The (Controversial) Translation of Jeremiah 20:7: Contesting Language of Sexual Violence

The (Controversial) Translation of Jeremiah 20:7: Contesting Language of Sexual Violence June 9, 2016



Over on the Catholic channel at CosmosTheInLost, Artur Rosman has made a provocative post on the translation and interpretation of Jeremiah 20:7. I’ve always been tangentially aware of this verse and its interpretations, so I thought this would be a nice opportunity for some more research on it—not to trash Rosman’s (or his sources’) interpretation, of course, although I do disagree with it; but merely because there are some genuinely interesting translation issues involved.

In this verse, the prophet Jeremiah begins some sort of lament to/against God. Rosman quotes a “standard translation” of the verse—the standard translation here being the Revised Edition of the New American Bible—reading

You seduced me,* LORD, and I let myself be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you prevailed. All day long I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.

Noting the asterisk in NAB’s translation, Rosman explains that

The explanatory note for “seduced me” reads, “Jeremiah accuses the Lord of having deceived him,” which is rather disappointing, because it doesn’t pick up on the violence of the rest of the verse.

In terms of discerning the true import of what this verse suggests, then, Rosman takes his cue from an suggestion by the famous literary critic Harold Bloom, himself inspired by an argument of Abraham Heschel here. As Rosman explains, Heschel had suggested that in this verse, “[t]he 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.”

Based on this and some of his own considerations, Bloom had offered a provocative translation of the passage:

Yahweh, you seduced me unlawfully, and I consented to being seduced; you raped me, and you were too strong for my resistance to prevail. All day long I have become an object of derision, everyone mocks me. (Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, 15)

Harold Bloom’s translation here is obviously particularly shocking; and we might be forgiven for thinking perhaps deliberately so, as Bloom’s no stranger to controversy when it comes to his meddling in Biblical Studies. Nevertheless—and, well, Bloom’s shocking and idiosyncratic translation notwithstanding—Heschel and Bloom in fact aren’t alone among scholars, in terms of singling out an undertone of the sexual abuse/violence in the language used by Jeremiah here.

Samuel Balentine writes that Jeremiah’s language is “strong, even blasphemous” and that, “[t]o put the issue bluntly, Jeremiah accuses God of the most grotesque form of sexual assault, of overpowering him, crushing his resistance, using him to satisfy divine whims, and then casting him aside” (Prayer in the Hebrew Bible: The Drama of Divine-human Dialogue, 165). Crenshaw—situating Jeremiah’s lament alongside similar accusations made toward God in the Hebrew Bible—notes

The complaint of YHWH’s critics is direct, as if face to face, sometimes in language just short of irreverent. Prophetic challengers confront the deity with sharp questions and thinly veiled rebukes. The judge Gideon reminds YHWH’s messenger that the hardships of the moment create a cloud of disbelief over cherished stories about divine favor (Judg 6:13). Habakkuk impugns the deity’s inaction with anguished cries of “How long?” and “Why?” (Hab 1: 1-17). The prophet Jeremiah goes farthest of all, accusing YHWH of spiritual seduction and rape (Jer 20:7). (Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil, 89)¹

Even John A. Thompson’s commentary on Jeremiah—appearing as it does in a series (NIC) that, as a whole, leans more conservatively—speaks of how 20:7’s “language verges on the blasphemous,” and calls particular attention to how “[t]he verb seduce (pāṯâ) occurs in Exod. 22:16 (cf. Judg. 16:5) in a law regarding sexual seduction,” and “[t]he verb ḥāzaq is used of sexual seduction elsewhere in the OT (Deut. 22:25; 2 Sam. 13:11, 14; cf. Prov. 7:13).”²

But to return to specifically to Heschel and Bloom’s argument, as related by Rosman: first and foremost, Heschel’s statement that the Jeremiah passage uses “the terms for seduction and rape in the legal terminology of the Bible” is at best misleading, and at worst simply false. In truth, even in the Biblical legal material on seduction and rape, there were no single terms used for these things; and more importantly, none of the terms that were used exclusively denote these things: they all have a wider currency of usage than in just sexual contexts.

Picking up on Heschel’s argument, Bloom actually compounds the error not only by unambiguously translating the words in the Jeremiah verse specifically in a sexual sense, but more egregiously—and again, relying on the assumption that it’s specifically the Old Testament laws on rape that elucidate the meaning of these words in Jeremiah—by taking the context of their usage in these laws and importing this back into the Jeremiah verse: “you seduced me unlawfully“!

