Song of the Vineyard by B. Davie Napier
B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Song of the Vineyard was published in 1962 by Harper & Row, Publishers. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 8. Suspended Judgment: The Seventh Century
PACKAGED PROPHETISM: DEUTERONOMY1
The word is very near you.
Manasseh succeeded Hezekiah about 687 (some competent chronologists would make it an earlier date). A fair impression of his reign, although only an impression, is returned in IL Kings 21 and IL Chronicles 33. He is bitterly condemned by DH. He was surely repudiated in prophetic-Yahwistic circles, and it may be that Yahwism during his reign was virtually forced to go underground. An extrabiblical tradition reports Isaiah’s death under Manasseh’s persecution.
His was a long reign, lasting until 642, when his son Amon succeeded to the throne. He appears as an Assyrian vassal in the annals of Esarhaddon (681-669) and Asshurbanapal (669- 633?). The Chronicler reports an act of rebellion, or suspected rebellion; but if true, his relationship to Assyria as a subject king in good standing was quickly restored. As the King’s account also reports of his grandfather Ahaz (in II 16:3), Manasseh reverted to child sacrifice (II 21:6); and, also like Ahaz, he introduced, no doubt under the guise of what continued to pass for Yahweh worship and the Yahweh cult, extraneous practices denoting Judah’s subservience to Assyria.
Amon ’s reign — indeed his life — was brief (642-640: he was killed at 24). DH formally condemns him, but it is interesting and perhaps significant that his assassination was avenged by "the people of the land," i.e., the most influential citizens,2 and his son Josiah put on the throne at the age of eight to succeed him. During the years of Josiah’s reign (640-609) Assyria was dying and Josiah was able to effect a drastic religious transformation because Judah gained again, and for the last time, a period of political independence.
The Kings Account
II Kings 22-23
Unless these two chapters are a hoax, they are historically two of the most important in the Old Testament. Here is recorded the most extensive, thorough-going reform in the whole history of the Israelite kingdoms, a reform based upon a book of law found — or appearing, or now for the first time seriously heeded — in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign (probably 621). Reform is already under way: Josiah has already set in motion the complete redecoration and restoration of the "house of Yahweh," the Temple in Jerusalem. Manasseh bad apparently permitted its shameful deterioration. The priest Hilkiah reports the finding of "the book of the law in the house of Yahweh" (II 22:8). Josiah’s secretary, Shaphan, reads the book to the king, who is profoundly moved by the disparity between present practice and the book’s, admonition (22:11-13). The prophetess Huldah is consulted. She is apparently a professional prophet in her own right commanding vast respect in Judah, although we hear of her nowhere else. She returns the Yahweh Word validating the book, confirming Josiah’s concern. She indicts and passes judgment upon Judah, but for Josiah she speaks gentle words of Yahweh’s acceptance
Nothing daunted, Josiah sets about implementing the law-book. He calls a popular assembly at the temple; gives the books a public reading; elicits the assembly’s acceptance of "the words of this covenant" in the old covenant-making tradition (e.g., Josh. 24); and at once proceeds with appropriate reforms (see 23:4 ff.), including the excision from the whole temple cultus of objects and personnel alien, or deemed to be alien, to traditional Yahwism. Cult prostitution, scattered idolatrous sanctuaries, the practice of child sacrifice, and all objects and manifestations of astral worship (ancient Babylonian in origin, taken over by Assyria) are abolished. The passover is re-established, not afresh, but in a form deemed to adhere for the first time in centuries to ancient rite (23:21 f.; observe that the Chronicler, II 35, greatly expands and elaborates the account of this passover celebration).
DH gives expression to unprecedented gratification in Josiah:
Before him there was no king like him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might (cf. Deut. 6:5), according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him. (II Kings 23:25)
Josiah’s death at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco is recorded (II Kings 23:28-30); but the details are decidedly not clear, and the Chronicler’s account of the same tragic episode (II 35:20 ff.) compounds the confusion. It is only clear that Josiah loses his life, still a relatively young man, at Megiddo. Egypt is allied in a hopeless cause with Assyria against the Medes and Babylonians. Perhaps the Kings and Chronicles accounts are both satisfied on the assumption that Josiah, forced into the battle by Egypt, loses his life in the fighting (Chronicles) and so, in a manner of speaking, at Neco’s hand (Kings).
Josiah’s Law-Book: Deuteronomy
For well over a century and a half this identification has been widely, and we think, rightly accepted. The basis of Josiah’s reform, centering the cult practice of Yahwism exclusively in Jerusalem, purifying and simplifying Yahweh’s worship, and rearticulating the "law of Moses," was the original unit of the present book of Deuteronomy, that is, chapters 12-26 (perhaps also including chapter 28), or even the larger block, chapters 5-26. This prevailing view has had its able opponents. A handful of scholars have argued that Deuteronomy was not in existence in Josiah’s day and that Josiah’s reform program was shaped by the J legislation in Exodus 12 and 32-34; or a brief collection of Jeremiah’s oracles; or the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26 (conventionally dated in the sixth century, of course); or, if any part of Deuteronomy, then chapters 5-11 only.
Others have seen in Deuteronomy 12-26 (and 28) a very early North-Israelite work — late tenth or early ninth century. Centralization of worship was out of the question at that time, and they rid Deuteronomy of any such program by ruling the passage 12:1-7 to be a later intrusion; and by reading 12:14 (RSV: "at the place which Yahweh will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer . . .") "in any place which Yahweh shall choose in any one of your tribes." The original and early Deuteronomy argued, they say, only for centralization by tribes and could not, therefore, have been the basis of Josiah’s reform.
