In Jeremiah 28, we see a disturbing glimpse into the evolution of the Hebrew scriptures. Jeremiah has been predicting the destruction of Judah. It’s not clear if the horrors he is envisioning are visions given by HaShem (the ineffable Name, for non-Jews), or horrors generated deep within his own disturbed psyche. In chapter 20, he presents a perfect picture of paranoia: “For I have heard the whispering of many, terror on every side: ‘Denounce, and we will denounce him’; even of all my familiar friends, them that watch for my halting: ‘Peradventure he will be enticed, and we shall prevail against him, and we shall take our revenge on him.’ (v. 10)”
However, he cannot help himself, he must speak, the word of HaShem drives him like a “burning fire shut up in my bones, and I weary myself to hold it in, but cannot (v. 9).” He wrenches between adoration and execration: “Sing unto HaShem, praise ye HaShem; for He hath delivered the soul of the needy from the hand of evil-doers” and in the very next verse, “Cursed be the day wherein I was born; the day wherein my mother bore me, let it not be blessed (vv. 13, 14).”
No wonder other prophets think Jeremiah’s bonkers. (He probably was.) In Jeremiah 28, another prophet thinks he has had enough of this negative thinking. Hananiah, caught up in the worship at the Jerusalem sanctuary promises that the power of Babylon has been broken, and that the king Jeconiah, along with all the other captives, and the loot taken from the temple, will be restored within two years.
“Amen,” Jeremiah eagerly responds; (as if to say) “may it be as you have proclaimed.” But recognize one thing: the prophets have always proclaimed war, destruction and death. So if your promises of restoration come to pass, then we will know that you are truly a prophet, and not someone who’s just saying things that would have happened anyway. Destruction is the rule; restoration is the exception.
So Jeremiah leaves. But HaShem isn’t done. He sends him back to Hananiah. Because “thou makest this people to trust in a lie,” “I will send thee away from off the face of the earth; this year thou shalt die,.... (vv. 15, 16). Any paranoiac can imagine generic disasters. It takes a prophet to know the year of another’s death. “So Hananiah the prophet died the same year in the seventh month (v. 17).”
One wonders: if Hananiah had not died, would we be reading the prophecies of Hananiah, instead of the prophecies of Jeremiah? Would we be reading the Nevi’im at all? Was the destruction of ancient Israel the price that had to be paid for the emergence of ancient Judaism, the womb of the knowledge of the one true G-d?
And which paranoiacs should we be listening to?