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God appears to Jeremiah in a cloud (14th century).
God appears to Jeremiah in a cloud (14th century).

A fascinating aspect of Jeremiah 7:1-15 is its density as a summary of the message of Israel’s prophets. A number of details keep interpreters busy; the main thrust is what will concern us here.

Particularly intriguing–and not noticed enough–is that the text does not report a speech from Jeremiah to the people but a command from God to Jeremiah: ‘Proclaim there this word’ (7:2). The prophetic message is coming straight from the horse’s mouth, from God. Surprisingly, there is no record of Jeremiah’s delivering the speech.

The theme recurs in another story, in Jeremiah 26 (our topic in the next issue), but it is a different story. Jeremiah 7 is about the message of the prophets; Jeremiah 26 is about the fate of the prophets. The two provide an excellent example of the potential of what may have been one event to generate two different accounts.

The speech is to be addressed to the ‘people of Judah’ entering the Jerusalem temple, presumably on a feast day; it is a dense text. The proclamation is put both positively, ‘Amend your ways’, and negatively, ‘Do not trust in these deceptive words’. The plea to amend assumes there is still time for it; later, after v. 12, the time for amendment has passed. Many argue that two independent passages have been combined. If so, the combination is eminently understandable; two stages are indicated.

The principal focus of the ‘sermon’ is on the behaviours that are to be amended and the deceptive words that are not to be trusted. The two are spelled out globally in vv. 3-4. The behaviours (v. 3) are taken up in vv. 5-7; the deceptive words (v. 4) are unpacked in vv. 8-10. In both cases, the issues are identical: social injustice and religious infidelity. In vv. 5-7, the issue of social injustice is given particular emphasis; if anything, in vv. 8-10, religious infidelity is given rather more space.

Amendment (vv. 5-7) is articulated first in terms of social justice: ‘if you truly act justly with one another’. This is spelled out in the traditional triad of the defenceless–the alien, the orphan, and the widow. To this is added Jeremiah’s particular interest in the ‘shedding of innocent blood in this place’ (the land or the temple). Religious infidelity is listed second, going after other gods, with the particular focus of ‘to your own hurt’. Religious infidelity may not damage God; it certainly damages Israel.

The ‘destructive words’ come next (vv. 8-10). First, categories of social injustice: stealing, murder, adultery, dishonesty; second, religious infidelity: making offerings to Baal and going after ‘other gods that you have not known’. The reasons for the great attraction that the worship of Baal exercised on Israel are unknown to us. Apparently, early in Israel’s story, it did not seem to be a problem; King Saul gave two of his sons names with the god-element Baal (Ishbaal and Meribaal). Later the worship of Baal became an enormous problem to Israel–perhaps much as practical atheism is to so many of us today. ‘Other gods you have not known’ may point to the attraction of novelty. The familiar easily becomes boring; Israel was surely familiar with their God.

Whatever we make of Israel’s motives, the outcome was clear. Social injustice and religious infidelity made Israel incompatible with God. As northern Israel had lost its freedom to the Assyrians in 722 (the northern exile), so Judah would lose its freedom to the Babylonians in 587 (the exile). From Jeremiah, the word was devastating: ‘I will cast you out of my sight’ (v. 15).