Guarding the Covenant
Haftarat Mishpatim, Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26
Dr. Patrice Fischer, Ohr Chadash, Clearwater, FL
In the Torah portion this week we have what seems to be a whole long list of laws. This listing of rules appears to us modern readers to support the stereotype (a negative one) of the Old Testament, and therefore to be skipped over to get to the “narrative” (the story). However, if this list is skipped over, then the modern reader will miss out on several rules that still seem important today.
So, for example, the quote of “an eye for an eye” (Exod 21:24) has been cited on numerous occasions to show the ruthless and punishing nature of the God of the Old Testament, which is then compared with the loving God of the New Testament who forgives us.
May the godly person stay far, far away from this treatment of the Tenach.
This list of laws is complicated, and needs to be read within its own context.
In the haftarah for this Exodus passage, Jeremiah describes an historical example of what happened when a king of Israel attempted to strictly apply a rule in this list to a current problem of his. (Side note: Jeremiah is a sadly underappreciated prophet whose name has become an epithet for depressing tales of woe. Jeremiah is arguably the most Yeshua-like prophet, not because he says many things that the New Testament quotes, but because many circumstances in his life are mirrored in Yeshua’s.)
The story comes from the reign of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah directly related to David (597–586 BCE), at least during First Temple Judaism. After Jerusalem was destroyed Nebuchadnezzar appointed a non-royal governor, Gedaliah, to be in charge of everyone left in the city, since not every living Jew in Judea went into exile. This governor was the last leader of people in the city, before it was abandoned. Included in these Jewish “leftovers” were Jeremiah and his dear companion, Baruch, who refused to go to Babylon with the others. Instead, they stayed behind to be with these leftovers, who had not left for various reasons.
Jeremiah reports that toward the end of the 11-year siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army, Zedekiah made a formal covenant with “all the people of Jerusalem” to release all their Jewish slaves. The people and officials complied and let them go free (Jer 34:9–10). This covenant complied with the laws about keeping Jewish slaves found in Exodus 21 (also see Lev 25 and Deut 15). Instead of automatically accomplishing this every 7th year as prescribed by God, the Jewish people seem to have not been keeping this rule down through their history.
We may look upon this sudden reverting to ancient law by Zedekiah and think (cynically) as the ancient Judeans may have thought, “Well, Zedekiah is buying time and hoping that God will be merciful to us if we obey his law, or else he thinks that the freed slaves will help with our fight against the Babylonians.” We do not know Zechariah’s reasoning for this return to ancient laws, but we do know that the covenant was short-lived, since soon the ex-slaveholders brought back the freed slaves in order to enslave them again. This violated the covenant almost immediately after making it.
The discussion about performing the covenant should remind us of the first time we see the process of “cutting” (the literal term used in the Hebrew here) a covenant in Genesis 15, when God makes a covenant with Abraham at the very beginning of their relationship. Both in Jeremiah 34 and Genesis 15 the exact phrase “cutting a covenant” appears in the text. “Cutting a covenant” was a widely known procedure for making solemn oaths between parties in the ancient Middle East, where one or more animals were cut in two, and the two parties making the covenant walked between the animal halves to say: “May my god do this to me if I fail to keep this covenant with you.” In Genesis 15, God alone walked between the pieces, since Abraham was asleep. This has further theological implications which we cannot be continued here.
We know that the ceremony which was carried out in Zedekiah’s time was this same type (Jer 34:18), and so when everyone who freed their slaves took them back, breaking their solemn oath, then the penalty would be enacted: “May my god do this to me if I don’t keep this promise.” The nation had set itself up to reap the consequences of its broken promise (which could rightly be placed on a mountain of failed promises of the past) and was now going to receive the punishment they personally had agreed to, namely, the death of their nation and their king.
Jeremiah overtly refers to the Genesis 15 passage when God says, “their carcasses shall become food for the birds of the sky” (Jer 34:20). In Genesis 15:12 Abraham stands guard over his pieces of animals to protect them from “birds of prey.”
And, sure enough, Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon’s army, Zedekiah and his sons were killed, and most of the Jews that were left went into exile to join up with the others who were taken into exile during the 49 prior years—a tragic story with a horrific (even if predictable) outcome.
But the haftarah reading is not over yet. A passage from Jeremiah 33 is to be read after the passage from chapter 34, to remind us of something that is an eternal concern: Even though these bad things may happen in the course of Israel’s history, he has not rejected his covenant with Israel.
There is no action the Jewish nation can perform that is so bad that God will no longer consider them his people. There is no action that the Jewish people can take that would be a reason for God to put us aside and choose a different people to inherit the promises given to Abraham. Individual people and generations of Jewish people can suffer (rightly or wrongly) but God promises, “I will restore them from their exile, and have compassion on them” (Jer 33:26 TLV).
Even as we remember our past failings as described by Jeremiah, may we also remember the final lesson of this haftarah: God has always been faithful and will always continue to be faithful to our eternal covenant with him.