Shiur #30: The Prophecy Concerning the Jews of Egypt

  • Rav David Sabato

 

Chapter 44 brings the story of Yirmeyahu to a close. Chapter 43 told of the descent of Yochanan the son of Kare'ach and the remnant of Yehuda to Egypt, contrary to the words of Yirmeyahu (along with Yirmeyahu and Barukh, who were apparently dragged along against their will). Chapter 44 describes the dialogue between Yirmeyahu and the remnant of Yehuda in Egypt, at the center of which is a prophecy of rebuke for the sin of idol worship. This is the last prophecy of Yirmeyahu to the people of Israel in the book. It includes several of the important themes of Yirmeyahu's prophecy, and it constitutes a sort of bitter summation of his prophetic mission.

Yirmeyahu's Prophecy

The prophecy is divided into three parts:

1) A summary of the evils of the past (1-6): "Thus says the Lord of hosts the God of Israel: You have seen all the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Yehuda… because of their wickedness which they have committed…"

2) Rebuke concerning the present situation (7-10): "Therefore now thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: Why do you commit this great evil against your souls…"

3) A prophecy of calamity concerning the future (11-14): "Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will set My face against you for evil…."

The three parts are connected to each other. Based on their experience of the evils of the past – the exile and the destruction of the land ("You have seen all the evil"), which came in the wake of their sins ("because of their wickedness") – they should have learned a lesson concerning their sins in the present ("Therefore now… Why do you commit this great evil). But since the lesson has not been learned, Yirmeyahu moves on to his conclusion about the future ("Therefore… for evil") – which will involve the destruction of the remnant of Yehuda.[1]

To whom is Yirmeyahu addressing his prophecy? It would seem that his words are directed at the Jews with whom he went down to Egypt, but we were told that those Jews reached Tachpanches (43:7), whereas from the beginning of this prophecy it is evident that the Jews enjoyed wide dispersion over the land of Egypt:

(1) The word that came to Yirmeyahu concerning all the men of Yehuda who dwelt in the land of Egypt, who dwelt at Migdol, and at Tachpanches, and at Nof, and in the country of Patros, saying…

It is possible that we are dealing here with a later stage, after the remnant of Yehuda became dispersed across Egypt. But it is more reasonable to assume that the prophecy is directed at the Jews who had left the land of Israel at some earlier time and settled in Egypt.[2] This explains Yirmeyahu's harsh words against idolatry, which do not appear in his previous prophecy. It seems that these groups had time to integrate into Egyptian culture and adopt pagan rituals.[3] For the first time, we find an account of Jewish consolidation in a foreign land.

The Past

As mentioned above, Yirmeyahu's words in this chapter bring to mind his previous prophecies. Let us follow a few key terms in the prophecy. At the center of the first section stands, as stated, the destruction. This also constitutes the framework of the section, which opens with the following words: "You have seen all the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Yehuda; and, behold, this day they are a ruin and no one dwells in them," and concludes with the following: "So that My fury and My anger was poured forth and was kindled in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem, and they have become a waste and a desolation, as at this day."

Yirmeyahu opens his survey of the past with the words "You have seen." This phrase appears three times in Moshe's words to the people, always in the context of a lesson learned from the past based on the unmediated sight of the people, which unequivocally proves the truth of God's words. It appears twice in the context of the judgments executed against Egypt and the deliverance of the people of Israel: "You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself" (Shemot 19:4); "You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land" (Devarim 29:1). It appears once in the context of the revelation at Mount Sinai: "You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven" (Shemot 20:19). These are the two foundational events in the history of the Jewish People. In our prophecy, Yirmeyahu borrows the phrase coined by Moshe and uses it in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem. He thus joins it to the chain of foundational events in his people's history.

But there is a big difference between Moshe's use of the phrase and the use made of it by Yirmeyahu. Moshe strengthened the people's faith by way of positive historical events that changed the face of the people. The exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai turned Israel into a free people and gave them the Torah. Yirmeyahu, on the other hand, tries to strengthen the people by way of the destruction that he had prophesied – an event that was just the opposite of the exodus from Egypt, entailing the loss of freedom and going out into exile. The common denominator is that they bear witness to God's providence over His people and to the truth of the prophecies of His prophets, Moshe and Yirmeyahu. In this way, Yirmeyahu attempts to tell the people that the exile is an event no less foundational than the events that took place when the nation was first created. Redemption and exile are two sides of the same coin.

