Saturday, January 3, 2009

Unfulfilled prophecy in Jeremiah

Early last year t. and I decided to read the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament backwards. It has been far too long since I read through the OT, and the idea was to start with the least familiar. We are reading the NJPS TANAKH translation in the Jewish Study Bible, but following the usual Protestant order. This morning we finished Jeremiah.

The translation is different enough to be refreshing, and the notes--references to Rabbinic discussions mixed in with standard historical-critical commentary by first-rate Jewish scholars--are often interesting and thought-provoking.

On the thought-provoking side, Marvin Sweeney's commentary on Jeremiah points to several apparently unfulfilled prophecies. I did not recall encountering these before, so I decided to check the old NIV Study Bible (notes on Jeremiah by Ronald Youngblood) that I was using the last time I read Jeremiah.

What follows is a comparison of these two Study Bibles, with the HarperCollins Study Bible (notes on Jeremiah by Leo Perdue and Robert Wilson) as a control. The quotations are from the JPS TANAKH translation:
  1. Jeremiah 34:1-5 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and all his army, and all the kingdoms of the earth and all the peoples under his sway, were waging war against Jerusalem and all its towns: 2 Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: Go speak to King Zedekiah of Judah, and say to him: "Thus said the LORD: I am going to deliver this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it by fire. 3 And you will not escape from him; you will be captured and handed over to him. And you will see the king of Babylon face to face and speak to him in person; and you will be brought to Babylon. 4 But hear the word of the LORD, O King Zedekiah of Judah! Thus said the LORD concerning you: You will not die by the sword. 5 You will die a peaceful death; and as incense was burned for your ancestors, the earlier kings who preceded you, so they will burn incense for you, and they will lament for you 'Ah, lord!' For I Myself have made the promise -- declares the LORD."

    • Jewish Study Bible (JSB) note on 34:5: "The promise of a peaceful death for Zedekiah resembles the oracle of the prophetess Huldah to Zedekiah's father Josiah....Jer. 52.7-11...states that Zedekiah is in a Babylonian prison, having seen his sons slaughtered before his own eyes were put out, thus this is likely an unfulfilled prophecy of Jeremiah. It is quite remarkable that such prophecies were preserved."
    • NIV Study Bible (NIVSB): No comment. No reference forward to Jer 52:7-11.
    • HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised (HCSB): "Zedekiah was blinded and exiled to Babylon, where he died in prison (39.7; 52.8-11; 2 Kings 25.5-7). In contrast to Jehoiakim (see 22.13-19), Zedekiah will have a funeral and be lamented."

  2. Jeremiah 43:8-13 Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah in Tahpanhes: ..."I am sending for My servant King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and ...11 He will come and attack the land of Egypt, delivering Those destined for the plague, to the plague, Those destined for captivity, to captivity, And those destined for the sword, to the sword. 12 And I will set fire to the temples of the gods of Egypt; he will burn them down and carry them off. He shall wrap himself up in the land of Egypt, as a shepherd wraps himself up in his garment. And he shall depart from there in safety. 13 He shall smash the obelisks of the Temple of the Sun which is in the land of Egypt, and he shall burn down the temples of the gods of Egypt."

    • JSB on 43:13: "Although the Babylonians never conquered Egypt, the Persian king Cambyses, who also ruled Babylonia, conquered Egypt in 525 BCE. This is another case (see 34.5) of a prophecy that is preserved although it was not fulfilled."
    • NIVSB on 43:11: "A fragmentary text now owned by the British Museum in London states that Nebuchadnezzar carried out a punitive expedition against Egypt in his 37th year (568-567 B.C.) during the reign of Pharaoh Amasis."
    • HCSB on 43:13: "Nebuchadrezzar did invade Egypt in 568/7 BCE and fought Pharaoh Amasis, though the outcome of the battle is not known. However, Babylonia did not conquer Egypt."

  3. Jeremiah 50:1-3, 14-15 The word which the LORD spoke concerning Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, through the prophet Jeremiah: 2 Declare among the nations, and proclaim; Raise a standard, proclaim; Hide nothing! Say: Babylon is captured, Bel is shamed, Merodach is dismayed. Her idols are shamed, Her fetishes dismayed. 3 For a nation from the north has attacked her, It will make her land a desolation. No one shall dwell in it, Both man and beast shall wander away....14 Shoot at her, don't spare arrows, For she has sinned against the LORD. 15 Raise a shout against her all about! She has surrendered; Her bastions have fallen, Her walls are thrown down -- This is the LORD's vengeance. Take vengeance on her, Do to her as she has done!
  • JSB on 50.1-51.58: "Much of these two chs emphasizes that Babylonia will be destroyed through violence. In reality, however, Cyrus bloodlessly took over Babylon in 539 BCE, when the powerful priests of Marduk preferred him to the reigning Babylonian King Nabonidus." On 50:3: "The nation from the north is a common motif in Jeremiah's oracles....Many see this as a reference to Persia, which conquered Babylonian in 539. Persia actually lies to the east of Babylonia."
  • NIVSB on 50:3: "In Jeremiah, the foe from the north is almost always Babylon....Here, however, the reference is probably to Persia." On 50:14 "you who draw the bow. Including the Medes."
  • HCSB on 50:3: "The imagery of the 'foe from the north' transferred to the enemies of Babylonia (the Medes and the Persians)." On 50:11-16: "Babylon surrendered to the armies of Persia, led by Gobryas. It was not taken by force and destroyed."
My impressions: The NIVSB papers over (#2) or ignores (#1 and #3) puzzling features of Jeremiah. Boo!! JSB exaggerates the problems (#1 and #3 on Jer 50:3). HCSB wins the prize for balance. I'm curious to see how the new ESV Study Bible fares, but I don't have a copy and I am not going to purchase one this year.

Passage #1 is easily harmonized if one regards a natural death in prison as "peaceful" and imagines people mourning for Zedekiah. Passage #3 is not especially troubling if one recognizes the metaphorical nature of biblical prophecy. I am still puzzled by #2. If any OT specialists have read this far, I'd be glad for their thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Pretty much the ESV follows the NIV comments.

I wish I could offer more.

nicholas meyer said...

I read through the OT last summer using JPS. I found its note far superior to anything else I've seen. There's too much cross-referencing in Harper Collins and too little engagement with the text.

d. miller said...

I was a little disappointed with Sweeney's notes on Jeremiah--they were not as full as some of the others and tended to state the obvious--but I agree, the Jewish Study Bible as a whole is very well done. Summer's notes on Isaiah look outstanding.

Unknown said...

Biblical prophecy is not "metaphorical" but literal. Jeremiah's prophecy of doom on Babylon is "unfulfilled" because it is happening right now in the Iraq conflict. As Jeremiah stated, the nation of the "north" is the "Medes" -- the modern day Kurds.

We've had Jeremiah's invasion, capture and punishment of the "arrogant one." We await the burning of the cities and the abandonment by the invaders. After than comes the battle with the Medes, and defeat and plunder by their hands. Then the flood, then the drought, which leads to the complete desolation of the land.

It is happening right now.