The ease for identification nevertheless remains convincing. As many as twenty-six specific parallels between Deuteronomy and II Kings 22-23 have been cited; and it is difficult indeed to believe that the Kings account of Josiah’s reform is an invention of DH. From a literary point of view, Deuteronomy shows dependence on JE, but no rapport with P. To narrow the span of years of Deuteronomy’s possible origin, the eighth-century prophets betray no knowledge of it whatsoever; while late seventh- and sixth-century prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, II Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah) all show at least some indirect acquaintance with it. Style and vocabulary accord well with what we know of late eighth- and earlier seventh-century Hebrew.3
To many careful readers of Deuteronomy, the theological tone necessarily presupposes the preaching of the eighth-century prophets.4 The strong theological ethic enunciated in Deuteronomy has a kind of post-Amos, post-Isaiah appeal. The central body, chapters 12-26, 28, gives in a considerably expanded and often significantly modified form virtually the full contents of the Covenant Code (E? Ex. 20:18-23:19; see above Chapter 3). There is, of course, new material in Deuteronomy, regulations specifically pertinent to the life of Judah in the years of Assyria’s ascendancy around 725-625 B.C. Concern with the sociopolitical implications of war is marked both in the main body of Deuteronomy (20:1-20; 21:1-14; 23:10-14; 24:5; 25:17-19) and in the long introduction (see, e.g., 7:16-26 and 9:1-6)) Some of this material no doubt originated centuries before, but in this century of Assyrian domination it is revived by Deuteronomy. A sense of crisis and urgency pervades the material. The tone of Deuteronomy is far less legal than hortatory: it is all cast now in the form of Moses’ personal words to his own people in direct address, and the note of pleading (characterized in the phrase, "Hear, O Israel!" 5:1; 6:3 f.; 9:1; 20:3; cf. 12:28; 13:11 f.) is implicit throughout. It is Old Testament law, of course; but the content of the law provides, as it were, the text for the sermon. This is Old Testament law, not so much formally codified as preached, and preached with passion and conviction).6
Deuteronomy has been called a derailment of prophetism. Far from resulting in a new response of the people to the living word of Yahweh . . . the prophetic effort (Deuteronomy) derailed into a constitution for the Kingdom of Judah which pretended to emanate from the "historical" Moses. The past that was meant to be revitalized in a continuous present now became really a dead past; and the living word to which the heart was supposed to respond became the body of the law to which the conduct could conform).7
Deuteronomy was produced — like the Yahwist’s work from a wide range of sources and including some very old materials — out of prophetic Yahwism in the century preceding Josiah.8 Deuteronomy was probably already in process during the reign of Hezekiah (about 715-687) and influenced his reforms (II Kings 18:3 ff.). The work which was ultimately to issue in the law-book of Josiah’s reform went underground during the reigns of Manasseh (c. 687-642) and Amon (642-640) and was "found" in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign when a Yahwist king was ready to institute a Yahwistic reform and a Yahwistic program.
It did become a derailment of prophetism. Prophetism in a package cannot remain prophetic. And yet, the same commentator who so eloquently describes the derailment also declares:
With all its dubious aspects admitted, Deuteronomy is still a remarkable recovery of Yahwist order, when held against the practice of Judah under Manasseh; and when held against the alternative of a complete destruction of Yahwist order through the Exile and the dispersion of the upper class, it has proved to be its salvation in the form of the Jewish postexilic community).9
The Contents of the Package
Deuteronomy looks like this:
1-11 a. 1-4. A summary of the history recounted in Exodus and Numbers.
b. 5-11. A forceful call to obedience, with repeated reference to the era of Israel’s wilderness days.
12-26, 28 The main, and probably original, section: laws old and new, prophetically apprehended, compiled, and edited; suggesting a product not of altar or bench, but of the pulpit.
27, 29-31 A collection of heterogeneous character, relatively late.
32 The so-called "Song of Moses" (vv. 1-43), unmistakably a product of prophetic circles; a poetic, lyrical expression out of classical prophetism, interpreting the history of Israel in terms of the theology of Yahwism (cf. Pss. 78, 105, 106).
33 The so-called "Blessing of Moses," one of the Old Testament’s older long poems, probably premonarchic in origin, but showing signs of editing certainly in the tenth century and perhaps as late as the eighth century; preserving, in the form of individual blessings, characteristics of the tribes constituting the people Israel (and therefore to be compared closely with Gen. 49).
In three regards the law which Deuteronomy pleads (rather than strictly legislates) may be seen to express the prophetic temper which produced it. As compared with similar regulations of the Covenant Code, Deuteronomy (1) further tempers justice in behalf of the offender of any sort and any class; (2) takes a markedly more merciful, sympathetic view of the weak member of society by providing a sort of legal compensation for those who are victimized by social inequity or who suffer from the brutality and deprivation of the accidental in life; and (3) presupposes throughout a theological perspective indebted to classical Israelite prophetism and dependent upon its prior emergence.
In reading in Deuteronomy, one can have no better introduction than is contained in 4:31-39 and the moving Shema’ Yisrael, "Hear, O Israel," of 6:4-13 (a recitation in constant use in Judaism from Deuteronomy’s day to the present). One will not miss the distinctive genius of the preaching: all that is urged is itself sustained by the sense of the merciful Yahweh who himself took a victimized nation from among the nations of the world and gave to it full life and enduring meaning. All that is urged is then caught up in the words, "You shalt love Yahweh your God with all your heart!" It is all said, in a different way, in 9:6; and more fully in summary, in 10:12-22. With this done, and knowing the theme, read at random in the introduction (chs. 1-11); read aloud, and you will be preaching in ancient Israel. But see that, like the prophets, you also stand as the recipient of the word that is spoken.
