Addition to Jeremiah – The Letter

By Mary Jane Chaignot

According to the introductory verses, this is a letter written by Jeremiah to the Israelites before they were taken to Babylon. That setting is derived from chapter 29 in the canonical book of Jeremiah, where it states he sent a letter to the people who had been exiled. In the actual letter, he told them to build houses and plant gardens while in Babylon for they would live there for seventy years. They should not think of this exile as a temporary thing. They should settle in and make their lives in the new city because they would be there long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labors. They should marry and have children so that they would continue to increase as a people. He told them to seek the peace of the city and to pray to the Lord. (See Jer 29:1-14) 

In this letter, however, the focus is a bit different. The author begins the "letter" by explaining why the exile was happening. He reminds them that they had been unfaithful, that they had sinned. This is intended to reassure them that the exile was not a result of any failure on God's part; the responsibility rested completely upon their shoulders. Because of their sins, they would be exiled to Babylon where they would be kept "up to seven generations." (This allows for some wiggle room in comparison to Jeremiah's prediction of seventy years, as previously stated.) When their time in exile had been fulfilled, they would be returned to Jerusalem. In the meantime, though, they needed to be warned about some of the religious practices in the city of Babylon. So this letter is actually addressed to people who have not yet arrived in Babylon.

That assumes, of course, that this is an authentic letter dating to the sixth century. Scholars doubt this. They think it is more likely to have been written in the third to first centuries BCE. For one thing, the letter lacks the depth of Jeremiah's thinking. Second, it borrows phrases from biblical passages that date much later than the sixth century. Though the warning purports to be against Babylonian worship practices, the statements could be applied to Jews living throughout the Diaspora any time after the exile. The beliefs denounced here were commonly practiced in Greek and other Semitic religions as well. This is not a call to Jews to remain faithful to God's commands that forbid worshiping other gods. Not at all. This letter is all about mocking the Gentiles who worship pagan idols. Its tone is highly satirical. It scoffs at the notion that idol worship has any validity as an expression of religion. As such, there is little progression of thought, nor is there any real logic to the argument. The same refrains are simply repeated over and over again.

Most scholars think this is another pseudonymous letter, which corresponds to the references to this letter by the early church. The thinking is that the author used Jeremiah's name to give it more credibility and simply expanded on many of his ideas. All in all, this is one long treatise against idol worship, a problem that had plagued Israel in one form or another from its very beginning.

In order to make his case, the author frequently contrasts the powerlessness of the idols with the powerfulness of God. Lest anyone thinks that the exile was an example of God's powerlessness, he defends the position that the exile was, in fact, willed by God as punishment for the multitudinous sins committed by unfaithful Israel. Furthermore, at some point in the future, at His discretion, God would bring them back to their land – and that would be another example of His power.

This entire book, then, is a polemic against other people's religious practices and beliefs – or at least this one aspect of it. It is written from the Jewish perspective, which disavowed any physical representations of God. There is no attempt to understand why pagans worshiped idols. For the most part in the Gentile world, idols were representations of gods and not gods themselves. Hence, any worship of an idol was meant to honor the god represented by it. Ideologically speaking, however, Jews upheld the notion that since people created idols, they were antithetical to God. The author is worried that Jews might be tempted to forego their religion of the prophets in lieu of some meaningless rituals involving idols of gold and silver. There is little doubt that Jews were tempted. After watching Gentiles practice their religions with earnestness and enthusiasm, Jews, no doubt, began to question the absoluteness of their religion. The author is trying to diminish the options. If idol worship is inherently ridiculous, then Jews will be less likely to embrace it. His main goal was to dissuade Jews from being assimilated into the dominant culture. He used this very strong polemic to encourage them to preserve their unique traditions.

Most scholars think the book might have originally been written in Hebrew, though no Hebrew fragments have ever been found. Greek translations exist, and a small Greek fragment was found in the Qumran caves. In Greek bibles, this letter is found between Lamentations and Ezekiel. In Latin bibles, it is attached to the sixth chapter of Baruch.

This book can be divided into two main sections: 1-7 – Introduction; 8-73 – The Ten Stanzas.

I -- 1-7 – Introduction

This is supposedly a letter sent by Jeremiah to those who were about to be taken into exile The reason for their exile is that they had sinned Now they were being led away by the King of Babylon – Nebuchadnezzar They would remain in Babylon up to seven generations The canonical Jeremiah stated that they would be there for seventy years At the end of seven generations, the Lord would bring them back in peace When they arrive in Babylon, they will see men carrying gods on their shoulders This is a reference to religious processions These gods will be made of silver, gold, and wood Mostly the gods were made of wood covered with gold or silver The pagans will be in awe of these statues They, however, need to be alert They must not imitate the foreigners This is written very emphatically Nor should they be in awe of these idols Whenever they see such sights, they should profess loyalty to Yahweh in their hearts The Lord's angel is with them and is responsible for their lives This might be seen as a guardian angel, much like the one that led them through the wilderness (This is another warrant for a late date since "guardian angels" played a small role in pre-exilic Israel) The angel is responsible for them in the sense that he "seeks out their lives" In its other uses, this refers to watching with a malevolent intent

