Mark Leuchter, «Jeremiah’s 70-Year Prophecy and the ymq bl/K##Atbash Codes», Vol. 85 (2004) 503-522
Jeremiah’s famous 70-year prophecy (Jer 25,11-12; 29,10) and
the atbash codes (Jer 25,26; 51,1.41) have been the subject of much
scholarly discussion, with no consensus as to their provenance or meaning. An
important inscription from the reign of Esarhaddon suggests that they be viewed
as inter-related rhetorical devices. The Esarhaddon inscription, written in
relation to that king’s extensive building program in Babylon, contains both a
70-year decree and the Akkadian Cuneiform parallel to the Hebrew Alphabetic
atbash codes, claiming that the god Marduk had inverted the 70-year decree,
thus allowing Esarhaddon to rebuild the city. This inscription was likely well
known to the members of the Josianic court and the elite of Judean society who
were carried off to Babylon in 597 B.C.E. This suggests that Jeremiah’s 70-Year
prophecy and the atbash codes were employed to direct the prophet’s
audience to the Esarhaddon inscription and its implications with respect to
Babylonian hegemony as a matter of divine will.
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506 Mark Leuchter
hands of an editor of the Jeremianic text who lived during the
Babylonian exile. It is argued that this editor was reticent to institute
additions to the text that would openly condemn the ruling regime (12).
Other scholars have advanced the notion that the coded terms, as
literary inversions of the corresponding Hebrew letters, represent a
type of word-magic formula, projecting the demise of the Babylon and
the Chaldean regime through negating influence of the sacred text (13).
There can be little doubt that the Jeremianic tradition places far
greater emphasis on the power of written prophecy than any of the
prophetic traditions from which it drew (14), but there can little
likelihood that the coding represents a word-magic formula. The
principle factor that compromises this reading is the general
ideological trajectory of the Jeremianic corpus itself, particularly with
regard to the motif of rqÃ§ or â€œfalsehoodâ€. The Jeremianic tradition
consistently inveighs against the hypostatization of systems, icons and
ideas within Israelite religious consciousness, likening blind faith in
the Zion tradition or a frozen, static Torah to falsehood and idolatry
(Jer 7,1-15; Jer 8,8-12, respectively; cf. Jer 10,1-16â€¦all three texts are
associated with the rqÃ§ motif). This same accusation of hyposta-
tization underscores the criticism of Zedekiah in Jer 34,8-22 and is
presupposed by the account of Jehoiakimâ€™s destruction of the Urrolle
in Jer 36,24. In both cases, the monarch in question reduces the role of
Scripture to little more than a ritualistic icon or fetish, the sustenance
or destruction of which might alternately preserve communal integrity
or eliminate threat (15). The application of magical dimensions to the
atbash coding in the Jeremianic passages would be inconsistent with
the dominant theo-polemical scheme of the text.
The case for the atbash codes as a veiled political criticism is
equally untenable. These passages are set within polemical literature
that unabashedly calls into question Babylonâ€™s future. A later scribeâ€™s
seditious interpolation of these codes within a text he sought to
(12) See BRIGHT, Jeremiah, 161; NICHOLSON, Jeremiah 1â€“25, 215.
(13) See BRIGHT, Jeremiah, 355; see also D.R. JONES, Jeremiah (NCBC,
Grand Rapids 1992) 535, who notes this possibility, though he is tentative about
accepting it as a viable explanation.
(14) On the priority of the written form of prophecy in Jeremianic discourse,
J.R. LUNDBOM, â€œBaruch, Seraiah and Expanded Colophons in the Book of
Jeremiahâ€, JSOT 36 (1986) 107-109; ID., Jeremiah 1â€“20 (AB; New York 1999) 92.
(15) For the Jeremianic invective against hypostatization, see B. HALPERN,
â€œBrisker Pipes Than Poetry: The Development of Israelite Monotheismâ€, Judaic
Perspectives on Ancient Israel (eds. J. NEUSNER et al.) (Philadelphia 1987) 98-102.