While I’ll return to the translation of “seduced me” shortly, I think that Bloom’s translation of the subsequent line, “you raped me,” is, well, patently absurd. To counter this, we need not point out much more than that the underlying verb here—again, ḥāzaq—is also used throughout the Hebrew Bible in the more general sense of “to seize,” having nothing to do with sexual violence. In fact, it can have a purely metaphorical meaning: for example, elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah himself uses the same verb to suggest “dismay seizes me” (8:21).

As familiar as the sexualized language interpretation is, criticism of this position is familiar too. A unifying theme in this criticism is that the sexual interpretation commits what David Clines and David Gunn, in their article on Jeremiah 20:7, refer to as an “illegitimate totality transfer”³: erroneously assuming that a particular word used in one context—like Biblical legal material on rape—can or should be taken in the same sense (or even a similar one) in another context.

But if this criticism is valid, what exactly is Jeremiah saying in 20:7? How should it be translated?

As mentioned earlier, the explanatory note to NAB’s translation—the one Rosman and others suggested wasn’t strong enough—reads that “Jeremiah accuses the Lord of having deceived him.” In fact, as an alternative to “you seduced me” or its more sexually explicit counterparts, the translation “you deceived me” is indeed a popular one, being adapted as the main translation by the NIV, ESV, KJV, NASB, etc.

Now, it’s uncontroversial that in 20:7, Jeremiah is expressing the weight of some personal grievance here. But, again, on account of what exactly? Complicating things here, it’s actually difficult to really place Jeremiah 20:7 in a wider context. At least the verse doesn’t follow very naturally from the incident that preceded it. 

Or does it? In the previous verses and chapter, the priest Pashḥur actually imprisons Jeremiah after hearing him prophesy the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (20:1). In 20:3, however, Pashḥur releases Jeremiah, after which Jeremiah immediately launches into a tirade against him, and against Jerusalem in general. In the last line before 20:7, Jeremiah tells Pashḥur that he die and be buried in Babylon: “you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely.”

So what does Jeremiah mean in 20:7 was “deceived” by God—or for that matter, seduced?

It’s interesting that this lament follows immediately upon Jeremiah’s accusation of Pashḥur and his “friends” giving false prophecy, considering that elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible false prophecy is associated precisely with divinely ordained deception. (See 1 Kings 22:20-23, discussed further below.)

While the relevance of this isn’t exactly clear,⁵ we might also turn to the verses that immediately follow this for some insight into what the contested lines of 20:7 are suggesting. Of course, a couple of things in these verses themselves create interpretive problems⁴; but in any case, following the middle section of 20:7—”you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed,” as NRSV translates it—we read

…I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

In terms of being “deceived” then—if we were to follow that translation/interpretation—it might be understood that Jeremiah is expressing the disjunction between an original expectation that his prophetic mission would be a more positive one, contrasted with it turning out to be a negative one; or one otherwise leading to great personal trouble for him, as the prior verses clearly suggest.⁶

The note to Jeremiah 20:7 in the NET Bible ascribes this interpretation to the translational choice of NRSV and (N)JPS—”you enticed me”—translating this “as though God had tempted [Jeremiah] with false hopes.” Yet NET resists this, explaining

There is no indication in this passage that Jeremiah is accusing God of misleading him or raising false hopes; God informed him at the outset that he would encounter opposition (1:17-19). Rather, he is alluding to his call to be a prophet, a call which he initially resisted but was persuaded to undertake because of God’s persistence (Jer 1:7-10).

On the basis of this, the translators of NET actually opt for the quite expansive translation “you coerced me into being a prophet” here.

So we have at least three translations/interpretations for the first word in 20:7 here: that Jeremiah was deceived (with whatever that entails), seduced or enticed (with whatever that entails), or coerced.

To start with the first suggestion here: there are both reasons to be skeptical of this, and reasons to commend it, too. One immediate consideration to commend it is that the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the word in question with ἀπατάω, which clearly suggests deception or cheating. 

Further, we might find some close parallels between this interpretation and what Jeremiah expresses elsewhere in the book that bears his name. In Jer. 15:15f., Jeremiah takes us on what’s basically a rollercoaster ride of his conflicted feelings toward the reality of God in his life. Although it opens on a note of the trials that Jeremiah faced because of him (“O LORD . . . know that on your account I suffer insult”), it immediately shifts to a positive in verse 16:

 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O LORD

…only to then shift again, returning to the negatives:

17 I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand [מפני ידך] I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation. 18 Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful [אכזב] brook, like waters that fail.

There are several things of interest here; but it’s perhaps the final line that’s of greatest interest. 

If Jeremiah’s feelings here oscillate between positive and negative, is the final line meant to be a sort of distillation of the ambiguity here—that God first appeared to be akin to refreshing waters: waters whose benefits/comfort turn out to be illusory? Whatever the case, here we unambiguously have God characterized as deceitful, in a way that would obviously match what Jeremiah 20:7 suggests, if the word in question there is to indeed be interpreted as suggesting deceit.

