Is Jeremiah 7:22 a Denial of Moses?
Keyword Search
Get a stripped-down copy of this page.

Jeremiah 7:22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices...

By some Skeptics' thinking, Jeremiah 7:22 "stands in flagrant contradiction of what the last four books of the Pentateuch say" with their many commands of offerings and sacrifices. Presumably we are to think that Jeremiah represents some "anti-cultus" faction that denies the Mosaic heritage -- some would say, that he is speaking against a recent forgery of Deuteronomy "discovered" in the Temple.

The simple answer to this notes that this is rather the use of hyperbole to effect a point. The purpose of this phrase is to show the relative importance of sacrifices, etc. in terms of inward attitudes. Indeed, were this not so, we would be constrained to ask how such an obvious "condemnation" of the sacrifices survived the so-called "cutting" since the very priests that Skeptics accuse of creating the sacrificial law for their own benefit were the ones who made the "cuttings" in the first place.

But history knows of no such opposition to the sacrificial system in Israel; while the temple machinery was often corrupt (as in the time of Annas), there is no indication at all that the actual sacrificial practice was disdained.

For some Skeptics, however, the text must be read "plainly" and to them, "plainly" this means Jeremiah was indisposed to the Pentateuch. Let's address that line of reasoning.

ANE culture, including that of the Semites, was generally pre-literate and grounded in oral transmission. Correspondingly, the use of idiom and strong, colorful expression was much more common than it is in our own modern society, especially within the context of teaching or the transmission of important messages. When Zedekiah the son of Chenannah, the false prophet, presented to Ahab two horns of iron he had made, and said that with these Ahab would gore the Syrians (1 Kings 22:11), this was more than just a comedic, Gallagher-type prop being used, or some primitive type of show and tell; it was a recognized means of communication.

Likewise, Ezekiel lying on his side to symbolize Jewish punishment, and Jesus' "cleansing" of the temple. Actions and verbiage that we would consider excessive, overly demonstrative, and unnecessary for transmitting a message were essential and/or expected for ANE communication processes. Today this is preserved in the extensive use of gesticulations in some Eastern cultures, and even a few Western ones (the Italian culture for example).

This was for several reasons - among them that these tactics encouraged memorization of the message in a social situation where few had the resources or the knowledge to just pull out a scroll and read the material again, and where there were no video cameras to record something that might need to be preserved for later.

Relevant to our topic at hand, our point is that Jeremiah (as well as other Biblical writers - cf. Amos 5:21-5, Micah 6:1-8, Is. 1:10-17) here employs a type of idiom designed to grab the attention of his hearers and cause his message to be noticed and remembered. Within context, Jeremiah, standing upon the steps of the Temple (7:1-2a), announces the need for reform of behavior (3) and advises against seeking refuge in the mere presence of the Temple (cf. the triple cry, 7:4 -another example of a memory-enhancing and attention-getting technique).

The people assumed that simply having the Temple around protected them - as though a modern person assumed that nothing bad could happen to them inside a church! In a sense the people attributed to the Temple and the sacrifices a sort of magical power to keep enemies at bay. Jeremiah's message negates this idea: How can the people sin and think that they will still be protected (9-11) the example of Israel, which thought it had similar protection, is called upon. (12-15)

Jeremiah cites the continuing sin of the people (16-20), and then sarcastically tells the people to continue violating prescribed sacrificial ritual. (21) Finally, in our verse (22), a rhetorical negation is used to bring attention to the fact that internal posture is more important than external ritual. By expressing the matter in terms of a negation, the hearer/reader is first shocked, then realizes from the admonitions following what the actual point is: As it is expressed in 1 Samuel 15:22 --

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

This sort of outrageous, rhetorical teaching technique was quite common to Semitic and ANE culture. Hence, we have Jesus' parables, with outrageous images of a beam in the eye and a Pharisee swallowing a camel; hence, similar language in Rabbinic works of the period; hence, the majestic and excessive language describing the military prowess of the Egyptian and Babylonian armies in their respective cuneiform texts; and so on, throughout the literature of the ANE.

These were powerful tools of communication for the Semites - and no less so for their neighbors, their contemporaries, and for other pre-literate societies from the Hutu in Africa to the Maori of New Zealand.

This understood, dismissive Skeptical remarks on Semitic context (e.g. "the Bible doesn't really mean what it plainly says") are misplaced. Of course it "does not mean" what it "says" - any more than saying "I have ants in my pants" means that our dungarees are infested with Formicida. We use the idiom stated in order to more colorfully express a concept: In this case, "I am nervous/unsettled."

