This chapter has a really weird back-and-forth. God tells Jeremiah that King Zedekiah, the king of Judah, made a covenant to free all of the people of Jerusalem. “That every man should let his manservant and every man his maidservant, a Jew and a Jewess go free, that none should hold his Jewish brother as a slave (Jeremiah 34:9).” Slavery wasn’t eradicated after the Exodus, in spite of the fact that the people had worked so hard in order to achieve their own freedom. But there were rules and regulations put into place so that the practice was regulated. I think that needs to happen more – instead of holding out for the ideal, let’s create the best option that we can for the real.
Anyway, the people get on board, and everyone frees their slaves. “But afterwards they turned and brought back the manservants and the maidservants whom they had let free, and forcibly made them into manservants and maidservants (Jeremiah 34:11).” So, that was short-lived. God is pissed, and tells Jeremiah, who conveys to the people, that God said that every seven years, people are to release their slaves, that slavery isn’t to be a hand someone is dealt in perpetuity. By flip-flopping on this issue, the people broke God’s laws, and will once again be punished. Things started out so well – why did the people have to break this rule also?
At this point in the narrative, Jerusalem is devastated and the people destitute. Jeremiah is still in jail, but the prophecies continue. God is looking towards the future, and the eventually rebuilt city. “The sound of mirth and the sound of joy, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the sound of those saying, ‘Thank the Lord of Hosts, for the Lord is good, for His loving-kindness endures forever,’ bringing a thanksgiving offering to the House of the Lord, for I will restore the captivity of the land as at first, said the Lord (Jeremiah 33:11).” In so many ways, sacrificial offerings notwithstanding, this prophecy has come to pass. There is rejoicing in the streets of Jerusalem, and the city is rebuilt, and people are able to happy in this ancient place. Seeing the city reborn, made live and relevant through the vigor of footsteps through the ancient allies, is a dream come true. Just thinking about my beloved city, I miss it so much, and want to be back among the stones and hills again right now.
My favorite verse in this long chapter discusses God’s nature and His relationship with humanity. “Who is great in counsel and mighty in carrying it out, for Your eyes are open to all the ways of mankind, to give everyone in accordance with his ways and in accordance with the fruit of his deeds (Jeremiah 32:19).” As I’ve said many times before, I definitely see God as multifaceted and infinitely dimensional. Each one of the billions of human beings on earth is capable of having a full relationship with a manifestation of God that may be totally unique to them, while being part of the larger Oneness of God. So this descriptor resonates with me. God sees all of humanity, relates to each of us in our own ways, and we do the same back to Him.
It’s constantly repeated throughout Tanakh, and referenced throughout subsequent Jewish texts and rituals, that our covenant with God is an extension of the original covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The covenant is an ancient one, linking generations back to the original family that all of the 12 tribes, and the entire Jewish people, came from. But in this chapter, we hear a different narrative about our covenant. “Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, and I will form a covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:30).” It seems like there’s been such a break between what was and what the next stage of history will be, now that the exile has happened, that a new covenant needs to be made that reflects the new reality.
“For this is the covenant that I will form with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will place My law in their midst and I will inscribe it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be My people (Jeremiah 31:32).” The covenant is therefore now based on the law, as well as the ongoing relationship between God and the people. Clearly this change came because of a pivotal catalyst. What have been other such schisms in history? Is this iteration still our covenant, or has the relationship changed again?
As has been a constant theme throughout these more lyrical prophets, there’s a huge amount of metaphor that’s hard to follow throughout this chapter. I’ve known for years that Jeremiah is the book where Jerusalem is compared to a laboring mother, and there’s a lot of gender imagery. But it’s hard for me to isolate certain verses in that regard, and to find meaning and lessons from them. So when I was searching for something to share from this chapter, I went all the way to the end to find my chosen phrase.
“At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be My people (Jeremiah 30:25).” The part of this verse that appealed to me the most is the inclusion of the word all. God will be the God of each and every family of Israel. Too often today, there’s this perception that God is for the religious, for the Orthodox, for those who practice in a certain way or adhere to certain standards. But the text itself says that God is for everyone, for each family, which I then infer means to each family in a different way, the way that is the most meaningful for them.
“So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exile which I have exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and well, and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and beget sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men, and they shall bear sons and daughters, and multiply there and be not diminished (Jeremiah 29:4-6).”
