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Jeremiah 34:8-16

The Lord Threatens to Destroy Those Who Wronged Their Slaves

34:8 The Lord spoke to Jeremiah after King Zedekiah had made a covenant 1  with all the people in Jerusalem 2  to grant their slaves their freedom. 34:9 Everyone was supposed to free their male and female Hebrew slaves. No one was supposed to keep a fellow Judean enslaved. 3  34:10 All the people and their leaders had agreed to this. They had agreed to free their male and female slaves and not keep them enslaved any longer. They originally complied with the covenant and freed them. 4  34:11 But later 5  they had changed their minds. They had taken back their male and female slaves that they had freed and forced them to be slaves again. 6  34:12 That was when the Lord spoke to Jeremiah, 7  34:13 “The Lord God of Israel has a message for you. 8  ‘I made a covenant with your ancestors 9  when I brought them out of Egypt where they had been slaves. 10  It stipulated, 11  34:14 “Every seven years each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you for six years, you shall set them free.” 12  But your ancestors did not obey me or pay any attention to me. 34:15 Recently, however, you yourselves 13  showed a change of heart and did what is pleasing to me. You granted your fellow countrymen their freedom and you made a covenant to that effect in my presence in the house that I have claimed for my own. 14  34:16 But then you turned right around 15  and showed that you did not honor me. 16  Each of you took back your male and female slaves whom you had freed as they desired, and you forced them to be your slaves again. 17 

1 tn Usually translated “covenant.” See the study note on 11:2 for the rationale for the translation here.

sn There are no details regarding the nature of this covenant, but it was probably a parity covenant in which the people agreed to free their slaves in exchange for some concessions from the king (see the study note on 11:2 for more details on the nature of ancient Near Eastern covenants). More details about this covenant are given in vv. 15, 18-19 where it is said to have been made before the Lord in the temple and involved passing between the pieces of a cut-up calf. Hence it involved their swearing an oath invoking the Lord’s name (cf. Gen 21:23; 31:51-53; 1 Sam 20:42) and pronouncing self-maledictory curses on themselves calling down on themselves a fate similar to that of the dead calf if they failed to keep it. (This latter practice is illustrated in treaty documents from the ancient Near East and is reflected in the covenant ceremony in Gen 15:8-16.)

2 map For location see Map5 B1; Map6 F3; Map7 E2; Map8 F2; Map10 B3; JP1 F4; JP2 F4; JP3 F4; JP4 F4.

3 tn Heb “after King Zedekiah made a covenant…to proclaim liberty to them [the slaves mentioned in the next verse] so that each would send away free his male slave and his female slave, the Hebrew man and the Hebrew woman, so that a man would not hold them in bondage, namely a Judean, his brother [this latter phrase is explicative of “them” because it repeats the preposition in front of “them”].” The complex Hebrew syntax has been broken down into shorter English sentences but an attempt has been made to retain the proper subordinations.

sn Through economic necessity some of the poorer people of the land had on occasion to sell themselves or their children to wealthier Hebrew landowners. The terms of their servitude were strictly regulated under Hebrew law (cf. Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:39-55; Deut 15:12-18). In brief, no Hebrew was to serve a fellow Hebrew for any longer than six years. In the seventh year he or she was to go free. The period could even be shortened if the year of jubilee intervened since all debts were to be canceled, freedom restored, and indentured property returned in that year. Some see the covenant here coming in conjunction with such a jubilee year since it involved the freedom of all slaves regardless of how long they had served. Others see this covenant as paralleling an old Babylonian practice of a king declaring liberty for slaves and canceling all debts generally at the beginning of his reign (but also at other significant times within it) in order to ingratiate himself with his subjects.

4 tn Heb “And they complied, [that is] all the leaders and all the people who entered into the covenant that they would each let his male slave and his female slave go free so as not to hold them in bondage any longer; they complied and they let [them] go.” The verb “they complied” (Heb “they hearkened”) is repeated at the end after the lengthy description of the subject. This is characteristic of Hebrew style. The translation has resolved the complex sentence by making the relative clauses modifying the subject independent sentences describing the situational background before mentioning the main focus, “they had complied and let them go.”

5 sn Most commentators are agreed that the incident referred to here occurred during the period of relief from the siege provided by the Babylonians going off to fight against the Egyptians who were apparently coming to Zedekiah’s aid (compare vv. 21-22 with 37:5, 7). The freeing of the slaves had occurred earlier, under the crisis of the siege while the people were more responsive to the Lord due to the threat of destruction (cf. v. 15).

6 tn Heb “they had brought them into subjection for male and female slaves.” However, the qualification of “male and female” is already clear from the preceding and is unnecessary to the English sentence.

7 tn Heb “And the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying.” This is the resumption of the introduction in v. 8 after the lengthy description of the situation that had precipitated the Lord’s message to Jeremiah. “That was when” is intended to take the reader back to v. 8.

8 tn Heb “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘…’” The style adopted here has been used to avoid a longer, more complex English sentence.

9 tn Heb “fathers” (also in vv. 14, 15).

10 tn Heb “out of the house of bondage.”

sn This refers to the Mosaic covenant, initiated at Mount Sinai and renewed on the plains of Moab. The statement “I brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” functions as the “historical prologue” in the Ten Commandments which is the Lord’s vassal treaty with Israel in miniature. (See the study note on 11:2 and see Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6 and Exod 34:8. As such it was a motivating factor in their pledge of loyalty to him. This statement was also invoked within the law itself as a motivation for kindly treatment of slaves including their emancipation (see Deut 15:15).)

11 tn Heb “made a covenant, saying.” This was only one of several stipulations of the covenant. The form used here has been chosen as an indirect way of relating the specific stipulation that is being focused upon to the general covenant that is referred to in v. 13.

12 sn Compare Deut 15:12-18 for the complete statement of this law. Here only the first part of it is cited.

13 tn The presence of the independent pronoun in the Hebrew text is intended to contrast their actions with those of their ancestors.

14 sn This refers to the temple. See Jer 7:10, 11, 14, 30 and see the translator’s note on 7:10 and the study note on 10:25 for the explanation of the idiom involved here.

15 sn The verb at the beginning of v. 15 and v. 16 are the same in the Hebrew. They had two changes of heart (Heb “you turned”), one that was pleasing to him (Heb “right in his eyes”) and one that showed they did not honor him (Heb “profaned [or belittled] his name”).

16 sn Heb “you profaned my name.” His name had been invoked in the oath confirming the covenant. Breaking the covenant involved taking his name in vain (cf. Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11; Jer 5:2). Hence the one who bore the name was not treated with the special honor and reverence due him (see the study note on 23:27 for the significance of “name” in the OT).

17 tn Heb “and you brought them into subjection to be to you for male and female slaves.” See the translator’s note on v. 11 for the same redundant repetition which is not carried over into the contemporary English sentence.

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