There’s been some discussion ever since my post about the Christian rock group P.O.D.’s use of the f-word in a song about appropriate means of addressing God. I’ve argued that God does not want nor expect us to hold back from letting him see the full range of our emotion in a time of crisis or tragedy, and if that range includes full-throated anger, so be it. Others, tending to emphasize God’s holiness, believe that there is a baseline of reverence that should be kept in place, no matter what.
But those folks need to deal with Jeremiah’s striking broadside against Yahweh in Jeremiah 20. The problem is most of our translators are wary to describe exactly what the prophet is accusing God of doing when he laments ever having accepted Yahweh’s call. The key verse is v.7. Here it is from an array of common translations (I’ve grouped ones that translate the bolded words the same:
7 (O) Lord, thou deceivedest me, and I am deceived; thou were stronger than I, and thou haddest the mastery; I am made into scorn all day. All men bemock me,
Geneva, KJV, RSV, ESV:
7 O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.
8 For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the Lordwas made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.
7 O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived;
You have overcome me and prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
Everyone mocks me.
NIV ’84/TNIV/NIV ’11:
7 O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived (footnotes include “persuaded” in both cases);
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
7 O Lord, you misled me,
and I allowed myself to be misled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you overpowered me.
Now I am mocked every day;
everyone laughs at me.
7 You tricked me, Lord,
and I was really fooled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you have defeated me.
People never stop sneering
and insulting me.
7 You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it.
You were too much for me.
And now I’m a public joke.
They all poke fun at me.
7 Lord, you enticed me, and I was taken in.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
Now I’m laughed at all the time;
everyone mocks me.
I think you get the idea. Kudos to the older translations. In this case, the KJV/RSV family use the stronger word, “deceived,” while more modern translators seem uncomfortable with the notion that God could deceive someone and so change it a little – the NIV adds a more anodyne verb in the footnotes, and the New Living Translation and the Message even seem to blame Jeremiah, although that sense is not at all in the original, which simply repeats the same verb.
But that verb has a context that goes even beyond “deceived.”
This was first pointed out by Abraham J. Heschel, in his 1962 book The Prophets. The verb patah is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example:
When a man seduces a young woman who isn’t engaged to be married yet and he sleeps with her, he must marry her and pay the bride-price for her. (Exodus 22:16)
The rulers of the Philistines confronted her and said to her, “Seduce him and find out what gives him such great strength and what we can do to overpower him, so that we can tie him up and make him weak. Then we’ll each pay you eleven hundred pieces of silver.” (Judges 16:5)
If my heart has been drawn to a woman
and I have lurked at my neighbor’s door, (Job 31:9)
Therefore, I will charm her,
and bring her into the desert,
and speak tenderly to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)
while she’s a virgin,
that she not be seduced
and become pregnant
while still living at home;
when she’s married,
that she not go straying;
or having married,
that she not be infertile. (Sirach 42:10)
The typical context of patah is sexual, which makes the rest of the verse far darker:
Lord, you seduced me, and I was seduced.
You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
The image of overpowering that follows seduction is less rhetorical and more physical. The image seems to be far closer to rape than any mere contest of wills. Indeed, this is exactly what Heschel argues, noting the second verb, hazak, usually translated “stronger” in Jeremiah 20:7, is also used elsewhere in a sexual context:
But if the man met up with the engaged woman in a field, grabbing her and having sex with her there, only the man will die. (Deuteronomy 22:25)
So the Levite grabbed his secondary wife and sent her outside to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning. They finally let her go as dawn was breaking. (Judges 19:25)
When she served him the food, he grabbed her and said, “Come have sex with me, my sister.”
So Heschel argues, “The words used by Jeremiah to describe the impact of God upon his life are identical with the terms for seduction and rape in the legal terminology of the Bible. (113)”
The overall impression is one of shame and embarrassment, especially given the mockery Jeremiah subsequently describes. Walter Baumgartner in Jeremiah’s Poems of Lament says the seduction language is only “a weak allusion” but when combined with the stronger language of the subsequent line, which he says is taken from wrestling, it is clear the prophet has “half willingly, half under coercion, placed himself in Yahweh’s service. … But now, like a girl stranded in shame, … he reaps nothing but scorn and derision” (74).
Needless to say, Heschel’s argument, while adopted by some, has also been opposed by others.
