'You tried to persuade me' and 'Violence! Outrage!'
in Jeremiah 20.7-8
(with David M. Gunn)

Published in
On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays 1967-1998, Volume 1
(JSOTSup, 292; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 285-92

open footnotes


One of the most striking of Jeremiah's so-called 'confessions' (20.7-13/1/) begins with the words:

pitttan Yhwh w'eppt zaqtan wattkl

Pitt is commonly translated as 'deceive', 'dupe';/2/ its use in connection with the seduction of a young woman (Exod. 22.15) is often said to indicate its proper meaning in Jer. 20.7, and in fact it is sometimes translated 'seduce' (verfhren)./3/ This understanding of pitt is, however, open to three criticisms: 1. There is no good reason to suppose that (sexual) seduction is the basic meaning of pitt or that overtones of that sense are present in Jer. 20.7. 2. Pitt does not necessarily denote deception. 3. It is likely that pitt describes an attempted act rather than a successful one.
1. It is commonly asserted that pitt has a sexual overtone and may best be translated 'seduce'. Indeed, J.M. Berridge/4/ has recently argued, folowing A.J. Heschel,/5/ that the imagery of seduction continues throughout 20.7-8: pitt is 'seduce', zaq has overtones of sexual assault, and ms wd is the cry of a raped young woman. zaq and ms wd can, however, obviously refer to other kinds of violence,/6/ while the view that pitt refers specically to seduction is based upon only one passage (Exod. 22.15). To suppose that such a contextually determined usage carries overtones into other passages is to commit the error of 'illegitimate totality transfer';/7/ one might as well claim that 'n 'humiliate' carries with it in its various uses sexual overtones because it is sometimes used specically of rape. There are in fact many occurrences of pitt (e.g. Prov. 24.28; 1 Kgs 22.20-22) where any sexual overtone is far from probable.
2. It seems unlikely that pitt denotes deception. Preferable to translations such as 'deceive', 'trick', 'dupe', would be a more neutral translation like 'persuade' (or, to be more precise, 'attempt to persuade'; see [3] below). The fact that pitt is often used in a 'bad' context (of persuading someone against one's will or by using deceit) does not itself prove that the verb involves deception.
One clear case where Yahweh is said, without any hint of criticism, to be about to pitt Israel (Hos. 2.16) might be thought to be enough to show that the verb has no automatic connotation of duplicity. But there are several other equally clear examples. In Prov. 1.10, 'My son, if sinners pitt you, do not go [or, perhaps, consent]; if they say, Come, let us lie in wait to shed blood [or, for the honest man]  . . . ', there is no question of deceit, since those who pitt make no bones about what they are doing. In Prov. 24.28,

Be not a witness against your neighbour without cause,
[and] will you pitt with your lips?
Do not say, I will do to him as he has done to me,
I will pay the man back for what he has done,

we do not have the case of a lying witness who attempts to deceive the judge, but of the informer or the spiteful, revengeful witness who gives testimony unnecessarily (innm), and speaks up in order to persuade the judge against someone with whom he has a score to settle)./8/ In Prov. 25.15, where the pual of pth occurs, 'be persuaded' is again a rather more likely rendering than 'be deceived': 'By patience is a ruler pitt'd, and a soft tongue will break a bone'.
Again, in Job 31.9, 'If my heart has been pitt'd [niphal] in the matter of a woman', the context makes clear that it is a matter of choice, not deception. As for Exod. 22.15, 'If a man should pitt a young woman who is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall give the marriage present for her, and make her his wife', it is improbable that the law applies only when it is by deception that a man has intercourse with an unbetrothed young woman. Pitt should therefore be understood as having a meaning like 'entice', 'cajole', not 'deceive'. In Ps. 77.36, where pitt occurs in parallelism with kzab 'to lie',

