Turning Jeremiah’s Land Deed Into an Oracle of Hope
The Law of the Jubilee in Leviticus and Jeremiah
Though the institution of the Jubilee may reflect a tradition of great antiquity—the institution of communal debt relief is found already in early Mesopotamian sources—many scholars have argued convincingly that the legislation in Leviticus 25 (which comprises the majority of Parashat Behar) is a post-monarchic composition; that is, it was conceived at a time either during or after the Babylonian Exile.
In any case, the writers of this legislation composed their work with Israel’s exilic experience fresh in their minds, calling into question the status of their relationship to the land, the religious and social institutions of earlier days, and indeed their covenant with YHWH altogether. It is fitting, then, that the haftarah selected to accompany this Torah portion is drawn from the Book of Jeremiah – a work that offers perspectives on Israelite identity, land, politics, and religion from a decidedly exilic point of view.
The Book of Jeremiah contains many oracles that probably derive from that prophet’s activity before the destruction of Judah and the exile of much of its population, but these oracles were worked into a much larger literary superstructure during the period of the Babylonian Exile. This was accomplished by scribes who preserved the prophet’s teachings for audiences separated from their homeland. It thus has much in common with the legislation in Leviticus 25 (and most of the material in the Holiness Collection spanning Leviticus 17-26) by providing literary meditations on the memory of praxes and concepts that originated during Israel’s landed history.
Turning Jeremiah’s Land Transaction into an Oracle
ירמיהו לב:ו וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יִרְמְיָ֑הוּ הָיָ֥ה דְּבַר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֵלַ֥י לֵאמֹֽר: לב:ז הִנֵּ֣ה חֲנַמְאֵ֗ל בֶּן שַׁלֻּם֙ דֹּֽדְךָ֔ בָּ֥א אֵלֶ֖יךָ לֵאמֹ֑ר קְנֵ֣ה לְךָ֗ אֶת שָׂדִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּעֲנָת֔וֹת כִּ֥י לְךָ֛ מִשְׁפַּ֥ט הַגְּאֻלָּ֖ה לִקְנֽוֹת:
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.”
The narrative, on the surface, is very simple: Jeremiah, who lives in Anatot in Benjamin, receives word from YHWH that his uncle Hanamel will come to him to have the prophet redeem a plot of family land on his ancestral estate. This event duly unfolds, at which point Jeremiah has his scribe Baruch draw up a contract for the transaction.
לב:ח וַיָּבֹ֣א אֵ֠לַי חֲנַמְאֵ֨ל בֶּן דֹּדִ֜י כִּדְבַ֣ר יְקֹוָק֘ אֶל חֲצַ֣ר הַמַּטָּרָה֒ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלַ֡י קְנֵ֣ה נָ֠א אֶת־שָׂדִ֨י אֲשֶׁר בַּעֲנָת֜וֹת אֲשֶׁ֣ר׀ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ בִּנְיָמִ֗ין כִּֽי לְךָ֞ מִשְׁפַּ֧ט הַיְרֻשָּׁ֛ה וּלְךָ֥ הַגְּאֻלָּ֖ה קְנֵה לָ֑ךְ וָאֵדַ֕ע כִּ֥י דְבַר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה הֽוּא:לב:ט וָֽאֶקְנֶה֙ אֶת הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה מֵאֵ֛ת חֲנַמְאֵ֥ל בֶּן דֹּדִ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּעֲנָת֑וֹת וָֽאֶשְׁקֲלָה לּוֹ֙ אֶת הַכֶּ֔סֶף שִׁבְעָ֥ה שְׁקָלִ֖ים וַעֲשָׂרָ֥ה הַכָּֽסֶף: לב:י וָאֶכְתֹּ֤ב בַּסֵּ֙פֶר֙ וָֽאֶחְתֹּ֔ם וָאָעֵ֖ד עֵדִ֑ים וָאֶשְׁקֹ֥ל הַכֶּ֖סֶף בְּמֹאזְנָֽיִם:
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. 32:932:9 So I bought the land in Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel. I weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 32:10 I wrote a deed, sealed it, and had it witnessed; and I weighed out the silver on a balance.
