Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 1

The last post I did on “Evangelical Eisegesis” covered the Twitter ramblings of Greg Locke, the veritable gift that keeps on giving. Today’s post will cover a similar fountain of fallaciousness who I’ve briefly dealt with before on this blog: SJ Thomason. Thomason runs around Twitter with the moniker “Christian Apologist” and she can be seen posting all sorts of curious statements like this one.

Oh, and this one.

These are just relatively recent posts. I’ll leave it to the reader to dig into her older posts to find the really good stuff. She also has a blog which features some of her thoughts on issues related to atheism and atheists. She posted a link to it on Twitter though she apparently deleted that tweet at some point. It was here. While it was still up, I couldn’t help but comment.

Then she accused me of just throwing jabs.

So I decided to write this blog post.

God’s Promises

I am writing this post working under the assumption that you’ve read Thomason’s blog post. If you haven’t, please do so. It will not be a huge investment of your time or mental energies. The post is mostly fluff and reworking of stuff written by the late James Kennedy and the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, a resource I’ve perused myself a few times. There is very little that is original to her but nevertheless we must address her claims.

My rebuttal to Thomason will come in seven posts, mirroring the seven “promises” she structured her post with. But before we dive in, let’s briefly consider what she says about atheists and their use of the Bible. She writes,

In my time on social media, I have discovered a good number of atheists who pull Bible verses out of context in an effort to discredit its authors and the source from whom the Bible was authored: God.

At the outset, let me say that I agree with almost all of that sentence. I am currently working on a blog post about problems within the nativity stories that may or may not come out sometime in 2018. But in that post I say this:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Many atheists on social media who claim to have read the Bible are either lying or they have only read it to find fault with it. In either case, the general lack of understanding about the Bible among those atheists is worrisome, particularly when they make comments like, “Reading the Bible will make you an atheist.” That statement has never been true and even if it were it could only ever produce the sort of shallow atheism for which the only parallel is the shallow theism we see in the general American public. What’s the saying – American Christianity is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep? Ditto for American atheism.

Atheists love to say that they’ve read the Bible but more often than not all they produce in conversations with theists are the same texts that Christians have adequately dealt with time and again. “The Bible says bats are birds” (no, it doesn’t), “Jesus said he was not going to bring peace but a sword” (yes, but read what he meant in context), etc. Many atheists I encounter on social media have a very shallow understanding of biblical texts or they draw conclusions based on a very shaky exegetical basis.

But Christians are guilty of the same. Thomason made the following comment on Twitter to an atheist.

I asked her,

She responded with,

I found that odd.

She replied.

I was even more perplexed since she had cited John 3:16 as proof. Now she threw this in there without offering an explanation. (This is her typical MO.)

Thomason responded,

I was still confused.

Huh?

Then Thomason throws in her own jab.

And since I’m a glutton for punishment.

You see, it isn’t just atheists who “pull Bible verses out of context.” Christians like Thomason are guilty of it as well. And as we will see, her use of the Bible is at times quite problematic. She continues.

The intention of this blog is to analyze the truth behind a handful of Biblical passages, which have provided sources of controversy to atheists. Additionally, I will show the way God has used the Bible to demonstrate how He keeps His promises. 

Let’s be clear. The post does nothing to “analyze the truth behind” any biblical passage. There is no attempted exegesis, no appreciation for the complex historical issues involved, and certainly no attempt by Thomason to consider alternative sides. For Thomason, “analysis” involves quoting your own team and avoiding all evidence to the contrary. Why? Because, as a pop apologist, Thomason wants to avoid anything that might conflict with her biases. Reading the other side to learn from the other side is anathema! But this will not be so for this series of posts from me. And with that, let us tackle the first of “God’s Promises.”

All biblical quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version. (Crossway, 2001)

PROMISE ONE: “BABYLON SHALL NOT BE INHABITED”

Thomason writes,

Jeremiah (51:42) states: “The sea will rise over Babylon; its roaring waves will cover her. Her towns will be desolate, dry and desert land, a land where no one lives, though which no one travels.” Jeremiah (50:13,39) says: “Because of the wrath of the Lord it shall not be inhabited, for it shall be wholly desolate…It shall be no more inhabited forever.”

According to James Kennedy (1999, pp. 11-12) the site of Babylon is “a dry waste, a parched and burning plain…God said it would never be built again – a prophecy totally contrary to all expectations of the past, where every city of the Near East that had been destroyed had been built again. Babylon was situated in the most fertile part of the Euphrates valley, and yet twenty-five hundred years have come and gone, and Babylon to this day remains an uninhabited waste.”

In Narrative of a Journey to the Site of Babylon in 1811, Claudius James Rich states: “For the space of two months throughout the year the ruins of Babylon are inundated by the annual overflowing of the Euphrates so as to render many parts of them inaccessible by converting the valleys into morasses.”

In 323 B.C., Alexander the Great determined that he would make Babylon the capital of his worldwide empire. “He issued six hundred thousand rations to his soldiers to rebuild the city of Babylon. Would God be disproved? History records the fact that immediately after making the declaration to rebuild Babylon, Alexander the Great was struck dead, and the whole enterprise was abandoned (Kennedy, 1999, pp. 12).

It is clear from reading Thomason’s entire blog post of about 2,000 words that the first few sections depend almost entirely on a book written by the late James Kennedy entitled Why I Believe. For those of you unfamiliar with him, Kennedy was at one time an immensely popular evangelical pastor whose Coral Ridge Hour was broadcast to televisions across the United States for a number of years. I can remember my dad changing the station to the Coral Ridge Hour before we left to head to our own church. Kennedy was a methodical preacher who spoke with great clarity. He was also a prolific writer, authoring books on history, theology, and apologetics. His death in 2007 marked the end of an era for not only his church but for all of evangelicalism.

In this section of Thomason’s post she offers up a couple of citations from Kennedy with the goal of showing that the Bible’s prophecy that Babylon would no longer be inhabited has been fulfilled. Before we examine Thomason’s (and Kennedy’s) claim, let’s briefly discuss the city of Babylon and its relationship to the Bible and the biblical texts that Thomason cites specifically.

Babylon and the Bible

In the book of Psalms there is a poem of lament that likely originated in the era following Judah’s exile by the Babylonian Empire. It reads,

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the sons of Zion!”

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:1-9, ESV)

One can feel both the anguish over their lost homeland (137:1-6) as well as the rage of having that homeland ravished by the conquering Babylonians. (137:7-9) Few psalms capture such range of emotion, particularly the imprecatory ending. The vitriol against Babylon extends even to the empire’s “little ones,” a sign that such horrible things as being dashed against rocks happened to Jewish infants as well.

The word “Babylon” is the Hebrew word בָּבֶל, Babel. The first time we see Babel in the Hebrew Bible is in the “Table of Nations” listed in Genesis 10. The Table traces the children of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. But instead of beginning with Shem and ending with Japheth, the section begins with Japheth and ends with Shem. What is even more fascinating is that the author of the Table spends far more time on the “sons of Ham” (10:6-20) than he does on either “the sons of Japheth” (10:2-5) or Shem’s progeny. (10:21-31) The likely reason is that the Table functions as an etiology and, in particular, it is functioning as an account of the origins of Israel’s various enemies they encounter from the days of their wandering in the desert to after the Babylonians take the Israelites away into captivity.

For example, Ham has four sons: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. (10:6) Cush has five sons: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. Raamah has two sons: Sheba and Dedan. (10:7) And then the text veers off course and mentions another son of Cush not mentioned among the five listed in 10:7 – Nimrod. (10:8) Nimrod is described as “the first on earth to be a mighty man” (10:8) and “a mighty hunter before the LORD.” (10:9) And then it says that Nimrod’s kingdom began with the cities of Babel (בָּבֶל), Erech, Accad, and Calneh in “the land of Shinar.” (10:10) It also says that Nimrod “went into Assyria and built Nineveh.” (10:11) So we can already detect two of the great Ancient Near East superpowers who laid siege to Israel and Judah: the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

Following the Table of Nations is a story that takes place in “the land of Shinar” – the story of the Tower of Babel. (11:1-9) There the people have gathered together and decide to make bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar so that they can built a tower to heaven. (11:3) But Yahweh comes down and sees what they are doing and decides that they cannot be allowed to build this tower because if they do then “nothing that they propose to do will…be impossible for them.” (11:6) So he confuses their languages so that, as they once all spoke with the same tongue, they would now speak with different tongues. The city they were building around this sky-scraping tower was dubbed “Babel” (בָּבֶל).

The narrative on the Tower of Babel is yet another etiology, this time to explain the origins of Babylon and their impressive technological and architectural feats as well as their abject godlessness. (It is also intended to explain the origin of the various languages of the world.) The “tower” is very likely a reference to the ziggurat of the Babylonian deity Marduk known as Etemenanki. This temple was described by the Greek historian Herodotus writing in the fifth century BCE.

The gates of this sanctuary are bronze, its shape is square and its sides are each 2 stades long. Right in its centre a tower of solid brick [c.f. Genesis 11:3] has been constructed, a square stade in size, and on top of this there stands another tower, and on top of that a third in turn, and so it continues, right the way up to the eighth. Sculpted into the exterior of these eight towers, winding its way up to the very summit, is a staircase; and midway up this staircase is a resting place complete with benches, where those who are making the ascent can sit down and catch their breath. In the very topmost tower there is a huge temple; and within this temple are stationed a large couch, adorned with splendid coverings, and beside it a golden table. No cult-statue is to be seen standing there, however – nor, after dark, any mortal. There is one exception to this rule, however, for the god (according to the Chaldean priests who serve him) will select a single woman, a native of the city, to pass the night in his shrine. (Herodotus, 1.181)

This would have been an impressive sight to behold and fits the description of a temple reaching up to heaven. [1]

640px-Etemenanki_Berlin
A model of Etemenanki, the ziggurat of Marduk in Babylon.

