Jeremiah 2 opens and closes with images and arguments of striking emotional power and seeming analytic irrelevance. Uncovering the ideas behind the rhetoric in both introduction and conclusion illuminates the complex structure and argumentation of the chapter and enables a comprehensive and holistic interpretation.
The chapter's opening verses (1-3) describe G-d as remembering the halcyon days of His relationship with Israel, described as "holy" and the "first of his grain crop". Such language should be followed by promises of protection and cultivation, by warm words of comfort in hard times. Instead, israel is promised that those who consume it will in turn suffer, which can be diplomatically described as cold comfort. Why this crashing anticlimax?
The chapter's closing verses (36-37) describe Israel's eventual fate as one of political shame, i.e captivity. This follows a litany of Israel's transgressions, in particular rampant idolatry, and should conclude with yet one more claim that political suffering stems from religious promiscuity. Instead, Jeremiah claims that the captivity will be caused by G-d's rejection of those Israel relies upon. This completely undercuts the causal relationship between Jewish sin and national suffering established at great length throughout the chapter; what if Israel sinned but chose virtuous allies?
The common denominator of introduction and conclusion is an abrupt shift in focus from Israel to other nations. I suggest, therefore, that the central theme of the chapter is the removal of G-d's Providential protection from Israel. This does not, however, imply the secularization of history - rather, Providence is transferred to those nations interacting with Israel, punishing both those who destroy Israel and those who support its corruption. The consequence for Israel is political destruction, as its political existence has always been sustainable only by positive Divine intervention.
In this light, the body of the chapter can be read as an exposition of the necessity of Providence for Judean political survival and a justification of its removal. These arguments develop along the two major metaphorical axes of the chapter, desert/water and slavery. Jeremiah holds the strands of his argument together by constant reference to these ongoing metaphors.
Verse 2 refers us to the Exodus. Implicit in any such reference, of course, is emergence from slavery. Jeremiah, however, emphasizes the passage to Israel through uninhabited desert. The significance of the desert is that a nation can survive there only through Divine intervention, i.e. miraculous supplies of water; this of course is symbolic of Judah's present political position.
Thus the opening three verses establish a pleasant foundation for the devastating message of the chapter. The desert is pictured as a honeymoon suite, and transfer of Providence as a fond response to that honeymoon. With seemingly sweet words; Jeremiah attracts an attentive audience for his true, but so far only implicit, message.
Verses 4-7 begin the transition from comfort to destruction. Jeremiah recalls the honeymoon period, complete with desert imagery, but this time as the basis for an accusation of ingratitude. Verses 8-12 support the accusation by emphasizing that only an effective G-d could have led the Jews out of the desert, and 12-13 complete the image by describing G-d as the true source of water.
Verses 14-19 develop the natural consequence of that ingratitude; G-d returns the Jews to their original condition. Thus Israel's condition is described as fit only for slaves, and its cities as deserted.
Verse 18 contains a seemingly tangential reference to travelling the paths and drinking the waters of Egypt and Assyria. The reference becomes relevant, however, when we realize that the "paths" are contrasted with the "path" of G-d mentioned in verse 17 and with the image of G-d as water established in 2 and 13. Thus Egypt ansd Assyria represent Judean attempts to replace G-d's Providence with natural politics.
Up to this point Jeremiah argues that G-d's withdrawal of Providence is a reaction to Judean ingratitude. This argument, however, leaves open the response that Israel never asked G-d to interfere, and thus He is cruel to withdraw once He's created expectations. Verse 20, accordingly, suggests that G-d and Israel had a contractual relationship from the start, and Judah is in breach of that contract. G-d's expectations are not grounded in hope but rather natural right, just like a farmer is entirely justified in expecting plants of the same quality as his seeds. (Note: But the difference between Jeremiah and Isaiah's vine imagery is that Jeremiah doesn't mention any labor other than planting, while Isaiah mentions other preparatory and preservative efforts: this may foreshadow later attempts by Jeremiah to defend Judah.)
Verse 22-23 preclude any claim that the contract has not been breached, and verses 24-25 similarly any claims that insufficent notice of breach was given. Accordingly, verses 26-29 describe Judah as a thief, seeking to keep or even demanding G-d's Providence despite having forfeited its rights thereto. Verse 30 notes that not only verbal but even physical notice was given and ignored.
Verse 31-32 begin a final recapitulation of the argument. Israel has both practical and emotional reasons to follow G-d, who married and protected them in the desert (The recapitualation is signalled by the return of the introduction's honeymoon image). Instead (verses 33-34) they have chosen other "paths", and killed those who remind then of their debt (Most Rishonim translate אביונים here as prophets, which fits well with the end of 33 and 34.). As a result they cannot defend themselves against G-d's accusations (verse 35). Attempts to replace G-d (verse 36) can only demean them, for in the end G-d will ensure that they return to their natural condition without Him, i.e. slavery and exile.