Wednesday, January 30, 2019
A Better Covenant and a Better Promise
By Dan and Brenda Cathcart
The reading for this teaching is: Jeremiah 33:25-26, 34:8-22
One central theme throughout both the Tanach as well as the New Covenant writings is release from slavery. Whether that slavery is literal, such as the Children of Israel being released from Egypt, or in a more spiritual or figurative sense with our release from the bondage of sin, the LORD is faithful to His covenants despite our shortcomings and stubbornness.
In our Haftarah reading this week we return to the book of Jeremiah where it opens with two rather profound and complex verses.
Jeremiah 33:25-26 NKJV 25 "Thus says the LORD: 'If My covenant is not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth, 26 'then I will cast away the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, so that I will not take any of his descendants to be rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will cause their captives to return and will have mercy on them.'"
Why would this Haftarah open with these two verses then skip to a section of the next chapter which focuses on slavery? What is the connection? As we dig a little deeper, we will see that this Haftarah is about much more than just slavery.
The Torah portion title for this week is Mishpatim which means enactments or judgments and outlines the conditions and dispositions of slavery within the community of God’s people. How were slaves to be treated? Specifically, slaves who were themselves counted among God’s chosen people. How are the Biblical regulations of slavery, and this story of Zedekiah in particular, a picture of our redemption from slavery to sin by the blood of Yeshua?
The bulk of this week Haftarah reading is concerning the covenant king Zedekiah made with the people involving the release of their Hebrew slaves. Zedekiah was the third son of the great king Josiah. Josiah was the last truly good king of Judah, leading the people in following the Torah of God. All three of Josiah’s sons would sit on the throne of Judah following Josiah’s defeat and death at Megiddo, but none would ever live up to the example of Josiah.
But who is Zedekiah? Zedekiah was the last of Josiah’s sons who obtained the throne by appointment. During Zedekiah’s reign, Judah was a vassal kingdom, paying tribute as a subordinate to king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Zedekiah came to power following a great captivity when Judah had been stripped of most of its army, the entire priesthood, as well as many of their skilled artisans, merchants and politically connected people. The prophet Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, himself a priest, was among the first group taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The name Zedekiah was give to him by king Nebuchadnezzar.
2 Kings 24:15-17 NKJV 15 And he carried Jehoiachin captive to Babylon. The king's mother, the king's wives, his officers, and the mighty of the land he carried into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. 16 All the valiant men, seven thousand, and craftsmen and smiths, one thousand, all who were strong and fit for war, these the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon. 17 Then the king of Babylon made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin's uncle, king in his place, and changed his name to Zedekiah.
Zedekiah was really stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. He did not have the support of the people, who had again fallen into rebellion and rejection of the Torah and the LORD’s covenant with them. And he owed loyalty to Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar who had put him in power. What was Zedekiah to do? How could he survive this contradictory and politically dangerous position?
To top it off, Zedekiah receives a frightening message from Jeremiah regarding his fate.
Jeremiah 34:1-3 NKJV 1 The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army, all the kingdoms of the earth under his dominion, and all the people, fought against Jerusalem and all its cities, saying, 2 "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: 'Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah and tell him, "Thus says the LORD: 'Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. 3 'And you shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be taken and delivered into his hand; your eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon, he shall speak with you face to face, and you shall go to Babylon.'"'
Perhaps with the help of his closest friends and advisors, Zedekiah decides to enter into a covenant with the LORD and with the people. From the text it is difficult to ascertain his motivation for doing this. Was Zedekiah entering into this covenant out of conscience or for reasons of convenience? Regardless of the motivation, it is clear that Zedekiah entered into a binding covenant with the people and with God.
Jeremiah 34:8-10 NKJV 8 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them: 9 that every man should set free his male and female slave-a Hebrew man or woman-that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage. 10 Now when all the princes and all the people, who had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should set free his male and female slaves, that no one should keep them in bondage anymore, they obeyed and let them go.