II – Ten Stanzas

  • 8-16
    • First Stanza
    • These idols are helpless
    • They have mouths but cannot speak
    • Some idols were crafted with their mouths open and tongues visible
    • But no sounds were ever uttered
    • Some are well ornamented and attired
    • But sometimes priests steal the gold and silver and use it for themselves
    • Some are dressed in the finest of linens, but moths eat away at their garments
    • People have to dust their faces alluding to the utter helplessness of the idols
    • The idols might hold a scepter or a spear, but they cannot defend themselves
    • Typically, this would be seen as a symbol of power
    • If they can't help themselves, how can they possibly help anyone else?
    • Therefore, "they are not gods, so have no fear of them"
  • 17-23
    • Second Stanza
    • It is senseless to have such idols
    • They are as useless as a cracked pot
    • They are completely helpless as to their own condition
    • They are locked in at night – basically prisoners in their own temples
    • The are locked in so people don't come and rob them
    • Many lamps are lit around the idols, but they can't see any of the light
    • Bugs and flies crawl around on them and eat away at them
    • They are helpless to do anything about it
    • People have to wipe the soot from the eyes and faces of the idols
    • Bats and birds fly around them and they can't even brush them away
    • Cats are also there – a possible allusion to Egyptian authorship
    • Therefore, "they are not gods, so have no fear of them"
  • 24-29
    • Third Stanza
    • Idols are lifeless
    • Though covered with gold, others have to polish them
    • They had no feeling of being cast
    • Despite the high cost of an idol, they have no breath in them
    • They have to be carried by men – usually on their shoulders
    • If one falls over, someone has to pick it up
    • If one is tilted, someone has to straighten it
    • Still, people put offerings in front of it, but they can't eat anything
    • The priests sell the sacrifices and pocket the proceeds
    • Their wives cure the meat and refuse to share it with the poor
    • Menstruating women handle idols as part of their job
    • These women would be ritually unclean
    • Therefore, "they are not gods, so have no fear of them"
  • 30-40a
    • Fourth Stanza
    • Idols are powerless
    • Women are responsible for setting offerings before them
    • This would be contrary to any Jewish practices
    • Priests sit apart and weep and wail before them
    • Priests also take their fine linens and give it to their families
    • What can the idols do if they're treated badly – nothing!
    • They cannot depose or establish a king; nor grant or withhold wealth
    • This is unlike God who responds to people's needs
    • If someone breaks their vow to an idol – so what!
    • They cannot save someone from death or heal any sickness
    • They don't help widows or orphans
    • They are nothing more than plated rocks from a mountain
    • So "how can anyone call them gods"
  • 40b-44
    • Fifth Stanza
    • It is foolishness to worship an idol
    • People bring a dumb man who cannot speak to the idol
    • The idol does not understand what is being said
    • Prostitutes sit in the street waiting for someone to "choose" them for sacred intercourse
    • Everything about that is false
    • So "how can anyone call them gods"
  • 45-52
    • Sixth Stanza
    • Idols are the products of human hands
    • They are made and fashioned by craftsmen
    • Since the craftsmen are not immortal, how can they make a god
    • Idols are only good for disappointment
    • In times of crisis, the priests hide out with them
    • They cannot save anyone or themselves from disaster
    • They are made of wood, metal and are nothing but frauds
    • There is no divine power in them
    • Someday people will realize this
    • "Can anyone fail to realize that they are not gods"
  • 53-56
    • Seventh Stanza
    • Idols are powerless
    • They cannot choose a king or give mankind rain
    • These are tasks that God is able to do
    • They cannot render judgment or right a wrong
    • They are as helpless as the clouds
    • If a fire breaks out in the temple, they have to be rescued
    • If not, they burn up like timbers
    • So "how can anyone believe they are gods" 
  • 57-65
    • Eighth Stanza
    • Idols are useless
    • Idols cannot save themselves from thieves or robbers
    • People can steal from them and idols have no recourse
    • How much better to be a king or a common household item
    • Even door stops have a useful purpose, unlike idols
    • The sun and moon and stars fulfill a purpose
    • So does lightening and wind
    • Their purpose is to obey God, unlike a useless idol
    • If they have no power to do justice or provide benefits, what good are they
    • Therefore, "they are not gods, have no fear of them" 
  • 66-69
    • Ninth Stanza
    • Idols cannot do what God does
    • Idols cannot curse kings nor bless them
    • They cannot shine like the sun or moon
    • Even animals are smarter than idols; at least they can run and hide when needed
    • If idols cannot do any of this, "they are not gods; have no fear of them" 
  • 70-73
    • Tenth Stanza
    • People are better off without idols
    • Idols are like a scarecrow in a cucumber patch – they can do nothing
    • They are like a thornbush in the garden that birds sit on
    • They are like a corpse that has been tossed out – completely helpless
    • After a time, their clothes are in tatters
    • Ultimately, even the idols will be eaten away
    • "Better the virtuous man who has no idols; he will be above reproach" 

No argument for religious tolerance will be found in these verses. This attack on Babylonian worship stems from the certainty that Israel's God is the only true God. Idols are mocked from every angle and found to be wanting on all accounts. They can of themselves do nothing at all. This is in complete contrast to the God of Israel who is a living God, powerful and just. The religious establishments that promote worship of these empty idols are themselves immoral and corrupt. There has never been a better argument for Jewish monotheism.


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

Harrington, Daniel. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1999.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Metzer, Bruce, Ed. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson, eds. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 2002.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha