(iii) The Consequences of Israel’s Apostasy (2:14–19)

14 “Is Israel a slave?

Was he born into slavery? 1 

Why then has he become a prey

15 Over which lions roar

And clamor aloud? 2 

They have laid waste his land;

His cities lie in ruins and abandoned.

16 Yes, men of Noph and Tahpanhes

Have cracked your skull. 3 

17 Did you not do this to yourself

By forsaking Yahweh your God

While he was leading you in the way? 4 

18 And now what advantage is it to you to go to Egypt

To drink water from the Nile?

What advantage is it to you to go to Assyria

To drink waterfront the Euphrates?

19 It is your own wickedness that will punish you

And your apostasy that will condemn you.

Consider and take note what a bitter and evil 5  thing it is

To forsake Yahweh your God

So that you have no reverence for me 6 

The word of the Lord, Yahweh of Hosts,”

The Hebrew text in these verses reverts to the second feminine singular as in vv. 23. It has been proposed, therefore, that these two groups of verses once comprised a separate poem distinct from the poem in vv. 4–13, where the person of address is second masculine plural. While such a proposal has something to commend it, the present arrangement of verses provides a certain logical development in thought. If once there were two separate poems, the editor 7  in presenting his material rearranged the material into the present form.

The logic of the argument is clear. Judah, indeed all Israel, whose early devotion is spoken of in vv. 2–3, had rejected Yahweh’s claims upon them. As a consequence she had fallen prey to lions and had been drawn into compromising and dangerous alliances. The apostasy described in vv. 4–13 had led to the description of the evil consequences referred to in vv. 14–19.

14–16 For a long time now Israel had been in bondage. First, the northern kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 B.C. Was Israel really a slave (MT ʿeḇeḏ), or perhaps a house-born slave (yelîḏ bayiṯ), that is, one who had been born in the household of the master and was therefore his personal property? Slaves were normally bought, but their children belonged to the same master. 8  It seemed to Jeremiah that some freeborn Israelites were already slaves and others were about to become slaves. If that were not so, why had she become like a prey over which lions roared and growled aloud?

It is important to identify the historical background to these verses. It would appear from the reference to Assyria in v. 18 that Assyria was still a world power to be reckoned with, so that the poem must originally have been composed at the very beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry before Assyria began to show signs of collapse, which, as we have seen, did not commence till the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 B.C. 9  The reference to the Egyptians in v. 16 seems to allude to Judah’s suffering at the hands of Egypt in 609 B.C. This would seem to indicate that the earlier poem was enlarged at this point to allow for this event, so that the poem did not reach its final form till early in the reign of Jehoiakim.

If then the Assyrians are represented by the roaring lions of v. 15, the devastation of the land and the destruction of the cities and their subsequent abandonment may refer to any one of a number of Assyrian campaigns from the days of Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 B.C.), Shalmaneser V (726–722 B.C.), Sargon II (721–705 B.C.), Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.), Esarhaddon (680–669 B.C.), and Ashurbanipal (668–627 B.C.), each of whom had campaigns which touched on the territory of Israel at some point. 10 

As to the references to Egypt in vv. 16 and 18, we have proposed that v. 16 represents a later comment 11  to include the activities of the Egyptians, who also turned the people of Israel into servants. However, v. 18 may be a comment on Israel’s propensity to turn to Egypt for help. She had done it often in the past and might well do it again.

Noph is Memphis, the ancient capital of Lower Egypt, located about 13 miles south of the modern Cairo. Tahpanhes is the later Greek Daphne, represented today by Tell Defneh, situated near Lake Manzaleh in northeastern Egypt (cf. 43:7; 44:1; 46:14).

There is some ambiguity about v. 16. The fact that Noph and Tahpanhes are mentioned and not Egypt as such may suggest that at the time the poem was written Egypt was a vassal of Assyria, and these two towns would then represent places which were severely mauled by the Assyrians in the campaigns of Esarhaddon (681–669 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (669–627 B.C.). In that case the verse might be translated: “The men of Noph and Tahpanhes will crack your skulls” (NEB), i.e., it is a prophecy that these places will yet arise to deal a blow against Judah from the south. However, it is arguable that whatever the original form of the poem may have been, Jeremiah has drawn into an enlarged version of the original a reference to the campaign of Pharaoh Necho in 609 B.C. as he passed through the land on his way to bring help to the Assyrians. 12 

In any case the main thrust of the verse is that both Assyria and Egypt have brought only desolation to the land in the past, and no good purpose could be served by continuing to seek political alliances with those who have only brought trouble to Israel, whose greatest need was not ability in political maneuvering but renewal of her covenant with Yahweh.

