The readings you heard at Mass on Sunday say that God “duped” Jeremiah.
Wait . . . what?
How could an all-holy God “dupe” or deceive anybody?
What’s going on here?
Let’s Start with the Text
The readings for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A), contain a passage from Jeremiah, which reads, in part:
You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me [Jer. 20:7].
Okay, let’s start by noting that “duped” is a tin-eared translation. The word is too colloquial and comes of as jarring in this context.
How does the verse read in other translations? Here it is in the RSV:CE:
O Lord, thou hast deceived me,
and I was deceived;
thou art stronger than I,
and thou hast prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
every one mocks me.
Hm. It doesn’t have the jarring lurch into the colloquial, but it still has carries the implication of God actively doing something evil by deceiving someone.
The Language of Direct Attribution
Now, the Old Testament does have a mode of language in which—sometimes—everything that happens is attributed directly to God.
This happens, for example, when 2 Samuel 24:1 says God moved David to take a census that he shouldn’t have, whereas 1 Chronicles 21:1 says the devil moved him to do it.
2 Samuel is using the language of direct attribution, where the bad thing that happened (David’s census) is attributed directly to God, whereas 1 Chronicles uses a more refined mode of language that recognizes the bad thing that happened was prompted by the devil, with the implication that God allowed it.
The language of direct attribution is an ancient way of showing the fact that everything happens under God’s providence, but this mode of language does not distinguish between things that God intends and actively causes and those things that he merely allows.
When this mode of language is in use, bad things are spoken of in a way that directly attributes them to God.
In reality, God is all-holy and does not do anything evil. He tolerates evil with a view toward bringing good out of it. Thus the Catechism states:
The fact that God permits physical and even moral evil is a mystery that God illuminates by his Son Jesus Christ who died and rose to vanquish evil. Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if he did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life [CCC 324].
But, particularly in the Old Testament, they didn’t always make this kind of distinction and had a way of speaking that attributed everything—good or bad—directly to divine agency.
Is that’s what is happening in Jeremiah 20:7? Did Jeremiah get into the role of prophet not knowing what would happen to him and the suffering he would experience, so now he is using that mode of language?
That would be one way of solving the problem, but there are others . . .
The Language of Subjective Feeling
Scripture has another mode of language in which a person speaks his feelings without necessarily implying that what he says is to be taken literally. He may be expressing his feelings using hyperbole (i.e., exaggeration to make a point).
A jubilant example of this occurs in Psalm 108:2, where the psalmist cries:
Awake, harp and lyre; I will awaken the dawn!
This means that the psalmist is really jubilant and wants to go on and on praising God with song.
It need not literally mean that he will stay up all night praising God. (Indeed, I don’t have any evidence that Psalm 108 was used exclusively in all-night prayer services.)
It certainly does not mean that the psalmist will sing so long and so loud that he will literally awaken the sun from its slumber and cause it to come up.
We thus might suppose that Jeremiah is doing something similar, only with a negative emotion instead of a positive one.
Perhaps he didn’t realize what he was getting into by becoming a prophet and now he feels like he was deceived. On this theory, he would just be “venting” to get it out of his system, without it being literally the case that God tricked him.
And there is another way of looking at the text . . .
Look Closely at the Verb and the Context
The verb being translated as “dupe/deceive” is pathah, and while it can mean these things, it also has other meanings, and in this context it may well have one of those.
Writing in the Word Biblical Commentary (vol. 26, Jeremiah 1-25), Joel Drinkard writes:
The verb pathah is variously translated as “deceive, seduce, persuade.” . . .
[D]espite the common English translation of pathah as deceive (KJV, RSV), the context does not indicate that Yahweh has in any way deceived Jeremiah: from his call experience on, Yahweh has warned Jeremiah of the opposition he would encounter.
The context rather suggests the meaning of persuasion. Clines and Gunn suggest that the word pathah deals especially with attempts, not necessarily success, in persuading, hence the title of their article, “You Tried to Persuade Me.…”
However, in this passage, the context makes clear that Yahweh was quite successful: Yahweh persuaded and Jeremiah was fully, completely persuaded. Yahweh’s persuasion overpowered (khazaq) Jeremiah, and Yahweh overcame (yakol) [comment on 20:7, bibliographic references omitted].
An example of where God warned Jeremiah about the trials he would face as a prophet is found right at the beginning of the book, in Jeremiah 1:18-19:
And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.”
So while it could be that the text is using the language of direct attribution or the language of subjective feeling, we don’t have to go that far. It is also possible—and, in view of God’s warnings to Jeremiah, perhaps even probable—that the verb is just being used in the sense of “persuade” rather than “deceive” or (cringe!) “dupe.”
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