New take on prophet Jeremiah shows how the Bible ought to be read

By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org

This is the way the Bible ought to be read.

Click photo to download. Caption: Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt. Credit:  Rijksmuseum Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons.

In graduate schools and in theological seminaries, the Bible is usually read by comparing manuscripts and by studying the parallel literatures of the ancient world. The result is an accurate text, but one that has very little to say to the modern reader. In yeshivot, the Bible is usually read as a prelude to the Oral Torah. The result is a text that has no independent meaning, but is only understood through the eyes of the Sages. In Israel, the Bible is often read as the document that serves as the Jewish people’s deed to the land. The result is that Joshua is understood as more significant than Job, and the universal dimensions of the text are not sufficiently appreciated. And those who read the Bible in any of these three ways have no interest in reading it from any other perspective.

But Binyamin Lau’s new book, “Jeremiah: The Fate of the Prophet,” shows how the Bible ought to be read. It has plenty of modern scholarship in it, and it makes considerable use of the Oral Torah, but its focus is on what the Bible has to say to us here and now. Lau presents the biblical prophets as magnificent failures, whom nobody listened to in their own time, but who left behind a message that speaks to us today.

Lau rearranges the Book of Jeremiah’s chapters based on historical events and the chronology of the prophet’s life. Jeremiah emerges from this portrait as one of the saddest figures in the entire Bible. For more than 40 years he pours out his heart, but the king, the priests and the people ignore his warnings. He tries to persuade them not to put their trust in Egypt and not to challenge the might of Babylon, but they do not heed him. And so the destruction that he has so long predicted comes to pass. The Temple is destroyed, and the leadership is carried off to Babylon.

At this point, Jeremiah, who has prophesized doom for so many years, tries to offer a message of hope. He tells the people that if they will settle in Babylon, and live peaceably there, God will bring them back in 70 years, but again, they do not listen. Those who are not taken away to Babylon kill Gedaliah, the Judean whom the Babylonians have put in charge of the land, and then run away to Egypt, hoping to be welcomed there.

And Jeremiah goes off the stage, brokenhearted and exhausted. What he threatened has come to pass, and yet his people will not learn. 

The words of the kings, and of the priests, and of the false prophets who mocked Jeremiah have disappeared, but his words remain. The Sages put his prophesies into the service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Shabbat, and the people that paid no heed to them when they were uttered outside in the Temple courtyard now hear them every year when they are chanted inside the synagogue. And the annual fast in memory of Gedaliah (coming a day after Rosh Hashanah), which few people observed or paid attention to down through the centuries, takes on new meaning in Israel after the murder of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who like Gedaliah was killed by one of his own people.

Benyamin Lau has written a book that incorporates the findings of the biblical scholars and the teachings of the Sages of the Talmud, but, more than that, he has written a biography that serves as a warning for our time of what happens when the lessons that were not heeded in ancient days come back to confront us once again. This is a book that combines research into the past with a warning for the present. It should be read not only by scholars, but by all who want to know how we should live today.

Rabbi Jack Riemer writes frequently for journals of Jewish and general thought in America and abroad.

Rabbi Jack Riemer

“Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet,” By Benyamin Lau, Maggid Studies in Tanach, Jerusalem, Israel and New Milford, Conn., July 2013, 230 pages, $29.95.

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Posted on August 4, 2013 and filed under Book Review, Torah Commentary.