Saldarini, Athony. The Book of Baruch in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume VI, Convener Leander Keck. (Abingdon, Nashville, 2001).
Wright, J. E. Baruch Ben Neriah: From Biblical Scribe to Apocalyptic Seer. (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia SC, 2003)
One of a number of works attributed to Baruch, the prophet Jeremiah’s secretary / scribe. “BARUCH” means “blessed”. None of the other works was incorporated into the Bible, the others (2 Baruch, 3 Baruch, 4 Baruch) are in a loosely organized category of works called “Pseudopigrapha”.
What did a scribe do? Wrote letters etc. but more – was trained in doing legal work, legal documents, writing things in correct form and language for all sorts of private and public business. Literacy at the time is hard to determine but most scholars assert that most people would have known the alphabet, been able to sign their names, etc. Hence – most would have turned to a scribe for anything complex at all. Baruch becomes more than an assistant – he eventually emerges as the leader of those who listened to Jeremiah / the LORD.
The historical background: Regional powers were Babylon and Egypt. Egypt installed its choice as the king of Judah in 609 BC. Understandably this king, Jehoiakim, favored the Egyptians. Just 4 years later (605 BC) the Egyptians fought the Babylonians and lost to them. The prophet Jeremiah favored submission to the Babylonians, seeing their rise as a punishment for the idolatry of the people and kings of Judah. The king and his advisors persisted with an alliance with Egypt instead. Hence the anger of the Babylonians and the eventual loss of everything. There was a lot of back and forth but, in the end, there was a three year siege of Jerusalem and then it fell. During most of his lifetime Jeremiah (and Baruch) were in opposition to the King and in danger.
“Baruch” is recognized as scripture only by Catholics and the Orthodox. It is not in Protestant bibles or the Jewish canon. The basic criticism of these traditions with Baruch was that it was “derivative, composite, uneven in theology, lacking originality and consistency”. Protestants list this particular book as part of the Apocrypha, a ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ book. We list it as “Deutero-Canonical” or “second canon”, one of 7 books we read without the other denominations, with a hint of second class status.
The book has 4 parts:
- Narrative Introduction 1:1 to 1:14
- A Prayer of Confession and Repentance 1:15 to 3:8
- Wisdom poem of admonition and exhortation 3:9 to 4:4
- Poem of consolation and encouragement 4:5 to 5:9
- Chapter 6 is the Letter of Jeremiah which circulates separately in other traditions.
Saldarini p. 930: “After he sets the scene in the introduction, he moves from suffering and repentance for sin to devotion, to wisdom and obedience, and to God’s commands; he concludes with encouragement to persevere in suffering and with the promise of divine intervention.”
The book is a result, as with much of the prophetic literature, of a number of original hands whose words and works were edited later into larger pieces. Most likely all of the original pieces were first done in Hebrew. The oldest surviving whole text is in Greek. The likely emergence of the final work occurred in 300 to 135 BC – pretty late. This is the period that the canon of the Jewish Bible was beginning to stabilize.
In the second Temple period there was a great diversity of opinion on how to be Jewish. Sects and divisions and rivalries began to appear – later the Pharisees, Sadducees, Qumran Essenes, etc. Apocalyptic thinking is emerging – hope for or expectation of divine intervention bringing the current world to its destiny via great cataclysms and battles. Baruch stands above that sort of thing – does not single out other approaches for condemnation. He struggles to unify exiles, former exiles, returning exiles etc. into one people through an appeal to the heart of the Jewish tradition. Baruch DOES expect God to punish foreign oppressors and restore Israel to its proper place in the world.
Saldarini p. 935: “In Baruch, wisdom is associated with life, light, and salvation, as is Jesus in John. Wisdom understood as the law dwells with Israel in Baruch just as Jesus dwells with humans as the truth, the word, and the way in John. In Deuteronomy 30, Baruch, and John, God’s presence on earth (commandments, wisdom, Jesus) is available to all who will accept it.”
Baruch 1:1 to 1:14 Narrative Introduction
- The setting is in Babylon among the exile community there.
- The text talks about offering sacrifices in Jerusalem. Could refer to the time between First and Second Deportations (597 and 586) before the destruction of the Temple. Or it could refer to some time after 538 when the Temple was destroyed but some exiles returned to Jerusalem and could offer sacrifices in the Temple area. Not clear what the author may have thought, may even have been intentionally vague.
- The biblical tradition is that Jeremiah and Baruch were NOT taken to Babylon but to Egypt.
- It is hard to understand under what circumstances the people would pray for the long life and well-being of their conqueror. One might understand praying for Cyrus (sometimes referred to as messiah for his role in freeing them from Babylon). Could it have been meant ironically? If not, it is perhaps to be interpreted as meaning that this is God’s will (for now) and so be it. This latter approach to the conquering nation is new with the exile and is evident in some other (later) books in the bible.
- There is a symbolic element to returning some new vessels for sacrifices etc. – the maintenance of a tie to the homeland on the part of the exiles and a kindling of the hope of return.
Baruch 1:15 to 3:8 Prayer of Confession and repentance
- This prayer (section) is sent to Jerusalem from exile, it is the scroll referenced in the last line of the first unit.
- It is likely that there were formal liturgies of confession and repentance in Israel during the time of the second Temple – but this one appears to be composed by the author of Baruch.
- Saldarini p. 949 “…the prayers in Daniel chapter 9 and Burch are so similar that either one is dependent on the other or both draw on a lost source.”
- Note the acceptance of their sinfulness in contrast to modern times “mistakes were made”. The sinfulness is primarily related to idolatry.
Baruch 3:9 to 4:4 Wisdom Admonition and Exhortation
- Saldarini p. 960: “The admonition and exhortation teach Israel what to do after its confession and repentance by exploring the origins of sin and suggesting a better way to live through wisdom.”
- See Proverbs 1-9, Book of Wisdom, Sirach for similar works.
- Wright p. 57 “A truly wise person must by definition follow and encourage others to follow Mosaic religion, for that is the God-given pattern for humans to follow in order to avoid calamity and to warrant divine approval.”
- Those who look for Wisdom outside of the Law (i.e. the Greeks, the secular world for many Jews in exile or in diaspora) will not find it, have not found it. St. Paul picks up this theme – we look foolish in the world, but it is they who are truly foolish.
- See Deut. 30:12-13 – do you have to go to the heavens or across the sea? NO!
- Here is one of the roots of essential Catholic doctrine – there can be no ultimate conflict between faith and reason, faith and the world – because the one God created both the bible / revelation / wisdom and the world. True understanding and knowledge must begin with faith however, beginning outside of faith can lead one down numerous false paths as our finite abilities make mistakes.
Baruch 4:5 to 5:9 A Poem of Consolation and Encouragement
- Some of this section will sound very familiar – see Isaiah 40 to 66 (read in Advent).
- Saldarini p. 982: “The contemporary West emphasizes the problems and destinies of individuals both in this world and the next. The book of Baruch, true to the biblical tradition, expresses its hope in social images. Jerusalem personifies the reactions of a collective reality, God’s people in disarray and need.”
Baruch 6:1 to 6:73 The Letter of Jeremiah
- Saldarini p. 987: “Suffice it to say that the epistle marshals abundant, related evidence against the reality of the gods, but it lacks a tightly structured argument.”
- Israel should only worship the LORD, the other gods are not real and have no power to affect them.
- One has to wonder whether or not these other ancient cultures really believed that these statues and idols really were gods or were merely representations of them to inspire … As Catholics, whose tradition includes statues and lots of ritual objects we might be slower to criticize.