Jeremiah 31 & 32
I’m thankful I only had 210 years of US history to learn as a junior in high school, instead of the 1000 or more years other students across the globe had to learn. Or Biblical history. There’s a lot to remember. Jeremiah chapter 32 gives us a date stamp: It is the 10th year of Zedekiah’s reign. That places us at ~587/586, 10 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s first defeat of Jerusalem when he deported the royal elite, skilled workers, and artisans to Babylon. This is when Jeremiah wrote the letter from ch. 29 to the exiles in Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry. Pray for God’s blessing on Babylon! For there will be no miraculous exodus – at least not for 70 years.”
Those left in Jerusalem are living in a war-zone. We don’t have to go too far outside of our imagination to think of the horrors in Syria or other war-torn places. The Babylonians had burned down the royal palace, government offices, and the temple which had stood for over 400 years since King Solomon built it. National treasures, and anything of value, plundered. With Jerusalem under siege, Nebuchadnezzar installs 21 year-old Zedekiah as puppet king. In chapter 37 Zedekiah consults with Jeremiah: “Pray for us. Is there any word from the Lord?” Jeremiah has been the prophet, the mouthpiece of God for 40 years now. Did he have a word from God? Of course he did, but it was never a word that anyone ever wanted to hear. People preferred reassuring prophets, ones who offered words of comfort, not distress. Turn to chapter 38.
“The appropriate response is to lay down your arms and surrender to Babylon. Accept defeat.”
Officials want Jeremiah put to death for sedition. King Zedekiah knows he’s in trouble, but he’s also in denial and says, “He’s in your hands. I won’t do anything to stop you.” Much like Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Jesus. So they throw Jeremiah down a muddy cistern to die. Which reminds me of an earlier passage in the Bible when Joseph’s brothers threw him in a well and left him to die. Ironically, while Jeremiah’s own people attempt to murder him, he is saved by a foreign official from Sudan from death. “Lift the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he dies.” We now find him in prison for being a traitor in the middle of the siege.
He receives a mysterious and confusing message from God. God tells him to bail out a relative in financial difficulty by purchasing land in the family in his hometown in Anathoth. Land was kept in the family, passed down from generation to generation. According to a provision in Leviticus 25, land could not be sold outside the family if it affected a family’s ability to sustain itself. The law provided protection as the “law of redemption”. Jeremiah is next of kin with right of redemption by purchase. It was Jeremiah’s right and duty to re-claim/redeem the land in Anathoth for a destitute relative.
When Hanamel actually appears and does exactly what God had revealed to Jeremiah, he knows that it is a message from God. It is the worst moment imaginable to make a real estate purchase. Economic depression has descended upon Israel, with land, silver and gold now worthless. And it is in this atmosphere of doom, with Jerusalem in ruins and under enemy occupation, that Jeremiah purchases/redeems ancestral land in Anathoth in a war zone, in what you might call a super depressed real-estate market. This would be like buying property in the Bahamas or Miami or the Gulf Coast in the middle of a hurricane. AND Jeremiah has absolutely no assurance that he will ever be free again or will live to visit this land again.
UCC Rev. Kate Huey Matthews: What good was that land going to be to be when the Babylonians were camped on it? It couldn’t be farmed, or provide sustenance or income for its owner. Jeremiah would have to find another family member as foolish as he was, willing to pay for what appeared to be worthless. When it feels there is no hope, Jeremiah makes a hope-filled, trust-filled proclamation about God’s intentions for Israel and its story, which will, against all appearances, go on. Jeremiah’s purchase is announcing his hope in the God of Israel, in the worst of times.
This passage demonstrates prophetic symbolic action. God has given Jeremiah a vision for a restored future he cannot yet see. Despite all the destruction, Jeremiah reassures his people that the siege of Jerusalem is not the last word. After the devastation would come restoration.
Jeremiah gives meticulous details of the sale. It’s not a private transaction, but collaborative with witnesses and a public record, a detailed property transaction. Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch is called upon to be trustworthy in choosing an earthenware vessel to hold the deed, a common ancient practice for the safekeeping of important documents. Remember Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 4:7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars”. This is a treasure literally held in an earthen vessel. Chapter 18 spoke about the integrity and dependability of earthen, clay vessels. The integrity of a vessel is determined by what it can hold. Walter Brueggemann observes that the earthenware vessel ensures that it will be passed down to future generations rather than lost. Jeremiah secures the deed, seals it away in the earthenware jar in hope that after all the destruction, loss, war, and death—the deed would be recovered and redeemed. It is a vision of hope beyond what currently is.
Stephen Breck Reid: Jeremiah’s purchase of the land near Anathoth parallels his instruction to those in exile in Babylon to buy land, build houses. He assures them that they will ONE day they will buy and sell houses in their homeland again. He encourages them to see God as active, even in the present circumstances of exile. The work of their own rebuilding would happen both in exile and Jerusalem.
KHM: This passage challenges exiled peoples to dare to see hope and practice hopeful action. That’s why Jeremiah tells his scribe, Baruch, to copy and preserve these documents of sale not only for verification but for future generations who will read them and be inspired to hope in their own day.
Even though Jeremiah wouldn’t live to see this happen, he wants future generations to experience the hand of God fulfilling ancient promises of abiding, faithful love by a generous God.
James Newsome, “We are reassured that judgment is not the final word. Beyond judgment, beyond destruction, beyond the justice of God there is restoration, mercy, salvation, homecoming, joy!”
We continue the struggle for justice. Why? Not because we know we will win the struggle in that moment, but out of faithfulness and because we trust the words of Universalist Unitarian Theodore Parker just before the Civil War, words that are often attributed to Civil Rights Activist MLK:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, we are called to show signs of our hope by building or planning to build—organizations, relationships, and communities.
We have to discern how God is calling us to thrive and to hope, no matter what empires of -isms are out there – materialism, racism, militarism, sexism. No matter our circumstances, we too are called to safeguard the dream of a better future for all people regardless of whether we will live to see it.
Former President Barack Obama, “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, and you will fill yourself with hope.”
“No matter what happens,” Walt Brueggemann writes,“the world does not culminate on Babylonian terms, because God has post-Babylonian intentions for Judah. Life begins again, out of chaos!”
What is our hopeful action today? We are going to take time to write our own “prophecy” of good news about a future we desire with good that we may not live to see. We are going to roll them up like a scroll, and place them in an earthenware jar with a prayer that God will continue to help us all work together for the fulfillment of these things.
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will plant seeds in Israel and Judah, and both people and animals will spring up. Just as I watched over them to dig up and pull down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and plant, declares the Lord.
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will no longer need to teach each other to say, ‘Know the Lord!’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.”
Rules are not just to be obeyed, but a way of life in relationship to God because our hearts desire it, yearn for it, love it.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the 10th year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the 18th year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.
Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.”
Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.”
Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, 17 shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”