Johanan and his armies, and all of the rest of the people, have come before Jeremiah. They beg him to intercede with God on their behalf, as the remnants of the once mighty nation of Israel. Jeremiah agrees to try and talk to God. Unlike what happened to Jeremiah in the past, Johanan and company seem so desperate for any information that they’re eager for it, even if it’s bad. “Whether good or bad, we will hearken to the voice of the Lord our God, to Whom we are sending you, in order that it be good for us, for we will hearken to the voice of the Lord our God (Jeremiah 42:6).”
It takes 10 days for God to speak with Jeremiah this time. Jeremiah immediately tells the people what happened. For once, it’s a good message. “If you dwell in this land, I will build you up and I will not pluck you up, for I have repented of the evil that I have done to you (Jeremiah 42:10).” Finally, the merciful nature of God seems to have returned. The people are encouraged not to fear the Babylonians. Of course, all of this is contingent on staying in the land. If the people bail, and head to Egypt, then the suffering will continue. The people are effectively bound to the land, and their fates are tied together, regardless of what their free will might be telling them.
We’ve got some new characters for this chapter. “And it came to pass in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah the son of Elishama of royal descent and officers of the king and ten men with him, came to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, to Mizpah, and they ate bread there together in Mizpah (Jeremiah 41:1).” So far so good. But in the next verse, it all goes crazy. Ishmael and his crew kill Gedaliah, and all of his followers, who the king of Babylon had appointed as the overseers of the land of Israel. It sounds like a major killing, but no one found out for a few days, and so men were coming to the Temple when Ishmael intercepted them. They were going to make some kind of offering, but I’m not sure what the occasion was. Ishmael murders these men too, and only ten survivors are left.
The survivors bargain with Ishmael, telling him about their fields and crops, and he spares them. Ishmael continues his bloody rampage though, and eventually he’s challenged by Johanan the son of Kareah. Ishmael’s followers wind up defecting to Johanan’s troop, and the bloody rampage ends.
This chapter opens with Jeremiah with Nebuzaradan, the chief Babylonian executioner. Nebuzaradan has released Jeremiah, and invites him to come to Babylon with him in his care. But it’s Jeremiah’s choice, and Jeremiah decides to stay in the land, with the remnant of the people who have stayed. “And all the Jews returned from all the places they had been driven, and they came to the land of Judah to Gedaliah to Mizpah, and they gathered very much wine and dried figs (Jeremiah 40:12).” It really seems to be the fringes of society that stayed in the land, those who for whatever reason were able to remain in spite of the destruction and the exile. The people are now split between their locations, and therefore by their experiences. There will no longer be one fully shared story of the people, because the multiple factions will develop differently. It’s a real diaspora story, for one of the first times in our history. How do we stay one people when we’re developing differently?
The prophecies are coming true – Babylon invades Jerusalem. The city is entered, and King Zedekiah and his men fled the palace and the city. They’re pursued by the Chaldeans and eventually Zedekiah is captured and brought to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. “And the king of Babylon slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons in Riblah before his eye, and the king of Babylon slaughtered all the nobles of Judah. And he blinded Zedekiah’s eyes, and he bound him with copper chains to bring him to Babylon (Jeremiah 39:6-7).” I can’t think of anything more humiliating for a king, and it’s clear that Babylon is the destroyer of Judah at this time. The city is burned and the people exiled to Babylon.
Based on this description Nebuchadrezzar seems completely heartless and evil. But he shows some mercy towards Jeremiah. “Take him and look after him and do no harm to him, but whatever he speaks to you, do so with him (Jeremiah 39:12).” It seems like the Babylonians believe Jeremiah’s prophecies, even if the Israelites didn’t always. So Jeremiah is taken from prison, and God sends him another prophecy. We don’t hear yet how this one turns out, but things can’t really get much worse.
Jeremiah continues to proclaim his prophecies about the impending doom of Jerusalem at the hands of the Chaldeans. The people, including the officers, hear his words, and they find them problematic, to say the least. “And the officers said to the king, ‘This man should be put to death now, since he weakens the hands of the men of war remaining in this city and the hands of all the people, to speak to them such words, for his man does not seek the welfare of this people but the harm (Jeremiah 38:4).'” There’s something to be said for the importance of morale, and the need to instill confidence in the people and the army. The psychological state that people enter into a situation with is hugely important, and there is something to be said about how important it would have been to give the Israelites a reason to hope at this juncture. At the same time though, they do need to know the risks and the magnitude of what they’re facing.
