The Bullfrog Conundrum
How can you say, “We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us?”
But behold, the lying pen of scribes have made it into a falsehood.
First of all, in this passage we are dealing with three terms that can be taken several ways. I’ll leave it up to each reader to define for themselves ‘lying’ and ‘falseness.’ There’s some ambiguity there, but no matter how you niggle it, it’s still negative. The Law is another such ambiguous term. “Torah” literally means “law,” which in its strictest sense means the whole of the commandments (the 10 famous ones, plus 700-odd others like circumcision and kosherness.) However, Torah is also the catchall designation for the Pentateuch. Admittedly, those 700-odd laws are spread out between the 5, and there’s a lot of interrelated (and interdependent) baggage and filler. So is Jeremiah referring to just the law, or to the entire Pentateuch?
“Moses wrote the words of the Lord” (Ex 24:4) but directly from God come “the Law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction.” (24:12). You would think, or at least hope, that the Lord would remember what He wrote. Since it is His own law in His own words, He could best tell if subsequent copies had strayed into falsehood during scribal reproductions from His original. There are three main Schools of Thought on explaining this:
1) things got garbled between the original telling, intermediate oral retransmission, and final writing [Alzheimer’s School — where you can’t remember things correctly if at all and live in a wistful other-world]
2) the scribes originally got it right, but then certain copyists just got sloppy [Human Error School — scribes are people like you and me, and we all phuq up from time to time]
3) “They” deliberately changed things to fit “their” own agenda. [Conspiracy School — it was the Brain Police, man...]
Either choice, or even an alternate explanation, casts bad juju upon the chances of successfully following the Law. For those who view it necessary to observe the Law, following a false copy drastically reduces your chances of correct success. And remember the (Epistle of) James’s emphasis on needing to observe the lLaw — the whole entirety of the Law (2:10). Even if you’re of the Pauline School that Jesus’ death did away with the Law, we must remember that the people of Jeremiah’s time did not have that luxury. For them the Law was a very real an important thing, and it was all they had. And it was important to Jesus, though whether it was all he had is a different discussion. But Jesus knew the Law. From the Sermon on the Mount:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus thoughts about living the Law should be as agreeable to any Law-abider in Jeremiah’s time or our own. However, the possibility that Jesus was fulfilling a Law of the Lord that the lying pen of scribes had into a falsehood raises some important questions about both the ministry and meaning of Jesus.
Therefore, we need to take a closer look at what Jeremiah said. This is an important litmus test for both Testaments. Like I said, if you’re of the Faith and you’re correct, you have nothing to fear. Or don’t you want to know what’s really going on???
To interpret this verse we must look at the broader context. Chapter 8 is a continuation of Chapter 7, Jeremiah’s (in)famous Temple Sermon. (minor aside: if this is the same incident as chapter 26 — and it probably is — immediately after it Jeremiah was arrested and threatened with Death by the Temple priests.) His speech is part prophecy and part diatribe. He tells the people not to trust in the Temple, for the Lord is about to destroy it (7:14) and lay waste to the land (7:34.) Jeremiah then goes on to tell the people that they themselves bear the brunt of the being the reason for these woes; the 8:8 passage in question is part of this blame game.
That raises a question; since Jeremiah is speaking of “in these times” (8:1) of Temple destruction (which had not yet happened,) had the ‘lying pens of scribes made the law a falsehood’ yet? Are we to believe that this scribal shenanigans happened in the few short years between its utterance and enactment, or was the damage already done even before the 8:8 oration?
As we shall see, there was indeed some Bible hijinx at the very time of Jeremiah that is canonically attested to: a new Book of the Law was discovered (implied: long lost, now found) early in Jeremiah’s own ministry. But before we call ‘Case Closed’ I still have to wonder, what if that’s but a symptom of a larger problem. In an earlier sermon (the second he ever gave, actually,) Jeremiah suggests that the problem might have a much longer history. Right after the Exodus entered the Promised Land (2:7) the people defiled it and “those that handle the law did not know Me.” (2:8) Scribes would certainly have been among those who handled the Law; are these the same lying-pen-wielding scribes he speaks of later?
Whatever the case, the implication is clear: the law will have been falsely altered by lying scribes in just a few short years, when indeed the Temple is destroyed. Since we have yet to find a Torah actually written before 586 BCE, there is no way to empirically verify our currently received Torah is the same as before the 8:8 prediction that it would become falsified.
If it disturbs you to think that the Book has been tampered with in this fashion, you can either take the easy way out by crying “obscure metaphor!” or view it as a prophecy that has not yet come true. My guess from the context and grammar is that Jeremiah was making a short-term prophecy for the immediate future. However, the alternative — that 8:8 describes a different time — can bring up some interesting possibilities. They’re worth discussing, but it’s a lengthy digression, and remember: I already said I don’t agree with that future-to-be context. Such speculation may safeguard the law of Jeremiah’s time, but the alternatives are a lot scarier. Besides, it has a lot of New Testament nit-picking in it, and I already said up top that I wouldn’t be that guy this issue.
