Engaging Biblical Plurality: The Zedekiahs in the Books of Jeremiah
Unfortunately, many biblical scholars and religious educators—whether consciously or unconsciously—overlook this history and its divergent texts, often endorsing one form of Jeremiah over the other. Such partiality can lead to incomplete biblical scholarship or religious exclusivism. Granted, religious communities often show partiality based on current canonization; however, the canons changed over time, and both versions of Jeremiah have been considered sacred in Jewish and Christian history. So both versions need to be taken seriously by interpreters regardless of affiliation.
See also: The Last King(s) of Judah: Zedekiah and Sedekias in the Hebrew and Old Greek Versions of Jeremiah 37(44):1–40(47):6 (Mohr Siebeck, 2017).
By Shelley L. Birdsong
North Central College
Introduction to Plurality in Jeremiah
There are two different versions of the book of Jeremiah; let’s call them “ver. H” and “ver. G.” Ver. H is longer and is represented in most ancient Hebrew manuscripts. Ver. G is shorter and is most commonly represented in the earliest Greek manuscripts. For centuries, interpreters have speculated on the relationship between these two different versions of Jeremiah and how they came to be. Initially, scholars assumed that ver. H was older and ver. G was produced when scribes condensed the Hebrew as they translated it into Greek. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shed serious doubt on this model (Tov 1997, 145–207). The cache of scrolls included fragments of both versions of Jeremiah in Hebrew, indicating that ver. G wasn’t changed during the translation process; it existed as a distinct version in Hebrew before it was ever translated. Consequently, our theories about ver. H and ver. G have completely changed. To begin, we cannot be certain which version actually represents the “oldest” or “most original” text, and so we continue to debate it ferociously. Most scholars currently believe that ver. G, for which we now have Greek and Hebrew textual witnesses, was not significantly altered during the translation process. Instead, ver. H is likely the product of change; it must have undergone revision and expansion (Tov 2012, 286–299).
As if that were not complicated enough, the two versions have gained and lost sacred status over time and within various religious traditions. For example, during the Hellenistic period, Jews used both ver. G and ver. H of Jeremiah in Hebrew (as confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls), but ver. G in its Greek form was more popular when Greek became the dominant language of the Mediterranean. Yet, as the canon closed, ver. H in Hebrew was prioritized, and it ultimately became the primary text for the Jewish canon and translations to this day. Early Christians gave precedence to the Greek translation of ver. G, but as the Church has fragmented into Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant groups, the two different versions in various translations have risen and fallen in authority. The Orthodox community continues to prioritize ver. G in Greek, while Protestants prioritize ver. H in Hebrew. The Catholic Church has used both versions in Greek and in Latin, but the authoritative Latin now follows more closely with ver. H. All this to say, everyone doesn’t have the same book of Jeremiah, and we haven’t for a long time.
Unfortunately, many biblical scholars and religious educators—whether consciously or unconsciously—overlook this history and its divergent texts, often endorsing one form of Jeremiah over the other. Such partiality can lead to incomplete biblical scholarship or religious exclusivism. Granted, religious communities often show partiality based on current canonization; however, the canons changed over time, and both versions of Jeremiah have been considered sacred in Jewish and Christian history. So both versions need to be taken seriously by interpreters regardless of affiliation. Otherwise, whole groups of people are really only learning one side of the story, falsely believing it is the sole verity. The irrefutable presence of the plurality of traditions necessitates inclusive and retrospective exegesis, which acknowledges, and ideally engages, the differences rather than ignoring or harmonizing them. In doing so, such comprehensive investigation promotes religious literacy and diversity by modelling impartiality and valuing all the voices in “the Bible.” The following introduction to the two versions of the character of Zedekiah in the books of Jeremiah will serve as an example of such inclusive engagement and exemplify the usefulness of doing so in the field of biblical studies and the broader community.
Engaging the Plurality of Tradition: Zedekiah and Sedekias
There are two different versions of King Zedekiah. To help differentiate the two, we’ll call the version of the king now represented in the Greek tradition (ver. G), “Sedekias,” and the king in the Hebrew (ver. H), “Zedekiah.” The major differences between Sedekias and Zedekiah are found in Jeremiah 37–40 (Greek chapters 44–47). These chapters recall the kings’ encounters with the prophet Jeremiah as the Babylonians were coming to destroy Jerusalem in 586 BCE (for side-by-side comparison of the texts in Hebrew, Greek, and English, see Birdsong 2017, 33–83). As you will see, Sedekias and Zedekiah have distinctive stories in both content and form, which ultimately reinforce the unique functions of each version of Jeremiah.