The Rise of Babylon

As we noted in our brief discussion of Psalm 137 above, at some point in Judah’s history the Babylonians had come in and taken away captives from the kingdom’s cities. But Babylon was not always a world power and the city was itself the subject of sieges and intense warfare.

Whereas the Bible ascribes the founding of Babylon to Nimrod (Genesis 10:10), it is unclear who actually founded the city. The city began to emerge on the world stage under Sargon of Akkad, a Mesopotamian ruler who reigned from 2334 to 2279 BCE. Sargon had conquered the ancient city of Sumer but had expanded his empire into the surrounding regions which included the area of Babylon. [2] Sargon was the first true empire-builder who sent his forces all over the Ancient Near East and even to places as far off as Ethiopia. (Roberts, 2002, 58) The Akkadian Empire did not last but a few centuries and was finally done away with by in-fighting and invasions from outsiders. Sargon’s great empire was split into pieces and the prominent ruler of the area became Gudea who centered his reign in the city of Lagash. (Podany, 2014, 51)

391px-Ancient_Egypt_and_Mesopotamia_c._1450_BC
The ANE c. 1450 BCE.

Not long after the reign of Gudea, the region was subsumed by Ur-Namma. Ur-Namma’s reign oversaw the construction of great ziggurats, including one in Ur that reportedly took two million baked bricks and five million sun-dried bricks to build. (Podany, 53) Babylon under Ur-Namma remained a small town on the Euphrates River. It would not be until around 2000 BCE when Babylon would begin to come to the forefront.

Historians divide Babylonian history into five periods. (Walton, 1994, 68) The first period known as the Old Babylonian Period (2000-1600 BCE) featured a number of Amorite kings among whom was the famous Hammurabi who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BCE. Hammurabi is of course known for his legal code which included the lex talionis style justice that is featured in ancient Israelite law. (Exodus 21:23-24) It was not long after his reign, around 1600 BCE, that Babylon was sacked by Hittite invaders and the region of Mesopotamia fell into disarray. (Roberts, 61)

Amorite control of Babylon ended and Kassite control began. This was the dawn of the Kassite Period (1600-1160 BCE). Fascinatingly, in a region and time period typically plagued with violence, the Kassite period was relatively peaceful. But this too would end when Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria sacked Babylon in 1235 BCE and then between 1160-1157 BCE the Elamites ended Kassite rule. (Walton, 68; Podany, 99)

What follows is known as the Middle Babylonian Period (1160-730 BCE) [3] and the standout king in that time frame is Nebuchadnezzar I. (He is not to be confused with Nebuchadnezzar of the Neo-Babylonian Period.) Nebuchadnezzar I ruled in Babylon for two decades (1126-1105 BCE) and restored the idol of Marduk that had been stolen by the Elamites (Roberts, 64) to the temple in Babylon. Babylon continued in relative strength but all the while a threat was looming to the north in the form of the Assyrians.

That threat would not go away and the Assyrians gathered more and more territory including Babylon in 729 BCE. The Assyrians would also come against other kingdoms, including Israel.

In the thirty-ninth year of Azariah king of Judah [circa 745 BCE], Menahem the son of Gadi began to reign over Israel, and he reigned ten years in Samaria. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart all his days from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. Pul the king of Assyria came against the land, and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that he might help him to confirm his hold on the royal power. Mehahem exacted the money from Israel, that is, from all the wealthy men, fifty shekels of silver from every man, to give to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria turned back and did not stay there in the land. (2 Kings 15:17-20)

If the name Pul doesn’t ring a bell, keep in mind that “Pul” was his birth name. He went by the moniker Tiglath-Pileser III and was one of the greatest kings the Assyrian Empire had ever known.

Tiglath-Pileser’s reign ended in 727 BCE and he would be succeeded by a series of Assyrian kings. One of the most famous was Sennacherib [4] and it was during his reign (704-681 BCE) that Babylon revolted against Assyrian control. For their defiance, Sennacherib destroyed the ancient city in 689 BCE, leaving it in utter ruins. Sennacherib was assassinated in 681 and his successor Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon in 676 BCE.

Fifty years later would see the dawn of the Neo-Babylonian Period (625-539 BCE) when Nabopolassar gained independence from Assyrian rule. In-fighting among the Assyrians had given the Babylonians, in cooperation with the Medes, the opportunity to wage war deep into Assyrian lands, eventually destroying the capital city of Nineveh in 612 BCE. The Assyrian kingdom was then divided up among the conquerors. (Podany, 111)

Babylon and Judah

Though Assyria was no more, the new empire of Babylon meant that the tiny kingdom of Judah had gone from the frying pan into the fire. After Yahweh rescued Jerusalem from the Assyrians, Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon, sent envoys to Hezekiah “for he heard that Hezekiah had been sick.” (2 Kings 20:12) Hezekiah took them in and showed them all his wealth. But he is confronted by Isaiah the prophet and it is through him that a message from Yahweh is given.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of your own sons, who shall be born to you, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (20:16-18)

Strangely, Hezekiah is okay with this message of future doom for selfish reasons. He figures that as long as Babylon doesn’t come during his reign, who cares? He will be dead and gone when that time comes. (20:19)

Hezekiah dies and his son Manasseh takes his place. (20:21) Manasseh is wicked and undoes Hezekiah’s work. (21:2-9) Because of his evil, Yahweh says that he will send “such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle” and that he will “wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (21:10-15) Manasseh dies and is replaced by Amon. (21:18) Amon is assassinated and is replaced by Josiah. (21:23-24) Under Josiah, a religious reform is ushered in (22:3-23:27) that unfortunately does not last. Josiah rides out with his military to take on the Pharoah Neco but is killed in battle. (23:28-29) The Chronicler describes the battle and its aftermath.

After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah went out to meet him. But he sent envoys to him saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.” So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a rule in Israel; behold, they are written in the Laments. (2 Chronicles 35:20-25)

Neco had gathered his forces to assist the Assyrians against the Babylonians and it seems that Josiah was trying to curry favor from the Babylonians by taking out Neco for them. This ended in utter disaster for him and at his funeral the prophet Jeremiah utters a lament for him.

Josiah is replaced by Jehoahaz (23:30) but Neco comes and places him in chains and forces Judah to pay tribute to Egypt. (23:33) Jehoahaz is taken to Egypt where he dies and Eliakim is put in the throne of Jerusalem. (23:34) Neco changes Eliakhim’s name to Jehoiakim and Jehoiakim becomes a loyal vassal of Neco. (23:35) Like so many before him, Jehoiakim is a wicked ruler but his reign would not last forever. (23:36-37)

Enter Nebuchadnezzar

In 605 BCE a new king came to power in Babylon following the death of Nabopolassar. He took the name of another famous Babylonian ruler: Nebuchadnezzar. The vacuum left by the fall of the Assyrians in 612 BCE meant that the region was ripe for conquerors. In the north, the Medes, allies of the Babylonians, had managed to take control. In the south, Egypt tried to take control areas to its north and east but they were stopped by Nebuchadnezzar, “the greatest king of his time, perhaps of any time until his own,” and it is under his reign that “an Indian summer of grandeur and a last Babylonian empire, which more than any other captured the imagination of posterity” emerged. (Roberts, 117) And in the final years of the tiny kingdom of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar comes knocking.

While Jehoiakim is on the throne Nebuchadnezzar comes to the city and forces him to become his servant for three years. But then Jehoiakim decides to rebel. (24:1) This angers Yahweh who had already decided that Judah’s days were numbered thanks to Manasseh (23:26-27) and so he sends in “bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites” to destroy Judah. (24:2) Whereas the Deuteronomic Historian in 2 Kings only says that Jehoiakim died after the armies of Judah’s enemies had come in to the land, the Chronicler writes that Nebuchadnezzar “bound him in chains to take him to Babylon.” (2 Chronicles 36:6) Furthermore, the Babylonian king had taken with him “part of the vessels of the house of the LORD to Babylon and put them in his palace in Babylon.” (36:7)

Jehoiakim is replaced by the eighteen-year old Jehoiachin who ends up only reigning three months in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 24:8) In the spring of his reign (2 Chronicles 36:19) Nebuchadnezzar comes to Jersualem again and lays siege to it. (2 Kings 24:10-11) Jehoiachin gives himself up and he is taken prisoner and lives out the rest of his days in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar apparently takes more from Yahweh’s temple and the royal treasury. [5] He also takes 10,000 captives which include officials, soldiers, craftsmen, and blacksmiths. (24:12-16) In Jehoiachin’s stead, Nebuchadnezzar places Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, on the throne and changes his name to Zedekiah. (24:17)

Zedekiah’s reign in Jerusalem lasts eleven years. (24:18) But like Jehoiakim, hecontinues to do evil against Yahweh and then he rebels against the king of Babylon. (24:19-20) This is it for the kingdom of Judah, the city of Jerusalem, and most importantly, the temple of Yahweh.

