In 1946, a group of Bedouin teenage boys herding goats on the West Bank of the Jordan River were about to change history. A boy threw a rock into a hole in the cliff for no reason other than he was a boy with a rock. To his surprise, he heard something shatter below in the darkness. The boys climbed through the hole into a cave to find seven large clay jars filled with leather-bound papyrus books with writing they did not understand. The artifacts looked ancient and valuable, so they sold them to an antique dealer. But the boys had no idea what they had found buried in the cave. What was buried in those clay jars for centuries?
When we read scriptures like today’s text from Jeremiah, we are often in a similar circumstance as the teenage goat herder. We come to church because it is Sunday, like goat herders doing our routine. We read a somewhat obscure scripture, like a rock thrown into a dark cave. But we hear a crash coming from the darkness. Something about the text catches our attention, and we must explore to find what it might mean. Some scriptures, like “love your neighbor,” are straightforward, but many require some digging around.
This work is what we do on Mondays at Bible Study. Here is what we learned about today’s text from Jeremiah. Jeremiah tells us the exact day he wrote this for a reason. The tenth year of King Zedekiah is 587 BCE, and one of the most critical dates in biblical history. The scene opens in Jeremiah 32 with the armies of Babylon surrounding the city of Jerusalem, and they are constructing siege ramps to destroy the walls. This is a sign that the end is near. Food and water will be rationed, then run out, and the waiting army will eventually breach the walls and destroy the weakened population. Jeremiah has made it clear for the last 20 years that this siege is the inevitable consequence of the nation’s greed, injustice, and reckless disregard for the law. Unless God will send Ten Plagues on the Babylonians, doom awaits Jerusalem.
King Zedekiah is visiting Jeremiah, who is under house arrest, and says, “Why are you giving prophecies of our defeat, and that I will be taken into exile in Babylon?” The king implies Jeremiah is disloyal. Isn’t this a time for unity? Don’t you trust God to save us? I marvel at the king’s capacity to ignore the obvious. A glance out the window should tell him that Jeremiah is right. But corrupt rulers always think they can get away with it. They can take Kyiv, Ukraine, in 48 hours. They can manipulate the courts to their favor to avoid criminal behavior. Like other tyrants, Zedekiah seems to think he is getting out of this dilemma. But tyrants always fall because of hubris.
I wonder what the king wants from this conversation. Is Jeremiah supposed to switch to hope suddenly, or a reversal of fortune, condemn the Babylonians? This conversation is the last grip on illusions of grandeur.
Jeremiah’s response is obtuse. Why is he talking about a real estate transaction at a time like this? Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel has fallen on hard times and must sell his land to pay a debt. According to Leviticus 25:25-28, your closest relative had the first right to buy the ground, so it would not go out of the family, so Hanamal is offering it to Jeremiah. The land is in Jeremiah’s hometown of Ananthoth, about 3 miles from Jerusalem. Remember, the three most important things about real estate value are location, location, and location. Given the proximity of Babylon’s armies, does this sound like a good real estate investment? So why is Jeremiah buying this land now, which will have no value after the war? The text gives us a great deal of detail about the amount of silver, who is signing the deed, and the name of his lawyer, who must keep copies of the deed. It’s the most extended business transaction in the Bible. Why do we need to know all this?
The clue is that it will go into a clay jar for safekeeping. As the Bedouin goat herders discovered, we know documents can last a long time in a pot, hundreds of years. Jeremiah says God has told him to buy this land. (I’m glad God is not giving me real estate advice because this is a risky transaction.) The hope is that someday Jeremiah or one of his kin will return from exile in Babylon, find this jar hidden, and state their claim on the land. (According to the later stories from Ezra 7:27, the town of AnanThoth suffered greatly from Babylon, and only 128 men returned from the many taken into exile. Ezra does not tell us that any of them were Jeremiah’s relatives or that they found the jar and the deed to land.). Jeremiah must know this is a long shot. Think of the Palestinians holding on to property deeds from before 1948, which is for land now held by the state of Israel. After so many generations, you aren’t likely to get your property returned. Jeremiah is likely thinking about more than his family legacy in generations to come. Jeremiah offers this symbolic gesture of hope when the clock is about to strike midnight and the end of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah was a master at using symbolic actions to dramatize his message. In Jeremiah 19, God tells Jeremiah to buy a clay pot and then deliver an oracle. Jeremiah delivers a blistering condemnation of greed, injustice, and apostasy. If people don’t change their ways, destruction is coming. He details the gruesome effects of a city under siege and how they will starve and turn to cannibalism. Then he smashed the pot for dramatic effect. (If Jeremiah were alive today, I think he would write dystopian science fiction novels. He would love Planet of the Apes, zombie movies, Mad Max, Don’t Look Up, or 1984. People don’t write these screenplays out of despair but to provoke a change of behavior). But as real doom draws near, Jeremiah, the pot smasher, will put precious documents in a clay pot and hide them away for the future. He doesn’t know what will happen next, he can’t control the coming destruction, but he still has hope that God will be on the other side of disaster. Exile is inevitable, but someday people will return, “and houses and fields and vineyards will be bought in this land.”
Imagine if you were one of the people in exile in Babylon reading about Jeremiah hiding precious documents in this clay pot. If a doomsayer like Jeremiah could have hope of return, then it must be possible. In the next chapter of Jeremiah 33, he says God will make a new covenant with the people in exile and give them new hearts, hearts made of flesh and not stone. This is a stunning inflection point as Jeremiah’s tone shifts from destruction to restoration. God has yet more light and truth to reveal. It makes me wonder what surprises God may have for us as we go through our current travails.
It’s time to revisit the goat herders back in 1946. The pots of documents they discovered were near the ancient settlement of Qumran and are now known as the Dead Sea scrolls. Till that day, the oldest copies of Old Testament texts are dated around the 9th century, and these scrolls were at least 1000 years older. Numerous documents from the community who had lived in Qumran, known as Essenes, which we had never seen before, were never a part of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament canon. Decades of research on these scrolls have helped refine translations. Sometimes tradition has been reaffirmed, and some of our assumptions were challenged. This finding evoked a significant renewal of reflection on scriptures and understanding of their context.
I don’t know what these Essenes thought when they hid all their sacred texts in clay pots in the caves of Qumran. Some calamity wiped them out. But they had a hope that what they believed mattered and needed to be preserved after their death. They, like Jeremiah, had hope beyond destruction.
These clay pots make me think about a parable of Jesus. He said, “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44-45). What could such a treasure be? I think it is the great wisdom tradition handed off from generation to generation by people who walk with God. This wisdom is the baton passed to us. We are called to live this wisdom and pass it on.
In I Corinthians 4:7, The Apostle Paul said the light of Christ is shining in our hearts,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair….”
We have a treasure in clay jars, from Jeremiah’s hope of restoration to the recovery of history in Qumran, to the light of Christ in our hearts. This is the hope we treasure beyond the headlines. There is always a light amid tyrants, disasters, injustice, illness, and grief. We must let it shine.