“Can iron and bronze break iron from the north?” (Jeremiah 15:12 NRSV).
The Hebrew words in Jeremiah 15:2 has produced different translations which, from my perspective, completely miss the intent of the message Yahweh was giving to Jeremiah.
Take the translation above taken from the NRSV. The text seems to be asking if a combination of iron and bronze could break iron from the north. Now, take the translation of the Jewish Publication Society (TNK): “Can iron break iron and bronze?” (Jeremiah 15:12 TNK). This text seems to be asking whether iron could break a combination of iron and bronze.
The two translations contradict each other, but they are not alone. Below I will show how other translations translate (or mistranslate) Jeremiah 15:12. In order to understand what Yahweh is telling Jeremiah, we must discuss the historical background of Jeremiah 15:12. Jeremiah 15:12 is part of the second confession of Jeremiah.
The six laments of Jeremiah, also known as “The Confessions of Jeremiah” (11:18–12:6; 15:10–21; 17:14–28; 18:18–23; 20:7–13; 20:14–18), provide an intimate look at the personal life of the prophet. Jeremiah’s complaints and his dialogues with Yahweh reflect the frustrations of Jeremiah in the discharge of his prophetic ministry and his unhappiness with the mission he received from Yahweh.
These laments reveal the inner struggle of the prophet as the result of the opposition he encountered from the people and from the religious and political leaders of Judah. They also reflect Jeremiah’s response to his family’s rejection of his work, the threats of violence against him, and the many plots against his life.
The historical situation that gave rise to these laments is debated by scholars. Many scholars believe that the laments were written during the reign of Jehoiakim, the king of Judah who opposed Jeremiah.
Jeremiah’s second lament is found in 15:10–21. In this lament Jeremiah wished that his mother had not given birth to him (15:10), an indirect denunciation of his prophetic ministry, since Jeremiah believed he was called from birth to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:5).
The date for this lament is debated. The lament comes just after Jeremiah was commanded by Yahweh not to pray for the people of Judah (Jeremiah 14:11), since the judgment against the nation was inevitable. The lament may also reflect Jeremiah’s confrontation with the false prophets of Judah who were proclaiming a message that sought to discredit Jeremiah’s own message:
“The LORD said to me: ‘Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Although they fast, I do not hear their cry, and although they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I do not accept them; but by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence I consume them.’ Then I said: ‘Ah, Lord GOD! Here are the prophets saying to them, You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true peace in this place.’ And the LORD said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds’” (Jeremiah 14:11–14).
In light of Jeremiah’s dialogue with Yahweh in 14:11–14, it is possible to determine the occasion for the second lament. A clue for the occasion is found in the lament itself, that is, in Jeremiah 15:12.
Jeremiah 15:12 has been interpreted in different ways by scholars and this disagreement about the meaning of the text is reflected in the translations of the book of Jeremiah. Below is a small sample of the way Jeremiah 15:12 has been translated:
“Shall iron be allied with the iron from the north, and the brass?” (DRA).
“Can one break iron, iron from the north, and bronze?” (ESV).
“Can iron break iron from the north and brass?” (JPS).
“Shall iron break the northern iron and the steel?” (KJV).
“Will iron be known? whereas thy strength is a brazen covering” (LXX).
“Can a man break iron—iron from the north—or bronze?” (NIV).
“Can a man break a bar of iron from the north, or a bar of bronze?” (NLT).
“Can iron and bronze break iron from the north?” (NRSV).
“Can iron break iron and bronze?” (TNK).
All these translations tend to make the subject of the verb “to break” impersonal. In Hebrew the verb “break” (rā‘a‘) is third masculine singular with the interrogative particle. A literal translation of the verse in English would be as follow:
“Can he break iron, iron from the north, and bronze?”
This translation provides an important clue for the historical background of the second lament. The occasion for the lament was Jeremiah’s struggle with Hananiah.
The occasion for the confrontation between the two prophets was at the time several nations plotted a conspiracy against Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. At the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah, several nations sent envoys to Zedekiah to invite him to join forces in their struggle against Babylon. At that time, Yahweh told Jeremiah to make a wooden yoke and put it on his neck as a sign that Judah should submit to the Babylonian yoke (Jeremiah 27:1–11).
When Jeremiah met Hananiah in the temple, Hananiah announced that Yahweh would break the yoke of the king of Babylon within two years (Jeremiah 28:2). To prove his point, Hananiah took the wooden yoke off Jeremiah’s neck and broke it in the presence of those in attendance to affirm that his message was true (Jeremiah 28:10–11).
Rejected by the people and by the religious authorities, Jeremiah left the temple without saying a word. Sometime later, Yahweh appeared again to Jeremiah and told him to make a yoke of iron:
“Go, tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the LORD: You have broken wooden bars, but I will make in their place bars of iron’” (Jeremiah 28:13 RSV).
Hananiah could break a wooden yoke, but could he break a yoke of iron? It is here that the words of Yahweh in Jeremiah’s lament make sense: “Can he break iron, iron from the north, and bronze? The proper understanding of Yahweh’s words in Jeremiah 15:12 requires the identification of the three different components of the question.
“Can he break iron?”: This is a reference to Hananiah after he broke the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s neck. Hananiah would not be able to break the yoke of iron Yahweh put on Jeremiah’s neck.
“[Can he break] iron from the north”: The iron from the north was Babylon. Yahweh had delivered the nations to Nebuchadnezzar and no one would be able to resist him. This is what Yahweh told Jeremiah: “I have put upon the neck of all these nations an iron yoke of servitude to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they shall serve him” (Jeremiah 28:14).
“[Can he break] bronze”: The bronze is Jeremiah himself. Several times Yahweh promised Jeremiah that he would make him a “wall of bronze”:
“I have made you today a . . . bronze wall, against the whole land — against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you” (Jeremiah 1:18–19).
“And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the LORD. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless” (Jeremiah 15:20–21).
So, the second lament may indeed reflect Jeremiah’s struggle with Hananiah. Hananiah had broken the wooden yoke that God had placed on Jeremiah’s neck, but as a result of his action, Jeremiah had forged in its place a yoke of iron which Hananiah would be unable to break.
The yoke of iron that Yahweh imposed upon Judah was an invocation of the curse of the covenant because of Israel’s unwillingness to obey the demands of the covenant:
“Because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you” (Deuteronomy 28:47–48).
Hananiah was unable to break the yoke of iron which was on Jeremiah’s neck. His failure to break iron, the yoke God put on Jeremiah’s neck, and his failure to break bronze, Jeremiah himself, the bronze wall that Yahweh put on Judah, proved that Jeremiah was the true prophet of Yahweh and that Hananiah was a false prophet who deserved to die for preaching a false message in the name of Yahweh.
“ In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died” (Jeremiah 28:17).
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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