The Fall of Judah

In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar brings his military to the gates of Jerusalem and lays siege to it. This happens in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign and it lasts until the eleventh year of his reign. (25:1-2) Cut off from the outside world, the city begins to starve. (25:3) Then an opening is created in the wall of Jerusalem and “all the men of war” escape by it. With them is Zedekiah and his sons who are soon captured by the Babylonian army. They bring Zedekiah to the king of Babylon who is camped at Riblah. Nebuchadnezzar removes Zedekiah’s eyes, kills his children, and takes the vanquished king to Babylon with him. (25:4-7)

The Babylonian military storms the city. The temple of Yahweh is destroyed as are the great houses of the city. The wall that had surrounded Jerusalem is broken down and the inhabitants are taken into captivity. The temple is also looted (presumably before it is destroyed) and they take everything. Well, everything that was left to take. The temple leadership, commanding officers of the Jewish army, and various others are then brought before Nebuchadnezzar and executed. “So Judah was taken into exile out of its land.” (25:18-21)

For those that remained in the land of Judah, their king would now be a foreigner. But some still would not bow the knee. Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah, a Judean, to govern Judah for Babylon. This was seen as an act of betrayal and soon some patriotic young men pledged lip-service to Babylon but then a few months later assassinated Gedaliah and killed a few more Babylonians and Jews who were loyal to the new king. They then fled to Egypt, away from Babylon. (25:22-26)

The Deuteronomic history ends with the release of Jehoiachin by Evil-merodach, son of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned from 562-560 BCE. Apparently, Jehoiachin removes his prison apparel, puts on more royal attire, and is given a regular audience with the king during dinner. He is also given an allowance to cover his daily needs. (25:27-30) The Chronicler ends his version with a proclamation by the Persian king Cyrus who declares that Yahweh has commissioned him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and to the Jews return to the land. (2 Chronicles 36:22-23) The books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the details of that era.

Jeremiah the Prophet

As we have already seen, throughout this time period various prophets had been working in Israel and Judah. During the Assyrian control of the region the prophets Amos and Hosea worked in Israel while Isaiah and Micah worked in Judah. During the Neo-Babylonian era, the prophets Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel were at work. These prophets brought Yahweh’s message to leadership and the people in times of great distress. Sometimes their message was doom and gloom. Sometimes it was of a future hope. Always their call was to true worship of Yahweh.

You may remember that after Josiah is killed in battle and his body is returned to Jerusalem, the city mourns. At his funeral, one prophet in particular stands up and offers a lament – Jeremiah. According to the book that bears his name, Jeremiah was a priest in the town of Anathoth, a small village in the land of Benjamin. (Jeremiah 1:1) It was during the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 BCE) that “the word of the LORD came” to him and it did again during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah. In fact, Jeremiah prophesied all the way up to the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE itself. (1:2-3)

The book of Jeremiah, though not entirely original to him, reflects Jeremiah’s message and attitude toward the historical context Judah found itself in during the 6th and 7th centuries BCE. It is the longest of the prophetic books in both its number of words and number of verses. It is also one of the most difficult of the prophetic books to read for a number of reasons.

The modern reader of the Book of Jeremiah is faced at the outset with a difficult task. What has survived is not a book, in the normal sense of that word; it does not move from beginning to end, following a clear logic and inner development. Indeed, the major portion of the substance of this “book” was never designed for the literary context in which it has survived; the stuff of which Jeremiah’s book is constructed started life in various contexts, ranging from public proclamation to private diary. What we are dealing with, then, in reading the Book of Jeremiah, is a work that is essentially an anthology, or more precisely an anthology of anthologies. (Craigies, Kelley, and Drinkard, 1991, xxxi-xxxii)

This anthology was likely completed sometime after Jeremiah’s death and there are a number of signs that indicate that a redactor put together what we have now. Of course, in saying that I am implying that there is a single text of Jeremiah. In truth, there isn’t.

One other problem clouds the issue of composition even more: the Hebrew and Greek texts of the book differ significantly. The LXX text is one-seventh shorter than the MT [Masoretic Text] and also has the oracles against the nations in the middle (between 25:13 and 15) rather than at the end (chs. 46-51). Evidence from Qumran suggests that LXX was translated from a short Hebrew original different from that behind MT. Given how greatly LXX and MT diverge, the final book may once have existed in more than one form, or both MT and LXX may ultimately derive from a common Hebrew original. (Lasor, et. al., 1996, 340-341)

Both the tradition behind the LXX and the MT are attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, “indicating that the book of Jeremiah had a fluid editorial history.” (Hutton, 2010, 1058) [6] For the purposes of this post, we will be considering the MT’s version of Jeremiah unless otherwise noted.

Within the book of Jeremiah there are three major cycles of oracles and traditions. (Hutton, 1058) Within each of these cycles are various literary forms, typically designated by the letters A, B, and C. Oracles in the form of poetry make up form A; prose narratives, usually about Jeremiah, make up form B; and speeches and discourses in prose form make up form C. (Craigies, et.al, xxxii) The cycles themselves, however, are not written along chronological or theological lines. In fact, an analysis of Jeremiah reveals “no clear principle or development in the book.” (Anderson, 1998, 351) This makes interpreting the book a bit difficult. [7]

Before we move to take on Thomason’s specific claim concerning God’s “promise” that appears in the book of Jeremiah, let’s briefly examine the three cycles. For the details of each cycle, I’ll be borrowing from Paul House’s outline of Jeremiah that appears in the ESV Study Bible (2008, 1367-1368).

Cycle One: Jeremiah 1-25

Cycle One of Jeremiah covers a lot of ground. It begins with an introduction (1:1-19) that covers the historical setting for Jeremiah’s ministry as well as his call by Yahweh. Following this there is a diatribe by Yahweh on Israel’s covenantal unfaithfulness (2:1-6:30), including portends of disaster and what will happen if Judah does not repent of its sin. The book then moves onto the topic of false religion and idolatry. (7:1-10:25) Judah has rejected God’s law and for it they will go into exile. Next is a description of Jeremiah’s own struggles with both Yahweh and Judah. (11:1-20:18) He faces opposition by some in leadership and the people. He also feels that God has betrayed him. Finally, we see Jeremiah confronting kings, false prophets, and the people of Judah. (21:1-25:38)

Cycle Two: Jeremiah 26-45

Cycle Two begins with Jeremiah opposing false belief (26:1-29:32), and he himself is threatened with execution for delivering a doom and gloom message. He is, of course, spared. The book then goes on to promises of a restoration for Israel and Judah. (30:1-33:26) Yahweh will honor the covenant he made with David. Next we see God judging Judah. (34:1-45:5) Because of Judah’s rejection of Yahweh and his law, Yahweh will destroy them by means of the Babylonians.

Cycle Three: Jeremiah 46-51

The final cycle features a series of oracles against various nations that surround Judah (46:1-51:64) including Egypt, Philistia, Moab, and Babylon.

Jeremiah 52

The last chapter of the book of Jeremiah is a description of the fall of Jerusalem that is practically verbatim from 2 Kings 24:18-25:7.

Judgment on Babylon

We now have some background about the book to deal with the text that Thomason brings up when she writes about God’s “promise” as it pertains to the fate of Babylon. In her post she quoted from Jeremiah 51:42 and 50:13, 39. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophetic utterances against Babylon appear in chapters fifty and fifty-one and I will offer a brief analysis of the two chapters. I will be borrowing the schematic for Jeremiah 50-51 from Keown, et. al (1995, 361-362).

Jeremiah 50:1-3

The introduction to the oracle against Babylon begins with these words.

The word that the LORD spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by Jeremiah the prophet:

“Declare among the nations and proclaim,
set up a banner and proclaim,
conceal it not, and say:
‘Babylon is taken,
Bel is put to shame,
Merodach is dismayed.
Her images are put to shame,
her idols are dismayed.

The oracle against Babylon is similar to the oracles against the other nations. The beginning of the oracles in 46:1 reads, “The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the nations.” There are eight oracles total and they all contain some version of what we see in 50:1 whether it is “the word of the LORD that came to,” “concerning” a particular nation or land, or “the word that the LORD spoke.” Here there is the use of a “by Jeremiah the prophet,” a unique phrase that is not characteristic of the section.

The lengthy oracle begins with a declaration concerning the fall of Babylon and it couches it in terms related to her gods. The city has been captured but it is the city’s gods who are truly demoralized: “Bel is put to shame, Merodach is dismayed.” Robert Carroll notes that

the defeat of Babylon is the defeat of the god and the triumph of Yahweh – a logic not used in the tradition with reference to Jerusalem’s defeat in 587 but mooted in lament psalms (e.g. 44.23-26; 74.18-23; 79; 89.38-48) within the constraints of the chauvinistic theology of the national cult. (Carroll, 1986, 819)

Marduk (“Merodach,” ESV) was the supreme deity of the Babylonian pantheon though it had not always been that way. Marduk, though known to be a deity, was only considered a minor god at the beginning of the third millennium BCE. (Hamilton, 1984, 525) But it was during the reign of  Nebuchadrezzar that his position amongst that pantheon was that of supreme god.

The glory of the [Babylonian] empire came to a focus in the cult of Marduk, which was now at its zenith. At a great New Year festival held each year all the Mesopotamian gods – the idols and statues of provincial shrines – came down the rivers and canals to take counsel with Marduk at his temple and acknowledge his supremacy. Borne down a processional way three-quarters of a mile long (which was, we are told, probably the most magnificent street of antiquity) or landed from the Euphrates nearer to the temple, they were taken into the presence of a statue of the god which, Herodotus reported two centuries later, was made of two and a quarter tons of gold. No doubt he exaggerated, but it was indisputably magnificent. The destinies of the whole world, whose centre was this temple, were then debated by the gods and determined for another year. Thus theology reflected political reality. The re-enacting of the drama of creation was the endorsement of Marduk’s eternal authority, and this was an endorsement of the absolute monarchy of Babylon. The kind had the responsibility for assuring the order of the world and therefore the authority to do so. (Roberts, 118) [8]

At that festival, called Akitu, the statues of Marduk and his wife Sarpanitu were brought together and made to simulate sex acts, the purpose of which was to guarantee that the crop yield for the next year would be great as the land would be fertile. (Hamilton, 526)

Here in Jeremiah the great god Marduk, with the title “Bel,” is struck down from his lofty place. Babylon’s “images are put to shame, her idols are dismayed.” But how? What has happened? Through the prophet Yahweh says that “out of the north a nation has come against her, which shall make her land a desolation, and none shall dwell in it; both man and beast shall flee away.” Previously, the nation from the north referred to Babylon (Jeremiah 1:14, 6:1, etc.) and was used to describe the impending doom of Judah because of her sins. Here the term is used back on Babylon to describe her declared demise. This enemy, Yahweh declares, will turn the land of Babylon into “a desolation” (לְשַׁמָּה) such that “none shall dwell in it” and “both man and beast shall flee away” from it.

