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Jeremiah 18:1-11

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Background to the Book of Jeremiah:

Historical Background to the Book:
Jeremiah began his ministry in Jerusalem around 627 BCE and he witnessed the final years of Jerusalem before it fell to Nebuchadrezzar in 597 BCE. While there may be some dispute about the exact dating of his call that is what the author of the Book of Jeremiah wanted us to accept. Jeremiah was a young man who protested to God when he was called (Jeremiah 1:4-10) and who later made bitter lament to God about the way he was treated by colleagues. He came from a priestly family from the town of Anathoth, a few kilometre north of Jerusalem and formerly in the territory of Northern Israel.

He was well aware of the traditions from the northern tribes rather than the southern tradition as the prophet Isaiah. The king at the time of the first part of Jeremiah's prophecies was Josiah who had instituted reforms to purify the worship practices in 621 BCE. He did this by removing the local shrines and their sacrifices, outlawing the country Levites from presiding over sacrifices (at local shrines) and made Jerusalem the only place in which sacrifice could be made. Because the Levites gained their livelihood from this practice he made laws which dictated they had to be cared for by the local people (Deuteronomy 14:27-28). The reign of King Josiah was relatively peaceful from the ravages of the superpowers - Assyria, Babylon and Egypt which gave him the opportunity to instigate his reforms based on the Book of Deuteronomy. Josiah got caught up in a war with Egypt in 609 BCE and was killed when he tried to prevent Pharaoh Necho from going to the aid of the Assyrians in their last ditch stand against the upcoming power of Babylon (and was killed in battle in 609 BCE). The situation of Jerusalem rapidly deteriorated from this time with a quick turnover of kings and the continued rise of Babylon. Josiah's son Jehoahaz was sent in bonds to Egypt after three months. His brother Jehoiakim took the throne and from a vassal of Egypt he became a vassal of Babylon in 604 BCE. Jehoiakim died in 598 BCE (or assassinated) and his son Jehoiachin had been on the throne for three months when Nebuchadrezzar took Jerusalem in 597 BCE. He deported Jehoiachin, the Queen mother, state officials and took enormous booty including the temple vessels and treasures, but did not destroy the city or temple (Thompson: 24).

Jeremiah's preaching appears to indicate that the reforms had been unsuccessful because his preaching is calling the people back to faithful worship of Yahweh. He prophecies the impending fall of Jerusalem with all its horrific implications. The people refused to believe him because they thought that Jerusalem would always be safe, as indeed, Isaiah had told them 110 years previously. After 598 BCE Jeremiah suffered personally because he was prophesying exile for 70 years and this was an unpopular message. Zedekiah (uncle of Jehoiachin) supported rebellion against Babylon and Nebuchadrezzar came and destroyed Jerusalem after a terrible siege. The city was destroyed, including the temple and further officials taken into exile. The Governor set up by the Babylonians was assassinated in 582 BCE and further deportations occurred. Some Judeans fled to Egypt before the arrival of Nebuchadrezzar taking Jeremiah with them (Jeremiah 42).

Literary Background to the Book:
We don't know the precise process whereby the book was formed from the oral traditions into the final form we have now. It appears to be in blocks of material which are deliberately structured to reinforce the message. Chapters 1-29 depict the divine judgement on Judah and Jeremiah's controversy with false prophets: chapters 30-33 make up the Book of Consolation: chapters 34-45 depict events around the fall of Jerusalem: chapters 46-51 contain the oracles against the nations and the final chapter parallels 2 Kings 24:18-25:30 which tells us about the final fall of Jerusalem.

The Greek translation of the Book of Jeremiah is shorter by one seventh which is unusual as the Greek translations are usually longer. The Hebrew and Greek translations were both circulating in Israel at the time of the Qumran community ( ). Whether there was a shorter Hebrew version which is now represented by the Greek and this was later expanded into the Hebrew edition of the Book is a matter of some debate. The arrangement of the blocks of material are different in each edition with the Oracles against the Nations to be found in the Greek edition in chapters 26-32. The Greek edition names Jeremiah as the prophet four times whereas the Hebrew edition names Jeremiah as the prophet thirty times.

The book is a mixture of poetry and prose. It appears to many scholars that much of the prose is preaching on aspects of Jeremiah's oracles from the poetry. This preaching has many similarities to the theology and language used by the Deuteronomistic writers. Whether the Deuteronomists took Jeremiah's oracles and use them as a basis for preaching God's word to a later situation we can never be certain. However, the message and language of the prose sections are compatible with Deueteronomic thought. For example, the message to the exiles was the need to believe in the true prophets like Jeremiah. He is held up as an excellent example. Another message was to explain that they were in exile was because they had been disobedient and therefore lost the land. Yahweh had been faithful to them and they had failed to keep their side of the covenant as depicted in Exodus 19.

