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Haftorah Bo

Haftorah Bo, Jeremiah 46:13-28

The word that the LORD spake to Jeremiah the prophet, how Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon should come [and] smite the land of Egypt. Declare ye in Egypt, and publish in Migdol, and publish in Noph and in Tahpanhes: say ye, Stand fast, and prepare thee; for the sword shall devour round about thee. Why are thy valiant [men] swept away? they stood not, because the LORD did drive them. He made many to fall, yea, one fell upon another: and they said, Arise, and let us go again to our own people, and to the land of our nativity, from the oppressing sword. They did cry there, Pharaoh king of Egypt [is but] a noise; he hath passed the time appointed. [As] I live, saith the King, whose name [is] the LORD of hosts, Surely as Tabor [is] among the mountains, and as Carmel by the sea, [so] shall he come. O thou daughter dwelling in Egypt, furnish thyself to go into captivity: for Noph shall be waste and desolate without an inhabitant. Egypt [is like] a very fair heifer, [but] destruction cometh; it cometh out of the north. Also her hired men [are] in the midst of her like fatted bullocks; for they also are turned back, [and] are fled away together: they did not stand, because the day of their calamity was come upon them, [and] the time of their visitation. The voice thereof shall go like a serpent; for they shall march with an army, and come against her with axes, as hewers of wood. They shall cut down her forest, saith the LORD, though it cannot be searched; because they are more than the grasshoppers, and [are] innumerable. The daughter of Egypt shall be confounded; she shall be delivered into the hand of the people of the north. The LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saith; Behold, I will punish the multitude of No, and Pharaoh, and Egypt, with their gods, and their kings; even Pharaoh, and [all] them that trust in him: And I will deliver them into the hand of those that seek their lives, and into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, and into the hand of his servants: and afterward it shall be inhabited, as in the days of old, saith the LORD. But fear not thou, O my servant Jacob, and be not dismayed, O Israel: for, behold, I will save thee from afar off, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and be in rest and at ease, and none shall make [him] afraid. Fear thou not, O Jacob my servant, saith the LORD: for I [am] with thee; for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have driven thee: but I will not make a full end of thee, but correct thee in measure; yet will I not leave thee wholly unpunished.

This is very similar to last week’s reading from Ezekiel, except that at this point Jeremiah may be prophesying from within Egypt, which puts a different face on things. Yes, he’s pro-Babylonian from way back, but it’s different calling Nebuchadnezzar the scourge of the Lord when you are on his turf. Anyway, it’s not too surprising that the readings are similar, as the Torah portions for the last two weeks split the story of the Ten Plagues between them, and to some extent, rather than the Prophets explaining the Torah, we have here the Torah explaining the Prophets. The Babylonians are a plague, sent by the Lord, just like frogs and vermin and cattle disease, sent to take the Jews from Egypt (where they are fairly comfortable) and return them, not directly to the Promised Land, but to a forty years of wandering in the wilderness, or rather, seventy or so years residence in Babylon, where they are quite comfortable indeed.

Jeremiah’s Pharoah is not Moses’ Pharoah, of course, but the point is supposed to hold. I’m not sure it does. One of the things I am always looking for, as a Diaspora Jew, is what the Scripture has to tell me about being a Diaspora Jew. Is being a Jew of the exile like being a Jew of the Diaspora? Is Jeremiah a model for a Diaspora Jew? Is Baruch? Is Mordechai? Is Joseph? Is Abraham?

The Jeremiah model, it seems to me, is not tempting. I don’t just mean as a prophet, although I hope you all know, Gentle Reader, how little I am interested in that particular task. I mean that his model is very Temple-centered, very return-centered, very exilic. It’s not so heavily into the remnant theology that frightens me so badly, that’s true. And Jeremiah’s attitude toward secular authority is more nuanced than Ezekiel’s.

I don’t think of myself as in exile. I think of myself as a Diaspora Jew. Dispersed, not exiled. It’s an important difference to me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Vive la difference! One huge difference is that you could, if you chose, take a plane to Jerusalem.

My sense, as an interested but outside and dispassionate observer, not of Judaic history, so much as of human history, is that the Diaspora was ultimately a good thing for Judaism, given where Jews were historically, at the time of the Diap... al? Diasporation? Anyway, at that time, and where Jews are now.

Sympathy for the intervening centuries of hardship, oppression, persecution, and mass murder, of course.

On the other hand, I like Judaic theology second most of all the major world religions, and if I were to convert to one formally, I'd probably go with Judaism, rather than Buddhism, since the American brand of Buddhism has such an aroma of granola and patchouli to me.

Anyway, good luck with all that.


I met a Jewish Buddhist at the Episcopal Church. He used to sing in the choir.

Moving on... Granola remains utterly free of pork and shellfish (I wouldn't swear that patchouli is, though).

Granola remains utterly free of pork and shellfish

This is one of the major drawbacks of granola. A bacon-scallop granola bar would be ... um ... treyf.


Jews of the Hellenistic period certainly seem to use the exilic periods to think about what it means to be a Jew of the Diaspora: Tobit, Esther, Judith, Daniel, Joseph & Asenath. At least, so I will assert to my students in a couple of weeks.