Jeremiah 50:4-20

Yahweh through his prophetic mouthpiece continues.

“In those days and in that time, declares the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant that will never be forgotten.’

“My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, ‘We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the LORD, their habitation of righteousness, the LORD, the hope of their fathers.’

“Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as male goats before the flock.For behold, I am stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country. And they shall array themselves against her. From there she shall be taken. Their arrows are like a skilled warrior who does not return empty-handed. Chaldea shall be plundered; all who plunder her shall be sated, declares the LORD.

“Though you rejoice, though you exult,
O plunderers of my heritage,
though you frolic like a heifer in the pasture,
and neigh like stallions,
your mother shall be utterly shamed,
and she who bore you shall be disgraced.
Behold, she shall be the last of the nations,
a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert.
Because of the wrath of the LORD she shall not be inhabited
but shall be an utter desolation;
everyone who passes by Babylon shall be appalled,
and hiss because of all her wounds.
Set yourselves in array against Babylon all around,
all you who bend the bow;
shoot at her, spare no arrows,
for she has sinned against the LORD.
Raise a shout against her all around;
she has surrendered;
her bulwarks have fallen;
her walls are thrown down.
For this is the vengeance of the LORD:
take vengeance on her;
do to her as she has done.
Cut off from Babylon the sower,
and the one who handles the sickle in time of harvest;
because of the sword of the oppressor,
every one shall turn to his own people,
and every one shall flee to his own land.

“Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones. Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing punishment on the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria. I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead. In those days and in that time, declares the LORD, iniquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none, and sin in Judah, and none shall be found, for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant.

The vision cast in 50:4-5 is one of total restoration of the nation of Israel. Both “the people of Israel” and “the people of Judah” will come together to “seek the LORD their God.” They will enter into a covenant with him, one that is “everlasting” and “that will never be forgotten.” Babylon’s demise is Israel’s restoration.

50:6-7 recounts why destruction came upon Israel and Judah: “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray.” The wickedness of the kings of Israel is legendary and the final kings of Judah were an assortment of bad apples. These leaders failed Israel and Judah causing their enemies to destroy them. But judgment is coming upon these enemies of Israel though they try to excuse their destruction of Yahweh’s heritage: “We are not guilty, for they [Israel and Judah] have sinned against the LORD, their habitation of righteousness, the LORD, the hope of their fathers.” (50:7) Yahweh tells the people to “flee from the midst of Babylon” because he is “stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country.” (50:8-9) Chaldea, Yahweh declares, will be plundered. (50:10)

What follows in 50:11-16 is a poem describing why Babylon must fall. “The plunderers” of Yahweh’s “heritage” will see their “mother…utterly shamed” and “disgraced.” (50:11-12) Mothers are life-bringers but Babylon will “be the last of the nations, a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert.” (50:12) Furthermore, “because of the wrath of the LORD she shall not be inhabited but shall be an utter desolation; everyone who passes by Babylon shall be appalled, and hiss because of all her wounds.” (50:13; cf. 50:3) Again we see the declaration by Yahweh that Babylon will become “an utter desolation [שְׁמָמָה].”

The demise of Babylon will come from those “who bend the bow,” who will lay siege against the great city. Because Babylon has sinned against Yahweh, the coming foe is to “spare no arrows.” (50:14) Her walls will be destroyed (50:15) and her captives will flee. (50:16)

Next Yahweh recounts the history of Israel and Judah’s demise. Israel is described as a “hunted sheep” who was “driven away by lions.” The first of those lions was the king of Assyria who came up against Israel and ended the kingdom in 722 BCE. Then came Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who “gnawed his bones.” (50:17) So Yahweh, “the God of Israel,” will do to Babylon what he did to Assyria and end their empires. (50:18) He will restore Israel to the land (50:19) and sin will be no more. (50:20)

It cannot go unnoticed that Yahweh has chosen an enemy of Babylon to punish them for destroying Judah just as he used Babylon to punish Israel for their sins. The lion who gnawed on Israel’s bones is the lion who is the manifestation of Yahweh’s “fierce anger.” (4:7, 8) Jeremiah views Babylon as Yahweh’s instrument of destruction against Judah “because she has rebelled against me.” (4:17) Though Nebuchadnezzar is the one who destroys Jerusalem, for Jeremiah it is Yahweh who performs it:

“Be warned, O Jerusalem,
lest I turn from you in disgust,
lest I make you a desolation [שְׁמָמָה],
an unihabited land.”
(6:8)

Now, it seems, Yahweh has changed his mind. Babylon, the tool he used to destroy Judah for her sins, has sinned by destroying Judah and for that she must be punished.

Jeremiah 50:21-32

The diatribe against Babylon continues.

“Go up against the land of Merathaim,
and against the inhabitants of Pekod.
Kill, and devote them to destruction,
declares the LORD,
and do all that I have commanded you.
The noise of battle is in the land,
and great destruction!
How the hammer of the whole earth
is cut down and broken!
How Babylon has become
a horror among the nations!
I set a snare for you and you were taken, O Babylon,
and you did not know it;
you were found and caught,
because you opposed the LORD.
The LORD has opened his armory
and brought out the weapons of his wrath,
for the Lord GOD of hosts has a work to do
in the land of the Chaldeans.
Come against her from every quarter;
open her granaries;
pile her up like heaps of grain, and devote her to destruction;
let nothing be left of her.
Kill all her bulls;
let them go down to the slaughter.
Woe to them, for their day has come,
the time of their punishment.

“A voice! They flee and escape from the land of Babylon, to declare in Zion the vengeance of the LORD our God, vengeance for his temple.

“Summon archers against Babylon, all those who bend the bow. Encamp around her; let no one escape. Repay her according to her deeds; do to her according to all that she has done. For she has proudly defied the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. Therefore her young men shall fall in her squares, and all her soldiers shall be destroyed on that day, declares the LORD.

“Behold, I am against you, O proud one,
declares the Lord GOD of hosts,
for your day has come,
the time when I will punish you.
The proud one shall stumble and fall,
with none to raise him up,
and I will kindle a fire in his cities,
and it will devour all that is around him.

War has come to Babylon and the enemies of the empire are called to go to “the land of Merathaim” and go up against “the inhabitants of Pekod.” Both places are plays on Babylonian concepts. “Merathaim” means “double rebellion” but may also be a play on an area of the southern Babylonian empire known as mat marrati, a swampy area. Pekod also is a play on a Hebrew term implying punishment and may refer to the Puqudu tribe of eastern Babylonia. (Graybill, 1990, 691)

Regardless of where these localities may have been or what they mean, the message against them is clear. “Kill, and devote them to destruction [וְהַחֲרֵם אַחֲרֵיהֶם].” (50:21) Using language from the conquest of Canaan recorded in the Deuteronomic histories, Yahweh orders Babylon’s enemies to offer up the inhabitants of Babylon as things devoted to him. Leon Wood notes that devoting something to God meant “the exclusion of an object from the use or abuse of man and its irrevocable surrender to God.” (Wood, 1980, 324)  In holy war, the enemies of Israel were dedicated to God in a “religious act” which “removes them from human use and assigns them to destruction.” (Brekelmans, 1997, 475) In other words, Yahweh would determine how the devoted thing would be used as he saw fit and here in 50:21 he wants them to be killed. [9] 

“The noise of battle is in the land,” Yahweh declares, “and great destruction!” (50:22) Whereas Babylon was once his “hammer and weapon of war” by which he broke “nations in pieces” (51:20), now that hammer “is cut down and broken.” The instrument of Yahweh has been broken by Yahweh himself. “As a result, Babylon becomes “a horror [לְשַׁמָּה] among the nations.” (50:23) Yahweh set a trap for Babylon and she was caught in it “because [she] opposed the LORD.” (50:24)

Next, Yahweh says that he opened his armory and “brought out the weapons of his wrath” (cf. Isaiah 13:5) for he “has a work to do in the land of the Chaldeans.” (50:25) The war is Yahweh’s doing and the theme in this poem (50:21-27) is that above all else Yahweh is in control of the fates of the nations. Not even proud Babylon (50:31) can oppose Yahweh without facing his just wrath. He will cause Babylon’s enemies to “open her granaries” and “devote her to destruction.” (50:26, cf. 50:21) They are to “kill all her bulls,” either a literal reference to the cattle of the land or to the soldiers with which she fights against her enemies. (Kleown, et. al., 367) “The time of their punishment” has come. (50:27)

The Jewish captives flee from Babylon and head to Jerusalem where they “declare…the vengeance of the LORD our God, vengeance for his temple.” (50:28) Here we see the singling out of Babylon’s primary crime: the destruction of Yahweh’s temple. Though later her crimes are more general, through the voice of the prophet Yahweh declares that the destruction of Babylon is retribution for the destruction of the temple. This is her sin.