17 The real cause of Judah’s trouble was plainly that she had forsaken Yahweh her God. She had broken his covenant and had entered into other alliances. The point is made that the people were responsible for all the trouble that had befallen them. “Is it not your desertion of Yahweh your God that brings all this upon you?” (NEB). This is a theme to which Jeremiah returned again and again. He saw all Israel’s calamities as Yahweh’s judgment on his people because of their breach of covenant. And, in the present context, this was the reason why Israel had become slaves. 13 

18 Jeremiah makes use here of a theme used by other prophets, namely, that it is futile for Judah to rely upon Egypt or Assyria or any other nation (cf. Isa. 30:15). The motif is part of the rîḇ pattern. 14  The reference is evidently to overtures of a political nature made by the two politically oriented groups in Judah, the pro-Egyptians and the pro-Assyrians. 15  In the early period of Jeremiah’s ministry these two great nations held the balance of power in the Middle East. After the collapse of Assyria in 609 B.C. this no longer obtained. Indeed, after the death of Ashurbanipal c. 627 B.C. Assyria began to wane. We have here a pointer to the early date of this passage. It must have at least predated 612 B.C., the year of Assyria’s collapse. The terms Nile and Euphrates here represent the nations Egypt and Assyria. The Nile is referred to as šiḥôr (lit. “blackness”), possibly with the intention of denigrating the river which was one of the important Egyptian gods. The Euphrates is here referred to as “the River,” as elsewhere in the OT. 16 

19 The outcome of Judah’s wickedness (rāʿâ) would be that she would be punished. By means of an apt figure Jeremiah declares, “Your wickedness will chasten you” (RSV). 17  In terms of the Near Eastern treaty pattern, breach of covenant brings upon the rebel the curses of the covenant. 18  An alternative translation is, “Your apostasies reprove you.” The term “apostasy” (mešûḇā) is a derivative of the root šûḇ Jeremiah rings the changes again and again in the use of derivatives of šûḇ, “to turn,” “turn aside,” etc. One may turn to or away from Yahweh, and one may turn to and away from other allegiances. No book in the OT contains so many nuances of this idea as Jeremiah. 19  The term “backsliding” is a useful one to describe Judah’s apostasy from Yahweh (cf. 2:19; 3:6–8, 11–12, 14–22; 5:6; 8:5; 14:7; 31:22). It was Judah’s sin and her apostasy that brought troubles upon her. In a sense neither Egypt nor Assyria was responsible for the coming disasters. They were but the agents of Yahweh, who had decreed their invasions as a judgment for the nation’s sin. It was a high price to pay for the breach of her covenant. It was for Judah now to consider how bitter and how evil a thing it was to forsake Yahweh her God. As a result Judah had lost her sense of awe of Yahweh. She seemed rather to have shown respect and awe for treacherous earthly rulers than for Yahweh the immutable God.

The brief passage in vv. 14–19 which describes the fruit of apostasy concludes with the expression Word (oracle) of the Lord, Yahweh of Hosts, which may indicate that this once had an independent existence before it was woven into the present context.

 

FOOTNOTES
 

 1 Lit. “Or a house-born one?” Bright, p. 9, proposes “A house-born slave, perhaps?”

 2 Lit. “They give forth their voice.” This is aptly rendered by Bright, p. 14, “roar with clamorous din.” The phrase seems to add emphasis to the first expression.

 3 Reading yerōʾûḵ from the root rʿʿ, “fracture,” for MT yirʾûḵ, “they graze” or “they graze upon.” Another proposal is yeʿārûḵ, “they shave you,” “they lay you bare,” hence “they shave your skull.”

 4 MT has this third colon “at the time of one leading you in the way,” which is omitted in LXX and by NEB and J. Bright. It can be made to give good sense, however. Those who omit the phrase suggest a dittography with v. 18, where the consonantal text reads mhk ldrk compared to mwlkk bdrk here.

 5 J. Bright, Jeremiah, p. 10, takes the Hebrew expression as a hendiadys and translates “how bitterly evil it is.”

 6 This colon is omitted by some translators because its meaning is not clear. It reads “and my fear (?) was not in you.” The translation depends on the meaning assigned to the noun paḥdâ, which may be related to paḥaḏ, “fear,” perhaps reverence (AV, NEB, RSV). LXX reads “I have no pleasure in you.”

 7 Was this Jeremiah himself?

 8 See NBD, pp. 1195ff. s.v. “Slave, Slavery” (K. A. Kitchen).

 9 For the wider historical background see the Introduction under “Jeremiah in His Historical Setting,” pp. 9–27.

 10 Ibid.

 11 It may well have been Jeremiah’s own comment.

 12 See the Introduction under “Jeremiah in His Historical Setting,” pp. 9–27.

 13 The noun ʿeḇeḏ, “slave,” can also mean “vassal” in the political sphere. Israel was enslaved both to foreign powers and to foreign gods, even though she was born free.

 14 See above, pp. 159f.

 15 See the Introduction, “Jeremiah in His Historical Setting,” pp. 9–27.

 16 Deut. 1:7; 11:24; 1 K. 4:21; Neh. 2:7, 9; Isa. 7:20; etc.

 17 J. Bright, Jeremiah, p. 10, “will get you a flogging.”

 18 See the Introduction under “Jeremiah and the Covenant,” pp. 59–67.

 19 W. L. Holladay, The Root šûbh in the OT (1958). Note Art. 29, pp. 128–139.