This was a covenant entered into by means of the ancient traditions where a sacrifice is made, the parts of the sacrificial animal are split into two, and the parties walk between them. The understanding was that the one who broke a covenant would then be treated as the covenant sacrifice and cut into two pieces. The covenant that Zedekiah made was to honor the Torah in regard to the treatment of slaves.
It had been more than seven hundred years since the Children of Israel had been released from slavery in Egypt and God had established them in their land and given them a system of laws that were radically different than those common to other ancient Near East cultures. Generally, slavery at this time, and throughout most of history, was a particularly brutal practice. Slave were treated as mere property, not unlike a piece of furniture or any other household item. The practice of slavery in Roman times is well documented and typical of the conditions of slaves in the ancient world.
Since the death of Josiah, the Children of Israel had ignored the Torah laws regarding the indentured servitude of fellow Hebrews and reverted to the common practices of the surrounding nations. These laws are enumerated in Leviticus chapter twenty-five.
Leviticus 25:39-43 NKJV 39 'And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. 40 'As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 'And then he shall depart from you-he and his children with him-and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. 42 'For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 'You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.
The Torah says that their fellow Hebrew was to be treated with the same respect and dignity that one was to give to a neighbor or even a family member. But the Israelites of Zedekiah’s time were not following the Torah. Zedekiah essentially renewed the provisions of the covenant regarding their brethren as indentured slaves, but their observance of this covenant was to be short lived.
Jeremiah 34:11 NKJV 11 But afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male and female slaves.
Whatever spiritual revival resulted among the inhabitants of Judah at that time due to this covenant, died right then and there. Jeremiah goes on to give a stern warning and prediction to Zedekiah.
Jeremiah 34:12-16 NKJV 12 Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 13 "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: 'I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, 14 "At the end of seven years let every man set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to him; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you." But your fathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear. 15 'Then you recently turned and did what was right in My sight-every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. 16 'Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom he had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.'
By reclaiming their Hebrew slaves, they were violating several provisions of God’s covenant with them. First by forcing their former slaves back into a condition of slavery they were, in effect, kidnapping them! At the point of their release, they had become liberated, or were once again free citizens, not in debt to anyone! They were now being taken into slavery outside of the provisions outlined in Leviticus chapter twenty-five! By reclaiming their slaves, they also profaned the name of God because they entered into this covenant in the precincts of the Temple. And by reclaiming the people as slaves they were also breaking their word to each other.
God’s judgement against the people is severe. But why did God’s judgment fall on them at this time? The Children of Israel had been violating various Torah laws and provisions for centuries. As we read in the time of the judges and under the reign of all the kings of the northern tribes, and many of those of Judah, their sins against God and each other appear far more extensive than this example in our Haftarah. Why now? Was God over reacting in His judgment? Jeremiah tells them what is to come:
Jeremiah 34:17-20 NKJV 17 "Therefore thus says the LORD: 'You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, everyone to his brother and everyone to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,' says the LORD-'to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 'And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it- 19 'the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf- 20 'I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth.
That is a harsh punishment for a single transgression of the Torah laws regarding slavery! Especially in light of the fact that for centuries prior, both Israel and Judah were engaged in far greater sins including idolatry, murder, and the sacrificing of their children.
Covenants are sacred, and they had made a covenant with God in the Temple! As such, God was a witness and party to this covenant. If people were allowed to treat this covenant lightly, then it would leave the impression that God also treats His covenant obligations lightly. And this wasn’t just any covenant, it was a covenant which dealt with slavery, the very thing that God released them from when they were in Egypt. It is interesting to note that among the cultures of the ancient Near East, the Bible is the only document which begins its list of enactments or mishpatim with rules about slavery.
In a commentary by the Jewish Publication Society, Nahum Sarna writes:
“The priority given by the Torah doubtless has a historical explanation: Having recently experienced liberation from bondage, the Israelite is enjoined to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave.”[i]
As we read in Exodus chapter twenty five, the Torah says that a fellow Hebrew who finds himself as a slave to another Hebrew is to have a special status. He is a brother and was not to be treated as Israel was treated when they were slaves in Egypt. When the people broke their covenant at this time, they also violated one of the most important Torah provisions and insulted God in the process. No wonder God’s response was so severe! Judgment would come to Judah by the hands of the Babylonians.