The prophet then proclaims a new oracle from YHWH:
ירמיהו לב:יד …לָק֣וֹחַ אֶת הַסְּפָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֡לֶּה אֵ֣ת סֵפֶר֩ הַמִּקְנָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה וְאֵ֣ת הֶחָת֗וּם וְאֵ֨ת סֵ֤פֶר הַגָּלוּי֙ הַזֶּ֔ה וּנְתַתָּ֖ם בִּכְלִי חָ֑רֶשׂ לְמַ֥עַן יַעַמְד֖וּ יָמִ֥ים רַבִּֽים: לב:טו כִּ֣י כֹ֥ה אָמַ֛ר יְ-הֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל ע֣וֹד יִקָּנ֥וּ בָתִּ֛ים וְשָׂד֥וֹת וּכְרָמִ֖ים בָּאָ֥רֶץ הַזֹּֽאת:
Jer 32:14 …“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.” 32:15 For thus said YHWH of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.”
An Old Story or a Financial Document?
Many scholars who have studied the formation of the book of Jeremiah see an actual historical practice undergirding this episode, though they remain divided on whether the episode itself reflects an actual historical event in the prophet’s life. In a recent study, Karel van der Toorn has argued that episodes such as Jeremiah 32 reflect the remembered “deeds and doings” of the prophet as filtered through much later scribal consciousness, rhetoric and agenda.
By contrast, Jack Lundbom argues that the original tradition was not a “story,” but that vv. 6-15 originated as something else: a simple legal deed or receipt of a financial transaction between Jeremiah and his uncle, drawn up according to the conventions of scribal practice.
This ordinary document was expanded into the full prophetic oracle we now encounter by scribes and students looking for meaning even in the prophet’s more mundane documents, a phenomenon evident elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah where brief scribal catalogs are worked into longer discourses containing divine messages (e.g., Jer 11:1-23; 25:1-13; 36:1-8; 45:1-5; 51:59-64a).
The Close Relationship between Prophets and Scribes
What is significant about the taking of a simple deed of sale or document containing a catalog of financial information and turning it into the basis for a theologically-dense divine oracle? Scholars have come to realize that all prophetic books were the product of scribal groups (it is within scribal circles that sacred literature in antiquity was preserved and transmitted), and there is abundant evidence that they were adjusted, expanded, and re-phrased in several places by scribes who lived long after the prophets themselves. The later scribes who inherited archival materials regarding Jeremiah probably worked these details into a literary form that – in their view – reflected the teachings associated with the prophet.
We see some of this in other prophetic works as well: Hosea 1—3, for example, contains discourses regarding troubling aspects of Hosea’s family life that become metaphors for the relationship between Israel and its deity, and which probably reflect the work of scribes of a later period attempting to orchestrate memories and details about Hosea into a meaningful literary record.
Yet no other prophetic books repeatedly affirm interpersonal relationships between a prophet and scribes as explicitly as the book of Jeremiah. The scribes who stood behind the early shaping of the book actually appear within the book as characters. Baruch, his brother Seraiah (Jer 51:5-64a), Ahikam ben Shaphan (Jer 26:24), Gedaliah ben Ahikam (Jeremiah 40—41) and others (Jeremiah 36) all become major figures at pivotal points in stories about the prophet’s life and Israel’s fate.
These scribes are presented not as disciples of the prophet but, rather, as partners in the conveying of prophecy; Jeremiah speaks the divine word, his scribal peers write it and are eventually entrusted with it even in Jeremiah’s absence. Just as Jeremiah’s spoken oracles were fit to be set down in writing (and, to be sure, expanded/developed over time by later scribes), a scribal product was perfectly ripe to be transformed into a prophetic lesson.
Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary
Turning a transaction deed into a prophetic oracle implies the sacred dimensions embedded within ordinary things. This motif is woven into much of the book of Jeremiah, evident already in the very opening vision, where even a simple and natural item like an almond tree (šaqed) comes to symbolize YHWH as vigilant (šoqed) over his word (Jer 1:11-12).
