Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Martin Kessler, Battle of the Gods: The God of Israel Versus Marduk of Babylon. A Literary/Theological Interpretation of Jeremiah 50-51 (Studia Semitica Neerlandica, 42; Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2003). Pp. x + 263.  Cloth, € 69,50.  ISBN 90-232-3909-1.

Kessler’s monograph studies the last two chapters of the oracles against foreign nations in the Masoretic text of Jeremiah, a cycle of oracles pronouncing doom on Babylon, concluding with a narrative of the symbolic “delivery” of the words of judgment.

These chapters have not attracted much scholarly attention in the critical era.  Scholars were satisfied with demonstrating that Jeremiah was not their author.  The prophecies against Babylon are repetitious; the anti-Babylonian animus appears to contradict the role Jeremiah understood Nebuchadnezzar to play in God’s plan (see esp. Jeremiah 27-29); the violent fury of the oracles repulses modern sensibilities; and their anonymous origin allows them to be ignored in theological construction.

Kessler identifies his approach as post-critical, refusing to dismiss non-“authentic” passages.  Jeremiah 50-51 not only lacks the stamp of the prophet under whose name it is communicated, it does not match the events that it announces.  Since Babylon capitulated to Cyrus peacefully, the “truth” of this prophetic cycle must not reside in history.  Instead, Kessler proposes that a “literary” approach, beginning with the extant text and focusing on communicative functions, will succeed where critical history fails.

The chapters exhibit a variety of genres.  As one would expect, there is the oracle of judgment with an accusation and a sentence.  To dramatize punishment, the poet employed “calls to battle” addressed to imaginary foes of Babylon, and “calls to flee” along with promises of salvation addressed to the Judean exiles.  According to Kessler, none of these genres functions within its traditional Sitz im Leben; they form a drama with a multiplicity of speakers and addressees, and a narrative voice as well.  He proposes the New Testament Apocalypse as an analogy.

The chapters weave together a number of themes. Babylon will experience a reversal of fortune: the ruler will become subject; God’s instrument will be thrown on the trash heap of history.  Babylon was its own judge, but it will bear guilt incurred against the Lord and His people.  The gods of Babylon, especially Marduk, will be exposed as empty idols.

Kessler believes the foundation of analysis must be laid by dividing chapters into units or sections.  He combines “markers” and themes to accomplish division into sections longer than strophes, shorter than poems. Movement is circular rather than linear; the poem repeats a cycle of themes.

Kessler is convinced the rhetorical objective of these prophecies was to motivate Judean exiles to return to their homeland. The reason for punishing Babylon is its violent destruction of Judah and the temple.  Judgment takes power over Jewish destiny out of the hands of Babylon and evens the score between Babylon and Israel: hence, the repeated use of words for requital, revenge.  Judah’s election imparts guilt to any power that treads on it.  Babylon is eclipsing Assyria as symbol of arrogant empire and will become the cipher for Rome.

Though Kessler is not offering an historical analysis, he cannot avoid the possible historical situation to which the oracles were originally addressed.  Because they do not depict the fall of Babylon as it actually happened, they are not vaticinia ex event. Kessler surmises that the cycle originated after Nebuchadnezzar and before Cyrus.

One distinctive thing about the pronouncement over Babylon is that Babylon cannot be saved, though the other nations prophesied about in Jeremiah 45-49 can be.  For Judah to rise again, Babylon must be destroyed and its cultural and religious influence eliminated.   Babylon has become more than an historical entity, it has taken on a supernatural quality.

This brings us to the title. The title is rather misleading, promising a glimpse of a juicy myth no one had noticed before.  There is in fact no depiction of a battle between YHWH and Marduk.  Kessler intends an implied battle that YHWH has won: “the text gives Marduk short shrift.  As soon as he is mentioned he is declared defeated and is smashed…” (p. 215).  The battle is entirely on the ideological level.

If I understand Kessler correctly, the central interpretive problem for Jeremiah 50-51 is “the contradiction between YHWH's use Babylon as his punitive instrument (Jer. 25:8-11) and the fierce anti-Babylon polemic in chpts. 50 and 51” (p. 218).  His solution is: “the contradiction needs to be resolved by the schema which the canonic book itself suggests” (p. 218).  That schema, according to Kessler, periodizes—first Judah suffers judgment, then the people of God are restored and the oppressor receives its due.

Kessler’s book resembles the passage it studies in being rather repetitious and wooden in applying methods.  Still, the reader who perseveres will be rewarded with knowledge about a rarely investigated passage.  Though it lacks dramatic conclusions, it does begin to chart the trajectory of prophecy of judgment against powerful empires toward apocalypse, and Babylon toward its symbolic status as the “evil empire.”

Dale Patrick
Drake University