Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah
Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah is not about the biblical book of Jeremiah so much as it is about the prophet Jeremiah himself. While in some sense a commentary on the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah is structured according to the chronology of Jeremiah’s life. Thus, while the book goes through and explains each chapter, the order of the chapters has been drastically rearranged, due to erratic chronology of the book of Jeremiah. As each chapter is explained, Lau draws the reader’s attention to what the prophet must have been feeling and struggling with at each point in time. In this, Jeremiah emphasizes one of the unique facets of the biblical book of Jeremiah. More than any other biblical text, the book of Jeremiah details the inner life of its hero, describing his pain and frustration with the people, and with God, in great detail. Jeremiah is commanded to rebuke a nation that, from the very beginning, he knows will be unrepentant.
However, Jeremiah’s focus on the prophet often comes at the detriment of understanding the book of Jeremiah. Lau readily chops up the book of Jeremiah in order to arrange it chronologically, but he in no place provides even a guess as to why the book might have been in its original, non-chronological, order to begin with. The closest to be found is an off-hand comment in the introduction.
The Book of Jeremiah is hard to follow. Some chapters seem coherent and complete, while others appear to be disjointed, as if the pages of the original manuscript had been scattered and haphazardly rearranged. Perhaps it’s time they should be. (pg. xxi)
The lack of any attention given to why the original Jeremiah is in a non-chronological order means that reading Jeremiah will make little difference in the ability of a reader to read and comprehend the biblical book. A discussion of the thematic breakdowns of the biblical Jeremiah and the way that affects the division and placement of the chapters would be much more helpful in enabling independent access to the biblical text.
One theme that Jeremiah does focus on heavily is Politics. Each section of the book starts with a discussion of the historical and political background of that time period. Lau discusses the rise and fall of the international empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia and the way these empires affected the small kingdom of Judah, often subsumed under one of the empires as a vassal state. To this end, Lau marshals historical records from all over, from Assyrian and Babylonian records to the writings of Josephus. This also allows for ample discussion on the foreign policies of the various kings of Judah and the political events behind them. Jeremiah also draws the reader’s attention to the domestic politics at play in Jeremiah’s time — the tensions between the upper castes of society, both the religious and political leadership, and the lower classes.
While the common people of Judea were generally intractable, they did occasionally begin to listen to Jeremiah’s rebukes. The leadership, however, was a very different story. It is the role of the prophet to challenge the status quo and the power structures behind it, and this launched Jeremiah into direct conflict with the Kingship and the Priesthood. Lau details how Jeremiah’s relationship to the Kingship changed with each king. His relationship with Josiah was entirely positive, while his relationship with Jehoiakim was entirely negative, and his relationship with Zedekiah was more complex, changing as the king vacillated back and forth between following God’s word and fearfully following his advisors.
The discussion of the priesthood highlights Jeremiah’s anti-establishment position. As Lau points out, though Jeremiah was himself from a priestly family, it had long fallen out of political favor and no longer performed the services in the Temple. Because of his lineage, Jeremiah represented a threat to the existing priestly power-structure, even before he began prophesying. After becoming a prophet, however, he was enough of a threat that he saw pushback, not just from the priests but from another, more sinister, group — the false prophets. Lau’s Jeremiah shows how the false prophets, like Jeremiah and the real prophets, represented a group that stood outside the establishment. Unlike the real prophets, however, the false prophets preached complacency in the face of the word of God, and maintaining the status quo no matter what its iniquities.
This emphasis on the political is more than just part of Lau’s method in understanding the book of Jeremiah. The whole goal of Jeremiah is to affect the political arena. The book is an “attempt to build a bridge within Israeli society in particular, and the Jewish community in general, between modern culture—our world today—and the multilayered Jewish tradition over the generations” (pg. xi). It was written to show “how great and relevant” the Bible can be (pg. xiii). Lau hopes that his book will affect Israeli society (pg. xiii), bringing “the words of the prophets into the heart of our political, social, and cultural discourse” (pg. xiv). His aim is that Jeremiah will be part of the effort “to rectify the ills of the Jewish state—to reduce socioeconomic disparity, to break down the walls that divide us, to bridge language gaps, to include rather than reject… to rebuild a Jewish identity, a Jewish culture that will shed light and goodness upon all that it touches” (pg. 225).
This political orientation is not alien to Jeremiah. As Lau points out,
The prophet might be regarded as something of a public intellectual, a man of letters. An eternal critic, an outsider to the system, a gadfly who must… persuade his audience of the truth of his words—and of the mortal danger of ignoring them. (pg. xiv)
Prophecy is inherently political. Its purpose is to engender change in society. Prophets of God arise when the status quo is corrupt and needs to be shaken up. Jeremiah carries forward this prophetic role, by trying to show the messages Jeremiah was tasked to deliver to his society and to ours. The biblical book of Jeremiah served as a witness to the people of antiquity, regarding the very political life and lessons of the prophet. Lau’s Jeremiah does the same for a modern audience.