Saturday, December 29, 2007

On God, Rape & Ravishment: Jeremiah & John Donne

Upon the advice of a friend, I read The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel today. Here is one fascinating part:

O Lord, Thou hast deceived me,
And I was deceived;
Thou art stronger than I,
And thou hast prevailed.

~Jeremiah 20: 7

This standard rendition misses completely the meaning of the text and ascribes to Jeremiah a pitiful platitude ("Thou art stronger than I"). The proper rendition of Jeremiah's exclamation would be:

O Lord, Thou hast seduced me,
And I am seduced;
Thou hast raped me
And I am overcome.

The meaning of this extraordinary confession becomes clear when we consider what commentators have failed to notice, namely, the specific meaning of the individual words. The striking feature of the verse is the use of two verbs patah and hazak. The first term is used in the Bible and in the special sense of wrongfully inducing a woman to consent to prenuptial intercourse (Exod. 22:16 [H. 22:15]; cf. Hos. 2:14 [H. 2:16]; Job 31:9). The second term denotes the violent forcing of a woman to submit to extranuptial intercourse, which is thus performed against her will (Deut 22:25; cf. Judg. 19:25, II Sam. 13:11). The first denotes seduction or enticement; the second, rape. Seduction is distinguished from rape in that it does not involve violence. The woman seduced has consented, although her consent may have been gained by allurements. The words used by Jeremiah to describe the impact of God upon his life are identical with the terms for seduction and rape in the legal terminology of the Bible.

These terms used in immediate juxtaposition forcefully convey the complexity of the divine-human relationship: sweetness of enticement as well as violence of rape. Jeremiah, who like Hosea thought of the relationship between God and Israel in the image of love, interpreted his own involvement in the same image. This interpretation betrays an ambivalence in the prophet's understanding of his own experience.

The call to be a prophet is more than an invitation. It is first of all a feeling of being enticed, of acquiescence or willing surrender. But this winsome feeling is only one aspect of the experience. The other aspect is a sense of being ravished or carried away by violence, of yielding to overpowering forced against one's own will. The prophet feels both the attraction and the coercion of God, the appeal and the pressure, the charm and the stress. He is conscious of both voluntary identification and forced capitulation.

(Volume I, pages 113- 114)

In light of this, consider John Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV."

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The terminology is beautifully similar, of course. Most people who read this poem initially recoil- Donne is requesting that God "ravish" him because at the moment he is lost within the clutches of His Enemy; this of course suggests Satan, his own dark desires- certainly something of that ilk. But the entire poem operates off of that extremely suggestive imagery- and lo! It's not, as we're always taught, unique to Donne. Neither can you who protested find it inappropriate anymore...since it shows up in Tanakh! *cackles*

Who's against John Donne now?


yitz.. said...

the imagery is powerful the way you describe it..

but the translation is a little wanting.. pitui does in fact mean seduce, but hazak doesn't really clearly imply rape, that's reading in. If you look at the sources in tanach you quoted, there are always other words used to mean rape.. both by dinah and tamar the same language is used and hazak at best means literally 'overpowered' not raped.

Deut 22:15; --i didn't see a mention of the word hazak in this context at all.

Judg. 19:25 -- the person who performs the act of grabbing/overpowering isn't actually one of the people involved in the rape at all.. the grabbing/overpowering is more in keeping with ejecting the concubine from the house

II Sam. 13:11 -- the grabbing/overpowering use of the verb hazak is used twice, once prior to a conversation between the two parties, and then again to explain that he was the more powerful or overpowered her during the act..(which is specifically described with two other verbs)

but you are correct that the language can elicit imagery of rape, though there isn't follow-through in the passuk to clearly imply rape imagery.

a closer translation oh hazak in this case (of Jeremiah) is either, "you mastered me" or "you overpowered me" especially because the language of vaTuchal is the same language used by the angel who fought/strove with Yaakov.

my two cents

Anonymous said...

So it is impossible to object to sexual imagery in a mundane context because similar phrasing may be found in Tanach? Do the context and purpose make no difference in how this effects us?

You are comparing apples and oranges. Acceptance of words from a holy source does not make the words themselves universally acceptable.

Anon said...

Deut 22:15

You meant Deut 22:25.

Chana said...

Anon 1:30,

John Donne speaks about God, just as Jeremiah speaks about God. They are hardly apples and oranges; Donne's poem is not meant in a mundane context at all.

I'll fix the reference to Deut 22: 25, thanks.

Chana said...

I checked the reference in the book and it says 22:15, so perhaps it was a publisher's error (and then again, perhaps he meant it.) I'll leave it that way in the post, thanks.

Anonymous said...


Donne's perception that his work was holy does not make it so. From our view, his poem is mundane, while Yirmiyahu's words are holy.

I am not 'judging' Donne for writing as he did, but the use of words from Tanach does not imbue a work with holiness or protect it from criticism. The words are less important here than the person who uses them.

Chana said...

Anon 2:55,

Interesting, we have two very different ways of evaluating what is pure or important. You appear to judge things by the character of the person making certain claims, whereas I like to judge texts by texts or the ideas they suggest. Therefore, it wouldn't particularly matter to me if it's Jeremiah or Donne- the point is that the idea in and of itself is valid (that's how it appears in Jeremiah, after all) and therefore when used later by Donne, should be no less valid. I do not see why we should suddenly differentiate in terms of the worth of an idea simply because a person of a different character is citing it. Why should that make an idea more or less valued?

