This is a continuation of my series of the Book of Jeremiah. You can find links to all the posts here.
Jeremiah 11 begins with a reference to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai and to the covenant made there between God and His people. Much has been written on covenants in the Bible and I do not want to rehash it all here. The relevant detail at this point is that there were blessings and curses attached for keeping or breaking the covenant. God is now calling down those curses onto His people (v. 3).
The crime of which the people are accused is worshipping other gods (v. 10). I was struck by God’s accusation that “your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah” (Jer. 11:13; ESV). This is really how the rest of the ancient Near East worked — every city had its own god — but for God’s people it was not to be so. Though the Lord has His city in Jerusalem, He is not tied to it as the heathen gods were. He is the God of the whole earth.
The poetry in verses 15 and 16 is difficult. I have already addressed in another post the references to the “beloved.” The phrase “holy flesh” is harder to grasp. One can see the difficulties in the very different ways our translations deal with Jeremiah 11:15:
“What hath my beloved to do in mine house, seeing she hath wrought lewdness with many, and the holy flesh is passed from thee? when thou doest evil, then thou rejoicest.” (KJV)
“What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult?” (ESV)
To be holy is to be set apart for God’s purposes rather than for ordinary, everyday ones. The ESV takes the Hebrew phrase “holy flesh” to mean “sacrificial (i.e. set apart for sacrifice) meat.” It then combines this with the next phrase about doing evil. It is also understanding the verb “pass over” as a transitive rather than an intransitive verb. That is, the ESV is reading not “the holy flesh will pass” but “the holy flesh will cause to pass.” The object of “cause to pass” is then “your evil” which comes later, giving us “the holy(=sacrificial) flesh will cause your evil to pass.” The orignal text would have had no punctuation and so it is hard at times to know where the phrases should be divided. Nor would it have had vowels which in Hebrew make all the difference between “to pass” and “to cause to pass.” We must recognize, however, that the ESV is being interpretive in that it gives us what it thinks the text means though this is not unequivocally so. I do not fault the ESV for this; it must somehow come up with a sentence that makes sense to its English readers. But we should also recognize that there are times when what we read it not the only possibility for the text. Even in simpler passages, there are choices that are made by the editors and translators, and every translation is to some extent an interpretation (this is why the Muslims do not allow the Koran to be officially translated). When I have time, I would like to further study the idea of “holy flesh”; it strikes me as a very odd phrase and I wonder if we find it anywhere else.
Moving on, in verse 20 and again later in chapter 12, verse 2, the prophet speaks of the kidneys and heart. The ESV uses heart and mind in translating this verse but the Hebrew literally says kidneys and heart. To the ancient Israelites the kidneys were the seat of emotion, as we say the heart is, and the heart was where one did one’s thinking — as we use the word mind or brain. The ancients had no idea that all that grey muck in the head did anything useful at all. The Egyptians when mummifying bodies threw it all out as useless and not necessary in the afterlife.
At the end of chapter 1, things gets personal. The prophet Jeremiah is from the town of Anathoth and now he prophesies against them. Its inhabitants seem to be seeking Jeremiah’s life. One is reminded here of another prophet who was not received well in his own home town (Jesus, in case you didn’t guess).
In chapter 11, Jeremiah, as a type of his Lord to come, is spoken of as lamb led to the slaughter (v. 19). In chapter 12, the tables are turned and it is the enemies who will be uprooted and led as sheep to the slaughter (v. 3).
Chapter 12 ends with a glimmer of hope. God says,
“‘And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again each to his heritage and each to his land.'” (Jer. 12:15; ESV)
This hope seems to be not just for Judah but even for her neighbors “if they will diligently learn the ways of my people” (Jer. 12:16).
And so in this often rather depressing book, we find a note of hope for the future — if God is obeyed and His covenant is kept.