The Scroll Must Go On: Jeremiah 36

By Joseph Manning

The following paper won an essay contest in 2008 — the Bernard Kaufman, Jr. Judaic Studies Award. The paper was written in an undergraduate course at Tulane University called “Hebrew Bible” taught by Dr. Galen Marquis where students read the Hebrew Bible for its literary worth, not as a religious document, and the text was subjected to literary criticism. This paper is the product of a critical literary examination of chapter 36 of the book of Jeremiah:

Michelangelo’s Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel. The brooding figure is thick, heavy, and dark as he agonizes over the destruction of Jerusalem.

Although like most prophetical books in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Jeremiah is a collection of speeches, prose portions of text are interspersed throughout.  Chapter 36 presents one such section of prose narrative, which is “biographical” in nature and narrated in third person.[1]   The chapter is structured as a group of five smaller units: 36:1-8, 36:8-9, 36:10-16, 36:17-23, and 36:24-27.[2]  Taken together they form a story, a whole and separate piece of literature with its own beginning and ending.  The first and last of these units make use of inclusio by beginning with the creation of a scroll of text and ending with the same text being rewritten after having been destroyed.  This literary device allows the reader to understand the story has come to completion.[3]

The story is concerned with the presentation of prophetic utterances to the king.  His reception and reaction to the message of this prophecy constitutes the story’s climax, and are contrasted in the text to an expected response.  Dramatic tension is created through anticipation, which focuses the plot of the story.  This message of the function of prophecy is the central focus of the story, and its “moral” is an attempt to inform the audience of the correct response to God’s word.

Chapter 36 is unique in its presentation.  Jeremiah, the prophet, is surprisingly absent.  One can almost infer that the chapter is “not the story of Jeremiah, but rather that of the scroll.”[4]  Alongside the “story of the scroll,” there is an “abundance of technical, administrative and factual data” mostly detailing the function of the scribes and their institution, their family names, the location of their offices, etc…[5]  Yair Hoffman argues that Jeremiah 36 reflects an attempt to establish the scribes, alongside the prophet Jeremiah himself, as equally important participants in conveying the prophet’s message.[6]  The acts of creation and destruction of the scroll comprise the action of the story/prophecy.  The author emphasizes the scroll as an entity with a life of its own and an authority that exists outside of the prophet’s authority.  The scroll is written, delivered, transported, destroyed, and rewritten ultimately becoming objectified as the written words of the prophet embodying the prophet’s message and existing independently in this form.

The chapter begins with the phrase: “In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord.”[7]  This is a formulaic introduction to a prophetic speech.  This structure consists of the “word of the Lord” and its “coming” to the prophet and is sometimes also dated by a specific year in the reign of a certain king — as here.  Yair Hoffman seems to overstate his case a bit, then, when he claims that the chapter, being “biographical” in character, is not of the “prophetic genre.”[8]  For not only is this formula characteristic introductory for a prophecy present at the beginning of the unit, but another common prophetic motif is found afterward:  “Get a scroll and write upon it all the words that I have spoken to you—concerning Israel and Judah and all the nations—from the time I first spoke to you in the days of Josiah to this day.”[9]

While God giving a command to a prophet is a commonplace occurrence, there is a difference between these common commands and the one given in Jeremiah 36 continues.  God is commanding a scroll to be written instead of merely the typical order to prophesy.  The writing down of prophecy is specifically the function of the scribe, and the scroll is a critical part of the prophecy.  What is taking place here is a prophetic act: “prophets perform symbolic actions to dramatize their statements and enable them to take effect”[10] and the commands referenced in regards to Ezekiel and Hosea function on an allegorical dynamic.

A definitive feature of prophecy is “the juxtaposition of judgment and salvation, death and life,”[11] and one of the main roles of the prophet is to inform the people of a need for repentance.  This first unit opens with this hope for repentance and sets up the absence of Jeremiah:

Perhaps when the House of Judah hear of all the disasters I intend to bring upon them, they will turn back from their wicked ways, and I will pardon their iniquity and their sin. So Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote down in the scroll, at Jeremiah’s dictations, all the words which the Lord had spoken to him.  Jeremiah instructed Baruch, “I am in hiding; I cannot go to the House of the Lord.  But you go and read aloud the words of the Lord from the scroll which you wrote at my dictation, to all the people in the House of the Lord on a fast day; thus you will also be reading them to all the Judeans who come in from the towns.  Perhaps their entreaty will be accepted by the Lord, if they turn back from their wicked ways.  For great is the anger and wrath with which the Lord has threatened the people.”  Baruch son of Neriah did just as the prophet Jeremiah had instructed him, about reading the words of the Lord from the scroll in the House of the Lord.[12]

An expectation is created in the reader.  When the word of the Lord is heard being read from the scroll either the people will repent and be spared or not.  Furthermore, the scroll takes on the importance in the narrative of being the instrument through which God’s word is heard and not the prophet himself directly: “the story is about the writing and reading of a scroll of prophecies.”[13]  The text sets up not only a confrontation in which the expectations will be met or not, but also begins to highlight the fact that it is not the prophet who will or will not be heeded but the scroll.

