The Cup from My Hand, the Sword I Am Sending

The Protean Nature of Wrath in Jeremiah 25:15-29

Fear My Mixed Metaphor

This paper is caught between textist and historicist schools of thought. Bernhard Duhm's 1901 Das Buch Jeremia, the grandfather of Jeremiah commentaries, divided Jeremiah into three braided strains of authorship.1 This is the starting point for an endless historicist discussion of the book's most obvious mystery, the time and place of its composition and editing. Who wrote it and for whose benefit? Martin Kessler (and other textist scholars like him) disdains this paradigm, which after all is largely a sport of speculation. Staunchly concerned with literature rather than history, Kessler treats with the text as a whole, intended--by whatever final editor--to stand just as it is.

In his own division of the book,2 Kessler manages to leave a gap: it is clear that the "hinge" he has in mind for Jeremiah is really 25:1-14, or even more particularly 8-14, as the earlier verses amount to a recapitulation of previous material in the book. The story has already been sketched from beginning to end by verse 14 and for most practical purposes Kessler's hinge is complete already. The rest of the chapter seems to get lumped in for administrative simplicity, not because it is exactly of a piece with the beginning of the chapter. And in that underexamined space is the peculiar passage wherein YHWH sends Jeremiah to all the nations with a cup of wrath.

Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink of it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword which I am sending among them."

It's the oddest formula: drink from the cup so that you will suffer because of the sword. It repeats clearly in verse 27 and arguably in verse 29. The wine, which is wrath, makes you suffer and fall; that suffering is caused by the sword. Why? Are they two metaphors for the same impending doom? Certainly YHWH will later, in chs. 50 and 51, rain a lengthy and vicious barrage of mixed metaphors on the heads of the unlucky Babylonians, so a dual metaphor here is well within bounds for the genre.

But YHWH is so specific in his instructions about the cup; should anyone refuse, he cautions Jeremiah in verse 28, he must insist that they drink. They cannot escape their duly ordained punishment. Perhaps it is because of the inevitability of the sword that they cannot refuse the cup? Read this way, the cup is a metaphor for the sword--itself a more direct metaphor, a synecdoche, for the broad military catastrophe YHWH is arranging for the various nations. Or maybe it is only here because Jeremiah can safely brandish a cup at foreign dignitaries to make his point, whereas obviously he can't run them all through, even to demonstrate YHWH's intentions toward their countries of origin. (But that opens the question of whether we are to believe that Jeremiah literally carried a cup anywhere, which is debatable.3)

Alternately, the cup and sword might be more than interchangeable images. Are they interacting for a purpose? Is it important that YHWH condemn the peoples of the known world to suffer the effects of these two redundantly lethal instruments, like a xenophobic Hamlet run amok at the United Nations, because one death is not enough? Or is there something conditional about the juxtaposition? It seems unlikely that anyone can evade the sword merely by refusing the wine, since YHWH sounds quite certain of himself regarding the outcome.

More reasonably, and more interestingly, there might be a sort of a choice at hand, even though it is not quite made explicit here. It will be made plain later, in 38:17-23. Through Jeremiah YHWH offers the king of Judah a choice: surrender to Babylon and you will survive, and the city will survive even if the people must be driven from it. Resist and you will die, and the city will be destroyed with fire. Whether to be conquered is no part of the choice; the choice is only about how bad the consequences are going to be. YHWH is already good and angry. The coming of the sword is never in question--but perhaps the sword that is the conqueror will be easier on you, if you own up to your guilt and accept the punishment your God commands. If, in other words, you willingly drink that cup of wrath.

To accept a proffered cup, after all, is a voluntary act, and to be struck with a sword is not. Why else would YHWH demand an act of choice4 first, and only then administer his forceful retribution? Those who undertake the dolorous punishment appointed them will be spared the worst of the violence, and their children will be restored in the end. Those who resist--who oppose Babylon, or who try to escape to Egypt, or in any other way seek to avoid their ordained captivity--"shall be consumed by the sword and by famine, until there is an end of them" (44:27).