Another key phrase in the prophecy is "from morning till night" (4), which relates to the earlier prophets who had been sent to the people but failed in their mission. This phrase is repeated many times in key prophecies in the book of Yirmeyahu, as part of the survey of the past, starting with the exodus from Egypt (7:21; 11:7; 25:4; 29:19). It expresses the fact that Yirmeyahu is part of a chain of prophets, beginning with Moshe, who were sent many times but failed. Therefore, the punishment to be meted out now is a cumulative punishment.

The Present and The Future

The second part of Yirmeyahu's prophecy opens with the words, "Therefore now," teaching us that what follows is a conclusion drawn from seeing what happened in the past in the previous section:[4] "Why do you commit this great evil against your souls?" An almost identical statement is found among the words of defense sounded at Yirmeyahu's trial in chapter 26: "Did Chizkiyahu king of Yehuda and all Yehuda put him to death? Did he not rather fear the Lord, and beseech the Lord, and the Lord repented of the evil which He had pronounced against them? And shall we bring such a great evil against our souls?" What these words meant there is that ignoring the prophecy and attempting to kill the prophet do not remove the evil. On the contrary, they bring it upon the people. The same is true in our case. Forgetting the destruction and the prophetic warning will only lead to greater damage.

In the third part, we reach the conclusion: "Therefore… I will set My face against you for evil…" Just as in the past the wickedness of the people led to the "evil" in the form of the destruction, their wickedness in Egypt will bring evil upon them from God. The prophet draws a parallel between the destruction and the future punishment of the remnant of Yehuda in Egypt: "For I will punish those who dwell in Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence." But the punishment in the future will be more severe than that in the past, as it appears from the phrases that repeat themselves in these verses: "destruction," "from the least even to the greatest," "none shall escape." As opposed to the destruction of Jerusalem, here we are dealing with the total destruction of the remnant remaining in Egypt. The hope of returning to the land of Israel will not be realized: "To return to the land of Yehuda, to which they have a desire to return to dwell there; for none but fugitives shall return." Here Yirmeyahu uses a phrase that he had used in reference to another exile – that of Yehoyakhin (22:26-27): "And I will cast you out, and your mother that bore you, into another country, where you were not born, and there shall you die. But to the land to which they desire to return, to it shall they not return."

The People's Response

As stated earlier, in this prophecy there are many linguistic similarities to previous prophecies. In addition to the phrases that parallel phrases used in earlier prophecies, what is striking here in Yirmeyahu's prophecy is the connection to the prophecy to the remnant of Yehuda before they came to Egypt, found in the previous chapter.[5] But there is a great contrast in the response of the people. As may be recalled, Yochanan and his men argued against Yirmeyahu: "You speak falsely; the Lord our God has not sent you." In fact, this was the main argument used to reject the words of Yirmeyahu the entire length of his mission. But here the people raise an entirely different argument against Yirmeyahu:

(15) Then all the men who knew that their wives had burned incense to other gods, and all the women that stood by, a great multitude, even all the people that dwelt in the land of Egypt, in Patros, answered Yirmeyahu, saying: (16) As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken to you, (17) but we will certainly do everything that we uttered with our mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings to her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of bread, and were well off, and saw no evil. (18) But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked all things and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine. (19) And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did we alone make her cakes to worship here and pour out drink offerings unto her, without our men-folk?

The people do not argue that Yirmeyahu is speaking falsely, but rather that they are not willing to obey him: "As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken to you." They believe that Yirmeyahu spoke to them in the name of the Lord, but they are not prepared to accept His words. (This may be additional proof that we are dealing with a different group of Jews, who had already internalized pagan ritual). This is the first time in Yirmeyahu's prophetic history that he does not have to fight over the question of truth and falsehood, the question of who speaks in the name of God. Here the argument is over a much more fundamental assumption – must one obey the word of God or something else?

