The first post in this series was met with almost deafening silence, but I’m forging ahead with this second one. I know I am pushing fairly hard against the grain of how most Christians have been taught to read their Bibles, but I don’t do so lightly or flippantly. On the one hand, there are surely more pressing issues facing us today than how we interpret the Bible. On the other hand, the way Christians respond to pressing issues is deeply affected by our traditional interpretations of scripture. This type of exercise might be the first step to laying a new and healthier foundation for Christian thinking and living.
Whereas the previous post explored the way we interact with the many streams of thought and belief represented in the Bible, today’s post concerns how the Bible interacts with itself. If Numbers 25 raised questions about how we identify and assess divergent voices in the Bible, our passage today unsettles our simplistic notions of biblical authority and uniformity. Jeremiah 7 is not only a major prophetic watershed in the Hebrew Bible, it is a text frequently quoted and alluded to by Jesus (it contains the bit about the Temple becoming “a robber’s den” and Jeremiah’s descriptive history of Gehenna). But before we can confront the surprising implications of the prophet’s words in verses 21-23, we have to take a moment to clarify what they actually say.
When Translators Attack!
Here is the text of Jeremiah 7:21-23 according to the 1985 update of the JPS Tanakh translation of the Hebrew Bible:
21 Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat!
22 For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice.
23 But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.
But those of us who grew up in the evangelical tradition were taught to stick with our familiar and safe NIV translation, which renders the same passage like this:
21 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves!
22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices,
23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.
The comparison of these two translations of the same Hebrew text highlights just how many choices a team of translators has to consider when producing an English version of the Bible. No two translators will ever make the same choices, and no single translation will ever capture the complete essence of what was originally written. But in addition to the stylistic variations between these two texts, there is one word in the NIV on which our entire discussion will hinge. Did you catch it? Right there in the middle of verse 22, it’s the word “just.” Four letters, one syllable, which completely changes the meaning of the passage.
What Did God Really (Not) Say?
In the JPS translation (based on the Masoretic Hebrew manuscript tradition) God via the prophet says, “Go ahead and eat up your own meat offerings, because I never said anything to your ancestors about burnt sacrifices. I just told them to obey me and walk with me!” But the NIV version tells a different story. Here God says, “Keep those sacrifices coming! But remember that I didn’t only give you commands about burnt sacrifices, I also told you to obey me and walk with me!” This is no minor discrepancy. In the JPS, God is utterly disinterested in burnt sacrifice, in fact He denies ever having asked for it in the first place. In the NIV, God demands uninterrupted burnt sacrifice.
Why would the NIV translators take it upon themselves to alter a text in this manner? How could the Bible of choice for fiercely conservative and “biblicist” readers justify changing an original author’s clear intent? What do they gain by tweaking the “word of God”? (I note here that even the ESV and King James Version render this passage according to the manuscript witness.)
I can think of at least two motivations for the NIV’s decision to alter Jeremiah 7:22. First, and most ironically, it preserves the appearance of consistency and inerrancy. You can’t have one part of the Bible saying that God never said or endorsed another part of the Bible. But more specifically, this verse threatens a precious evangelical theological assumption, namely that God demands blood payment for sin. This is a non-negotiable premise for certain configurations of atonement theory, for example. All translation is interpretation, and the NIV translators knew the interpretive expectations of their audience.
For more on questionable translation choices in the NIV, see this link: https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/articles-and-resources/deliberate-mistranslation-in-the-new-international-version-niv/
The Uncomfortable Implications of Jeremiah 7
Is Jeremiah claiming that the animal sacrifice laws in the Torah are illegitimate, a product of men and not God? What happens when a prophet seems to be saying that another part of the Bible doesn’t fully represent God’s word? I don’t offer any decisive answers to these questions, I just think it’s of paramount importance that we allow them to be asked. This is not about the reliability of the Bible, it’s about recognizing that a conversation is going on among the diverse texts of our tradition. I know inerrantists fear that questions like these will lead to doubt and undermine faith, but I don’t see how ignoring or neutering them is a healthier alternative to working them out in candor and hope.
It’s helpful, perhaps, to consider that Jewish interpreters have not found it necessary to edit or redact Jeremiah 7, and yet if the Temple were still standing they would surely resume making burnt sacrifices. Jews are (historically) more adept than Christians at allowing the Bible to speak, even in tension with itself, and yet living and flourishing within that tension.
The Beautiful Implications of Jeremiah 7
For my part I appreciate Jeremiah 7, both for the way it forces us to consider some heavy questions about how we read the Bible and for what it seems to be saying about God. This may be a disorienting text, but it’s certainly not the only voice in scripture suggesting that God is more concerned with integrity and mercy than He is with sacrifice. In fact, it’s a prophetic theme picked up by Jesus himself. How might such a clarification about God’s character alter or inform our understanding of Jesus, his death, or of our own relationship to God and other humans?
Jeremiah 7 is not a happy text. It’s a warning of calamity and coming judgment. But judgment comes not in the form of fire from heaven, it comes as a military enemy. The reason you face war and exile, says Jeremiah on behalf of YHWH, is not that your blood sacrifices were insufficient or insincere. Your problem is that you have not obeyed my commandments to honor your neighbor and care for the outcast. The God of Jeremiah is not impressed with religion and ritual, He is not thirsty for the blood of sinners or their animal substitutes. He longs to walk with humans in the way of selfless love.
The words of prophets are intended to ignite their hearers’ imaginations with possibility and hope. How can they do this if they cannot surprise us, if we refuse to let them diverge from a predetermined theological script?