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The first eleven verses of chapter thirteen of Jeremiah are a very distinctive portion of an already unique book. Jeremiah’s vision of the sign of the loincloth is an affluent passage whose depth cannot be fully understood without a proper exegetical exploration. I intend on doing an exegesis on this passage of Jeremiah. The language and symbols used held significance easily understood by the original audience, yet are difficult to comprehend by modern audiences. The main significance of this piece is not the ruin of the people of Judah, rather the lack of an offering of hope which usually accompanies the prophecies and visions of Jeremiah. The complexity of the passage, coupled with the depth of scholarly research accompanying it make it a challenging, yet fulfilling passage for a deeper exegetical study.
The prophet Jeremiah prophesied for a long period of time. Most scholars agree that the dates for the career of Jeremiah begin sometime around 630 BC and end sometime very soon after the fall of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC. The book of Jeremiah is a composition highlighting this long career spanning numerous years and an equally numerous number of monarchs. J.A. Thompson, in his commentary on Jeremiah, highlights that the dates for this passage are hard to narrow down, yet many scholars align with one particular interpretation.
He believes that the date for the opening passage of chapter thirteen occurred sometime around the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C. After this battle, Jehoiakim, King of Judah, shifted his main alliance from Egypt to Nebuchadreaazr of Babylon. His logic for this date is very sound.
He indicated that the nature of the piece is representative of a shift of both power and allegiance. During this time period, Babylon and to some extent Assyria re-emerged as the predominant powers in the Ancient Near East. The re-emergence of Babylon as the dominant nation brought them into a closer connection with the kingdom of Judah, thereby bringing the Babylonian dominance into the forefront of Jewish thought, especially for the prophetic faction. The greatest concern for the prophets, including Jeremiah, would have been the return of the Babylonian gods Baal and Asheroth to the forefront of Jewish worship. The Jewish people, particularly the kingdom of Judah, had long rotated their allegiance between Yahwehistic worship and the worship of Babylonian fertility gods. Thompson argues, and is agreed with by many scholars including J.
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The literary context of the Sign of the Loincloth passage remains in the same form throughout the narrative. It occurs in the opening section of the book of Jeremiah, chapters 1-25, stylized as being doom and gloom. This is one of the few passages in that section that does not offer an sort of a hope offering to the Jewish people. The context for this passage is a parable written in prose form. In this parable, the first seven verses (1-7) are written in first-person, autobiographical form. Verses 8-10 are generally accepted to be an revelation from Yahweh explaining to Jeremiah the rationale and significance of his actions. Verses 10-11 are widely accepted to be the work of a later editor. The basis for the editorial redaction is mainly on the grounds of stylistic differences which fit the form and style of later passages in Jeremiah known by scholars to be written by later editors. There is little or no published disagreement amongst
scholars concerning the literary context of the Sign of the Waistcloth parable in Jeremiah 13. The aforementioned context is widely accepted as accurate.
The opening of the passage, particularly the first two verses, is extremely meaningful and has a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. In these verses, Jeremiah is instructed by God to go and get a linen girdle and to place it on his loins. Jeremiah obeys God, purchases the linen girdle, and places it on his loins. The Hebrew word used in this instance is ‘ezôr. There are numerous translations into English for this word, including: girdle, waistcloth (RSV, J. Bright), loincloth (Jerusalem Bible). The Anchor Bible Dictionary believes that ‘ezôr probably means a type of kilt worn by ancient soldiers around their waist. This was worn in Israelite times next to the skin and generally under a tunic. In his book on Jeremiah in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, J.A. Thompson offers a different and more valid interpretation of the Hebrew word ‘ezôr. In Israelite history, Jeremiah’s attire would have been aligned with the traditional prophetic dress, consisting of a “fairly tight tunic of coarse material
with a hair cloak over it” (Thompson 363). He notes that a linen girdle was traditionally worn by priests and the extremely rich nobility. A prophet of Jeremiah’s notability wearing attire traditionally worn by priests and nobility would have created quite a scene, a scene worthy of being canonized in the Old Testament. Furthermore, and more importantly in Thompson’s opinion, was that the garment was made out of linen, set aside as priestly in Leviticus 16:4. The girdle took on a symbolic nature, a view supported by many other biblical scholars, including J. Bright, George Adam Smith, and E.W. Nicholson. The priestly garb became representative of the priestly nature of Judah. It immediately was placed upon Jeremiah’s loins, without touching any water, and thereby symbolizing that it was pure and lacking damage.