Using Skeptical logic, one cannot blame a person who, hearing the idiom in question, tackles the speaker and sprays Raid down their trousers - after all, they "plainly said" that they had ants in their pants. Our own idioms are relatively colorless and trite in comparison to those used in ANE and other oral cultures, but we still use them for basically the same reason, and there is no reason why we should not take their usage in the Bible under consideration.

Now to the hard data concerning this verse. Bright [Brig. Jer, 57] speaks for the overwhelming majority of commentators (conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike) when he writes of Jer. 7:22--

It is unlikely, however, that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.

The point, he continues, is rather that "God's essential demands did not concern ritual matters, but the keeping of the Covenant stipulations." For this view, see also Alle.Jer, 64-5; Clem.Jer, 46-7; Huey.JerLam, 109; Thomp.Jer, 287-8.

The negation idiom emerges from the Hebrew word lo, which transliterates as "not." On this matter, the principal study has been done by Whitney [Whit.Jer 7:22, 152], who describes the usage of lo in Jer. 7:22 as "a form hyperbolic verbal irony intended to intensify the contrast between what is present in the mind of the audience and what ought to be present." Whitney shows this idiomatic usage of lo elsewhere in the OT: Gen. 45:7-8, Ex. 16:8, 1 Sam. 8:7, 1 Sam. 20:14-15, Job 2:10, Jer. 16:14-15, Ezek. 16:47 and Hos. 6:6. His conclusion agrees with that of Feinberg [Fein. CommJer, 75]:

...The negative in Hebrew often supplies the lack of the comparative - i.e., without excluding the thing denied, the statement implies only the prior importance of the things set in contrast to it.

Likewise, Laymon [Laym. IntB, 380]:

Hebrew idiom allows the denial of one thing in order to assert another, and the intention here is not wholly to deny but only to relegate to second place.

We therefore conclude with these scholars that Jer. 7:22 is in no way at odds with the Pentateuch. The Skeptical case for disharmony is based upon his inability and/or refusal to grasp the passage in its socio-linguistic context, and it therefore fails to hold up under scrutiny.

A few points in closing. There is another incongruity if we take the Skeptical side: In synagogue services, Jeremiah 7:22 was read at the conclusion of the reading of Lev. 6-8. [Fein.CommJer, 75] If Jeremiah 7:22 were indeed a flat condemnation of sacrifices, then how is it possible that it was attached to the end of a Jewish liturgy that gave instructions for such sacrifices?

The only good answer is that it was interpreted idiomatically, and if this is how the Jews interpreted it, we should either defer to them - or else provide much, much better arguments as a counter.

Second, and along the same lines, I pointed out that history knows of no outright rejection of the sacrificial system. It may be replied that this is an argument from silence. However, a silence this significant is no fallacy to argue about at all. The Skeptical interpretation would require something tantamount to a Congressman standing on the steps of the Capitol, in full hearing of his peers, saying that the Founders did not write the Constitution; and then, his words being incorporated into the Federalist Papers as authoritative.

This sort of rejection would have resulted in an enormous split in Judaism that would have left reverberations even unto this day, or at the very least would have left significant textual-polemical or archaeological evidence. Unless Skeptics can provide an argument better informed by socio-religious data, this view cannot be given any credence.

Third, this may raise some commentary to the effect that God, as one critic put it, "revealed his word in a way that could be understood by only a tribe of desert nomads who had 'Semitic minds,' and the rest of the world would just have to wonder what he meant."

Manifestly, commentary like this verges on a form of bigotry that would hardly be tolerated were it addressed to African-Americans or any other group. But a few points even so.

  • Re: "only a tribe of desert nomads" and "the rest of the world": This sort of thinking and language I have described was also familiar to other ANE cultures: The Babylonians, the Assyrians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, etc. would have understood quite clearly the point being made once informed of the particulars. Furthermore, generally speaking, negation idioms have a rich history in oral cultures around the world. Socrates was known for a sarcastic type of irony that employed negation idioms. Even today, we use forms of negation idioms, generally in the same sarcastic manner as in the OT. (An example: Someone observing heavy rain and saying, "What nice weather we're having!")
  • Re: An "intelligent deity" - if the Skeptic wishes to blame anyone here, it is himself. It is precisely this sort of cultural imperialism that is responsible for cross-cultural breakdowns in communication, misunderstandings, and armed conflict.

