The Fate of a Prophet
By Binyamin Lau
Maggid Books, 2013, 230 pages
It is extremely difficult if not impossible to understand the life, thinking, and writings of the late seventh and early sixth century BCE prophet Jeremiah without reading this book by Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau, a highly respected and articulate Orthodox rabbi with a PhD. This is primarily due to the fact that the book Jeremiah is not composed in chronological order. Lau narrates and explains Jeremiah’s life and reveals his concerns and messages to the people of his time and to their kings as it actually happened, not in the order currently in his book.
For example, the chronological order for the start of Jeremiah’s life and messages is: chapters 1, 3, 31, verses 23:1-8, chapters 30, 2, 10, 17, 11, 18, 3. The order of the end is: chapters 42, 43, 44, 52.
Like Maimonides (1138-1204), Lau takes the position that “The prophet’s job is not to tell the future, but to open the eyes of the people and their leaders to the emergent reality and to cogently and soberly sketch what will unfold. The prophet participates in real life, but from a vantage point that allows him to discern what others cannot.” Jeremiah was able to understand, what the leaders of his nation could not, that a political union with Egypt against Babylonia, the two then world powers, would result in angering the Babylonians and result in the destruction of the nation and its temple. After Judea was destroyed in 586 BCE, as he foresaw, and many of its inhabitants exiled to Babylon, some of his coreligionists wanted to return to Judea, but Jeremiah advised them that this was not the time to return.
Lau, a scholar, is unafraid of pointing out that different Bible texts have conflicting views. For example, in Jeremiah 39 and II Kings 25 the destruction of Jerusalem is attributed to Nebuzaradan, the chief of the Babylonian forces. This “represents the consensus of Jewish historiographers.” Yet, Jeremiah 49 and Psalms 137 states Jerusalem was destroyed by Edomite auxiliary forces. Lau gives easy to read scholarly footnotes that address and explain this problem and many other subjects.
Binyamin Lau published three other excellent books in English with Maggid Books. He explained the development of rabbinic Judaism and the oral law in his very well-written, comprehensive, and informative three volumes called The Sages, Character, Context & Creativity. He introduced readers to the philosophy and ideology of rabbinic leaders with fascinating anecdotes and explanations of their sayings. He detailed the changes that occurred in Judaism due to new developments, and much more.
In his first volume of this series, among many other subjects, Rabbi Lau discussed the origin of the Oral Law. He wrote: we “do not have an exact date for the beginning of the Oral Law…it seems that the beginning of this period must be placed somewhere between the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (about 450 BCE) and the ascent of Alexander of Macedonia (333 BCE).” In his second volume, he told how in 70 CE, after the destruction of Israel’s second temple, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai realized that changes had to be made in Judaism as a result of the Roman destruction of Israel and the ending of sacrifices that had been a central element in Judaism. In the third volume, he focused on Judaism from 138 CE to 220, from the restoration of the nation after the destruction of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome to the codification of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the first code of Jewish law.
Anyone who wants to know about the history and writings of Jeremiah, the period of the destruction of Judaism’s first and second temples, and the beginning of rabbinic Judaism, a system radically different than Torah Judaism, a system upon which modern Judaism is based, should read these four books.