Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 44

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Jeremiah 44

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Jeremiah's Final Warning

Jeremiah 44 is the last chapter the prophet wrote in his book. The chapters that follow were written earlier—except for the final chapter, 52, which appears to have been added by someone else in later years.

Jeremiah delivers his final warning to the Jewish remnant that had refused to heed God's warnings. It is evident that some time has passed since the previous chapter—given that many of the Jews have returned to idolatry and have moved throughout the land of Egypt. It should also be mentioned that there were also colonies of Jews living in Egypt that had moved there previously, as mentioned in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Jeremiah 24:8-10 (a passage that stated that the Jews in Egypt would be among those delivered to trouble and destruction). Some of the Jews in Egypt may have descended from those who had migrated in the days of Judah's King Manasseh a century earlier.

As Jeremiah 44:1 shows, the Jews were spread out over a vast area in Egypt. Migdol is a Canaanite name meaning "watchtower" or "fortress" and is most likely a city on the northeastern border of Egypt. There are a number of references to Migdol in the Old Testament. The earliest was on the route of the Exodus (Exodus 14:2, Numbers 33:7) just before the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. There is a further reference to Migdol in Ezekiel's prophecy concerning the destruction of Egypt (Ezekiel 29:10). We can't be certain whether these all refer to the place, but Ezekiel's reference as a key location in describing the extent of Egyptian destruction makes it a prominent city in the north.

Tahpanhes was also a prominent northern city and the location of the pharaoh's northern palace. It was to be the place where Nebuchadnezzar would set up his throne when he invaded Egypt. The Egyptians were proud of this city, which Ezekiel also prophesied would be doomed (Ezekiel 30:18). Tahpanhes and Migdol were close to the northern end of what is now the Suez Canal, on the edge of Lake Manzala.

Noph is the city of Memphis, the ancient capital of Lower Egypt (northern Egypt). Memphis sits just outside modern Cairo, about five miles south of the pyramids.

"Pathros is Upper Egypt [southern Egypt], or the Nile Valley between Cairo and Aswan. The name appears in Assyrian inscriptions of the seventh century B.C... The Elephantine Papyri from the fifth century B.C. tell us that a Jewish colony settled there [in the area of Aswan]" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Jeremiah 44:1).

Historian Walter Kaiser sums up the chapter as "a message prepared for the Jewish diaspora living in Egypt, who had by now adopted the Egyptian lifestyle and syncretistically adopted many features of Egyptian religious life, Jeremiah reminded them that they would be the same ones who would suffer the judgment of God. Pharaoh Hophra...would be handed over to his enemies and the shelter the Judeans had sought would no longer exist" (A History of Israel, 1988, pp. 411).

Syncretism or mixing religious customs—in this case blending the traditions and superstitions of other nations in with the ways God revealed He wanted His people to worship Him—was a historical weakness of Israel. And, it was directly contrary to God's warning in Deuteronomy 12:29-32. Remarkably, Israelites make the same mistake today!

Jeremiah reminds them that the reason for the calamity on Jerusalem and all the other Jewish cities is their rebellion against Him in serving false gods (verses 2-14). The response of the men says a great deal about their spiritual condition. And it was evidently the women who were now leading the push to incorporate pagan customs as part of their own religious practices, worshiping the so-called "queen of heaven" and dragging the whole population down. But while the women may have been the driving force in this apostasy, the men were in full agreement. Then the women reaffirmed their embracing of what was actually spiritual adultery—unfaithfulness to the true God who "was a husband to them" (31:32). They basically "reasoned that when they stopped worshiping the queen of heaven in the days of Josiah's reform, their king was killed and their land was overrun and destroyed" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 44:18). They looked back at the time of pagan worship as a time of blessing and prosperity. Because of their rebellious natures, they chose the simplistic and false reasoning that any rewards or punishments from God would come immediately. Amazingly, then, after all they had seen and experienced, they had learned nothing. Their reasoning seems utterly bizarre. Yet people today still reject biblical religion with similar arguments: "I haven't noticed any problems for not worshiping God; in fact, things have been better for me since I stopped." Or, "I think that trying to follow the Bible and its laws is what hurts people and that being free from all those restrictions is much better."

"The Jews maintained that when they had offered incense to other gods and had poured out libations to the queen of heaven, all went well. When they ceased to do these things, circumstances worked against them. Somehow they refused to realize that it was the doing of these things which had first occasioned the invasion of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar. Wicked people will always find excuses to evade guilt and justify illicit actions" (Harper Study Bible, note on verse 18).

