Jeremiah 52, the final chapter of the Book of Jeremiah, is very similar to the end of the Book of Kings. The first part of the chapter gives an extensive account of the 587 BC fall of Jerusalem (52:1–30; cf. 2 Kgs 24:18–25:21), while the second part briefly narrates the release of King Jehoiachin from a prison in Babylon some decades later (52:31–34; cf. 2 Kgs 25:27–30). The style and contents of the text indicate that, in the first instance, it was written as the conclusion of Kings. At a later moment, an editor of the Book of Jeremiah considered it appropriate to reuse the material at the end of his own work. Why would he have done so? What could have been his purpose with this final chapter in which the prophet Jeremiah and his words are left unmentioned?
See Also: Jeremiah 52 in the Context of the Book of Jeremiah (VTSup 183. Leiden: Brill, 2020)
By Henk de Waard
Theologische Universiteit Apeldoorn
According to most scholars, Jeremiah 52 was added to the prophetic book as an appendix, showing the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s oracles. This applies especially to the account of Jerusalem’s fall since this disastrous event can be related to a large number of judgment oracles in the book. The story of Jehoiachin’s release is often thought to hint at a better future after judgment. In some way or another, the positive treatment of Jehoiachin may allude to Jeremiah’s oracles of hope and restoration. After all, the prophet was not only commissioned to “to pluck up, to break down, to destroy and to overthrow,” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10).
In my opinion, this view on the purpose of Jeremiah 52 is basically valid, but it is too general. Commentators rarely pay attention to the distinctive features of the chapter vis-à-vis the parallel text in 2 Kings 24:18–25:30 (henceforth: 2 Kgs 25), while these are particularly important for understanding why this final chapter was added to the book of Jeremiah. Even though Jeremiah 52 is very similar to 2 Kings 25, the two passages are not identical, and those very differences reveal the intentions of the editor of Jeremiah 52. When he derived the chapter from Kings, this editor made some significant modifications in order to adapt the text to its new literary context (i.e., the Book of Jeremiah) and, especially, to his own purposes.
One reason why the distinctive features of Jeremiah 52 are not given much attention is that some of these features are invisible in our English Bibles and even in the Hebrew text of the chapter. This remarkable fact is due to the complex textual situation of the book of Jeremiah, which has been transmitted to us in two different text forms. In addition to the (Hebrew) Masoretic text, on which our modern translations are based, there is the Old Greek translation, which dates from the second century BC and differs substantially from the Masoretic text. One of the most significant differences is that, throughout the book, the Greek lacks an equivalent for many Hebrew words, so that, all in all, the Greek version of the book is approximately one-seventh shorter than the Masoretic text. According to the majority of critical scholars, this short version was not the result of omissions by the Greek translator. Rather, the translation reflects the former existence of a short Hebrew text form, which, in general, represents an earlier version of the book than the one transmitted in the Masoretic text (see, e.g., Weis 2017).
My own research on Jeremiah 52 supports this view on the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek text of the book. In the book’s final chapter, the Greek lacks an equivalent for circa 130 of the 570 Hebrew words, and a close examination of these and other differences makes clear that the Greek text does indeed represent an early Hebrew text form (contra Fischer 2011, 43–51). The Masoretic text form, on the other hand, is the result of secondary editing (especially expansion). An important step in this process was a harmonization with the text of 2 Kings 25. Due to this harmonization, the distinct character of Jeremiah 52, vis-à-vis its source text, became partially blurred (see below on the 587 BC deportations).
The implication of this complex textual situation is clear. When examining the (original) literary function of Jeremiah 52 in the Book of Jeremiah and the purpose for which this final chapter was added to the book, it is crucial to base the examination on the earliest available text form. In most cases, this is the text form represented by the Old Greek.
