This essay is dedicated to Dr. Gabriel “Goby” Barkay and Zachi Zweig, co-directors of the Temple Mount Sifting Project; and to the tens of thousands who have sifted the dirt from the Holy Hill of Zion (Psalm 102:14)
It is always the archaeologist’s dream to find inscriptional material, such as a seal, bulla, stela, ostraca, clay tablet, papyrus, scroll, or even just graffiti on a wall. In Israel, an inscription is a rare find, and some are revealed to be forgeries.
In the summer of 2005, the Jerusalem Post reported the discovery of a tenth-century wall in the City of David in Jerusalem by Dr. Eilat Mazar. One of her area supervisors also discovered a bulla (a dried lump of clay with a seal impression on it) of an individual named “Jerucal ben [son of] Shelemiah ben [son of] Shevi.” The name of this person appears in Jeremiah 37:3 and 38:1. This seal impression adds a detail that the Bible does not mention: the name of his grandfather, Shevi (Lefkovits 2005:13; Mazar 2007:67-69).
In this essay we will examine the command that God gave to Jeremiah to redeem a field from his cousin, Hanamel of Anathoth. Particular attention will be given to the archaeological background to this chapter and how it illustrates the Biblical text. Jeremiah’s obedience to God’s command, in spite of a hopeless situation, was a vivid lesson to the people of Judah that God would return His people from the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah had publicly proclaimed to the people of Judah that God would restore them to the land after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah’s faith in the promise of God was shown by buying the field at Anathoth, a city already destroyed by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was literally putting his money where his mouth was!
Jeremiah Redeems a Field in Anathoth as a Sign of Future Redemption (32:1-15)
The Time Setting. 32:1, 2
The date that is given in this chapter is the tenth year of Zedekiah and the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar (32:1). This date would be in 587 BC. Two deportations of Judeans to Babylon had already taken place (605 BC and 598 BC). In the tenth year of Zedekiah, the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem (32:2). Jeremiah was in the court of the prison in the king’s house, possibly on the Western Hill.
In the preceding two chapters (Jer. 30 and 31), Jeremiah forewarned the Judeans of the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah as well as the Babylonian captivity. But he also predicted that the people would return to the land of Judah. For this reason, these chapters have been called the “book of consolation” or “book of hope” (cf. Jer. 30:2). At least nine times he predicts that the people of Judah will return to the land (30:10,11, 30:18, 31:3-6, 31:7-9, 31:10-12, 31:16,17, 31:18, 31:23,24).
King Zedekiah complains of Jeremiah’s prophecies. 32:3-5
The Prophet Jeremiah was not a popular preacher. He did not say to the people of Judah that God did not care about their lifestyle and that they could go on living in their sins. Nor did he say that the Babylonians were a peace-loving people with only good intentions toward Jerusalem and Judah. King Zedekiah understood the words of the prophet: First, the LORD was going to use the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem (32:3; cf. 21:4-6); second, King Zedekiah would attempt to flee from the Babylonians but he would be captured and taken to see King Nebuchadnezzar face to face (32:4; cf. 21:7); and finally, King Zedekiah would be taken captive to Babylon (32:5a). Jeremiah also added that it would be futile to fight the Babylonian army (32:5b).
King Zedekiah did not like Jeremiah’s “doom-and-gloom” preaching. Yet everything Jeremiah said was based on the Mosaic Law as recorded in the Torah. As history unfolded, everything Jeremiah said in his seven encounters with King Zedekiah (Jer. 21:1-7, 32:1-5, 34:1-7, 37:1-15, 37:16-21, 38:1-6, 38:14-28) came to pass (2 Kings 25:4-7; Jer. 39:1-10). What Jeremiah had not told him was that his sons would be killed and his eyes would be put out by the Babylonians.
