Simon Glass

Jeremiah 4:23-27

An annotated translation

23. I saw the land[1] and it was[2] unformed and void[3]; and to the skies[4] and they had no light[5].
24. I saw the mountains and they were[6] quaking and all the hills shook[7].
25. I saw and there was[8] not a man[9] and all the birds[10] of the sky fled[11].
26. I saw and the grove was[12] a desert.[13] And all its cities were demolished in the face of Yahweh[14], In the face of his anger[15].
27. For thus says Yahweh: All the land shall be desolate but I shall not make an end.

[1]ha’aretz” The land – in the biblical story of creation, the second thing that was created, according to chapter one of the Book of Genesis.

[2]veheeneh” This word, in which “ve” is the prefix meaning “and”, is often translated as “and behold”. Heeneh though, is not a verb and does not relate to looking or seeing. It has the same root as the word for “here” and emphasizes presence, in this context generating tension between present and past. Further tension is generated by the fact that this same prefix “ve”, the letter vuv, is often employed in scripture to alter tense from past to future or future to past as noted below.

[3]tohu vebohu” In all of Hebrew scripture, these two words occur together twice – once in Genesis describing a state of creation, and here in Jeremiah, describing a state of destruction. The word “tohu” has as its root the same word which is root for the word meaning chasm or abyss. The first letter of the word, tuv, is the last letter of the alphabet – often associated with telos. The word “bohu” appears not to share a root with any other Hebrew words. This has led it to be considered a nonce term, coined to rhyme with tohu. Its first letter, bet, is the first letter of the Torah (the five books of Moses), usually taken to signify genesis. The two letters heh, one in each word, are symbols for the presence of Yahweh, God of the Jews. The other three characters in these two words are the letter vuv. In scripture, the letter vuv is often employed to reverse the tense of a verb, changing it from past to future or vice versa. That these words occur here is the first suggestion to the reader that Jeremiah will invert the language of the story of creation in the Book of Genesis.

[4] “shamayim” In biblical and vernaclar Hebrew this means sky, or literally “there is water”. Its form is that of a plural noun. This is the first thing that was created according to the book of Genesis.

[5] The absence of light, another creation of the first day – also an inversion of Genesis.

[6]veheeneh” See note 2.

[7]hitqalqalu” This word occurs but once in all of Hebrew scripture. Its root, qilqal, occurs twice. In the Book of Ezekiel, the Babylonian king shakes his arrows back and forth as a means of divining. In Ecclesiastes, the same term is used for the motion of sharpening of a blade.

[8]veheeneh” See note 2.

[9] The word for “man” here is the name Adam, creation of the sixth day.

[10] Birds – a creation of the fifth day.

[11]nadedu” In the Book of Esther, the related word nadeda is used to recount the insomnia of King Ahasuerus: “sleep fled the king”.

[12]veheeneh” See note 2.

[13] Isaiah 32:15 – “… the desert will be a grove …”

[14] “Yahweh”. This is the not-to-be uttered name of God. Its letters and structure strongly suggest that it is a unique form of the verb “to be” – one that is neither past, present nor future but possibly all three at once. As a proper name it is not translatable but it is simultaneously a proper name and a unique verb. To the extent that there are two words here they are at once homonyms and synonyms. Two identical words, one a name, one a verb or, two words, a verb and a name that both have the same meaning.

[15] The idiom used for “anger” here is “kharon upoh”, literally, “his burning nose”.

© Simon Glass, 2010