Jeremiah 52 as a Golah-Oriented Epilogue
In this early text form, one of the most remarkable features of Jeremiah 52 is its description of how, after Jerusalem’s capture, the Babylonians dealt with the population. According to 2 Kings 25:11–12, most of the people were taken into exile, and only a small minority was left behind; 2 Kings 25:21 even rounds off the account of Jerusalem’s fall by the general statement that “Judah went into exile.” The early text form of Jeremiah 52 lacks both of the references to the 587 BC deportations so that it gives a markedly different description of the fate of the people: “And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left the rest of the people [i.e., all who survived the siege of Jerusalem and the Babylonian reprisals] to be vinedressers and plowmen” (52:15–16, as attested by the Old Greek). According to this text, all surviving Judeans remained in the land of Judah; there is no suggestion of any deportation (except that of King Zedekiah in 52:11).
Since the references to the deportations are an integrated part of 2 Kings 25, they must have been omitted by the editor of Jeremiah 52. Why would he have made this modification? The answer to this question can be found in Jeremiah 24, the famous vision of the figs. This vision makes a sharp distinction between the Judeans who, in 597 BC, were exiled to Babylon (the golah, among whom was King Jehoiachin) and those who, at that time, remained in the land of Judah (under the newly installed king, Zedekiah). YHWH promised to restore the former group to their homeland (24:5–7), but the latter group would suffer a radical divine judgment (24:8–10). As observed by several commentators, the distinction in Jeremiah 24 between the 597 BC exiles and post-597 BC Judah is absolute; the text leaves no room for Zedekiah’s people to become part of the favored community in Babylon (see, e.g., McKane 1986, 608–10). In other words, Jeremiah 24 represents the golah as consisting of the 597 BC exiles only, thus ignoring later deportations.
In a general sense, the contrast between the two parts of Jeremiah 52 reflects the distinction between the two groups of Judeans in Jeremiah 24. While the account of Jerusalem’s fall reports the collapse of post-597 BC Judah, the hopeful story of Jehoiachin’s release recalls the bright prospects of the 597 BC exiles (for the latter point, which cannot be elaborated here, see De Waard 2020, 142–56). In order to bring his chapter fully in line with Jeremiah 24, however, the editor of Jeremiah 52 had to omit the references to the 587 BC deportations. This omission corresponds to the central idea of Jeremiah 24 that the community in Babylon consisted of the 597 BC exiles only. According to the vision of the figs, Zedekiah’s people would never belong to the golah, and hence the account of Jerusalem’s fall was modified in such a way as to ignore the deportation of these people (cf. Rofé 1995).
One might object that Jeremiah 24 envisions the extinction of Zedekiah’s people, while Jeremiah 52:15–16 describes their survival, at least of the majority. It should be noted, however, that the Book of Jeremiah contains an extensive narrative about these survivors, which makes clear that their continued existence in the land of Judah was short-lived. The relevant narrative is found in Jeremiah 40–44, a section that, in the original structure of the book (as attested again by the Old Greek), directly preceded Jeremiah 52 (only separated by the brief oracle for Baruch in Jer 45). It describes how the so-called “remnant of Judah” initially fared well, but that, after the assassination of Governor Gedaliah, they made the fatal decision to take refuge in Egypt. They did so en masse (43:5–7; see Stipp 2010), although the prophet Jeremiah made clear that in Egypt YHWH would make them perish (42:15–18, 22; see also 44:11–14, 26–28, and cf. “those dwelling in Egypt” in 24:8). In the context of the Book of Jeremiah, therefore, it is clear that the survivors mentioned in 52:15–16 would not escape the fate envisioned for Zedekiah’s people in 24:8–10.
In addition to the omission of the 587 BC deportations, I would like to point out two other modifications by the editor of Jeremiah 52 (there are more, but, due to limitations of space, I have to focus here on the most relevant modifications). In 52:10–11, he added two sentences that underscore the definite end of post-597 BC Judah. According to the first of these sentences, Nebuchadnezzar “slaughtered all the officials of Judah” (52:10). This refers to a class of high political leaders, whom the book of Jeremiah portrays as fierce opponents of the prophet (see esp. 37:12–15; 38:1–6, 24–27; cf. “his [Zedekiah’s] officials” in 24:8). The additional sentence conveys the idea that they were justly punished for their evilness. The other sentence was added at the end of the description of the fate of King Zedekiah. It states that, after having been deported to Babylon, the king lived out his days in prison (52:11). This sentence emphasizes that the king’s punishment was total and definite, in contrast to Jehoiachin’s (52:31–24). Remarkably, it contradicts a promise by Jeremiah of a favorable turn in Zedekiah’s fate (32:5; cf. 34:4–5).