The middle part of the passage, verses 3-5 provide the widest amount of disagreement from biblical scholars in the passage. In all English translations, God instructs Jeremiah to take the untarnished girdle to the Euphrates and hide it in a hole of the rock. The word translated as Euphrates in this passage is Perath. The word is translated as Euphrates in many other passages, including Gen. 2:14, 15:18, Deuteronomy 1:7, 11:24, 2nd Kings 23:29, 24:7, Jeremiah 46:2, 42:6, and 51:63. Biblical scholars, with almost uniform regularity, disagree with this translation as the actual river of Euphrates. They generally have one major reason to disagree, and several different interpretations. The main reason is that the river Euphrates was over 350 miles one way from Jerusalem, a round-trip that would take approximately three to four months. A prophet of Jeremiah’s notoriety, leaving Jerusalem immediately after creating a scene with his dress, and not returning for three to four months would have greater reduced his respect amongst the Jewish community. Furthermore, he repeated the trip a short time thereafter. A prophet’s message would lose significant meaning if it was made over the course of seven to eight months, with
large gaps in between. E.W. Nicholson contends that the entire purpose for going to the river would be for naught, because no one from Jerusalem would have accompanied him and witnessed it. These reasons have given scholars the rationale for suggesting different locations, with several prominent scholars offering similar, but ultimately different locations.
The biblical scholars who disagree with the traditional interpretation of the Euphrates River believe uniformly that the location was closer to Jeremiah’s city of Anathoth. The difference lies wherein exactly the scholars place the river at Perath. E.W. Nicholson contends that the location of Perath was actually a few miles northeast of Anathoth, an actual location called Perath. There is geographic evidence to support this claim. Moreover, this would have
provided a play on words to symbolize the area of Euphrates (Babylonian and Assyrian) while actually occurring a few miles outside of his home. J.A. Thompson, agreed with by numerous other scholars including J. Bright and George Adam Smith, contend that the location was not the original river of Euphrates. The Perath in this instance was located closer to Jerusalem, at the springs of Wadi Farah, four miles away. A third segment of scholars, namely W. Rudolph, A. Weiser, A.S. Peake, and M. Cunliffe-Jones contend that the entire experience was vision in the mindset of Jeremiah, and therefore no actual location existed at all.
The interpretation of the location of Perath is the most varied of all parts of the Sign of the Loincloth passage; however J.A. Thompson’s interpretation is the most sound. His view of the location being within five miles is shared by others; however he takes it one step further. He believes that the play on words of the actual location of Perath and the use of Perath as the river Euphrates is a symbol of Judah being spoiled (like the girdle) by an impending Chaldean invasion, and the spoiling of Judah by a return to worship of the “astral deities” (Thompson 364) of Babylon and Assyria. The concrete, geographic location was between four to five miles away, but was used to symbolize an impending doom from re-emerged threatening powers. The claim by Thompson flows and fits very snugly with the message and theme of the passage. Verse 10 of Jeremiah 13 gives one reason for the doom of Judah as being the worship of idols, long known in Jewish history to have been the Babylonian fertility deities of Baal and Asheroth.
The meaning of this passage in today’s context is very complex and complicated to determine. After examining the text very closely and extensively I have come to just a couple of conclusions as how it relates to today’s society. In verse 9 it talks about the pride of the people, how they are boastful, something that is present into today’s world. People today are more
prideful they the generation before, living in and “ME” society where I came first. In verse 10 God states that the people are like the loincloth they serve gods other than the one true God, which in today’s society can me a numerous about of things people treat as gods. For example it could be money. People will do anything and everything to obtain more money is ruthless, greedy, unethical, unmoral, and down right horrific, treating money as something they worship. For it says in the bible in 1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (NRSV 355). They shall be empty as nothing as the bible says which is something I can see apparent in our society today. The amount of money we spend each year on therapy sessions because we feel empty, the amount of suicides that occur because there was nothing to live for, the endless hours of worrying and anxiety. All of these are curable with God, but yet they are evil and do not listen to him.
The study of the Sign of the Loincloth parable in Jeremiah 13 is a dense, symbolic study of one of the more intriguing passages in the book of Jeremiah. The book is a parable in prose format, telling of the closeness of the people of Judah to God’s heart, their betrayal of God’s love through the worship of foreign deities, and God’s judgment of his traitorous people. The
understanding of the nature of the passage essentially hinges on the interpretation of two key Hebrew words, ‘ezôr and Perath. The interpretation and analysis of these two key words provides the reader with a much deeper understanding of the true meaning of the passage. Due to this it is hard to relate this passage with an in depth amount of meaning for today. The act mentioned in the parable is exceptionally symbolic of the kingdom of Judah and its becoming infected by the worship and influence of the countries from the Euphrates area. While there is
some substantive disagreement amongst the leading biblical scholars, there are many areas where scholars agree on the nature and intended meaning of the passage.
Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992
Newsome, James D. The Hebrew Prophets. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984
Nicholson, E.W. The Cambridge Bible Commentary. Jeremiah 1-25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973
Thompson, J.A. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. The Book of Jeremiah. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989