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Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15

September 25, 2022
Topic: Hope , Jeremiah

I am not sure that ancient Israel ever actually had glory days. What I do know is that the prophet Jeremiah is preaching during some of the absolute worst times. As Ellen Davis writes, “Jeremiah charts the long descent into the pit of Jerusalem’s destruction, and Lamentations might be the scream at the bottom.”[1]

We’ve been hearing from Jeremiah for weeks now, and in order for those readings to make sense, you need a bit of historical context. If we go back about a thousand years before Jeremiah, you’ve got the Israelites, having left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years, finally settling in Canaan in distinct regions for each of the twelve tribes. These regions eventually consolidate into two main kingdoms, the smaller northern Kingdom of Israel (capital city: Samaria) and the larger kingdom to the south, Judah (capital city: Jerusalem). Neither of these kingdoms is particularly large or has any significant influence in the region, despite biblical accounts that make them seem crucially important.

They are sandwiched between superpowers, which at the time of Jeremiah are Egypt in the south, and Assyria, Babylon and eventually Persia in the north. For a long time the Assyrians (capital city: Ninevah) are the biggest problem, and the northern kingdom of Israel is invaded and absorbed into the Assyrian empire in about the year 722 BCE. So we’ve only got the kingdom of Judah left. But within one hundred years the Assyrian empire is in decline and by the early 600s it is no longer an influence. Instead, the Babylonian empire—a bit further north and east—is up and running; or, rather, marching. They march as far as Egypt, and you can imagine that they don’t want any trouble with the countries enroute. They lay siege to Jerusalem and in 587 or 586 they succeed in completely destroying the city, including the extraordinary Temple, the dwelling place of God.

The Babylonians have a policy of deporting the ruling class: the king, the bureaucrats, the priests, the scribes. Lots of people are left behind, but the leaders, the literate decisionmakers, are gone. This makes it harder for the colonies to fight back. [2]

The passage we have today gives the date as the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which is about 587/586. So, just before the city is overrun. Jeremiah has been locked up because of his relentless prophecies. He has been preaching for about 40 years, connecting the people’s behaviour to their destruction. YHWH is suffering, YHWH is angry. Jeremiah is in anguish over the city, for which he uses very personal terms: Bat-Zion, “Daughter Zion,” and Bat-ammi, “My-daughter-people.”[3]

The scene opens with both the city and the prophet imprisoned. But in this situation, guaranteed to limit freedom and power, God still speaks. And God says something that to my ears is strangely ordinary for these extraordinary times—your cousin is going to ask you to buy his field in your hometown. And sure enough, cousin Hanamel shows up and says to Jeremiah, “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.” The right of redemption is a way to keep land in the family; it is a protocol by which when land needs to be sold, certain family members are obliged to do what they can to buy it.

Now, Jeremiah has been preaching destruction for forty years. He’s in prison and the city is about to fall. He knows what’s coming. So what does he do? He buys the land.

And there’s a lot of detail about the land purchase. 17 shekels of silver. A deed—signed, witnessed, the money weighed on a scale. Two copies, one sealed, one open. And in front of many, many, witnesses, Jeremiah instructs his secretary Baruch to put them in an earthenware jar so that they will last a long time. Think of the Dead Sea scrolls, documents that survived for about two thousand years in similar earthenware jars. Jeremiah and God are playing the long game.

Why? Because God says, “Houses and field and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

What comes to mind is Afghanistan when the Americans pulled out. The people rushing to get out of Kabul, heading into exile. Imagine stopping to buy a piece of land and making sure the deed was secured where it could be found generations later, because you are sure that your people, your kin, will come back and that all will be well.

Imagine buying land that is threatened by rising sea water. Imagine buying land in Donetsk, one of the regions of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops. Imagine buying land in Fukushima, Japan, contaminated with nuclear radiation.

God’s people have a present and a future. And “this future will not be imagined out of nothing. It will be imagined out of the refuse pile of lost property, human relationships gone sour, and a devastated land.”[4]

Imagine both that level of despair and that level of hope.

***

Questions for reflection

I wonder, what is your favorite part of this story?

I wonder what you think is the most important part of the story?

I wonder where you see yourself in this story?

I wonder what part of the story we could leave out, and still have all the story we need?

 

[1] Ellen Davis, Opening Israel’s Scriptures 2019, p. 280

[2] Bruce Birch, Walter Brueggemann et al, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 1999, p. 322

[3] Ellen Davis, p. 281

[4] Anathea Portier-Young, workingpreacher.org