We see in 50:29-30 another call to arms, similar to 50:14. The archers are to “encamp around “the city and “let no one escape.” This is so that Yahweh can “repay her according to her deeds” and “do to her according to all that she has done. For she has proudly defied the LORD, the Holy One of Israel.” (50:29) Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and Yahweh’s temple. So too shall Babylon be destroyed and her gods cast down (cf. 50:2).

The poem of 50:31-32 is directed not at Babylon per se but at Nebuchadnezzar. He is addressed as, “O proud one.” [10] His time of punishment has come and he will “stumble and fall.” Yahweh will “kindle a fire in his cities, and it will devour all that is around him.” The king’s days are numbered and his end is near.

Jeremiah 50:33-46

The oracle against Babylon continues.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: The people of Israel are oppressed, and the people of Judah with them. All who took them captive have held them fast; they refuse to let them go. Their Redeemer is strong; the LORD of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.

“A sword against the Chaldeans, declares the LORD,
and against the inhabitants of Babylon,
and against her officials and her wise men!
A sword against the diviners,
that they may become fools!
A sword against her warriors,
that they may be destroyed!
A sword against her horses and against her chariots,
and against all the foreign troops in her midst,
that they may become women!
A sword against all her treasures,
that they may be plundered!
A drought against her waters,
that they may be dried up!
For it is a land of images,
and they are mad over idols.

“Therefore wild beasts shall dwell with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall dwell in her. She shall never again have people, nor be inhabited for all generations. As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring cities, declares the LORD, so no man shall dwell there, and no son of man shall sojourn in her.

“Behold, a people comes from the north;
a mighty nation and many kings
are stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
They lay hold of bow and spear;
they are cruel and have no mercy.
The sound of them is like the roaring of the sea;
they ride on horses,
arrayed as a man for battle
against you, O daughter of Babylon!

“The king of Babylon heard the report of them,
and his hands fell helpless;
anguish seized him,
pain as of a woman in labor.

“Behold, like a lion coming up from the thicket of the Jordan against a perennial pasture, I will suddenly make them run away from her, and I will appoint over her whomever I choose. For who is like me? Who will summon me? What shepherd can stand before me? Therefore hear the plan that the LORD has made against Babylon, and the purposes that he has formed against the land of the Chaldeans: Surely the little ones of their flock shall be dragged away; surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate. At the sound of the capture of Babylon the earth shall tremble, and her cry shall be heard among the nations.”

50:33-34 is Yahweh’s description of and plan of rescue from the clutches of Babylon. His people are oppressed and their captors “refuse to let them go.” (50:33) But Israel’s Redeemer, the LORD of hosts, “will surely plead their cause” with the purpose of giving “rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (50:34) This portion of the oracle recalls Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. Yahweh was their Redeemer then too. (Exodus 6:6, 15:13) This “unrest” comes in the form of what is described in the poem of 50:35-38. There Yahweh declares “a sword against” the Chaldeans, the inhabitants of Babylon, the officials and wise men, the diviners, the warriors, the horses and chariots, and the treasures of Babylon.” (50:35-37) Yahweh also declares “a drought against her waters, that they may be dried up.” Why? Because Babylon is “a land of images” and the people there “are mad over idols.” This is, at its heart, a call to total destruction. All areas of Babylon will feel the wrath of Yahweh. (Keown, et. al, 368)

The resulting destruction causes Babylon to become uninhabited where only hyenas and ostriches live. (50:39, cf. 50:3, 13) The only apt comparison for the destruction Yahweh will bring to the city is that of Sodom and Gomorrah which were destroyed when Yahweh “rained…sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven” (Genesis 19:23). The destruction is so total that “no man shall dwell” in Babylon and “no son of man shall sojourn in her.” (50:40)

50:41-43 are a poem which bear similarities with 50:3. A people will come from “the north” which is a “mighty nation” that has been stirred up and whose “many kings” come with it. These kings “are cruel and have no mercy” and have come to take the city. (50:41-42) Nebuchadnezzar has heard of them and “his hands fell helpless, anguished seized him” and he felt “pain as of a woman in labor.” (50:43) All this is a reversal of what Yahweh had spoken by the prophet in 6:22-24. Note the parallels.

Thus says the LORD:
Behold a people is coming from the north country,
a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
They lay hold on bow and javelin;
they are cruel and have no mercy;
the sound of them is like the roaring sea;
they ride on horses,
set in array as a man for battle,
against you, O daughter of Zion!”
We have heard the report of it;
our hands fall helpless;
anguish has taken hold of us,
pain as of a woman in labor.”

Just as Babylon was cruel and without mercy against Judah, so too this people from the north will be with Babylon. This is Yahweh’s retribution for Babylon’s sins against him.

What follows in 50:44-46 is Yahweh’s boasting about how powerful he is. It also parallels the oracle against Edom in 49:19-21. “Who is like me?” Yahweh asks. “What shepherd can stand before me?” (50:44) Thus, Yahweh’s plan against Babylon will surely be fulfilled and “at the sound of the capture of Babylon the earth shall tremble, and her cry shall be heard among the nations.” (50:46)

Jeremiah 51:1-33

Yahweh continues.

Thus says the LORD:
“Behold, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer
against Babylon,
against the inhabitants of Leb-kamai,
and I will send to Babylon winnowers,
and they shall winnow her,
and they shall empty her land,
when they come against her from every side
on the day of trouble.
Let not the archer bend his bow,
and let him not stand up in his armor.
Spare not her young men;
devote to destruction all her army.
They shall fall down slain in the land of the Chaldeans,
and wounded in her streets.
For Israel and Judah have not been forsaken
by their God, the LORD of hosts,
but the land of the Chaldeans is full of guilt
against the Holy One of Israel.

“Flee from the midst of Babylon;
let every one save his life!
Be not cut off in her punishment,
for this is the time of the LORD’s vengeance,
the repayment he is rendering her.
Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand,
making all the earth drunken;
the nations drank of her wine;
therefore the nations went mad.
Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken;
wail for her!
Take balm for her pain;
perhaps she may be healed.
We would have healed Babylon,
but she was not healed.
Forsake her, and let us go
each to his own country,
for her judgment has reached up to heaven
and has been lifted up even to the skies.
The LORD has brought about our vindication;
come, let us declare in Zion
the work of the LORD our God.

“Sharpen the arrows!
Take up the shields!

The LORD has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance for his temple.

“Set up a standard against the walls of Babylon;
make the watch strong;
set up watchmen;
prepare the ambushes;
for the LORD has both planned and done
what he spoke concerning the inhabitants of Babylon.
O you who dwell by many waters,
rich in treasures,
your end has come;
the thread of your life is cut.
The LORD of hosts has sworn by himself:
Surely I will fill you with men, as many as locusts,
and they shall raise the shout of victory over you.

“It is he who made the earth by his power,
who established the world by his wisdom,
and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.
When he utters his voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens,
and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth.
He makes lightning for the rain,
and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
Every man is stupid and without knowledge;
every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols,
for his images are false,
and there is no breath in them.
They are worthless, a work of delusion;
at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
Not like these is he who is the portion of Jacob,
for he is the one who formed all things,
and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance;
the LORD of hosts is his name.

“You are my hammer and weapon of war:
with you I break nations in pieces;
with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I break in pieces the horse and his rider;
with you I break in pieces the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I break in pieces man and woman;
with you I break in pieces the old man and the youth;
with you I break in pieces the young man and the young woman;
with you I break in pieces the shepherd and his flock;
with you I break in pieces the farmer and his team;
with you I break in pieces governors and commanders.

“I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the LORD.

“Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain,
declares the LORD,
which destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
and roll you down from the crags,
and make you a burnt mountain.
No stone shall be taken from you for a corner
and no stone for a foundation,
but you shall be a perpetual waste,
declares the LORD.

“Set up a standard on the earth;
blow the trumpet among the nations;
prepare the nations for war against her;
summon against her the kingdoms,
Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz;
appoint a marshal against her;
bring up horses like bristling locusts.
Prepare the nations for war against her,
the kings of the Medes, with their governors and deputies,
and every land under their dominion.
The land trembles and writhes in pain,
for the LORD’s purposes against Babylon stand,
to make the land of Babylon a desolation,
without inhabitant.
The warriors of Babylon have ceased fighting;
they remain in their strongholds;
their strength has failed;
they have become women;
her dwellings are on fire;
her bars are broken.
One runner runs to meet another,
and one messenger to meet another,
to tell the king of Babylon
that his city is taken on every side;
the fords have been seized,
the marshes are burned with fire,
and the soldiers are in panic.
For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:
The daughter of Babylon is like a threshing floor
at the time when it is trodden;
yet a little while
and the time of her harvest will come.”

