Understanding Jeremiah 8:8

Jeremiah, chapter 8 states:

7 Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the requirements of the LORD.

8 How can you say, "We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD," when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?

9 The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have?

Verse 8 is being quoted by an increasing number of Muslims as proof that the Jewish scholars have been corrupting the text of their scriptures.

For all Bible study (as for studying any other book) it is important to look at the context of each passage we want to understand. The above verses are part of Jeremiah's "Temple Address" in Jeremiah 7:1-10:25. [Click on this link and follow the text while reading the below given commentary.]

The first important clue is to note that God through the prophet Jeremiah states in verse 7: "my people do not KNOW the requirements of the LORD". He does NOT say that they do not HAVE them. Then in verse 8 he takes up the the false security of the people who claim that they have the law as if the mere possession of the law will benefit them in any way if they do not obey it and if they distort it with their false interpretations.

Let us look at the next three verses from the passage in question, since Jeremiah himself explains what this "lying pen" is all about.

10 Therefore I will give their wives to other men and their fields to new owners. From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.

11 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. "Peace, peace," they say, when there is no peace.

12 Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when they are punished, says the LORD.

What exactly is it that these scribes are doing? If you read the larger context you will see clearly that the scribes, priests and prophets are telling the people that everything is okay, that the Law is being kept, and that there will be peace because "God is with us", His people. But they are lying. It doesn't say their lying pens are making the Torah into a lie by altering its text. It says they are writing things that are false as though they came from God's law and teaching them to the people.

A scribe in that time wasn't so much a copyist as a teacher and expounder. These lying teachers are telling the people "peace, peace" although the true prophet tells them there is no peace and will be no peace. God has announced His judgment on Jerusalem for its idolatery and disobedience. The enemies are coming and God will NOT help. This verse has nothing to do with altering the books, it has to do with teaching false practices and giving false prophecies and saying these are based on the Lord's law. The law of God which clearly speaks of punishement for sin is disregarded and the people are told about the promises of God's goodness -- which are in the Law too, but each has its conditions.

What is the reason for this false security? Verse 10 identifies the the people (including the scribes, priests and "prophets") as greedy for gain. But the people will only gladly pay them for good news or better the lies of "favorable horoscopes" and not for the true messages of judgment and calls to repentance coming from God's eternal word. So, because of greed they trade the truth of God's word for the gains that come from the lies of false promises.

In 7:1-29 Jeremiah announces God's judgment against Jerusalem because of their sin and disobedience. The people in Jerusalem are kept in false security that nobody would be able to touch them because this is the place of God's Temple and surely God would miraculously rescue them as He has done previously (see e.g. Isaiah 37:36). Jeremiah delivers God's word against this false security in 7:4-15.

The "lying pen of the scribes" is guilty not of changing the text of the law, but of false application of it. They are giving the wrong interpreation out of personal greed and because they fear men more than God. In effect, Jeremiah says that they don't "have" the Law because they don't KEEP the Law. It is not the physical presence of the Law or of the Temple that will avert God's wrath, but only obedience to his word. They did not corrupt the physical text of it, but they "handled" it falsely as 8:8 says. If the text they were working with hadn't been the Law anymore, then they could not have been accused of mishandling it ("it" = the Law).

"Having" the Law is no advantage whatsoever if you don't obey it. The endresult is the same as if you don't even have it. This is the consistent message of the Bible in many, many places.

For example you might have a detailed look at a similar address of judgment against the scribes by Jesus in Matthew 23. Let me explicitely quote a few verses here. Jesus starts out his harsh words of condemnation (taking up nearly all of chapter 23) with:

2 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat.
3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

Jesus would never have told the people to listen to the teachers of the Law if the very law they were teaching had not been unchanged and as pure as it was given by God. No, textual corruption was not an issue at all. It is always the question of how we react and what we do with the law that we know.

And there is another passage in 2 Timothy 2, using very similar words as those in Jeremiah:

15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

One can "handle" the word of God correctly or falsely, but there is no question that the false interpretations and preaching will affect the EXISTENCE of the word in its true form. False teaching will earn the displeasure of God, but there are others who also have the word and will speak up. Like Jeremiah in his time is sent to speak because the scribes teach lies and say that they are the true word of God. And like the true disciples in the early church against the heretics.

The same holds for the Qur'an which admonishes us to obey the earlier revelations. How can it tell Jews and Christians to believe and obey them if they were not even available anymore because they are seriously corrupted? Repeatedly the Qur'an states that they are "with them" [literally "between their hands" as in 3:49-50, 61:6 and 5:49 for the time of Jesus]. See the detailed discussion of this issue in Section Two of Dr. Campbell's book.

Arguing from the passage in Jeremiah 8 that the Torah is corrupted in its text would be going against the testimony of Jesus, against the testimony of the whole of God's prophets, and is an argument from silence, since it does not say so at all. The context makes it fully clear that this speaks about false interpretation and application of the word of God.

But there is still one more piece of evidence from the book of Jeremiah. Indeed this same incident of his temple address is reported again in Jeremiah 26, where we read:

4 Say to them, 'This is what the LORD says: If you do not listen to me and follow my law, which I have set before you,
5 and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened)
6 then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth.'

Obviously, God admonishes the people to obey his law which he has set before them. This would not be possible and indeed were a ridiculous command if the law were not with them so that they can indeed read and know and obey it. Both, the law of God [the Torah given through Moses], and the words brought by the many other prophets of God, like Isaiah some generations earlier and Jeremiah himself at this time.

This is confirmation from the book of Jeremiah itself, even from the very same incident of the temple address, that the evidence above has been read correctly. The earlier passage in Jeremiah 8 is in most Bibles set in verse form which shows that the Hebrew is written in poetry. The summary statement about the temple address in chapter 26 is written in prose. We all know that in poetry there is often a greater license employed of words which are not meant literal but which are used to achieve a dramatic effect. And for the effect on the life of the people these false teachings are the same as not having the law at all. That why it is so serious. But that doesn't mean it has actually disappeared "physically". Chapter 26 makes it clear that it is still available and if the people will heed Jeremiah's preaching they indeed CAN go back and read it and obey it.

Further evidence: In Nehemia, chapter 8 we find that Ezra reads the Law to the people of Israel for a whole week, day after day. For example in verses 8, 13-14, and 18 it states:

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read...
... On the second day ... they gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law.
They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that ...
Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. ...

This is in about 430 B.C. about 180 years after Jeremiah's temple address which took place in 609 or 608 B.C., the first year of the reign of king Jehoiakim (see Jeremiah 26:1).

Furthermore, at about the same time the prophet Malachi lives and preaches. In Malachi 4:4 we also read that God admonishes his people:

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

All this clearly testifies to the existence of the Law of God given through Moses at this time.

Jochen Katz

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