Politics as Religion in Jeremiah
Introduction: Ritual and Politics in Jeremiah 2
In the haftarah for Mattot-Mas‘ei (Jer 2:4–28), Jeremiah chides the people for sins that revolve around idolatry:
- They have adopted the worship of “no-gods” (v. 11), including the Baalim (v. 23).
- They are condemned as a “whore” (v. 20) who would “recline” on “every high hill and under every verdant tree” (v. 20).
- They are accused of loving “strangers” (zarim) (v. 25).
- They acclaim wood as their “father” and stone as the one “who gave birth to me” (v. 27).
- They call out to wood and stone in their hour of need (v. 27).
Embedded within this passage, and its continuation through the end of the chapter, are allusions to another sin, this one on the political plane:
- “What, then, is the good of your going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile? And what is the good of your going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates?” (v. 18).
- “How you cheapen yourself, by changing your course! You shall be put to shame through Egypt, just as you were put to shame through Assyria” (v. 36).
The transitions between these two sins, the religious and political, are largely seamless, suggesting that they are part of one larger message that Jeremiah seeks to impart. What is that message, and how are the people’s religious and political commitments interrelated?
The Problematic Nature of Judah’s Political Alliances
As a preliminary matter, it is critical to note that Jeremiah casts Judah’s political alliances as problematic on the religious plane, a charge that is most apparent in the contrast between 2:6 and 2:17.
וְלֹ֣א אָמְר֔וּ אַיֵּ֣ה יְ-הֹוָ֔ה הַמַּעֲלֶ֥ה אֹתָ֖נוּ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם הַמּוֹלִ֨יךְ אֹתָ֜נוּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֗ר בְּאֶ֨רֶץ עֲרָבָ֤ה וְשׁוּחָה֙ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ צִיָּ֣ה וְצַלְמָ֔וֶת בְּאֶ֗רֶץ לֹֽא עָ֤בַר בָּהּ֙ אִ֔ישׁ וְלֹֽא יָשַׁ֥ב אָדָ֖ם שָֽׁם:
They (=your ancestors) never asked themselves, “Where is the Lord, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, a land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness, a land no man had traversed, where no human being had dwelt?” (2:6)
הֲלוֹא זֹ֖את תַּעֲשֶׂה לָּ֑ךְ עָזְבֵךְ֙ אֶת יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהַ֔יִךְ בְּעֵ֖ת מוֹלִיכֵ֥ךְ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ:
See, that is what your forsaking the Lord your God is doing to you, while he led you in the way. (2:17)
In the former verse, the prophet contrasts the people’s present behavior with that of their forebears, who never ask about God’s presence, even when wandering in the wilderness. The latter verse implicitly contrasts the ancestors’ commendable attitude with Judah’s present-day behavior. This verse, which immediately precedes Jeremiah’s prediction of the futility of joining forces with Egypt, characterizes that alliance as an act of “forsaking (עזב)” God—a charge that the prophet repeats in v. 19.
The references to God “leading” the people in both 2:6 and 17 draws attention to the fundamental contrast: God led them out of Egypt, yet Judah is now returning there for help. This act is a repudiation of the historical kindnesses that God showed the people. Verse 36 (quoted above) goes further, predicting that Judah’s relationship with Egypt will put her “to shame,” repeating her past experiences with Assyria.
The fact that Judah’s alliance with Egypt is religiously problematic also emerges from the links between 2:13 and 18.
כִּֽי שְׁתַּ֥יִם רָע֖וֹת עָשָׂ֣ה עַמִּ֑י אֹתִ֨י עָזְב֜וּ מְק֣וֹר׀ מַ֣יִם חַיִּ֗ים לַחְצֹ֤ב לָהֶם֙ בֹּאר֔וֹת בֹּארֹת֙ נִשְׁבָּרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא יָכִ֖לוּ הַמָּֽיִם:
For My people have done a twofold wrong: They have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters, And hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, Which cannot even hold water. (2:13)
וְעַתָּ֗ה מַה לָּךְ֙ לְדֶ֣רֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִשְׁתּ֖וֹת מֵ֣י שִׁח֑וֹר וּמַה לָּךְ֙ לְדֶ֣רֶךְ אַשּׁ֔וּר לִשְׁתּ֖וֹת מֵ֥י נָהָֽר:
What, then, is the good of your going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile? And what is the good of your going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates? (2:18)
According to the former verse, Judah has “forsaken the fount of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, which cannot even hold water.” When, in 2:18, Judah is accused of drinking from the waters of Egypt and Assyria, we are to see in those actions the concrete act of abandonment to which 2:13 had referred.
