Overview: The Book of Jeremiah

The Second Major Prophet

Along with Ezekiel, the Book of Jeremiah is one of the three so-called 'Major Prophets'. The name doesn't indicate their importance or their stature in the bible, but simply the length of the books named after them. And, as mentioned in the previous entry on Ezekiel, these books can be awkward and difficult to read due to their length, the unnatural chapter and verse numbers, and a lack of awareness of the cultural role of a prophet in ancient Israel.

Modern readers hear the word 'prophet' and tend to think of someone like Nostradamus, a prognosticator able to predict events hundreds or thousands of years in the future. While the biblical prophets sometimes did make claims about the future, their predictions were rarely meant to be set in stone, and in any case making such predictions was rarely their primary role in society.

Jeremiah actually provides an ample definition of what 'prophecy' was:

'At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.'
Jeremiah 18.7-10

When we read the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, their prophecies were only rarely absolute predictions of an unavoidable future. The biblical prophets whose books we have were a sort of ancient equivalent to political commentators: their job was to unleash a scathing critique of society's worst sins, thereby exposing and condemning the evils that needed to be rooted out. They did not predict what must happen, but what would happen if society did not turn aside from those sins.

The prophet's job was not to consign society to a certain fate, but either to give them the choice to avoid a certain fate, or to warn them once they had crossed the event horizon of their due punishment. Jeremiah's prophecies for the nation of Judah are, by and large, the latter.

There is one problem with reading the Book of Jeremiah, however.

In a previous article, I discussed the story of David's fight with Goliath, and how the Septuagint (Greek) text preserved the more original, shorter version, while the Masoretic (Hebrew) text actually inserted several paragraphs of additional content. A similar thing has happened to the Book of Jeremiah: Masoretic Jeremiah has added several large chunks of text not found in Septuagint Jeremiah. The New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) identifies these additions as:

Additions to Masoretic Jeremiah

8.11-12 10.6-8,10 11.7
17.1-4 25.14 27.1,7,13,21
29.16-20 30.10-11,15,22 33.14-26
39.4-13 48.45-47 49.6
51.44d-49a 52.2-3,27c-30


There... there's another problem.

The Masoretic version has also moved around several chapters of the Book of Jeremiah. If we divide the Septuagint version of Jeremiah into sixteen sections, labeled ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP, then the Masoretic version would be AHIJKLMNOCEGFBDP. The graphic below illustrates this confusing rearrangement.


This is a mess, isn't it? Once we detangle the Masoretic text (or, more simply, once we turn to the Septuagint version of Jeremiah), the Book of Jeremiah mostly produces the same pattern as the Book of Ezekiel: the first series of oracles are arranged to focus on Judah, the next series of oracles focus primarily on foreign nations, while the final series of oracles focus on restoration for Judah.

Jeremiah (Septuagint)

Focus primarily on Judah

Jeremiah 1-6 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 7.1-8.10, 8.13-10.5, 10.9,11-25 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 11.1-6, 11.8-13.27 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 14-16, 17.5-27 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 18.1-19.13 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 19.14-20.18 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 21-23 Judgment on Judah. Restoration for Judah.
Jeremiah 24 Judgment on Judah's prophets.
Jeremiah 25.1-13 Judgment on Judah.

Focus shifts from Judah to foreign nations

Jeremiah 49.34-39 Judgment on Elam.
Jeremiah 46 Judgment on Egypt.
Jeremiah 50.1-51.44c, 51.49b-64 Judgment on Babylon.
Jeremiah 47 Judgment on Philistia.
Jeremiah 49.7-22,1-5,28-33,23-27 Judgment on Edom, Ammon, Kedar, Hazor, Syria.
Jeremiah 48.1-44 Judgment on Moab.
Jeremiah 25.15-26.24 Judgment on Judah, Egypt, Uz, Philistia, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, Sidon, Arabia, Elam, Media, Babylon.
Jeremiah 27.2-6,8-12,14-40,22 Judgment on Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, Sidon.
Jeremiah 28.1-29.15, 29.21-32 (Narration.)

Focus shifts primarily to Judah's restoration

Jeremiah 30.1-9,12-14,16-21,23-24 Restoration for Judah.
Jeremiah 31.1-34,37,35-36,38-40 Restoration for Judah.
Jeremiah 32.1-33.13 Restoration for Judah.
Jeremiah 34.1-39.3, 39.14-18 (Narration.)
Jeremiah 40-45 (Narration.)
Jeremiah 52.1,4-27b,31-34 (Narration.)


For comparison, here is the Book of Jeremiah according to the Masoretic order, followed in most English bibles:

Jeremiah (Masoretic)

Focus primarily on Judah

Jeremiah 1-6 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 7-10 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 11-13 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 14-17 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 18.1-19.13 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 19.14-20.18 Judgment on Judah.
Jeremiah 21-23 Judgment on Judah. Restoration for Judah.
Jeremiah 24 Judgment on Judah's prophets.
Jeremiah 25.1-13 Judgment on Judah.

Focus shifts from Judah to foreign nations

Jeremiah 25.15-26.24 Judgment on Judah, Egypt, Uz, Philistia, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, Sidon, Arabia, Elam, Media, Babylon.
Jeremiah 27 Judgment on Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, Sidon.
Jeremiah 28-29 (Narration.)

Focus shifts primarily to Judah's restoration

Jeremiah 30 Restoration for Judah.
Jeremiah 31 Restoration for Judah.
Jeremiah 32.1-33.26 Restoration for Judah. Revived rule for the House of David.
Jeremiah 34-39 (Narration.)
Jeremiah 40-45 (Narration.)

Focus returns to foreign nations

Jeremiah 46 Judgment on Egypt.
Jeremiah 47 Judgment on Philistia.
Jeremiah 48 Judgment on Moab.
Jeremiah 49.1-33 Judgment on Edom, Ammon, Kedar, Hazor, Syria.
Jeremiah 49.34-39 Judgment on Elam.
Jeremiah 50-51 Judgment on Babylon.
Jeremiah 52 (Narration.)


The rearrangement scatters some things around, but there is a discernible logic to some of it. The initial 25 chapters remain in place, focusing on Judah. In chapters 25-26, the focus shifts over to judgment on foreign nations, as would be expected. But then this order quickly moves to the topic of restoration for Judah, then again returns to the subject of judgment on foreign nations. This order purposely saves Jeremiah's longest oracle against Babylon for last, since most of Jeremiah's other oracles say that God would bring judgment on Judah and the other nations through military conquest from Babylon. Babylon is the chief enemy of Judah in the book, so the Masoretic version intends to close with a 'last word' against Babylon.