Jeremiah Buys Land in Prison, Symbolizing a Future Redemption
Redeeming His Cousin’s Land
Set during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah 32 tells the story of how the prophet gives financial assistance to his cousin. The story begins with Jeremiah receiving a message from God even before his cousin makes the request:
ירמיה לב:ו וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָהוּ הָיָה דְּבַר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. לב:ז הִנֵּה חֲנַמְאֵל בֶּן שַׁלֻּם דֹּדְךָ בָּא אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר קְנֵה לְךָ אֶת שָׂדִי אֲשֶׁר בַּעֲנָתוֹת כִּי לְךָ מִשְׁפַּט הַגְּאֻלָּה לִקְנוֹת.
Jer 32:6 Jeremiah said: “The word of YHWH came to me: 32:7 ‘Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will come to you and say, “Buy my land in Anathoth, for you are next in succession to redeem it by purchase.”’”
This divine prediction soon comes to pass:
ירמיה לב:ח וַיָּבֹא אֵלַי חֲנַמְאֵל בֶּן דֹּדִי כִּדְבַר יְ־הוָה אֶל חֲצַר הַמַּטָּרָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי קְנֵה נָא אֶת שָׂדִי אֲשֶׁר בַּעֲנָתוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ בִּנְיָמִין כִּי לְךָ מִשְׁפַּט הַיְרֻשָּׁה וּלְךָ הַגְּאֻלָּה קְנֵה לָךְ וָאֵדַע כִּי דְבַר יְ־הוָה הוּא.
Jer 32:8 “And just as YHWH had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the prison compound and said to me, ‘Please buy my land in Anathoth, in the territory of Benjamin; for the right of succession is yours, and you have the duty of redemption. Buy it.’ Then I knew that it was indeed the word of YHWH.”
The narrative does not offer specific details as to why the land must be redeemed. We might imagine that Hanamel has encountered financial hardship during the siege or anticipates that Babylonian conquest will spell financial disaster for farmers. Whatever the case, Hanamel’s request invites Jeremiah to act as redeemer of their family landholdings.
Redemption and the Jubilee Legislation in Leviticus
The laws of property redemption are laid out at length in Leviticus 25, part of the Torah’s Holiness Collection (H). Verses 13–17 clarify that land purchases are not really purchases but long-term lease agreements that end in the jubilee year, and thus prices should be fixed by how many crop seasons a given parcel of land will grow in the period between the sale and the jubilee.
Verses 25–34 discuss a case in which someone sold their land because they were falling into debt and needed the money. This subcase introduces the redeemer:
ויקרא כה:כה כִּי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָכַר מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ וּבָא גֹאֲלוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו וְגָאַל אֵת מִמְכַּר אָחִיו.
Lev 25:25 If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold.
Kinsmen are obligated to bail out their relatives if they can. Specifically, the redeemer is supposed to pay the person who bought the field on behalf of the relative who sold it. But this is not what Hanamel asks Jeremiah to do.
Jeremiah is asked to redeem the land before it has been sold to a third party, to purchase the field from Hanamel for himself:
ירמיה לב:ט וָאֶקְנֶה אֶת הַשָּׂדֶה מֵאֵת חֲנַמְאֵל בֶּן דֹּדִי אֲשֶׁר בַּעֲנָתוֹת וָאֶשְׁקֲלָה לּוֹ אֶת הַכֶּסֶף שִׁבְעָה שְׁקָלִים וַעֲשָׂרָה הַכָּסֶף.
Jer 32:9 So I bought the land in Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel. I weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.
Leviticus makes no mention of such a “pre-emption,” though a similar practice of pre-emption appears to be described in Ruth 4:3–9. Such a pre-emptive redemption would ensure that Hanamel’s family—in this case Jeremiah’s branch of it—would not lose their claim and connection to their ancestral land, even in their time of hardship.
Careful Weighing of Silver
In Jeremiah’s first-person account of the purchase of the field from Hanamel, the prophet emphasizes his own meticulous observance of the legal customs pertaining to purchase and redemption:
ירמיה לב:י וָאֶכְתֹּב בַּסֵּפֶר וָאֶחְתֹּם וָאָעֵד עֵדִים וָאֶשְׁקֹל הַכֶּסֶף בְּמֹאזְנָיִם.
Jer 32:10 I wrote a deed, sealed it, and had it witnessed; and I weighed out the silver on a balance.