You will want to see for yourself the difference between Deuteronomy and the Covenant Code where both address the same problem. See, for example, Deuteronomy 15:12-18 and then Exodus 21:2-11. The law sets the Hebrew slave free after six years of servitude and legally determines related questions (Ex. 21:2 ff.); Deuteronomy restates the law but makes it subservient to the prophetic-theological ethic — when the slave goes free "you shall furnish him liberally . . . remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God redeemed you . . . it shall not seem hard to you, when you let him go free" (Deut. 15:14 ff.).
The peculiar character of Deuteronomy and its post-Amos-Isaiah status is equally revealed in regulations that are new, at least in the sense that they do not appear in the Covenant Code. By all means read
24:14 f. On the rights of hired servants.
23:15 f. On the sheltering of a runaway slave.
25:13-16 On weights and measures (cf. Amos 8:5!).
24:16 On the confinement of guilt to the guilty individual (and for an illustration of the application of the law, see II Kings 14:1-6).
22:6-7 On birds — "you shall not take the mother with the young .
25:4 On oxen — let him eat of the grain that he treads as he works!
22:8 On a railing round the roof.
23:12-14 And even on defecation; for the sake of cleanliness, of course, but — this is Deuteronomy — be clean because Yahweh walks in the midst of your camp!
An important clement in the difference between the codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy is the emergence between them of classical prophetism; Leviticus 19, in the still later Holiness Code, reflects the further development of prophetism’s theological ethic. One looks in vain in Deuteronomy for the statement of the equality of the stranger and the homeborn (Lev. 19:34). The nationalism mainly apparent in Deuteronomy’s acute martial sensitivity speaks in discrimination against the stranger even in worship (alas, contemporary worship practices remain by and large in this sense deuteronomic), and to the bastard child, then — as down to our own time — there is harshness (23:3 ff. and 23:2, respectively). Inconsistencies of a theological-humanitarian kind are not uncommon: see, for example, 23:3 (Ammonites and Moabites forbidden Yahweh’s presence) and 24:17 in implicit contradiction (the sojourner’s justice is in no way to he perverted); or again, the contradiction between 12:29 f., 20: 16-18, and 7:3 on the one hand (all of which, in the category of Holy War, insist that there be no kind of intercourse between Israelite and non-Israelite), and 21:10-14 on the other hand (which not only permits intermarriage, but remarkably honors the rights of the non-Israelite wife). And sometimes, we suspect, what is represented as of nobler stuff is in reality hard, shrewd, brutal, and deeply selfish, as in 20:10-20.
Let the three underlying qualities long ago pointed up in Deuteronomy continue to testify to the fact that, package though it be, it is a prophetic package. First, Deuteronomy insists on the unity of God. Yahweh is one — and this is so emphatic (whether explicit or implicit) that it indirectly affirms that he is alone. Indeed, Deuteronomy 6:4 can sustain four translations, all different, but unified in meaning:10
Yahweh our God is one Yahweh (RSV text)
The second of these qualities, narrow in itself perhaps, nevertheless grasps after what has been in Western religions a prominent and persistent hope — unity of sanctuary. In Deuteronomy it is conceived as a physical, geographical unity; but the symbol of such unity is still the yearning dream of the New Testament centuries later, a dream carried through from the old covenant to the new (see John 10:16 and 17:20). And in our own time modern Judaism with its exciting focus on the new Israel, Roman Catholicism, and world Protestantism with its increasing sense of unity — all know now in one form or another the worthy vision of a symbolic unity of sanctuary.
The third underlying principle or fundamental quality of Deuteronomy has been called "social morality and wholehearted worship." This is nothing other than what we have been calling the theological ethic. For all its limitations, Deuteronomy speaks for prophetic Yahwism when it pleads, as consistently it means to do, for righteousness and justice that issue from love of God involving all that one is — heart, soul and might!
FAITH AND THE UNCERTAIN PRESENT:
NAHUM 1-3; ZEPHANIAH 1-3; HABAKKUK 1-3
The righteous shall live by his faith.
Asshurbanapal was the last strong Assyrian king. After his death in 633 or 632, Assyria’s collapse was swift and sure. Babylon had its independence by 625. The Medes from the mountains of Iran pushed westward unhindered into Assyria’s central domain. And out of the steppes of Russia marauding bands, probably Scythian, poured over the outlying reaches of the empire in the same decade of the 620’s. The capital city of Nineveh fell in 612 to a coalition of forces involving all three of these peoples; and in 610 Assyria lost its last real battle. It was, then, no mere coincidence that Josiah expressed himself so freely in the year 621 with his deuteronomic reform program: Assyria, liege lord of the vassal, Judah, was as good as dead!
With unrestrained gratification and unabashed glee, this resident of the town of Elkosh somewhere in southern Judah verbally celebrates Assyria’s dying. He composes, apparently shortly before the fact in 612 B.C., a brilliant ode on the destruction of Nineveh.
Nineveh is like a pool
The physical text of Nahum has suffered as much abuse in transmission as any prophetic writing, as witness the excessive number of footnotes in the RSV translation. Chapter 1 may contain fragments of a prophetic oracle originally of a piece with chapters 2-3; but these nahumesque lines, which appear only after verse 11 or 12 have been incorporated by an editor in what was intended to be au acrostic poem, a kind of alphabetical psalm. However, only fifteen lines remain of an original twenty-two, presumably one each for the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
How is Nahum to be evaluated? What is his relationship to prophetism? Some interpret him as a cult prophet, a professional member of the Temple staff, whereas others exclude him altogether from the company of the prophets. Admittedly, we have very little to go on; but tradition, never glibly to be set aside, ranks him with the prophets and his language is unmistakably prophetic in character:
Behold, I am against you, says Yahweh of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke . . . and the voice of your messengers shall no more be heard.