The people of Yehuda reject Yirmeyahu's rebuke and do not accept the word of God. In its place, they present an alternative interpretation, completely opposite, for the spiritual-historical process that led to the destruction. Their claim is based on a serious theological difficulty that troubled the generation of the destruction. In the account of the actions of Yoshiyahu in the book of Melakhim, there arises a great difficulty regarding the punishment of destruction cast upon Yehuda. It was Yoshiyahu who purified the Temple and the land of the worship of the Baal, the ashera, and the host of heaven in a dramatic and comprehensive course of action (II Melakhim 23:4-7):

(4) And the king commanded Chilkiyahu the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring out of the Temple of the Lord all the vessels what were made for the Baal, and for the ashera, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them outside Jerusalem on the terraces of Kidron, and carried the ashes of them to Bet-El. (5) And he put down the idolatrous priests, whom the king of Yehuda had ordained to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Yehuda and in the places round about Jerusalem, them also that burned incense to Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven. (6) And be brought out the ashera from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Kidron, and burned it at the wadi Kidron, and beat it into dust, and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. (7) And he pulled down the houses of the male prostitutes that were by the house of the Lord, where the women wove covering for the ashera.

Scripture testifies about Yoshiyahu that neither before him nor after him was there anyone like him. Nevertheless, he came to a most tragic end – death in battle with Pharaoh Nekho. This event marked the beginning of the rapid deterioration of the kingdom of Yehuda, until its ultimate destruction.

This process stands in sharp contrast to the steady situation that prevailed in the kingdom during the long reign of Menashe, the wickedest of the kings of Yehuda. The conclusion drawn by the people who constituted the remnant of Yehuda from this succession of events is that prophecy's claim regarding the connection between idol worship and destruction is invalid, and just the opposite is true. It is precisely the cessation of the pagan worship of "the queen of heaven," at Yoshiyahu's initiative, that apparently led to the anger of the gods and the destruction! "But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven… we have lacked all things and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine" (18).

In verses 16-17, the people contrast their words to the words of Yirmeyahu. Yirmeyahu said: "Have you forgotten the wickedness of your fathers, and the wickedness of the kings of Yehuda, and the wickedness of their wives, and your own wickedness, and the wickedness of your wives, which they have committed in the land of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem?" They counter with precisely the same terms: "But we will certainly do everything that we uttered with our mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven and to pour out drink offerings to her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of bread, and were well off, and saw no evil." There is deep tension between two "devarim": "As for the word (ha-davar) that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken to you, but we will certainly do everything (kol ha-davar) that we uttered with our mouth…." They both specify those who burned incense to idols in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem – the fathers, the kings, and others – but Yirmeyahu attaches to each one his moral judgment, "wicked,"[6] while the people relate to those same actions in the opposite manner: "We were well off and saw no evil." The concepts of good and evil are reversed. This leads to the conclusion: "We will certainly do everything that we uttered with our mouth." This is the justification that the people bring to prove the correctness of their argument. We have not forgotten. One the contrary! We will continue in this path because this is the path where we saw success in the past. We will undo the revolution led by Yoshiyahu! Contrary to Yirmeyahu's claim, there is no evil or wickedness here, but rather, "We saw no evil."

Contrary to the historical account that Yirmeyahu presents to the remnant of Yehuda, the women who burn incense present an alternative historical narrative. According to their account, it was the cessation of burning incense to the idols that led to the destruction, and its continuation will bring them peace.[7]

Yirmeyahu's Response

Yirmeyahu's response is divided into two parts. In the first part he contends with the theological difficulty raised in the people’s words (20-23). One way of dealing with the difficulty appears in the book of Melakhim, between the account of the covenant made by Yoshiyahu and the many praises heaped upon him and the account of his tragic death at the hands of Pharaoh Nekho (II Melakhim 23:26-27): "Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn back from the fierceness of the great anger with which His anger burned against Yehuda, on account of all the provocations with which Menashe had provoked Him. And the Lord said: I will remove Yehuda also out of My sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city Jerusalem which I have chosen, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there." In other words, Yoshiyahu's actions were important and significant, but not enough to cancel the decree. They came too late.[8] Yirmeyahu's words here offer a similar answer: "The incense that you have burned in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem, you, and your fathers, your kings, and your princes, and the people of the land, did not the Lord remember them, and came it not into his mind? So that the Lord could no longer bear the evil of your doings, and the abominations which you committed; therefore is your land a ruin, and an astonishment, and a curse, without inhabitant, as at this day" (21-22). In other words, the sins of idolatry in the days of Menashe, in the days of the fathers, were too much. They were remembered and they were joined together until they tipped the scales, and God could no longer bear them. Similar to what he said earlier, Yirmeyahu emphasizes the inter-generational continuity of sin and the prophets, as well as the inter-generational responsibility.

