Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Jeremiah 32:1-15
The prophets of Israel and Judah sometimes did outrageous things in order to illustrate their message in a striking way. Hosea married a prostitute and fathered children with her (Hosea 1), Ezekiel ate a scroll (Ezekiel 3) and Isaiah walked around naked for three years (Isaiah 20). In today’s lesson, Jeremiah does a similar symbolic act: he purchases a piece of land when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies are about to complete their conquest of Judah and send many of the people into exile in Babylon. The date of this transaction is the tenth year of the reign of Zedekiah (588 BCE), and Jeremiah is under house arrest for making prophesies about the imminent fall of Jerusalem. King Zedekiah had accused him of treason and thrown him into prison. (Jeremiah 37 and 38).
Jeremiah 32:1-5 — A troubled king’s question
King Zedekiah was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On one hand, many of the powerful and politically well-connected people of Judah urged him to stand up and fight the invading Babylonian army because they believed help would come from Egypt. On the other hand, there was Jeremiah, who prophesied that it was God’s will that king Zedekiah surrender to the Babylonians in order to spare his own life and to limit the damage to the city of Jerusalem. Exile was preferable to death and destruction, Jeremiah prophesied. Two centuries earlier the prophet Amos had delivered a similar prophesy to Jereboam, king of Israel, and the priest Amaziah when the Assyrians threatened.
Jeremiah had been rescued from a muddy dungeon and his most bitter enemies, but he remained under house arrest supervised by the king’s royal guard in Jerusalem as Nebuchadnezzar’s army threatened to conquer Judah. King Zedekiah was troubled by Jeremiah’s prophecy that God was about to deliver Judah into the hands of the Babylonians. In frustration, he asked Jeremiah why he persisted in delivering such an unfavorable prophecy.
Jeremiah 32:6-8 — Rescuing family land
Jeremiah had a cousin, Hanamel, who may have been in financial difficulty and under pressure to sell his land. Or perhaps Hanamel, like many in Judah, thought the Babylonians would complete their conquest of Judah, take control of the land and deport more people to Babylon. So Hanamel visited imprisoned Jeremiah and requested that he buy the land in hopes of keeping it in the family. The right of redemption mentioned here may be a variation of the legal provisions described in Leviticus 25:25-28. Jeremiah believed that this request had come to him as a direct word from God.
Jeremiah 32:9-15 — Expecting a positive future
Jeremiah bought Hanamel’s field in Anathoth, a short distance north of Jerusalem. The transaction is described in great detail including the price paid (17 shekels of silver, approximately 7 ounces), signing the deed in the presence of witnesses (a sealed archival copy and a public copy), and entrusting the legal documents to Baruch, Jeremiah’s trusted secretary for safe keeping (see Jeremiah 36:4-8). Clay seals found in modern Israel and dated by archaeologists to the 7th century BCE contain the names of Baruch and his brother Seraiah. They were evidently members of a prominent family in Jerusalem.
Our lesson concludes with these words: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Approximately 2,500 years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned by Adolf Hitler’s agents, quoted this verse and urged his readers to follow Jeremiah’s example by “ … living every day as if it were our last and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future.”
By purchasing the field in Anathoth in Judah despite the imminent Babylonian conquest, Jeremiah demonstrates his confidence in God’s promise to restore Judah after a period of punishment in exile. Jeremiah 32 ends with Jeremiah’s prayer expressing his confidence in God’s power to redeem Judah from exile. Jeremiah was certain that God’s judgment on the sins of the people would end and a new era of safety under God’s gracious everlasting covenant would begin.
At times some of God’s dedicated servants like Jeremiah have been imprisoned for speaking God’s word to powerful people. Can you think of historical or contemporary examples? Is there a cause for which you would go to jail if necessary? Do you think Jeremiah’s prophecies of a new covenant and a secure future for a restored Israel have been fulfilled in the modern state of Israel?
JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.