Ifyou would like to read the index of alternative possibilities, click HERE.
Otherwise, let’s get back to brass tacks. The sermon, of which chapter 8 is a part, starts in 7 with Jeremiah addressing his crowd of listeners in the present tense. He tells them not to trust in the Temple, for it will be shortly destroyed. That is, it will happen within the listeners’ lifetimes. Jeremiah tells these same people that they will have no one to blame for this misfortune but themselves, and that one of the causes was their following a false Law. The falsified law causes the Temple destruction, not the other way around.
Jeremiah says this roughly 20 years before Babylon. At this point we need to ask an unanswerable question: had the copy of the law already been falsified, or would it be in the next 20 years?
The latter seems unlikely, unless you read as allegorically metaphorical the myth that all copies of the Torah were destroyed. Ezra restored the Torah after the Captivity; Jeremiah could be referring to a lapse in the Law between Temple and Ezra. I discuss the Ezra Question in detail in the digression, but again I don’t fully buy it.
I read that the people were already following a falsified law at the time of the sermon. This falsified Law was already in circulation, and Jeremiah had seen it (how else could he know it was false?)
So what was this false Law?
If you’re not up on your source theory, scholars have noticed five distinct strata in the Torah, each with its own distinct vocabulary, style, and agenda. One strata has a Jerusalem-based South Kingdom style, and is called J. Another has a distinctly Northern-Kingdom flavor, and a preference for calling God ‘Elohim’; thus its name E. Priestly materials are largely the laws and most of those bone-dry census counts and genealogies. Deuteronomic materials have a distinction all their own, and a pedigree we shall examine in-depth in a moment. But rounding off the 5 sources is a Redactor, who sewed everything up into what is most likely the bundle we have today. That all but names Ezra (see The Ezra Question.)
If that is the case, a present-tense 8:8 cannot be attacking it because it was 80 years away, unless you assume believe the original listeners lived that long. Then again, this is possible.
Likewise P, the dating of which is especially tenuous. Scholars favor a post-exilic date, but in my mind we have a cut-off point of Ezra’s revision to include them. Hard call to make on that one.
Since E was North School, Judah-native Jeremiah could naturally preach against it. Jeremiah himself said the North had brought the Assyrian Beatdown on themselves by forsaking the Lord (2:14-17,) so this could be seen as an indictment of the E Laws that had led them astray. Quite likely such copies were in use in Judah, too, and Jeremiah was afraid of leading his people astray as well.
Hard to say, but I don’t think this is what he was talking about, either.
Until now just now I thought I had it nailed; I was all set to name names, but then shade shot me back a notch with two insights into the matter, so now I’m not so sure. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 621BCE, barely 6 years into Jeremiah’s ministry, a new book of the law was discovered and circulated. This new book is generally accepted to be Deuteronomy. 2nd Kings 22-23; the temple was being repaired, and while getting money to pay the construction crew the High Priest “found the book of the law.” (23:8) What was found was new to all who saw it, and it directly led to King Josiah’s sweeping reform — or at least attempts at them, in which Jeremiah actively participated.
Is this the same book 8:8 fumes against?
It’s sudden, convenient appearance just makes you want to jump up and shout shenanigans. I mean, really: “Hey guys, I was cleaning out the Holy of Holies, and look what I found! Moses’ diary! You know, my great-great grandpa High Priest was wondering what he did with this...”
But wait — it gets stranger. Here are two pieces of data (courtesy shade) that are not widely known but should be considered:
1) While popular opinion holds that Moses wrote Deuteronomy — the book is framed as Moses’ farewell speech to his people — the last chapter of the book is Moses’ own death and burial. This makes it unlikely that Moses actually wrote it. But the linguistic style of Deuteronomy has much in common with that of Jeremiah. It is not much of a stretch to think that the same scribe wrote both, and scholars are not shy to admit to this.
2) according to 2nd Kings 23:8 this new book of the law was found by the High Priest.
The High Priest at the time was Hilkiah.
He was also Jeremiah’s father (1:1).
The father found Deuteronomy; did the son write it?
If so, then unless Jeremiah is just giving shit to his dictation-taking scribe Baruch, then he is not referring to Deuteronomy at all in 8:8.
Indeed, it implies the opposite: Deuteronomy is the true source, and everything else in print was bogus.
This is a sticky issue, and is far from exhausted. I am sure there are other possibilities. Which ones are right or why they are wrong is something I am still working on, and I am curious for input on this matter. I am really interested in this, and am going to have shade set up a page for feedback on this. Besides, since I’ve offered up multiple suspects for the faces of the ‘lying scribes’, I think we should make a game out of it. “I think the E’s did it in the Conservatory with a Rope!” “No! the Gnostics did it in the Bedroom with a Big Bag of Cheese!”
Share your thoughts and insights, and I’ll see that he posts them. To leave your exegesis, click .
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