Welcome to Unpacking the Old Testament, the new series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament.
First Reading for this Sunday, August 18: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10.
This reading from Jeremiah offers a portrait of bad leadership and good friendship. The city of Jerusalem is surrounded by the Babylonian armies. Jeremiah has prophesied to the people that those who stay and fight will lose their lives, but those who surrender to the Babylonians will be spared (Jer 38:2).
Instead of heeding the Lord’s advice to surrender given through the prophet, the top officials of the Jerusalem court approach the king with a contrary message. They claim that Jeremiah’s message is “demoralizing,” or literally, “weakening the hands” of the Judahite soldiers. So they ask King Zedekiah to punish Jeremiah with a slow and painful death by having him cast into a cistern.
A cistern is basically a water storage tank that in ancient Israel could hold tens of thousands gallons. Archaeologists have found many cisterns in the Holy Land. Cisterns would often be about 20 feet deep, carved in the bedrock limestone under Jerusalem, and coated with plaster on the inside to keep them water-tight. People would fill cisterns during the rainy season and use them for drinking water during the dry season. The opening for filling and emptying a cistern was usually only 2 or 3 feet in diameter, only big enough to get a bucket or person through. It would be virtually impossible to escape from a cistern if you fell into one. For that reason, a dry cistern makes an excellent jail cell or hiding place. At the pilgrimage site St. Peter in Gallicantu in Jerusalem, you can pay a visit to what is called the “Sacred Pit.” It is a cistern where early Christian tradition holds that Jesus was imprisoned on the night before he died.
King Zedekiah does not protest the officials’ suggestion, but instead gives Jeremiah “into their power” and asserts that he, as king, “can do nothing” against them (38:5). Even though he is God’s appointed king and holds all political power in Judah himself, he surrenders to his advisors and pretends to be powerless. This is a moment that calls for leadership. In the face of foreign armies and a sad prophecy, the king ought to submit his kingdom to God’s will, not to the will of his advisors. Indeed, he should protect the prophet of God from those who are trying to kill him. Instead, he abandons his responsibility. He decides to sit as a spectator when God has invested him with authority and responsibility to act. His saying that he “can do nothing” is really a lie born out of weakness.
With the King’s permission, the officials then take Jeremiah and lower him down into a cistern. They are hesitant to do direct violence against him since he is God’s prophet, but they want to silence his voice in this time of military crisis. Their plan is that Jeremiah will die of starvation in the cistern and they will only be indirectly responsible for his death. Again, we observe a disingenuous avoidance of responsibility. The officials do not want to be guilty of murder, so they set up a situation that seems like it would mitigate their guilt. But they, just like King Zedekiah, are fooling themselves. If Jeremiah dies, his blood will be on their hands.
A Muddy Death Sentence
The cistern where Jeremiah finds himself has no water in it, but it has years of muddy sludge at the bottom. Notably, he follows in the footsteps of another Old Testament hero. Joseph had been cast into a cistern by his brothers who, like the officials, wanted to avoid directly harming him (Gen 37:24). Jeremiah sinks into the sludge, probably at least up to his knees. The prophet would be tempted to despair since he has no food or water, is stuck in mud at the bottom of a cistern from which there is no hope of escape—and on the king’s orders! Many times in our lives, I think it is tempting to despair, to think our situation is desperate and unredeemable. But God has a way of turning our expectations upside down.
Fortunately, Jeremiah has a good friend who is willingly to stick his neck out for him. Ebed-melech, who name means “servant of the king,” is an Ethiopian eunuch in King Zedekiah’s court. The Lectionary omits the verse that introduces him, Jer 38:7. Ebed-melech is one of two Ethiopian eunuchs mentioned in the Bible; the other appears in Acts 8:27. Eunuchs were castrated men who often took care of a king’s wives.
Ebed-melech approaches King Zedekiah and pleads with him to reverse his decision. Notice how he blames “these men” and does not blame the king himself for Jeremiah’s death sentence. Yet Ebed-melech knows that the king himself is ultimately responsible. He also emphasizes that starvation will be the cause of Jeremiah’s death, not malice. His judicious use of words may save Jeremiah’s life at this moment. The wishy-washy king now changes his mind and commands Ebed-melech to extract Jeremiah from the muddy cistern. His lack of moral courage is shown by his submission to the will of his officials, allowing them to unjustly condemn Jeremiah and now is shown again by his submission to one of his servants. Zedekiah’s weakness in leadership is on full display.
Ebed-melech gets some rope for hoisting and rags for padding and throws them down to Jeremiah. He needs several men to get the prophet unstuck from the mud. Thankfully, they are able to get Jeremiah out of the muddy cistern and protect him from the ruthless officials.
In this first reading, we see a prophet willing to risk it all to speak God’s message, an uncourageous king who is unable to protect the prophet, and a good friend willing to risk the king’s wrath for the sake of the prophet.