872

The Death of the First Born, by Lawrence Alma Tadema, 1872

In the book of Exodus, God inflicts ten miraculous plagues on Egypt to punish the pharaoh for refusing to let the Israelite slaves go. Pharaoh finally sets the Israelites free in this week’s Torah portion, Bo—but only after the final miracle: the death of the firstborn sons.

In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah predicts that God will once again punish the pharaoh of Egypt for mistreating the Israelites.  This time God will not create miracles, but instead will use another empire’s army to achieve the goal.

The politics

There were three kinds of nations in the Near East during the era of 800-500 B.C.E.: superpowers that ran empires (Neo-Assyrian, Egyptian, and Neo-Babylonian); countries that were directly controlled by a superpower; and semi-independent vassal states that paid tribute to a superpower in exchange for protection against outside attacks. Being a vassal state was the best hope for a small country like Judah, the only remaining Israelite kingdom after the northern kingdom of Israel was swallowed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 732 B.C.E.

Judah sent tribute to Assyria for about a century, except for a brief and doomed rebellion in 705-701 B.C.E. The Neo-Assyrian Empire expanded southwest to include northern Egypt, and southeast to the Persian Gulf.

Pharaoh Psamtik I

Pharaoh Psamtik I unites Egypt

But no empire lasts forever. Psamtik, the son of one of Assyria’s puppet governors in northern Egypt, hired Greek mercenaries to drive out the Assyrian occupiers. By 654 B.C.E. he was pharaoh over a united Egypt. He went on to conquer the western half of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and by 630 B.C.E. King Josiah of Judah had become a vassal of Pharaoh Psamtik.

Next Assyria was assailed from the southeast. In 626 B.C.E. Babylon revolted under its new king, Narbopolassar. A shrunken Assyria allied itself with Egypt, and Psamtik’s son, Pharaoh Nekho II, sent his armies north to fight Narbopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II.

It was a slow march, interrupted by rebellions of vassal states along the way. King Josiah took his own army to Megiddo to challenge the Egyptians in 609 B.C.E., but the Egyptians trounced the Israelites, and Pharaoh Nekho killed Josiah.

The armies of Egypt and Babylon met in 605 B.C.E. at Carchemish, about 2,000 miles north of Jerusalem (on the present border between Turkey and Syria). The Egyptian army was crushed, and its surviving soldiers fled south.

According to Jeremiah, Egypt did not lose the battle because of any deficiency of its own; Egypt lost because the God of Israel made it happen.

Why have your strong ones been cut down?

They did not stand

Because God shoved them down. (Jeremiah 46:15)

map Neo-Babylonian Empire BAfter the battle at Carchemish, all of Egypt’s vassal states became vassals of Babylonia, and Assyria disappeared. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warned the new king of Judah, Yehoyakhim, to stay out of trouble and keep sending tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar.

But Yehoyakhim revolted against Babylonia in 599 B.C.E. and sent Judah’s tribute to Pharaoh Nekho II (the same pharaoh who had killed his father, Josiah).

Nebuchadnezzar retaliated by besieging Jerusalem. After a year and a half the city fell and Judah came under direct control of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel criticized Egypt for failing to send troops to defend its new vassal Judah.

Judah’s king, the prophet Ezekiel, and other leading citizens were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah stayed behind in the ruins of Jerusalem until some of his fellow countrymen took him into exile in Egypt.

The prophecy

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that because Egypt had failed keep its promise to help Judah, God would send an army from the north to destroy Egypt.  Both prophets said it would be King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but in actual history, Nebuchadnezzar failed in his 568 B.C.E. attempt to conquer Egypt. The country remained independent until the Persians took it—from the north—in 526 B.C.E.

Babylonian soldiers

Babylonian soldiers

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God would arrange for Nebuchadnezzar to devastate Egypt not just to punish it, but so that the pharaoh would know who God is. (See last week’s post, Va-eira—Ezekiel: How to Know God.)

Jeremiah’s prophecy also includes more than punishment. He uses a name for God that never appears in Ezekiel:

As I live, declares the King—YHVH [of] Tzevaot is His name—

As Tabor is among the mountains

And Carmel is by the sea,

It will come!

Prepare for yourself the gear of exile…

For Nof will become a horror,

A desolation without inhabitants.

A heifer with a beautiful mouth is Egypt;

A stinging fly from the north is coming, coming! (Jeremiah 46:18-20)

YHVH = the four-letter personal name of God, probably related to the Hebrew verb “to be”.

Tzevaot (צְבָאוֹת) = armies; companies of soldiers. (The Bible also uses the word metaphorically for armies of angels and armies of stars.)

The god of Israel is never called YHVH [of] Tzevaot in the Bible until the first book of Samuel, which modern scholars date to 630–540 BCE—the same period as the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses this term 70 times!

Why does Jeremiah emphasize that YHWH, the god of existence itself, is the god of armies?

Jeremiah lived through at least 60 years of wars and reversals of fortune in the Near East, 60 years in which Judah was always a pawn, unable to take charge of its own destiny.

The common belief in the ancient Near East was that each country had its own god. When that god was happy with the people of his country, he made their army succeed. When the god was unhappy with them, their army failed.

The Bible also attributes many failures of Israelite armies to Israelite rejections of God. But why were God’s people suffering so many defeats, if their god was the most powerful?

Jeremiah was inspired to preach that the God of Israel is unlike the gods of other nations. Israel’s god, the supreme God of all existence, controls all the armies in the world. God decides which armies will win and which will lose, even when Israelites are not involved in the battle.

For Jeremiah, the prophetic insight that God rules all armies made the wars of his own lifetime meaningful. God had a master plan. Egypt would be humbled. Eventually the Babylonians would also be defeated. And in the long run, the Israelites would outlast all other peoples.

You must not fear,

My servant Jacob

—declares YHWH—

For I am with you.

For I will make an end of all the nations

Among which I have banished you,

But with you I will not make an end. (Jeremiah 46:28)

Personally, I shrink inside when I sing a prayer that includes the term YHVH Tzevaot. If God is the ruler of all armies, then God is responsible for the carnage and suffering of all wars—which are apparently necessary for God’s master plan.

If God were the Master Planner, controlling the actions of mutable human beings, surely God could come up with a better plan than this. If human beings hold ultimate responsibility for wars, then God is not the Master Planner, not the God of Armies.

Sorry, Jeremiah.

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