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Andrea L. Weiss





Jeremiah’s Teaching of the Trees





APA e-journal

Andrea L. Weiss





Jeremiah’s Teaching of the Trees








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Jeremiah’s Teaching of the Trees

The verdant tree and the desert shrub: Jeremiah’s wisdom psalm (17:5-8) uses this arboreal simile in poetic parallelism to offer a poignant message: A person who trusts in God will still confront challenges.


Jeremiah’s Teaching of the Trees

Barak stream, Arava desert, Israel. Wikimedia

Leviticus 26 enumerates the blessings for people who heed God’s commandments, followed by the curses for those who violate them. The haftarah that accompanies this Torah portion (Jer 16:19-17:14) contains a brief wisdom psalm that sits at the center.[1] The teaching in Jeremiah 17:5-8 offers a parallel blessing and curse, but in reverse order. This prophetic passage contrasts the negative fate envisioned for the individual who trusts in human beings (vv. 5-6) with a positive future for the one who trusts in God (vv. 7-8).

Trusting Humans vs. God: Curse and Blessing

The passage begins:

כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה
[5a1] Thus said YHWH[2]
אָרוּר הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בָּאָדָם
[5a2] Cursed is the one who trusts in humans
וְשָׂם בָּשָׂר זְרֹעוֹ
[5a3] and makes flesh his strength
וּמִן יְ-הוָה יָסוּר לִבּוֹ
[5b] and from YHWH his heart turns away.

After another verse that expands on this curse (v. 6), the prophet expresses the blessings that await the individual who engages in the opposite type of behavior, repeating much of the same wording:

בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּי-הוָה
[7a] Blessed is the one who trusts in YHWH
וְהָיָה יְהוָה מִבְטַחוֹ
[7b] and YHWH is his trust.

The intermediate words of the opening lines (in italics) are identical, yet the first and last words (underlined) contrast with each other.[3] This interplay of equivalence and contrast highlights an important aspect of biblical parallelism: the similarity in form heightens the difference in meaning, thus reinforcing the stark opposition between the two scenarios.[4]

Trusting Only Humans

The symmetry in the initial phrasing of these verses is offset by 5b, which explains what the cursed person does wrong. No such elaboration exists in the parallel verse. Why add the third line in v. 5b, which throws off the parallelism by making a 3-part curse and a 2-part blessing?

The medieval commentator Radak (R. David Kimhi, ca. 1160-1235) derives a nuanced message from this structural imbalance:

כי אם לא יסור לבו מה’ אינו רע אם יבטח באדם שיעזרהו ותהיה כונתו כי בעזרת האל יוכל האדם לעזור לא זולתו:
If he does not “turn his heart from God,” he is not wrong in trusting that humans will help him, if his intention is that with God’s help the person can help him.

The late Bible scholar from Hebrew University, Moshe Greenberg (1928-2010) explains that according to Kimhi, trust in other people “is not unconditionally wicked”; it is “legitimate and allowed” as long as human help is understood as “an agency of God.”[5] In other words, the seemingly superfluous third clause unlocks the real meaning of the verse, teaching that people will be cursed only if they rely exclusively on humans; ultimately, we need to trust both in God and in other people.

Contrasting Similes

To illustrate his core teaching, Jeremiah turns to a pair of similes.[6] First, the text compares the person who trusts only in humans to a bush in a barren desert landscape (v. 6):

וְהָיָה כְּעַרְעָר בָּעֲרָבָה
[6a1] He shall be like a shrub in the desert
וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי יָבוֹא טוֹב
[6a2] and it will not see that good comes,
וְשָׁכַן חֲרֵרִים בַּמִּדְבָּר
[6b1] and it dwells in parched places in the wilderness,
אֶרֶץ מְלֵחָה וְלֹא תֵשֵׁב
[6b2] a salt land not inhabited.