Gedaliah’s Words: A Reflection of Jeremiah’s
A similar situation is found in Jeremiah 40, where Gedaliah (the governor of Judah under the Babylonians) draws from divine words spoken by Jeremiah. At first glance Gedaliah’s words seem fairly simple and practical:
ירמיהו מ:ט וַיִּשָּׁבַ֨ע לָהֶ֜ם גְּדַלְיָ֨הוּ בֶן אֲחִיקָ֤ם בֶּן שָׁפָן֙ וּלְאַנְשֵׁיהֶ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר אַל תִּֽירְא֖וּ מֵעֲב֣וֹד הַכַּשְׂדִּ֑ים שְׁב֣וּ בָאָ֗רֶץ וְעִבְד֛וּ אֶת מֶ֥לֶךְ בָּבֶ֖ל וְיִיטַ֥ב לָכֶֽם: מ:יוַאֲנִ֗י הִנְנִ֤י יֹשֵׁב֙ בַּמִּצְפָּ֔ה לַֽעֲמֹד֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַכַּשְׂדִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָבֹ֖אוּ אֵלֵ֑ינוּ וְאַתֶּ֡ם אִסְפוּ֩ יַ֨יִן וְקַ֜יִץ וְשֶׁ֗מֶן וְשִׂ֙מוּ֙ בִּכְלֵיכֶ֔ם וּשְׁב֖וּ בְּעָרֵיכֶ֥ם אֲשֶׁר תְּפַשְׂתֶּֽם:
Jer 40:9 And Gedaliah the son of Ahikam the son of Shaphan swore unto them and to their men, saying: “Fear not to serve the Chaldeans; dwell in the land, and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you. 40:10 As for me, behold, I will dwell at Mizpah, to stand before the Chaldeans that may come unto us; but ye, gather ye wine and summer fruits and oil, and put them in your vessels, and dwell in your cities that ye have taken.”
A closer look at Gedaliah’s practical edict, though, shows that it draws from oracles credited to Jeremiah concerning the place of Israel (the populations of Judah, actually) under the Babylonians:
Service to the king of Babylon (cf. Jer 27:12-17)
“It will be good for you” (cf. Jer 29:10)
Summer Fruit (cf. Jer 24:5-7)
Dwelling in the [new] cities (cf. Jer 29:7)
Gedaliah’s ordinary, practical policies are cast as devotional acts.
Symbolic Casting of Jeremiah’s Financial Deed: God’s Relationship with Israel
Likewise, in Jer 32:6-15, the preparation of an ordinary document recording a financial transaction is also revealed to be a divine symbol for preserving YHWH’s relationship with Israel. In this case, it is through the promise of the land…certainly something that would have resonated in the ears of audiences living in exile or whose culture was informed (and encumbered) by the memory of the exilic experience.
The episode becomes an entrée into a more nuanced and enlightened understanding of the nature of things, including exile from the land. Those living in exile reading the account-as-oracle not only find some reassurance that their exile would end (since YHWH promises that “fields and vineyards shall yet again be purchased in the land”), but are invited to consider that their own exile carried a deeper meaning and was not necessarily the crushing defeat they had feared. It was, perhaps, an opportunity to renew the terms of their relationship with YHWH, a sentiment expressed elsewhere in rather clear terms in the book of Jeremiah (31:31-34).
Expanding the Transaction and Oracle with a Prayer
The second part of the haftarah is the prayer recited by Jeremiah in vv. 16-22/25, in which he declares YHWH’s acts of mercy in the past in the face of ancestral transgressions.
