The Worst Land Deal in History: Reflections on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Lectionary Reflections
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
September 29, 2013

After a brief foray into the book of Lamentations next week, we will address three more passages from Jeremiah before the beginning of Advent, along with a few others of Israel's prophets. It is such a rare privilege to hear so much from these ancient preachers, a full twenty weeks. I have tried to say again and again that they teach us most especially to sharpen our sight as we view the world in which we live. There is much more going on in that world than meets our common sight. God is alive and active, bringing new ways and new contexts in which to engage our insight, moving beyond the "practical" and "workable" to the "hopeful" and "richly possible."

Today's text is a classic example. Jeremiah is about to engage in history's worst land deal. No real estate agent of any century would come within a ten-foot pole of the land transaction that Jeremiah is about to become involved in. The historical context of the deal is crucial. We are at the very end of the life of the country of Judah. Since the accession of David to the throne of Israel in 1000 B.C.E., through the division of the kingdoms, Israel and Judah, in 922 B.C.E., to the destruction of northern Israel in 722 B.C.E., Judah has existed for over 400 years. Now its doom is sealed. Nebuchadnezzar (here spelled Nebuchadrezzar), king and general of the armies of Babylon, is besieging the city of Jerusalem. The date is 587/586 B.C.E. Jeremiah is confined in a royal prison in the palace of Judah's final king, Zedekiah. It is hardly the first of Jeremiah's imprisonments; he spent more than a few days of his prophetic life confined by some angry person or another. Real prophets often find themselves in some sort of confinement; false prophets on the other hand often drive Jaguars.

Jeremiah has been thrown in prison this time because he has personally angered the king and his country. "Why do you prophesy and say, 'Thus says YHWH: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon and he will take it. King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face and see him eye to eye; and he shall take Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall stay until I visit him, says YHWH. Though you fight the Chaldeans you will not win'?" (Jer. 32:3-5) This, of course, is treason; little wonder that Jeremiah is in the king's prison, awaiting trial for sedition and almost certain execution.

How might you imagine that the prophet would answer his king's accusation? "I am YHWH's prophet, and YHWH has decreed that Judah will be destroyed and that you, Zedekiah, will go into exile!" That would be a rich Jeremianic response! What he does say, however, is astonishing. "YHWH spoke to me: 'Hanamel, son of your uncle Shallum will come to you and say, 'Buy my field at Anathoth, because the right of purchase is yours'" (Jer. 32:6-7). What?! Jeremiah faces a sentence of death, chained in a royal prison, and is told by YHWH to transact a land deal. Insanity personified! One can only imagine the look on Zedekiah's face; if he thought his prophetic antagonist was slightly mad, this action would confirm the fact.

And Jeremiah proceeds to do the deal; its details are given to us quite specifically. Cousin Hanamel shows up and offers the deal to Jeremiah (Jer. 32:8). And Jeremiah agrees to offer seventeen shekels of silver for the land in his hometown of Anathoth. He signs the deed before witnesses, seals it in the legal way, and weighs out the money on scales. "Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing terms and conditions, along with a copy, and handed the deed to Baruch (Jeremiah's faithful secretary and confidant) in the presence of Hanamel and the witnesses who had signed the deed, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard" (Jer. 32:11-12). Surely all of these people have come to witness much more than a land purchase; they want to see this fool do the purchase while awaiting his own execution or the sack of the city, whichever may come first!

Granted, the price of the land must be quite low at this time, since the Babylonians are about to make the whole land theirs, but exactly how does Jeremiah think he is ever going to get his money back? "His" land will very soon not be his. Yet, he continues the strict legality of the deal by charging Baruch: "Thus says YHWH of the Armies, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both the sealed deed of purchase and the open copy, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time" (Jer. 32:13-14). If you know anything about the history of manuscripts of the Bible, this scene is amazingly reminiscent of that great discovery in the last century of the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts preserved in earthenware jars for over 2000 years. Jeremiah knew that this legal action of sealing his deed in jars would indeed last a long time!

9/22/2013 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.