Meet Sedekias of ver. G. He is rarely called by name, and is more often an unspecified king referred to by pronoun or title (e.g. Greek Jer 44:18, 21; cf. Heb 37:18, 21); his personal identity is not emphasized. Overall, the king is presented as a powerful and dispassionate monarch, yet unpredictable. His relationship to the prophet Jeremiah is one of opposition. After being beaten and put in prison by royal officials, Jeremiah asks Sedekias, “How have I wronged you or your servants or this people that you put me into the house of imprisonment?” (G Jer 44:18). Using a singular “you,” Jeremiah emphasizes that even though the officials imprisoned him, Sedekias alone bears the blame. The prophet continues his personal accusation of the king, then eventually pleads to be removed from the house of imprisonment (vv. 19–20). The narrator informs the reader that Sedekias made the order, and “they threw him [Jeremiah]” back “into the house of imprisonment” (v. 21). Obviously, the king refused the prophet’s requests, showing little sympathy and his iron fist (cf. Zedekiah; see Birdsong 2017, 51).
Sedekias continues to treat Jeremiah as a pawn throughout the story. In G Jer 45:4–5, Sedekias hands over the prophet to the malicious officials when they demand his execution. The king consents, proclaiming, “Behold! He is in your hands.” One might argue that Sedekias is exonerated by the narrator, who notes that the king “was not able to do anything to them,” but he is not. For, in the next scene, Jeremiah’s ally, Ebed-melech, inculpates Sedekias outright: “You have been evil in what you have done—to kill this man [Jeremiah] because of famine; for there is still not bread in the city” (G Jer 45:9). The king does not deny it. Moreover, he ironically confirms his collusion in the prophet’s attempted murder when he allows Ebed-melech to rescue Jeremiah (v. 10). He says, “Bring him up out of the cistern,” but Ebed-melech didn’t tell Sedekias he was in a cistern! The comment reveals Sedekias’ hand; he knew where Jeremiah was being tortured, and he only allowed him to be saved because he was confronted in public (see v. 7).
Later in the story, Sedekias calls upon Jeremiah to inquire about the incoming Babylonians (G Jer 38:14–26). As he confers with the prophet, Sedekias appears cool and calculated. He considers how surrendering to Babylon might look to the Judeans, a decision that could be a public relations problem. He notes this as “a concern” that might lead to others “mock[ing]” him (v. 19). Jeremiah implores Sedekias to surrender and warns him of the impending doom if he doesn’t. The king is portrayed as worrying about his own political image rather than the religious and moral repercussions of his choice. Interestingly, and despite the fact that the fate of the city is in Sedekias’ hands, the king fades out of the story as an irrelevant character. Instead, the narrator focuses on Jeremiah, making him the main character, and hero, in G Jer 44:1–47:6.
Such is not the case in ver. H (Jer 37:1–40:6). Zedekiah holds the position of hero, although he is a tragic one. The narrator of ver. H spins the story in a way that endears Zedekiah to the reader and produces empathy for the ineffective monarch. The narrator does so by personalizing Zedekiah’s story; unlike Sedekias, he is regularly called by name (e.g. H Jer 37:18, 21; 38:5) and is presented as an ally of Jeremiah and Ebed-melech rather than an adversary. Both Jeremiah and Ebed-melech call Zedekiah, “my lord, the king” (H Jer 37:20, 38:9), use placatory language when confronting him (H Jer 37:3, 20; 38:20), and speak in ways that accuse the officials rather than the king for the maltreatment of Jeremiah (e.g. H Jer 37:18 and 38:9 versus G Jer 44:18 and 45:9). In return, Zedekiah regularly listens to their pleas and works to ameliorate the prophet’s circumstances (H Jer 37:21; 38:10).
This more amicable presentation of Zedekiah contra Sedekias comes into focus in two primary scenes. The first is in H Jer 37:17–21. After Zedekiah calls upon Jeremiah for a divine word, Jeremiah asks, “How have I sinned against you or your servants or against this people that you have put me into the house of imprisonment?” The question is very similar to the one Jeremiah asks Sedekias in ver. G. However, the accusation is not singular; that is, the “you” refers to “you all” in a plural sense. Thus, in ver. H, Zedekiah may be partly to blame for Jeremiah’s imprisonment, but only as the monarch who is assumedly responsible for his officials’ actions. Yet Zedekiah is quick to remedy the situation, unlike Sedekias. While the king in ver. G threw Jeremiah back into the house of imprisonment, Zedekiah orders his servants to “commi[t] Jeremiah to the court of the guard,” which was not freedom, but it was better than the cells in the house of imprisonment (for more details on the prison variants, see Birdsong 2017, 51).
The second significant scene is when Ebed-melech comes to rescue Jeremiah from the cistern in H Jer 37:7–13. In verse 8 of ver. H, Ebed-melech respectfully addresses King Zedekiah and reports that the officials “have been evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they threw into the cistern.” In the eyes of Ebed-melech in ver. H, the officials are the antagonists who have attempted to kill Jeremiah, whereas Zedekiah can be trusted to help rescue the prophet. This is quite different than Ebed-melech’s accusation of Sedekias alone for Jeremiah’s maltreatment in ver. G. Moreover, Sedekias incriminates himself when he lets slip that Jeremiah was in a cistern even though Ebed-melech never mentioned it (G Jer 45:9–10). Zedekiah, on the other hand, acts as a supporter of the prophet, and immediately sends Ebed-melech to Jeremiah’s aid (see Birdsong 2017, 56–60 for more details).
