In “what Zedekiah swore” Jefferson Vann explains what Jeremiah 38:16 really says.
Jeremiah 38:14-16 (JDV)
Jeremiah 38:14 King Zedekiah sent for the prophet Jeremiah and received him at the third entrance of Yahveh’s temple. The king said to Jeremiah, “I am going to ask you something; don’t hide anything from me.”
Jeremiah 38:15 Jeremiah replied to Zedekiah, “If I tell you, you will kill me, won’t you? Besides, if I did give you advice, you woudn’t listen to me.”
Jeremiah 38:16 King Zedekiah swore to Jeremiah in private, “As Yahveh lives, who has given us this throat, I will not kill you or hand you over to these men who intend to cut your throat.”
what Zedekiah swore
Most translations render Zedekiah’s oath as an assurance that he would protect Jeremiah’s life.
- But King Zedekiah swore to Jeremiah in secret saying, “As the LORD lives, who made this life for us, surely I will not put you to death nor will I give you over to the hand of these men who are seeking your life.” (NASB)
- Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the LORD lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.” (ESV)
That is true, but the word usually translated life in that verse is not the same word that corresponds to the adjective in the phrase “As Yahveh lives.”
Instead, the word is nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ), a word often translated “soul.” Common belief has it that the soul is a separate entity that lives inside the body, but survives it after the body’s death.
The King James renders the word “soul” in one part of the verse, and “life” in another:
- So Zedekiah the king sware secretly unto Jeremiah, saying, As the LORD liveth, that made us this soul, I will not put thee to death, neither will I give thee into the hand of these men that seek thy life. (KJV)
Thus, Zedekiah seems to be contrasting the immortal soul with the earthly life. That makes sense unless you realize that the actual Hebrew words are the same.
But in passages like this, where the word obviously refers to something other than an immortal soul, the modern translators usually render it consistently as “life” as if it is a synonym for chayim (חַיִּים). By so doing, they bypass the figure of speech involved in Zedekiah’s use of the word. The word nefesh is firstly a word indicating the throat. It only became a word for the life inside the body as a metaphor. As the organ for breathing, the throat became a symbol for a body with the breath still inside — a body still alive. To take someone’s throat is to kill him. Zedekiah is promising Jeremiah that he will make sure nobody kills him.
The statement makes perfect sense unless you insist that a person’s soul is immortal. If the soul is immortal, then nobody would be able to take Jeremiah’s soul, and Zedekiah would not be in a position to prevent it, so his oath would be meaningless. There are a number of passages like this, which do not make sense if the theological assumptions of traditionalists and universalists are correct. We don’t normally recognize these passages because the translators have “helped” us by hiding the original wording.
What Zedekiah actually swore is this: “As Yahveh lives, who has given us this throat, I will not kill you or hand you over to these men who intend to cut your throat.”
I encourage you to learn the original languages, and read the Bible for yourself. You have the right to know what is really there.
Lord, give us open eyes to see what your word really says.
For more on the meaning of nefesh, see: