Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), and the haftarah is Jeremiah 34:8-22.
Town by town, city by city, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar took over the land of Judah. The country could have remained a semi-independent vassal of Babylon, keeping its own temple and running its own internal affairs. But the last three kings of the Israelites had rebelled against their overlord. And each time Nebuchadnezzar’s retaliation had been more severe.
The prophet Jeremiah kept warning the kings of Judah to keep paying tribute to Babylon, but they never listened to him. Instead they flirted with Egypt. Only Jeremiah realized what was obvious to the Babylonians: that when Pharaoh Nekho lost the big battle with Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish in 605 B.C.E., and lost all his vassal states to the new Babylonian Empire, Egypt was finished as a world power.
When King Yehoyakhim of Judah stopped paying tribute to Babylon in 597 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem until it surrendered. When King Zedekiah stopped paying tribute eight years later, after secret negotiations with Egypt, the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem again.
This time Nebuchadnezzar also conquered the rest of Judah, town by town and city by city.
Trapped in Jerusalem, unable the send their slaves out to the fields to plant and harvest, the leaders of Judah were getting desperate. Soon their city would fall, and they would all be killed or, at best, deported to Babylon. Only a miracle could save them.
The god of Israel had made miracles for the Israelites before. The priests were still serving God in the temple. What more was needed? How could they win God’s favor again?
In this week’s hafatarah, it occurs to King Zedekiah that the people of Judah have been ignoring one of God’s commands:
If your brother or sister Hebrew sells himself to you, then he shall serve six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go chafshi from you. And when you let him go chafshi from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:12-13)
chafshi (חָפְשִׁי) = emancipated, freed. (Plural: chafshim.)
In ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, men who could not pay their taxes or other debts sold themselves or their children as temporary slaves. After six years of service, their owners were required to set them free, and give the men a food supply and the means to make a living.
But the slave-owners of Judah had let the years pass without emancipation.
… the king, Zedekiah, cut a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim for them a dror: for each man to let go of his male slave and his female slave, the Hebrew male and the Hebrew female, chafshim, so that no one would be enslaved by his fellow Yehudi. And they heeded [the proclamation], all the officers and all the people who had entered in the covenant … they heeded and they let them go. (Jeremiah 34:8-10)
dror (דְּרוֹר) = emancipation of slaves every seventh year and every fiftieth year.
Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) = citizen of Judah; Jew. (From Yehudah (יְהוּדָה) = the kingdom of Judah, the tribe of Judah, or the individual Judah in the book of Genesis.)
The slave-owners in Jerusalem had more than one reason to free their slaves. Besides wooing God’s favor, the general emancipation also meant that the owners no longer had to feed their slaves. And since no one could work in the fields anyway, the government could recruit the emancipated men as soldiers to help defend the city.
The siege lifted briefly when an Egyptian army marched north, perhaps intending to honor its new alliance with the king of Judah. Most of the Babylonian army departed to take care of the Egyptian annoyance, and for a few months life in Jerusalem could return to normal.
Unfortunately, it did.
And later they turned back, and they took back the male slaves and the female slaves whom they had let go chafshim, and they subjected them to slavery [again]. Then the word of God happened to Jeremiah… (Jeremiah 34:11-12)
Through his prophet, God reminds the people in Jerusalem that Hebrews enslaved because of debt must be freed in the seventh year. God continues:
“One day you yourselves turned around and became upright in My eyes, proclaiming a dror for each man from his fellow, and you cut a covenant before Me in the house that is called by My name. But now you have profaned My name; each of you has brought back his male slave and his female slave that he had let go chafshim to follow their desire, and subordinated them to be male slaves and female slaves for you [again].
“Therefore, thus says God: [Since] you did not listen to Me proclaiming a dror, each one for his brother and each one for his fellow, here I am, proclaiming to you a dror—declares God—to the sword, to disease, and to starvation! (Jeremiah 34:15-17)
Jeremiah’s prophecy points out the hypocrisy of the ruling class. They free their slaves only when feeding them is a burden—and when they hope to wangle an extra favor out of God. But the newly-emancipated slaves have no means to feed themselves. What kind of liberty is that?
Then as soon as it looks as though the ex-slaves can once more engage in agriculture, their former owners re-enslave them, making them responsible for feeding everyone.
So God threatens to emancipate the Yehudi the same way they emancipated their slaves—by abandoning them to death. After all, no human beings can live exclusively by their own power, without the world God provides.
In fact, the Babylonians returned before the slaves of Jerusalem could bring in a harvest. In 586 B.C.E. the wall around the city was breached. Nebuchadnezzar blinded King Zedekiah, killed his sons, razed the capital, and burned down the temple. Judah became merely a district of Babylonia. The remaining ruling families were deported, and Jeremiah lingered in the ruins of Jerusalem.
(See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
In some parts of the world today, impoverished people are still kidnapped to become slaves (often for sex or war). Those of us who read blogs on the Internet, distant from the villages of Syria or Nigeria, might congratulate ourselves on never owning a slave or oppressing a debtor. But is that true?
Do we vote for political candidates who claim that everyone can succeed by their own efforts, even those who are not given the tools? Do we find it acceptable that one accident, disease, or misinformed purchase can doom a person to poverty for life, with no second chance—not even after six years of suffering?
Do we treat our own children as slaves? Do we send them off, after the right number of years, with all the tools they need to make it on their own? Do we try to recapture and control them later?
Do we take advantage of someone over and over again, neglecting them when we do not need them?