Fretheim on Babylon in Jeremiah

Scholars often note that the two-sided character of Jeremiah’s oracles about Babylon seem contradictory. On the one hand, Babylon is the instrument of God for the judgment of Israel (and other nations); on the other hand, Babylon is judged for exceeding its divine mandate, going beyond its proper judgmental activities, and committed iniquity itself in making the land an “everlasting waste.” (so also chs. 50–51). But, if one understands these two different messages in temporal sequence, this dual message is not contradictory. The relationship of God to Babylon changes in view of Babylon’s own conduct as the agent of judgment. When Babylon engages in excessively destructive behaviors, it opens itself up to reaping what it has sown (50:29; 51:24). God turns against God’s own agent on the basis of issues of justice; this is a divine pattern also evident with respect to Israel (see Exod 22:2124). If God were not to change in view of changing circumstances, God would be unfaithful to God’s own commitments.

This text is also testimony to the way in which God uses agents; God does not “control” or micromanage their behaviors. These agents are not puppets in the divine hand; they retain the power to make decisions and execute policies. God’s agents can act in ways that are contrary to God’s own will for the situation; God’s will and action in these events is not “irresistible” (as Israel’s own sin testifies; contrary to Walter Brueggemann, A Comentary [sic] on Jeremiah: Exile and homecoming 1998], 222). [Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, This risky divine way of working in the world also opens God up to misunderstanding and may besmirch God’s own reputation in the world (and often has). This way of working also has negative effects on God’s own life. God’s grieving, so commonly displayed in Jeremiah, is intensified when human suffering is intensified. This understanding of Babylon’s excessiveness also reflects back on issues of divine foreknowledge. Though, because God certainly knew of the possibility of Babylon’s overreaching conduct, God is not finally “off the hook” regarding what happens. And so Jeremiah will speak of God expressing regret over what has happened, namely, the excessive violence Israel has had to endure. (Fretheim, Jeremiah, p. 357)

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