WORD STUDY – BEFORE רמJeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.”
Something I learned from reading the Talmud is that the Jewish masters read every word in Scripture. Since we read translations of the Bible from the Hebrew we are reading someone’s or some committee’s opinion on how a passage should be rendered. Without the original text and knowing the original language we are dependent upon these translators. Thus we see the word before in this passage and we can’t be sure if that word is in the original text or was put in there by the translators to give a depth of understanding which might be simply the translators opinion.
When studying the Word of God in the original Hebrew I find I am very attracted words that we simply would overlook in our English text, such as the word before. If it is in the text of my Hebrew Bible then this word is from the lips of God and is important. Since the Masoretic text did not come along until 700 years after the birth of Christ, I usually ignore the vowel pointings because again the slight nuances that these pointings might suggest are still man’s opinion. So I focus on the consonants and the triliteral root as that brings me closer still to the inspired text.
So there are a lot of good words in Jeremiah 1:5 but I want to travel he road less traveled and examine the first word in this verse, which is the English word before. In the Hebrew this is the word beterem which is an adverb with a preposition attached. It literally means in but not yet. Ok, I will admit that sounds an awful lot like our English word before and that is the reason the translators go with it. Yet, when taken in the context of the next two words, we begin to see the depth of the Word of God. The next two words are really just one word repeated. It is the English word formed. Most commentators pass this repetition of a word off as just the Semitic way of expressing an emphasis, which indeed is the case in most occurrences, but not all. The rabbis and sages are not that quick to call the repetition an emphasis, they in fact suggest that in this case the repetition of the word formed is really two different words from two different roots and are meant to be translated as two different words. Since I am not looking at this passage in the Masoretic text but instead I am looking at it from a text before the Masoretes ever added their vowels I am coming up with something more profound than God just knowing Jeremiah before he was born.
The first use of the word for formed is ‘etsoreka and I have no problem with the root word being yatsar which means to form, fashion or mold. In its Semitic origins it is a word that is used for a potter making a vessel. However, this word is seemingly repeated. The following word is similar but not the same; it is the word ‘etsareka the difference being the deletion of the Vav. I recently heard a rabbi explain that when a Vav is deleted from a word where there really should have been one it is an indication that the word is expressing an act without God. Thus the first use of the word would indicate that God formed us, but with the word repeated without the Vav it would show that we also have a free will and we take an active part in this formation. Thus before we were born God not only knew the perfect being He created but He also knew the flaws we would add to that formation through our sinful self-will. That is an interesting thought.
Another reason for the repetition of the word is that they are really two different words coming from two different roots and both words were meant to be translated. The first root word would be ‘atsak which would mean to form, create or imagine. The following word could then come from the root word natsar which means to watch over and protect as a protected treasure. Thus God is saying that before he even imagined us, or created us in the womb He was watching over His protective treasure. This is where some ancient rabbis teach that time is linear, the past, present and future all exist in one plane with the present and future like an overlay. In other words, God exist out of time and is observing the entire existence of the world as one event.
As I said, using the word before for beterem is a problem. The problem is that we have no English word for beterem. Before is the best we can do, but it still expresses a time element where beterem does not. You need to take that word and sort of spread it out over the following phrase like an overlay and let it absorb itself into the other words to create a meaning. So my own personal rendering of this phrase would be: “While you were being formed in the womb your were a protected treasure, I knew the hardships you would face as a prophet and even then I laid out a course of protection for you.” This expresses past, present and future.
Then God says: “Before you were born, I set you apart for a holy purpose.” We again have the word beterem used as before. Literally in the Hebrew we have: “Before you came forth from the womb, I set you apart.” The word used for born is marchem which could mean from the womb, but the word is rooted in the word racham which is the word used for a mother’s love, to love tenderly and compassionately even before the birth. It is often rendered in English as tender mercies. Racham is a reference to the womb in a metaphoric way. I read in Jewish literature that a mother’s love is at its purest while the child is still in the womb because the child has not yet rebelled or challenged her love. Her heart has not yet been wounded by the child’s rebellious nature. In trying to find a proper use of the word beterem (before) what I come up with is this: “I have set you apart for a holy purpose even before you had a chance to do anything to wound my heart.”
Ok, here is what I think God is telling Jeremiah in this verse and what He might be telling us who also may feel a call upon our own lives. There are times as we pursue our calling that it will seem like God has abandoned us, or has withdrawn his calling because of the difficult circumstances we may find ourselves in or because of our own rebellion. But that calling was made while His love for us was in its purest state when we were His protected treasure. Although we may have wounded His heart many times in our maturing process to arrive at our calling, from our very formation He laid out a plan to protect us, a divine insurance policy, that would be in effect no matter what our circumstances or how we respond because we are His treasure.