Jeremiah was called to be a prophet in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign. This was about one year before Josiah, at about 20 years of age, began his efforts to put an end to idolatrous practices in his realm. Josiah extended his campaign against idolatry into territory of the former kingdom of Israel that the Assyrians had overthrown over nine decades earlier. His efforts to direct his subjects away from the veneration of false gods and goddesses to the exclusive worship of YHWH continued into the eighteenth year of his reign and reached an outstanding climax in that year. (2 Chronicles 34:3-8; Jeremiah 1:2) The year was marked by the observance of a Passover that, according to 2 Chronicles 35:18, was unlike any that had been held “since the days of Samuel the prophet.” No other king of Israel had ever held a Passover like it.
The reforms of King Josiah, however, did not lead his subjects generally to become exclusively devoted to YHWH. Jeremiah’s only message that is directly linked to Josiah’s reign condemned the people of his kingdom for not returning to YHWH with the “whole heart” but only “in pretense.”¹ (Jeremiah 3:6-10) That it was a return to YHWH in pretense is confirmed by what happened years later. After witnessing the destruction of Jerusalem and the devastation of the territory of the kingdom of Judah in fulfillment of the word of YHWH through Jeremiah, survivors who fled to Egypt maintained that the misfortunes had come upon them because they had stopped venerating the “Queen of Heaven” (probably a fertility goddess). (Jeremiah 44:15-18)
Although a genuine return to YHWH did not occur among Josiah’s subjects as a whole and the people refused to give heed to his proclaiming the “word of YHWH,” Jeremiah would not have faced the murderous hatred and mistreatment to which he was subjected in later years. (Jeremiah 25:3) For about 18 or 19 years of his service as a prophet, Jeremiah found himself the subject of a king who had a reverential regard for YHWH and who was an upholder of justice and a defender of the rights of the poor and the oppressed. (Jeremiah 22:15, 16) The untimely death of Josiah in battle with Pharaoh Nechoh after a 31-year rule brought great sadness to Jeremiah and also made the carrying out of his commission as a prophet far more difficult. (2 Chronicles 35:20-25) After Josiah’s death, the people selected his son Jehoahaz as their king, but Pharaoh Nechoh deprived him of the kingship after just three months, imprisoning him at Riblah and later taking him to Egypt. Pharaoh Nechoh then made Eliakim, another son of Josiah, king and changed his name to Jehoiakim. (2 Kings 23:30-34) Already at the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim, Jeremiah faced a serious threat to his life in response to his prophesying. (Jeremiah 26:1-15)
Because the circumstances were different during Josiah’s reign, this may, in part, explain why Jeremiah did not expect to become the object of murderous hatred. Men of his hometown Anathoth, apparently fellow members of a priestly family, wanted to kill him, but Jeremiah did not know that they were scheming against him. He described himself as being like a lamb that had no awareness of its being led to the slaughter. (Jeremiah 11:19, 21) Although Jeremiah was informed at the time of his call to be a prophet that the people would fight against him (Jeremiah 1:19), he appears not to have realized just how much suffering he would have to endure. This seemingly led him to complain bitterly against YHWH or about his lot. (Jeremiah 15:15-18; 20:7-9) Repeatedly, Jeremiah expressed his personal feelings about himself and the people to whom he was sent, providing a portrayal of his life as a prophet that is far more detailed than is that of other prophets.
There is evidence that two different versions of the book of Jeremiah came into being. The text of the Septuagint is shorter and is also arranged differently than is the Masoretic Text. Dead Sea scroll fragments of the book of Jeremiah indicate that two Hebrew versions existed. One scroll (4QJerᵇ) contains words from what is Jeremiah 9:22-10:21 of the Hebrew text. Although very little of the actual Hebrew text is preserved, the missing portion, when reconstructed from the Masoretic Text, does not fit into the available space. The Septuagint text is shorter, and omits the wording from verses 6 through 8 and verse 10 of chapter 10. Additionally, words corresponding to the phrase that starts with a reference to idols as having to be carried (in verse 5 of the Masoretic Text) follow words corresponding to ones from verse 9 of the Masoretic Text. In the case of 4QJerᵇ, the shorter text of the Septuagint is the corresponding Hebrew text that does fit into the space of what is the missing portion of the scroll.
Fragments from other scrolls with text from the book of Jeremiah indicate the existence of a Hebrew text that is more like that of the Masoretic Text. The oldest is 4QJerᵅ (thought to date from about 200 BCE or earlier). It contains many corrections, with the lengthiest one being the insertion of words from what is Jeremiah 7:30 to 8:3. Part of the wording is written in small letters and squeezed into the space between words of Jeremiah 7:29 and 8:4 and most of the remaining portion is written sideways in small letters on the left margin. The last part (the words of 8:3b) is found at the bottom of the page, where it is written upside down in small letters.²
One possible explanation for two versions of the book of Jeremiah is that one originated in Egypt and the other one in Babylon.This commentary will include details about the shorter Septuagint text and the way it is arranged.
¹Other messages appear to have originated during Josiah’s reign, but they are not specifically identified as such.
²Very little of the Jeremiah text is preserved in the fragments from what have been identified as six different scrolls. These are 2QJer, 4QJerᵅ, 4QJerᵇ, 4QJerᶜ, 4QJerᵈ, and 4QJerᵉ. The initial number is the number assigned to the cave where the fragments of the scrolls were found, the “Q” stands for Qumran, and the raised letters serve to identify the different scrolls that preserve portions of the text. Of these scrolls, two (4QJerᵇ and 4QJerᵈ) correspond more closely to the text of the Septuagint than to that of the Masoretic Text.