In contrast, the text compares a person who trusts in God to a verdant tree beside a steady source of water (v. 8):

וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל מַיִם
[8a1] He will be like a tree planted by water
וְעַל יוּבַל יְשַׁלַּח שָׁרָשָׁיו
[8a2] and by a stream it will send forth its roots
וְלֹא (ירא) [יִרְאֶה] כִּי יָבֹא חֹם
[8a3] and it will not (fear) [see] that heat comes.
וְהָיָה עָלֵהוּ רַעֲנָן
[8a4] Its foliage shall be verdant
וּבִשְׁנַת בַּצֹּרֶת לֹא יִדְאָג
[8b1] and in a year of drought, it will not worry
וְלֹא יָמִישׁ מֵעֲשׂוֹת פֶּרִי
[8b2] and it will not cease from making fruit.

A Ketiv/Qere Problem

The verse describing the tree that symbolizes the praiseworthy person (8a3) contains a textual problem. According to the ketiv (the written text), the phrase reads:

וְלֹא ירא כִּי יָבֹא חֹם
And it will not fear that heat comes.

This reading is reflected in the LXX (φοβηθήσεται), the Peshitta (ܢܕܚܠ; נדחל), and the Latin Vulgate (timebit). However, according to the qere (the text that, according to the Masorites, should be read out loud), the phrase states:

וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי יָבֹא חֹם
And it will not see that heat comes.

This reading is reflected in Targum Jonathan (יִחזֵי). Faced with these two interpretive possibilities, which reading seems more compelling? That answer depends on whether the phrase is read with what precedes or with what follows.

Fear and Worry (Ketiv)

Reading the ambiguous line in 8a3 together with a statement that follows in 8b1 lends support for the ketiv:

וְלֹא ירא כִּי יָבֹא חֹם
[8a3] and it will not fear that heat comes.
וּבִשְׁנַת בַּצֹּרֶת לֹא יִדְאָג
[8b1] and in a year of drought, it will not worry

These lines pair together two nouns with a close semantic connection: “heat” and “drought.” This suggests that the corresponding verbs should be fairly synonymous as well, which would make “not fear” the fitting parallel to “not worry.” Considered together, these two phrases suggest that even when faced with adverse conditions, the tree need not be anxious since it has access to a reliable source of water.[7]

Not Seeing Heat and Not Seeing Good (Qere)

Alternatively, support for the qere comes from its parallel to the earlier almost identical verse in the curse:

וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי יָבוֹא טוֹב
[6a2] and it will not see that good comes,
וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי יָבֹא חֹם
[8a3] and it will not see that the heat comes.

The identical language in all but the last word of these two lines makes a compelling case for preserving the verb “to see” in v. 8, just as it appears unambiguously in v. 6.[8]

Janus Parallelism

Perhaps v. 8 represents a special case of Janus parallelism, a situation (named after the two-faced Roman god) in which a given element may be read one way in light of what came before and another way in light of what follows.[9] In other words, the reading “it will see” makes most sense in light of a previous verse (v. 6a2), whereas “it will fear” works best given the paired verb in a subsequent clause (v. 8b1).[10]

Unpacking the Analogies

Shifting from the similes to the underlying message, what message does Jeremiah convey with the contrasting images of the barren shrub and the verdant tree? The statement that the shrub “will not see that good comes” fits better with the actual situation—the fate of the person who exclusively relies on humans—than with the hypothetical situation, the fate of the shrub.[11]

What does “good” mean in the context of v. 6? Syntactically, v. 6a2 and v. 8a3 are nearly identical, except for the last word in each line:

וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי יָבוֹא טוֹב
[6a2] and it will not see that good comes,
וְלֹא ירא[ה] כִּי יָבֹא חֹם
[8a3] and it will not see/fear that heat comes.

But how do “good” and “heat” function as opposites?

Will Not See the Coming of the Rain

Classical commentaries such as Radak and Metzudat David, as well as some critical scholars, such as Mitchell Dahood,[12]interpret “good” in v. 6 as referring to rain, a desirable but scarce resource in the type of arid, inhospitable environment described in v. 6. The pairing of “heat” with “a year of drought” in the second half of v. 8 further supports this reading.