Context of Jeremiah 18:1-11
This week's lectionary reading is part of a section (11-20) which contains laments and prophecies concerning judgement. Jeremiah laments his position which brings hatred and disgrace on his head and requests that God take revenge on his enemies (Jer 15). He questions God about his pain and why he has to suffer - a bit like Job questions God. In response God assures Jeremiah that if he returns God will prevail against the enemies of Jeremiah. Chapter 16 reminds the people what God has done for them in the past and in answer to their query about why God is bringing judgement on them, Jeremiah declares it is because they have gone after other gods. As a consequence of this unfaithfulness and blatant apostasy they will go into exile in a land they have not known. Jer 17 reiterates these points using different images and genre with the chapter ending in a prophecy against the kings. The choices are set out for those who either break the Sabbath command or choose to keep it. The former will lose Jerusalem and the latter will live in the city forever. The lectionary reading about the potter is followed by a judgement oracle and another of Jeremiah's laments. Jer 19 describes in vivid detail what will happen to the land as a consequence of the people's disobedience depicted as a broken potter's earthen vessel. Jeremiah suffers a beating by the chief priest because he is prophesying such adverse messages from God which are hardly good news for the people of Jerusalem.

Insights/Message of Jeremiah 18:1-11
Literary structure:
Verses 1-12 are narrative describing a symbolic action in which Jeremiah is commanded to go and watch at the potter's house. Jeremiah is portrayed as obedient as he goes to the potter's house and sees the potter reworking a clay vessel which hadn't turned out as expected or desired by the potter. The application of the symbolic action is told in vv.5-6 with a change in vv.7-11 to speak about the correlation between the nation's behavior and God's treatment (Miller:715). Vv.7-10 are a commentary on the words in the call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:10) which demonstrate that when God declares either judgement on, or building up a nation then it will come true. Vv.11-12 make specific the above verses to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. V.12 which is not included in the lectionary reading is the people's response which states categorically that they will not turn away from their disobedience and apostasy. It flows into the next divine prophecy which begins with "therefore' as the direct consequence of the people's statement in v.12. There is an interesting play on the word "ra'a" (evil, v.7) in that if the nation turns from its evil so Yahweh will turn from intended "ra'a" (evil). The structure of vv.7-8 are parallel:

v.7 - if .. I declare ...that ...: if that nation...: then I will repent of the evil

v.8 - if .. I declare ...that: if it ...: then I will repent of the good (Brueggemann: 168)

The structure emphases God's willingness to change

Message / Theology:
The symbolism of the potter speaks of both God's sovereignty and people's freedom. It is a paradox that the Judah had the freedom to live in disobedience and yet had the choice to return and know God's loving compassion. God is willing to have a change of mind and not continue with punishment for their behaviour, however it needs a change of mind by the people also. The clay which the potter originally had to work with has proved flawed and the potter has to remake the pot (Thompson: 433). So it is with Israel, the clay, is frustrating the Yahweh's purpose. The clay has no choice, but the people of Jerusalem and Judah do have a choice, as the call to return (repent) is offered in v.11. The voice of Judah in v.12 is making it very plain that it is a deliberate choice by Judah to refuse the offer.

It is a pity that v.12 is not included in the lectionary reading because it speaks so clearly about our human nature in that we continue, both personally and as communities, to follow our own plans and fail to hear the Word of God, that is the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Luke 14:25-33 contains no significant images from the OT but there is an illusion to the 5th commandment -"honour your father and mother". It is one of those times when Jesus is once more shocking the disciples into realising the cost of discipleship.

Resources/Worship for Jeremiah 18:1-11
his image of the potter using clay can be replicated in a worship service (using adequate protection for carpet etec) with both children and adults invited to mould an image and reflect on how easy it is to change it because it doesn't mould into the required shape.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Jeremiah

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming. Cambridge: W.B.Eerdmans, 1998.
Carroll, Robert P. Jeremiah: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM, 1986.
Clements, R. E. Jeremiah. Int. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988.
Holladay,William L. Jeremiah 1 : A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: Chapters 1-25. Herm. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
---. Jeremiah 2 : A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: Chapters 26-52. Herm. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
Keown,Gerald L. Jeremiah 26-52. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1995.
Jones, Douglas Rawlinson. Jeremiah. NCB. [London]: Marshall Pickering; Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 1992.
McKane, William. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah. Vol 1, Introduction and Commentary on Jeremiah I-XXV. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986.
---. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah. Vol 2, Introduction and Commentary on Jeremiah XXVI-LII. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996.
Miller, Patrick D. The Book of Jeremiah. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001
Thompson, John A. The Book of Jeremiah. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1980.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

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