ירמיהו לב:טז וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֖ל אֶל יְ-הֹוָ֑ה אַחֲרֵ֤י תִתִּי֙ אֶת סֵ֣פֶר הַמִּקְנָ֔ה אֶל בָּר֥וּךְ בֶּן־נֵרִיָּ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר: לב:יז אֲהָהּ֘ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְ-הֹוִה֒ הִנֵּ֣ה׀ אַתָּ֣ה עָשִׂ֗יתָ אֶת הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְאֶת הָאָ֔רֶץ בְּכֹֽחֲךָ֙ הַגָּד֔וֹל וּבִֽזְרֹעֲךָ֖ הַנְּטוּיָ֑ה…
Jer 32:16 But after I had given the deed to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to YHWH: 32:17 “Ah, Lord YHWH! You made heaven and earth with Your great might and outstretched arm…
This prayer is usually regarded as a secondary addition to the episode related in vv. 6-15, though this does not necessarily mean that the prayer was a secondary composition; it may well have already existed in some form—unrelated to this episode—before its introduction into Jeremiah 32.
In fact, it is likely that the scribe utilized an existing prayer, sensing its appropriateness not only in a tale about a prophet soon to be separated from his ancestral estate due to national sin, but also for an audience living in exile who were increasingly turning to the Jeremiah tradition for a sense of identity and religious guidance. But was this prayer an independent liturgy from some non-Jeremiah source that late scribes placed into the chapter, or was it already understood as deriving from the prophet in some way even before its introduction into Jeremiah 32?
Non-Jeremianic Aspects of the Prayer
The prayer’s language departs in some notable ways from what most scholars assume to be “Jeremianic” locution. For example, the prayer refers to YHWH in terms very similar to an old liturgical formula (albeit with some adjustments) found in Exod 34:6-7:
עֹ֤שֶׂה חֶ֙סֶד֙ לַֽאֲלָפִ֔ים וּמְשַׁלֵּם֙ עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֔וֹת אֶל חֵ֥יק בְּנֵיהֶ֖ם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם הָאֵ֤ל הַגָּדוֹל֙ הַגִּבּ֔וֹר יְ-הֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת שְׁמֽוֹ:
…[YHWH,] who shows mercy to thousands, and recompenses the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children after them; the great, the mighty God, YHWH of hosts is His name. (Jer 32:18)
יְ-הֹוָ֣ה׀ יְ-הֹוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת: נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד׀ עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל בָּנִים֙ וְעַל בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים…
…YHWH, YHWH, [a] God merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children… (Exod 34:6-7)
Invoking a Distinct Picture of the Exodus
The prayer also refers to YHWH’s actions during the Exodus in a manner distinct from other references to the Exodus in Jeremiah:
אֲשֶׁר שַׂ֠מְתָּ אֹת֨וֹת וּמֹפְתִ֤ים בְּאֶֽרֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ עַד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה וּבְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וּבָֽאָדָ֑ם וַתַּעֲשֶׂה לְּךָ֥ שֵׁ֖ם כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה: וַתֹּצֵ֛א אֶת עַמְּךָ֥ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בְּאֹת֣וֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִ֗ים וּבְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבְאֶזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמוֹרָ֖א גָּדֽוֹל:
[You, YHWH] set signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, even until this day, and in Israel and among other men; and made for yourself a name, as of this day; and did bring forth your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs, and with wonders, and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror. (Jer 32:20-21)
The reference to the Exodus via “signs and wonders” is found in parts of the Pentateuch that are usually not connected to traditions which contributed strongly to the book of Jeremiah. Many scholars often see this reference as connected to the putative “E” source, whereas the book of Jeremiah has much stronger ties to the language and ideas found in the “D” source (witnessed primarily in the book of Deuteronomy and in the Deuteronomistic History).
An Exilic Exclamation
The prayer also includes the phrase “Ah, Lord YHWH!” (v. 17a), found elsewhere only in other Jeremianic texts (Jer 1:6, 4:10 and 14:13) and in various passages in Ezekiel (Ezek 4:14; 9:8; 11:13; 21:15). This suggests that it was commonly in use during the Babylonian Exile, and is not specifically Jeremianic in origin. The prayer thus reflects influence from sources well beyond the traditions that commonly contribute to the book of Jeremiah.