Let us put it plainly: The Semites were here before we were, and the message was first imputed to THEM. It was critical for them, as the initial recipients, to get the message clearly, and our own view of ourselves did not require God to wait several hundred years for Western civilization to emerge so that His message could be imputed in more "sensible" or "clear" terms (to what would actually be only .05% of the people who ever lived).

We have only ourselves to blame if we find the message of the Bible "unclear": It is we who made our language less colorful and less idiomatic than Hebrew. It is we who choose to look down on other cultures and pronounce them inferior, rather than trying to understand them.


Objections

You asked how such a view survived the cutting. You may as well ask how so many other biblical inconsistencies survived the "cutting." The fact that an inconsistency survived the "cutting" is hardly an explanation for it.

For example, past failures to notice a discrepancy does not mean that no discrepancy exists, for Bible believers today will read right over flagrant discrepancies and not notice them.

This is talking about alleged differences between books; we are talking about differences between a statement by Jeremiah and recorded historical circumstances concerning the origins of Judaism which concerned all Jewish people and especially the unknown and undated priests that critics suppose did the editing and would have been responsible for copying, managing, and administering the very texts in question.

One can readily see a person failing to notice that 1 Kings says 4000 stalls while 1 Chronicles says 40,000, especially if they are read weeks or months apart, or never at all. On the other hand, this thesis has hypothesized unnamed priests at some unspecified date and place who had their own interests at heart, and were just on target enough to fool everyone into accepting these texts as genuine, but also too without sense to notice that they left some stuff in that was the opposite of what they wanted, and failed to notice this over an extended period.

If there was some great rivalry afoot between "Moses" and "No-Moses" parties then it is unrealistic to suggest that each party was so radically unfamiliar with the other party's texts and arguments so as not to be cautious in adopting and editing them. Indeed it is as bad to assert that they would adopt the opposition's text at all rather than either dispensing with them, or writing new texts for themselves, as was the pattern in the second through fourth century heretical church.

At the same time, this doesn't distinguish between people not noticing the differences on one hand, and on the other hand noticing them but not worrying about them, for whatever reason.

There is no way to know whether the discrepancy was noticed. The scarcity of records left in biblical times would hardly give us a clear picture of what may or may not have been points of religious controversy back then.

This too is a thesis of convenience that creates data out of silence. Just as above, it posits intelligence in just the right places and lack of intelligence in just the right places, and lost or destroyed documents as is needed for convenience.

To aid in further explanation, let's posit a hypothetical secular example like Jer. 7:22 and we'll use it as needed as we progress. We will posit a situation in which a father, John Jones, catches his son Joseph in some shameful or criminal act. Disgusted, he disowns his son. When people ask how "his son Joseph" is doing, he immediately replies, "Joseph? He's not my son."

Now factually this is obviously incorrect, for biologically and in reality, nothing changed. If we take it literally, John is saying that Joseph isn't his son and we can accuse him of lying. The figurative meaning is that Johns no longer treats his son as his son because of the disgrace. We have a compelling reason to understand this as figurative: Previous records and evidence show that Joseph is John's son. But by the logic of the Skeptic, we must claim it is literal and that John is a liar. We'll see how this works out as we proceed.


You are saying that idiomatic intentions could make X and not X (P and ~P) be consistent statements.

Let's change that with John and Joseph above:

So after having argued in the John-Joseph debate that strong emotion in a family situation somehow changed a flagrantly erroneous statement into a correct statement, it now appears that we X will be arguing that idiomatic intentions could make X and not X (P and ~P) be consistent statements.

I think the point is clear.

You forget a primary rule of literary interpretation: the language of a written text is to be interpreted literally unless there are compelling reasons to assign figurative meaning. To think that Ahab could have routed the Syrians with the horns that Zedekiah was using to dramatize his prophecy of victory is too absurd to believe that this was what he meant, and so that becomes a compelling reason to assign figurative meaning to the statement.

We have "compelling reasons" for a figurative meaning in Jer. 7:22: the record of the Pentateuch and Jewish history thereafter. But then again, why don't we ask some questions per that example? Why couldn't this have been a case of Zedekiah trying to pawn off some "magic horns" on Ahab in an effort to get rid of him? Maybe Zedekiah was actually a secret enemy of Ahab and was trying to get him killed in battle. After all, ancient people were superstitious and believed in magical talismans. So maybe Zedekiah was giving Ahab a new "secret weapon" with those horns.