The hypothetical situation in v. 6 imagines a shrub situated in a barren desert landscape that cannot experience[13] or benefit from any water that should become available. In the corresponding actual situation, punishment for those who rely solely on other people involves isolation and an inability to enjoy any good that should come their way.[14]

Such a dire fate serves as a correction to Jeremiah’s prior observation in a related passage that the wicked prosper and live at ease (Jer. 12:1).[15]

ירמיה יב:א …מַדּוּעַ דֶּרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים צָלֵחָה
Jer 12:1 …Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
שָׁלוּ כָּל בֹּגְדֵי בָגֶד.
Why are the workers of treachery at ease?
יב:ב נְטַעְתָּם גַּם שֹׁרָשׁוּ
12:2 You have planted them, and they have taken root,
יֵלְכוּ גַּם עָשׂוּ פֶרִי…
They spread, they even bear fruit…

Earlier, Jeremiah used an arboreal image to express his outrage at this seeming injustice, accusing God of planting the wicked and allowing them to take root and bear fruit; now the prophet insists that only those who merit God’s blessing will blossom like a fruitful tree.

A Staple of Wisdom Literature

Like Jeremiah’s wisdom psalm, other ancient texts use arboreal imagery to juxtapose individuals with opposing character traits.

The Egyptian wisdom text “Instruction of Amen-em-opet” (ca. late 2nd millennium B.C.E.), for instance, declares (part iv):

A man of the temple who is intemperate
is like a tree which grows indoors.
In a short moment its leaves and blossoming are finished
so that its journey ends on the rubbish heap.
It floats to its final destination
and its burial is fire.
But the truly thoughtful man, though he keeps himself aside,
is like a tree growing in sunlight.
It greens and flourishes, it doubles its harvest,
standing before the face of its Lord.
Its fruit is sweet, its shade pleasant,
and it ends its days in the garden.[16]

Similarly, Psalm 1 contains two contrasting plant analogies to depict the righteous and the wicked:

תהלים א:ג וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל פַּלְגֵי מָיִם
אֲשֶׁר פִּרְיוֹ יִתֵּן בְּעִתּוֹ
וְעָלֵהוּ לֹא יִבּוֹל
וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה יַצְלִיחַ.
א:ד לֹא כֵן הָרְשָׁעִים
כִּי אִם כַּמֹּץ אֲ‍שֶׁר תִּדְּפֶנּוּ רוּחַ.
Ps 1:3 He is like a tree planted beside streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
whose foliage never fades,
and whatever it produces thrives.
1:4 Not so the wicked;
rather, they are like chaff that wind blows away.[17]

Jeremiah’s wisdom psalm uses similar imagery to convey a different message.

Jeremiah’s Message: God Is the Reliable Source of Water

In Jer. 17:8, as in Ps. 1:3, the text specifies that the metaphoric tree is planted by a source of water that provides the requisite nourishment for the tree to spread its roots and produce green leaves and abundant fruit. Nevertheless, the hypothetical situation envisioned by Jeremiah is no idyllic Garden of Eden;[18] heat and drought are an anticipated reality, conditions that even the most securely rooted and amply watered tree must confront.

In Jer. 17:8, whether Jeremiah means that the tree will not experience and be affected by the heat or that the tree will not fear its coming, the underlying message remains the same: the heat is on its way. What distinguishes the verdant tree from the desert shrub is that the tree possesses a reliable source of water that will enable the tree to survive the drought and continue bearing fruit.

Applied to the actual situation, the prophet interjects an element of realism into his idealized vision: even the most virtuous person—one who wholeheartedly trusts in God—will confront challenges in life. Yet, when facing moments of disorientation[19] or loss, the faithful individual can trust in מקוה ישראל, the “Hope” or “Spring of Israel” (Jer. 17:12). Jeremiah thus offers a pragmatic but optimistic message. He assures his listeners that with the divine help of מקור מים חיים, “the Spring of Living Water” (Jer. 2:13; 17:12), the devout will be resilient and thrive even in the most trying times.

Dedicated to the memory of Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion President Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., z”l


May 10, 2018


Last Updated

June 8, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss is Associate Professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and incoming Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (NELC), and ​Rabbinic Ordination from HUC-JIR, New York​. ​Weiss served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Campaign Coordinator for “American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters.” She is author of Figurative Language in Biblical Prose Narrative: Metaphor in the Book of Samuel.