They pitt'd [God] with their mouths,
they lied (kzab) to him with their tongues,

pitt might at rst sight seem to mean 'deceive'. On the contrary, however, this passage shows that pitt cannot mean 'deceive', since humans cannot in fact deceive Yahweh./9/ Pitt is not, therefore, an exact synonym of kzab. In other cases (2 Sam. 3.25;/10/ Judg. 14.15; 16.5;/11/ Prov. 16.29; Ezek. 14.9/12/) either 'persuade' or 'deceive' would be suitable, so the connotation of the verb cannot be inferred from these instances.
As far as Jer. 20.7 is concerned, it is obvious that Jeremiah is protesting against Yahweh's pitt'ing, but not, we suggest, because to pitt involves deception, but because Yahweh's pitt'ing has led to Jeremiah's being overpowered (zaqtan). We might translate:

You tried to persuade me [to be a prophet], and I was persuaded;
You [i.e. your arguments] proved too strong for me, and you
overpowered me.

3. It appears likely that pitt does not describe an act carried through to a successful conclusion, but an attempted act. That is, it seems to be more like our verbs 'urge', 'advise', 'attempt', than like 'convince', 'induce', 'compel'. The distinction between these two types of verb corresponds to that recognised in the philosophy of language between 'illocutionary' statements (which describe the performance of an act in saying something) and 'perlocutionary' statements (which describe the performance of an act by saying something, i.e. the production of consequential effects on the feelings, thought, or actions of the audience)./13/ Of course, a verb that is illocutionary in the active may well be perlocutionary in the passive (cf. 'coax', 'cajole'), and it would seem that pitt is of this type, signifying something like 'attempt to persuade' (active) and 'be persuaded' (passive).
One passage in which the illocutionary nature of pitt is plain is 1 Kgs 22.20-22 (//2 Chron. 18.19-21). Here, when Yahweh asks, 'Who will pitt Ahab so that he will go up and fall at Ramoth Gilead?', one of the spirits (ra) volunteers to pitt Ahab, and is thereupon assured by Yahweh, 'You will pitt, and also you will succeed (wgam-tkl)'. If pitt meant 'persuade', that is, 'be successful in persuading', wgam-tkl would be unnecessary.
Another case is Prov. 1.10, mentioned above: 'My son, if sinners pitt you, do not go'. Here pitt must mean 'attempt to persuade', for if sinners were to succeed in persuading (i.e. if pitt were perlocutionary) there would be no point in saying, 'Do not go'. Likewise in Ps. 78.6 the Israelites' pitt'ing of God will not have been successful (cf. rsv 'attered'), so here too pitt must be illocutionary.
In all other passages where pitt occurs in the active (Exod. 22.15; Judg. 14.15; 16.5; 2 Sam. 3.25; Prov. 16.29; 24.28; Ezek. 14.9; Hos. 2.16) an illocutionary sense is appropriate, though the contexts are not specic enough to allow a decisive case to be made.