51:1-33 is made up of six units: 51:1-2, 51:3-5, 51:6-10, 51:11-19, 51:20-26, and 51:27-33. The opening verses, 51:1-2, continue the oracle from Yahweh. He declares that he will “stir up the spirit of a destroyer against Babylon, against the inhabitants of Leb-kamai.” (51:1) “Leb-kamai” is a cipher for “Chaldea.” (Graybill, 692) The reason for ciphers in Jeremiah is not readily apparent, though Carroll suggests that it is intended to make the “spells” against Babylon “incapable of being counteracted.” (Carroll, 842) Whatever the reason, the point of this opening section is to show that Yahweh will utterly ruin Babylon. He will send to Babylon “winnowers” that will empty the land. (51:2)

51:3 contains a curious statement. Whereas before the archers were to “encamp around” Babylon to “repay her according to her deeds” (50:29), here the archers are told to stand down. Why? The likely explanation is that the archers here are Babylonian whereas in 50:29 they were Babylon’s foes. The sense in 51:3 may be that any attempt to resist the attack from Babylon’s foes by Babylon’s military is futile so they should just stand down. Yahweh commands that the enemy “spare not her young men” and to “devote to destruction all her army.” (51:3, cf. 50:26) Babylon’s military defeat is grounded in the faithfulness of Yahweh and his committment to punish Chaldea for her sins. (50:5)

The next five verses are addressed to the inhabitants of Babylon. They are told to flee lest they too are “cut off in her punishment” which is “the time of the LORD’s vengeance.” (51:6) Babylon had once been Yahweh’s golden cup (cf. 25:15-29) that he had used to make the nations mad. (51:7) But now, Babylon is broken and cannot be healed. (51:8-9) Yahweh has “brought about our vindication” and redeemed Israel will “declare in Zion the work of the LORD our God.” (51:10)

To the “kings of the Medes” Yahweh commands, “Sharpen the arrows! Take up the shields!” Why? Because as we saw in 50:28, Yahweh will have his vengeance for his temple. (51:11) The Medes are to lay siege to the city for Babylon’s “end has come” as “the LORD has both planned and done.” (51:12-13) The city’s demise is a certainty for “the LORD of hosts has sworn by himself.” (51:14) 51:15-19 describes Yahweh’s immense power: he created the world (51:15), he creates a tumult of waters in the heavens (51:16), he is immeasurably more intelligent than stupid men and more powerful than false gods (51:17-18), and he is the one who has formed all things, he whose inheritance is Israel. (51:19)

At one time, Babylon had been Yahweh’s “hammer” (50:23) but now the Medes will be Yahweh’s instrument of destruction, a destruction that is total. (51:20-23) The Medes will “repay Babylon…for all the evil that they have done in Zion.” (51:24) Though Babylon was once a “destroying mountain,” now it will be a “burnt mountain” and “a perpetual waste.” (51:25-26)

51:27-33 describes the attack on Babylon itself. Yahweh reiterates that his purpose is “to make the land of Babylon a desolation, without inhabitant.” (51:29) The defeated warriors of Babylon retreat into the city and “have become like women,” frightened. (51:30) Runners are sent to the king of Babylon to tell him that the city has been taken and there is nothing he can do: “the marshes are burned with fire, and the soldiers are in panic.” (51:31-32) There is no hope for Babylon – “yet a little while and the time of her harvest will come.” (51:33)

Jeremiah 51:34-44

The oracle continues.

“Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me;
he has crushed me;
he has made me an empty vessel;
he has swallowed me like a monster;
he has filled his stomach with my delicacies;
he has rinsed me out.
The violence done to me and to my kinsmen be upon Babylon,”
let the inhabitant of Zion say.
“My blood be upon the inhabitants of Chaldea,”
let Jerusalem say.
Therefore thus says the LORD:
“Behold, I will plead your cause
and take vengeance for you.
I will dry up her sea
and make her fountain dry,
and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins,
the haunt of jackals,
a horror and a hissing,
without inhabitant.

“They shall roar together like lions;
they shall growl like lions’ cubs.
While they are inflamed I will prepare them a feast
and make them drunk, that they may become merry,
then sleep a perpetual sleep
and not wake, declares the LORD.
I will bring them down like lambs to the slaughter,
like rams and male goats.

“How Babylon is taken,
the praise of the whole earth seized!
How Babylon has become
a horror among the nations!
The sea has come up on Babylon;
she is covered with its tumultuous waves.
Her cities have become a horror,
a land of drought and a desert,
a land in which no one dwells,
and through which no son of man passes.
And I will punish Bel in Babylon,
and take out of his mouth what he has swallowed.
The nations shall no longer flow to him;
the wall of Babylon has fallen.

51:34-35 are the words that Jerusalem will say about Nebuchadnezzar. He had “devoured” and “crushed” Jerusalem and made the city “an empty vessel.” He had “swallowed” the city up “like a monster [כַּתַּנִּין]” and “filled his stomach” with its delicacies, and then “rinsed” the city out. (50:34) This rapaciousness will not be overlooked. Yahweh will plead Zion’s case and will take vengeance on Babylon. It will “become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing, without inhabitant.” (51:36-37, cf. 50:13, 23)

The lion Babylon may roar and growl but Yahweh will “make them drunk, that they may become merry, then sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake.” (51:38-39) Instead of mighty lions, they will be killed like sheep. (51:40) The mighty city of Babylon will be taken and become “a horror among the nations.” (51:41) Her foes, like the raging waters of the sea, will “come up on Babylon” (51:42) causing her cities to “become a horror, a land of drought and desert, and land in which no one dwells, and through which no son of man passes.” (51:42-43; cf. 50:40) Bel – the supreme Babylonian deity Marduk – will be punished and “the nations shall no longer flow to him” as they did at the New Year’s feast. Babylon’s wall has fallen. (51:44)

Jeremiah 51:45-53

The oracle continues.

“Go out of the midst of her, my people!
Let every one save his life
from the fierce anger of the LORD!
Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful
at the report heard in the land,
when a report comes in one year
and afterward a report in another year,
and violence is in the land,
and ruler is against ruler.

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming
when I will punish the images of Babylon;
her whole land shall be put to shame,
and all her slain shall fall in the midst of her.
Then the heavens and the earth,
and all that is in them,
shall sing for joy over Babylon,
for the destroyers shall come against them out of the north,
declares the LORD.
Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel,
just as for Babylon have fallen the slain of all the earth.

“You who have escaped from the sword,
go, do not stand still!
Remember the LORD from far away,
and let Jerusalem come into your mind:
‘We are put to shame, for we have heard reproach;
dishonor has covered our face,
for foreigners have come
into the holy places of the LORD’s house.’

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD,
when I will execute judgment upon her images,
and through all her land
the wounded shall groan.
Though Babylon should mount up to heaven,
and though she should fortify her strong height,
yet destroyers would come from me against her,
declares the LORD.

Yahweh tells his people to leave Babylon to escape the coming wrath that he will bring upon the city. (51:45) For Yahweh is going to punish Babylon for her idolatry and “the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, shall sing for joy over Babylon.” (51:47-48) The city, Yahweh declares, must be destroyed because of Israel’s slain. (51:49)

Those who have escaped Babylon are called on by Yahweh to remember him and to “let Jerusalem come into your mind.” (51:50) Though they have been put to shame and the temple had been ravished by foreigners, Yahweh will “execute judgment upon [Babylon’s] images” and he will send destroyers to the city despite her strong and high fortifications. (51:51-53)

Jeremiah 51:54-58

At the end of the oracle, Yahweh offers some final thoughts.

“A voice! A cry from Babylon!
The noise of great destruction from the land of the Chaldeans!
For the LORD is laying Babylon waste
and stilling her mighty voice.
Their waves roar like many waters;
the noise of their voice is raised,
for a destroyer has come upon her,
upon Babylon;
her warriors are taken;
their bows are broken in pieces,
for the LORD is a God of recompense;
he will surely repay.
I will make drunk her officials and her wise men,
her governors, her commanders, and her warriors;
they shall sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake,
declares the King, whose name is the LORD of hosts.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
shall be burned with fire.
The peoples labor for nothing,
and the nations weary themselves only for fire.”

To end the oracle, we see again that Yahweh is “laying Babylon waste and stilling her mighty voice.” (51:55) The destroyer, the Medes, have come and put Babylon into a state of “perpetual sleep” from which she will not awake. (51:57) Her wall “shall be leveled to the ground” and her gates “shall be burned with fire.” (51:58) The mighty city, the hammer of Yahweh, is itself hammered. Yahweh declares that Babylon’s reign over the earth will end because of her sins against him.

Summary of Jeremiah 50-51

It is quite clear from just our cursory reading of Jeremiah 50-51 that Yahweh through the prophet declared Babylon’s utter destruction. The Hebrew text employs a variety of terms and ideas to communicate Babylon’s utter ruin, some of which we have noted in the analysis above. These include the verb שָׁמֵם (“to make desolate”), a related noun שְׁמָמָה (“a desolation”), and the verb חָרַם (“devote to destruction”). We also saw specific language of war, particularly the mention of archers and swords. By all counts, it would seem that Babylon’s fall was prophesied to be total. The Medes, the instrument of Yahweh, would come to Babylon and raze the city, killing its inhabitants.  The hope of the writer of Psalm 137 that Babylon, the city “doomed to be destroyed,” would be repaid for her treatment of Jerusalem will be realized. “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 139:9)

So what happened to the city of Babylon when the Medes invaded the Babylonian empire? Were the words of Yahweh by the prophet fulfilled? Did the city become uninhabited and “an utter desolation”? (50:13) Did Babylon became “a horror among the nations”? (50:23) Was a sword put to “the inhabitants of Babylon”? (50:35) Let’s begin with looking at the end of the Neo-Babylonian period and the rise of the Persian empire.

The End of an Empire

The Neo-Babylonian period would last from 625 to 539 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign which began in 605 ends in 562 and he is succeded by Amel-Marduk (562-560), then, Neriglissar (560-556), then Labashi-Marduk (556), and finally Nabondius (556-539). Nabondius would be the Babylonian empire’s final king. To the east of Babylon a threat had been growing, one that, according to Jeremiah, was being stirred up by Yahweh himself. (50:9)

1249px-Ancient_near_east_540_bc
The Persian and Neo Babylonian Empires in 540 BCE.

By 539 CE, Persia had already consumed must of the area to the north and east of Babylon. All that stood in their way of total domination was Nabondius. So the Persian military, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, embarked on a campaign to take Babylon.

