Are Jeremiah’s oracles rearranged in The Books of the Bible?

Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel portrait of Jeremiah

Q. For The Books of the Bible, did you just reorder the biblical books? You didn’t, say, put the oracles within Jeremiah in chronological order? I was just reading Jeremiah in my other Bible and it’s so dang confusing going back and forth between kings and what not. I was wishing the oracles were more orderly.

The creation of The Books of the Bible did not involve any internal rearrangement of biblical books.  That was something that our project team agreed early on with the NIV translation committee to leave off the table.

However, the question of internal order within Jeremiah specifically has come up on several occasions over the course of our work.  This is because, as the “Invitation to Jeremiah” in The Books of the Bible explains, it appears that a large section of that book has been dislocated.

Jeremiah has four major parts:
1. Mostly poetic oracles, undated, likely not in chronological order.
2. Mostly narratives, dated, but not in chronological order.
3. Mostly narratives, dated, in chronological order.
4. Poetic oracles against the surrounding nations.

The introduction to Part 4, however, is found right after Part 1, suggesting that the oracles against the nations were originally placed before Part 2.  This is where they are found in the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the First Testament.

It would certainly make sense to put these oracles against the nations back in their original location, right after the introduction to them, or at least to read them after that introduction.  Accordingly, in the reading plan for the Prophets module of the Community Bible Experiences, Biblica explains how Part 4 of Jeremiah appears to be out of order, so that people can choose to read it after Part 1 if they wish.

As for the lack of chronological order within Parts 1 and 2 themselves, this is due to Hebrew scribes’ preference for “chiasms,” intricate arrangements in which passages that feature certain themes or key words are paired opposite one another.

For example, as the “Invitation to Jeremiah” also explains, at one point in the book a prayer of Jeremiah’s is surrounded by two episodes that feature potters.  The very next prayer is surrounded by episodes that feature two  men named Pashhur.  And these two clusters of episodes are then surrounded by matching episodes relating to the city gates.

Similar chiastic arrangements are found in other prophetic books.  As I explain in my Isaiah study guide, for example, many of the arrangements there are “a bit like the kind of trophy case you’d find in the front hallway of a school. The trophies, awards, and plaques in such cases usually aren’t arranged in historical order, from left to right. Instead, the tallest trophy will likely be in the middle, with shorter trophies on each side, and even shorter ones towards the edges of the case—regardless of when they were won. Photos and plaques will be hung on the back wall where there is space and visibility, but not necessarily right behind trophies from the same era. The overall goal is to create a pleasing and appealing visual arrangement. In the same way, the poems, stories, and songs in the book of Isaiah are arranged not historically but artistically, to blend together into an overall message prophetic responses to significant challenges that the people of God faced at different times.”

The same can be said about the arrangements in the non-chronological portions of Jeremiah.

I hope this helps you navigate through that book a bit more easily!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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