Jeremiah recounts the story of redeeming a field in Anathoth. 32:6-15
The city of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown, is located 4 kilometers (2½ miles) to the north of the Temple Mount in the tribal territory of Benjamin (cf. Josh. 18:11-28; Jer. 1:1, 11:21-23, 29:27, 32:7-9; Hareuveni 1991). It was also a Levitical city (Josh. 21:18). Two of David’s mighty men, Abiezar and Jehu, came from this city (2 Sam. 23:27; 1 Chron. 11:28, 12:3, 27:12). A high priest, Abiathar, was exiled to his estate in the city (1 Kings 2:26). During the Syro-Ephraimite Campaign, Anathoth was a target for the invading army (Isa. 10:30). After the Babylonian exile, some of the people of Anathoth returned to their hometown, just as Jeremiah had prophesized (Ezra 2:23; Neh. 7:27, 11:32).
Jeremiah was in prison when the Lord spoke to him and said that his cousin, Hanamel, was going to visit and ask Jeremiah to buy his field in Anathoth (32:6-7). Jeremiah realized it was the hand of the Lord when Hanamel, the son of Shallum, showed up and asked Jeremiah to redeem his field in Anathoth partially based on the laws recorded in Leviticus 25:23-28. Jeremiah might have been aware that Anathoth had already fallen to the Babylonians (cf. 32:25). He redeemed the field because God commanded him to do so, rather than thinking: “This must be some cruel joke by my relatives who plotted to kill me a few years ago along with the men of Anathoth (Jer. 11:18-23). Now they are trying to sell me this field after the Babylonians destroyed the city. What a scam!” God commanded him to buy the field so that Judah would have a sign that they would one day return from captivity in Babylon.
In verses 9-15 the transaction is recorded in detail. The first thing Jeremiah did was to weigh out the 17 shekels of silver scraps in order to buy the field (32:9). During the Iron Age, money – minted coins – had not yet been invented. So the shekels of silver would have been a weight of silver, not coins. Today, we would call it “junk silver,” e.g., broken pieces of a silver ring, silverware, old silver coins. In 1968, the largest hoard of junk silver ever discovered was in five Iron Age vessels in the ancient city of Eshtemoa in the Judean Hills. These vessels contained a total of 27.21 kilograms (62 pounds) of junk silver (Yeivin 1987:38-44).
One shekel of silver weighed 11.33 grams (Kletter 1991:122,134). Jeremiah would have purchased the land for about 182.61 grams (0.182 kilograms) of silver. To give the American reader a contemporary perspective, that amount of silver would be equivalent to 73 Mercury-head dimes worth of silver. Keep in mind; however, there is not a speck of silver in the dimes currently being minted because they have been debased by the federal government!
Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the transaction are not known. One cannot conclude that the land was worth $7.30; the amount of silver used to purchase the land is equal to the amount of silver in 73 Mercury-head dimes, but its value is not. Therefore, we have no idea what the value of silver was at the time or whether its value was inflated because of the siege. We also do not know the size of the field being purchased or its market value. All we know for certain is that Jeremiah paid 17 shekels for that field.
Jeremiah put 17 stone shekel weights on a pan on one side of the scale and proceeded to put seventeen shekels of silver scraps on a pan on the other side until the scale was balanced (32:10). During the 1977 season at the excavations of Tel Lachish, half of a balance beam from a scale was discovered in Stratum IV of Area S, dated to the middle of the eighth century BC. It was made of ivory, or polished bone, and was 10.1 cm (4 inches) long. If it were complete, then it would be about 20 cm (8 inches) long. The only other balance beam to be found in an archaeological excavation was at Megiddo (Barkay 1996:75-82).
To finalize the land purchase, two “purchase deeds” were written up: an open one and a sealed one (32:10-14). The deeds were identical, but, in case of a dispute, the sealed one was the one that was binding. The sealed deed was put in a safe place so it could be opened if there was a problem. Probably, the transaction information, including the price of the sale, a description of the field being sold, and the identity of the buyer and seller were recorded on the document, which was papyrus. One deed was rolled up and tied with a string. A lump of clay was then placed on the string, and an impression was made with a seal that contained the owner’s name and possibly his title. This clay impression is known as a bulla (plural bullae). Although it is not stated in the text, the witnesses to the transaction might have added their bullae as well (Avigad 1986:125-127; Shiloh 1986:36-38; for illustrations as to how the deed might have been sealed: Avigad 1986:123, Fig. 4; Brandl 2000:60, Fig. 6; 63, Fig. 9).