Later in his words to the people (24-30), Yirmeyahu describes the calamity that will in the future befall the remnant of Yehuda, a calamity that will prove the correctness of his prophecy (as we have already seen in many places in the book). These verses contain many phrases that are connected to oaths and vows:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, saying: You and your wives have both spoken with your mouths and fulfilled with your hands, saying: We will surely perform our vows that we have vowed, to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings to her; if you will accomplish your vows, accomplish them, and if you will perform your vows, then perform them. (26) Therefore hear the word of the Lord, all those of Yehuda who dwell in the land of Egypt: Behold, I have sworn by My great name, says the Lord, that My name shall no more be named at the mouth of any man of Yehuda in all the land of Egypt, saying: The Lord God lives… (29) And this shall be a sign to you, says the Lord, that I will punish you in this place, that you may know that My words shall surely stand against you for evil. (30) Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will give Pharaoh Chofra, king of Egypt, into the hand of his enemies, and into the hand of those who seek his life, as I gave Tzidkiyahu king of Yehuda into the hand of Nevukhadretzar king of Bavel, who was his enemy, and sought his life.

If we follow the various oaths and vows, we find different contexts: in the words of the people, in the response of God, and in the punishment. In the people's response to Yirmeyahu, mention is made of their vows to the queen of heaven that they fulfilled, and by virtue of which, as it were, they enjoyed a good life: "But we will certainly do everything that we uttered with our mouth…." Against these vows and their fulfillment (25), Yirmeyahu presents in his second answer another oath: God's oath to destroy the remnant of Yehuda in Egypt. The formulation of the punishment is connected to the sin (26): "Behold, I have sworn by My great name, says the Lord, that My name shall no more be named in the mouth of any man of Yehuda in all the land of Egypt, saying: The Lord God lives." God swears by His name that nobody of Yehuda will remain who can swear by the name of God, even if he so desires. Phrases taken from the context of oaths and vows appear also later in the prophecy (29): "They shall know whose words shall stand… My words shall surely stand against you for evil." One oath is pitted here against another, the oath of the people against the oath of God, and we will see whose oath stands!

In these verses, Yirmeyahu returns to the expressions of calamity found in the prophecy of consecration: "Behold, I will watch over them for evil, and not for good." This is a negative closing of the circle. In contrast to the hope of "watching over for good" after the destruction, which centered on the person and actions of Gedalyahu, now the “watching over for good” is replaced by “watching over for evil.”

Yirmeyahu closes with a prophetic sign that will prove his words:

(29) And this shall be a sign to you, says the Lord, that I will punish you in this place, that you may know that My words shall surely stand against you for evil. (30) Thus says the Lord: Behold I will give Pharoah Chofra king of Egypt into the hand of his enemies, and into the hand of those who seek his life, as I gave Tzidkiyahu king of Yehuda into the hand of Nevukhadretzar king of Bavel, who was his enemy and sought his life.

Here, too, Yirmeyahu connects his earlier prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem to his present prophecy concerning the remnant of Yehuda in Egypt: "Behold I will give Pharaoh Chofra… as I gave Tzidkiyahu…." Paraoh's fate will be like that of Tzidkiyahu.

This is no mere prophetic sign. The death of Pharaoh Chofra marks the beginning of the destruction. From external sources we know some things about the life and fate of Pharaoh Chofra.[9] He was the fourth king in the twenty-sixth dynasty, and in his days Egypt was active in the political arena of the Near East. He tried to incite neighboring countries to rebel against Nevuchadnetzar, the king of Bavel. In accordance with these policies, Chofra helped Tzidkiyahu, king of Yehuda, to stand up against Bavel during the siege of Jerusalem. This Egyptian intervention caused a temporary withdrawal of the Babylonian army, but this success was short-lived. The Egyptians were forced to return home that same year, and Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed. Chofra tried to compell Tzidon and Tzor to help, but he was unsuccessful. This was not the last of his failures. The Libyans, his neighbors to the west, asked for his help against the Greek colony in Cyrene. In its westward campaign, the Egyptian army suffered defeat, and in its wake the army rebelled against its leaders. One of Pharaoh Chofra's generals, Ya'achmas, declared himself king and forced the incumbent king to share the monarchy with him. In the third year of this partnership, Chofra went out to war against Ya'achmas, but he was defeated and killed. Yirmeyahu refers to this death in the verse before us.

