Jeremiah 29:11, in the version known by many Christians, says: 'I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'
However, G-d is not prophesying in English. He is actually speaking in Hebrew around 2,500 years ago to a Jewish prophet of exile from Israel called Jeremiah, speaking to the Jewish people in Babylonian exile.
Here is a more accurate rendition of the original, bearing in mind Hebrew grammar and syntax, context, history, Jewish commentaries and what we know about Jeremiah. My own explanations are in square brackets.
'For I [in contrast to the false prophets] know the thoughts that I am thinking about you,' says the Lord, 'thoughts of peace and not towards evil, to give you closure and hope' ['closure' here could be 'something to hang on to', but doesn't mean this literally].
So what does Jeremiah really mean in chapter 29:11? How do we go about interpreting G-d's Hebrew word through His Jewish prophets?
A necessary condition for any Bible interpreter – absolutely essential in fact – is to know Hebrew as taught by people who are immersed in Judaism. In the past too many university teachers of Hebrew in this country have come from a classical public school background of Greek and Latin. They were taught to treat the Hebrew Bible as the dead letter of a dead deity that had now been replaced by the living Christian deity.
In addition, and tragically so for those of us who have been involved in clergy training for over 40 years, part of the contemporary mutation of Christian replacement theology is that Christians continue to regard themselves as the new people of G-d.
So a scholarly and reverential approach to the word of G-d, steeped in knowledge of Hebrew and related subjects, is nowadays often replaced by the latest vernacular sound-bite which makes people feel good.
But although Hebrew is essential as a starting point, it is not a sufficient condition for understanding the Bible.
Apart from knowledge of Hebrew, love for the Jewish Bible is also a prerequisite – a mixture of awe and intimacy – and an understanding of G-d's everlasting covenant with the Jewish people, through good times and bad.
So here is a lesson in biblical exegesis.
The personal pronoun 'I' is not necessary but only used for emphasis. It is there to contrast the false prophets of previous verses with G-d Himself. A reasonable interpretation could be: 'Don't listen to the false prophets. Only I, your very own G-d of the Jewish people, actually knows what I am doing and why.'
Next, there is no word for 'plan' in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word used means 'thoughts' – no more and no less. 'Prosper' is also a flight of fancy.
'Thoughts of peace and not towards evil'. 'To give you closure and a hope', that is 'something positive to hang on to while you are in exile in Babylon.'
So here is an interpretation based on the Hebrew and the context:
'Your present exile in Babylon, resulting from your constant breaking off your covenant with Me, will not necessarily lead to despair. It is not meant for your harm but for your benefit. Hopefully, having returned to Me in spirit by enduring exile in diaspora, you will one day be ready to leave exile, return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. But this will be only the start.'
Jeremiah does not talk about plans or prosperity. He talks exclusively of thoughts. But what do G-d's thoughts entail?
In Isaiah 55:8, G-d states: 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways'. And then comes a call to repentance.
Isaiah is regarded as less pessimistic than Jeremiah (who is also the author of Lamentations) and Isaiah's passage is read in synagogues during every Jewish fast day. It is famous. This passage immediately springs to mind when reading the Jeremiah passage on 'thoughts'.
We simply do not know G-d's thoughts, so how can we talk about G-d's plans, projects or intentions to prosper the average Christian who isn't conversant with Hebrew, may have scant regard for Judaism and is simply looking for a spiritual 'high'?
On the other hand, the Bible is supposed to be written in 'the language of man', that is, in human language. So we can very humbly try and explain G-d's 'thoughts' by analogy. Let me attempt to do this now.
Some years ago a senior Anglican bishop wrote asking me to pray for him during his upcoming pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I hesitated. It seemed to many of us that the church had broken its covenant with the Jewish people, its promise to safeguard and cherish us and protect us from harm as a miniscule minority in their midst. On the contrary, many church people, it appeared, were ignoring the tiny Jewish communities in their midst and placating all those who would destroy us.
So, as I felt betrayed by the much larger religion, what should I do? Prayer wasn't an option in this situation. And in any case Jewish prayer is not the same as Christian prayer. So I wrote back to my correspondent and stated that I would 'hold' him 'in my thoughts'.
In other words, I wasn't going to give him a plan, a Jerusalem pilgrimage itinerary – that is, suggest he miss out all the normal anti-Israel hotspots and instead visit the Jerusalem Forest, enjoy a Shabbat meal with a Jewish family, walk down George Eliot street, Jerusalem's most elegant (in honour of England's most pro-Israel, and probably greatest novelist), and generally acknowledge that Jerusalem is Judaism's capital city.
I knew that in present circumstances any specific plans or projects I suggested would fall on deaf ears. But his letter was by way of a peace offering, so I was happy to hold him in my thoughts, which meant that I would hope that by appreciating that I had responded at all, he would, during his pilgrimage and thereafter, embrace paths of peace towards the Jewish people and desist from further thoughts and actions of evil towards us. And, if we were very lucky, he might even, on his return, do something positive for the Jewish people to make up for the past.
And this restored relationship would hopefully lead to closure on the past relationship between church people and the Jewish people and open up a better relationship in the future. But that would have to be ongoing, with many stumbling blocks in the way, and not at all a smooth passage. And it is the church who would have to plan out the itinerary for this and not the Jews, who were the offended party.
That is what I thought about a representative of a group who had constantly betrayed us. What I was offering was not any sort of bribe or reward, but simply openness for a restored relationship.
Bearing in mind that G-d's thoughts are not our thoughts, this is the best I can do. After a lifetime of immersion in Bible and commentaries and a career as a translator and interpreter of some of our most revered Bible scholars, I can only approach the Biblical text with scholarship, awe and intimacy. Interpretation is in itself a holy task and should always be approached in fear and trembling, together with anticipation and joy.
But, you might ask, where does this leave the Christian who might feel excluded from this explanation? If Jeremiah is speaking about exile and return to the specific Jewish generation exiled in Babylon, what can the average Christian actually glean from such a text?
I hope to be touching on this question in another article.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.