One thing I am grateful for about growing up evangelical is that I learned to appreciate the Bible as something more than ancient literature (although it’s that too). Many of the verses I memorized as a child are part of my life today, and I continue to be inspired by many passages I can still recite by rote, such as Psalm 23:1 (The Lord is my shepherd …) and 1 Corinthians 13:1 (If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal).
Other passages, such as those in which Jesus reaches out to those who were despised in his culture, have instilled me with a sense of social justice and an appreciation for those whom my own society too often rejects. I never cease to be amazed by how a collection of ancient writings continue to help me become the type of person I believe God wants me to be.
But not all passages of the Bible have been so kind. One verse in particular, Jeremiah 17:9, has impeded my spiritual growth rather than fostered it. From the King James Version (and I can type it now without looking it up):
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Can you think of any passage that could do more to help you distrust yourself, to distrust even the inner compass that God gave you? Can you think of a passage that would do more to counter the Biblical teaching that you were created good, in the divine image? Even though I have learned to deal with the most troublesome portions of the Bible, such as the divine endorsement of genocide in the Old Testament, in their historical context, this verse has remained in the back of my mind whenever I begin thinking for myself.
So it came as a relief to discover just this week that this verse, as originally written, in all likelihood doesn’t mean what most of the Christian world has come to think it means. As it turns out, we’re all victims of incorrect translation.
To be as concise as possible, the Hebrew word translated as “deceitful,” ʼaqov, has other meanings, and the Hebrew word translated as “desperately wicked,” ʼânash, is never translated in that way outside this verse. The word ʼânash doesn’t even have anything to do with wickedness.
I’m no expert in Biblical Hebrew (I’m not even a neophyte), but I do understand well how translation and language work. So while I can understand why this verse has traditionally been translated as it has, my research convinces me that the Hebrew sentence means something much less benign — and even inspirational.
First, look at the context of the verse: The writer quotes Yahweh (or the Lord in traditional English translations) as saying that those who don’t trust him will be cursed, and those who do trust him will be blessed. Verse 9 follows, and then the Lord says that he examines people’s hearts to determine how to give people what they deserve. What need is there for him to examine people’s hearts if he already knows they’re irredeemably wicked? Whatever Jeremiah is saying in verse 9, it can’t be that humans are incapable of being good.
The translators of the Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament that is quoted or and alluded to repeatedly in the New Testament), who presumably were more familiar with Biblical Hebrew than anyone alive today, translated Jeremiah 17:9 with this meaning: “The heart is deep above all things, and it is man, and who shall know him?”
So why “deep”? The Greek word here for “deep” is bathunó, a word also used in referring to the deep sea. In this context, bathunó conveys the concept that something is hidden or can’t be understood (which often is true as well when people are deceitful). And this idea that the heart can’t be understood fits in well with the ending of the verse, which suggests that something is there that only God can understand.
Some scholars have suggested words such as “complex,” “mysterious” and “incomprehensible” as better translations for ʼaqov in the context of this verse.
So how about ʼânash? In other places where the word is used in the Bible, it doesn’t express a moral quality at all. It usually refers to something being sick or wounded, and the root word of ʼânash carries the idea of something being feeble or helpless. Again, none of these translations give the word a moral connotation. King James’ translators did so presumably because they saw ʼânash as reinforcing the meaning of ʼaqov, to which they had given a negative meaning.
As best as I can understand its words, then, Jeremiah 17:9 conveys this idea:
The heart is deceptively mysterious and fragile. Who can understand it?
That ending question suggests, of course, that only God can understand the heart. That meaning fits the context of the preceding and following verses precisely.
As it turns out, then, Jeremiah 17:9 was never meant to reinforce some doctrine of total depravity or even original sin. Jeremiah instead was emphasizing that God can see deep inside of us, that he can understand us better than we can understood ourselves. There’s no condemnation here that we’re hopelessly perverted, as some translations would have it, but rather that Yahweh can understand us and see us for what we are.
Indeed, verse 9 reinforces what comes immediately before it, a promise that those who follow Yahweh will be able to withstand all that can befall them:
My blessing is on those people who trust in me,
who put their confidence in me.
They will be like a tree planted near a stream
whose roots spread out toward the water.
It has nothing to fear when the heat comes.
Its leaves are always green.
It has no need to be concerned in a year of drought.
It does not stop bearing fruit.
God isn’t telling those who trust him that we’re weak and depraved; he’s telling us we have persistent strength, and that he’s the one who truly understands us. And that’s good news from Jeremiah.
All Biblical quotations are from the NET Bible unless otherwise specified. The photo of a tree by a stream was taken by Chris Luczkow, CC BY 2.0.