1:11 And the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” And I said, “I see a staff of almond wood [šāqēd̠].”Jeremiah 1:11-12
1:12 And Yahweh said to me, “You have done well in seeing, for I am vigilant [šōqēd̠] over my word to do it.”
Jeremiah 1:11-12 contains the first of two visions that conclude the calling narrative of Jeremiah. The meaning of the second vision (a boiling pot in the north with its lip tilted toward the south) is rather transparent. On the other hand, the meaning of the first vision, a staff from an almond tree, is rather opaque and does not come across well in translation, at all.
Actually, the vision and its application are a pun in Hebrew. Jeremiah sees a staff or shoot of šāqēd̠ (almond tree/wood), and Yahweh says, “I šōqēd̠ [am vigilant]”. Depending on how long the qamets (the long “a” vowel) in šāqēd̠ is pronounced, the two words can sound very similar, indeed, close enough to be homophones or nearly so. In situations like this (where the presence of a pun, concealed by translation, connects two otherwise seemingly disconnected ideas), a lot of times commentaries will stop with the observation of the pun.
But is this just a pun? Is there another level of connection between the image and the message? Let’s look more carefully at the image in the vision. The word I translate “staff” in verse 11 is maqqēl, which can mean either staff or rod or shoot. A maqqēl is a tool either for shepherding or to aid a horse-rider (a switch). There is one other instance in the Old Testament of a staff or rod and almonds being closely connected: in Numbers 17, the rod of Aaron buds and flowers and bears almonds (šāqēd̠). In the story in Numbers, the rod is not a maqqēl but a different Hebrew word – maṭṭēh.
Even though they are different words, however, maṭṭēh and maqqēl refer to similar things: a rod or staff. Jeremiah uses the word maṭṭēh only one time, in 48:17, referring to a royal scepter. Otherwise, maṭṭēh is used over 250 times in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, maqqēl is relatively rare in the Hebrew Bible. It is used 18 times total in Hebrew Bible and twice in Jeremiah – once here in 1:11 and once in 48:17 (again) as a parallel term with maṭṭēh. The close parallel structure in 48:17 supports a conclusion that these two words are largely synonymous.
The point here is to suggest that perhaps the tradition about Aaron’s rod budding is in the background of the pun in 1:11-12. If so, what could it contribute to our understanding of this text? In Numbers 17, the purpose of the rod producing almonds appears to be to make clear Yahweh’s choice of Aaron and his family as the high priestly family among the tribe of Levi (in response to the rebellion of Korah).
In Jeremiah, what has come immediately before this vision is Yahweh’s choice of Jeremiah as his representative and his overcoming of Jeremiah’s objections to this calling. He has told Jeremiah not to be afraid and that he will be with him to strengthen him. If the vision is not taken in isolation but in connection with Jeremiah’s initial call, Yahweh seems to be making a connection between his choice of Aaron and his choice of Jeremiah. By extension, the rebellion of Korah is brought to mind, suggesting that Jeremiah will be resisted by, among others, his fellow priests, but that Yahweh will deal with those who oppose him the same way he dealt with Korah.
Indeed, in chapter 20, Jeremiah received precisely that kind of opposition when Pashḥur, a chief official of the Temple, has Jeremiah beaten for prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah responds by prophesying destruction for Pashḥur and his family (much like Korah, whose entire family were swallowed up by the earth). When we read chapter 20 in light of 1:9-12, we can hear Yahweh promising not only that he will be vigilant to bring about Jeremiah’s first prophecy (the one for which he was beaten), but also his prophecy concerning Pashḥur.
So there is a pun in the Hebrew text of Jeremiah 1:11-12, but the significance of the image of a staff of almond wood goes beyond a mere pun. It compares Jeremiah’s role to that of Aaron, anticipates opposition to Jeremiah similar to that of Korah, and promises the same kind of divine action to validate and protect Jeremiah’s message as we see in the story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16.