Even though ver. H portrays Zedekiah as more amiable toward Jeremiah and Ebed-melech, he is also timid and paranoid. He moves into the shadows of secrecy and fear exemplified in the progression of his meetings with Jeremiah via public envoy (H Jer 37:3), to meeting privately in the palace (37:17), and then in a secret entrance in the temple (38:14). He speaks covertly (37:17, 38:16) but also makes some shocking statements about his weakness out loud. In H Jer 38:5, he admits publically that he lacks the ability to control his officials, essentially conceding his powerlessness. In H Jer 38:19, he tells Jeremiah he’s “afraid” of being harmed by his own people if he surrenders to the Babylonians. At this juncture in ver. G, Sedekias was simply considering his next move for the ideal optics politically, and he kept any vulnerability that he might have had to himself. Zedekiah appears to be an emotional mess, flailing between his devotion to his confidant Jeremiah and the anti-Babylonian officials.
Such variances might be viewed as minor and shrugged off, but one cannot turn a blind eye to H Jer 39:4–13. These nine verses, which have no parallel in Sedekias’ story, retell in gory detail how Zedekiah failed to secretly evade the Babylonian army by escaping to the desert. They quickly overrun him, slaughter everyone in Zedekiah’s retinue, including his sons, then gouge out his eyes and shackle him. This jaw-dropping climax highlights Zedekiah’s violent fate, particularly in contrast to Jeremiah and Ebed-melech, whom God protects and saves despite the military invasion (H Jer 39:16–40:6). Their fierce courage as servants of Yahweh ultimately leads to their salvation, while Zedekiah’s faint-heartedness and lack of action are deemed deficient. Despite this, Zedekiah’s sorrowful end is not promoted as well-deserved; rather, it is presented as overwhelmingly tragic. He is an anti-hero, who should not be emulated but can be pitied. As such, he becomes a metaphor for Jerusalem in ver. H. It was not that the city or Zedekiah rejected Yahweh; their zeal was simply sub-par in the eyes of some biblical authors. So here, like in Lamentations, the horrific suffering and torment may have been unjustified. If understood this way, Zedekiah’s characterization as an imperfect human has immense potential to resonate with those who had to navigate competing priorities to God and foreign suzerain. Under such circumstances, one could certainly empathize with a failed king, who had good intentions but often felt helpless and afraid in the conflict of power.
Acknowledging Plurality and Valuing Individuals
When introduced alongside one another, Sedekias and Zedekiah simply cannot be accepted as the “same person.” They are unique, and their co-existence compels us to value each king in his own right rather than discarding one or harmonizing both. Of course, some scholars might suggest that one version should be prioritized over the other because it is “older” or “more original.” However, we don’t know for certain if ver. H or ver. G came first. And even if we could be certain and did agree, that wouldn’t negate the fact that both versions held and continue to hold canonical status in Jewish and Christian circles. Therefore, all the evidence should be taken into consideration when making truth claims—whether scholarly or religious.
In spite of this fact, most modern commentators have prioritized one version of Jeremiah over the other and one version of Zedekiah over the other. As Birdsong shows, a majority of historical and literary scholars in the field of Jeremiah studies have given precedence to the Hebrew or Masoretic text (ver. H). Some scholars even make complex arguments about how the character of Zedekiah developed historically without addressing a major piece of that puzzle—his doppelgänger in ver. G (Birdsong 2017, 5–25). Such method of inquiry is no longer sustainable in light of what we now know. For an educated exegete to make an interpretive conclusion regarding Zedekiah or the book of Jeremiah based solely on one version is unequitable. Moreover, it presents a model to religious communities that the history and various versions of the Bible don’t have to be taken seriously. This reinforces the naïve notion that the Bible has remained unitary and unchanged throughout time, propagating one singular truth. Scholarly and religious communities would be better served if the biblical texts were fairly represented as they are—complicated and plural. All of us can learn from the scriptures themselves, which are inclusive and diverse; they value multiple perspectives and a dialogue that remains open-ended.
Embracing the Evolution of the Bible and Its Plurality
Sedekias and Zedekias resulted from the shifting sands of time. On a broader scale, the various biblical traditions have as well. The texts adapted to their different environments much like a species that evolves to survive. Contemporary interpreters can learn from this process by which sacred texts changed to meet the needs of various people throughout history. It gives us a model of how to reinterpret tradition for each new time and place. The “old” traditions were not deleted or discarded. They were not watered down or shrugged off as relative sentiments. “New” traditions were simply added to the long and polyphonic dialogue, amplifying the cacophony that continues on. So too, we are invited into the conversation, to add our own voices as we engage the texts, their history, and one another.
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