Nabondius was not your standard Babylonian king. He was not from Babylon but from Harran, a city whose patron god was Sin. Nabondius abandoned the worship of Marduk and promoted Sin to the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Consequently, the annual Atiku festival mentioned previously was, according to Persian records, abandoned. Nabondius also left Babylon for a decade, leaving his son in charge of the city in his absence. The king only returned when the Persian threat became all too real. (Podany, 121-122) The consequences of abandoning the worship of Marduk played right into Cyrus’ hands. Many were unhappy with the changes and Nabondius was condemned for exalting Sin above Marduk. When Cyrus came to Babylon, instead of being considered an invader, he was hailed as a deliverer. (Saggs, 1989, 290)

But before Cyrus could take Babylon he had to deal with the Babylonian city of Opis. The fragmentary Chronicles of Nabonidus (i.e. Nabondius) records that “in the month of Tishri [i.e. September – October]…Cyrus made an attack on Opis.” (Coogan, 2013, 83) No other details are offered about the battle but we know that Cyrus won decisively. We also don’t know who led the Babylonian forces though it likely wasn’t Nabondius.

661px-Cyrus_invasion_of_Babylonia
The invasion of Babylon by Cyrus the Great.

The next city to fall was Sippar, which according to the Chronices, was taken without any kind of fight. Babylon, one of the greatest cities of the ANE, was on the cusp of defeat.

What happens at Babylon is not entirely known. The sources that we have all differ. The Chronicles of Nabonidus claim that Babylon was taken without a fight. The Cyrus Cylinder records the same. (Coogan, 84) But Herodotus records that there was fighting just outside the city.

The following spring, however, once Cyrus had been avenged upon the Gyndes, and left the river sliced up into three hundred and sixty channels, he resumed his drive against Babylon. The Babylonians were waiting for him, in a position in advance of their city. At Cyrus’ approach, they moved to the attack, but lost the resulting engagement and were forced to retreat behind their walls. Of course, it hardly came as any great revelation to them that Cyrus was a man of restless ambition, for they had long been tracking the indiscriminate course of his aggression against other peoples far and wide; and so they had taken the precaution of stockpiling food sufficient to last them for very many years. As a result, they viewed the prospect of a siege with equanimity; and indeed, as time dragged by, and everything continued as a stalemate, it was Cyrus who found his position an increasingly precarious one. (Herodotus, 1.190)

Herodotus says that Cyrus’ tactic to get into the city was to divert the Euphrates River and once the waters had abated so that they reached only up to the thigh, they were able to enter into the city. And the city was so big that those in the center of Babylon didn’t know the city was being taken and, in Herodotus’ own words, once they did get the message “it was very much the hard way.” (Herodotus, 1.191)

The biblical book of Daniel also describes Babylon’s fall and Persia’s takeover. (Daniel 5:13-30) According to that account, the king Belshazzar had called Daniel to come and interpret the meaning of handwriting that had mysteriously appeared on the wall in his palace. The words read “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN.” (5:25) Daniel told the king that MENE meant that God had numbered the Babylonian king’s days and that his kingdom would end. TEKEL meant that Belshazzar had been “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” And PERES (PARSIN) meant that his kingdom was divided and to be given to the Medes and Persians. (5:26-28) Daniel is rewarded by the king (5:29) but that night Belshazzar was killed and “Darius the Mede” began to rule over Babylon. (5:30-31)

None of these accounts are particularly satisfying, especially what is recorded in Daniel which we can dismiss with relative certainty as mere myth. It would be surprising if there was no resistance from the Babylonians against the Persian military. Joshua Mark, who agrees with Herodotus on how the Persians entered, notes that

[i]t was claimed the city was taken without a fight although documents of the time indicate that repairs had to be made to the walls and some sections of the city and so perhaps the action was not as effortless as the Persian account maintained.

Nevertheless, there was no widespread devastation and Cyrus was, generally, welcomed into Babylon. (Wiseman, 1993, 145)

Under the Persians Babylon continued to flourish and became a cultural center for the region. Cyrus and Persian leadership would come to the city annually to participate in the feast of Atiku, a practice that continued even after Cyrus had died. (Podany, 122) However, there were at least two revolts following Cyrus’ conquering of the city. During the reign of Darius I (522-486 BCE) various rebellions had sprung up throughout the empire, including one at Babylon. Darius marched his army to the city and was greeted with a shut gate and mockery from atop the walls. Herodotus states that after over a year of laying siege to the city, Darius was able to take it and destroyed the walls of the city and killed three thousand of “their most prominent men.” However, he did not want to see the city entirely destroyed and her population dwindle down to nothing and so he ordered that the surrounding areas send women to Babylon to make sure there was a steady population. (Herodotus, 3.159)

Another revolt broke out during the reign of Xerxes I (486-464 BCE). Unlike Cyrus who venerated Marduk, Xerxes simply did not care and melted down the statue in Babylon. (Herodotus, 1.183) This was an affront to the Babylonians and during his reign they twice revolted. However, Xerxes was able to maintain control over the city. Babylon, though defeated, continued to thrive.

Though Darius had destroyed Babylon’s walls, at some point they had been rebuilt. Robin Lane Fox observes that as Alexander the Great was marching through Asia, he came to Babylon and, upon seeing the city’s impressive walls, “drew up his army as if for battle and ordered a prudent advance, hoping to seem a liberator, not another marauding king.” But war with Babylon was unnecessary and the people welcomed him warmly, including the city’s officials who had lined the road “with flowers and garlands and lined with incense-laden altars of silver.” (Fox, 1973, 247) When Alexander the Great entered Babylon the city

was still the greatest city in the world, though Susa had long supplanted it as the capital of the empire. It was still the spiritual center, the grand old wicked city that was the cynosure of all hearts of the people of the country. For over long centuries in which it had reigned supreme as the trade center of the world and the imperial seat of power of the long long lines of her kings, Babylon had, whatever name she bore on the tongue that was speaking of her, the glamor of her storied years and her mighty being. The seventy-five-foot-high walls of sunbaked brick, thirty-two feet wide on top, that enclosed the city were ten miles in length on each side, though the whole enclosure was not completely populated. (Cummings, 1968, 235-236)

Following Alexander’s death in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in 323 BCE, the city began to experience its fall from grace. Alexander’s empire had been divided among his generals and Babylon came under the control of Seleucus. But fighting over the city led to either an exodus or, by some accounts, a deportation. In either event, with the population dwindling the city’s magnificence was no more. A brief revival of the city by the Sassanid’s only lasted to 650 CE before Muslim invaders put an end to their rule and the city became virtually uninhabited.

The Bible versus History

For anyone paying close attention, it can already be seen that there is a significant difference between what the prophet Jeremiah said would happen to Babylon and what actually happened. According to the prophet, “the vengeance of the LORD” entailed Babylon becoming “a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert,” a city that “shall not be inhabited.” (50:12, 13) But this simply did not happen. Yahweh had declared that “the LORD has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance for his temple.” (51:11) But Cyrus didn’t destroy Babylon and under his rule the city thrived. The city did not become “a perpetual waste” (Jeremiah 51:26) and her wall, though destroyed by Darius, did not remain destroyed. (Jeremiah 50:15)

At this point we should revisit Thomason’s words. Her claim rests on the words of James Kennedy who had written about Babylon that

God said it would never be built again – a prophecy totally contrary to all the expectations of the past, where every cit of the Near East that had been destroyed had been built again. Babylon was situated in the most fertile part of the Euphrates valley, and yet twenty-five-hundred years have come and gone, and Babylon to this day remains an uninhabited waste. (Kennedy, 2005,  26)

Twenty-five hundred years? We know that Babylon had been inhabited as late as 650 CE, about fourteen hundred years ago. Kennedy also wrote,

God said the city would not be built again, yet the mightiest man the world had ever seen – Alexander the Great – decided that he would rebuild Babylon. Coming across the ruins of Babylon, he determined to make this the capital of his worldwide empire. He issued six hundred thousand rations to his soldiers to rebuild the city of Babylon. Would God be disproved? History records the fact that immediately after making the declaration to rebuild Babylon, Alexander the Great was struck dead, and the whole enterprise was abandoned. For God had said it would never be built again. (Kennedy, 26)

This is patently absurd and, as we have already seen, the city was still a thriving cultural center when Alexander marched on it. Her walls were intact and her palaces were still magnificent. This claim by Kennedy, and by extension Thomason, is plainly ignorant of the historical facts. The prophecies of Jeremiah aren’t vindicated; they are repudiated! No king “devoted to destruction” the inhabitants of Babylon (50:21) and the city did not become uninhabited “for all generations.” (Jeremiah 50:39) Her cult of Marduk (50:2) did not end when Cyrus took Babylon and the city was not overthrown “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring cities.” (50:40)

The fact of the matter is that Jeremiah’s prophecy has virtually nothing to do with the historical record. Yes, the Babylonian empire fell but Babylon itself was not destroyed. Yahweh, through the mouth of Jeremiah, had declared, “How Babylon has become a horror among the nations!” (51:41) A horror? Cyrus had declared himself not only the king of Persia but also the king of Babylon. The city had not become a horror nor had the surrounding lands. Persia had taken control and found the former empire beneficial for their purposes.

How curious, then, is Thomason’s first promise that “God has used the Bible to demonstrate how He keeps His promises”? Right off the bat, we are confronted with a failed promise if we are to take Jeremiah 50-51 seriously. No, Yahweh’s promise concerning Babylon was not fulfilled. This is an example of where the Bible gets it utterly and completely wrong.

