A besieged city, political intrigue and weak leadership are the back-drop to this Sunday’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah.
The setting is Jerusalem under threat from an expanding Babylonian Empire. The leader is Zedekiah, essentially a puppet-king put in place by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.
The intrigue is the tussle between the various court factions, each trying to sway Zedekiah into one direction or another.
The events being described took place sometime between 588-587BC. The twelve tribes of ancient Israel which had once formed a single nation under King David had long ago split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah based around the capital city, Jerusalem, in the south.
Israel had fallen to the then world power, Assyria, back in 721BC. However, a century later, Babylon (which would today be in Iraq) had taken over from Assyria as the major threat to the region, and this new empire was quickly expanding south and west, threatening Egypt which needed allies, as well as a buffer zone between the two empires.
Some at Zedekiah’s court urged the king to unite with the Egyptians in their fight against the Babylonian Empire. Others argued that he should stay in alliance with Babylonia and remain a ‘vassal’ state.
In today’s excerpt, Zedekiah has thrown his lot in with the Egyptians and brought the wrath of the Babylonian Empire upon the city. A weak king, he is paralysed by what to do next: fight on or surrender.
The beginning of the reading has the Egyptian faction at court gaining the upper hand. They demand the execution of Jeremiah, who has been urging surrender to the Babylonians as the only way to avoid bloodshed.
Jeremiah saw the total dominance of the Babylonian Empire in the region as inevitable and believed the fall of Jerusalem to be a punishment from God for the people’s readiness to abandon their faith and worship other gods from the region.
He urged the people not to fight, to accept deportation if necessary, and to trust in the Lord whatever came, rather than rely on politics.
So King Zedekiah has Jeremiah thrown into a well, or water cistern, which has become clogged up with mud.
The second half of the reading sees the intervention of Ebed-melech, a Babylonian supporter and ally of Jeremiah. Note how easily he persuades the king to change his mind and save Jeremiah from drowning in the mud.
Zedekiah is chained and brought before Nebuchadnezzar
Ebed-melech cleverly puts the blame for Jeremiah’s predicament on the king’s advisors, neatly overlooking the fact that it was Zedekiah who had ordered it. He also plays on the king’s fear that Jeremiah is truly a prophet of God and that harming him in any way will bring down terrible retribution on his family and his reign.
In the end, Zedekiah refused to listen to Jeremiah. His policy of flirting with an Eqyptian alliance ends in disaster and leads to the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the deportation of many of the people as slaves in Babylon.
JEREMIAH 38: 4-6, 8-10
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C