By Jeremiah’s day, the northern kingdom of Israel was decades gone as a political entity, replaced on the map by a set of Assyrian provinces. Yet God had brought all Israel out of Egypt, and numbers of Israelite refugees had made their way to Judah, while retaining their tribal and family identities. Though most of his hearers would have been Judean, it made sense, not only theologically but also “physically,” for Jeremiah to address this oracle to “the house of Jacob” and to “all the families of the house of Israel” (v 4; all translations are the author’s).
To help us make sense of this passage, we note God’s declaration of 2:2, “I remember the lovingkindness (hesed) of your youth, the love (’ahavah) of your newlywed days.” Think of all the ways a bride deeply in love shows “lovingkindness” to her new husband, and vice versa. We haven’t space to show why hesed never is merely “covenant loyalty,” but this is one evidence: in the Old Testament, love (’ahavah) is covenant loyalty. It can, and sometimes does, designate the feelings and predilections that in English we call “love,” but more importantly, ’ahavah (like Greek agape; cf. 2 Tim 4:10) is consistent loyalty to the beloved person, object, agenda, etc. Its proof lies more in action than in feelings or words alone. Some Torah narratives may tempt us to wonder why, but this is how God remembered Israel’s love during the wilderness years.
This brings us to our passage, and the illogic of Israel/Judah’s moves. You followed me into and through the wilderness, God said in effect, where, from a common-sense physical perspective, it did not make sense to follow--but you loved me, and I provided. Then, after I brought you into this land of plenty, you forsook me here--and that makes no sense, either.
Keeping in mind God’s fond memory of Israel’s following in the wilderness, we should translate in verse 5, “They distanced themselves from me.” When love grows cold, one of the first visible symptoms is the emotional, physical, and other distancing of the erstwhile lover. The old closeness fades. As do all spurned lovers, God asked, “What wrong-doing (unrighteousness, injustice) did your ancestors find in me,” that they would do this?
Here God introduces Israel’s second head-scratching vacuity. It wasn’t enough to forsake the one who loved them, the only God who actually is God. They “went after the hebel, and became hebel themselves” (5b). Hebel (HEH-v’l) often is translated, “vanity,” “meaningless,” etc., but this would be only an outcome, not its essence. Physically, hebel refers to vapor, or something vaporous--now you see it, now you don’t. Examples are mist, smoke, breath on a frosty morning. Something named as hebel is not necessarily vain or useless; it is temporary, fleeting, transitory. Forsaking God, Israel became (anyone becomes) only temporary, when we were created for permanence. Making any created entity a “god” rips it from its rightful place in the created order, turning it into a hebel also, a vapor disappearing even as its worshippers call on it for help in the present crisis. (This is one reason Paul said all creation groans for its redemption--Rom 8:22.)
We note in passing six items meriting more time and space than we have here:
Verse 6: Israel no longer remembered the terrible wilderness through which God had brought them in safety; compare this with God’s remembrance (v 2)
Verse 7: In contrast to the “enough, but just enough” of the wilderness days, God had brought Israel into “the land of the carmel” (“the vineyard of God”)
Verse 8: Priests, princes, prophets--Jeremiah indicted all Judean leadership
Verse 9: “I am bringing/will bring a lawsuit against you” and “your children’s children”; the Hebrew verb is rib (reeve)--as much reality as metaphor, this figure from the court system everyone understood, and understands
Verse 10: From Cyprus (Kittim) in the northwest, to the desert nomadic tribes (Kedar) in the southeast, i.e., “everywhere”; no one had given up their “gods”
Verse 11: A better reading is “my glory,” i.e., God’s glory (weight, power, gravitas), which reflected well on them, Judah had exchanged for “what does not profit,” already named as hebel (mist, smoke, lightweight and transitory).
Verse 13 grabbed my attention before I became a teen; it was the main focus of the first sermon from which I remember any specific content. I don’t remember the sermon type, whether it was good or not, or anything else--just the preacher, the text, and the theme. Being a country boy then, I agreed with the preacher in wondering why anyone with a lick of common sense would choose cistern water to drink, when spring or artesian well water was available.
A few years after that sermon, I was blessed to spend two different stints as a student in Israel, totaling about fifteen months. During those three semesters, we visited nearly every natural water source in biblical Israel’s Hill Country and the smaller adjacent areas. What this really says is how few of them there are. I learned the difference between natural springs and reliable wells, on the one hand, and the limitations of the invention-of-necessity called the cistern, on the other. Another measure of the value of water in the Hill Country is that no perennial (year-round) stream flows from an origin in Israel’s highlands all the way to the Mediterranean on the west or to the Jordan Valley on the east. All of them are seasonal.
Jeremiah’s first term here is maqor (mah-CORE), either a natural spring or an artesian well--which is, in effect, a “spring,” because someone has dug or bored to the water table at a place where pressure brings the water to the surface. A maqor is a reliable source of flowing water or, to use the biblical idiom Jeremiah uses here, “living water.” Inexplicably, Israel/Judah had forsaken God the maqor, the ever-flowing fountain of fresh, clear, and good-tasting water.
Jeremiah’s second term is borot (boe-ROTE), the plural of bor (BORE); probably, he used the plural because Judah had adopted many of the gods of their pagan neighbors. Here, borot can mean only “cisterns,” because Jeremiah said that Judah/Israel had hewn them out, and also that they were “shattered.”
Prior to Israel’s entry into Canaan, permanent settlement in the Hill Country was limited to locations with adequately flowing springs or dug wells; neither was abundant. The “invention” of a lime-based plaster for waterproofing the bottoms and sides of cisterns dug into the limestone bedrock vastly multiplied the areas available for settlement. In the last seventy-five years, archaeological surveys have mapped about 1,200 never-previously-settled sites from Israel’s Iron Age I period (1250-1000 B.C.). Where no source of “living water” exists, the stored water of cisterns makes settled agriculture possible.
However, a metaphor almost always has a single point of comparison, not several. The point of this one is not to remind us that physical cisterns are invaluable in regions without year-round water sources. Jeremiah’s point is that Judah/Israel did have a maqor, a never-failing “fountain of living waters.” Why would it even occur to them to dig cisterns? Yet, Jeremiah’s syntax indicates premeditation, “Me they have forsaken, to hew out [for the purpose of hewing out] for themselves cisterns--shattered cisterns which are not able [to hold] water.”
Well-plastered and undamaged cisterns do not leak; several two-thousand-year-old cisterns in Jerusalem still hold water. Again, this is not the point of the metaphor. First, why was Judah so dense as to do the very hard labor of hand-chiseling cisterns out of the solid bedrock, when a copious spring of living water was ready to hand? Having done that, why prolong the imbecility by continuing with the cistern once it had sprung a leak and no longer retained water? No; it was worse than that. Judah’s cisterns, her false gods, were not just leaky. They were shattered; when rainwater flowed into them, it drained out just as fast. These cisterns never would supply water when the people needed it.
Of course, it is easy for us to shout at ancient Judah in our imagination, “Why don’t you get it?! Why can’t you see how stupid this is?!” Perhaps we may spend our energy more wisely asking ourselves whether we also are relying on shattered cisterns that can hold no water. If we or our people are doing that, will we accept God’s invitation to return to God, the “fountain of living waters”? May it be so.