Yet there might also be minor evidence against the interpretation of “deceive” in 20:7, too. Would this description fit well alongside Jeremiah’s being “overpowered” by God, and “prevailing” over him? Admittedly, NET’s translation that Jeremiah was “coerced” here would fit better, in terms of a shared vocabulary of force here (coerced; overpowered; prevailed over).

But, of course, there’s the question of whether we even need to interpret all three words of Jeremiah 20:7 similarly in this regard. Further, it’s been noticed by commentators that just verses later, in Jeremiah 20:10, Jeremiah restates the same first two verbs as in 20:7—except now not on account of what he feels has already been done to him by God, but in describing how his “friends” are hoping that he (Jeremiah) himself will fail:

All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be [—]ed, and we can prevail against him…”

If the verbs here are to be interpreted in much the same way that they are in 20:7—and, to be sure, it’s not exactly clear that they have to⁷—NET’s “coerced” wouldn’t seem to fit very well: “Perhaps he can be coerced, and we can prevail against him…” 

On the other hand—though, again, only if we want to read v. 7 and v. 10 together—are his friends hoping that they can prevail against him because he’s deceived? This would make some sense, as would “seduced” or “enticed”; though they’re still not perfect contextual fits.

In light of all this and several other considerations, I’d like to make what’s tantamount to a fourth suggestion of what this first word in Jeremiah 20:7 might mean, and how it ties into everything else.

Although primarily inspired by looking for a denotation here that fits the context of Jeremiah describing some mental/cognitive event that’s happened to him in the course of his ordination to prophetic ministry (or more directly in the course of God’s revelation to him), this might have the added benefit of also making contextual sense if, as Thompson notes, we were inclined toward the view that Jeremiah 20:7f. “may not originally have had reference to an inner crisis of faith but was rather a public confrontation of the prophet with the people.”⁸ (That is, not necessarily tied to adverse mental effects, but a more general sense of dejection or subjection.)

In this suggestion I think Jeremiah 15:15f., discussed above, is also highly relevant: particularly in the description of Jeremiah “eating” God’s words; and also especially v. 17, in which Jeremiah suffered in some sense “under the weight of [God’s] hand…”

Interestingly, both of these descriptions use language most familiar from the prophetic ministry of Ezekiel. For example, in terms of eating, in the 3rd chapter of the book of Ezekiel we read

He said to me, O mortal . . . eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey. 4 He said to me: Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.

Further, just verses later here, Ezekiel speaks of the “hand” of God in conjunction with the same word as one of those from Jeremiah 20:7, ḥāzaq. (The word which, again, Bloom had translated “rape,” but for which its more common meaning “to seize” has been offered instead.) As NRSV translates Ezekiel’s use of this,

14 The spirit lifted me up and bore me away; I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the LORD being strong upon me [עלי חזקה].

As mentioned, the first word of Jeremiah in 20:7 has been variously interpreted as him being deceived, seduced/enticed, or coerced.

But considering these other things, could it have been intended as a sort of play here on the mental status of undergoing prophetic experience itself? Of course, the “deception” interpretation itself is occasionally understood this way, considering descriptions elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible of false spirits (cognitively) misleading their inhabitants. An incident in 1 Kings 22 is often invoked in conjunction with this, where God allows a “lying” demon/spirit to mislead Ahab’s prophets. (In fact, 1 Kings 22:21 uses the same word under debate here—though even here it’s unclear whether it precisely means “entice” or “deceive.”)

But what if the word in Jeremiah 20:7 wasn’t intended in quite such a malicious sense? Without delaying the point any longer: considering the connections with the heavy prophetic “hand of God,” etc., I wonder if perhaps here it could be understood somewhat along the lines of entranced (as in to put into a trance); or perhaps, as an extension of this, even stunned, or otherwise entailing some sort of immobilization. To the extent that the word and its derivatives can also suggest foolishness, could we also think along the lines of “stupefy”?

Naturally, the former would have some crossover with a more typical interpretation of “enticed” or perhaps “beguiled.” But in contrast to some of the ways this has been understood, this would fit well with the description of the overwhelmingness of prophetic experience itself—again, for example, the “hand of God” bearing on Ezekiel or Jeremiah. (The Aramaic Targum, in its translation of Jeremiah 20:7, uses the word šbš to translate our contentious term; a word that might actually sit somewhere in between the notions of “to entrance” and “deceive”: something like “confound, disturb.”)

