Why is Jeremiah 10:11 written in Aramaic?

Jeremiah - Wikipedia

Jeremiah 10:11 is the only verse in the book of Jeremiah written in Aramaic and not in Hebrew. What necessitated Jeremiah to switch languages in the middle of his prophecy? Did Jeremiah have a specific purpose in using Aramaic? Or, did a later scribe insert the verse in Aramaic?

Thus you shall say to them, “The gods that did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.” Jeremiah 10:11

Generally two reasons are found among commentators regarding why Jeremiah contains an Aramaic verse. First, as the translators of the New English Translation observe, many scholars believe that verse 11 is a gloss inserted by a post-exilic scribe. J. P. Lange argues, “Jeremiah would certainly not have interrupted a Hebrew discourse by a Chaldee [Aramaic] interpolation, when he elsewhere never uses this language, not even in the letter to the exiles” in chapter 23.

Second, other commentators contend that Jeremiah is instructing the exiled Jews on how to respond in exile in the face of idolatrous temptations (Aramaic was the lingua franca of Babylon and the exiles). The Targum of Jeremiah (the Aramaic translation of the book of Jeremiah) takes this approach as well. In fact, the Targum of Jeremiah states that 10:11 is part of a letter sent to the elders in exile. The Targum of Jeremiah 10:11 begins,

This is a copy of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent to the rest of the elders of the exile who were in Babylon, that if the nations among whom you are (living) say to you, “Worship the idols, O house of Israel,” so you shall reply and so you shall say to them . . .

Despite the change from Hebrew to Aramaic, verse 11 fits naturally within chapter 10 (for those interested see Garnett Reid’s insightful article listed below). Jeremiah begins with describing the vanity of idols (10:3-5, 8-9). He then shifts towards a description of the true God (10:12-13). Verse 11 smoothly transitions the discussion from the worthlessness of idols to the worthiness of the true God.

But why Aramaic? As the Targums and other commentators argue, Jeremiah has in mind the Jews in exile. The Targum to Jeremiah may be correct: verse 11 may be part of a letter sent to the elders already in exile. Whether or not the verse is part of a letter, Jeremiah is instructing those in Judah on what to say when they are in exile. Jeremiah’s instruction is evident by the wording of verse 11. “Thus you shall say”: the “you” of this clause refers to the Jews to whom Jeremiah is speaking (10:1). “To them”: this refers to the Babylonians, the very people the Jews live among in exile (8:19; 10:17-18). Jeremiah, then, is saying, “Thus you, O Jews, shall say to the Babylonians—the people you live among—when they tempt you to worship idols (10:2) . . .” The question remains, could Jeremiah have accomplished the same purpose in Hebrew?

Reid makes a compelling argument that Jeremiah 10:11 is a summary of the Jews’ theology “designed as a kerygmatic challenge they are to deliver to their Babylonian captors” (p. 238). Certainly Jeremiah places the Babylonians on notice with this lone Aramaic statement in the prophecy. It is also possible to consider that the Aramaic of Jeremiah 10:11 adds weight to Jeremiah’s prophecies as a whole.

In the surrounding context of Jeremiah 10:11 (ch. 4-6, 10:17-18), Jeremiah tells of the coming destruction of Jerusalem by “a people from the north land” (6:22). Coming out of the reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 23), Judah must have felt secure; the foretelling of destruction and exile by Jeremiah would have sounded strange on the ears of Judah’s inhabitants. In fact, Jeremiah 7:1-11 demonstrates that the Jews had a false sense of security; they thought that the presence of the temple and that the offering of sacrifices secured their safety. Jeremiah regularly pleads with the people to submit themselves to Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27; 28; 40:9) in the face of the coming exile.

The Jews demonstrated a persistent state of unbelief. Jeremiah’s switch to Aramaic in 10:11 would certainly add weight to his prophecy that the nation will be carried into exile. Why would Jeremiah instruct his audience to respond in Aramaic unless they were to dwell in an Aramaic-speaking land? Certainly Jeremiah did not need to seek for proofs of the truthfulness his prophecies; the fact that he spoke the words of God (Jer. 1:2; 10:1) was evidence of its truthfulness. On the other hand, it was the hard hearts and deaf ears of God’s people that needed confirmation of the truthfulness of Jeremiah’s words.

Far from being a mere addition by a later scribe, the Aramaic of Jeremiah 10:11 plays a vital function in the prophecies of Jeremiah.

Resources:

See a summary of opinions on Jeremiah’s use of Aramaic at BibleHub.

“‘Thus you will say to them’: A Cross-Cultural Confessional Polemic in Jeremiah 10.11” by Garnett Reid. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament vol. 31.2 (2006): 221-238.

Image credit:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremiah

Published by Richard C. McDonald

I am married to Nancy McDonald and we have two boys, Noah and Stephen. I am a high school history teacher at Whitefield Academy in Louisville, KY. I am also an adjunct instructor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College. I am a fan of LSU, and college football in general. My family and I are members at Sojourn Church-JTown in Louisville, KY.

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