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Answering an Aramaic Enigma: Part Two

Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Jeremiah 10:29

Over the past three posts, we have sought out the reasons behind the Aramaic composition of Daniel 2–7. Our investigation has required us to set aside the assumption that the Bible is merely a collection of human writings. This step may feel backwards and ignorant—a return to pre-scientific ideas of mysticism and magic—but it’s actually a very scientific choice.

Science requires that we test our beliefs according to measurable evidence and proven methodology. Skeptics have argued that the traditional claims of the Bible must withstand honest scrutiny, and this is true. However, the skeptic’s own sensibilities and preferences don’t get a pass from this process, but must also be proven impartial by sound, verifiable evidence. A popular hostility to Scripture does not amount to proof against Scripture.

Testing the Bible (and Our Assumptions)

The Bible has always claimed to be exceptional, both in its composition and its power. Are we willing to put this claim to the test, or will we allow modern prejudices to govern our thinking? To approach the Bible with the assumption that it behaves like every other book is to treat it on the basis of a preconception rather than proven facts and verifiable experience. The prevailing dismissals of Scripture as fairy tales and fiction don’t amount to scientific fact, but are merely loud expressions of disbelief and distaste for the supernatural.

Put another way, we recognize the injustice of profiling people according to their skin color or culture, yet we can fail to see the folly involved in condemning the Bible simply because it is religious. However, if we allow its claim to orient our studies we actually come to understand biblical intricacies that are otherwise irresolvable. Let’s resume our study of the first riddle to see how a traditional belief in the Bible explains why and how it was written.

The Symbolic Power of Language

Incantation bowl
Above: Incantation bowl depicting a human figure and an inscription written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, 4th to 7th century AD.

Abraham and his family were proficient in Aramaic. Yet, as the tongue of Paddan-aram, this language came to represent a land that they had departed and family they had left behind in obedience to God’s call. The departure of Jacob and his family from Paddan-aram was a final severance of Abraham’s descendants from their Mesopotamian roots. God’s calling led elsewhere—to Bethel, to Egypt, to Sinai, and eventually to the land promised them centuries before. By that point, Israel was a nation indeed, not only settled in the land of Canaan but entirely distinct and independent from every nation they had encountered in their long transformation from a chosen family into a holy nation. The origin and history of Israel explains why Hebrew became the language of the Old Testament. The national language of the Hebrews and the language of “the land of the Hebrews” was the appropriate choice for their national literature (Gen. 40:15).

From Holy to Heinous

Around 1300 years after Jacob’s departure from Haran, Aramaic suddenly returned to the Old Testament (Jer. 10:11). By this time, Israel was living in complete opposition to its national calling and was already feeling the hard consequences of its apostasy. Most of Israel had already been conquered and carried away by Assyria on account of their uncurbed idolatry, oppression, and immorality. The remaining kingdom of Judah was a horrific depiction of a society in moral freefall. Judah was awash with idols and especially devoted to “the Queen of Heaven,” Ishtar—a fertility goddess who was arguably the most popular deity of Mesopotamia (Jer. 7:18; 44:17). The inhabitants of Jerusalem practiced ritual infanticide in the nearby Valley of the son of Hinnom, worshipped idols within the Temple, and consistently used religion to justify their lust and oppression (Jer. 7:9–10, 31). In effect, Abraham’s departure from Mesopotamia had come to nothing. Israel was no different from Mesopotamia and, therefore, God chose to treat them accordingly:

And when your people say, “Why has the LORD our God done all these things to us?” you shall say to them,

“As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your land,

so you shall serve foreigners in a land that is not yours.”

Jer. 5:19

Therefore, it was no coincidence that Babylon’s chief tongue would come from the lips of Jeremiah, the prophet of the coming captivity.

“Now Hear This”

Jeremiah was ordained from the start as a “Prophet to the nations” and proclaimed several important messages to the peoples of the ancient world (Jer. 1:5; 25:27–28). While his warnings of impending judgment were especially for God’s faithless people, he was just as clear about the guilt of the Gentiles. God wasn’t going to judge His people for idolatry but simply pass by the idol-crazed gentile world. Therefore, amid a strong rebuke against Israel’s preoccupation with idols, He suddenly uttered a crystal clear declaration in Aramaic:

Thus shall you say to them:

“The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth
shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.”

Jer. 10:11

The verse is striking in its power, brevity, and poetic structure. This one sentence was both a clarion call for Israel to return as witnesses of the one true God, and a clear statement that God was coming to judge the world and its arrogant abominations.

Jeremiah 10:11 must have startled its first hearers. It was the first ever Aramaic verse of Scripture, given in a language that was foreign to the Jews of Jeremiah’s day. But its arrival wouldn’t have surprised those who had listened carefully to God’s prophets. God was following through on warnings repeatedly given by his prophets, warnings given even before Israel had settled in the land of Canaan.

The Stage is Set

We’re now poised to explore Aramaic’s significance within the Book of Daniel. Our next post will get to the bottom of Daniel’s Aramaic Enigma and the role it plays in teaching us Who God is and what He’s up to here and now.

Have a question or comment? We’d love to hear from you. Submit your response in the box below.

Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license and was modified (cropped) for this article.

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