The second unit is rather uneventful and seems redundant.  What the reader was told that Baruch had already done is described more specifically:[14]

In the ninth month of the fifth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, all the people in Jerusalem and all the people coming from Judah proclaimed a fast before the Lord in Jerusalem.  It was then that Baruch—in the chamber of Gemariah son of Shaphan the scribe, in the upper court, near the new gateway of the House of the Lord —read the words of Jeremiah from the scroll to all the people in the House of the Lord.  Micaiah son of Gemariah son of Shaphan heard all the words of the Lord [read] from the scroll, and he went down to the king’s palace, to the chamber of the scribe.  There he found all the officials in session: Elishama the scribe, Delaiah son of Shemaiah, Elnathan son of Achbor, Gemariah son of Shaphan, Zedekiah son of Hananiah, and all the other officials.  And Micaiah told them all that he had heard as Baruch read from the scroll in the hearing of the people.  Then all the officials sent Jehudi son of Nethaniah son of Shelemiah son of Cushi to say to Baruch, “Take that scroll from which you read to the people, and come along!”  And Baruch took the scroll and came to them.  They said, “Sit down and read it to us.”  And Baruch read it to them.[15]

 A discrepancy appears when the author states that Baruch “read the words of Jeremiah,” but Micaiah “heard all the words of the Lord.”[16]  Strangely, the expectation of repentance created earlier is still unfulfilled at this point in the story even after the scroll’s message has been delivered.  There is no mention of the people’s reaction to the prophecy either in regards to their accepting or rejecting it.  What J. Andrew Dearman interprets as “silent testimony to the house of Judah’s rejection of the prophet’s words”[17] also functions, in terms of the “plot” of this story/prophecy, as literary device in the form of a delaying tactic.  The expected response or climax has not yet arrived, and one must infer that the expectation of acceptance and rejection will come later.

The amount of attention given to the chamber of the scribes, and the complete list of names offered highlights their importance.  Upon learning of the scroll, the scribes demand it be brought to them.  Again the reader is confronted with a delaying tactic used to create suspense.  The expectation of the scroll being received favorably or not is again presented here.  The reader is left unsure as to the scribes’ intentions.  Perhaps they have been angered and seek to punish Baruch or they are simply displaying an eagerness to hear the word of God themselves and will react favorably.

The next unit of seven verses takes up the motifs presented earlier and elaborates them further.  The reaction of the scribes to the scroll is described:

When they heard all these words, they turned to each other in fear; and they said to Baruch, “We must report all this to the king.”  And they questioned Baruch further, “Tell us how you wrote down all these words that he spoke.”  He answered them, “He himself recited all those words to me, and I would write them down in the scroll in ink.”  The officials said to Baruch, “Go into hiding, you and Jeremiah.  Let no man know where you are!”  And they went to the king in the court, after leaving the scroll in the chamber of the scribe Elishama.  And they reported all these matters to the king.  The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll and he fetched it from the chamber of the scribe Elishama.  Jehudi read it to the king and to all the officials who were in attendance on the king.  Since it was the ninth month, the king was sitting in the winter house, with a fire burning in the brazier before him.[18]

When the scribes are presented the contents of the scroll they become fearful and resolve to report the words to the king since the content is of national importance.[19]  Their fear is almost certainly the desired emotion of fear of the Lord.  A poetic portion of chapter five has Jeremiah exclaim: “Should you not revere Me —says the Lord — should you not tremble before Me?”  Baruch’s reply to the question posed by the scribes provides no new information.[20]  Furthermore, Baruch is instructed also to go into hiding, and so he too disappears from the narrative.  Thus the story has been disassociated entirely from both Jeremiah and Baruch, and only the scroll and the words of the Lord which it contains are left.

It is not, however, the scribes who bring the scroll to the king, but the king who demands the scroll be brought to him when he learns of it.  The king, therefore, displays the same eagerness the scribes once did to hear the message, and once again the use of a literary delaying tactic is works to heighten the suspense created as to the king’s reaction.  The description of the king sitting beside his fire brazier ominously foreshadows his reaction.

And every time Jehudi read three or four columns, [the king] would cut it up with a scribe’s knife and throw it into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed by the fire in the brazier.  Yet the king and all his courtiers who heard all these words showed no fear and did not tear their garments; moreover, Elnathan, Delaiah, and Gemariah begged the king not to burn the scroll, but he would not listen to them.  The king ordered Jerahmeel, the king’s son, and Seraiah son of Azriel, and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest the scribe Baruch and the prophet Jeremiah.  But the Lord hid them.[21]

The king is explicitly stated to have shown no fear in contrast to the scribes, who beg the king not to destroy the scroll.  He callously refuses the pleas of the scribes, and shows no interest in the scroll’s origin as they had.

The story/prophecy ends in the same manner it began.  The previous unit ends with Baruch hiding like Jeremiah.  Now the scroll has served its purpose; its message was delivered to its target audience, even though the expectation of repentance created at the beginning has been thwarted:  The king, the one who most urgently needs to heed the prophecy in the situation has rejected the message of the scroll and destroyed it.