Jeremiah 34:21-22 NKJV 21 'And I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon's army which has gone back from you. 22 'Behold, I will command,' says the LORD, 'and cause them to return to this city. They will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.'"
King Zedekiah would face judgment as well, but his life would be spared. His judgment would be to be taken into captivity in humiliation to face the Babylonian king.
Jeremiah 34:2-5 NKJV 2 "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: 'Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah and tell him, "Thus says the LORD: 'Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. 3 'And you shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be taken and delivered into his hand; your eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon, he shall speak with you face to face, and you shall go to Babylon.'"' 4 "Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: 'You shall not die by the sword. 5 'You shall die in peace; as in the ceremonies of your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so they shall burn incense for you and lament for you, saying, "Alas, lord!" For I have pronounced the word, says the LORD.'"
Even though the end of this Haftarah reading ends with Jeremiah’s prophecy that the Children of Israel will be defeated, the city of Jerusalem burned and left desolate, and king Zedekiah along with the remaining population taken off to Babylon, we know that this isn’t the end of the story. The opening two verses of this Haftarah reading would be best left to read at the end of this portion. It might serve us well to read them again.
Jeremiah 33:25-26 NKJV 25 "Thus says the LORD: 'If My covenant is not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth, 26 'then I will cast away the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, so that I will not take any of his descendants to be rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will cause their captives to return, and will have mercy on them.'"
We can see that God takes His covenants seriously! God kept His obligations under this covenant even though Israel and Judah did not. But how does this Haftarah relate to us and our relationship to God through Messiah Yeshua? When we accepted the sacrifice that Yeshua made, we too entered into a covenant relationship with God. Yes, we fail from time to time because of our flesh and our sin nature. But God is faithful to his obligations under this covenant as well. Our salvation is built upon His promise to never forsake His obligation to His covenants.
Hebrews 9:15 NKJV 15 And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
Just like with Israel, God may prescribe discipline on us, yet just like the promise to the People of Judah in Zedekiah’s time, God will always remain faithful to His people and He will restore them, and we are no exception.
God kept His promises to the Children of Israel and brought them back from their captivity and restored their nation once again. And the modern State of Israel owes her very existence to God’s covenant promises, and so do we. Yeshua reminds us of His covenant keeping promise in John’s gospel.
John 10:26-30 NKJV 26 "But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. 27 "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand. 30 "I and My Father are one."
We have learned that this Haftarah is indeed about much more than slavery. It is all about the nature of covenants and their importance in our relationship with the LORD of hosts. It is about His unfailing, covenant keeping nature and His promise to all who call on His name. Just as the battered and beaten Israel needed to be reminded of God’s Covenantal promise to them and their relationship to Him through His covenant, so do we who claim to know Messiah Yeshua. Just like with the Children of Israel, we also from time to time will fall victim to our own shortcomings. But by our reliance on, and faithfulness to His word, we are reminded that we have entered into a covenantal relationship with Him through a better sacrifice and, by extension, a better promise, He will forever and always be faithful to that covenant!
1. Discuss the connection of this teaching to the Torah Portion Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18?
2. Discuss the connection of this teaching with last weeks teaching that included the Northern kingdom of Israel taking captives from Judah. See 2 Chronicles 28,
3. Why was Zedekiah spared the immediate punishment of death for breaking the covenant unlike the others? What eventually happened to Zedekiah and how is his final disposition a worse punishment? Why do you think God promised Zedekiah that he would die in peace?
4. Why do you think that the return of the Babylonians to sack the city of Jerusalem and take all the remaining people captive is appropriate discipline for breaking the covenant?
5. According to Leviticus 25:39-43 the children of Israel could not, in practice, be actual slaves in the household of another Israelite. Compare their actual practice of slavery with this passage as well as the words of Yeshua and the apostle Paul.
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