The officers freak out on Jeremiah and throw him into a mud pit. The king is informed, and orders that Jeremiah be brought to him before he dies. Jeremiah gets literally pulled out of the mud where he’s sinking, and taken to the king. Definitely the most abused, mistreated prophet yet. Finally, it seems like there’s a glimmer of hope when the king listens to him, but I’m already assuming it’ll be short-lived.
Judah gets a new king. “And neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land hearkened to the words of the Lord which He had spoken through Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 37:2).” This can only end well.
Jeremiah, meanwhile, is out of jail and back in society. He then gets a new prophecy. There’s a battle going on between the Chaldeans and Jerusalem, and at the same time, Pharaoh’s army is on the move. So the Chaldeans retreat, but Jeremiah is told that they’ll be back. The Chaldeans, who previously hadn’t been such key players, are apparently going to fight the Israelites to the last man. Jeremiah is trying to spread this message when, ironically, he is accused of defecting to the Chaldeans, and brought back to jail. He’s left to languish there for a while, until the king remembers him and asks if he has any new prophecies. Then, augmenting the already bad circumstances, the king tells Jeremiah that he’s going to be given to the king of Babylon. Jeremiah begs for mercy, so instead he’s sent back to jail.
Honestly, I know that there are stories coming up in Tanakh of Job, of Daniel, of people who seriously suffer for their faith. But Jeremiah seems to be the worst-off prophet thus far, and it’s not clear why he is so mistreated by the people and the leadership of Israel. Yes, as I’ve said before, people don’t always like to hear the truth, but this seems to be escalating things way more than is necessary.
God commands Jeremiah to write down all of the prophecies that have been given to him about the nation of Judah. “Perhaps the house of Judah will hear all the evil that I plan to do them, in order that they should repent, each man of his evil way, and I will forgive their iniquity and their sin (Jeremiah 36:3).” Jeremiah does as he’s told, but since he’s still in jail, he needs help to disseminate this information. He calls Baruch the son of Neriah, and sends him with the scroll to the Temple, to share God’s words with the people.
All of the people heard him, as he read on a fast day, when all of the people came to Jerusalem. Amongst the people who heard was Micaiah the son of Gemariah. He is deeply impacted by the reading, and goes to the offices of the king’s scribe to share what he has learned. “And Micaiah told them all the words that he had heard when Baruch read the book in the ears of the people (Jeremiah 36:13).” As a result, Baruch is invited to share the words directly with the officers, and they promise to share them with the king. They bring him the scroll, but after only a few verses, he ends up burning it. The king refuses to listen, so God has Baruch and Jeremiah rewrite the scroll and share it once again. But they’re burnt again, which is effectively the seal on an upcoming major punishment for him. To be continued!
We’re introduced to a new nation in this chapter, a nomadic tribe that I haven’t heard of before. God tells Jeremiah to go to this tribe, the Rechabites. “Go to the house of the Rechabites and speak with them, and I will bring them to the House of the Lord, to one of the chambers, and give them wine to drink (Jeremiah 35:2).” The Rechabites are seemingly new to the story, but we are given a little bit of context as to their origins later in the chapter.
Jeremiah brings them to the Temple, and offers them wine. “And they said, ‘We will not drink wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us saying, ‘You shall not drink wine, you or your children forever (Jeremiah 35:6).'” The Rechabites are incredibly loyal to their laws. Even in the face of temptation, they don’t drink, and also don’t break their commandments of not building houses, planing fields, and remaining nomads. This people is commanded to wander eternally, exactly the opposite of the fate that the Israelites had been longing for, but what eventually became our reality. What are we supposed to learn from this interlude? God responds well to the obedience of this tribe, and what I’m taking from them is that even though their laws are different from ours, we have to acknowledge and respect the legitimacy of their story and loyalty to it. Tolerance is the message here, and diversity in the best way.
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.