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah after the king had burned the scroll containing the words that Baruch had written at Jeremiah’s dictation:  Get yourself another scroll, and write upon it the same words that were in the first scroll that was burned by King Jehoiakim of Judah.  And concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah you shall say: thus said the Lord:  You burned that scroll, saying, “How dare you write in it that the king of Babylon will come and destroy this land and cause man and beast to cease from it?”  Assuredly, thus said the Lord concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah:  He shall not have any of his line sitting on the throne of David; and his own corpse shall be left exposed to the heat by day and the cold by night.  And I will punish him and his offspring and his courtiers for their iniquity; I will bring on them and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem and on all the men of Judah all the disasters of which I have warned them—but they would not listen.  So Jeremiah got another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah.  And at Jeremiah’s dictation, he wrote in it the whole text of the scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah had burned; and more of the like was added.[22]

Just as in the beginning the reader is presented the prophetic formula and told “the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.”  The Lord instructs Jeremiah to get another scroll and write the same words as were in the first.  The scroll has been ordered rewritten despite the fact that its message has been served to the king once already.  The scroll, rather than merely being the means of conveying a message, takes on the symbolic significance of a judgment that the king cannot escape.  The scroll’s contents were uttered and written down at a specific time and place in history: the reign of king Jehoiakim of Judah, confronting the threat of a Babylonian invasion of his realm.  God’s command to Jeremiah to write another scroll implies that its message somehow transcends the specific occasion of its utterance, serves a “higher” purpose, a literary purpose.  Even if the king had diligently read and heeded the contents of the scroll, he was still expected not to destroy it:  “We cannot extract the ‘message’ from a narrative text, and then throw away the text itself; a narrative is its own meaning.”[23]

Its recreation, besides serving as a form of inclusio, both beginning and ending the chapter with the writing of a scroll and by such nicely highlighting the main concern of this story/prophecy, now serves as a testimony to the failure of the king to destroy it, since the prophecy of the coming destruction was fulfilled, as well as to the endurance of God’s word.

In an act of poetic justice God declares that the corpse of the king who destroyed God’s word with fire “shall be left exposed to the heat by day and the cold by night.”[24]  This exposure is vividly contrasted to the king’s earlier status.  Before, he was kept warm through the winter with a brazier of fire.  It was this very brazier which he used to destroy the word of the Lord.  The retribution he receives plays on his previous luxury of remaining warm during winter, using God’s words as delivered to his prophet, Jeremiah, and painstakingly written down on a scroll by his scribe, Baruch, as fuel.

         Bibliography

Avigad, Nahman.  “Baruch the Scribe and Jerahmeel the King’s Son.”  The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 42, No. 2. (Spring, 1979), pp. 114-118.

Barton, John.  Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study.  Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

Bright, John.  “Jeremiah.”  The Anchor Bible.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979.

Dearman, A. J.  “My Servants the Scribes: Composition and Context in Jeremiah 36.”  Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 109, No. 3. (Autumn, 1990), pp. 403-421.

Heschel, Abraham.  The Prophets.  New York: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962.

Hoffman, Yair.  “Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah XXXVI.”  Vestus Testamentum,Vol .46, Fasc. 2. (Apr., 1996), pp. 179-189.

The Jewish Study Bible.  Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors.  New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2004.

King, Phillip.  Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion.  Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

Lindblom, J.  Prophecy in Ancient Israel.  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1967.

Ward, James.  Thus Says the Lord: The Message of the Prophets.  Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1991.


[1] Yair Hoffman maintains that these biographical prose portions of text are the “only genre whose non-Jeremianic authorship is accepted by all scholars.” Hoffman, Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah, 179-180.

[2] “The chapter can be divided into five parts by the repeated introductory formula “and it happened.”  These five parts do not divide the narrative neatly between various scenes; rather, the introductory formula serves as an emphatic device for the narrator(s).”  (Dearman, My Servants the Scribes, 404)

[3] Dearman, My Servants the Scribes, 407.

[4] Hoffman, Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah, 182.

[5] Idem, 183

[6] Idem, 185

[7] Jeremiah 36:1

[8] Hoffman, Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah, 180

[9] Jeremiah 36:2

[10] Commentary 24:1-25:17 1087 JPS.  Consider Jeremiah’s symbolic act of wearing a yoke in chapter 27.

[11] Lindblom 320

[12] Jeremiah 36:3-8

[13] Hoffman, Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah, 182

[14] Dearman, My Servants the Scribes, 405.

[15] Jeremiah 36:9-15

[16] Dearman, My Servants the Scribes, 405.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jeremiah 36:16-22

[19] “They are convinced of the importance of what they have heard and feel that the king must know of it.” (Bright 180)

[20]Hoffman, Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah, 184

[21] Jeremiah 36:23-26

[22] Jeremiah 36:27-32

[23] Barton, Reading the Old Testament, 163.

[24] Jeremiah 36:30

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