Furthermore, Nahum speaks not merely for Judah but for humanity: Assyria’s death means longed-for peace and self-respect for all the small peoples of the world. How wrong he was in this; but how prophetically right in his participation in this event not merely as an Israelite, but as a member of the international community.
The central emphases of classical prophetism are lacking — the passionate address to the contemporary life of the covenant nation; the cry for justice and righteousness in the theological ethic; and the consuming concern for ultimate meaning in the events of history. But we could hardly expect to find them in such a narrowly focused subject.
For the rest, we affirm enthusiastically the judgment which ranks this brief utterance in its sheer power and skill of articulation with the best of the age of classical Hebrew — a piece toward the end of that epoch to be classed with David’s Lament (II Sam. 1) in the middle of it and the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) from the years of its beginning.
In the eruptive decade of the 620’s — about ten years before Nahum — the prophet Zephaniah speaks out in accents strongly reminiscent of Amos and Isaiah. His place in the succession of classical prophets is unquestioned. In one or all of the several fierce new powers unleashed on dying Assyria he sees the Day of Yahweh
near and hastening fast;
The catastrophe of this Day of Yahweh is of such magnitude as to engulf all men (1: 18b, if original); but with the particularity characteristic of classical prophetism, the Day is the day of Judah’s judgment, fall, and destruction. In 1:7-9 a grim metaphor is used. On the Day of Yahweh, Yahweh himself makes a sacrifice — and Judah is the sacrificial victim! Yahweh’s guests, Israel’s enemies, will consume the victim. Judah’s official and ruling classes are especially singled out, a fact the more remarkable since Zephaniah is probably himself of royal descent. His genealogy (1:1) is the longest recorded of any prophet, reaching back four generations, apparently in order to name the great-great-grandfather, Hezekiah (king, c. 715- 687).
At the end of chapter 1 (verse 18b, which may be secondary), Judah’s fate is merged with the fate of the world. Chapter 2 opens with the prophetic plea that the covenant people of Judah-Israel turn back to Yahweh in righteousness and humility, so that "perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the wrath of Yahweh." And then, in order, Philistia (four of the five major Philistine cities are named), Moab and Ammon, and Ethiopia are all denounced in bitterest terms, capped with this superbly articulated description of desolate Nineveh:
Herds shall lie down in the midst of her,
"I am and there is none else!"
We are again confronted by the problem of originality and authenticity. We noted in the book of Isaiah a miscellaneous collection of oracles against foreign nations in chapters 13-23. The books of Jeremiah (46-51) and Ezekiel (25-32) embrace similar collections. On a much smaller scale, Zephaniah 2 incorporates oracles of this same sort which must be later than the prophet himself. When Judah finally fell, her neighbors Ammon and Moab incurred the enduring hatred of all the surviving inhabitants by further humiliating the shattered people with acts of plunder and cries of derision. The oracle of 2:8-11 probably originates in those dark days, several decades after Zephaniah.
The more extreme critics have left nothing to the prophet in chapter 3; or, still with a large question mark, only verses 1-7. A more conservative judgment accepts the finely wrought indictment of Jerusalem (vv. 1-7; cf. Isa. 1:21-23); admits, at least in the present form of verses 14-20, evidence of firsthand knowledge of events in the next century; but holds the middle section, verses 8-13, so strongly in the tradition of Isaiah, as very possibly or even probably the utterance of the seventh-century prophet.
If Isaiah 9:2-7 and/or 11:1-9 are oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem in the eighth century, then it is Isaiah who first among the prophets speaks out in strong eschatological language. What do we mean by eschatology?
Eschatology . . . while sometimes signifying (in the Old Testament) the abandonment of any hope for justice in this world, is essentially an expression of the sense of injustice in the world as it is, and tile conviction that God is good and his justice must somewhere and somehow ultimately triumph.12
If we speak more narrowly of covenant eschatology, we mean the description of covenant fulfillment beyond the present or impending apparent frustration of covenant purpose and covenant ends. Quite apart from the specific question of the authenticity of Isaiah 9 and 11, Isaiah certainly envisaged destruction and beyond destruction, productive, fulfilling survival: "a remnant will return." It is then certainly not impossible that Isaiah could have elaborated his own eschatology in one or both of these passages.
Isaiah speaks of his disciples (Hebrew, limmudim, 8:16). The so-called Second Isaiah (whose oracles appear mainly in chapters 40-55, but perhaps also in 34-35 and here or there in 56-66) almost two centuries later probably means to identify himself as among those disciples when he calls himself one of the limmudim (RSV, "those who are taught" Isa. 50:4, twice; and see below, Chapter 10). We have already suggested that Micah, if not in the circle of Isaiah’s continuing discipleship, was apparently influenced by Isaianic prophetism. Zephaniah, who may borrow directly or indirectly from Amos, shows such strong affinity with Isaianic motifs as to raise the question of his possible connection with circles of Isaianic prophetism.
In any case, there is the strong possibility that the eschatological note is authentic, The skill, power, vigor of the prophetic utterance; the deftness in the use of metaphor; the brilliance of the whole prophetic production — all this is eminently worthy of the lsaianic tradition. More specifically. Isaianic influence asserts itself in the admonition to be silent before Yahweh (1:7); the enumeration of the symbols of human pride like "the fortified cities" and "the lofty battlements" (1:16); the emphasis on humility (2:3); the very language in which the prophet’s anti-Assyrianism is couched (2:13-15; cf. Isa. 10); the indictment of Jerusalem, as already noted; the eschatology implicit in Yahweh’s plea, "Wait for me!" (3:8; cf. Isa. 8:17; 30:15); and perhaps most compellingly,
On that day. . .