Or, to make the parallel with 38:17-23 more exact, the choice can be construed this way: Babylon, YHWH's instrument of punishment, is approaching, inexorably. When it does come, Judah--and the other nations in Babylon's shadow--can choose either to receive that punishment as a cup of wrath (undertaken willingly, bitter though it is) or as a sword (administered to the uncooperative, and worse to suffer than the cup would have been). Thus the element of meaningful choice remains, even if the sword and cup are indeed interchangeable symbols for the same impending conquest.

What a Sword Is For

In the vocabulary of Jeremiah, does it mean the same sort of thing symbolically to offer a baleful cup as to threaten with a sword?5 If there is a difference, how does it affect the passage?

Jeremiah is peppered with dozens of mentions of swords. Not once in the book, though, is it plural. This is also the strong trend among Jeremiah's contemporaries and predecessors, but in Jeremiah it is taken to the exteme. And the sword is rarely literal; most often by far, it refers to wide-ranging conquest by Babylon, and it occurs frequently within a litany including famine and pestilence.6 Bows and arrows, shields and spears, these appear in plenty and are as often plural as singular; they are generally literal weapons of warfare, part of descriptions of the literal armies whose exploits are being predicted. But swords appear rather less often in the hands of common soldiery, only once (48:10) if one doesn't count occasional imagery of victims "slain by the sword." Mostly the sword is an abstraction, or is being used by YHWH personally.

Two examples threaten to disturb some of these tidy generalizations. In 50:16, the formula "because of the sword of the oppressor" (see 25:38) seems to refer now not to Babylon but to the conquering army, apparently the Medes, who are to overthrow Babylon at last. Soon afterward we find a flurry of mentions, in the verse passage 50:35-38, where an abstracted sword of punishment is sent to call on enumerated Babylonian employees, goods and resources. Though the sword in these cases is still at YHWH's service (since the divine disposition toward Babylon has now reversed itself) these cases are notable for not referring to Babylonian conquest. They are almost--but not quite--the only times in Jeremiah when a sword does not refer to the activity of the army of Babylon, as ordained by YHWH.

Outside of chapter 50, there are three more exceptions, and those three are interestingly aligned. The first is in 2:30, where YHWH alleges that Judah has been putting its own prophets to the sword.

As if to illustrate this, the second exception--in 26:23--shows us a sword as the instrument of kingly execution, when Jehoiakim puts to death (in the Tanakh) or personally dispatches (in the RSV) the prophet Uriah and gives him a cursory and undignified burial. If indeed his own sword devours his prophet, then we note that to Jeremiah, the sword is a fit implement for a kingly execution, for punishment by a wrathful ruler. All we know about Uriah is that his prophecies were in the same vein as Jeremiah's own, and he is probably mentioned in the story mainly to dramatize the danger Jeremiah also lived in. Jeremiah himself escapes only by the intercession of Ahikam, an officer of the court since the days of Jehoiakim's father Josiah.

The third exception is in 41:2, when Ishmael and his men strike down Gedaliah, "whom the king of Babylon had appointed governor in the land." This Gedaliah is Ahikam's own son, and Jeremiah is once again taking shelter with him. Though not an execution carried out by a king in state, this is the slaying of a collaborator by a son of the royal family. Zedekiah, Jehoiakim's brother, after years as a hand-picked puppet king, finally revolted against Babylon, met a bad end and was replaced with our unlucky governor; there is no more king. How many men of the royal line survive who have a better claim to the throne than Ishmael? From the point of view of a loyalist, one who disbelieves Jeremiah's contention that the Babylonian conquest is divinely ordained, Ishmael's action is that of a legitimate prince, executing a usurper. Ishmael would have been in a good position to become king if his resistance had, improbably, prevailed.

These three instances have two clear traits in common. First, they are the only times in Jeremiah when a sword is cited as doing something not in accordance with YHWH's will. Each is an instance of a sword cutting directly against the divine agenda; each is also, as it happens, a direct threat to Jeremiah's personal safety. Second, they are the only three instances of swords acting in the past tense. All else is analysis of current trends or projection into the future; these three deeds with swords are known already to have been carried out when they are recounted. Incidentally, the second and third instances are also the only specific, historical accounts of literal swords in the book.

