Jeremiah 1, Or Why You Should All Learn Hebrew (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

I am a good reformed girl and I know that it is really important that everyone have access to God’s Word in their native tongue. But as someone who has studied biblical Hebrew, sometimes I just think that we can miss so much when we read the Bible in translation. I have talked about this some before in my posts on the Psalms (there are too many to link to easily; you can search on “psalm”). I think it is probably more of an issue with the Old Testament than the New since Hebrew thought, its literary forms, and ways of speaking are more foreign to us. There is a middle ground though. Instead of everyone learning Hebrew we can educate people so that they understand a bit better how Hebrew works and appreciate the beauty of God’s Word more. Consider this your first lesson 🙂

I was reading through the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah recently and was struck by three things that I think might have escaped me if I were reading it in English.

The first point is just about how Hebrew poetry works. I have said this before (see this post), but it bears repeating. Biblical poetry is not based on rhyme (there is some debate about to what degree rhythm figures in it; we can at least say that it is of secondary importance). Instead, Hebrew poetry uses repetition, specifically parallelism. Have you ever noticed that the Psalms seem to say things more than once? Think of the 23rd which is so well-known. In the ESV, it reads:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.” (Ps. 23:1-3)

Notice in particular the 2nd through 5th lines. They all follow the same basic pattern and say very similar things as well. This is parallelism. On its most basic level, the parallelism consist of just two lines (like a rhyming couplet in English). In Psalm 23 we get a kind of extended parallelism. Just as rhyme schemes can vary, so too paralellism can take different forms (but that is a subject for another post). But we must be careful lest we read such passages and think “okay, I got it” and skim over the details because it does seem so repetitive. There is meaning in biblical parallelism. It is never just about repetition. For instance, in the above quote there is a movement from the shepherd image taken literally (the “green pastures” and “waters”) and to something more theoretical (“paths of righteousness”). I think the form here is significant as well; the extended parallelism serves to highlight God’s faithfulness. Said another way, the repetition of similar ideas illustrates for us the continuity of the Lord’s care for us. It is also is repetitive (in a good way).

To return again to Jeremiah, the first chapter begins with an introduction to the career of the prophet, telling us when he worked (dated by the kings during whose reigns he prophesied) and using language (“the word of Jeremiah”, “the word of the LORD”) which places us clearly in the realm of prophesy. It then moves on to give us a description of the prophet’s call:

“The word of the LORD was unto me, saying:

‘Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you;

And before you came out from the womb, I set you apart;*

A prophet to the nations I made you.'” (Jer. 1:4-5; my translation)

*literally “I made you holy”, in the sense of set apart for a sacred purpose; in Hebrew it is one word

Notice the parallelism in the second and third lines. It is not a major point by any means, but the ESV translates in the third line “before you were born”, but “were born” in Hebrew is more literally “came out from the womb.” There is nothing technically wrong with the ESV’s translation. It captures the meaning of the Hebrew. But in doing so, it obscures the underlying Hebrew idiom and does away with the prepositional phrase. Because this phrase was parallel to the one in the previous line, the parallelism is not as complete. Is there a difference in meaning? I am hard pressed to find one in this instance. But I am saddened that the text is not as lovely.

Meaning is often conveyed through parallelism (as in Psalm 23). Another aspect of Hebrew poetry which adds to its beauty though it is less likely to add to the meaning in and of itself (I will not say it never does) is the sound of the words. Hebrew likes to repeat sounds. In English we like best to rhyme the end of words (fat, cat, sat) but we also use things like assonance and alliteration. Hebrew too likes to repeat sounds or use similar sounds. The section of Psalm 23 above actually has a lot of sound repetition as well. In this brief section of Jeremiah, there is a repetition of a certain vowel pattern. The words in the second and third lines for before, belly and womb all have the e-e pattern (in Hebrew they are called segholate nouns; seghol is the Hebrew short e). In addition yo the parallel structure of these two lines, this repetition of the vowel sounds also serves to draw these two verse segments together. The effect of this is to make the last part of the verse (line 4 as I have laid it out above) stand apart. And, indeed, it is in this verset that we find the heart of the message. It amounts to “I have made you, Jeremiah, my prophet.” The first two parts leave us wondering why God has chosen Jeremiah; the last part gives the answer. Does this all come across in your English translation? Maybe. Check it out for yourself and let me know. My point though is that the very structure of the Hebrew text serves to highlight the message. It is lovely but there is also meaning that is added, or at least highlighted, through the devices of parallelism and repetition of sounds.

I have a couple more things to point out in this first chapter of Jeremiah, but as this post is getting long already, I will save them for part 2. Stay tuned.

Nebby

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4 responses to this post.

  1. […] In my previous post, I began to discuss the first chapter of the Book of Jeremiah and why I think it is all so much lovelier in the original Hebrew. My point here is not to tell you all you should learn Hebrew (though it’s not the worst idea) but to try to share with you what I see in the text, bot to help you understand it and to give an appreciation for the beauty and intricacy of the Word itself. Last time we talked about parallelism and repeated sounds. This time I have two points but I think they are much simpler. […]

    Reply

  2. […] I would share some of my observations with you all. Chapter one took two posts to get through (see part 1 and part 2) and I concentrated mainly on what we can learn by looking at the original Hebrew. You […]

    Reply

  3. […] Jeremiah 1, part 1 (or why you should learn Hebrew) […]

    Reply

  4. […] things that might not be obvious reading the book in translation. You can read the earlier posts here, here, and here. Last time we talked a little bit about the historical context of the book and also […]

    Reply

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