This is the distinguished seventh-century prophet Zephaniah, who pictured Yahweh as a kind of sinister Diogenes, holding aloft a lamp and searching out in Jerusalem all who, like coagulated wine, have "thickened on their lees," lost all their covenant sensibilities, and whose attitude toward Yahweh is the ultimate denial of prophetic Yahwism "Yahweh will not do good, nor will he do ill" (1:12). Yahweh may be, but he does not do; his life is utterly unrelated to the living of our days; he is absent from our history.
This invokes the judgment, the "return to Egypt." Out of the second Egypt the purposes for which Yahweh chose Israel shall be fulfilled. In the traditional medieval representation of Zephaniah, the prophet himself holds the lamp and sheds the light; and so in fact he does.
We have here only the scantiest direct information about the prophet himself. There is no authentic extrabiblical tradition about him; and the Old Testament gives us only the single line in the book which bears his name, "The oracle of God which Habakkuk the prophet saw" (1:1).
We cannot even fix his dates precisely. He speaks out in the face of Babylon’s fresh aggression (Chaldeans, 1:6), probably in the decade of the 610’s, perhaps closer to 600. Jerusalem was to suffer heavy deportation under Neo-Babylonian conquest in 597 and, ten years later, destruction by the same armies. He raises the problem we have come to identify by the term theodicy (Greek: theos, God; plus dike, right, justice). Theodicy presupposes the prophetic proposition that God rules in history and, of course, that God is just. What then of patent historical injustice? How injustice?
Specifically, Habakkuk proceeds as follows:
1:2-4 Forthright and bitter complaint over the wicked character of presiding power.
1:5-11 Yahweh’s unapologetic response, not only not answering the prophet’s lament but for the moment apparently confirming its validity. Chaldean power — magnificently described — is the power of "guilty men, whose own might is their God!"
1:12-17 The resumption of the prophet’s complaint. He knows that Yahweh has "ordained them as a judgment," but what of Yahweh’s judgment against them, when they go on "mercilessly slaving nations for ever!"?
2:1-3 The prophet now stations himself ("on the tower") to await "the vision," the divine answer to his anguished problem. The vision is delayed, but the Word of Yahweh assures its coming and demands that it be written "plain upon tablets," so that even a jogging runner may be able to read it. The vision — as we read Habakkuk — is recorded in the "prayer of Habakkuk" in chapter 3,13 which, in the original arrangement of the text, may have immediately followed 2:1-3.
2:4-5 Any translation of the first two lines of verse 5 will represent some conjecture, since the Hebrew text is obscure. This little unit is in the form of a rnashal, i.e., a proverb or parable, designed to bridge the gap between the expectant prophet, waiting for his vision, and the five woes pronounced in the next section. Verse 4 nevertheless states the theme of Habakkuk and verse 5 is an appropriate prelude to the woes.
2:6-19 The five woes are invoked against Babylon, by the victimized nations. In this perspective, Babylon is, in the family of nations, (1) the despot, (2) the megalomaniac, (3) perpetrator of violence, (4) vicious tormentor, and (5) in Israel’s book the worst offense, idolater, worshiper of inanimate wood and stone! This last, but perhaps also all of these indictments, invokes the familiar lines,
But Yahweh is in his holy temple;
3:1-19 This is set now, like a psalm, with directions for its (cultic) performance. Conventional liberal criticism has deemed the "prayer" of Habakkuk to be a later, and unauthentic, addition, We prefer the judgment of those who read here the report of the promised vision, which, in its use of brilliant images, reminds us of Judges 5 and Deuteronomy 33.
We hold to the substantial unity of the little book. Habakkuk may well have been a cultic prophet, professionally attached to the Jerusalem Temple as a member of the Temple staff. The forms of prophetic utterance which he employs are disciplined forms, by his time conventionalized in the institution of prophetism. We sense in Habakkuk the meeting of the free-ranging prophetic articulation and the best of the long-disciplined liturgical expression in Temple cultus:
O Yahweh, I heard the report of thee,
This is one of the great, timeless prayers of the Old Testament, created out of a prophetic faith confronted by an uncertain present and an immediate catastrophic future.
The theme of Habakkuk is faith, and faith is not espoused as an answer to the problem of theodicy. The prophet is content to live with the problem in the conviction that faith can sustain any and all seeming denials of the reign of God and the justice of God (3:17-18). The stated proposition that "the righteous shall live by his faith" (2:4b) no doubt came to mean in subsequent Judaism that the religious Jew justifies himself and fulfills his covenant responsibility by his faithfulness — to the formal prescriptions of torah, the whole law and instruction of "Moses." Yet even here, even in the circles of much maligned (unjustly) postexilic legalistic Judaism (fifth and following centuries B.C.), if this kind of faithfulness in carrying out the (religious) law is what justifies and even defines "the righteous," it must be remembered that this was the best, and perhaps the only, way in which the prophetic Yahweh faith could now come to expression. And for the prophet Habakkuk, as always for prophetic Judaism and prophetic Christianity, the phrase carries the primary meaning — the biblical-theological theme — that the quality of righteousness is not first an item of performance but of faith; that the only righteous life is lived in faith, which alone is able to sustain life. The Yahwist knew this in the tenth century and affirmed it then (Gen. 15:6). It was Isaiah’s fundamental affirmation (7:9). Indeed, the key word in both of these is "believe," from the same Hebrew root as Habakkuk’s "faith." Paul, on behalf of the covenant community of the New Testament, is not wrong when he quotes and interprets Habakkuk as he does (Gal. 3:11 and Rom. 1:17; cf. Hebrews 10:38); nor was Martin Luther guilty of any textual distortion when he took this declaration, originally out of classical prophetism, as the primary point of cohesion for the Protestant Reformation.
