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Hewed Out Cisterns, Broken Cisterns

Jeremiah 2:13 (ESV) … “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

Verse 13 continues with for; that is, God now gives the reason that the sky should be so horrified. tob conveys the meaning with “Yes, it is twofold, the evil committed.…” Other translations such as niv drop the transition altogether. Translators should do whatever is most natural in the discourse of their language.

Evils translates the same word used in 1:16, where rsv has “wickedness.” It may be used of any kind of evil in general, though in the present context it has the more specialized meaning of “sins” (tev, reb, lu). The two sins that the people have committed are (1) they have abandoned their worship of the Lord, and (2) they have turned to worship gods that are as useless as a broken cistern.

Forsaken is expressed as “turned away from” by tev. Other possibilities in English would include “abandoned” or “rejected.”

The fountain of living waters refers to the fresh running water of a spring, and so tev translates “the spring of fresh water.” For people who live in a desert society, the contrast between a spring of fresh water and broken cisterns would be very evident. In the land of Canaan where fresh springs of water were not readily available, the people had to depend upon water stored in cisterns. The limestone in which the cisterns were cut was of porous nature, so that it was necessary to line them with a non-porous plaster. But if the plaster cracked, then the water would seep out through the crack into the porous limestone. Thus the picture of the Canaanite gods as broken cisterns describes by way of imagery what is stated openly in verses 8 and 11: the gods of the Canaanite people are unable to help the people who worship them.

Some translators will find they need to express fountain of living waters with a comparison, as for example, “who is like a spring of fresh water for them.” The notion of living waters (“fresh water” in tev) could also be “life-giving water” if translators wanted to retain more of the image of the text.

Hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water is a figure that means they have put their faith in other gods. One way to translate this image is “they have worshiped other gods that are as useless as broken cisterns.” If cisterns are not known, translators may say something like “storage tanks” or “holes for storing water [that they dig out.]” If broken in a language only meant that the cisterns were broken into pieces, then “cracked” would be better.[1]

In nature, living water is that water which flows from fresh springs, giving oxygen and life to otherwise stagnant and dead water. The water in these cisterns would be stale and stagnant compared to the fresh, cool spring waters flowing from the mountains. What is worse than stale water in cisterns, but broken cisterns that are empty and dry to a thirsty soul.[2]

[1] Newman, B. M., Jr., & Stine, P. C. (2003). A handbook on Jeremiah (pp. 60–61). New York: United Bible Societies. [2] Everett, G. H. (2011). The Book of Jeremiah (p. 23). Gary Everett.

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