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 Bechukkotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 16:19-17:14.
The God depicted in the Torah has sudden fits of anger and smites large groups of people, the innocent along with the guilty. No wonder so many people in the books of Exodus and Numbers do not trust this god to lead them safely to a new land! Yet the prophets from Moses on insist that trusting God—and following God’s rules—will be rewarded.
For example, this week’s Torah portion, Behukkotai (“By My decrees”) opens with this divine promise:
If you go by My decrees, and My commands you observe, and you do them … Then [your] threshing will overtake [your] grape harvest, and [your] grape harvest will overtake your sowing, and you will eat your bread to satiation, and you will rest labetach in your land. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3, 5)
labetach (לָבֶטַח) = in security, with a feeling of safety. (From the root verb batach (בּטח) = trust, rely on, feel safe.)
The next verse shows that the feeling of safety will be justified:
And I will put peace in the land, and you will life down and nothing will frighten you, and I will keep bad beasts from the land, and a sword will not cross your land. (Leviticus 26:6)
This promise is never fulfilled in the Bible. Many of its books point out that the Israelites keep veering off the right path, disobeying the rules and worshiping other gods. It is their fault, not God’s, that they are never safe in their land.
In this model, God judges the people as a group; an individual, however virtuous, suffers the fate of his whole city or country. Similarly, in the book of Jeremiah God sends the Babylonians to conquer Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, because its people are acting immorally and worshiping other gods.
Some Jerusalemites think God will keep them safe because they have an impressive Temple stocked with priests. But the prophet Jeremiah warns:
Do not tivtechu in yourselves, in words of deception, saying: The temple of God, the temple of God, the temple of God is these [buildings]. (Jeremiah 7:4)
tivtechu (תִּבְטְחוּ) = you trust. (Also from the root batach.)
The king of Judah and his officials think they can rely (batach) on fortifications, or stored-up wealth, or a rescue by the Egyptian army, or the words of prophets who contradict Jeremiah.
This week’s haftarah includes a poem on the futility of relying on other human beings, and the rewards of relying only on God.
Thus said God:
Cursed is the man yivtach in humankind
And makes flesh his strength;
He turns away his mind from God.
He is like a bare tree in the desert valley…
Blessed is the man yivtach in God;
And God is mivtacho.
He is like a tree planted by water:
By a stream it sends forth its roots,
And it does not notice when summer heat comes,
And its leaves are luxuriant;
In a year without rain it does not worry,
And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:5-8)
yivtach (יְבְטַח) = who trusts, who relies on, who feels safe. (Also from the root batach.)
mivtacho (מִבְטַחוֹ) = what he trusts. (Also from the root batach.)
This poem (like psalms 8, 31, 52, and 56) takes a personal view of trusting God, and promises that individuals who rely on God are rewarded with long and fruitful lives—perhaps even if most of their people reject God. Since the word batach covers feelings as well as deeds, Jeremiah is promising a reward for individuals who have the right feelings about God. (See my earlier post, Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.)
Later in the book of Jeremiah we get an example of an individual who has the batach feeling about God. Just before the Babylonian army breaches the walls of Jerusalem, God tells Jeremiah to give a message to a Kushite servant of the king called Eved-Melekh, “servant of the king”.
Go and say to Eved-Melekh the Kushi: Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: … I will certainly save you, and you will not fall by the sword, and you will keep your life—because batachta in me, declares God. (Jeremiah 39:16, 18)
Kushi (כּוּשִׁי) = Kushite; a dark-skinned person from Kush, the land south of Egypt (now Ethiopia), or a descendant of a Kishite.
batachta (בָּטַחְתָּ) = you trusted, you felt safe.
In what way did the Kushi trust in God?
The year before, four officials of the king’s court in Jerusalem heard Jeremiah tell the people that God is giving the city to the Babylonian army, and whoever stays will die, but whoever defects to the Babylonians will live.
And the officials said to the king: Let this man be killed, please, because he is weakening the hands [morale] of the remaining soldiers in the city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking this way…And King Zedekiah said: Hey, he is in your hands, because the king can do nothing to oppose you. (Jeremiah 38:4-5)
The king feels as though he has to act as if he trusts his officials; he does not dare oppose them, even though he knows Jeremiah is a true prophet of God.
Then they took Jeremiah and they threw him down into the pit of Malkiyahu, son of the king, which was in the court of the guard, and they sent Jeremiah to his death. But Eved-Melekh the Kushi, a eunuch in the palace of the king, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the pit. And the king was sitting in the Gate of Benjamin. So Eved-Melekh went out from the palace of the king, and to spoke to the king, saying: My lord the king, these men have done evil in all they did to Jeremiah the prophet! They threw him down into the pit, and he will die below from starvation…
The Kushi, a palace eunuch, might hesitate to speak against four powerful court officials. He might also hesitate to interrupt the king when he is dispensing justice in the city gate. But Eved-Melekh pleads for Jeremiah’s life without worrying about his own fate. And King Zedekiah seems relieved to have someone interrupt him and speak on Jeremiah’s behalf.
Then the king commanded Eved-Melekh the Kushi, saying: Take from here three men and raise Jeremiah the prophet from the pit before he dies. (Jeremiah 39:10)
Eved-Melekh saves Jeremiah’s life, and the prophet returns to the regular prison, where he gets bread and water until the Babylonian soldiers destroy Jerusalem about a year later. Then the Babylonians free Jeremiah and send him to another town in Judah. The four court officials do not take revenge on the Kushi eunuch, and we can assume that when the Babylonian general decides which Jerusalemites will die, which will be deported to Babylon, and which will be moved to another town in Judah, the Kushi is among those whose life is spared.
Eved-Melekh’s feeling of trust in God lets him do the right thing and rescue God’s prophet at the risk of his own life. This palace servant is especially remarkable because he is an immigrant from another country—who nevertheless serves the God of Israel better than Judah’s native officials and king do.
The Torah portion in Leviticus says that when all the people follow God’s rules, then God will reward them with real security, and as a result they will feel safe (labetach) in their land. But not even Moses can get all the people to follow God’s rules.
The haftarah from Jeremiah says that when individuals feel safe (yivtach) with God, then they are motivated to do good deeds, and as a result God rewards them with life and fruitfulness.
The book of Jeremiah does not say whether the eunuch Kushi becomes fruitful in some way other than having children. But God does reward him with life.
In my own life, I admit, I rarely feel safe enough to speak out in threatening situations or to oppose the plans of the powerful. But when I actually do, I feel filled with a spirit that I did not know I had, perhaps a divine spirit. And that grounded elation is its own reward, as I move forward with new courage and good deeds, fruitful and alive.
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