In ancient Israel’s most dismal, hopeless hours, prophetism continued to speak with honesty, realistically acknowledging the anguish of Israel’s existence and the fearful perplexities therein for the prophet; and yet at the same time it joyfully affirmed Yahweh’s reign and the ultimate success of his Word. "The wicked surround the righteous and justice goes forth perverted!" (1:4). This is, says the prophet; I see it, I live with it, and I vigorously and even violently protest it. Nevertheless, and even though it continue and be intensified, "I will rejoice in Yahweh, I will joy in the God of my salvation!" (3:18). This is the righteousness which lives only in faith.
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.
The Time and The Book
The prophetic career of Jeremiah begins during the reign of Josiah (640-609), in the thirteenth year of that reign (1:2), and so in the turbulent decade of the 620’s (or possibly, changing "thirteen" to "twenty-three" in 1:2, in the decade of the 610’s).16 The bulk of material in the book of Jeremiah relates to the years after the accession of Jehoiakim in 609; and we know that Jeremiah was still an active prophet long after Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon in 587. His was a long career.
Three kinds of material relating to Jeremiah and his times dominate the hook: (1) prophetic oracles deemed in their freshness and vitality to be authentic, in the sense in which we have used this word before; (2) historical-biographical narratives, conservatively attributed (and rightly, we think) in first origin to Baruch, the prophet’s personal scribe (36:4 ff.); (3) oracles related in essence to (1) but obviously edited by Deuteronomists.
The contents of Jeremiah can be described as follows:
1 The prophet’s introduction and call.
2-25 Oracles for the most part; and for the most part against Judah and Jerusalem. Here the reader confronts the problem of Jeremiah; the arrangement of the material is not consistently chronological and it is sometimes impossible to discover any sense or scheme behind the present arrangement. That the physical text of Jeremiah has suffered uncommon problems in transmission is apparent from a comparison of the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) forms of the text. Appreciable sections of the Hebrew are missing altogether in the Greek (about twelve percent, in bulk of words); and the block of oracles against foreign nations (chs. 46-51) are placed in the Septuagint after 25:13, and in completely different order. On the other hand, this section does exhibit this much order: chapters 1-6 reflect Josiah’s reign; 7-20 contain oracles for the most part from the reign of Jehoiakim (609-598); and 21-25 are largely later.
26-36 The dominant first-person, oracular, forms of the preceding section give way now to narration of episodes. Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, is probably responsible for the basic structure of chapters 26-45. Chapters 7 and 26 offer instructive comparison. The first is preserved no doubt from Jeremiah’s dictation, and reports what was spoken; the other, dealing with the same episode, is concerned much more with the circumstances of Jeremiah’s Temple speech. The time sequence in 26-29 is chronological, moving from Jehoiakim’s reign (26) to Zedekiah’s (598-587); and chapter 29 is a letter to Babylonian exiles deported from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in 597. Chapters 30-31 constitute the most important collection of prophetic promises of restoration; 32 contains Jeremiah’s emphatic confirmation of this promise in his purchase of land; 33 reiterates, in different form, the essential message of ultimate hope; 34 dates from Jerusalem’s final siege which ended in the city’s destruction in 587; 35 leaps back to the days of Jehoiakim and lauds the faithfulness of the Rechabites, a sect in Judah preserving the forms of wilderness existence; and 36 gives us the Old Testament’s only description of the origin of a scroll, also in Jehoiakim’s reign.
37-45 Here is recounted Jeremiah’s experiences during Babylon’s three-year siege of Jerusalem, which ended in the city’s fall and destruction in 587. This takes, for the most part, the character of an intimately informed report from Baruch, who describes in detail the suffering and fate of his master through these days of catastrophe. Baruch remained to the end the faithful scribe and disciple; and this section appropriately concludes with a notice (ch. 45) reflecting Jeremiah’s appreciation of Baruch.17
46-51 This is a collection of oracles against foreign nations (cf. Isa. 13-23 and Ezek. 25-32) almost certainly compiled after Jeremiah’s day. Some of these oracles may originate in prophetic circles quite independent of Jeremiah; but others — for example, the oracle against Egypt (46: 2-28) and those oracles directed against Moab, Ammon, Edom (48:1- 49:27), and Elam (49:34-39) — may well be fashioned in present form from authentic oracles of Jeremiah.
52 An appended historical narrative, largely paralleled in II Kings 24:18-25: 1-21,27-30.
The Prophetic Quality
The best introduction to Jeremiah is Jeremiah. The following selection of brief readings from the book of Jeremiah represent some of the important forms, moods, and emphases, and the passionate self-involvement of the prophetism of Jeremiah. Read these, if possible aloud, without concern for critical questions of precise date and specific background. We know the broad character of Jeremiah’s time: that is enough.
Yahweh to Jeremiah:
but they refused to take correction.
For from the least to the greatest of them,
Behold, you trust in lying [RSV, deceptive] words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are delivered!". . .Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eves? (7:8-11)
Therefore I still contend with you, . . .
But my people have changed their glory
Is there no physician there?
. . .I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying "Know Yahweh," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (31:31-34)
A Prophet Among Prophets
Jeremiah’s call took him to the capital city of Judah from his native town of Anathoth, set in the rugged, barren hills a few miles north of Jerusalem. He was the son of a priest in Anathoth (1:1) who may well have found himself without employment when Josiah’s deuteronomic reform (in 621) centralized all of Judah’s worship in the Jerusalem Temple.
Jeremiah, with Zephaniah, stands next in the succession of great classical prophets after the giants of the preceding (ninth and eighth) centuries. Some brief words of comparison may be instructive. Jeremiah was both like and unlike Elijah. He seems, like Elijah, almost to have cherished his stark singularity, his aloneness, his separateness. And yet, in one of a number of paradoxical qualities in his personality, Jeremiah was more passionately gregarious than any prophet before him. It was one of the major frustrations of his life that the city of Jerusalem, the largest city by far in Judah, was never able to satisfy his love of people and his intense desire to be warmly accepted, to be loved. To the end, Jeremiah resented bitterly his own alienation within the city. To the end he was baffled and outraged by the city’s life and manner and disposition.