Do I have any proof of this? As much proof as Skeptics have of secret coteries of text-cutting priests.

We have dramatic language in our own culture. A mother wishing to emphasize her point to an unruly child might say, "I have told you a million times not to do that."

Yes, but these actions and verbiage were far more essential in an ancient and in a non-literate culture than they would be today. Citing one example used in speaking to children does not make the case for "essential" use in a society in a larger context, as is the case for the ANE. This is a finding recognized widely by scholars: The Biblical world was one of "dramatic orientation" versus our own.

Even in modern Western cultures, some have a more dramatic orientation than others. If, for example, an Italian used extensive gesticulations to say, "God did not speak to or command the Israelites concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices when they left Egypt," the extensive "gesticulations" would signify that his statement meant that God puts a lesser emphasis on the acts of the burnt offerings He spoke of than on their inner attitude." Note that we are not saying that A = non-A, when with Jer. 7:22 it is a case of non-A being used not to mean A, but B.

Do you seriously believe that Jeremiah used this "triple cry" as a "memory-enhancing" technique, as if it would be so hard for people to remember two words [in Hebrew] "the temple of Yahweh"?

Keep in mind first of all that we are talking about memory of the whole oracle, not just these two words. Overall, however, this shows a vast unfamiliarity with the literature on preservation of oral tradition, and the use of aural cues (triads like this one; alliteration, etc.) to enhance memory. One of the most obvious memory techniques is repetition. Another is the technique of association (i.e., remembering a man named "Chuck" by thinking of him as holding a chuck roast). The triple cry primes the memory (as well as serving the purpose of getting one's attention) and the techniques used by the ancients to preserve their memories are the same that we pay large amounts of money to learn today in memory-enhancement seminars.

Your problem is still your inability to understand a primary rule of literary interpretation: the language of a written text should be interpreted in its literal sense unless there are compelling reasons to assign figurative meaning. Since any moron would know that a person could not have a "beam" in his eye and could not swallow a camel, the reader has compelling reasons to assign figurative meaning to the texts. Hence, the reader will understand that Jesus was saying that people who have major flaws in their lives are being hypocritical when they criticize those who have minor flaws in theirs.

Really? Let's reverse that:

The Skeptic's problem is still his inability to understand a primary rule of literary interpretation: the language of a written text should be interpreted in its literal sense unless there are compelling reasons to assign figurative meaning. Since any moron would know that the Pentateuch clearly states that Yahweh instituted sacrifices, the reader has compelling reasons to assign figurative meaning to the texts. Hence, the reader will understand that Jeremiah was saying that the sacrifices are not as important as inner attitude.

Why accept one and not the other?

Your "ants in the pants" appeal is a glaring false analogy. Having lived in an English-speaking country for so long, I am familiar with English idioms. I therefore know what is meant by, "He has ants in his pants."

In contrast, how many years has the Skeptic spent in a Middle Eastern culture -- especially an ancient one? None. How many years has he spent studying such cultures? None, other than through English Bibles? Therefore by this logic, the Skeptic is unable to know if Jer. 7:22 is an idiom or not. In contrast, scholars of the Bible are far more qualified to make an assessment.

The examples of negation idiom offered by Whitney are false.

Really? Let's look at them.

Genesis 45:3-8 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph; does my father still live?" But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence. 4And Joseph said to his brothers, "Please come near to me." So they came near. Then he said: "I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. 5But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.

The key verse is 8, "So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt." A Skeptic of overliteralistic bent could cite this as contradictory to Genesis 37. After all, Joseph's brothers did send him to Egypt via the slave trade. Isn't this "plainly" and "clearly" contradicting Gen. 37? No - the "not" here is ironic, just as it is in Jer. 7:22. It emphasizes that God, not the brothers, was the sovereign power behind what happened to Joseph - indeed, their acts were providentially guided.

Ex. 16:8 Also Moses said, "This shall be seen when Yahweh gives you meat to eat in the evening, and in the morning bread to the full; for Yahweh hears your complaints which you make against Him. And what are we? Your complaints are not against us but against Yahweh."

Reach back to v. 2 here, "And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness…" This "plainly" contradicts v. 8, for the complaints "clearly" are made "against" Moses and Aaron. It's another ironic "not" stressing that the people's complaints have God as their ultimate target.

