The Story in Brief: Zedekiah’s manumission of the slaves in besieged Jerusalem (Jer 34:8-22):
Under pressure from besieging Babylonian (or, as my young daughter read it out last night, ‘Babylion’) forces around 588 BC, Zedekiah, last king of Judah, secured the agreement of community leaders to release “fellow Jews” who were enslaved: 34:8-10, 15, 18-19. If we were to guess at his motives, and plenty of scholars have had a go, I think the most likely is that this was an attempt to set the covenant relationship with Yahweh on a better footing by fixing a point of obvious neglect of the law.
Civil laws in Exod 21:2-6 and Deut 15:12-18 set a six-year limit to the permissible period of enslavement of a ‘fellow Hebrew’, which by the time of the later Deuteronomy law seems to have simply acted as a synonym for ‘fellow Israelite’, though it probably meant something different in Exodus 21. My sense is that the prescribed limit of six years had long been neglected, and Israelite slaves had been kept indefinitely. Perhaps this rested uneasily on the conscience of some in Jerusalem, and it seemed an obvious point at which a gesture of renewed obedience to God could be made. Verses 18-20 imply that the covenant ceremony, which was conducted in the temple itself (v. 15), involved a ceremony of passing between the parts of animals divided in half, in a gesture of “let this be done to me if I fail to uphold this agreement,” i.e., a rather graphic self-maledictory oath. (The same practice lies behind Abraham’s dream in Genesis 15.)
Presumably upon the withdrawal of the Babylonian army in the face of Egyptian army manouevres (34:21), the slaveowners reneged on their covenant and re-subjugated their released slaves (34:11, 16). The effect was to make their gesture look particularly empty and artificial. This double-take elicited a judgment prophecy from Jeremiah, who condemned this violation of the recent covenant as symptomatic of Israel’s general covenant infidelity, and predicted Babylonian forces’ return and successful destruction of Jerusalem: 34:12-22.
God’s Awareness of the Individual
Reading this story, my eye was caught by little phrase ‘לְנַפְשָׁם’ (l’naphshām). Translated “as they desired” (NET, w. NRSV similar) or “where they wished” (NIV), I now think “to live their own lives” (New Jerusalem Bible)’ is closer to the Hebrew. The important point is that either the will, or at least the wellbeing, of the slave is taken into account in this little phrase, i.e. the slave is considered as a person and not just property.
The same safeguarding of the slave as a person is seen in OT slave law. Exod 21:5-6; Deut 15:16-17 say that the choice to become a bondslave, i.e. to renounce the right to freedom after the stipulated ownership period of six years, remains the slave’s own. Deut 15:18 implies that this is an exception and should not quietly become the default arrangement, though it is possible to imagine this bondslave provision being exploited as a loophole, and it is hard to tell whether torah slave laws were ever properly enforced (though Jeremiah 34 and Nehemiah 5 provide case studies).
Deuteronomy often connects the slave’s domestic situation with the Israelites’ national past, most famously in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments:
“But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant,…so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. (15) Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:14b-15a NIV)
This care of the rights even of an owned individual fits a theme we see at various points in Jeremiah. Though the outlook for the nation is grim, as the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem is destined to fall as the inevitable expression of Yahweh’s judgment for Judah’s sin, the individual who remains faithful to God can, maybe not thrive, but survive:
- Jeremiah, who is so afraid of his calling and continues to suffer through it, is made “iron and bronze” by the LORD and outlasts all of his rivals.
- Ebed-Melech, the African royal court staffer who rescues Jeremiah from the cistern (Jer 38:7-13), is rewarded for his faith and faithfulness with survival of the crisis (39:15-18).
- Baruch, who feels the burden of the prophetic ministry as his master does (45:3), is urged to let go of ambitions inappropriate to such a dark and difficult time (45:5a), but is also granted survival (45:5b).
Hinted at here is a possible freedom both from the mastery of ego and the grinding burden of self-loathing. The work and plan of God, we might say the Kingdom, is bigger than you or me. Like little children in a large family, circumstances cannot be ordered around our personal preferences. But like little children in a large family, each of us remains inestimably precious to God. To use Paul’s image, like the various parts of the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-27), each of us who has been inducted into the family of God, a privilege anyone may claim who is so minded, has a role to play in the right functioning of that body as a whole. In a sense, while we’re not needed by God, the Bible’s witness is that we are wanted.
That makes me relax a little. The need to try to prove my right to breathe has passed. I don’t need to achieve anything on the sporting field or in the business world (or academically!) to show onlookers that I’m a worthy human being. I don’t need to publish a book to be someone. Just my being here shows that I’m wanted, if this is a world where God presides.
Hands up anyone who prefers it to be a world where God does not preside.