Carl Ebert, c. 1869

Living Hopefully in a Time of Despair—Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15

The Politics of Scripture

Our societies are built upon the oppression of the poor and marginalised and yet, unless we remove ourselves entirely from the web of cords, laws, taxes, products, and biological needs inherent in twenty-first century life, we are forced to participate in the oppression of others, and the destruction of our habitats. We see, we know that the world is on the brink, yet we cannot escape. Facing such a reality, Jeremiah offers us a way forward: we lament, we express our rage, we retain hope by continuing to call for change, and through it all we never allow ourselves to be numbed or silenced by the enormity of it all.

32:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

32:6 Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ 8Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘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.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

32:9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15

It’s not common practice to invest in real estate when your enemy is literally camped outside of your city, having laid siege to your homeland and promising to annihilate every aspect of your country, from your economy to your religion. This is the very definition of a hopeless situation: at the beginning of chapter 32 Babylon is waiting in siege, guaranteed to make good on its promise of destruction, and Jerusalem is absolutely guaranteed to be wiped from the face of the map, likely forever. If ever there was a time that it would be completely excusable to allow despair to sink in, this would be that time. Yet, it is at this moment that Jeremiah elects to flip the script, insisting on wresting the narrative from Babylon by purchasing property from his kinsman in a prophetic act declaring that God will not abandon Judah. 

Taken in the context of Jeremiah’s position in 32:1–3a—he has been imprisoned for spending considerable time and energy prophesying that this exact situation would occur should Judah fail to return to God’s will for the people—this is a powerful act of faith in, and forgiveness of, Judah on the part of Jeremiah. This begs the question: why? Why should Jeremiah have faith in Judah after being subjected to continuous state-sponsored violence: being tortured, imprisoned numerous times, and even being thrown down a sewer drain? Why should God also have faith in Judah after being shown over and over again that they were willing to sell what was most precious to them—their connection to God as God’s chosen people—for the minor coin of momentary power and the false “peace” of a complex dance between Babylon and Egypt?

The answer does not arrive until the end of the passage, after Jeremiah has performed the task asked of him by God in verses 6–7, where Jeremiah is told by God to purchase his cousin Hanamel’s land. Of course, God is correct, and in verse 8 Hanamel visits Jeremiah in prison, and asks Jeremiah to redeem the land: that is, Hanamel couldn’t sustain the land anymore, and it was in danger of falling out of the family’s control, so Jeremiah’s purchase protects the land from being taken away.

In verses 9–14, we see that Jeremiah performs this deed in an open manner, following the proper legal procedures laid out for this type of purchase: in front of a group of witnesses he weighs out a certain weight of money (coins weren’t used at this point) and signs both a working copy of the deed as well as an officially sealed copy. By burying the deeds in a jar in verse 14, “in order that they may last for a long time,” Jeremiah ensures that everyone sees that this demonstration of faith in Hanamel and redemption of the family land is actually a prophetic demonstration of faith and redemption of the people and the land of Israel.

God promises in 32:15 that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” In other words, God is rebutting the promise of annihilation with the promise of rebirth. God has actually not abandoned Judah to its fate, but is instead promising to remain amongst them, and to provide them salvation, eventually freeing them from the bondage, suffering, and death guaranteed to come as soon as Babylon breaks the siege and breaches the city walls.

This act of faith in Judah doesn’t represent a shift in God’s relationship towards Judah; in fact, this is the natural progression of Jeremiah’s prophetic mission towards Judah. After his call, and the subsequent symbolic visions given him by God as frames for understanding the main themes of Jeremiah’s new prophetic life—God’s anger at Judah’s rejection of God’s will, and God’s intent to have Judah return to God through calls for repentance, along with divine punishment—Jeremiah’s career becomes a series of dire prophetic messages to Judah stating that unless they immediately repent and return entirely to God, that God will divorce them and leave them alone to their fate. These messages reflect the political context of pre-exilic Judah: the wheels had already been set in motion that would likely result in Judah’s fall.

Jeremiah has dedicated his life to expressing God’s love for Judah. No matter how loud, controversial, or desperate Jeremiah’s message becomes, though, he simply cannot get Judah to understand that God’s love for Judah is so deep and intense that God sees Judah’s actions as a severe betrayal, a betrayal so intense that God’s sadness is being expressed and felt as an overwhelming rage.  Jeremiah constantly reminds Judah that this dire fate is entirely of their own making: their slide into idolatry, courting the empires around them for power and influence, has trapped them into a pattern of behavior and consequences that might be impossible to escape. Even if they immediately repent and return to the path of God, they might not be able to avoid the forces of doom that their actions might unleash—such as the Babylonian army camped right outside their gates. they would be incapable to do anything to stop their fate.

Yet, within that warning lies a glimmer of hope: Jeremiah insists that God still seeks relationship with them. God would not make such a point of demanding Judah’s repentance and return if God had actually completely turned God’s back on Judah, abandoning them to Babylon and permanently sealing their fate. The implication here is that God would not be so angry if God didn’t love Judah completely, and God cannot totally abandon those whom God loves, no matter what they have done. Forgiveness is always possible, and redemption is always present on the horizon.

The act of buying land is thus Jeremiah channeling God’s will for Judah to see that now, at the darkest hour, when the consequences of their actions are finally coming to fruition, God still loves Judah and will never abandon them. They will be redeemed, and they will return home, eventually.

In this way, Jeremiah is providing Judah with a tangible symbol of hope; more than words, by spending a good deal of money on property that will very soon cease to be his property and signing a deed for this property based on legal principles and a legal system that will very quickly cease to exist, Jeremiah is literally putting his money where his mouth is. He wraps a bow on this supremely impractical act by burying the deed; the presumption therefore being that his heirs will one day be able to return, dig up the deed, lay claim to this property, and begin the process of rooting themselves back in the soil of their homeland.

Throughout his time as a prophet, Jeremiah is recognizing that his calling as prophet is to speak the will of God to the community, even if by doing so, he causes his own pain by either angering the community (and thus leading to his own harm at the hands of the community), or by setting in motion the community’s punishment (by voicing God’s wrath upon the community). He is always in an impossible position, yet has no choice but to remain exactly where he is, neither ignoring nor alleviating his pain in any way. He is not frozen in place, however, dumbstruck and numb. He actively engages with his world, narrating the complex hues of his emotional landscape: lamentation and mourning at the impending destruction of Jerusalem, his anger at the role that his people are playing in their own destruction, his confusion as to why it was all necessary in the first place, his insistence on remaining steadfastly faithful to God, and finally his stubborn insistence on hope, refusing to sink into hopelessness in the face of the certainty of destruction.

The Amazon is burning, and we seem powerless to stop it. We are all bound up in an inescapable web of technology that is not only dependent upon petroleum products to run, but whose very hardware depends upon rare metals whose extraction is destructive to both the earth and to the miners who are effectively enslaved. We know that our societies are built upon the oppression of the poor and marginalised and yet, unless we remove ourselves entirely from the web of cords, laws, taxes, products, and biological needs inherent in twenty-first century life, we are forced to participate in the oppression of others, and the destruction of our habitats. We see, we know that the world is on the brink, yet we cannot escape. Facing such a reality, Jeremiah offers us a way forward: we lament, we express our rage, we retain hope by continuing to call for change, and through it all we never allow ourselves to be numbed or silenced by the enormity of it all. We stand in solidarity, in witness, and never give up on our job to continually strive for the redemption of the community. For, if God will never abandon us, and will always stand alongside us even when we face our darkest hour, we must always reject despair, embrace hope, and never cease to fight for the redemption of our world.

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