At times translators make curious choices.

Jeremiah 2:5 is a troubling illustration. God chastising the people of Israel for wandering astray challenges them with a question:

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob,
and all the families of the house of Israel.
Thus says the Lord:
‘What wrong did your ancestors find in me
   that they went far from me,
and went after hebel  things, and became hebel themselves?’   
(Jeremiah 2:4,5)

The word “hebel” also appears in Ecclesiastes:

Hebel of hebel’, says the Teacher,
hebel of hebel! All is hebel’.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Why did the translators choose in Ecclesiastes 1:2 to translate hebel using the english word “vanity” so the verse reads:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity’,

while in Jeremiah they translated hebel as “worthless”; so Jeremiah 2:5 reads:

‘What wrong did your ancestors find in me
   that they went far from me,
and went after worthless  things, and became worthless themselves?’   

I have no problem with the idea that human beings at times find “wrong” with God. Things do not turn out as we had hoped. It is tempting to shake a tiny fist at the universe and complain “It is not fair.” And, when we find wrong with God, it is easy to fall into unconsciousness, forgetting the beauty truth and light that are at the heart of the universe, and which we signify using the term “God”.

But, when did G0d ever look at any part of anything God ever created and declare that it had become “worthless” (“and became worthless themselves“)?

The translators of the King James Version of the Bible made a different choice, rendering Jeremiah 2:5 to say,

Thus saith the Lord,
What iniquity have your fathers found in me,
that they are gone far from me,
and have walked after vanity, and are become vain?

The translation “vanity” fits the context of Jeremiah chapter 2 better than “worthless.” The problem for Israel is that, both when things have gone poorly and even when things have gone well, the people have pursued illusions. They have sought to meet their needs without reference to God and have followed vain empty dreams to lull themselves into an illusion of well-being.

But, as deluded as they may have been, God never looked at them and described them as “worthless.”

“Worthless” is a devastatingly destructive adjective.

Brubecker BradleyKimberly Brubacker Bradley, in her children’s novel The War That Saved My Life, gives a powerful illustration of the damage “worthless” can cause.

Brubacker Bradley’s story is set in the early years of the Second World War in England. Ada, the narrator, is ten; her brother Jamie is seven.

Ada was born with a club foot, a fact her mother who Ada calls “Mam”, finds shameful and disgusting. Mam heaps hatred, scorn and derision on her “crippled” daughter. She keeps Ada out of sight imprisoned in a tiny flat on the third floor of a rundown apartment until the evacuation of children from London.

While her mother sleeps Ada sneaks out of the apartment and struggles to the evacuation centre. She and Jamie make the torturous journey by train to the countryside in Kent where, after no family chooses to take them in, they are imposed on Susan Smith.

Susan is a lonely, bitter woman who has never wanted children and is in mourning for the recent death of her only friend in the world. Ada, Jamie and Susan are thrust together and Ada tells the story of their developing relationship. There are a number of bumps along the road. One of the most difficult comes on Christmas Eve 1939 when Susan presents Ada with a gift. Ada recounts the event:


She put a big box wrapped in paper onto my lap. Inside was a dress made of soft dark green fabric. It had puffed sleeves and a round collar, and it gathered at the waist before billowing out into a long, full skirt.

It was so beautiful I couldn’t touch it. I just stared.

“Come,” Susan said. “Let’s see if it fits.”

I held perfectly still while she took off my sweater and blouse, and settled the green dress over my head. “Step out of your skirt,” Susan said, and I did. She buttoned the dress and stepped back. “There,” she said, smiling, her eyes soft and warm. “It’s perfect. Ada. You’re beautiful.”

She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn’t bear it. I heard Mam’s voice shrieking in my head. “You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!” My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash. I could wear Maggie’s discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn’t bear to hear her call me beautiful.

“What’s the matter?” Susan asked, perplexed. “It’s a Christmas present. I made it for you. Bottle green velvet, just like I said.”

Bottle green velvet. “I can’t wear this,” I said. I pulled at the bodice, fumbling for the buttons. “I can’t wear it. I can’t.”

“Ada.” Susan grabbed my hands. She pulled me to the sofa and set me down hard beside her, still restraining me. “Ada. What would you say to Jamie, if I gave him something nice and he said he couldn’t have it? Think. What would you say?”

Tears were running down my face now. I started to panic. I fought Susan’s grasp. “I’m not Jamie!” I said. “I’m different, I’ve got the ugly foot, I’m — ” My throat closed over the word rubbish.


That is what happens when we come to believe that our club foot makes us “worthless.” We become paralyzed. We are unable to receive the gifts life pours out upon all people.

“Worthless”… “Rubbish”are not words God would ever use to describe any aspect of the creation that from the beginning was only made “good.”