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September 26, 2010
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Today’s text is as far as the lectionary goes with readings from Jeremiah, although we will read two earlier texts in coming weeks. The opening verses show that despite the opposition of various kings and his own imprisonment, Jeremiah was undaunted. The text goes on to spell out in great detail a message of hope for the people of the land, despite the fact that their land was occupied by the Babylonians at the time.

Here we see the prophet Jeremiah near the end of a long career that began as the power of Assyria waned late in the seventh century BCE. Like the chapters in the Book of Jeremiah, the readings in the lectionary do not appear in chronological order. From 609 BCE, Judah was under the control of Egypt. The Jeremiah readings for Pentecost 13, 14 and 16 reflect the attempts at reform under king Josiah during this period, as represented by the book of Deuteronomy (see 2 Kgs 22:1-23:25).

Palestine passed from Egyptian to Babylonian hegemony in 605 BCE following the defeat of Pharaoh Neco by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kgs 23:32–24:7). The reform under Josiah failed and the story of the potter’s wheel (Jeremiah 18, Pentecost 15) and the lamentation of Jeremiah 8-9 (Pentecost 17) probably come from this second period.

After three years of peaceful coexistence, king Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon, leading to warfare. Under the reign of his son Jehoiachin (or Jeconiah), Jerusalem was besieged, the Temple was plundered and the first deportation to Babylon took place around 598 BCE. The thousands of deportees included the royal family, nobles and craftsmen, and Ezekiel, leaving mainly people on the land (2 Kgs 24:8-17). King Zedekiah then became a puppet king.

The three Jeremiah readings over the coming weeks portray the Judean experience during the reign of Zedekiah, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the close of his reign in 587 BCE. The siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 32:2) provides an appropriate setting for what follows, although the purchase of the field does not depend on this setting and commentators consider the opening verses secondary. In Jer. 37:11ff we read how Jeremiah was taken prisoner on his way to his home Anathoth and how he persuaded king Zedekiah to transfer him. This suggests that despite his objections to Jeremiah’s message about doom awaiting the king, Zedekiah wanted him near to talk to him, just in case. The experience of the earlier deportation of his nephew, king Jehoiachin, must have left Zedekiah in no doubt, despite his hostility to Jeremiah, that his own position was equally vulnerable.

Jeremiah’s reply to Zedekiah takes the conversation in an unexpected direction, as he tells about a dream that became a reality. While imprisoned there, Jeremiah bought a field in the country of Benjamin, just south of Jerusalem, offered to him by his uncle and cousin. We do not know what income Jeremiah may have had. This opportunity came as a matter of inheritance and redemption in order to keep property within the family (cf. Lev. 25:25ff). The transaction was documented in front of witnesses sitting near the prison.

Jeremiah explains how he saw the purpose of the Lord in these events. So he told his amanuensis, Baruch (Jer. 36:4; 45:1), to ensure that the documents would be preserved ‘many days’. We learn that two copies were made, one sealed and one for public inspection, possibly on one papyrus or on separate pieces linked to each other. All these security details are a means of emphasising what is said in the final verse of the story. It is the crux of the story. We at last reach the prophecy that the Judeans would some day again take up possession of houses, fields and vineyards in Israel.

In the immediate context, this story presents the reader with a both/and situation. The foreshadowed removal of the king from Israel cannot be the final word for the future of the Judean people on the land. Similarly, in the wider context of Jeremiah, his earlier instruction to the exiles to settle down, marry, plant and build (Jeremiah 29 which we read next week), is not to be read as a comment on the future of the people of Israel within their ancient land. In both destruction and construction, the God of Israel is at work, as declared in the original call of Jeremiah (1:10). This understanding is made explicit in the remainder of the chapter, largely from a Deuteronomic hand. Jeremiah can hardly believe the oracle he has proclaimed and he seeks God in prayer (vv. 16-25). In reply, the Lord speaks of exile as judgment but finally affirms his role in both disaster and redemption (v. 42).

Psalm 91

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