I wonder whether the Jews of the Hellenic period thought of themselves as exilic. Or, rather, whether the Jews of that period who were gathering and redacting the canon. Also, I hadn't thought of Daniel as a model, and he's interesting, too.

Many of these far-flung Jews work for non-Jewish kings, supporting the secular government. Well, except the governments weren't secular, really. But they appear secular in the Jewish versions of the stories. Another interesting aspect. How do your student react to this take on The Jewish Question?

Also, I vaguely remembered Tobit as dealing mostly with Jews. I haven't read it in years--my mother had never read the thing at all until I mentioned it a month ago, but then it isn't in her Bible.


Whether Jews of the Hellenistic period saw themselves as being in exile is apparently an open question. Erich Gruen, a wise man, argues forcefully that they didn't, and that fits with my reading of the Hellenistic Jewish texts I know. But those texts very concerned with the question of how to relate to non-Jewish ruling powers and majority culture, and frequently use the various exilic periods as a screen onto which to project those concerns. In general, the model they propose seems to be limited accomodation, as in the case of Daniel: working for and supporting the ruling power, but not compromising with it on (what these texts define as) core principles.

Tobit is mostly inward-focused, about righteousness, but Tobit is a captive in Assyria, a former purchasing agent for the Assyrian king; the hostility of that king's successor and the temptations of assimilation (e.g. eating non-kosher food) are among the obstacles to righteousness in the text.

I'll let you know in a couple of weeks how my students react to this take on the Jewish Question. It'll depend somewhat on how well I manage to put it across -- the Jewish Question is something I'm only slowly learning to think about.

In particular, I'm wondering about the representations of the kings/governments and their religious aspects. That is, in reality, the kings were very closely connected to religious practice (or am I wrong about this?) and the governments were not secular at all, even in the sense that later Rome had a sort of and/also religious freedom (that is, people under the government were allowed to practice other religions in addition to the state religion, as long as they weren't in conflict or politically dangerous or there was some other reason for persecuting people). But in Esther, and in Jeremiah, and in some of the other stories (including, now that I think about it, Joseph), the government is portrayed entirely secularly, with no description of the king participating in pagan rites. I should reread Daniel about this, too. Hm. Why isn't Haman, who is the counterpart to Daniel's wicked priests, given a ritual role? Surely he would have had one. This may require thought.


True, true, and more true. In Esther and Tobit, Jews run into trouble with kings, but it's because the kings (or their advisors) are meanies, not because service to the state involves religious duties in which Jews can't participate. Daniel thematizes the issue, but seems to suggest that special exemptions are readily available for Jewish civil servants -- which apparently they were, to judge from Josephus & papyri from Hellenistic Egypt.

Tendentious as they are, 1-2 Maccabees give the most realistic picture of the place of religion in Jewish interaction with Hellenistic rulers. Not the oppression & revolt, but before then, when the Seleucids regularly finance Temple sacrifices and Jews sacrifice on behalf of the king, and that's good enough, and everything is cool as long as a) Judaea remains politically stable and b) Jews don't cross the line, e.g. by directly funding sacrifices to Heracles. Same goes for Rome, more or less.

So, I'm curious. What is "The Jewish Question?"

I can think of a number of possible candidates for that Question, but it would be nice to have a better understandng of what it is in your mind, if you're going to toss the phrase around like jargon at an Engineering Dept. picnic...


The Jewish Question, more or less, is how can a person be a good Jew and a good citizen of a non-Jewish state? As you might imagine, this is a very different question when asked by Jews and by non-Jews. Jews after the Destruction of the Second Temple essentially created a Judaism that (to their satisfaction) answered the question, although of course there can arise conflicts, as with any person and any ethical/religious/social construct. It isn't simple or easy, though. It may seem like a kind of anti-Semitism to ask the question at all; it seems that way to me, and usually when it is asked, it is asked out of a kind of anti-Semitism.

It's a serious question, though. Less so in our pluralist society, but in any nation with an established religion of any kind, there are issues. Can a Jew be a good citizen of Libya? Can the Libyan government rely on its Jewish citizens to support it? Can a Jewish Libyan rely on his government? Etc, etc. Within this context (that is, either the times that the prophetic texts and Esther and Tobit and Maccabees and their ilk were being written, or the times that they were being redacted and codified much later), it is still an open question whether or how Judaism (vaddevah dat means) would exist in the absence of a Temple and the Cohenic sacrifice.

Historically, the phrase was used to question whether Jews should be allowed full citizenship by the established government/church. And, historically, the discussion was nonsense, drummed up by lies and fear. Jews were almost never an actual danger, whether we were allowed to vote, own property or engage in agriculture and trade or not. The Nazis, with their customary delicacy, came up with a Final Solution to the Jewish Question. So talking about it at all is ... tricky. Still, it was a question, and it was a question for the Jeremiah's audiences.


How complicated. I suppose that a Religion that can also be: a Nation, a Culture, a State - can't help being complicated, particularly given other Religions, Nations, Cultures, and States that might be threatened by non-conformist ways of life, even in their own insecure little minds...

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