Why does Jeremiah claim that whenever he speaks he cries out ms wd (20.8)? And whom is he addressing when he cries out these words? Three answers have usually been given:
1. These are his accusations of injustice against rich oppressors of the poor./14/ However, it is hard to see why accusations of injustice should make him a 'laughing-stock' (v. 7), or in what way such a reaction to his message should lead him to protest that Yahweh has 'overpowered' him (v. 7).
2. These are threats of doom announced against the nation./15/ In this case, the 'confession' of 20.7-13 ts well with the preceding narratives, in which evil is threatened against Jerusalem and its villages (19.15), and the captivity of Judah is announced (20.4-6). Jeremiah would be saying that whenever he utters an oracle, it is a word of doom; he is becoming a laughing-stock (20.7b, 8b) because the doom he announces is not actually coming about.
This interpretation, however, has a major aw in common with the rst interpretation: z'aq is not an appropriate term for introducing either a judgment-speech or an oracle of doom; rather, it is virtually a technical term for a cry of appeal made by an innocent sufferer against unjust oppressors.
3. These are the conventional words of a cry for help; that is, Jeremiah appeals to Yahweh for deliverance from denouncers and persecutors (20.10-11)./16/ This interpretation, by which full weight may be given to the verb z'aq, may be applied in two different ways to the verse: Jeremiah could be saying:
(i) 'Whenever I open my mouth, I nd I am crying to Yahweh for deliverance from oppressors, for I am being persecuted incessantly. This can hardly be correct, for what Jeremiah is saying when he 'speaks' ('dabbr) is specically a 'word of Yahweh' (dbar Yhwh), as the parallelism of vv. 8a and 8b suggests; it is not that whenever he speaks, all that he ever says is 'Violence! outrage!'/17/
(ii) 'When I speak the word of Yahweh, I am at the same time appealing for future help against persecutors, who will, I know, be attacking me for what I have said.' It is difcult, however, to see why the prophet's cry for help should be uttered when he speaks his oracles rather than when his enemies denounce him or persecute him. ms wd is not normally a cry uttered in anticipation of attack, but is a cry for assistance from a person who is being attacked or for vengeance from one who has been attacked.
It is plain therefore that another understanding of this cry must be sought. S. Marrow, followed by J.M. Berridge, has recently made the valuable suggestion that 'Violence! outrage!' should be seen here not only as a cry of distress addressed to Yahweh but also as a cry of protest against Yahweh./18/
This fourth interpretation can take on two forms.
(i) The rst is to see the cry as an accusation against Yahweh because he has committed an 'outrage' against Jeremiah by failing to protect his prophet and by breaking his promise of 15.20./19/ What is unsatisfactory about this view, however, is that ms, 'violence', hardly seems the appropriate word for the breaking of a promise, and, more importantly, there is no reason to connect the outcry of 20.8 with the promise of 15.20. Not only are the two passages undatable, and therefore impossible to relate chronologically, but also they have quite probably been transmitted at some stage in separate tradition units,/20/ and cannot therefore have been intended even by the redactors to be related to one another.
(ii) A second form of this interpretation is more plausible. It is that Jeremiah's protest is against Yahweh's compelling him to speak prophetic words./21/ Ironically, however, the only one to whom he may cry for help is Yahweh./22/ Thus he means, we suggest:/23/

Whenever I speak [a prophetic word]
I cry for help [to Yahweh],
I call out, 'Violence! outrage!' [by Yahweh against me].

His cry to Yahweh is at the same time his protest against him, for it is Yahweh who compels him, with outrageous violence, to speak his word.
On this understanding, the connection of thought in vv. 7-9 becomes plain. The three outcries

You were too strong for me and you prevailed
I cry, 'Violence! outrage!'
I am incapable [of withholding the re in my heart]

are all expressions of the prophet's sense of being compelled to prophesy.
The structure of vv. 9-10 is also claried on this view. If we may call the theme 'Yahweh compels me to prophesy' A, and the theme 'My prophesying makes me an object of persecution and derision' B, the structure is:

7a 7b 8a 8b 9 10

Finally, when it is realized that vv. 7a, 8a and 9 are all making essentially the same point, the thrust of Jeremiah's address to God is better understood. This 'confession' is not primarily a complaint that God has 'persuaded' him, much less that he has 'deceived' him; that rst word (pitt) is not the keynote. The persuasion has only been God's means to the end of achieving domination (tkl) over the prophet, and it is against that domination that Jeremiah is protesting. This theme of domination or power runs through the poem:/24/ Jeremiah nds himself utterly powerless (l' 'kl, v. 9) in the face of Yahweh's strength; his enemies too hope to exert their power over him (nkel l, v. 10); but the prophet's own experience of Yahweh's power becomes the source of his condent expectation of vindication: Yahweh is a 'fearsome mighty man' (gibbr 'r, v. 11), and Jeremiah will not fall ultimately into the power of his enemies (l' yukl, v. 11).