John Goldingay, The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT)

Goldingay, John. The Book of Jeremiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. xxix+1033 pp. Hb; $75.00   Link to Eerdmans

John Goldingay’s 2021 Jeremiah commentary in the NICOT series replaces J. A. Thompson’s 1995 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Besides his major commentary, Goldingay also recently published a short The Theology of Jeremiah (IVP Academic, 2021, reviewed here) and the NICOT volume on Lamentations (Eerdmans, 2022, reviewed here).

The sixty-six-page introduction argues the Jeremiah Scroll (as Goldingay calls the book) is a compilation of messages from Yahweh, stories about Jeremiah, and exchanges between Yahweh and Jeremiah. Goldingay outlines a plausible “three horizons” for the composition of the book. First, the particular context when Jeremiah delivered a message (for example, Jer 3:6, 21:1, 25:1). The second horizon is Jeremiah’s dictation to Baruch in 604 BC and writing in 594 BC (Jer 51:59-64). The third horizon is the production of an expanded scroll after 587 BC, with the final form of the book some time before 562 BC (based on 52:31-34). This final horizon is the work of “curators and storytellers” (9). Curators conserve things. They look after traditions, selecting and arranging them. Storytellers use narrative and drama. People can appreciate and respond to stories (both factual and fictional). Both types of stories can be just as authentic, although whether any story came from Jeremiah directly is unclear. So, Goldingay does not pay much attention to determining the dates for Jeremiah’s messages.

Goldingay, JeremiahGoldingay uses the analogy of the formation of the gospels to help explain the formation of the book of Jeremiah. In fact, both Jeremiah and the gospels have a similar time span between the words of Jesus/Jeremiah and the writing of the Gospels/the book of Jeremiah period. There are even multiple versions of Jeremiah (the Masoretic text and the Septuagint are quite different). Similar to Mark versus Matthew/Luke in the New Testament, getting behind Jeremiah to trace composition is at least as complicated as the gospels. Goldingay suggests that focusing on “getting behind Jeremiah” to work on composition is like the pursuit of Q for the study of the Gospels: it risks ceasing to pay attention to the actual scroll (14).

Nevertheless, the introduction discusses the composition of the book. Goldingay’s reconstruction uses the word possible on nearly every line. In 6626-604, Yahweh gave a series of messages to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2-6) critiquing Judah. At this point, Jeremiah is trying to reform Judah. By 604, he writes up the messages to present to king Jehoiakim, who destroys the scroll. More messages are added through 587, including the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem. In either Mizpah or Egypt, Jeremiah has Baruch right down these messages. Storytellers in Mizpah or Egypt wrote the stories about Jeremiah (chapters 26-45). In his Lamentations commentary, Goldingay suggests Lamentations was formed in Judahite communities mourning and fasting at places like Bethel or Mizpah (based on Zechariah 8:18-19). Finally, the curators compiled these complex messages by the 550s, creating the form of the book in the Masoretic tradition we have today.

Goldingay admits this is the minority opinion: most scholars agree the book reached its final form during the Persian period. He offers a series of critiques of this “fourth horizon.” If the scroll of Jeremiah was finished in the Persian period, there are there is a lack of redactional connections with Ezra-Nehemiah. In addition, Jeremiah makes no references to the Persian period, as we know it from Ezra-Nehemiah. He also points out that Jeremiah has more threats and warnings than a hope for restoration, as one would expect if the book reached its final form in the Persian.

But there is a possible fifth horizon. For some scholars, the disunity of the book shows the book of Jeremiah did not reach its final form until well into the Second Temple Period. Goldingay suggests that if the curators of Jeremiah scroll lived in the Second Temple Period, “they avoided drawing attention to themselves” and “invited the readers to read the scroll in the context of the period from Josiah to the aftermath of 587… I have accepted that invitation” (22).

He therefore points out that the book fits well into the historical events in Judah of the late Assyrian and Babylonian. Is Jeremiah a creative fiction which accurately portrays this period in Judah’s history? He draws the analogy to Ecclesiastes, which uses the known history of Solomon to present (later) theology. However, he concludes however that there was a historical Jeremiah. This is true even if the actual authors were the “curators and storytellers” working in 550s and 540s. “Their aim was to transmit the message of the real author, the prophet Jeremiah—poet, preacher, crusader, persuader” (27).

Why are there two versions of Jeremiah? It is possible to study the Hebrew and Greek versions separately or top compare the two, highlighting the special features of each. A key component of Goldingay’s theory of composition is the community at Mizpah (Jer 41:1-43:13). Jeremiah and Baruch stayed in for a time before moving to Egypt with a refugee community. Did these two locations generate two different forms the book? Possibly. Goldingay observes the larger Jewish population was in Babylon, so it is possible that the community compiled the final form of the book. But Babylonian theories are complicated (see Duane Garrett’s recent Jeremiah commentary, for example). Mizpah and Egypt are the simplest. He concludes, “such possibilities are simply possibilities” (38). The commentary uses the Masoretic text as it appears in BHS, although Goldingay’s translation notes regularly refer to differences between the MT, LXX and occasionally the Vulgate.

With respect to the theology of Jeremiah, Goldingay says, “the theology of [Jeremiah] as we have it fits into that of the First Testament as a whole and particularly in the Latter Prophets” (55). He develops three themes in the introduction: The God of Israel, the Israel of God, and the nations. In Jeremiah, God is powerful and faithful, but he is also a God of wrath and rage. God calls Israel “my people,” but they are not acting like his people. Jeremiah probably did not prophesy to the nations, but he has quite a bit to say about them. All the nations serve Yahweh, even Nebuchadnezzar is God’s servant!

Since prophets “do much of their thinking in imagery” (57), Goldingay lists several metaphors Jeremiah uses for God. God is a king, a guide, a master, a build, a shepherd, a father, etc. Citing Walter Bruggeman, Yahweh is “an abandoned bridegroom, a water fountain, a betrayed father, a lion, a wolf, a leopard, a potter” (57).  This robust and diverse portrait of God leads to a series of both/and theological statements in Jeremiah. For example, Is God chiefly characterized by anger or love? Both are true in Jeremiah. Is the catastrophe of 586 inevitable, or can Judah repent and return to Yahweh? Again, in Jeremiah, both are true.

Although the book only uses the phrase in 46:10, the prophet’s vision of the future focuses on the Day of the Lord. The Day of the Lord is the time with God will restore Israel. But this is not a far-off eschatological event at the end of history. The day of judgment is the (soon) destruction of Jerusalem and the restoration is the end of the exile (three generations in the future for Jeremiah).

Each section in the body of the commentary begins with a new translation of the pericope with a series of footnotes on lexical and textual issues. Here is where Goldingay compares the Masoretic text with the Septuagint and occasionally the Vulgate and other ancient versions. Readers who are not interested in this can easily pass over these notes. After a brief introductory paragraph setting the context and literary structure, Goldingay moves through the section verse-by-verse in a clear, readable style. All Hebrew is transliterated, and syntactical comments are minimal. Goldingay is interested in explaining what the text says and does not become distracted by “what other commentaries say.” Nevertheless, he often refers to both contemporary and classic commentaries on Jeremiah in the footnotes.

Conclusion. John Goldingay’s Jeremiah commentary will serve the next generation of biblical scholars, pastors, and teachers as they study this important book of the First Testament (to use Goldingay’s preferred title for the Old Testament). Goldingay’s commentaries are always a pleasure to read and often challenging. His style is uncomplicated and understandable for both experts and laypersons alike. He is committed to explaining the meaning of the text in the clearest terms possible.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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