(v) Israel Deserves Judgment (2:29–37)
29 “Why argue your case to me?
You have all rebelled against me—Yahweh’s word.
30 In vain have I struck down your sons;
They did not take correction.
Your sword devoured your prophets
Like a raging lion.
31 1 Have I been a desert to Israel
Or a land of darkness?
Why do my people say, ‘We are free; 2
We will never come back to thee’?
32 Will a young bride forget her jewelry
Or a bride her sash?
But my people have forgotten me
Days without number.
33 How well you set your course
To seek for ‘love,’
So that even to evil women
You have taught your ways! 3
34 Even on your skirts 4 one finds
The life-blood of poor innocent men. 5
You did not catch them house-breaking.
Yet in spite of all these things 6
35 You say, I am innocent;
Surely his wrath has turned away from me!’
But see here! I will bring you to judgment
Because you say, I have not done evil.’
36 How very cheaply you regard it
To alter your course!
But you will be disappointed by Egypt
Just as you were by Assyria,
37 And you will also come away from her
With your hands on your head;
For Yahweh has rejected those in whom you’ve trusted;
They will not bring you any success.”
The last group of verses in this chapter presents a series of pictures of irresponsibility and corruption. There are two sections, which may have had a separate origin because they have a different person of address. In the first part, vv. 29–32 are in the plural and vv. 33–36 in the singular.
29 Once again we have lawcourt terminology. The expression argue your case (rîḇ) is a legal word 7 and suggests that the people wished to bring a legal suit against Yahweh, though the grounds for such a suit are not specified. Yahweh will not accept the validity of the suit but takes up his own rîḇ against Israel again. The truth was, You have all rebelled (pāšaʾ) against me.
30 In the secular realm when a great king visited an erring vassal with some kind of punishment the vassal would come to heel, at least in the normal case. But in the case of Israel the divine visitation in some form of judgment was in vain. The people would not accept correction. Rather, they turned on Yahweh’s representatives and spokesmen the prophets and destroyed them. The reference may be something more than a metaphor and may well refer to the vicious attack on innocent people during Manasseh’s reign (2 K. 21:16; cf. Neh. 9:26). Prophets may have been included among these innocent ones. The viciousness of the attack is compared to that of a destructive lion. During Jeremiah’s lifetime King Jehoiakim slew a prophet (26:20–23).
Devoured—The picture of a sword devouring is a well-known one. A quaint but gruesome expression is “to smite to the mouth of the sword (lep̱î ḥereḇ)” Swords discovered in excavations often have an animal’s head at the top of the blade, the blade being the tongue of the beast. 8
31 In contrast to Israel’s rebellious ways Yahweh asks whether he has been inhospitable (lit. a desert) to Israel or a land of dark despair. The picture was no doubt intended to point the people back to the period of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus, the theme with which the present chapter opened. In those days the people travelled through the inhospitable desert, through a land of thick darkness (cf. Deut. 8:15), but Yahweh had led them through to the land of promise. The people had been dependent on him to lead them and deliver them. In those days, fresh from their acceptance of the covenant, they were like a young bride venturing forth with her husband (2:2), and the obligations of the covenant did not seem a burden but a gracious delineation of the will of Yahweh for their peace. Yet, although Yahweh was the source of victory, hope, and confidence, Israel had turned away and desired to be free, carrying through her own will and determining her own course of action. The defiant words We will never come back to thee emphasize the mood of the covenant people. Such waywardness was incomprehensible in the light of all Yahweh’s activity on behalf of his people. The ideas hark back to the thought of vv. 4–8.
32 The seemingly impossible had happened. In a vivid figure Jeremiah observes that it is altogether unlikely that a young bride (beṯûlâ) should forget (šāḵaḥ) her jewelry 9 or more particularly the sash or girdle which proclaimed her status as a married woman (cf. Isa. 3:20). Yet Israel had forgotten precisely those things which marked her out as Yahweh’s covenant people, notably the covenant itself, which involved her in a total unshared loyalty to Yahweh. The heinousness of forgetting all that he had done for his people is a theme to which the prophets and writers of Israel returned again and again (cf. Deut. 8:11, 19; 32:18; Ps. 78:11; 106:13, 21; Isa. 17:10, etc.). It was reprehensible to forget Yahweh’s past favors and divine calling. Israel was called upon to remember who Yahweh was and who they were. One important purpose of Israel’s rituals was to keep fresh in the memory of the people the saving activity of Yahweh in their past history. Yet there was something more important than ritual observances, for these could be performed externally without any deep inward commitment. Indeed, it was possible to carry out these rituals while being involved also in the worship of Baal. Nor was it that Israel lapsed occasionally. She forgot Yahweh days without number.
