Insights in Yirmiyahu: Of Symbolic Actions and Prophetic Visions

Thus said the Lord to me: ‘Go, and acquire a linen belt, and put it on your waist, and put it not in water.’  So I acquired a belt according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my waist.  And the word of the Lord came to me the second time, saying:  ‘Take the belt that you acquired, which is on your waist, and arise, go to Perat, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’  So I went, and hid it in Perat, as the Lord commanded me.  And it came to pass after many days, that the Lord said unto me: ‘Arise, go to Perat, and take the belt from there, which I commanded you to hide there.’  Then I went to Perat, and dug, and took the belt from the place where I had hid it; and, behold, the belt was marred, it was profitable for nothing.  Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: Thus says the Lord: After this manner will I mar the pride of Judah, and the great pride of Jerusalem, even this evil people, that refuse to hear My words, that walk in the stubbornness of their heart, and are gone after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, that it be as this belt, which is profitable for nothing.   For as the belt cleaves to the waist of a man, so have I caused to cleave to Me the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah, says the Lord, that they might be to Me for a people, and for a name, and for a praise, and for a glory; but they would not hearken.  (Yirmiyahu 13:1-11)

God instructs Yirmiyahu to acquire a belt and wear it but not put it in water.  Then, the prophet must burry the belt in a cleft of the rock near a place called Perat.  After the passage of some time, God commands Yirmiyahu to return to that place and investigate the state of the belt.  When Yirmiyahu does so, he discovers an unusable garment.  What is the point of this symbolic action and its myriad details?  Where is Perat and why bury the belt there?

The basic meaning of the symbolism appears explicitly in this chapter.  Just as a belt attaches to a person, Israel was once attached to God.  Just as the belt became ruined and good for nothing, the Jewish people followed other gods, thereby ruining something of great value.  Yet some of the other details require more interpretive work.  Radak expresses perplexity regarding the reason for not placing the belt in water.  Abravanel explains that a linen belt becomes hardened and more durable when exposed to water.  Keeping it distant form water insured that it would rot more quickly and convey the symbolism of a ruined item.  At a later point in his analysis, Abravanel adds the possibility that the lack of water symbolizes Am Yisrael miraculously crossing the Yam Suf without encountering water.

What about the choice of location?  Most commentators assume that Perat is the Euphrates River demarcating Israel’s Northern border.  Radak notes an advantage of this approach; a border location connotes the diminution of Israel’s pride upon heading into Babylonian exile.  On the other hand, this approach generates disadvantages from a practical standpoint.  A journey from Yirmiyahu’s home town to the Euphrates would be incredibly time consuming.  Would God command the prophet to make such a long trek twice?  For this reason, Menahem Boleh (Daat Mikra) suggests that God sends Yirmiyahu to a place called Ein el Fara near Anatot.  This interpretive move renders the prophetic trip quite short.

Rambam removes the geographic problem when he says that this chapter happens in a prophetic dream (Moreh Nevukhim 2:46).  Even though the chapter does not mention a dream or vision, Rambam assumes that God speaking to a prophet can always implicitly refer to a vision.  This enables Rambam to neutralize questions about God commanding Yehezkel and Hoshea to engage in bizarre symbolic and degrading behavior.  He did not actually command them to do such things; they merely witnessed the actions in a visionary state.  According to Rambam, we can easily identify Perat with the Euphrates and retain Radak’s symbolism; since Yirmiyahu only traveled in a prophetic dream, distance turns irrelevant.

In his commentary on the first chapter of Hoshea, Abravanel outlines a critique of Rambam’s sweeping allowance for interpreting prophetic actions as occurring in dreams.  This could lead to denying historicity to any biblical narrative.  Yet even according to the criteria Abravanel develops there, our Yirmiyahu passage may consist of a prophetic vision.  If so, we can maintain the mainstream position that this prophecy refers to the Euphrates.  A prophetic vision about the fall of Israel manifest in the first exile makes use of border imagery to convey the point.

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