Jeremiah 50-51

Good morning! Yesterday we heard oracles of divine judgment against a variety of nations. Today that theme continues, but focuses exclusively on Babylon. Jeremiah 50-51 shows a comprehensive condemnation of Babylon as it’s overwhelmed by a new power from “the north”, with corresponding consequences for the people of Israel who are captive in Babylon.

The new nation that comes up out of the north against Babylon is the Persians, whose storied civilization continues even to this day in the nation of Iran. Throughout today’s oracle, the prophet denounces the sins of Babylon against the Lord. This is a quite different understanding than that used earlier, which suggested Babylon as the instrument by which God’s wrath was coming against Israel. As the circumstances have changed, so the interpreters of divine will have changed also. The God who continually overturns expectations will now diminish Babylon and raise up Israel once more, pardoning all those who remain in Judah so that sin is found no more. This divine tone is far different from the judgment for Israel’s sins that we’ve read so far. Other characters have shifted as well. While 50:50 and following suggests that Israel is the conqueror of Babylon, this does not square with the historical record. I think it’s more probable that Persians are the “you” referred to here, and the earlier sense that Babylon was an agent of divine purpose has now shifted to Persia in that role. Regardless, a key interpretation of geo-political events here (especially the overthrow of Babylon) is that God has not forsaken Israel, however great their trespasses (51:5).

Notice in passing the sexism and transphobia present in several places here, where warriors are rhetorically emasculated and “become” women as a sign of their weakness and surrender. In 50:37, the “sword” of the Lord will come against the male troops, “so that they may become women”. This happens again in 51:30, which reads in part, “their strength has failed, they have become women”. This is not surprising given the time of this writing, but it’s an ancient version of the same old gender slander that equates females with weakness. For a modern example today, look no further than one of our presidential candidates opening a jar of pickles on national television to prove her strength.

Chapter 51 ends with the implication for Hebrew survivors in Babylon that they need to rush home. “Jeremiah” commands with urgency in 51:50: “go, do not linger!” Such insistence was likely necessary because by the time of Babylon’s defeat seventy years after the exile began, a second and possibly third generation of Jews was born in exile. Babylon was the only home they knew. Nevertheless, the prophet here encourages them to “remember the Lord in a distant land, and let Jerusalem [not Babylon] come into your mind”.

At the end of this oracle, we’re given to believe that Jeremiah stored all these things up in a written scroll for someone going with the exiled king Zedekiah to Babylon. If this had actually happened and the scroll was thrown into the Euphrates River as Jeremiah commanded, we wouldn’t have such a detailed record of what Jeremiah supposedly said! I believe instead that these chapters in Jeremiah are the collected rebukes of a number of prophets working in the years of Babylon’s defeat, many decades after the original Jeremiah lived. They have been bundled together here and spliced together (interweaving poetry and prose), then attributed to Jeremiah in order to give it more authority. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and thanks as always for your attention. Happy reading!

Read Jeremiah 50-51.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Jeremiah 52. Thanks for reading!

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