What is a translator to do should she seek to provide a translation of Jer 7:21-23 which - impossibly in my view - does not require off-site explanation to be understood?
The only thing that can be done, I submit, is to rewrite the text and make it say something it doesn’t. That is precisely what NIV/TNIV does.
This is the second part of a two-part series. The first part is an essential introduction to this part.
Here is NIV/TNIV Jer 7:21-23:
Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 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.
By the addition of just one word – just indeed – NIV/TNIV relieves the reader of the need to think through, as Rashi does, the verse’s less than obvious fit with the book of Exodus, but full agreement, as Weinfeld notes, with Deuteronomy (for details, go here). It harmonizes Jer 7:22 with the fact that commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices are given in the Ex-Lev-Num complex. It removes the harsh statement of the source text in 7:22, in which the sacrifices of the people – “your (plural) whole offerings and your (plural) sacrifices” – are described as elements of obedience God never required. On the other hand, it retains the sarcasm of 7:21. The result: a disjointed text.
NIV/TNIV’s harmonization of Jer 7:22 with the Ex-Lev-Num complex amounts to nuking the text for rapid, care-free consumption. If NIV/TNIV had translated the text as is, that might have created an Acts 8:31 situation. Can’t have that.
NLT1/NLT2 also rewrites Jer 7:21-23:
Away with your burnt offerings and sacrifices! Eat them yourselves! [NLT 2: Take your burnt offerings and your other sacrifices, and eat them yourselves!] When I led your ancestors out of Egypt, it was not burnt offerings and sacrifices I wanted from them. This is what I told them: ‘Obey me, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Only do [NLT2: Do everything] as I say, and all will be well!’
The sarcastic demand of the source text at the beginning of 7:21 does not make the final cut in NLT. There is no “Go ahead” any more, as NIV/TNIV colorfully puts it. Perhaps DE translation and sarcasm are inimical to each other. But let’s get register and genre right in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet does not engage in polite conversation.
To be sure, I’m going overboard. After all, NLT’s “Eat them yourselves!” is good and sarcastic. But that loose paraphrase of the source text has problems of its own. It works as a translation for your average ignorant reader of the Bible, but not for anyone else. The informed reader of the Bible knows that that is exactly what you do with sacrifices: you eat them, unless they are whole-offerings.
There is a problem with Jer 7:21. In order to get the text as is -
Add your whole-offerings to your other sacrifices:
eat the meat of them all!
- you have to know things the average Bible reader does not know. The sense depends on the distinction between whole-offerings, whose substance was not shared between God, priest and family, and other kinds of sacrifice, in which it was. For the distinction between a whole-offering and regular sacrifice in which the bulk of the sacrifice was consumed by worshippers, not by fire, see Lev 1-7; in particular, chapter 7.
Field testing, I’m sure, will demonstrate that Jer 7:21 as I translate it is not intelligible to the reader without explanation. On this basis, it would appear, NLT dispenses with the distinction on which Jer 7:21 depends, and supplies a paraphrase that says something else, something nonsensical from the point of view of the world the text presupposes: "Take your burnt offerings and your other sacrifices, and eat them yourselves!" Is that acceptable?
With respect to Jer 7:22, NLT takes a more circuitous route: "it was not burnt offerings and sacrifices I wanted from them." Thankfully, the paraphrase offered doesn’t harmonize Jer 7:22 with Ex-Lev-Num, wherein God provides a place, priesthood, and instructions for making whole offerings and sacrifices. So a question not unlike the one the text is meant to provoke arises: Why would God provide the means and a set of instructions for sacrifice if they didn’t want them? Nevertheless, according to NLT Jer 7:22, God didn’t want them.
NLT Jer 7:21-23 succeeds in registering God’s disdain for sacrifices the people want to offer, but God does not want to receive. It preserves if somewhat clumsily the figure of rhetoric known classically as distributio and referred to as “relative negation” by others. Jack Lundbom’s Excursus II on this passage (see bibliography) includes examples of this figure such as: Christmas is not a time for gifts, Santa Claus, and feasting; Christmas is a time to recall the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
But NLT also creates a new and improved 7:22 by assimilation to Hos 6:6: “it’s not sacrifice I want, but lovingkindness” (cross-referenced in NLTSB; a cross-reference to Isa 1:11[-14] is also provided, in connection with Jer 7:21). In a sense, that is the point of the passage. However, that is not how the passage makes it. Is that acceptable?
Now, if you tell me that you prefer a translation that communicates meaning without off-site explanation, and therefore NIV/TNIV and/or NLT1/NLT2 in this passage work for you, we have a fundamental disagreement.
Accuracy requires a translation along the lines of the one I offered, in which the "relative negation" is highlighted. That is exactly what one finds in NJPSV, RSV=ESV, NRSV, REB, NAB, NJB, and a host of other translations.
Even if that means Jer 7:21-23 is a head-scratcher without explanation. Even if that means one has to read a scholarly commentary to get to the bottom of the passage.
Clarity and accuracy are admirable goals of translation, but if clarity is purchased at the cost of non-equivalence to the source text, the sale amounts to an act of theft.
Peter C. Craigie, Jeremiah 1-25 (WBC 26; Dallas: Word, 2002); William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah Chapters 1-25 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986); Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20 (AB 21A; New York: Doubleday, 1999); William McKane, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986); Jacob Milgrom, “Concerning Jeremiah’s Repudiation of Sacrifice,” ZAW 89 (1977) 273–75; Moshe Weinfeld, “Jeremiah and the Spiritual Metamorphosis of Israel,” ZAW 88 (1976) 17–56