This says a lot about the attitude that the Jewish people are supposed to have in exile, and what we’re charged with doing while we’re outside of the land. The people aren’t told to sit around and mourn, or pray, or put their lives on hold until they’re able to return. They’re charged with action, with continuing with their lives and establishing themselves in the lands that they wind up in. It’s not like when they were wandering in the desert, when a nomadic lifestyle and stopped rituals like circumcision for that period of time. The people are supposed to live full lives, building and planting and mating and putting down roots. To me, this is representative of an attitude that has prevailed throughout Jewish history. During the generations outside of Israel, life went on. I’ve heard it said, and it’s really resonated with me to hear, that the core of what modern Judaism is was formed outside of the land of Israel. Our traditions, our history, our culture, was all created because of this directive to be fulfilled in our adoptive lands. We aren’t meant to be a people in mourning, living in the past. We’re supposed to be active, alive, engaged, wherever and whenever we are.
There seems to be some experiential education going on in this chapter, which, as a Jewish educator (and total nerd) makes me incredibly happy. Yes, biblical education references are my jam.
Anyway…to set the stage, Jeremiah and another prophet, Hananiah are in front of a gathering of the people, including priests and the general public. Jeremiah has a yoke on his neck, demonstrating the conceptual yoke that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, has on numerous nations and populations. “And Hananiah the prophet took the bar off the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke it. And Hananiah said before the eyes of all the people, saying: So said the Lord: So will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, in another two full years, off the neck of all the nations. And Jeremiah the prophet went on his way (Jeremiah 28:10-11).”
Now, things will quickly go south for Hananiah. It seems that he’s not a legitimate prophet, and his death is actually reported by the end of this chapter. However, what I want to focus on is the way in which this prophecy was conveyed. It used props, acting, performance – it really incorporated principles of what we today call experiential education. Instead of monologuing and leaving everything in the theoretical realm for their listeners, the educators, in this case the prophets, engage multiple senses in the teaching process. Maybe I’m reaching, but so much of what I’ve internalized over the last few years as an educator is how important it is to use multiple tools and lenses to reach my audience. It’s fascinating to see that play out even in this context.
There’s a controversy about which prophets are legitimate and which ones are false. “But if they are prophets, and if the word of the Lord is with them, let them now entreat the Lord of Hosts that the vessels remaining in the house of the Lord and in the house of the king of Judah and in Jerusalem not come to Babylon (Jeremiah 27:18).” It’s so easy to put conditionals on belief, as though we can test that which we can’t see. So often we play games with ourselves, like if x happens then y was meant to be. This seems to be a version of that – the people saying that the prophets need to prove their legitimacy by getting God to do something. But when we need things like that to believe in something, will we ever really be satisfied?
Jeremiah is in trouble once again. As I’ve written, being a prophet doesn’t always equal being popular, but Isaiah never seemed to deal with this kind of pushback. “And it came to pass when Jeremiah finished speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, that the priests, the prophets, and all the people seized him, saying, ‘You shall surely die (Jeremiah 26:8).'” Jeremiah is warning the people, and in response, he gets threatened. The princes of Judah hear everything that’s happening, and they go and sit by the gates of the Temple. The priests and other prophets bring Jeremiah before them, and say that he deserves to die for his words. Jeremiah pleads his case before them, and the priests agree that Jeremiah is not deserving of a death sentence. They don’t seem interested in changing their ways, but at least they acknowledge that Jeremiah is speaking the truth. This to me seems even more frustrating. They basically know that he’s right, know what’s coming, and still can’t seem to stop themselves from fulfilling the prophecy. How often do we purposely do things that we know we shouldn’t, and why can’t we stop?
Jeremiah speaks to the people again. He recaps the opportunities that the people had to repent and see the error of their idolatrous ways, and the many chances that they squandered. And then, the punishment. “And all this land shall become waste [and] desolation, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11).” After the seventy year punishment has been served, God will come save the people and destroy the Babylonians. It’s not clear why the Babylonians merit this kind of destruction, and why they’re the nation that has been dragged into this, as opposed to Egypt or Moab or anyone else in the region. Will the Babylonians deserve what’s coming to them because of the way that they’ll treat the Israelites, similar to what happened to the Egyptians? Or have they already sealed their fate for some other reason?