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.
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
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 …read more