Mark Smith, writing in The Laments of Jeremiah and Their Contexts, translates the key verbs “fooled … seized … prevailed.” “Less equal interpretations are possible,” he acknowledges. “Given other images in the context, the sexual interpretation seems unlikely.” Likewise, Jack Lundbom, writing for the Anchor Bible commentary, argues for “deceive” as the meaning, particularly because there is another prophetic context in which patah is used non-sexually – in Ezekiel 14:9:
As for the prophet who was seduced into speaking a word, even though it was I, the Lord, who seduced that prophet, I will use my power against him and cut him off completely from my people Israel.
Now that verse opens up a whole different set of questions, but this is clearly not a sexual seduction, and Jeremiah could be simply arguing he was deceived by God the same way Ezekiel describes a prophet being deceived by God. But even the notion of God’s potential deception is too strong for Lundbom, who goes back to Jeremiah 1 to look at how God’s calling of Jeremiah, which is clearly what is in question here, is described, and he argues: “Yahweh did nothing deceptive in calling Jeremiah into divine service. What he did do was to act in a heavy-handed manner with the young Jeremiah.”
Well, OK, but Jeremiah’s not being fully rational here, right? So why should we expect a calm or accurate recitation of the circumstances of his calling. This is about what Jeremiah felt and therefore said, not what actually happened.
It’s interesting because Lundbom contradicts the conclusion of John Bright, who had written the previous commentary on Jeremiah for the Anchor Bible series. In 7a, he argues: “The word ‘seduce’ is chosen and the familiar ‘you’ employed to bring out the well-nigh blasphemous tone that Jeremiah adopts.”
Indeed, this is the key point. Even if we decide Jeremiah is not accusing God of seduction and rape, he’s still accusing him of deception and violence. Those are strong words. As William Holliday writes in the Heremeneia commentary series:
Verse 7a thus embodies an outburst that is deeply rebellious, not to say blasphemous: Jeremiah understands Yahweh as brute force, as deceptive, beyond any conventional norm. Having earlier thought that Yahweh called him into a relation of mutual trust and responsibility, he now perceives Yahweh to have tricked him, made sport of him beyond all comprehension.
The violence in 7b, Holliday argues, very well could be sexual. The seduction language of 7a almost undoubtedly is, according to him. He builds on the argument of John MacLennon Berridge (Prophet, People and the Word of Yahweh: An Examination of Form and Content in the Proclamation of the Prophet Jeremiah, 1970) that not only does Jeremiah’s use of hazak hearken to Deuteronomy’s notion of a woman being raped, but that his subsequent cry in verse 8 – “Every time I open my mouth, I cry out
and say, ‘Violence and destruction!'” – echoes the implied cry of the woman from Deuteronomy 22:27: “Since the man met up with her in a field, the engaged woman may well have called out for help, but there was no one to rescue her.” It’s possible, Berridge and Holliday argue, that Jeremiah’s cry echoed a legal formulation of the cry for those who had been sexually assaulted. But Holliday acknowledges that’s perhaps something of a stretch:
All this is less than an airtight argument, but the probability is strong that the verb “you are stronger than I” continues the semantic field of sexual violence with which the verse began. Since these verbs are used in laws against sexual violence, the implication is that Yahweh has broken his own Torah in his treatment of Jeremiah.
We don’t need to see God as a rapist to understand how surprisingly strong Jeremiah’s sentiments are. Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Jeremiah makes this point well:
Although the lines complain about human hostility, the focus is on the ways of Yahweh, who seems not to be faithful and trustworthy. The complaint begins with an accusation that Yahweh has seduced him. The verb rendered “deceived” could be rendered more strongly as “harassed,” “taken advantage of,” “abused,” even “raped.” Jeremiah finds himself helpless before Yahweh’s power, which is overwhelming and irresistible, even if not trustworthy.
Jeremiah, of course, is one of the great prophets, hailed as a champion of the faith. Yet chapter 20 captures him in a state of abject despondence, jaded not only with his call but blaming God for tricking and overpowering him, potentially even using the language of seduction and rape, so deep is his anger, hurt and shame.
For whatever reason, translators have done us a great disservice in this verse, neutering the strength of Jeremiah’s lament and obscuring a potential source of comfort for those who feel similarly abused by God but feel saying so would be wrong. If the laments of Jeremiah 20:7-18 tell us anything, it is that God’s people can remain faithful to their creator while questioning him deeply, bluntly and strongly. In a world too often beset by tragedy – and in a culture plagued by a view of God as too big and otherworldly for us to dare approach with the raw words and emotion such tragedy causes – that is a lesson we could use.