Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Laus 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 Jeremiahs 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 readers 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, Jeremiahs 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 its 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.

Lau’s Jeremiah

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 Jeremiahs 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 Jeremiahs 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 Jeremiahs 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 Gods word and fearfully following his advisors.

The discussion of the priesthood highlights Jeremiahs 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 Laus 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 cultureour world todayand the multilayered Jewish tradition over the generations(pg. xi). It was written to show how great and relevantthe 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 stateto reduce socioeconomic disparity, to break down the walls that divide us, to bridge language gaps, to include rather than rejectto 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 mustpersuade his audience of the truth of his wordsand 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. 

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Parashat Va’era 5774 – The God of Israel

הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם

The entire Exodus narrative, and the story of the Ten Plagues in particular, is the first occurrence in Tanakh of the war against Idolatry[1]. Part of what made Judaism unique in the ancient world was not just the belief in one god but also the total rejection of any other gods. In Sefer Bereishit the Avot, and the Torah, seem perfectly content with the Idolatry of the other residents of Canaan. Only in Egypt, in the fight against Paroah and Gods of Egypt does it become clear that Idolatry is an unacceptable way of life for anyone and everyone. However, the Tanakh does not depict the drama of Egypt as a simple matter of one god versus many. The conflict happens on three levels and, in the end, it details the emergence of a new system for National and Religious Leadership based on a uniquely Israelite idea[2].

The obvious story of the Plagues is that of the tension between ‘א and Paroah. Now the idea of a human ruler defying the transcendent and unlimited ‘א seems odd, but that’s not how the Tanakh conceives of the relationship between Man and ‘א. “History is where God is defied.”[3]  The Tanakh shows that Man has the ability to go against the will of ‘א, but‘א will inevitably triumph. That idea, started earlier in Sefer Bereishit, here comes to total fruition in the fight against Paroah.

Paroah and ‘א are in many ways equated in the text of the Torah. Perhaps most obvious is the emphasis on their nations. In contrast to ‘א’s refrain of “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” (Shemot 7:17, 26; 8:16; 9:13 the Egyptians are consistently referred to as “[Paroah]’s Nation”. ‘א has his nation and Paroah has his. Writ large, the torah creates a picture where Paroah and ‘א (via Moshe) face off in a battle for dominance. It’s ‘א’s will versus Paroah’s, with the decision consistently going to ‘א. Moreover, Egyptian rulers were not considered to be ordinary men of flesh and blood. They were considered to be divine, or close to it, and thus the defeat of Paroah is the defeat of Idolatry. When ‘א said, “and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD[4]”, He was also talking about Paroah, and when Paroah admits defeat it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of ‘א.

The second level of the story is that of the conflict between Moshe and Paroah. The idea is that of two kings facing off, which might be why some commentators have compared the Ten Plagues to the procedures for conquering a city. While not strictly-speaking a “King,” Moshe represents the leadership of a nation concentrated in one person, much in the manner of a monarchy. But as opposed to the conflict between ‘א and Paroah, Moshe’s fight is not for domination. Moshe’s fight is for the heart of the nation. Moshe brings plagues in order to demonstrate ‘א’s majesty and dominance before the people, that they might recognize His greatness[5]. Moshe as King rules not out of strength and not as a matter of personal right, but as an apostle of ‘א.

This idea is highlighted by several very important midrashim. On several occasions Moshe is told to go meet Paroah along the river early in the morning. The midrash comments that the reason Paroah went for his walk early in the morning was in order to secretly relieve himself[6]. Due to the divine or semi-divine status of Egyptian kings, he could not be seen to do so by the public, and so for this purpose he used to go early in the morning to the river. Thus the divine status of Paroah is not only false but Paroah knows it is false and has to maintain it by deceiving his people. This midrash points to the way Egyptians conceived of their king as divine while simultaneously rejecting and ridiculing it. In stark contrast is the Tanakh’s depiction of Moshe.

In the middle of a discussion between Moshe and ‘א regarding Moshe’s ability to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt the Torah suddenly interjects with Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. Whereas by Moshe’s birth his parents are anonymous, here the Torah says who they are explicitly, revealing something very interesting. The marriage of Avraham and Yocheved is what would after the revelation at Har Sinai become considered an inappropriate sexual relationship. The midrash not only points this fact out, it highlights similar relationships by Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov and his first wives, and several instances throughout David HaMelekh’s ancestry. The midrash points out that the leadership of Bnei Yisrael often comes from what we think of as inappropriate origins[7], and that this is intentional. Part of the problem with Kings historically has been that they often come to think of themselves as divine, that they are the be-all and end-all, and that is simply not so. The midrash states that this could never be an issue with these Israelite leaders because as opposed to being thought of as divine, they all have rather ignominious backgrounds. Thus the conditional nature of the Jewish King is made clear in the fight against the “divine” King of  Egypt[8]. Moshe rules Bnei Yisrael not as one entitled to do so by birth, but as the appointed messenger of ‘א.

