September 8, 2013
In this text we find one of the famous prophetic sign acts that dot the literature of Israelite prophecy. I have noted several times before in these essays that prophets simply do not see the world in the same ways that the rest of us see. When I spy a branch of an almond tree, what pops into my prosaic mind is the lovely taste of almonds that should be forthcoming. But when a prophet, Jeremiah in this case, sees the same branch, he discerns something far different. Since he speaks Hebrew, he hears a pun here. The Hebrew for "almond branch" is shaqed. This word reminds the prophet of the Hebrew shoqed, "watching," and suggests to him that YHWH is watching over the divine word to make certain that that word will act in the way YHWH has in mind for it (Jer. 1:11-12). I read Hebrew perfectly well, but I would never hear the word in the way that Jeremiah heard it.
In chapter 18:1-11 Jeremiah has another confrontation with a very common sight in the land of Judah, namely the creation of the simple pottery that was ubiquitous at his time. These were not the finely wrought and expensive objects that commanded serious money 2600 years ago, only affordable by the wealthiest Judeans, and would command nothing less than large fortunes today, if any of them had survived intact across the years. These pots were instead the everyday ware of a typical Judean household, serviceable, perhaps not perfect in shape or color, but useable by a family to hold grain or wine enough to sustain common life. In short, they were the Melmac of the ancient world. We used Melmac in my early years. It was plastic, a sort of yellow, and appeared well-nigh indestructible to my young eyes. At least, we seemed able, my three brothers and I, to toss it around a good bit, to drop it on the floor more than once, even try one out as a Frisbee on one occasion to the horror and loud remonstrance of our mother.
But Jeremiah's encounter with the common pottery of his day was not at all like mine with Melmac—the chief difference being that those Judean pots were known for a rather short life span, given their poor construction out of equally poor materials. Hence, a trip to the local potter was both familiar and frequent, so when YHWH called on the prophet to visit the potter, it was certainly a trip he had made before more than a few times.
"The word that was for Jeremiah from YHWH: 'Rise up and go down to the potter's house, and there I will make you hear my words'" (Jer. 18:2). So, this is not to be the usual trip to replace the inevitable broken pots; this time YHWH's words will be involved. It is important to know that the word translated "potter" here is based on the more general verb, yatsar, "to fashion, form." It is this verb that is used in Genesis 2:7 when YHWH God kneels in the dust, grabs a piece of moistened clay, and fashions from it a human being. Thus, the image there is of YHWH as potter, shaping each one of us on the divine potter's wheel.
In response to the call of YHWH, Jeremiah "went down to the potter's house, and there he was creating, working at his wheel" (Jer. 18:3). The word translated "wheel" is found only here in the Hebrew Bible. Literally, it means "dual stones." The noun "stone" is in the Hebrew dual form here, implying stones somehow related one to the other. The usual guess is that one stone is joined somehow to the other, perhaps with a wooden shaft of some kind, the lower stone serving as a stabilizer for the wheel and the upper stone then being turned as the table of the wheel, upon which the clay is placed for shaping by the potter. Even older dual stones may have only rested one on another, the lower stone hollowed out to receive the upper stone resting right on it. Though modern potter's wheels are far more sophisticated than these ancient devices must have been, in fact the basic mechanism remains identical even after 2600 years or more.
"The vessel (object) of clay he was making was smashed by the potter's hand; he started again and made another vessel precisely as it seemed good for him to make" (Jer. 18:4). I have only once tried to "throw" a pot, and was frankly a rank failure. However, I have witnessed those who could genuinely do this art well, and the description here is quite accurate. Regularly, the potter makes a mistake of one sort or another while the clay is being molded on the spinning table of the wheel. Either his hand is too forceful or her hand slips and cuts into the clay or there is too much or too little water used to soften the clay to make it malleable. Starting over is a common act of any potter using a wheel.
And so it is with YHWH. "Am I not able to do to you exactly as this potter has done, house of Israel, a saying of YHWH? Look! Like clay in the potter's hand are you in my hand, house of Israel. On the one hand, I will say concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will pluck up, break down, annihilate! Yet, if that nation that I spoke of should turn from its evil, then I might change my mind about the evil that I intended to do to it" (Jer. 18:6-8). YHWH is just like the potter, having full control over the fate of the pot, Israel. Like the potter, YHWH can start again on the pot Israel after breaking it down. Of course, unlike the pot, Israel still has the opportunity to change its ways of evil that might then lead to YHWH's change of heart, sparing the nation after all.