1 Sam 8:7 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to judge us." So Samuel prayed to Yahweh. 7And Yahweh said to Samuel, "Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them."

Similar scenario: Samuel was the leader of Israel at this time, and the people are "clearly" rejecting him and his leadership. Hence the "not" is ironic - pointing to the ultimate nature of the people's rejection.

1 Samuel 20:14-15 14And you shall not only show me the kindness of Yahweh while I still live, that I may not die; 15but you shall not cut off your kindness from my house forever, no, not when Yahweh has cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth."

The "only" is not in the Hebrew text - it actually says, "..you shall not show me..." The "not" here is used to stress the secondary importance for Jonathan of kindness in his own lifetime, versus kindness to his descendants.

Job 2:10 But he [Job] said to her [Job's wife], "You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The "not" here does not mean merely "not"; it means "not also"..

Jer. 16:14-15 "Therefore behold, the days are coming," says Yahweh, "that it shall no more be said, 'Yahweh lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,' 15but, 'Yahweh lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where He had driven them.' For I will bring them back into their land which I gave to their fathers."

Taken literally, this would imply that Israel will entirely forget about the release from Egypt, but it is actually stressing that the release from captivity in Babylon will be of more immediate recognition. The "not" here again stresses the importance of the secondary elements.

Ezek. 16:47 Yet hast thou not walked after their ways, nor done after their abominations: but, as if that were a very little thing, thou wast corrupted more than they in all thy ways.

This is clearly an ironic "not" inasmuch as the people had indeed walked after the ways specified, indeed surpassed them. The "not" here means "not only."

Hosea 6:6. For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

Thus it is that we come to this verse, and Jer. 7:22, which by the examples above may be clearly understood to be using "not" ironically or to stress the importance of a secondary element in context.

I found two scholars, Hyatt and Hopper, who say that a "prophetic protest" against the priestly system was emerging as early as the time of Jeremiah. Eventually, the Levitical sacrifices were dispensed with altogether, and they have not been practiced for centuries. In such a milieu, we could certainly see why Jeremiah 7:22 would be read in synagogues. It offered a "scriptural" reason for the failure to include sacrifices in the services.

What this does not do, however, is find a time and place when the conditions described adhered. The Levitical sacrifices were NEVER dispensed with as long as there was a Temple standing, and the lack of a Temple (at the time of the Babylonian captivity, and post-70 AD) was the patent and obvious reason why there were no more Levitical sacrifices. Jer. 7:22 didn't have anything to do with it.

You believe God has a redemptive plan, so that all nations, all over the world, can read and learn of God's love for humanity. Yet we are simultaneously told that we need to know the "Semitic mind" and Hebrew "nuances" in order to understand God's "inspired word." A person born in, say, 20th-century AD China will read this "inspired word" and not fully understand it, because he/she isn't familiar with the "Semitic mind" and Hebrew "nuances" and idioms.

God's plan also includes discipleship; discipleship includes study, and study is not hard at all. Moreover, the text of the Bible, like any text, can be understood on multiple levels; one need not understand Hebrew idiom or Semitic mindset to "get" the basic message needed for salvation. Many choose to remain at this level of understanding throughout their Christian life; some of these, like some Skeptics, become apostates because they can't handle the cognitive dissonance that inevitably comes with greater research and don't have the patience to reserve judgment.

The person in China will understand enough to be saved -- perhaps as well as the person from the ANE, because their culture is actually closer in expression than ours. Beyond that it is logically impossible to compose a text that is both maximally effective with a given culture AND easily understood in every single culture worldwide and throughout time.

It neither takes years, and nor is it a secret code; it is also understandable on a variety of levels, and if you are spending any time watching television you have time to do the study as well.

You need to prove that Jeremiah was speaking ironically. There is a huge difference in recognizing irony in conversation and in recognizing it in written text. If it is pouring down rain, and someone I am talking to says, "This is really nice weather we are having," I would know from the circumstances I was in and the tone in the speaker's voice that he was speaking sarcastically.

We did prove Jeremiah spoke ironically, but let's consider this idea that written language is a different matter. Is it?

First of all, a strong dichotomy of this sort only emerged in modern, highly-literate societies. For most of its history, the words of Jeremiah would indeed be read aloud.

But even so, is this seriously saying that if this speaker only wrote a note, then, the critic still not be able to figure out that sarcasm was intended? Clearly the circumstances tell enough of the story, and by that reckoning, the testimony of the Pentateuch is enough to tell us that Jerry was being ironic.