This verse provides an illustration of a well-known “disputation” literary form comprising a rhetorical question and an indictment (cf. 3:15; 10 8:14–15; 13:23; 44:15–25; Mal. 2:10–11; Job 15:26; 22:2–11; etc.).
33 With v. 33 there is a change in the number of the person of address from plural to second singular feminine. It may be that vv. 33–37 represent another independent segment of Jeremiah’s preaching, but it is also possible that the more general plural has become pointed as a second singular. In any case attention is now directed to Israel’s tendencies to harlotry. She had set her course to seek love (ʾahăḇâ). Her proper course would have been to remain loyal to Yahweh her husband. But she sought other lovers, presumably the fertility gods and their immoral rites. The use of sexually loaded terms like “love,” “lover,” “harlot” is frequent in the prophets (cf. 3:1, 6, 8; 4:30; 22:20; Hos. 2:2–13; 3:3; 4:15; Ezek. 16:15, 16, 28, 31–34, 35–37, 39, 41; 23:5, 19, 44). It is not always clear whether Israel became involved in physical sexual activity, but since this formed part of the Canaanite cult the reference may well have been both to the act of deserting Yahweh and to physical participation in cult activities. Jeremiah asserts that the people have “set their course” to seek lovers, that is, they had carefully planned to accomplish their evil purpose. Moreover, they had taught or “schooled” their ways to wicked deeds, or alternately, they had taught their ways to wicked women. If the latter translation is followed, the sense is that Israel had become so skilled in doing evil that she had things to teach even experienced prostitutes.
34–35 Another facet of their evil living is that they had become involved in shedding the blood of innocent men, a statement to be taken literally in all probability (cf. 26:20–23; 1 K. 21:16; Neh. 9:26). The murder of poor innocent men (or, “guiltless poor,” RSV) had left blood on their garments (or on their hands, see textual note), and there was something terribly wicked about these murders.
You did not catch them house-breaking—An ancient law (Exod. 22:1–2 [Eng. 2–3]) decreed that when a burglar was caught breaking into and entering a house, anyone who killed him in the act was guiltless. The inference here is that the people responsible for these murders had no excuse and deserved all that might come to them by way of divine judgment despite their claim I am innocent; surely his wrath has turned away from me. Yahweh would bring them to judgment for saying I have not done evil. 11 The verb (ḥāṭāʾ) means basically “miss the mark,” that is, to err from the path of right and duty. This was precisely Israel’s trouble. There was a path of duty laid down by the covenant. Israel had missed that path deliberately.
36–37 Israel was capricious and had acted in a thoughtless fashion by changing her ways 12 (cf. vv. 10, 11). But Jeremiah asked whether it was proper for them to change their course at will with impunity and with no regard to the consequences. In fact none of those to whom they turned as they gadded about was steadfast or reliable, whether the pagan gods or the nations. Both Egypt and Assyria were fickle and treacherous and would only bring shame, humiliation, and despair on Judah. Already Assyria had brought shame on the northern kingdom, and had laid Judah under heavy tribute also in fairly recent times. Egypt would do the same.
Commentators are not agreed about the exact historical events lying behind these assertions. It would appear that Assyria was no longer in a position to help Judah. In that case some have seen in v. 36a a reference to Egyptian troubles in Jehoiakim’s reign and have regarded these verses as editorial additions, perhaps by Jeremiah himself, in Jehoiakim’s time, even though the bulk of the chapter dates to Josiah’s time. But other commentators propose a different background since it appears that Judah had turned to Egypt voluntarily, rather than by any military compulsion. Hence a historical situation in which Judah was involved in some unknown political maneuver in Josiah’s reign (perhaps after Assyria had ceased to be of any great significance) is possible. In either case such a turning aside from Yahweh’s sovereignty was doomed to disaster, and could result only in a curse and not in a blessing. Egypt would fail her in the end. She would retrace her steps, with your hands on your head (cf. 2 Sam. 13:19), that is, displaying signs of grief. There was no help for Judah in either of those quarters, for Yahweh who ruled the course of history had rejected those in whom Judah trusted. When he decided to use a nation to help his people, Israel would be blessed (e.g., Persia and its ruler Cyrus, Isa. 44:27–45:7). Otherwise he might use the nations to bring judgment on his rebellious people.