As noted above, there is another interesting commonality suggesting itself: that the sword is used as a weapon of execution, the weapon of a ruler punishing a wrongdoer. In none of the examples is this made clear beyond doubt, but it is consistently applicable, particularly in the historical episodes. YHWH's complaint about slain prophets also seems likely to fit the pattern, when one notes that judging by Jeremiah's own misadventures, controversial prophets might be scolded by the laity (and might occasionally have their props broken by rival prophets) but they aren't generally subject to violent reprisals except by figures of authority.

The sword, after all, wasn't necessarily the preeminent weapon of warfare in the ancient world. In Homer the sword is an auxiliary weapon; Achilles and Hector were far more inclined to the spear as a default. Gilgamesh uses an axe and a dagger; his epic never mentions any sword. And Jeremiah, in his more literal descriptions of warfare and its preparations, shows a marked preference for bows and arrows. The sword is reserved for sweeping proclamations, and for authoritative rebukes.

What does it mean for the cup-as-choice reading if we suppose that Jeremiah and his audience were inclined to ascribe more of a punitive connotation than a martial one to the image of a sword? YHWH is the quintessential angry king; since Jehoiakim cast Uriah into an unmarked burial place, we can be sure that an angry king applies the sword to an especially despised sort of subject. It is an instrument of justice, duly appointed7 for specific miscreants.

What a Cup Is For

YHWH has his sword at the ready, but throughout Jeremiah his ugliest threats are reserved for those who, even at this late date, defy his commands. This is the function of the sword: it is the solution to the most intractably problematic subjects. And in chapter 25 it is invoked, repeatedly, as that which follows on the heel of a cup, or which attends upon the drinking of a cup in a dependent fashion, as though to reinforce it. With a sword the angry king executes a judgement; it is with a cup, I will now argue, that such a judgement is weighed. And this is why it must be administered first.

The cup is the more intriguing threat, and its role is the real question. How is a cup of wine menacing in the mind of Jeremiah? Could it somehow adulterate the force of the sword, or does it simply substitute for it?

Cups and wine and drinking are usually to do with libations, or else are of a piece with food, in Jeremiah (and in Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Proverbs). These things I take to be outside my scope; food and drink as such are generally literal, and libations seem exclusively (in Jeremiah) to be an objectionable practice, a symptom of rival religions creeping into practice in Judah. Even chapter 35, so tantalizingly parallel8 to the "cup of wrath" pericope, stubbornly refuses to make any metaphorical use of its cups or its wine.

Closer to home is the sort of ceremonial drinking that YHWH forbids in 16:7. "The cup of consolation" is forbidden to the prophet charged to bear the cup of wrath. In and of itself this dictum is not made metaphorical; it is rather a prohibition of an established practice that is metaphorical at root. But it is a valuable look into Jeremiah's backdrop. In the cup of consolation we have evidence of an extant cultural notion--familiar, even compulsory, tradition for Jeremiah and everybody he knew--of cup as symbolic gesture, perhaps a symbol with the ineradicable force of a blessing, which has the power to work a real change upon a person.

Another precedent certainly known to Jeremiah is Numbers 5:11-28, a manual for those priestly authorities charged with administering a bitter drink to an evildoer. The accused woman must drink the water that she knows brings the curse--that same volitional act, the same assent, as in Jeremiah 25--and the severity of the punishment that awaits her depends on her doing this (and on its uncertain result, which disturbs the parallel a little). The water is not the punishment, importantly. It is the touchstone; by the cup she will be judged.

In this there is one clear trace of a tradition of authoritative judgement by bitter cup (distinct in meaning from the practice of authoritative punishment by the sword). These two uses of cups, we can say with reasonable certainty, antedate Jeremiah and were well known to him, just as the sword must have been known to him (if only thanks to Jehoiakim) as the punitive implement of kings. By the cup the guilt of the accused is weighed; by the sword the guilty are dispatched. To survive the cup one must submit to its authoritative judgement and take one's chances--but from the sword there is no escape at all.