Jeremianic Aspects of the Prayer
Nevertheless, the prayer contains features that we could more easily see as part of Jeremiah’s traditional manner of expression. For example, the prayer invokes “Heaven and Earth” (v. 17), a type of expression common in the genre of literature known as the rîb, or prophetic “lawsuit” that calls Heaven and Earth as witnesses. This language is not only found in oracles often viewed as authentic to the prophet (Jer 4:23, 28; 10:11-13), it is also common in the formulations within the book of Deuteronomy (e.g., Deut 3:24; 10:14; 11:21; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1), a literary work that we have already seen is a strong contributor to Jeremiah’s own language and the ideology of the scribes associated with him.
The presence of the phrase “until this day” (and its by-form “as of this day”) in Jer 32:20 and many other places throughout the book of Jeremiah (7:25; 11:5 25:3; 35:14; 36:2; 44:10) is also significant. The phrase originated with the Deuteronomistic scribes who composed the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua—Kings) as a way of periodizing history into sacred categories; there can be little doubt that this left an impression on both the prophet and his scribal peers who were deeply enculturated in this type of language and ideology. The appearance of this language in the prayer in Jer 32:16-22[-25] indicates that it was either part of the prophet’s own manner of expression, or that it was introduced into the prayer by scribes closely associated with him.
Composed as a Jeremianic Prayer by His Students
Yet even if the latter is the case, the literary form of the prayer may draw from the type of prayers uttered by Jeremiah as remembered by the scribes who inherited his oracles. We must bear in mind that in addition to being a prophet, Jeremiah was also a priest – more specifically, a Levite. He hailed from the Levite town of Anatoth (Jer 1:1), preserved religious traditions about the Levite Shiloh sanctuary that fell before the rise of the monarchy (Jer 7:12-15), conceived of himself as standing in the tradition of Samuel and Moses as a facilitator of intercessory prayer (Jer 15:1), drew heavily influence from the ancient Levite liturgy preserved in the “Song of Moses” (in Deuteronomy 32), and his proclamation of oracles is presented in different ways akin to the depiction of Levites in the book of Deuteronomy (Jer 11:1-17 [cf. Deut 27:14]; 34:14a [cf. Deut 31:10]).
As priestly figures, Levites were well suited to engage in communal prayer, and indeed Jeremiah is elsewhere presented in just such a fashion both within and beyond his book. The prayer in Jer 32:16-22 is therefore best seen as arising from a combination of sources – memories regarding Jeremiah as a prayer-intercessor, terms and phrases associated with Jeremiah’s actual manner of speaking, and the scribal transmission and re-framing of these sources into a literary document now placed in Jeremiah 32.
The Book of Consolation and the Prayer in Context
The placement of the prayer in Jeremiah 32 is by no means an accident. The larger range of chapters surrounding it, Jeremiah 30—33, is known by most scholars as the “Book of Consolation,” a cohesive and distinct unit of material that grew over time through the combination of Jeremiah’s written oracles, [remembered] oral teachings, and exegetical discourses by later writers developing the implications of both.
The Book of Consolation is found in the heart of the larger book of Jeremiah, a work full of oracles of woe that inspire fear, sadness, anxiety and anger. Such threatening and woeful oracles clearly express the cultural mindset of audience as the kingdom of Judah was in its death throes and its populations suffered violence, dislocation, exile and humiliation at the hands of the Babylonians. But the redactors of the book of Jeremiah recognized that for later generations, these difficult oracles could only remain vital sources for religious identity if they also included a sense of hope and redemption.
A Message of Hope
The features of Jeremiah 32 go deeper into this dynamic and reveal that just as Jeremiah redeemed his ancestral estate, piety and prayer provide redemption for people either separated from their homeland or fearful of once again facing such a threat. It is thus not only the issue of land redemption that connected the passages in Jeremiah to the Torah reading from Leviticus 25. The sages who connected these readings to each other saw in the Jeremiah text the very lessons they sought to cultivate among those hearing the Torah reading itself – that the listener or reader, too, could be redeemed through devotion, study, and prayer.
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Prof. Mark Leuchter is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism in the Department of Religion at Temple University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 2003. His research focuses on the history of the priesthood in ancient Israel and early Jewish scribal tradition.
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