To what events do these verses refer, and why is this alliance religiously problematic? In order to address these questions, we must gain a better appreciation for the historical context in which Jeremiah prophesied.
Judah’s Political Situation in the Time of Jeremiah
According to the opening verses of Jeremiah, the prophet’s career began in the 13th year of King Josiah—that is, approximately 627 BCE. At that time, the dominant power in the ancient Near East, the neo-Assyrian empire, was in rapid decline. The Neo-Babylonian empire rose to prominence in 626 and within 14 years had effectively destroyed the Neo-Assyrian empire, conquering the city of Ashur in 614 and the empire’s capital, Nineveh, in 612.
At the same time amidst this evolving geopolitical landscape, according to the books of Kings and Chronicles, in Judah (622 B.C.E.), King Josiah sought to banish idolatry, a religious reform that, at a time of great political ferment, would reinforce Judahite identity and independence.
Biblical and ancient near eastern literature clarify that the Neo-Babylonians and Judahites were not the only beneficiaries of the fall of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Pharaoh Necho capitalized on the downfall of the Neo-Assyrians to extend Egyptian influence and challenge the Neo-Babylonians for supremacy in Syro-Palestine. The kings of Judah were necessarily forced to take sides in the showdown between Egypt and the Neo-Babylonians.
Josiah, aligning himself with the latter, died, according to the biblical account, at the hand of Necho when, in 609, he sought to impede the latter’s march to fight the Babylonians in the north (2Chron 35: 20–24). The Egyptian king assumed control of Judah, removing the newly crowned heir apparent, Jehoahaz, and installing Jehoiakim as a puppet king in his place (2Chron 35:33–35). In 605, when the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar defeated Necho in the battle at Carchemish, Jehoiakim became a vassal of the neo-Babylonians. However, according to 2Kings 24:1–2, the Judahite king’s loyalties lay with the Egyptians, and he rebelled at the end of three years.
Jer 2:36 describes Judah’s past relations with Assyria because, apparently, this undated prophecy was being delivered at some point after the fall of Nineveh in 612. We cannot pinpoint the chronology with greater certainty: the prophecy could have addressed those who, in Josiah’s final years, supported Egypt rather than Babylon, or else Jehoiakim and others whose support of Egypt culminated in a failed rebellion against Babylon.
The Problem with Relying on Egypt
What exactly was the problem with relying upon Egyptian aid? According to Jeremiah, God designated Babylon as the dominant power. Jeremiah characterizes this in ch. 25 as divine punishment for Judah’s sins (see, e.g., 25:8–9). They have no choice but to submit (see, e.g., 25:27–29), and, should they refuse, they do so at their own peril (see, e.g., 27:8). Jeremiah’s encounters with other prophets in chs. 28 and 29, however, demonstrate that many of his contemporaries, both in Judah and Babylon, did resist Babylonian rule.
Elsewhere, Jeremiah describes Judah’s resistance to Babylon as a repudiation of God’s role in history (27:5-8):
אָנֹכִ֞י עָשִׂ֣יתִי אֶת הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת הָאָדָ֤ם וְאֶת הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל פְּנֵ֣י הָאָ֔רֶץ בְּכֹחִי֙ הַגָּד֔וֹל וּבִזְרוֹעִ֖י הַנְּטוּיָ֑ה וּנְתַתִּ֕יהָ לַאֲשֶׁ֖ר יָשַׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָֽי: וְעַתָּ֗ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ נָתַ֙תִּי֙ אֶת כָּל הָאֲרָצ֣וֹת הָאֵ֔לֶּה בְּיַ֛ד נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּ֥ר מֶֽלֶךְ בָּבֶ֖ל עַבְדִּ֑י וְגַם֙ אֶת חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה נָתַ֥תִּי ל֖וֹ לְעָבְדֽוֹ… וְהָיָ֨ה הַגּ֜וֹי וְהַמַּמְלָכָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא יַעַבְד֤וּ אֹתוֹ֙… בַּחֶרֶב֩ וּבָרָעָ֨ב וּבַדֶּ֜בֶר אֶפְקֹ֨ד עַל הַגּ֤וֹי הַהוּא֙…
It is I who made the earth and the men and beasts who are on the earth, by my great might and my outstretched arm; and I give it to whomsoever I deem proper. I herewith deliver all these lands to my servant, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon; I even give him the wild beasts to serve him … the nation or kingdom that does not serve him … that nation I will visit with sword, famine, and pestilence… (27:5–8).