In its final form ch. 2 carries forward the thought of ch. 1 and is a transition to the somber outlook of 3:6–4:4. There is, as we have been arguing, a strong background of covenantal thinking to ch. 2. If, indeed, the basic material of the chapter represents Jeremiah’s early preaching it represents the kind of message he was delivering as Josiah’s reformation was gradually gaining momentum. The reformation had begun before the finding of the law book in the temple in 621 B.C. Possibly its earliest reforms were made as early as 629 B.C. before Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry (2 K. 23:5–20; 2 Chr. 34:3b–7). 13 By the time Jeremiah began to preach in 627 B.C. the reform was well under way. It was directed partly against high places, astral cults, and all forms of idolatry both in Samaria and in Judah and Jerusalem. It is clear that both Josiah and Jeremiah were motivated by very strong covenant traditions whose origins go back to Mosaic traditions. The idea of covenant was certainly not an invention of the eighth-century prophets but had roots much more ancient. 14 Any reform which set out to restore among the covenant people a proper recognition of the sovereignty of Yahweh and to destroy allegiance to other gods would have enjoyed Jeremiah’s support. The current apostasy was a breach of the covenant and would lead to judgment, defined on the covenant document as the curses of the covenant (Lev. 26:14–39; Deut. 28:15–68). This emphasis on the covenant is evident in a great deal of Jeremiah’s preaching, as we shall see in the course of the commentary. The only way for Israel to enjoy peace and blessing was to be obedient to the covenant demands of Yahweh. In the end Jeremiah despaired of Judah ever recognizing the final and total sovereignty of Yahweh in the nation and lifted his eyes to the day when there would be a New Covenant (31:31–34).
1 MT has an opening line, “You, O generation, see the word of the Law,” which LXX reads differently, “Hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord.” The line may be a marginal comment by a later reader which became incorporated into the text. It is omitted here.
2 The meaning of the verb translated We are free is uncertain. LXX translates “We will not be ruled over.” The root rdy can mean “subdue,” “rule,” “oppress,” “have dominion.” The notion of having the power to carry out one’s own will seems to be basic.
3 There is a translation problem here. MT may be translated, “So that even to wicked women you have taught your ways” (RSV). However, the fem. plur. rāʿôṯ can mean also “wicked deeds,” and the Piel form of the verb may mean “to instruct” so that we may translate “you have schooled your ways with (or, to) sinful deeds” (cf. Bright, p. 13).
6 The last phrase in MT reads lit., “but upon (or, because of) all these,” which isnot easy to interpret unless the phrase points forward to the next verse as in ourtranslation (following RSV). BHS suggests that a haplography has obscured thesense, and instead of MT kiʾal kol ʾēlleh we should read kî ʾālayiḵ leʾālâ ḵol ʾēlleh,i.e., “but upon you as a curse are all these things.” NEB understands ʾēllâ, “oak,”for ʾēlleh with LXX and translates “but, at every oak,” i.e., “but by your sacrificesat every oak.” But the passage is admittedly difficult and J. Bright, p. 13, does notattempt to translate it.
7 See comments on vv. 1–3.
8 See T. J. Meek, “Archaeology and a Point of Hebrew Syntax,” BASOR 122 (Apr. 1951), pp. 31–33. Akk. akālu, “eat,” is sometimes used of the action of an invader devouring a land. The same verb is used for “destroy” or “raze” a city, and of the action of gods, fire, pestilence, wild animals. See CAD, Vol. I, A, part 1, pp. 253f.
9 The term ʾaḏî is generally translated “jewels,” but it may denote the whole of the special bridal attire, unless, of course, the reference is to a particular item in the bridal attire which marked the woman as married. Such a token would be cherished throughout life.
10 Burke O. Long, “The Stylistic Components of Jeremiah 3:15,” ZAW 88 (1976), pp. 386–390. Note that the passage in 44:15–25 is in prose, but we have the rhetorical question in v. 21, the explanation of calamity in v. 23, and the sarcastic reproach in v. 25.
12 NEB: “Why do you so lightly change your course?”