These details convey the seriousness of the transaction and its legitimacy. Jeremiah’s repeated reference to weighing the silver (in the presence of witnesses) is in line with the admonition in Leviticus 25:14, 17 that purchases of land among Israelites must be conducted in fairness, without oppression or violence (whether physical or structural).
Giving the Deed to Baruch
Next, Jeremiah hands off the deeds to his trusted amanuensis, Baruch ben Neriah:
לב:יא וָאֶקַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַמִּקְנָה אֶת הֶחָתוּם הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַגָּלוּי. לב:יב וָאֶתֵּן אֶת הַסֵּפֶר הַמִּקְנָה אֶל בָּרוּךְ בֶּן נֵרִיָּה בֶּן מַחְסֵיָה לְעֵינֵי חֲנַמְאֵל דֹּדִי וּלְעֵינֵי הָעֵדִים הַכֹּתְבִים בְּסֵפֶר הַמִּקְנָה לְעֵינֵי כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַיֹּשְׁבִים בַּחֲצַר הַמַּטָּרָה.
Jer 32:11 I took the deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one according to rule and law, 32:12 and gave the deed to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah in the presence of my kinsman Hanamel, of the witnesses who were named in the deed, and all the Judeans who were sitting in the prison compound.
Here the story connects us back to something we learned earlier in the chapter: Jeremiah is in prison.
The Captive Prophet
Chapter 32 opens with two important elements that contextualize the account of the land redemption: Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians and Jeremiah is imprisoned in Zedekiah’s court of the guard:
ירמיה לב:א הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר הָיָה אֶל יִרְמְיָהוּ מֵאֵת יְ־הוָה (בשנת) [בַּשָּׁנָה] הָעֲשִׂרִית לְצִדְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה הִיא הַשָּׁנָה שְׁמֹנֶה עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה לִנְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר. לב:ב וְאָז חֵיל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל צָרִים עַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְיִרְמְיָהוּ הַנָּבִיא הָיָה כָלוּא בַּחֲצַר הַמַּטָּרָה אֲשֶׁר בֵּית מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה. לב:ג אֲשֶׁר כְּלָאוֹ צִדְקִיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה לֵאמֹר מַדּוּעַ אַתָּה נִבָּא לֵאמֹר כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה הִנְנִי נֹתֵן אֶת הָעִיר הַזֹּאת בְּיַד מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וּלְכָדָהּ.
Jer 32:1 The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 32:2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the prison compound attached to the palace of the king of Judah. 32:3 For King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him, saying, “How dare you prophesy: ‘Thus said YHWH: “I am delivering this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall capture it….”’”
Jeremiah is in the “prison compound attached to the palace” of king Zedekiah; having been arrested because he prophesied the success of Babylon against Judah. Thus, Hanamel’s request seems insensitive, as he is asking Jeremiah to act as redeemer from the midst of his (Jeremiah’s) own confinement. Moreover, Hanamel doesn’t even offer to help negotiate the incarcerated prophet’s freedom (which might be analogous to acting as redeemer on Jeremiah’s behalf), nor does he offer to provide for Jeremiah’s needs in captivity.
Jeremiah doesn’t react to this insensitivity but immediately acquiesces to the request. This was not merely a sign that he takes his familial responsibility seriously, but a reflection of the symbolic meaning that he attributes to the act.
Jeremiah’s Planning and Optimism
Purchasing land while in prison is a sign of optimism. Jeremiah believes that he and his descendants, or at least his kinsmen, will one day be able to work the land that he bought. Jeremiah’s long-term planning is clear from his instructions to Baruch:
ירמיה לב:יג וָאֲצַוֶּה אֶת בָּרוּךְ לְעֵינֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר. לב:יד כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָקוֹחַ אֶת הַסְּפָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֵת סֵפֶר הַמִּקְנָה הַזֶּה וְאֵת הֶחָתוּם וְאֵת סֵפֶר הַגָּלוּי הַזֶּה וּנְתַתָּם בִּכְלִי חָרֶשׂ לְמַעַן יַעַמְדוּ יָמִים רַבִּים.
Jer 32:13 In their presence I charged Baruch as follows: 32:14 Thus said YHWH of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Take these documents, this deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one, and put them into an earthen jar, so that they may last a long time.”