If you found a text that had obviously been written years or even months ago, how would he know if the writer was being serious or sarcastic if the text said, 'We are having really nice weather'?

Simple: If we're interested enough (assuming this is all the person has written, i.e, not referring to a need for an umbrella as well) we look at the date of the note, where the person was, and check back in the records to see what the weather was for that day. We have the "weather report" for Jeremiah's age (the Pentateuch), hence we can see easily, by this standard, that he is speaking ironically.

Another point to note: All people (including Skeptics) are descended from people who spoke in language and idioms that we, in our current knowledge, would never comprehend. So would we blame them for not having clear language? Would we be willing to study their culture and learn more about it for our own reasons? If we are willing to look into our genealogy -- a hobby many have today, that usually has no productive purpose and serves mainly to edify one's own personal knowledge -- can we dare to excuse away a lack of interest in learning about the culture and text of the Bible?

In all of this, blaming God for not making the message immediately apparent to us at our own level of neglect is simply irresponsible. Consider the example of people in Florida who had problems following voting instructions some years ago. While waiting for my wife to finish her own voting after finishing mine, I witnessed in the span of a few minutes two people who filled out their ballot wildly incorrectly, in spite of clear instructions (with illustrations) written so that a third-grader could understand them. The problem there is not understanding, but what one writer has called "permissive ignorance" --- a carelessness or unwillingness to be educated or to learn.

But it boils down to this as well: A document that told the "whole story" could never make the "whole story" a readily understandable revelation for all mankind. That is logically impossible, for there is nothing that education and clear verbiage can do that poor education and willful ignorance cannot overcome.


We will now supplement this article with a survey of views on this verse (Jer. 7:22) and a sort of critical comparison of arguments. Some sources only express the view with no reasons given, but the weight of their scholarship and experience is nevertheless to be reckoned with and cannot be simply brushed off, but rather must be countered with solid arguments.

I'll begin with a comparison to another place where I have written of irony in a text, this time in 2 Corinthians. In this article I referred to Holland's paper, "Paul's Use of Irony as a Rhetorical Technique" in The Rhetorical Analysis of Scripture, 1997 (234ff). Holland discerned in 2 Corinthians "multiple layers of irony" which "involves a much more complicated mental transaction on the part of the audience" than a "normal" transaction -- and notes further the risk involved in such a technique, since it is widely open to misunderstanding (as indeed Jer. 7:22 is). Irony is the rhetorical art "of saying one thing while meaning another." This was a technique known and used by Greco-Roman writers.

Among known ironic techniques are what Holland, citing Booth, calls the "open proclamation of pure error." An example of this in the NT is where Paul refers to God's "foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:25). It is a blatant error from Paul's perspective to speak of God as foolish; hence Paul must be speaking ironically.

We argue that Jer. 7:22 fits the model of an "open proclamation of pure error" and is intended as an ironic statement. We will now survey the views found in available Jeremiah commentaries (and one other book) and compare arguments.

  • Nicholson (1973) offers two ways to read the verse. The first is the way that we agree with; the second is that Jer. 7:22 was written during the Babylonian Exile by persons for whom sacrifice had indeed become meaningless. Nicholson finds the first "more probable" and regards the second as a "possibility" that "should remain open." He offers no study of Semitic idiom but clearly has the knowledge to stand on the side of it.

    His second explanation is of course possible but reaches into recesses of unsubstantiated speculation (i.e., we have no copy of Jeremiah lacking 7:22 which would support such a textual difference; it does not suit the tenor of books like Ezekiel written in Exile that suggest a return to the sacrificial system, and thus posits an otherwise unknown party of Jews).

  • Brown (1907) is the only commentary of the set we consulted that tries to give reasons why the idiomatic reading is untenable. Brown offers no study of Semitic idiom and does not answer any arguments for the position based on linguistic data (which was indeed available to him; see below). We will look at his four reasons, and then answer them in light of the known ironic technique of "open proclamation of pure error" (OPPE).
    1. Brown says, "...in a matter of such importance the prophet would be likely to use a regular, not an unusual method of speech."

      The questions begged here are enormous: That there is a correlation between "importance" and use of figures of speech (which is based on nothing, apparently, other than Brown's cultural assumption that one would only say important things in a literal way) and that one can define a method of speech as "regular" or "unusual" on one's own recognizance.