This word denoting “entranced” or “stunned” might fit closely with the other verbs in the verse denoting the overpowering of Jeremiah—which might also be connected particularly with the all-consuming nature of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry in v. 9 here: “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” 

Further, perhaps unlike “deceived,” it would have the additional benefit of also making sense if 20:7f. were indeed originally independent of its current context in Jeremiah, and thus originally suggested a more general sense of subjection. (One recalls the imagery of being immobilized or frozen with fear, etc., found throughout the Psalms and elsewhere.)

Finally, I wonder if this wouldn’t help make quite excellent sense of the sentiment of Jeremiah’s opportunist friends in v. 10, when they repeat the first two words that Jeremiah had used for himself:

All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be entranced/immobilized/stunned, and we can prevail against him…”.

Interestingly, the collocation of stumbling and immobilization is known elsewhere in Biblical/early Jewish idiom; cf. the Thanksgiving Hymns from the Dead Sea Scrolls:

my [fo]ot has been caught in the snare . . . and it is impossible to move one step forward . . . my arms are bound by chains which cause stumbling. (1QH XVI 34-35)

Further, would Jeremiah’s immobilization or fixation allow his friends opportunity to “prevail against him”?

To be sure, there are weaknesses to my specific proposal. I think the suggestion of immobilization here is mostly arrived at via the suggested “entranced”; nowhere else, to my knowledge, does the word directly suggest immobility itself. 

Of course—and finally returning here to some of the considerations with which this post began—it may be the case that in other instances in the Hebrew Bible, the language of divine sexual violence is used; again if only metaphorically so. (See in particular Magdalene, “Ancient Near-Eastern Treaty-Curses and the Ultimate Texts of Terror: A Study of the Language of Divine Sexual Abuse in the Prophetic Corpus.”) But I think one clear implication from all this is that the denotation of these words in Jeremiah 20:7, as suggesting being seized or overpowered, no more suggests anything sexual than it does any other instance where these terms suggest violence or force, again even if only metaphorically so.

To conclude on a note of coincidence here: it’s sometimes the case that other texts from the Mediterranean or ancient Near Eastern world can suggest prophecy in the sense of being overpowered⁹; and perhaps even in a sense pregnant with sexual connotations. In Book 6 of the Aeneid, we read

the prophetess . . . raves wildly like a bacchant in the cave, if she could shake off the mighty god from her breast; so much more he tires her raving mouth, tames her wild heart, and molds her by pressing [fingitque premendo].¹⁰

Surely we could find other examples of this; but with Jeremiah 20:7, even if we don’t follow the suggestions I’ve made about the vocabulary and nature of prophetic experience, it still remains the case that the simplest explanation for the language of the verse, whatever it may be—and I suspect that it’ll be the least sensationalist one—will seem to be the most preferable.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] In a footnote he cites his own A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence, 31-56, for extended discussion on this.

[2The Book of Jeremiah, 459.

[3] Relying on a phrase of James Barr here.

[4] For example, whether “Violence and destruction!” is the prophetic message that Jeremiah delivers (to Jerusalem), or whether he himself thinks he’s the victim of violent injustice.

[5] See my comments on John Thompson and the redaction/editing of Jeremiah 20 below. At first I was halfway tempted to imagine 20:7 as the (imagined) speech of Pashḥur—somewhat like I think Isaiah 8:9-10 may be the speech of the Assyrian ruler—but this really makes no sense considering what follows.

[6] Thompson, citing an article of Clines and Gunn, suggests that Jeremiah 20:7 and the verses that follow “may not originally have had reference to an inner crisis of faith but was rather a public confrontation of the prophet with the people,” and that it’s “possible that it was placed here by an editor as a suitable expression of Jeremiah’s response to the Pashhur incident” (The Book of Jeremiah, 458; 457). This would be much like the prayer of Jonah 2:2-9 was surely originally independent from the story of Jonah itself, but used there because it had enough themes in common with the rest of Jonah to be appropriate.

[7] See Snyman, “A Note on pth and ykl in Jeremiah 20:7-13.”

[8] See Note 6.

[9] I’m certain we can find other early Jewish or Near Eastern examples of this. In some classical Arabic texts, prophetic trance is said to “overtake” people, described using the verb تَغَشَّىٰ, taghashā, literally “to cover.”

[10] Vassiliki Panoussi writes

vocabulary borrowed from descriptions of horse taming emphasizes the theme of resistance, while it also demonstrates the god’s eventual mastery over the maiden (fera corda domans). (Vergil’s Aeneid and Greek Tragedy: Ritual, Empire, and Intertext, 139)

A note here reads

The sexual implications of the description were noted by Norden (1926: 144-46), but dismissed by Austin (1977: 66-67). Ovid’s account of the Sibyl (Met. 14.129-53) exposes Vergil’s intimations of sexual invasion and attributes to her Cassandra-like features

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