The repeated detail of two copies of the deed of purchase, one sealed and one open (Jer 32:11, 14), can be understood on both a literal and a symbolic level. At the literal level, the deposit of both deeds ensures that Jeremiah’s investment in redemption will yield return for his family regardless of whether he personally is able to claim or work this land in the future.
The choice of vocabulary used to describe the two deeds suggests that they have symbolic value. The qal passive participle חָתוּם, here translated “sealed,” also means shut-up, shut-inside, locked up, while the qal passive participle גָּלוּי (from the root גלה), here translated “open,” also means “exposed” and “taken into exile.” The people of Judah are the subjects of this symbolism.
The symbolic meaning is made explicit in Jeremiah’s next sentence:
ירמיה לב:טו כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹד יִקָּנוּ בָתִּים וְשָׂדוֹת וּכְרָמִים בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת.
Jer 32:15 For thus said YHWH of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.”
These documents, sealed and open, represent one promise for the people under siege, shut-up within city, the people in the countryside of Judah, vulnerable to Babylonian forces, the people already in exile, and the people who will be taken into exile, but will someday return.
The text continues with Jeremiah asking YHWH if it is really possible that the Judahites will inhabit the land again after the Babylonians conquer and destroy it, and YHWH responds by asking rhetorically if anything is really impossible for him to accomplish (vv. 16–41). The chapter ends with God’s promise:
ירמיה לב:מב כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְ־הוָה כַּאֲשֶׁר הֵבֵאתִי אֶל הָעָם הַזֶּה אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה הַגְּדוֹלָה הַזֹּאת כֵּן אָנֹכִי מֵבִיא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת כָּל הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר עֲלֵיהֶם. לב:מג וְנִקְנָה הַשָּׂדֶה בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם אֹמְרִים שְׁמָמָה הִיא מֵאֵין אָדָם וּבְהֵמָה נִתְּנָה בְּיַד הַכַּשְׂדִּים. לב:מד שָׂדוֹת בַּכֶּסֶף יִקְנוּ וְכָתוֹב בַּסֵּפֶר וְחָתוֹם וְהָעֵד עֵדִים בְּאֶרֶץ בִּנְיָמִן וּבִסְבִיבֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם וּבְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה וּבְעָרֵי הָהָר וּבְעָרֵי הַשְּׁפֵלָה וּבְעָרֵי הַנֶּגֶב כִּי אָשִׁיב אֶת שְׁבוּתָם נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
Jer 32:42 For thus said YHWH: “As I have brought this terrible disaster upon this people, so I am going to bring upon them the vast good fortune which I have promised for them. 32:43 And fields shall again be purchased in this land of which you say, ‘It is a desolation, without man or beast; it is delivered into the hands of the Chaldeans.’ 32:44 Fields shall be purchased, and deeds written and sealed, and witnesses called in the land of Benjamin and in the environs of Jerusalem, and in the towns of Judah; the towns of the hill country, the towns of the Shephelah, and the towns of the Negeb. For I will restore their fortunes”—declares YHWH.
As a symbol of YHWH’s pre-emption of the people who will go into exile, Jeremiah’s careful purchase signifies that YHWH has attended in advance to every necessary detail in order to ensure the future YHWH has planned for the people of Israel.
A People with a Future
Jeremiah’s land redemption functions as a sign and enactment of Israel’s future, both the people and the land. Even though Nebuchadnezzar will conquer and destroy Jerusalem, the land and people will not be lost to one another. The prisoner-prophet embodies the people’s condition and their future.
His confinement also mirrors that of the Jerusalemites, who are under siege, amplifying and emblematizing their shared condition. And though he will later be taken not to Babylonia, but to Egypt (43:6–7), his repeated imprisonment also symbolizes the people of Israel who are already in exile and presages the Babylonian captivity in store for many of Judah’s leaders and citizens.
YHWH’s choice to work through the imprisoned prophet similarly presages YHWH’s choice to empower YHWH’s people for covenant obedience (32:39–40) when they are restored to their land (32:41). Captivity will be temporary and will not spell the end of this covenant relationship.
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May 14, 2020
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Dr. Anathea Portier-Young is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Duke University’s Divinity School. She holds an M.A.B.L from Graduate Theological Union/Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and a Ph.D. from Duke University. Portier-Young is the author of Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Eerdmans, 2011), and co-editor (with Gregory E. Sterling) of Scripture and Social Justice: Catholic and Ecumenical Essays (Fortress, 2018).
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