      Brown made no effort to show that such a form of speech would have been "unusual" or used only for "unimportant" matters in Jeremiah's time and culture. If anything, the data shows the opposite (see Whitney above, and Hommel below). Was the OPPE used only in "unimportant" matters by Greek and Roman rhetoriticians? And how does one define "important"?

    2. "...[T]he relative antithesis is assumed without satisfactory parallels." This is answered by Whitney's parallels above, and Hommel's below.
    3. "The assumed insignificance of the offerings is not consistent with the solemn commands and sanctions of the Pentateuchal legislation." Brown has it wrong; it is not "insignificance" but "relative significance". Moreover he takes no consideration for the differing genre (legal code vs. prophetic oracle) and circumstances (administering of covenant initially vs. historical situation of abuses) of the two places he is comparing which explain the difference in "solemnity". One may as well also compare examples of the OPPE and find equally "solemn" counters.
    4. Brown ends, "an absolute antithesis is more in harmony with the previous verse." It is? "Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Put your burnt offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat flesh." It's just as much in harmony with the idea that this is a relative antithesis telling the people to start practicing God's ways (v. 23).

    In short, Brown's objections do not deal with any linguistic data and are overwhelmingly anachronistic and subjective.

  • Laetsch (1965) opts for a view the same as ours, but provides no argumentation about idiomatic usage. He does note that Jeremiah was not criticized by the priests for opposing the temple apparatus, which he should have been had he actually opposed it literally. In context Laetsch for me would be a persuasive authority, but I could not cite him as a reply to an objector.
  • A. H. Herbert (1959), Worship in Ancient Israel, John Knox Press. Herbert takes the view that Jer. 7:22 is an example of hyperbole [48-9]. The passages like this one (and Mic. 6:6-8 and Hos. 6:6) are "not presenting the stark alternatives" but "insisting on the primary importance of righteousness without which ritual is useless or even dangerous."

    Herbert compares this to Luke 14:26 (see the same point as we make it here) and notes that this verse is an example of something that would mean hating family members in "English idiom" but in "Hebrew idiom it is a vigorous way of expressing a comparison or priority."

  • Lange (n.d.) opts for our reasoning, but gives no accessory support.
  • Van Orelli (1889) agrees with our view, noting the "form, frequent in Semitic languages, of the absolute for the relative antithesis." He also notes elsewhere that Jeremiah seems to recognize the sacrificial system as valid (17:26, 33:11). No specifics are given of such Semitic idiom, but Van Orelli's knowledge makes him at least a persuasive authority.
  • Stearne (1952) makes no clear statement of interpretation, though he does apparently suggest something along the lines of a separate source, after the JEDP model.
  • Brack (2000) argues from the view that Exodus was written after Jer. 7:22, but adds that since sacrifices were conducted in Jeremiah's day, he also finds the answer the same way we do, in Semitic linguistics, by which this says that regulations about sacrifice do not occupy a central place, but that "God had not commanded sacrifices as the essential fature of covenantal obedience." He gives no specific examples of such idioms.
  • Driver (1906) solves the matter through a matter of differing documents being combined at a later date. He says nothing about linguistic features.
  • Freedman -- this commentary is by a Jewish rabbi who backs up Feinberg about the use of Jer. 7:22 in the synagogues after readings from Leviticus. He opts for the same explanation we have, but does not give examples.
  • Harrison (1973) agrees with our view, but offers no explanation.
  • Holladay -- rejects the idiomatic view, claiming it cannot be put on the text "without violence" and claims that a reading "certainly presses the hearer to the conclusion" that Jeremiah is rejecting the origins of the sacrifices. Holladay does not deal with any linguistic arguments.
  • Kommel (1900) in an article, "A Rhetorical Figure in the OT" (Expository Times, 11, 439), notes paralells in Arabic of a form of speech that involve "a denying of the original sense of a word". From an Arabic poem he offers an example, along with others: "Not he who has died and rests is dead; dead is rather the dead among the living." The meaning of the passage is: "Not (only) he who has died and rests (in the grave) is dead; dead is rather (or, much more, lit. only) the dead among the living." The "not" here is exactly as we figure it to be in Jer. 7:22. Another example: "The strong is not (only) he who strikes down his foe, but the strong is (rather also) he who rules himself."

