Monday, March 31, 2008

Jeremiah: Man of the People

(based on a shiur i gave at the timestamp of this post)

Yirmeyahu/Jeremiah 26

It was the beginning of the reign of Yehoyaqim, king of Yehuda, and God told Yirmeyahu to stand in the courtyard of the Temple — right in the middle of the public plaza of the Beit Hamiqdash — and rebuke the people for their sins and crimes.

The prophet's message is simple — if they repent, God will not punish them; but if they continue to ignore the warnings that God has sent them over and over again, by many prophetic messengers, they will lose God's place in their midst. This place, says Yirmeyahu, will be like Shilo. Destroyed. Abandoned. Forgotten.

And so he stands in the middle of the plaza, surrounded by the throngs of worshippers and visitors, and curses the place where he stands. This structure is worthless if it does not reflect God's will and God's desire for good will among humanity. Sacrifices mean nothing when given with bloody hands. The same message that has been proclaimed over and over again by prophets. But Yirmeyahu has entered into the heart of the corrupt religious establishment, and challenges them on their home turf. Yirmeyahu is an outsider, a kohein from the town of ‘Anatot in Binyamin; a country boy coming in to the big city.

And how do they respond to his message of rebuke and warning of punishment?

The kohanim and the nevi’im — the priests and the prophets — and “all the people” grabbed him, and declared their intention of putting him to death. This upstart priest, this upstart prophet — coming in to the House of God and threatening it with destruction?! He must be a false prophet. He must be a renegade priest. Yirmeyahu is challenging the religious-institutional and religious-moral authorities of the nation. He must deserve death.

Luckily, the political authorities intervene. Sarey Yehuda — the officers of the country — come up from the palace, and sit in the gate (the place of judgment) and assert their authority for law and order. No more mob rule. You think this man deserves death? Prove it.

And so the priests and the prophets declare to the officers and all the common people gathered in the courtyard — you heard what he said! There is no other proof necessary!

Waitasec. Weren't “all the people” — the common folk, the masses — on the side of the religious authorities? Why are they now standing in judgment, as supposedly impartial decisors, like the royal officers of the court?

And then Yirmeyahu makes his case. He repeats his message — improve your ways, and God will improve your fate. And then he throws a little good old Israelite preemptive guilt trip their way: “I'm in your hands, and you can do to me whatever you want,” he says — “but if you kill me you're just spilling more innocent blood and sealing your fate.”

And it works. The sarim and the multitude reject the accusation brought by the priests and the prophets. Yirmeyahu is a true prophet. He does not deserve to be killed.

The voice of the common people just flipped completely. Did Yirmeyahu address them in particular, give them power equal to the royal officers in their gate, in order to get them to think for themselves and take control of their rapidly deteriorating lives and society? Or is this just mob mentality switching sides, following whoever sounds the most convincing at the time?

Whatever their motivations were, a new faction appears, either from among the masses — the mental decision-making of the people embodied in representatives — or possibly from among the government officials.

Some of the Elders of the Landanashim miziqney ha’aretz — stand up, and give conflicting precendents.

It may be that the first elder to speak is trying to back up the ruling of the sarim by giving a real-life case: the story of Mikha Hamorashti, who prophesied in the days of the great and righteous King Hhizqiyahu. He declared in the name of God, Yhvh of the Battalions, that Tziyon will be plowed as a field, and Yerushalayim will become piles of rubble, and the Temple Mount will be a forested hilltop if the priests and the prophets continue to do evil, accepting bribes and trusting that God would back them up no matter what. I find interesting a point that a teacher of mine in high school pointed out — these elders quote this prophecy from memory, almost exactly, over 100 years after it was given! Might say something about the impact and knowledge of prophetic discourses in Ancient Israel.

Anyway, back in the time of Hhizqiyahu and the Prophet Mikha, his prophecy did not get him killed. Instead, the king and the people repented of their evil and in return, God didn't bring the threatened punishment upon them.

On the other hand, there was another prophetic precedent — Uriyahu ben Shema‘yahu of Qiryat Ye‘arim, who King Yehoyaqim (who is still in power!) sent soldiers after all the way to Egypt in order to bring him back and execute him for giving prophecies similar to Yirmeyahu's divine threat.

Nevertheless, the story ends, Ahhiqam ben Shafan was on Yirmeyahu's side, so that he was not given over to the people to be killed.

Ahhiqam ben Shafan was one of the sarim, the government officials who set up court in the gateway to maintain order. He was the son of the Scribe Shafan ben Atzalyahu ben Meshulam, who was one of the important figures in the religious reforms of Yoshiyahu, bringing the people back to God. And Ahhiqam himself went to the Prophet Hhulda along with other officials to get the Found Book of God validated!

And it's only his power or standing that protects Yirmeyahu from getting killed by the mob? It certainly looks like it. Our hope in the people, it seems, was misplaced. They didn't support Yirmeyahu because he put the responsibility of deciding his fate in their hands — they were simply swept along with whoever sounded more convincing; whoever spoke last. When Yirmeyahu spoke, they backed him; when the precedent of Uriyahu was brought up, they went with that. The people were weak. Their leaders had made them complacent. No wonder they assumed that everything would be fine anyway... they had forgotten how to take responsibility for themselves.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I wrote something quite similar about the Golden Calf, which makes me wonder if this is a recurrent theme of biblical history – perhaps tying in with the Talmudic statement that the Bnei Yisrael did not accept the Torah properly until the time of the Purim story, at the very end of the biblical era. Perhaps until then they were just coasting along, relying on miracles, prophets (real and false), priests, judges and kings (good and bad) to tell them what to do.

Incidentally, I came across a nice related idea about late-biblical history recently (in a book of secular biblical criticism at times very hostile to the traditional interpretation, but as Rambam says, accept the truth whoever says it). This argued that the descendants of Shafan and his descendants (Elasa, Gemariah, Ahikam, Gedaliya) frequently appear as part of a “pro-Babylonian” (their words) or pro-Yirmeyahu (my words) faction, contrasting with the family of Elishamah who are anti-Babylonian and anti-Yirmeyahu, eventually producing Gedaliya’s assassin, Yishmael.

4/10/2008 10:06 AM  
Anonymous brother aaron said...

Yay more Steg Torah!

4/10/2008 5:09 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


interesting! i once charted out Shafan's family... never tried to do the same for the other side, though.

4/10/2008 8:30 PM  
Blogger יהוא בן יהושפט בן נמשי said...

Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose... did anything change since then? If yes, it's that even the Yirmeyahus are corrupt... many ways to say the same thing.

4/12/2008 10:38 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home