God is master of history by virtue of being master of the universe, and, as master of history, has the prerogative to award power “to whomsoever I deem proper.” Relying upon Assyria or Egypt rather than Babylon thus constitutes, according to Jeremiah, not simply an inadvisable political choice but rather a denial of the divine hand in history. By describing their disobedience in religious terms, the prophet clarifies that there is no meaningful difference between the religious and political domains because both evidence the people’s relationship with God.
Jeremiah 2 adds another layer to the problematic alliance with Egypt. The connection between Jer 2:6 and 2:17 noted above suggests that, in seeking support from Egypt, Judah repudiates the historic relationship between them and God. God had led them out of Egypt, taking them through a barren wilderness; their return to Egypt for support represents a rejection of that historic relationship.
Their political alliances can be religiously problematic not because God is master of the universe but because God is the God of Israel. In ch. 2, the correct course of action is unstated, and two possibilities present themselves: either, as in chs. 25–29, the people are expected to submit to Babylon, or they should turn to God, and not Egypt, for assistance.
The connection between God’s historic relationship with Israel and their current political alliance is visible elsewhere in ch. 2. In the opening verses of ch. 2—the passage immediately preceding this week’s haftarah—God recalls for the people “the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride (אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ )—how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (2:2 In characterizing their alliance with Egypt as a form of אַהֲבָה in 2:33, the prophet again contrasts the historic relationship binding Judah and God with their current one. That contrast is extended in 2:31 and 32, in which God asks whether “I have been like a desert to Israel … can a maiden forget her jewels, a bride her adornments? Yet my people have forgotten me.” In 2:2, God “remembers” his bride’s past kindness in the desert; Judah’s present suggests that she has forgotten his.
Religion and Politics in Jeremiah 2
Equipped with a better understanding of the problems associated with the Egyptian alliance, let us return to the relationship between Judah’s idolatry and her political associations in Jeremiah’s outlook as presented in chapter 2. Like her reliance upon Egypt, Judah’s religious tendencies constitute a repudiation of God. According to Jeremiah (2:6), the people’s forebears “never asked themselves, ‘Where is the Lord (אַיֵּה ה׳).” God challenges the Judah of Jeremiah’s time with this very question: “And where are those gods (וְאַיֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךׇ) you made for yourself?” (2:28).
The implication: in fleeing to idolatry, Judah has posed the unprecedented question, “Where is the Lord?” When it turns out that Judah’s gods are powerless, God asks them where they are. In addition, whereas in 2:6, God led the people (הַמּוֹלִיךְ), in 2:23 and 25, the people walked (forms of ה.ל.כ) after idolatry. As with their political affiliations, their religious tendencies constitute a rejection of God’s historic relationship with them, as described in 2:6.
The description of Judah’s idolatry also harks back to Jer 2:2, a verse that we examined above. In 2:25, the prophet attributes the following statement to his audience: “I love (אָהַבְתִּי) the strangers, after them I must go (וְאַחֲרֵיהֶם אֵלֵךְ).” These sentiments contrast with her earlier commitment to God, when, in “the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride (אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ) … you followed me (לֶכְתֵּך אַחֲרַי) in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (2:2). Once again, Judah’s idolatry is problematic because it violates her historic bond with God.
The fact that Judah’s religious and political activities are instantiations of the same offense emerges from the language of the chapter elsewhere. Most significantly, her current religious and political commitments both constitute acts of love (2:25, 33) that reverse the love that she showed God in the wilderness. As expressions of that love, Judah will look to both to save her from distress (see 2:27–28). Finally, both their idolatry and Egypt will eventually bring “shame” to Judah (2:26 and 36).
The outcome of our analysis of Jeremiah 2 is that, in the biblical worldview, as in the ancient world more generally, religion and politics were inseparable. As the historic protector of his people, God demands their fealty in the ritual and political domains; her current actions demonstrate her rejection of that historic relationship. Jeremiah, like other prophets, regards politics as yet another domain in which the people’s trust in God manifests itself.
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July 16, 2015
January 13, 2020
Dr. Ari Mermelstein is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University. He holds a Ph.D. from NYU’s Department of Hebrew & Judaic Studies and a J.D. from NYU Law School. Dr. Mermelstein is the author ofCreation, Covenant, and the Beginnings of Judaism: Reconceiving Historical Time in the Second Temple Period, wand is currently working on a new monograph, titled Feeling Like a Sectarian: Emotions and Identity at Qumran.
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