This ends the survey, and thus our conclusions. Our reasons for saying that Jer. 7:22 is a statement of verbal irony, rather than literal, are as follows:

  1. There are clear exact parallels in the Arabic language (Kommel) and the OT (Whitney).
  2. There are clear general parallels to the use of such figures of speech and irony in other ancient languages (Caird, Holland).
  3. Jer. 7:22 was paired with Leviticus in synagogue services.
  4. There is no way such a blatant contradiction could have made it through the hands of editors and no historical or other evidence for "anti-Moses" parties. Indeed Jeremiah is not condemned by the priests for this act, even as he is condemned for other offenses.

In reply, Skeptics say this is enough of a positive reason to read it literally:

  1. The text "clearly says" what it does.

Who has the better case?


Now a few words about figurative language in the Bible. Ancient Hebrew language and literature, like that of other ANE cultures, was filled with figurative language and literary devices that no English translation can completely capture. This naturally affects greatly how we read the Bible.

Critics argue to the effect that a literal meaning should be presumed in a Biblical text unless there are good reasons to do otherwise. What they do not explore is what considerations may be taken to determine what kind of reading a text is subject to, such as genre, context, language and so on. Far too many commentators fail to take such factors into account. So, we often hear the standard objection from Genesis: Adam and Eve did not physically die from eating of the tree, as God's comment, taken with wooden literalism, would indicate ---

Gen. 2:16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Commentators as far back as pre-Christian Judaism have read this as indicating spiritual, not physical, death. But a literalist critic will say: "That's not what the book says. It says they will die. Nothing is said about a spiritual death."

It has been noted that the literal Hebrew says, "Dying you shall die," which does indicate a "progressive" death. However, even if it did not -- as is the case with many cites where "death" and "die" is used in isolation -- nothing needs to be said because the context says all that is needed. Critics would have us believe that the writer of this story, which forms a literary unity, wrote something so blatantly contradictory in such a short space. Common sense alone therefore supports the "spiritual death" interpretation, but there is more, and this is where we come back to the overall pervasiveness of figurative language in Hebrew, combined with an understanding of the Semitic theological mindset.

The account in Genesis goes on to depict Adam and Eve as losing fellowship with God. To the Hebrew mind, loss of fellowship with God is a fate worse than death, for it was the loss of fellowship with the prime source of peace. Thus the word "death" --- representing the most fearsome and irreversible fate in this life --- was chosen to figuratively describe this loss of fellowship with God.

Now we may anticipate our the response: "That's not what the text says!" From the perspective of a Western mind reading and English translation with a heart of stone, perhaps not. But to a Semitic mind reading in a language with a much higher level of poetic sophistication the text says that very thing. This is no expediency, but a fact of the culture that wrote the book.

But seeking to cause further difficulty, a critic may cite other verses referring to death, and asks why they could not refer to spiritual death also. The answer is clear in two ways.

First, the context: The texts cited support a literal interpretation, for they appear in contexts where physical death occurs or is imminent.

Second, there is the genre of the texts where the cites appear, which are cast as pure narrative history, as opposed to the account of the Fall, which carries an "otherworldliness" about it of a sort found in other ANE literature of the time, which indicates a substance of far deeper meaning behind the narrative.

Finally, related to this: The Bible often uses anthropomorphic language to describe God, and such language is read figuratively. It is no answer to say that the verses say what they say, "and no allegorical and figurative meaning can be honestly attributed." These are the words of one who has not made even a cursory study of the language, literature and culture of the ANE.

-JPH

Sources

  1. Alle. JerDan Allen, Clifton, ed. Jeremiah-Daniel. Nashville: Broadman, 1971.
  2. Black.Jer Blackwood, Andrew W. Commentary on Jeremiah. Waco: Word, 1977.
  3. Brig.Jer Bright, John. Jeremiah. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
  4. Clem.Jer Clements, R. E. Jeremiah. Atlanta: John Knox, 1988.
  5. Crai.Jer125 Craigie, Peter, et al. Jeremiah 1-25. Dallas: Word, 1991.
  6. Fein.CommJer Feinberg, Charles. A Commentary on Jeremiah. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
  7. Holl.Jer Holladay, William L. Jeremiah 1. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
  8. Huey.JerLam Huey, F. B. Jeremiah-Lamentations. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993.
  9. Laym.IntB Laymon, Charles E. The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 1971.
  10. Thomp.Jer Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
  11. Whit.Jer722 Whitney, G. E. "Alternate Interpretations of Lo in Ex. 6:3 and Jer. 7:22." Westminster Theological Journal, Spring 1986, pp. 151-59.