Aharon’s position in the Torah is complex, and that is true right from the outset. It seems clear from ‘א’s words to Moshe that Aharon is simply meant to be a speaker for Moshe but Moshe seems to do plenty of speaking on his own. Moreover, Aharon is personally responsible for the bringing of several plagues, and is often referred to directly alongside Moshe throughout the duration of the Plagues. As much as he does serve as Moshe’s “mouth” and “prophet”, he really is his own character in the story.

Aharon’s purpose here is not simple. First and foremost, throughout the Torah Aharon is the High Priest of Israel. But noticeably, he doesn’t do anything specifically priestly here in Egypt. The one things he does that some might have argued is a priestly act is the performance of wonders, something that in other civilizations and Egypt in particular was a priestly function. But the lack of any other priestly functions here that instead of adopting the Egyptian idea of the Priest-Magician, the Torah is actually rejecting it[9]. Aharon performs wonders not as a priest who bends nature to his will, but as a prophet who bends nature to ‘א’s will.

In this role, Aharon has a very specific message to convey. He personally brings the first few plagues, often alongside Moshe, and the language there makes clear the purpose of those plagues. Aharon brings plagues in order to punish the Egyptians[10]. They enslaved and mistreated ‘א’s nation and their retribution is to come through Aharon’s hand. Thus any plague brought or wonder performed by Aharon has a much greater emphasis on the effect it has on the Egyptians than when Moshe brings a plague (As mentioned above, Moshe brings plagues for an entirely different purpose: teaching Bnei Yisrael about ‘א. Moshe performs plagues in order to show Bnei Yisrael who they are being redeemed by.) However, there is not a word in the whole section about Aharon performing a wonder or causing a plague by his own power or volition.

This idea, of the contrast between Prophet and Priest, is highlighted by a very similar story found in Sefer Shmuel I[11]. In Shmuel I 5 ‘א brings plagues on the Plishtim for having stolen the Aron and where Paroah consults his “magicians” the Plishtim consult their “priests and diviners” (Samuel I 6:2). Aharon, standing next to Moshe as the magicians stand beside Paroah, stands in clear contrast to this idea of “priests and diviners.” The Jewish Priest has a very specific function in context of the Mishkan/Mikdash and not beyond. The role of miracle-worker is reserved[12] for the messenger of ‘א.

The divine “conflict” between ‘א and the “gods of Egypt” serves to display ‘א’s uncontested authority in the world. Moshe’s face-off with Paroah shows how all leaders, no matter how great, are always human, and therefore are all subordinate to ‘א and His grace. Aharon’s position against the magicians rejects completely the concept of magic and wonders performed outside of the Divine Will, regardless of their accord with it, for nothing is outside the Divine Will.

All of these concepts are manifestations of a larger, infinitely simple idea: ‘א is Primary[13]. Pagan conceptions of their deities always give them secondary places in reality. The deity is always born of some other creature, or made of some primordial-stuff. The existence of reality before and beyond divinity makes its power necessarily limited. The nature of divinity as created puts it in the same category as other creations, such as man, and allows for the possibility of divine, or semi-divine, kings, and for apotheosis. The idea that divinity is created means that its power must come from somewhere rather than being inherent in it, and this is the power that it uses for its works, but this power can also be used by others for the aid or detriment of divinity. Yitziat Mitzraim rejects all of these conceptions. ‘א is Primary. He has no origin and there is nothing that He did not create. All is subject to His Will and there is no power beyond it. The God is Israel is the God of All Existence and there is none beside Him.

 

Here is a helpful chart from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus on the breakdown of the Plagues:

Plague - Breakdown

[1] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

[2] This is why the story of the Plagues starts with the Parshiyah of Shemot 6:2-8, a sudden recap of ‘א’s relationship to the avot and the nation.  The chiastic structure of this section is clearly highlighting the idea of ‘א’s special relationship to Bnei Yisrael and ‘א as the only god, and those concepts point directly to this idea.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] All translations are from www.mechon-mamre.org

[5] R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[6] Rashi Ad Loc., Shemot Rabbah 9:7

[7] Hizkuni on story of Yehuda and Tamar; Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vayeshev

[8] Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vaera

[9] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 85

[10]  R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[11] R’ Amnon Bazak, Parallels That Meet (Hebrew), Chap. 4

[12] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 82, 85

[13] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3