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Jeremiah 13:20-27 – The Violence of Female Metaphors


This text uses strong sexual imagery to refer to the sin of Israel (13:27) and the correlative judgment that is experienced (13:22, 26).


For many readers, the language used in this text is remarkably harsh and demeaning in its use of female imagery. The God who speaks here is once again the God who has experienced infidelity on the part of the spouse and who responds with all the anger, sorrow, frustration, and pain that accompanies the breakdown of intimate relationships (see 3:1-5).

There is no subject of the exposing and violating in 13:22; the language of act-consequence is used ("what goes around comes around"), and the violation is understood to be mediated by the foe from the north (Babylon, 13:20). Israel's sin is sexual--that is, unfaithfulness imaged in terms of adultery and prostitution--and hence the judgment is sexually imaged. The rape of women would have been a common way in which those defeated in war were treated (see 38:23; Lamentations 5:11), both then and in more recent times. At the same time, God is made the subject of this activity in 13:26; God works judgment in and through agents, that is, the Babylonian armies.

Such texts are rightfully troubling to many readers, not least because they may have contributed to violence against women. Must not readers be critical of the use of such language, even if it is placed in the mouth of God? Granted, one must take the ancient context into account, but that does not excuse the use of such language, then or now.

Jeremiah 13:20-27

20 Lift up your eyes and see
   those who come from the north.
Where is the flock that was given you,
   your beautiful flock?
21 What will you say when they set as head over you
   those whom you have trained
   to be your allies?
Will not pangs take hold of you,
   like those of a woman in labour?
22 And if you say in your heart,
   ‘Why have these things come upon me?’
it is for the greatness of your iniquity
   that your skirts are lifted up,
   and you are violated.
23 Can Ethiopians* change their skin
   or leopards their spots?
Then also you can do good
   who are accustomed to do evil.
24 I will scatter you* like chaff
   driven by the wind from the desert.
25 This is your lot,
   the portion I have measured out to you, says the Lord,
because you have forgotten me
   and trusted in lies.
26 I myself will lift up your skirts over your face,
   and your shame will be seen.
27 I have seen your abominations,
   your adulteries and neighings, your shameless prostitutions
   on the hills of the countryside.
Woe to you, O Jerusalem!
   How long will it be
   before you are made clean?

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