23 Jul 2011

Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah: Don’t Fear, They are not Gods

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Jeremiah, Jewish Backgrounds, King James Version



Baruch along with the Letter of Jeremiah are probably among the earliest (i.e. oldest) of the writings contained in the Old Testament Apocrypha. Because of the abundance of “Hebraisms” the original language of these works is believed to be Hebrew. The now lost Hebrew originals were written sometime between 300 and 160 B.C. for Baruch and 317 and 306 B.C. for the Letter of Jeremiah (the issues are complicated but for the curious see, David deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, pp. 204-205 and 216-217). The Letter of Jeremiah has been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Baruch has not been identified among the DSS, however, since the Letter was often chapter 6 of Baruch we cannot be certain that Baruch was not among the Scrolls. Baruch has a composite nature so parts of the book are older than others.

Interestingly enough there is a historical “blunder” in Baruch. Baruch 1.11 for example says that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s son as does Daniel 5.2, etc. There is an historical problem here (Belshazzar was not N’s son but Nabonidus) and the relation between Daniel and Baruch is disputed at this point.

Baruch: The Confessional Prayer

Baruch is made of five chapters containing a variety literary forms. The book opens with a narrative similar to Nehemiah 8-9 and 2 Kings 22.8-13. The narrative creates a setting in which Baruch “reads” to the exiles in Babylon after the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C. (the date “in the story” would be around 582). Interestingly enough Baruch contains the command to read the book in the “house of the Lord”:

And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons” (Baruch 1.14).

This is interesting because Protestant apologists have frequently said that no apocryphal book claims to be authoritative … one wonders what this text is claiming?

The first major section of the book (1.15-3.8) contains a prayer of confession. In this the Jews take full blame for the disaster that has befallen them. It is because of their faithlessness to the covenant that Yahweh has disciplined them,

we have sinned before the Lord. We have disobeyed him, and have not heeded the voice of the Lord our God, . . . From the time when the Lord brought our ancestors out of the land of Egypt until today, we have been disobedient to the Lord our God . . .” (Baruch 1.17-19)

We have sinned, we have been ungodly, we have done wrong . . .” (2.12)

The prayer reveals a repentant heart on Baruch’s, and the Exiles, part. The prayer also has a firm belief that God is a merciful God. So not only do we see confession of sins and remorse but we see pleas based upon the grace of the Lord. Notice that the writer does not believe that Israel merited any blessing from the Lord,

Hear, O Lord, our prayer . . . and for the sake of your own sake deliver us, and grant us favor . . .” (Baruch 2.14)

For it is not because of any righteous deeds of our ancestors or our kings that we bring before you our prayer for mercy, O Lord our God.” (Baruch 2.19)

In spite of the exile, Baruch, confesses that God has been good and dealt with Israel in “kindness.” The book appeals directly to the promise of God in Deuteronomy 4.25-31, that should exile come because of sin, God will heal and restore Israel if they call on him.

That is why Baruch prays,

you have dealt with us, O Lord our God, in all your kindness and in all your great compassion, as you spoke by your servant Moses . . . For I know that they will not obey me, for they are a stiff-necked people. But in the land of their exile they will come to themselves and know that I am the Lord their God. I will give them a heart that obeys and ears that hear . . . I will bring them back again into the land” (Baruch 2. 27, 30-31, 34).

Baruch: The Psalm of Praise

The second major section of Baruch is a hymn of praise to wisdom – the wisdom of serving God alone. Wisdom is of incredible value and it is because Israel did not value wisdom that she is now in a “foreign country” (Baruch 3.10). In its context, the hymn helps Israel to do what they prayed – turn their hearts back to God. But it is only by being devoted to the “book of the commandments of God” (Baruch 4.1) that she can ever hope to live. Note that wisdom according to Baruch is not simply philosophy but it is in fact the words of God that embody wisdom. These words bring life (cf. John 5.39; 6.63, 68) if they are clung too.

Though there is much that is worthy of attention in this section we can only examine Baruch 3.35-37. This particular passage played an important role in the early church. The “Church Fathers” repeatedly appealed to this text as referring to Jesus Christ. The text reads,

This is our God; no one can compare to him.
He found the whole way to knowledge,
and gave her to his servant Jacob and to
Israel, whom he loved.
Afterward she appeared on earth and lived with humankind.
(Baruch 3.35-37).

Early Christians like Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian and Lactantius along with a host of others thought this was prophecy of the Incarnation and the growth of Christianity among the Gentiles.

Baruch: Zion is Encouraged

The last section of Baruch (4.5-5.9) is a personification of Zion (Jerusalem) as she provides hope for the future to a disgraced and exiled people. Zion expresses her grief at seeing her “children” taken off into captivity. She has “faith” however that God will deliver them if they turn to God (4.5-29). Repeatedly the exiles are exhorted to “take courage” (4.5, 21, 27, 30) because God has not cast off his people forever. Here are a few choice texts,

For he who brought these calamities upon you
will deliver you from the hand of your enemies”
(Baruch 4.18).

I sent you out with sorrow and weeping,
but God will give you back to me with
joy and gladness forever.” (Baruch 4.23)

Look, your children are coming, whom
you sent away; they are coming, gathered
from east and west, at the word of the Holy
One, rejoicing in the glory of God.”
(Baruch 4. 37).

For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory, with the mercy
and righteousness that come from him.”
(Baruch 5.9).

Baruch moves from confession of sin and acknowledgement of the righteous judgment of
God. Then the book exhorts us to find true life and wisdom through the word of God. And finally the book closes with the promise of God grace and mercy in the return of the exiles. The final verse, quoted above, is a beautiful image to behold. God is leading his children with joy and mercy down the highway to a beautified Jerusalem.

The Letter of Jeremiah

The Letter of Jeremiah is not really a “letter” but a polemic against Babylonian (and pagan) religion. “Jeremiah” writes instructing the first exiles to keep their faith in Yahweh in a world that is surrounded by beautiful and awe inspiring idols. “Jeremiah” seeks to inoculate these deportees by showing the ridiculous nature and status of an image. This was indeed a relevant message to Jews any time during their history and is just as relevant to Christians: idolatry is false and we need not fear those things in our lives that would claim to be deity that have no claim.

Basic Facts about the Letter

The Letter of Jeremiah is most likely the oldest of the Apocrypha. Based upon 6.3 “up to seven generations” which describes the length of the Exile will be, scholars deduce the book was written in the late fourth century around, 317 to 306 B.C. (see deSilva, Introduction to the Apocrypha, pp. 216-217 and Carey A. Moore, The Anchor Bible: Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions, pp. 327-328, 335). Other factors go into the date of the book as well: 1) enough time has to be allowed for it to be translated into Greek prior to inclusion in the Septuagint; 2) the fact that it is referred to in 2 Maccabees 2.1-2, 4 as being written by Jeremiah (2 Macc itself dates approximately around 100 B.C.); 3) it being found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The order of the Jeremiah “corpus” of material in the Greek tradition is different than in the Latin tradition. In the great codices Vaticanus and Alexandrinus the order is Jeremiah, Baruch, Lamentations, Letter of Jeremiah. In the Syriac and the Latin the Letter of Jeremiah is added to Baruch becoming chapter 6 (Jerome is responsible for this). Most modern versions for some reason still number the Letter as chapter six even though it is set by itself as it should be.

The content of the Letter of Jeremiah parallels numerous biblical passages on idolatry. As to be expected there are echoes of Jeremiah in the Letter. For example Jeremiah 10. 1-15 contains a parody on idols as well and surely provides grist for the author of the Letter. Other passages where humor is extended at the expense of idols can be found in Isaiah 44.9-20 and Psalm 115.3-8.

Literary Outline

The Letter of Jeremiah is divided up into ten sections each being marked with a negation of the reality of pagan gods. This negation serves as a refrain through the Letter as an organizing principle, “From this it is evident they are not gods; so do not fear them” (vv. 16; 23; 29; 65; and 69) or “Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?” (vv. 40; 44; 52; 56; and 64). The Letter closes with an affirmation of the honor of the person who does not degrade himself into worshipping idols (v.73). The thundering refrain in the Letter is similar (in purpose) to the refrains in such biblical passages as Psalm 42 and 43 (one psalm) and Psalm 107.

Choice Texts

When you see the multitude before and behind them [idols] worshipping them Say in your heart, ‘It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship.” For my [God’s] angel is with you, and he is watching over your lives.” (vv. 6-7)

They [idols] are just like a beam of the temple, but their hearts, it is said, are eaten away when crawling creatures from the earth devour them and their robes. They do not notice . . .” (v. 20).

How can one fail to see that these are not gods, for they cannot save themselves from war or calamity?” (v. 49).

So it is better to be a king who shows his courage, or a household utensil that serves its owner’s need, than to be these false gods; better even the door of a house that protects its contents, than these false gods; better a wooden pillar in a palace, than these false gods.” (v. 59).

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed, which guards nothing, so are their gods of wood . . .” (v. 70).

Because all of this is so, then . . .

Better, therefore, is someone upright who has no idols; such a person will be far above reproach.” (v. 73).

Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah are among the lesser important Apocrypha. However they were both frequently simply “went along” with Jeremiah like Lamentations did in the ancient church. They have a place in the history of the Bible and were part of the English Bible tradition for hundreds of years. Both were included in the King James Version.

4 Responses to “Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah: Don’t Fear, They are not Gods”

  1. Randall Says:

    This series doesn’t seem to generate a lot of comments. I know you won’t let that discourage you. It may be that there are others, like myself, that are enjoying the series very much. It is just that the material is new to me and I hardly know what to say other than please keep it up. I have gone on line and read Tobit and I plan to read more of these texts.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Randall thank you for the encouraging words. Sometimes I do wish for more interaction but that is beyond my control. However if even one person, such as yourself, finds it informative and helpful then I have done what I hoped to do. Delighted to hear you have read Tobit. One of my favorite stories.

    Bobby V

  3. Anonymous Says:

    As you know, not everyone agrees with the “historical error” view you cite. A good write-up of the alternative view is presented here:


    Not at all trying to start any argument, but there are certainly non-trivial reasons some have for not agreeing that the reference is a historical error. Great series in any event. Thanks for doing this.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you

Leave a Reply