In the cup of wrath Jeremiah synthesizes these two notions into a new image, which was then taken up by other writers. The RSV footnote to my chosen pericope, 25:15-29, suggests that the "cup of wrath" imagery originated here, with Jeremiah, and points to some parallels: Isaiah 51:17-23 and Psalm 11:6 (and Jeremiah 8:14, to which I will return in a moment). To these I would add Psalm 75:8, Psalm 60:3, Job 21:20, and Ezekiel 23:31-34. And in every one of these examples, far more than anywhere in Jeremiah itself, it is plain that the cup causes suffering in its own right, that drinking the wrath is the punishment. If we are to believe that all of these things followed after Jeremiah, we might suppose that this less nuanced understanding of the cup's function as direct and simple punishment has been imposed on the metaphor, not by Jeremiah himself, but by his readers and followers.

Also held to be written after Jeremiah are the first nine chapters of Proverbs, where we find an interestingly different spin on wine. The wine of violence, apparently a daily staple of the wicked, engenders violence (4:17); the wine of wisdom grants wisdom (9:5). As we have seen in Jeremiah 16:7, the cup of consolation gives consolation. There is some tradition here of representing emotional and psychological states with a cup of wine. But the cup of wrath is different--it doesn't make the drinker wrathful. Does it?

In 23:9 Jeremiah laments the disreputable state of prophets in general, and speaking for himself rather than for YHWH, he says: "I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words." Jeremiah suffers the sickening effects of wine, of YHWH's holy words--years before the punishment, the sword of Babylon, is to befall him--because of the evil ways of the people around him. He is stricken with remorse and shame, and perhaps with anger also, for the degradation to which Judah's iniquity has brought them all. There is wine here, and suffering, but it does not refer to Babylon; it comes before that calamity, for the responsible man who hearkens to YHWH's wrath and understands his people's guilt.

The cup of wrath reappears in Jeremiah's "Oracles Against the Nations" or OAN, as Kessler calls the later chapters. In 49:12, during the oracle concerning Edom9, the cup is invoked with unmistakable reference to the "cup of wrath" pericope. The phrasing "...will you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished..." is verbatim from 25:29. And here it appears that a drink from the cup and punishment are one and the same. It's not explicit, but YHWH switches from cup to punishment and back without any obvious pattern, without any contrasting sword. 49:12 might be read as a reminder that punishment, and the attendant choice of how to face it, is approaching; or it might just as easily be taken to indicate that the cup is just one of many ciphers for the punishment itself.

In 51:7 another explicit reference is made to 25:15, but with a specifying interpretation added: "Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD's hand." The cup was domination by Babylon, and Jeremiah must presumably have been sent to the nations with YHWH's symbolic cup just to tell them so. In 51:39 and 51:57 the inevitable reversal of fortune strikes, as--though without mention of any specific cup--YHWH will make the Babylonians drunk, and they will sink into a stupor from which they will never wake.10 The drunkenness sounds less agonizing than in 25:16 and 25:27; the RSV notes that in the Hebrew, 51:39 says the Babylonians "rejoice" rather than "swoon away." But no sword comes to finish the job; the drunkenness seems to be a complete and final punishment in itself.

51:7 precludes (at least from a textist point of view11) that to drink from the cup is to go through an internal, independent process of submission to YHWH's will, and to his anger. The cup is Babylon. But still viable is the reading which holds the cup and sword to signify two manifestations of Babylon, two punishments differentiated by the submission or resistance of the punished.

Jeremiah's Message Is a Choice

So, there is a cultural backdrop for the idea of cup as implement of judgement, and for sword as weapon of kingly punishment. And there is, with fair consistency and without outright contradiction, support for a reading of Jeremiah as using these ideas in a novel and artful way to illustrate his bitter message--in imagery that would later be rehashed without its original subtlety. On these traces, then, and on its plausibility, the conditional reading of the cup of wrath must rest. Embattled though it is by a popular rival understanding, it remains not only possible but oddly reasonable.

Certainly there is this much to be said for it: without it, chapter 25 is a little inadequate as a turning point for the book of Jeremiah. Kessler's hinge, 25:8-14, is essentially predictive; Jeremiah's key message, the one that distinguishes him as a prophet and his only message with immediate practical import for his contemporaries, is that they must submit without resistance to the Babylonians. All of his prediction culminates in this prescription, which is absent in chapter 25, unless the only prescription that can be found here--drink from this cup--is taken to mean the same.



Written Word