ENDNOTES

[1] Genesis mentions another ziggurat reaching from earth to heaven in 28:10-17 at Bethel. There the patriarch Jacob dreams of a stairway (סֻלָּם) that leads to heaven. (28:12) Robert Alter notes,

As has often been observed, the references to both “its top reaching the heavens” and “the gate of the heavens” uses phrases associated with the Mesopotamian ziggurat, and so the structure envisioned is probably a vast ramp with terraced landings. (Alter, 2004, 149)

סֻלָּם is translated as “ladder” in the ESV and is a hapax legomenon.

[2] In his entry on Babylon for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, John Mark notes that the city’s name is thought to have originated with the Akkadian word Bavil, a term which meant “Gate of the gods.” It is likely that the Hebrew word בָּבֶל borrowed from the Akkadian. The term “Babylon” actually comes from Greek, Βαβυλών. בָּבֶל is a play on the Akkadian Bavil and in Hebrew means “confusion.”

[3] Some include the Kassite Period in with the Middle Babylonian Period.

[4] Sennacherib also tormented the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of Hezekiah. In 2 Kings 18 (cf. 2 Chronicles 32:1-23), the twenty-five year old Hezekiah starts his rule and begins to restore worship of Yahweh. (18:2-6) He also started a rebellion against Assyria and attacked Philistine controlled areas in his kingdom. (18:7-8) When he nearly thirty, the northern kingdom of Israel is attacked by Assyria and its capital city of Samaria is sacked by Shalmanesar V shortly thereafter. (18:9-12) This is the end of the kingdom of Israel.

Judah, though intact, is not out of harm’s way. Hezekiah’s rebellion will not go unpunished and in his fourteenth year on the throne of Jerusalem he faces Sennacherib himself. The Assyrian king attacks Judah’s fortified cities and takes them. (18:13) In his own account of the siege, Sennacherib wrote,

As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged 46 of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and applying battering rams, infantry attacked by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered them. I took out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep, without number, and counted them as spoil. He himself I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with armed posts, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate. His cities which I had despoiled I cut off from his land and gave them to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Silli-Bel, king of Gaza, and thus diminished his land. I imposed dues and gifts for my lordship upon him, in addition to the former tribute, their yearly payment.

He, Hezekiah, was overwhelmed by the awesome splendor of my lordship, and he sent me after my departure to Nineveh, my royal city, his elite troops and his best soldiers, which he had brought in as reinforcements to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, choice antimony, large blocks of carnelian, beds inlaid with ivory, armchairs inlaid with ivory, elephant hides, ivory, ebony-wood, box-wood, multicolored garments, garments of linen, wool dyed red-purple and blue-purple, vessels of copper, iron, bronze and tin, iron, chariots, siege shields, lances, armor, daggers for the belt, bows and arrows, countless trappings and implements of war, together with his daughters, his palace women, his male and female singers. He also dispatched his messenger to deliver the tribute and to do obesiance. (Coogan, 2013, 80-81)

The biblical text corroborates some of these details. Hezekiah did send someone to Lachish to meet with Sennacherib to tell him that Hezekiah would do all that the king commanded. Sennacherib demands  three hundred talents of silver (eight hundred according to Sennacherib’s version) and thirty talents of gold. (18:14) Hezekiah also gives him all the silver from Yahweh’s temple, all the silver from the royal treasury, and the gold from off the temple’s doors and doorposts. (18:16)

This does not seem enough for Sennacherib and he sends emissaries to Jerusalem to confront Hezekiah for his rebellion. (18:17-18) One of those emissaries, the Rabshakeh, Sennacherib’s chief butler, tells Hezekiah’s emissaries that the Jewish king is relying too heavily on his allies in Egypt because it is a “broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it.” (18:21) Furthermore, the Rabshakeh asks what good it would be trust in their god, Yahweh for Hezekiah had removed his high places and altars and forced worship of him in Jerusalem, the city now under Assyrian threat of destruction. (18:22) Sennacherib, through the Rabshakeh’s mouth, claims that it was Yahweh himself who had told him to destroy Judah. (18:25)

A conversation between Hezekiah’s and Sennacherib’s emissaries continues and eventually the Rabshakeh makes it apparent that there will be no stopping the king of Assyria.

And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us. Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (18:32-35)

When the emissaries return to Hezekiah, the king tears his clothes, covers himself in sackcloth, and goes into Yahweh’s temple. (19:1) He sends a group of his advisors to the prophet Isaiah and they ask him to consult Yahweh about what the Rabshakeh has said. Isaiah tells them to tell Hezekiah that the LORD has declared the fall of Sennacherib “by the sword in his own land.” (18:6-7)

What follows is perhaps one of the more famous events in the Bible. The Rabhshakeh returns to Sennacherib though the king is no longer in Lachish. Sennacherib has learned that Tirhakah, the king of Egypt, has mustered up forces to take him on Assyrian forces. Hezekiah is told not to rely on this turn of events as Sennacherib simply cannot lose. (19:8-13) Tirhakah’s forces, along with those of Shebitku, another king of Egypt, retreat back to Egypt. (For more on the confusing situation of the kings of Egypt of this time, see Merrill, 1996, 368-369 and 415-416.)

Hezekiah then prays to Yahweh, asking for deliverance. “So now, O LORD our God, save us, please, from [Sennacherib’s] hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone.” (18:14-19) Yahweh hears his prayer and through the prophet Isaiah tells him that the king of Assyria

“shall not come into this city [Jerusalem] or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” (18:32-34)

That night the angel of Yahweh goes into the Assyrian camp and kills 185,000 Assyrians. (19:35) Sennacherib leaves for Nineveh and, as he is worshipping in the temple of Nisroch, he is killed by Adrammelech and Sharezer, two of his sons, and the kingdom is handed over to Esarhaddon, another son. (2 Kings 19:36-37)

[5] One wonders if the Deuteronomic historian and the Chronicler are conflating events.

[6] For more on the Greek and Hebrew texts of Jeremiah, see Craigies, et. al., 1991, xli-xlv.

[7] For an attempt to organize the book along chronological lines, see Lasor, et. al., 1996, 353-355.

[8] Fascinatingly, in both the book of Deuteronomy and in the Psalms God is described as being part of a divine council and determining the outcome of the world. In Deuteronomy 32:8-9 we read,

When the Most High gave to all the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.

Similarly, in Psalm 82:1 we read,

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.

Richard Clifford notes that in Psalm 82

[a]s in Ps 29, and to a lesser extent Pss 58 and 75, the setting is the assembly of the heavenly beings, who were thought to rule the nations of the earth under God’s supervision (cf. Deut 32:8-9)…. In Ps 82, the gods are summoned to trial, found guilty of misrule, and punished with mortality, i.e., loss of divine status and expulsion from heaven. (Clifford, 2010, 842)

This is an indication that for at least part of Israel’s history they practiced monolatry and were not necessarily strict monotheists.

[9] The Hebrew word translated as “kill” in the ESV is חֲרֹב (herev) and the phrase used for “devote…to destruction” comes from חֵ֫רֶם (haram). The enemies of Babylon were to herev and haram the inhabitants of the land.

[10] It could also be that 50:31-32 personifies Babylon as a singular “he.” Normally the city is referred to in the feminine.

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: W W Norton and Company, 2004.

Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament, abridged fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

C. Brekelmans. “חרם.” In Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 2. Mark E. Biddle, translator. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986.

Richard J. Clifford. “Psalms.” In Michael D. Coogan, editor. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fourth edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Michael D. Coogan. A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Peter C. Craigies, Page H. Kelley, Joel F. Drinkard, Jr. Jeremiah 1-25. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 26. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1991.

Lewis V. Cummings. Alexander the Great. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1968.

Robin Lane Fox. Alexander the Great. London, England: Penguin Books, 1973.

John F. Graybill. “Jeremiah.” In Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1990.

Victor P. Hamilton. “מְרֹדָך.” In R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, editors. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1984.

Herodotus. The Histories. Tom Holland, translator. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013.

Paul R. House. “Introduction to Jeremiah.” In Lane T. Dennis, executive editior. English Standard Version Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Rodney R. Hutton. “Jeremiah.” In Michael D. Coogan, editor. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fourth edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

James Kennedy. Why I Believe. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2005.

Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, Thomas G. Smothers. Jeremiah 26-52. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 27. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1995.

William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, Frederic William Bush. Old Testament Surveysecond edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Amanda Podany. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

J.M. Roberts. The New Penguin History of the World. London, England: Penguin Books, 2002.

H.W.F. Saggs. Civilization Before Greece and Rome. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

John H. Walton. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Donald J. Wiseman. “Cyrus.” In Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Leon J. Wood. “חרם.”In R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, editors. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1984.

5 Comments

  1. Good luck with that. And by “that,” I mean “convincing someone to take a particular kind of fact, and its significant implications, seriously.” Love (e.g., of truth) takes many breathtaking forms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The problem with this prophecy is that it just doesn’t happen. It is interesting how much Isaiah 13 sounds like Jeremiah 50-51. But in both prophetic pieces, the events they describe simply don’t take place. In Isaiah 13, the destruction sounds more immediate: “Wail, for the day of the LORD is near” (Isaiah 13:6); “See, the day of the LORD comes” (13:9); etc. But when the Medes finally come to Babylon under Cyrus, the destruction isn’t widespread nor does the city become uninhabited. For centuries people live in the city under various regimes.

      No one reading Isaiah 13 or Jeremiah 50-51 after they had been written would have thought, “Hey, this isn’t going to happen all at once.” They wouldn’t have thought that because the langauge of the text betrays such an understanding. The “broom of destruction” (14:23) never comes.

      Like

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