God makes accusations against Israel using two powerful images: They have returned to slavery, and they live as harlots. Both these metaphors convey rejection and poverty. Prostitution is a historically well-known last alternative for women who are broke and only see one way to survive. It is more fathomable to many of us, however, that a woman could choose alternatives to prostitution, even in dire poverty. What is less obvious is how anyone could or would choose slavery. That is the very accusation God makes against Israel, that they have chosen slavery willingly. God accuses Israel of forsaking their birthright as bride and children to choose slavery (Jeremiah 2:14), and God frames the reliance of Israel on Assyria as if they are returning to the rivers of Egypt as slaves (Jeremiah 2:18).
The most powerful charge comes when God combines these two images to explain exactly how God’s people choose slavery. God says, “Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, ‘I will not serve you!’ Indeed, on every high hill. and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute” (Jeremiah 2:20). God charges Israel, in powerful imagery, with giving up both their freedom and their marriage to be ruled by idols, which cannot satisfy their deepest thirsts (Jeremiah 2:13).
This problem presents a major dilemma. God’s accusations against Israel are quite harsh, though accurate. What is to be done to keep them and others from choosing the slavery that comes from giving our best to idols? Jeremiah will resolve this concern with a profound answer much later in the book. In the meantime, let us beware the human propensity to sell out to that which cannot give life.