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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields - Can a Person Change or Not? Jer 13:23

Categories Hebrew and You

A friend of mine read Jer 13:23 in the NIV and in the Amplified Bible and wondered about the apparent contradiction.
This gives an opportunity to dig into a conjunction. The chart below gives the Hebrew, letters for each line in the verse, and three versions for comparison.

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The NIV says that the people cannot change, while the Amplified and ESV seem to say that change is possible.

jeremiahThe Question in the First Half

The first half of the verse (v. 23a–b) is easy enough to understand. Common questions in the Hebrew Bible have interrogative הֲ introducing the question. It is not rare, however, that questions have no such indicator. We can suspect that in such cases there was some vocal inflection to indicate a question. Jeremiah 13:23 begins with an interrogative הֲ marking line a explicitly as a question. The second line continues with the conjunction Waw, וְ, prefixed to a non-verb. The Waw adds another question with the same force.

There is no indication in the Hebrew as to whether the question is real or if it expects a negative answer; the grammar is the same as a simple question. Determining this must be understood from the context. Here are two contextual issues that suggest the double question is rhetorical and that the implied answer is negative. First, on their faces the two situations described in v. 23a–b are impossible. Second, in the context, Jeremiah is leveling an indictment of Israel and predicting their impending and inevitable punishment. One might argue that the point is that though it seems impossible, the Lord can even change the skin and the spots. However, given the context, this seems unlikely. The best interpretation is that lines a–b form a double-rhetorical question expecting a negative answer.

The Comparison in the Second Half

The NIV translates the beginning of line c with the negative neither; the AMP/ESV render as a positive. The Hebrew is not marked by the grammar as a negative; there is no word for no in the text. Instead comparison in lines c–d begins with the Hebrew word גָּם, gām. The most common uses of גָּם are to mark addition, “also,” and emphasis, “indeed.” Here are ways to interpret these two types of translations, the NIV and the AMP/ESV.

1. The NIV translated gam with “neither,” because gām can be used to negate an alternative relation; so James A. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew, citing Exod 4:10. Let’s look at this verse briefly.

In Exod 4:10 the first clause is an explicitly negative assertion: “I am not a man of words.” This is followed by a series of three expressions introduced with גָּם: “neither [גָּם] yesterday nor [גָּם] before nor [גָּם] when you spoke to your servant.” The גָּם then continues the negative, also (not), i.e., neither.

The NIV translators understand Jer 23a–b as a double- rhetorical question implying the answer “no.” Therefore the second alternative (Jer 13:23c–d) is parallel to Exod 4:10, and גָּם continues the implied negative from lines a–b. Hence, the NIV translation “neither.”

2. The Amplified and ESV translate gām with “also,” because gām can be used to mark addition. This AMP/ESV translation would appear to be taking 23a–b as a real question without implying a yes or no answer. Their translation of v. 23c–d, however, is actually ambiguous. Reading the English closely, we might interpret 23c–d in two ways.

a. If 23c–d is expressing the possibility that the readers can change to righteous people, then 23a–b, the initial questions of the Ethiopians’ changing of their skin and leopards’ their spots are real possibilities, presumably by the Lord’s working. As mentioned above, this seems unlikely.

b. If 23a–b are understood by AMP and ESV as rhetorical expecting a negative answer as did the NIV, 23c–d might also be interpreted just as the NIV. We may paraphrase 23a–b as conditional: “If an Ethiopian and a leopard can change, then you also can change your evil habits to righteous — but you can’t!” This would be identical to the NIV in meaning.

Lessons from the Verse

First, grammatically both translations are possible. The AMP and ESV are more formally like the Hebrew, but the result is that the English is ambiguous. The NIV rendering is much clearer.

Second, because of the context v. 23a–b is best understood as expecting a “no” answer, the best interpretation of v. 23c–d is that the change of the hearers is impossible.

The interpretational issue is this: under what conditions is change impossible? Jeremiah is not teaching that it is absolutely impossible for people to change. He uses the word שׁוּב, “turn, repent,” over 100 times. In the indictments that dominate the book, the Lord often calls Israel to return/repent (e.g., Jer 3:14). A command implies the obligation and possibility of repentance. In Jeremiah’s time, though, the people were hard-hearted, refusing to listen and obey the message of his true prophets. Therefore the majority of passages speak of Israel as not repenting (e.g., Jer 3:10).

But there is hope! The well-known Jer 31:31–34 (which does not happen to include the word שׁוּב) is a prediction of a future time when Israel would genuinely be God’s people as indicated by their having the law written on their hearts. We live in the time of this New Covenant (Heb 8:8–13; 9:15). Entering into it means turning away from a life dedicated to rebellion against the Creator and turning to a life dedicated to obeying him.

May we, his people, continually be soft-hearted and responsive to God’s will and become ever more like him. May we, his people, proclaim to all the good news of entering the New Covenant by turning away from rebellion and by turning to the Lord.

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devotions on the hebrew bibleLearn more about what Lee M. Fields has to say in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible.

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