He was both like and unlike Amos. The strident prophetic note of denunciation and doom is familiar in both prophets. But while in Amos this note is struck with a force and persistence at best, for the most part, only implicitly relieved, it is sounded by Jeremiah consistently with compassion and personal anguish. For it is a part of the distinctive character of Jeremiah that he always sees himself in dual focus. He is the whip of God, called to wield the Yahweh-Word which must first be a seemingly merciless lash. At the same time, the prophet sees himself standing under the abuse of the very weapon he wields, in full identification with those whom he is called to scourge with the Word of Yahweh. It is another paradox in Jeremiah that this prophet who defined (with his younger contemporary, Ezekiel) a new covenant between Yahweh and the individual (Jer. 31:31 ff., cf. Ezek. 11:19-20 and ch. 37) hears in himself the strongest convictions of the solidarity of human life, the inescapable involvement of the life of the one in the life of the many, and the essentially corporate nature both of virtue and of sin. More closely than of any other man in the Old Testament — and quite without sacrilege — the words of the Servant Poem (in Isa. 53:4-5) may be applied to Jeremiah: "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows . . . . he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities."
Jeremiah is also both like and unlike Isaiah. Each is called out of a quiet and relatively secure existence into the unpopular role of spokesman for an angry God, for a Yahweh determined now to act in judgment. Both are initiated into
prophetic careers by indescribably moving Yahweh, which both nevertheless attempt to describe. But while Isaiah enters this service as a kind of involuntary volunteer, Jeremiah sees himself from the beginning a conscript, captive to a Word he would, if only he could, defy and ignore (see 20:7 ff.). And the glory and grandeur of Isaiah’s vision (Isa. 6) is in stark contrast to Jeremiah’s consummate simplicity and his profound and bitterly protesting humility (see especially 1:4-10, 17-19). But here, too, Israelite prophetism attains one of its highest peaks; for here there is no intermediary agency. In this one man, Jeremiah, this lonely prophet, this exquisitely sensitive, turbulently loving man — here, in this person, God and man meet! It is a meeting specifically direct and intensely personal — but at once involving all of human history, all of human existence. It is a relationship in which human and divine emotion are merged and in such a phenomenal union as ultimately to defy separation. In this person, classical prophetism comes as close to incarnation as it is to come.
Jeremiah in History
IN JOSIAH’S REIGN (640-609)
Four events loom especially large in this epoch. (1) The call of Jeremiah sometime during the middle years of the decade of the 620’s is coincident with the collapse of Assyrian power from assertive forces both within and without the empire. Jeremiah, through whom the Word of Judah’s destruction has been spoken, sees one of these powers as the instrument of judgment (1:13 ff.). (2) A few years after his call, the prophet watches the process of Josiah’s reforms. It is impossible now to recover his initial attitude. It is clear that he was later disillusioned. It is, on the other hand, not an unreasonable assumption that in its early enthusiastic introduction, he encouraged the reform. Long after Josiah’s death, he held Josiah in high regard (22: 15b,16); and if 11: 1-8 refers to Josiah’s reformation, there is no question about it: "Cursed be the man who does not heed the words of this covenant. . . hear the words of this covenant and do them" Perhaps 8:8 is a considerably later reflection of the prophet on the same deuteronomic law: "How can you say, ‘we are wise, and the law of Yahweh is with us’? But, behold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie." Or are both of these references to other covenants, other laws? It is in any case clear that Jeremiah lived to see the collapse of Josiah’s reformation. (3) There is no report of any response from Jeremiah to the fall of Nineveh in 612; and (4) only the briefest passing word on Josiah’s death (22:10).
IN JEHOIAKIM’S REIGN (609-598)
Josiah is immediately succeeded by Jehoahaz, a younger son of Josiah, apparently the popular choice. He dares to defy Egypt and is deposed by Pharaoh Neco in favor of his older brother, Jehoiakim. Jeremiah apparently held Jehoahaz in respect and even affection, and laments his tragic fate of permanent exile (22: 10-12; see also II Kings 23:30 ff.). One attempt on Jeremiah’s life — there may have been several — occurs now at Anathoth (11:18-23), which gives rise to the same complaint in Jeremiah that is voiced about the same time by Habakkuk (12:1-6; cf. Hab. 1:2-4). Yahweh’s answer to Jeremiah (12:5) is, in poetic effect, You haven’t seen anything yet!
Some of the greatest prophetic utterances of Jeremiah originate in this period: the parable of the potter, chapter 18; the Temple discourse, 7:18:3,26, with its expression of Jeremiah’s characteristic tension between the Word of destruction and his own pleading word of mercy, 7:16 ff. (cf. 18:20 and 14:11); Jeremiah’s profound grief, 8:4-9:1; his affinity with Hosea, 13:16 27 but in many other passages as well; the certainty of destruction, 14:10-18; the quality of the "Confession" in 15:10-18 (as also elsewhere) that brings Jeremiah closer to us than any other figure in the Old Testament; the symbolic act again, chapter 19 — only Ezekiel among the prophets performs more such acts than Jeremiah; the bitterest of his confessions, 20:7-18, matched in the Old Testament only in Job (cf. Job 3); his association with Baruch in the remarkable narrative of chapter 36, "in the fourth year of Jehoiakim"; and his devastating words on Jehoiakim, 22: 13-19, bitter testimony to what was in Jeremiah’s eyes the miserable rule of a miserable king.