Their shallow approach to religion is almost on the level of superstition or of those who follow horoscopes today—who read generically written "prophecies" that are so ambiguous that they can be interpreted any number of ways. Of course, that's the idea. For then people can still direct their own lives rather than submit to the authority of a Supreme Being.

Walter Kaiser provides some insight into the Queen of Heaven cult that has a lot of significance for today. "Jeremiah, like several of the other prophets (e.g. Ezekiel 8:14-15) indicted Judah for her adoption and practice of the cultic rituals of the pagans around them. One apostasy that was particularly repugnant was the ancient cult of 'the Queen of Heaven.' In two separate passages, Jeremiah 7:16-18 and Jeremiah 44:15-19, 25, the prophet lamented the fact that the women were 'making cakes' [Hebrew kawwanim] for her, 'like her image' [Hebrew leha'asibah], and 'pouring out drink offerings to her.'

"Now the interesting fact is that the Hebrew word for 'cakes,' which occurs in Hebrew only in these two passages, is a loan-word from Akkadian, an East Semitic Language, spoken in Mesopotamia from 2000 to 500 B.C. Kawwanim were sweetened cakes used in the Mesopotamian cult of the mother goddess Ishtar. Archaeologists discovered in the palace kitchen at the site of Mari, an ancient city located in the Middle Euphrates region, as many as forty-seven clay molds that may have been used for very similar purposes to those opposed by the prophet. Mold number 1044 seems to represent the nude goddess Ishtar, seen seated with her hands supporting her breasts, thus possessing the image of the goddess that Jeremiah had warned against.

"The exact identity of the Queen of Heaven has not been finally solved, with candidates ranging from the West Semitic Astarte [Hebrew Ashtaroth or Ashtoreth], Anat and Asherah to the East Semitic Ishtar. However, the title 'Queen of Heaven' was found at Hermopolis in 1945 (and published in 1966). Since the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar is identified with the planet Venus, and has as her symbol an eight-pointed star, it would seem Ishtar, and perhaps one or more of the West Semitic deities could be associated with her as this so-called Queen of Heaven" (The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?, 2001, pp. 163-164). It may be that the Jews in Egypt worshiped her as the Egyptian mother goddess Isis or perhaps Hathor.

God said that we are not to incorporate pagan worship practices into our worship of Him (Deuteronomy 12:29-32, Jeremiah 10:2-5). Yet popular Christianity continues elements of the worship of Ishtar (from which we get the word "Easter"), such as baking "cakes" (or buns) emblazoned with ancient pagan symbols and using fertility symbols such as rabbits and eggs in its major springtime religious celebration. "God wants us to worship Him 'in spirit and truth' (John 4:23-24)—not in corrupted, vile practices rooted in worship of other gods" (Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep?). (Download or request a free copy of this informative booklet that explains how nominal Christianity has adopted many such pagan practices.)

Jeremiah then tells them of their final punishment. It may seem harsh, but they couldn't say they weren't warned. At the end of God's punishment, there will be no Jews left alive in Egypt. A few will escape to act as witnesses to the truth—witnesses to whose word stands, theirs or God's (verse 28).

Jeremiah's final warning ends with a prophecy against Pharoah Hophra (also known as Apries). Even he wouldn't be able to save the Jewish remnant in Egypt. "In 569 b.c. Pharaoh Hophra went to aid the Libyans against the Greeks, who had established themselves on the African coast at Cyrene. He was defeated and a rebellion broke out in his army, a part of which elevated Amasis as Pharaoh. in a battle fought between the opposing groups in 569 b.c. Amasis prevailed over Hophra. The latter was able to co-exist with his rival for some time but then was put to death" (Emil Kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas, p. 318). And, of course, Nebuchadnezzar's invasion followed soon after Hophra's overthrow.

What, then, of Jeremiah? This is not the end of his story. We leave him and his secretary Baruch in Egypt with more yet to do. Jeremiah still has his commission "to build and to plant" (1:10). Recall that Ezekiel had prophesied the transfer of the throne of David from Judah to Israel (Ezekiel 17:22-24). How interesting, then, that possible heirs to the Davidic throne, King Zedekiah's daughters, are with Jeremiah in Egypt at this time.

For the rest of the story, be sure to read the supplementary material.

Supplementary Reading: “The Throne of Britain: Its Biblical Origin and Future