Jeremiah 36 and the Prophetic Process

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of March 7. Enjoy!


The thirty-sixth chapter of Jeremiah stands out as somewhat of an oddity in which readers are afforded a glimpse into the nitty-gritty of the prophetic process and the subsequent royal response. Chronological order has been disrupted in this middle section of Jeremiah: several chapters dealing with the reign of Zedekiah, Judah’s final king, are followed by this flashback to the days of Jehoiakim. First, although Yahweh appears to order Jeremiah to write a scroll (Jer 36:2), the prophet immediately chooses to dictate to Baruch, his scribe and assistant (Jer 36:4). I view this as an example of prophetic freedom, in which Jeremiah receives the word of Yahweh and is allowed to make key decisions about the development of the message. Yahweh furthermore permits dissemination on Jeremiah’s terms, as when the prophet chooses to have the scroll read aloud from a balcony on the event of a fast (Jer 36:10). Additionally, Jeremiah must have been granted the liberty to present Yahweh’s message in a certain manner, choosing from the many words that Yahweh spoke to him to that point. Perhaps the scroll contained some combination of the first 22 chapters of our present book of Jeremiah, including the metaphors of the linen loincloth and the potter and the clay in addition to harsh words of judgment.

Whatever the scroll may have said, we note that the message was shocking enough that Micaiah and Jehudi combined to request additional readings of the scroll (Jer 36:11-14), and eventually they question Baruch on the manner in which the scroll came to be written. The responses of Jehoiakim and his officials stand out against those of Micaiah and Jehudi, however. The king and his men elect to “play it cool,” calmly destroying the scroll piece by piece in a manner tantamount to choosing whom they will serve (Jo 24:15). Victor H. Matthews notes that none of the king’s men tears their clothes in grief, instead shearing Baruch’s scroll to “remain faithful to its covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, even if it means that it has abrogated its treaty with Yahweh.”[1] Pamela J. Scalise draws attention to the distinctive contrast between the fire that Jehoiakim uses to consume the scroll of Baruch and the eventual “conflagration of judgment that would destroy the nation and his royal line.”[2]

With key elements of the pericope illuminated, we can now tackle the thorny questions of authorship and motive for this chapter. While some scholars insist that the canonical chapter originate with Jeremiah or Baruch, they are unable to properly account for the phenomenon of third person voice that permeates every mention of the prophet and his scribe. Moreover, the story is full of what appear to be eyewitness accounts, parts of which we tacitly understand that either Jeremiah or Baruch would have been absent. Yair Hoffman opts instead for authorship by the biblically ubiquitous “anonymous omniscient teller.”[3] Furthermore, the form of the chapter deviates from most other biblical narratives given its “abundance of technical, administrative and factual data,” including names, places and dates, that would be more characteristic of “a kind of legal or official document, an accurate testimony.”[4] What, then, is the motive perpetuated by Jeremiah 36? Its literary elements serve to indict Jehoiakim, but Hoffman suggests that this is merely secondary to the intention of the author of the chapter, whom he views as the editor of our most basic form of Jeremiah. He suggests, “The author of the story wanted to validate his scroll and to substantiate his own editorial considerations. In order to achieve these purposes, he hitched his wagon to two stars: Jeremiah, and his faithful disciple and scribe, Baruch.”[5]

[1] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 124.

[2] Pamela J. Scalise, “Scrolling through Jeremiah: Written Documents as a Reader’s Guide to the Book of Jeremiah,” Review and Expositor 101, no. 2 (Spring 2004), 216.

[3] Yair Hoffman, “Aetiology, Redaction and Historicity in Jeremiah XXXVI,” Vetus Testamentum 46, no. 2 (April 1996), 181. Hoffman regards the scroll, rather than Jeremiah or Baruch, as the chief protagonist of chapter 36.

[4] Ibid., 183.

[5] Ibid., 189.

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