Baruch: Jeremiah’s scribe, against hopelessness and idolatry
The Old Testament Book of Baruch is very brief, just six chapters, but it is still divided into three sections, each one fascinating in its own right. The book was nominally composed by Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, who had to write all of Jeremiah’s visions and prophecies in a scroll, and then write it out again after it was disregarded and burned by the King. This book is not that scroll, however. Rather, the Book of Baruch was initially composed as a letter from the exiles in Babylon to the high priest who remained in Jerusalem after its capture.
This letter was sent along with donations from the exiles for the continuation of Divine worship in the temple, with both encouragement to all Israel and a request for fervent prayer. Scripture scholars tend to think parts of it were written at different times up to shortly before the birth of Christ, and such judgments may arise in part because of the three markedly different sections in the book. Moreover, the book is not extant in Hebrew, and is known only from the Greek.
As an aside, I should say that textual arguments about authorship may not actually prove anything. In a secular age, Scripture scholars have been notorious for redating and reinterpreting texts based on the flimsiest of internal literary evidence. In any case, the Church’s determination of canonicity is not affected by the manner in which any given book may have been composed. She vouches for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the text, not for the historical process through which God has caused it to be written.
Contrition and Supplication
The first two chapters of Baruch explain his purpose and request the High Priest to make confession for the whole people on special feast days. Baruch provides a text to be used, both as a confession that the Jews have fallen into punishment through their own fault, and as a prayer for deliverance and the renewal of God’s covenant with Israel. This prayer is extraordinarily honest:
Righteousness belongs to the Lord our God, but confusion of face to us and our fathers, as at this day. All those calamities with which the Lord threatened us have come upon us. Yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord by turning away, each of us, from the thoughts of his wicked heart…. [W]e have sinned, we have been ungodly, we have done wrong, O Lord our God, against all thy ordinances. Let thy anger turn away from us, for we are left, few in number, among the nations where thou hast scattered us. [Bar 2:6-13]
Again, about a third of the book is devoted to introducing the problem and prescribing the prayers to be offered.
Hope and Encouragement
The next three chapters are a combination of what we might call Wisdom literature and prophetic poetry. The text extols Wisdom and also encourages Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular, to hope for Divine restoration. This portion of the text is written as if Wisdom were speaking; in one portion the discourse, Wisdom also personifies Jerusalem, putting the words of a mother on her lips:
God has brought great sorrow upon me, for I have seen the captivity of my sons and daughters, which the Everlasting brought upon them. With joy I nurtured them, but I sent them away with weeping and sorrow…. But I, how can I help you?... Take courage, my children, cry to God, and he will deliver you from the power and hand of the enemy. For I have put my hope in the Everlasting to save you, and joy has come to me from the Holy One, because of the mercy which soon will come to you from your everlasting savior. [Bar 4:9-22]
This section concludes in a multi-layered prophecy with Messianic overtones. Wisdom enjoins Jerusalem to look toward the east, where she will behold her children coming back to her, gathered from afar at the word of the Lord, and “rejoicing in the glory of God” (4:36-37).
Argument against Idolatry
The last chapter of Baruch is a copy of a letter which Jeremiah sent to the exiles in Babylon. (In some Bibles this chapter is presented as a separate book, called the “Letter of Jeremiah”, ending Baruch with chapter 5.) This letter is chiefly a sustained argument against idols and idolatry. It consists of ten proofs that idols are human creations which can do nothing whatsoever for themselves or anyone else. Each of these proofs closes with a variation on this refrain: “From this you will know that they are not gods, so do not fear them” (6:23).
Throughout the Old Testament, there are references to idolatry as not only harlotry (the betrayal of the Divine spouse) but also the height of human folly, since idols are inanimate objects fashioned by men—objects which, should they be knocked down, cannot even set themselves aright. But this section in Baruch is unique in two ways: First, the argument is sustained through ten parts, each exposing different ways idols are created and used that prove they are not gods; second, each ends with the admonition that, since idols clearly are not gods, there is no reason to be afraid of them.
This emphasis is significantly different from mere condemnation, in that it takes into account the confusion into which the Israelites had fallen, so much so that they were actually afraid of offending gods which were demonstrably merely wood, metal or stone. While the book ends abruptly with the final sentences of this letter, its conclusion is worth quoting:
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed, that guards nothing, so are their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver. In the same way, their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver, are like a thorn bush in a garden, on which every bird sits; or like a dead body cast out in the darkness. By the purple and linen that rot upon them you will know that they are not gods; and they will finally themselves be consumed, and be a reproach in the land. Better therefore is a just man who has no idols, for he will be far from reproach. [6:70-73]
With the modern rebellion against the Christian Faith, we are seeing the rise once again of various forms of idolatry, even in the strictly religious sense of pagan worship. But Our Lord universalized Jeremiah’s argument (as preserved in Baruch) when He advised us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, which are as subject to deterioration and rot as they are to loss through thievery and death. Rather, we are to lay up treasures in heaven, which we can enjoy forever.
We can almost hear Him asking, “Since earthly treasures are not gods, why do you fear being without them?” This is the lesson of the whole book of Baruch, powerful and consistent through all three sections—concerning the Chosen People who had lost everything by speculating in the market of worldly success. Yet the lesson was perhaps best summarized later by this same Christ, when He said: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21; Lk 12:34).
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