Coming from the Western Isles I have had occasion to observe weavers taking wool and turning it into the renowned Harris Tweed. Watching the weaver in his shed provides the observer a kaleidoscope of colour, movement and noise. It is an intricate dance of various movements taking the individual threads and turning them into a thing of beauty.
It is a powerful image and one which is appropriate for the verse in focus, Jeremiah 29:11. Different translations offer quite widely differing renderings. The Good News Bible (an excellent first bible) says:
(GNB) I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.
The New International Version (ideal for reading aloud to a varied audience) goes for:
(NIV) For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
The English Standard Version (with a close attention to detail) posits:
(ESV) For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
The King James (a classic for good reason) renders it:
(KJV) For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
So depending on what version you have there is the potential for some very different positions. The Good News stands out with notions of prosperity (which we then often associate with some material blessing) and in the notion that God (the personal name of God being completely omitted) provides what you want. The future you hope for becomes his remit, and this promise is taken as a guarantee of well being. Instead of you wanting the future God would have for you, the position is reversed and you are the arbiter of what is right and wrong for you.
The NIV again suggests a plan of prosperity but at least is more clearly aware of the context whereby the people of God are going into exile and would appear to have no future. They are to be crushed and dispersed by the Babylonians and so God assures them that they have a future. The ESV takes a similar vein but avoids the loaded prosperity terminology.
The KJV rather interestingly uses the idea of peace as opposed to welfare or prosperity. A very different concept for us readers and possibly more appropriate to a war torn group of exiles. The expected end is also quite different giving it a more specific outcome as planned by God as opposed to the more vague ‘a future’.
With such variety it is important to go back to the Hebrew text:
כִּי אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-הַמַּחֲשָׁבֹת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי חֹשֵׁב עֲלֵיכֶם-נְאֻם-יְהוָה: מַחְשְׁבוֹת שָׁלוֹם וְלֹא לְרָעָה לָתֵת לָכֶם אַחֲרִית וְתִקְוָה
My rendering of this would be:
For I know the texture (intentions/ plans) that I have weaved over you, says YHWH, plans of shalom and not of evil (calamity/ adversity) to give you an expected future.
There are a few things that should be expanded about this translation (an opportunity the translators of the versions above do not have).
I Know – The Hebrew term yada is most often rendered ‘to know’. Bearing in mind that it is the same term where Adam ‘knew’ Eve resulting in Cain and we can allow for the knowledge to go beyond a cerebral awareness and more in line with an empathetic awareness.
Weaved – The metaphor of the weaver and the texture provides a wonderful imagery for the reader. However, it also shows the intricate nature of the woven intentions. As with the description at the outset of this blog it is a marvel to witness the craft, the endeavour and the attention to detail, of the weaver. These are no mere plans or notions, no vague hope going forward; each strand has been carefully chosen and put in its right place to make the tapestry or fabric that the weaver intends. It is no accident that he ends up with exactly what he had intended, it is done through his purposes being worked through from the selection of the threads to the final trimming of the completed piece.
YHWH/ LORD – We have here the name of God and it is important that we understand that these are not the remote plans of an unmoved mover but the carefully constructed intentions of the one in relationship with the people. It is the name of one who has revealed himself and entered into a close affiliation best described as a Father to children or a husband to a wife.
Shalom – Normally rendered peace Shalom is where the notions of health and prosperity originate. It is best understood as the antonym to suffering or calamity and is better seen in line with a God who promises to wipe away every tear. In the context of the exile and return the notion of it being something as transient and underwhelming as material wealth is to settle for something anaemic in comparison.
Expected future – The Hebrew phrase has connotations of a pregnant woman. As we might describe her as expecting so too the term has that undertone. It is again appropriate in the context; pregnancy at the time was done without the wonders of pain relief and theatre available in 21st Century Scotland. Two of my children were born in difficult circumstances and without medical intervention would not have survived and may well have placed my wife in significant danger. Many women at the time of the Jeremiah text died in childbirth and so there is an element of danger and fear. Given the nature of the exile, the most seismic, painful experience in their history it is an appropriate analogy. Yet, like a successful pregnancy the promise here is of immediate pain to be followed by what was expected. Something good is to come out of a context of pain.
So, having noted all of this, what does this mean for us? It is not always appropriate to seek out the answer to this question as some sort of high point or purpose of the text. Sometimes it is not about us, yet this is a text all too often ripped out of context and constrained into being a fluffy promise from God. A guarantee that everything we hope for, including material possessions is given by God and claimed by the readers. Yet what this text promises is pain, a context where Shalom, the end of suffering, is seen as a longed for answer to prayer. This is not a verse intended for everyday use. This is the type of verse that almost has the warning beside it:
‘In case of emergency break glass’
I think we should be mindful that the previous verse warns that relief is not going to come in the lifetime of the original recipients. Return is not due for seventy years, and those years will see them undergo the most traumatic event in the Hebrew history. Countless numbers will die, their cities laid waste and many carried away in captivity. Those deemed not worth taking will be decimated by disease and starvation; it is suffering on a scale most of us can barely imagine.
It is into that awful situation that God offers this glimmer of hope, into the most desperate of situations the reader is reminded that he resides in the weaver’s hands. Jeremiah does not offer a pithy quote to affirm that nothing bad will happen. Instead, we are given hope where there would otherwise be none.
What a special verse; we shouldn’t cheapen it by associations of prosperity or entitlement. It provides hope and assurance, for we are in the weaver’s hands.
Images courtesy of the Harris Tweed Authority, used with permission.