IN ZEDEKIAH’S REIGN (598-587)
Jehoiakim dies (or is assassinated) while Jerusalem is under siege by Babylon in 598. His eighteen-year-old son, Jehoiachin succeeds him and "reigns" for three months in the besieged city until he is forced to surrender. Jehoiachin gives himself up and the city is spared destruction for another decade; but the young king spends the next thirty-seven years in Babylonian prison until he is finally released in 561 (see Jer. 22:24-30, and II Kings 25:27-30). His weakling uncle, Zedekiah, presides over the last years of ancient Israelite Jerusalem. Jeremiah writes movingly to the company exiled with Jehoiachin to Babylon (ch. 29). It is still early in Zedekiah’s reign when Jeremiah has his violent encounter with the prophet Hananiah (ch. 28). During the final three years of Zedekiah’s reign, Jerusalem remains under Babylonian siege and Jeremiah remains the outspoken prophet of the impending tragedy as Yahweh’s act of judgment. It is not strange that in a city straining every faculty toward the very faint hope of survival, such a line as Jeremiah’s would be regarded not merely with distaste, but as defeatist if not downright seditious. Even when the siege is briefly lifted, while Babylonian forces frightened Egypt home again, Jeremiah declares once more Yahweh’s totally negative Word — the Chaldeans will return, take this city, and burn it with fire (see 37:4-10). We cannot wonder, then, that Jeremiah is beaten and imprisoned (37:11-21). We wonder only that he survived at all — indirect tribute to the place of prophetism in ancient Israel, despite the individual unpopularity of most of the prophets. Earlier, in Jehoiakim’s reign, Jeremiah’s life was spared only, apparently, on the precedent of the prophet Micah, who had not been put to death by Hezekiah when he had, like Jeremiah, predicted the destruction of the city (ch. 26, the parallel and sequel to the Temple discourse of ch. 7). Zedekiah remains eager to know the Yahweh Word to Jeremiah (37:17 and 38:14), but lacks the courage to support the prophet (38:4-5), swears Jeremiah to secrecy about their conversations (38:24), and ultimately rejects the counsel of submission to Babylon which Jeremiah gives him (38:17-20).
Jerusalem continues to resist until the wall is breached. Three years was a long siege and the long-frustrated, now victorious armies of Babylon take bitter vengeance (39:1-2; 4-10 is an abbreviation of 52:4-16 and a repeat of II Kings 25:1-12). Jeremiah is set free under exceedingly liberal terms: in Babylon’s eyes he had been, in effect, a collaborator (40: 1-6). Those not taken captive — the poorest elements of Judah — set up a community at Mizpeh, a few miles north of the ruined Jerusalem, under the administration of Gedaliah, the appointive governor of Judah. Gedaliah is assassinated by a violently nationalist group under one Ishmael, whose bloody coup at Mizpeh is, however, quickly ended (ch. 41). The survivors at Mizpeh resolve to take up voluntary exile in Egypt and hope to have an affirmative word from Jeremiah, whose counsel they seek. Their piety is prodigious: "Whether it is good or evil, we will obey the voice of Yahweh. . . ." (42:6). The Word comes ("at the end of ten days"!) — "Remain in this land" (42:10). But this is another instance where confirmation, not counsel, is sought. Jeremiah is again called a liar for representing the unpopular word as the Yahweh Word (43:2); and the whole Mizpeh community under Johanan and "all the insolent men" go into Egypt, taking Jeremiah and Baruch with them (43:4-7).
And old Jeremiah? A tradition, unconfirmed and unconfirmable, reports that they stoned him to death there. It is certain that he found himself still proclaiming essentially the same word of violence and destruction which it had been his to speak from the beginning of his career, still no doubt to his own anguish. The last words we hear from him are like the first (see 43:8-11 and 44:26-30). The judgment, even on these survivors, is only suspended. "I am watching over them for evil and not for good; all the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by famine, until there is an end of them!" (45:27)
1. The following passages are appropriate to the present discussion: II Kings 21; II Chron. 33; II Kings 22-23; II Chron. 35; Deut. 1-8, 10, 12, 17, 20, 22-25, 27-33.
2. Cf. G. von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy, in the series Studies in Biblical Theology, London, 1953, p. 63: "We may take it as certain that the term means the free, property-owning, full citizens of Judah."
3. For an excellent summary of the major interpretations of Deuteronomy, see the symposium, "The Problem of Deuteronomy," Journal of Biblical Literature, LXVII (1928), 305 ff.
4. But see von Rad, op. cit., especially pp. 60ff. "The prophetic in Deuteronomy is merely a form of expression, and a means of making the book’s claim to be Mosaic real" (p. 69). For a view of Deuteronomy differing in some important respects from that taken here, see also his Theologie des Alten Testaments, Munich, 1957, vol. 1, pp. 218 ff.
5. See von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy, op. cit., pp. 50ff. Cf. F. Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, Baton Rouge, 1956, pp. 375 f.
6. Cf. von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy, op. cit., especially pp. 15f.
7. Voegelin, op. cit., p. 429.
8. See also von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy, op. cit., pp. 66 ff.
9. Voegelin, op. cit., p. 377.
10. On Exodus 20:306, see above, Chapter 3, and B. D. Napier, Exodus, in the series The Layman’s Bible Commentary, Richmond, 1961.
11. Cf. Amos 5:18-20.
12. M. Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology, Philadelphia, 1946, p. 286. (Italics mine.)
13. See A. Weiser, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 2nd ed., Gottingen, 1949. I am indebted to Weiser’s analysis of Habakkuk.
14. Fear in the sense of acknowledge, affirm, respect.
15. In addition to the book of Jeremiah, see II Kings 23:28-25:30.
16. J. P. Hyatt, "Jeremiah," The Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville, 1956, vol. V, has argued for the later date against the conventional date of 626 B.C.
17. Cf. Weiser, op. cit., p. 162.