In view of these modifications by its editor, Jeremiah 52 is probably best understood as a golah-oriented epilogue to the book. Many scholars have regarded the chapter as a mere appendix, but rather than simply providing some supplementary material, the chapter indicates the different futures YHWH had in view for post-597 BC Judah on the one hand and the 597 BC golah on the other. As envisioned in Jeremiah 24, there was a total collapse for Zedekiah cum suis, but the hopeful event in 52:31–34 serves as a sign of the future of those exiled with Jehoiachin.
Some readers may have noticed that, until now, I have not discussed what appears to be the largest difference between Jeremiah 52 and 2 Kings 25, namely the absence from the former of the story about Gedaliah found in 2 Kings 25:22–26. The reason for not attaching much significance to this difference is that, quite possibly, this story was not included in the version of 2 Kings 25 from which Jeremiah 52 was derived. The section is widely regarded as relatively late; indeed, it may well have been the last major addition to 2 Kings 25 (cf. O’Brien 1989, 270–71). If this is true, it could still have been absent from the source text of Jeremiah 52. Alternatively, if the story was included in the relevant version of 2 Kings 25, it may have been omitted by the editor of Jeremiah 52 “because it obscures the intended polarization” between the fate of Zedekiah cum suis and that of Jehoiachin (Allen 2008, 537).
The Historical Context of the Addition of Jeremiah 52 to the Book of Jeremiah
Is it possible to find a plausible historical context of the addition of Jeremiah 52 to the book of Jeremiah? Few scholars have seriously addressed this question, but many have discussed the composition and Sitz im Leben of Jeremiah 24. Opinions on this chapter vary widely. While some believe that it reflects the preaching of the historical prophet (e.g., Lundbom 2004, 224–26), others have seen it as a piece of propaganda written by exilic or post-exilic scribes in the context of ideological conflicts (e.g., Vermeylen 2010).
It seems likely, indeed, that Jeremiah 24 is a relatively late text, but, in my view, its historical context is not to be sought in a situation of conflict. Rather, the primary purpose of the chapter was to give hope, namely to the restoration community who, in the early Persian period, lived in the province Yehud. This community consisted of both returned exiles and non-exiled Judeans, but, due to socio-historical and theological factors, it probably identified itself collectively with the 597 BC exiles (cf. Stipp 2015). A similar understanding of the restoration community, but without the particular focus on the exiles of 597 BC, is found in the Book of Ezra, which designates the community as “the sons of the golah” (4:1; 6:19–20; etc.). Among the exiles in Babylon, those deported in 597 BC seem to have been the dominant group, which explains why Jeremiah 24 identifies the golah—and the restoration community associated with them—with this particular group. Moreover, the fact that this group had left the land of Judah before the ultimate disaster of Jerusalem’s destruction may have been interpreted as an indication of God’s special purpose with these people (as expressed in 24:5–7).
In such a historical context—of a restoration community identifying itself with the 597 BC exiles—Jeremiah 24 conveyed a powerful message of hope. Notwithstanding the total collapse of pre-exilic Judah, under YHWH’s judgment (24:8–10), the restoration community would have a secure future under divine favor (24:5–7). Since Jeremiah 52 gives expression to the same golah-oriented viewpoint, it can be assumed that this epilogue was added in the same historical circumstances in order to support the message of Jeremiah 24. By indicating the different fates of post-597 BC Judah and the 597 BC exiles, the epilogue clarified to the restoration community how to read the complicated combination of judgment of hope in the book (cf. 1:10)—namely, along the lines set out by Jeremiah 24.
Later Editing of Jeremiah 52 and the Larger Book
As mentioned above, the Masoretic text form of Jeremiah on which our translations are based is a reworked version of the book. Later editors or scribes made a large number of modifications, in Jeremiah 52 and elsewhere.
