Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hope often comes in the middle of judgment. Belief and courage become most pronounced in the face of despair.

September 26, 2010

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Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Hope often comes in the middle of judgment. Belief and courage become most pronounced in the face of despair.

This week’s passage continues the lectionary’s sampling of texts that deal with the multi-faceted theme of judgment in the book of Jeremiah. Chapter 32 contains an audacious prophetic sign of future restoration. Though Jeremiah has been speaking words of judgment against Jerusalem and Judah throughout most of his prophetic career, chapters 30–33, also known as the Book of Comfort or the Book of Consolation, contain messages of hope. Thus, even as Babylon is threatening to complete its destruction of Judah, the prophet makes a bold pronouncement about Judah’s future–one in which “(h)ouses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).

Chapter 32 begins with a historical prologue (verses 1–5), situating this prophetic action in “the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar” (verse 1), or in 588 B.C.E. The historical context of this passage corresponds to the second siege of Jerusalem just before the eventual fall of the city in 587. Jeremiah is being held captive in the “court of the guard” (verse 2) because of his negative oracles, which predicted the fall of the city and the capture of the king by the Babylonians.

This passage has a basic structure, beginning with the word of the LORD coming to Jeremiah in verses 6–7. The LORD tells Jeremiah that Hanamel, his uncle Shallum’s son, would come to the prophet saying, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” (verse 7). This word is confirmed in verse 8 when Hanamel comes and makes the request. In the remaining verses of today’s reading, Jeremiah recounts in detail how he fulfilled the LORD’s command to purchase the field (verses 9–15), which includes an interpretation of this prophetic action in verse 15.

In the prophetic literature, symbolic action was a common way of conveying the “word” of the LORD. These embodied performances, which were common in the ancient Near East, usually contained three basic elements: 1) the deity’s instruction to the prophet; 2) a report that describes the fulfillment of the prophetic action; and 3) an interpretation of the act. Just like the prophetic word, these actions were not merely the prophet’s best guess at upcoming events. These acts initiated the future in the present. They proclaimed in embodied form the “here not yet” of the LORD’s acts in history.

The LORD instructs Jeremiah to purchase the field, because the prophet has the right to redeem it. This well-known practice in ancient Israel involved the purchase of land by the next of kin, usually when a relative had died, in order to keep property within the clan (cf. Ruth 4). The significance of this action is profound given the historical context of the second Babylonian siege of Jerusalem.

In the middle of city’s impending destruction, Jeremiah makes an investment in the future stock of Judah’s eventual restoration, when “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (verse 15). This symbolic action of hope does not cancel out the word of judgment that Jeremiah had already proclaimed. The judgment of the LORD was certain. The fate of the people was sealed. In fact, it was being fulfilled even as Jeremiah was signing the deed of purchase. However, in the middle of this catastrophic set of events, God initiates a word of hope through the prophet’s actions. Jeremiah, quite literally, puts his money where his mouth is. These actions put in motion a reality that is nearly impossible to envision given the current state of events.

Despite the improbable outcome of this prophetic action, something that Jeremiah acknowledges in the verses following today’s passage (verses 16–25), the prophet proceeds to fulfill this command in painstaking detail (verses 9–14). He mentions two deeds, one sealed and one open (verse 14). The practice of signing two documents was common in ancient Near Eastern legal custom. The opened version functioned as a working document, which parties could reference to settle disputes. The closed document preserved a copy of the original to insure that nothing was changed.

The detail in verses 16–25 has a meaningful function in this text. It not only shows the complete extent to which Jeremiah has fulfilled the instruction of the LORD–a perfect obedience. Jeremiah’s meticulous fulfillment of this command also points to the prophet’s and God’s careful attention to a future that is still very distant and hard to see given the current circumstances. This hope is as certain as the Babylonian armies that are at the gate. Thus, the observers of this transaction are not there simply to verify the purchase of land. They are witnesses to the future that the LORD has announced through Jeremiah’s prophetic action.

There is much in today’s world that creates anxiety over the future–climate change, a wavering economy, and increased hostility among nations and religious groups, to name a few. Biblical hope, however, does not resort to despair in such times, nor does it try to cover up anxiety with mere words and false hope.

Today’s passage reminds us God is invested in the future destiny of humankind. Even when catastrophe was imminent, Jeremiah made an audacious and specific financial act, symbolizing God’s declaration that judgment and destruction would not have the final word. Judah would certainly suffer the judgment that God had announced. Babylon would destroy Jerusalem and Judah and carry off its inhabitants into exile. The prophet, however, activates the future in the present through a symbolic act of purchasing a field. God’s people would be restored and would again thrive in the land (verse 15). Perilous times require the faithful to put into embodied action the hope that God has announced, which is already here, but not yet.