A fragmentary Babylonian text tells of Nevuchadnetzar's journey to Egypt: “In the thirty-seventh year, Nevuchadnetzar king of Bavel journeyed to Egypt to battle… Ya'achmas of Egypt raised his army, he called for his aid…" The year is 567 BCE, and the king is apparently Ya'achmas II, who had earlier deposed Pharaoh Chofra. Josephus relates that in the twenty-third year of Nevuchadnetzar, "he invaded Egypt to suppress it and he killed the king who reigned at that time, and crowned a different king. And the Jews who were in the land he took again in captivity and brought them to Bavel."

Even in Egypt, then, Yirmeyahu continues to prophesy and rebuke the people. The prolonged confrontation between him and the people ends with a prophecy of calamity concerning the Jews living in Egypt, which closes with God's oath. Yirmeyahu's last prophecy to Israel in his book ends on this sharp tone. Once again, even after the full realization of his prophecies, Yirmeyahu's prophecy is not heeded by his people. This tragic conclusion is typical for Yirmeyahu and his thankless mission. But the figure of Yirmeyahu is engraved in the consciousness of future generations not only as the prophet of destruction and exile, but also as the prophet who envisioned the return from exile after seventy years (II Divrei Ha-yamim 36:20-23):

(20) And those who had escaped from the sword he carried away into exile to Bavel, where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Paras. (21) To fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Yiremyahu, until the land had made good her Sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil seventy years. (22) Now in the first year of Koresh king of Paras, so that the word of the Lord spoken by the mouth of Yirmeyahu might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Koresh king of Paras, that he made a proclamation throughout all of his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying: (23) Thus says Koresh king of Paras: The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Yehuda. Whoever is among you of all His people – the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!

 

Translated by David Strauss

 

 


[1] Over the course of the prophecy, certain guide words repeat themselves several times: karet, palit, sarid, tam.

[2] Evidence of the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Egypt is found in the Apocryphal work "The Letter of Aristeas." It indicates that the Jewish community there was initially made up of mercenary soldiers, who maintained royal fortresses on the Egyptian borders. This accords with what follows from the words of Yirmeyahu, who appeals to the Jews in the northern frontier cities of Egypt: Migdol, Tachpanches, and Nof.

[3] Migdol, Tachpanches, and Nof are mentioned also in chapter 46 – the first chapter of the prophecies concerning the nations. It appears that the arrangement of the chapters is meant to highlight the fulfillment of Yirmeyahu's threat.

[4] Here too, the parallel to the words of Moshe continues. In Shemot 19, Moshe says to the people: "You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself." And afterwards: "Now, therefore, if you will obey My voice, indeed… and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasrure from among all people, for all the earth is mine."

[5] There will be no remnant; famine, sword and pestilence; as My anger has been poured out on Jerusalem, so will it be poured out on you.

[6] The word "ra" (evil, wickedness) is the main word in Yirmeyahu's prophecy. It appears ten times in his first words and four more times in his response to the words of the people. In the words of the people, the pair "well/evil" appears once, with the opposite meaning.

[7] The women of Yehuda are mentioned several times in the chapter and play a central role in the dispute with Yirmeyahu. In verse 9, Yirmeyahu relates explicitly to the wickedness of the women. In verse 15, it says that the men know "that their wives had burned incense to other gods" and that "all the women that stood by, a great multitude," answered with them. In verse 19 it says: "Did we alone make her cakes… without our menfolk," which indicates that the principal speakers are the women, and their argument is that they burned incense with the support of their husbands. Later, Yirmeyahu responds to "all the people, to the men, and to the women." The men do not use the excuse that they were ignorant of their wives' actions, but rather express full agreement with them.

An explanation for the role of the women in this ritual rises from verse 19, which states that they burned incense to "melekhet ha-shamayim." As explained by M. Bula (Da'at Mikra), the reference is to "malkat ha-shamayim," the queen of heaven. Scripture changes the vocalization as a sign of contempt. The reference seems to be to the planet Venus, an Assyrian goddess called Ashtar, which was considered the supreme goddess among the Assyrian deities. In the Babylonian and Assyrian prayers, she is referred to as "queen."

[8] In that context, the prophetess Chulda says that the evil will come upon Jerusalem, but by virtue of Yoshiyahu's actions the destruction will be pushed off, so that he will not witness it (II Melakhim 22:20).

[9] The information that follows is taken from Rafael Giv'on, Olam Ha-Tanakh, Yirmeyahu, p. 192.