Halfnutcase said...

but yitz, chana's reading is more correct, because when you begin the statement with pitui, then you imply that overpower is be related to that context.

Although it might mean less that he violated her, than perhaps he overpowered "her" with charm and wit, or otherwise inducing "her" to overwhelming desire, to which "she" could not refuse.

which is, "bsof dvar" the same thing as violating her. She wasn't exactly willing. Its not unlike the occasional reports of women... convulsing, during forced incest or other violation, dispite their disgust.

Anonymous said...

...I like to judge texts by texts or the ideas they suggest. Therefore, it wouldn't particularly matter to me if it's Jeremiah or Donne... Why should that make an idea more or less valued?

Because words are given their power by the speaker and the context they are in. When this context and source changes, so does the meaning and power of the words. I have reason to value what is said by Yirmiyahu, because his source is divine. Once his words come from Donne's mouth, they become the phrases of an English poet, not a prophet. Their intrinsic value is gone. Donne might replace this with a different sort of worth, depending on your opinion, but this would be mundane and not divine.

I can deliver a speech beginning with the words "I have a dream," but they would hardly have the same meaning or force as when Dr. King spoke them. I am not Dr. King; Donne is not Yirmiyahu.

Chana said...

Anon 3:55,

So you are working off of the interpretation that the prophets are simply conduits for God- that God puts words in their mouth and they simply speak them; they have no personal form of expression or poetry. I work off of a different understanding, namely that the main ideas are divine, but there are definitely parts that are said by the prophets themselves (as opposed to speaking for God) and the poetry and style is their own as well. In that case, the source is no longer divine; it is Jeremiah as a human being who speaks.

But even supposing it were divine, the point was simply to ascribe validity to Donne's poetry and idea (you can call it mundane if you wish, since it is not prophecy), which could theoretically even have been taken from the Biblical text (depending on how prevalent this explanation was.)

Your example with Dr. Martin Luther King is hardly applicable, since he is not biblical in nature (and hence the concept of his idea allowing other ideas to be valid, in that sense, is not possible.) Of course, practically speaking, the only way in which you can make such a speech is due to his efforts and those like him in creating the Civil Rights movement, so in that way you are correct.

Anonymous said...

I do not bind myself to the opinion that prophets are simply conduits of G-d, but I do believe that any word recorded as prophesy is in some way divine inspiration. It is entirely possible that Yirmiyahu's words were interpreted by his own mind, but as they are considered to have prophetic value, it comes to the same point.

Donne can convey whatever concept he wishes, but a basis in Tanach does not validate any given idea in my eyes. He is just a man using these phrases for his own ends-- it has no more or less value than the words I type now. The presence of any phrasing or idea in Tanach is not a justification for use of the idea elsewhere.

This is where I still believe the King example works. The words "I have a dream" are merely words given power by a specific man, at a specific time, for specific reasons. If I said them now, they would have little to no meaning. With a disclaimer of 'lihavdil,' Tanach has its power, similarly, because of what it is as a cohesive whole. Isolated words or ideas taken from it are no different than any other words, and you cannot validate an idea or phrase simply because it is based on/drawn from Tanach.

Madd Hatter said...

Anything with Donne in it is lovely. I really enjoyed that poem when we did it in school. Interesting connection:)

SimchaGross said...

The Abarbanel in his introduction to Yirmiyahu says that Yirmiyahu was a poor author. Here is my translation of what he says: "he was a youth when he began to prophesies and therefore did not learn the details of writing nor proper syntax usage, and this is displayed by the abundance of Kri UKtiv's found throughout his work"

Chana said...

Anon 1:55,

My father explained to me that you are right (which basically means, he told me to look at the verses in question, which was entertaining.) Therefore, I have changed this to read 22:25. Hurrah!

yitz.. said...


perhaps you missed my point, or perhaps i missed yours, i don't understand which 'her' you are referring to?

we are translating something about 'yirmiyahu', who is/was a man.

if you are referring to the other sources, none of them used the language of pitui followed by the language of hazak.

@Chana, all the same, the image is a powerful image, and certainly can add to our perspective on relating to HaShem..

to be honest, there are a number of places from which we can learn similarly imagery, most notably to me: according to some of the meforshim on pirkei avot,(1:1) Mosheh 'received' the Torah from HaShem, but 'forced it' on Yehoshuah.

[on the technical side, again Deut 22:25 still uses another specific verb to make it clear that a rape took place, implying that the verb root hazak doesn't correlate directly to rape. As i said though, there's still room to interpret yirmiyahu as you/heschel did, just it doesn't necesarily have to be read that way.]

yitz.. said...

ps. you do know that the Kabbalah is chock full of this kind of imagery relating to HaShem, though I don't know of a specific usage of rape-imagery?

In effect, i think it's the other way around... rape is God-revellation-on-an-incomprehensible-level-imagery.

think of Shaul being punished by being overwhelmed with prophecy.

Anonymous said...

the etimology of rape doesnt necc. point to a crime of sexuak abuse, it points to kidnapping. Maybe that will give us a different explanation for dunne's sonnet. Brad

G said...

I work off of a different understanding, namely that the main ideas are divine, but there are definitely parts that are said by the prophets themselves (as opposed to speaking for God) and the poetry and style is their own as well. In that case, the source is no longer divine; it is Jeremiah as a human being who speaks.

What is your basis for this understanding?

Hebraist said...

lexical fallacy.