One important development in Jeremiah 52 was the chapter’s harmonization with 2 Kings 25. As a result of this harmonization, our Hebrew version of Jeremiah 52 no longer coheres with Jeremiah 24 in representing the golah in Babylon as consisting of the 597 BC exiles only. The references to the 587 BC were reinserted (vv. 15, 27), and the list of deportees in 52:28–30, which is likewise a later addition in the Masoretic text form (not found in the Old Greek), underscores that the golah consisted of Judeans who were exiled at different times. Rather than the particular viewpoint of Jeremiah 24, therefore, the Masoretic text form of Jeremiah 52 gives expression to a more general golah-oriented perspective. The contrast between the account of Jerusalem’s fall and the story of Jehoiachin’s release still recalls the different destinies of the homeland of Judah and the community in Babylon without identifying the latter group with the exiles of 597 BC.
One further example may be mentioned of how the editor(s) of the Masoretic text form modified Jeremiah 52. As noted above, the final sentence of 52:11, according to which King Zedekiah lived out his days in prison, contradicts Jeremiah’s promise in 32:5. Significantly, however, the two text forms of 52:11 differ about the exact location of the king’s confinement. The Old Greek, which probably represents an early Hebrew text, says that Zedekiah was put in “a mill-house”—that is, he was forced to grind grain. In the Masoretic text form, Zedekiah’s location was modified into “the house of punishments,” which uses exactly the same Hebrew root as does the promise in 32:5! The relevant root (PQD “to visit”) can have a positive sense (“to attend to”), which is the sense it has in 32:5, but it can also be used in a negative sense (“to punish”). It seems that the scribe who modified 52:11 employed the wide semantic range of PQD to remove the contradiction with 32:5. He reinterpreted the promise as a threat and indicated its fulfilment by changing “a mill-house” into “the house of punishments.” According to this reading, Zedekiah was indeed “visited,” but in a negative sense.
Finally, we may note an addition at the end of Jeremiah 51, namely the sentence “Thus far are the words of Jeremiah” (51:64). This sentence refers to the superscription of the book, which says that the book consists of “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah” (1:1). According to this superscription, the book is to be read as a collection of the prophet Jeremiah’s messages, and the additional sentence in 51:64 indicates that this collection (i.e., the book proper) ends by chapter 51. In other words, the additional sentence assigned to Jeremiah 52 the status of supplementary material, so that, ultimately, Jeremiah 52 became what it is, according to most scholars—a historical appendix to the prophetic book.
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Fischer, Georg. 2011. “Jeremia 52: Ein Schlüssel zum Jeremiabuch.” Pages 42–63 in Der Prophet Wie Mose: Studien zum Jeremiabuch. BZABR 15. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Lundbom, Jack R. 2004. Jeremiah 21–36: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB 21B. New York: Doubleday.
McKane, William. 1986. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah, Volume 1: Introduction and Commentary on Jeremiah I–XXV. ICC. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
O’Brien, Mark A. 1989. The Deuteronomistic History Hypothesis: A Reassessment. OBO 92. Fribourg: Academic Press; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Rofé, Alexander. 1995. “Not Exile but Annihilation for Zedekiah’s People: The Purport of Jeremiah 52 in the Septuagint.” Pages 165–70 in VIII Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Paris 1992. Edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon and Olivier Munich. SCS 41. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
Stipp, Hermann-Josef. 2010. “The Concept of the Empty Land in Jeremiah 37–43.” Pages 103–54 in The Concept of Exile in Ancient Israel and Its Historical Contexts. Edited by Ehud Ben Zvi and Christoph Levin. BZAW 404. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Stipp, Hermann-Josef. 2015. “Jeremia 24: Geschichtsbild und historischer Ort.” Pages 349–78 in Studien zum Jeremiabuch. FAT 96. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Vermeylen, Jacques. 2010. “Les anciens déportés et les habitants du pays: La crise occultée du début de l’epoque perse.” Transeuphrathène 39: 175–206.
Weis, Richard D. 2017. “Textual History of Jeremiah.” Pages 495–513 in Textual History of the Bible, Volume 1B: The Hebrew Bible: Pentateuch, Former and Latter Prophets. Edited by Armin Lange and Emanuel Tov. Leiden: Brill.