The deeds were handed to Baruch the son of Neriah the son of Mahseiah for safe keeping. A bulla with the inscription “(Belonging) to Berekhyahu son of Neriyahu the scribe” was discovered in a non-provenanced hoard of bullae and published by Professor Nahman Avigad (1978, 1979, and 1986). A second, identical bulla is in a private collection (Shanks 1996:36-38). Baruch is the shortened form of the name Berekhyahu. Most likely this bulla was used by Baruch to seal documents when he was a royal scribe before 605/604 BC. Avigad suggests that “Baruch seems eventually to have left his official position [of royal scribe] and joined Jeremiah in his struggle against the pro-Egyptian, anti-Babylonian policy of the court, a policy which was soon to lead to the destruction of Jerusalem” (1986:130). A word of caution is in order: recently one scholar identified these two bullae as forgeries (Rollston 2003:161), but there is still a scholarly debate as to their authenticity.
Jeremiah instructed Baruch to take both purchase deeds and place them in an earthen vessel so they would be preserved for a long time (32:13-14). During the 1982 season at the City of David excavations in Jerusalem, 51 bullae (later revised to 53) were discovered in Locus 967 in Area G. This is the “first time that so large a group of easily legible Hebrew sealings has come to light in a controlled excavation, in a clear stratigraphic context and accompanied by architectural, ceramic and historical evidence” (Shiloh 1986:16-17). On the floor of what is now known as the “House of the Bullae” were found “two vessels of uncommon form – tall kraters with high trumpet bases. The latter are distinguished by their exceptionally high-quality slip and wheel-burnish covering the entire body. At the base of the body is a drainage (?) hole, made prior to firing” (Shiloh 1986:23-24; Fig. 6:2-3; Pl. 6A). The excavator, Yigal Shiloh, suggested the possibility that these two kraters “may have served for storage of the papyri, the bullae from which were found scattered around them” (1986:36). This collection of bullae dates to the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries BC, which would make them contemporary with the Prophet Jeremiah (Shoham 2000:30).
Jeremiah paid 17 shekels of silver to redeem his cousin’s field in Anathoth. He signed the land deed, sealed it with his personal seal, which the witnesses probably did as well, and then delivered the deed to his confidant Baruch for safe keeping in a clay vessel, most likely in an administrative archive. This account ends with the promise from the Lord that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land” (32:15).
The situation looked bleak, because the Babylonians were about to destroy Jerusalem and take the Judeans captive to Babylon. Jeremiah, however, rested in the promise of God and proclaimed that the people would return to their land and rebuild their cities. He put his money where his mouth was by redeeming his cousin’s field.
Perhaps one day, archaeologists will find a bulla or seal with the name of Jeremiah the prophet on it in a controlled archaeological excavation!
1978 Baruch the Scribe and Jerahmeel the King’s Son. Israel Exploration Journal 28: 52-56.
1979 Jerahmeel and Baruch. King’s Son and Scribe. Biblical Archaeologist 42: 114-118.
1986 Hebrew Bullae From the Time of Jeremiah. Remnants of a Burnt Archive. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
1996 A Balance Beam from Tel Lachish. Tel Aviv 23/1: 75-82.
2000 Bullae with Figurative Decoration. Pp. 58-74 in Excavations at the City of David 1978-1985 Directed by Yigal Shiloh. Final Report VI. Inscriptions. Edited by D. T. Ariel. Qedem 41. Jerusalem: Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University.
1991 Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage. Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim.
1991 The Inscribed Weights of the Kingdom of Judah. Tel Aviv 18/2: 121-163.
2005 Shards of Evidence. The Jerusalem Post August 11. Page 13.
2007 Preliminary Report on the City of David Excavations 2005 at the Visitors Center. Jerusalem and New York: Shalem.
2003 Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests. Maarav 10:135-195.
1996 Fingerprint of Jeremiah’s Scribe. Biblical Archaeology Review 22/2: 36-38.
1986 A Group of Hebrew Bullae from the City of David. Israel Exploration Journal 36/1-2: 16-38.
2000 Hebrew Bullae. Pp. 29-57 in Excavations at the City of David 1978-1985 Directed by Yigal Shiloh. Final Report VI. Inscriptions. Edited by D. T. Ariel. Qedem 41. Jerusalem: Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University.
1987 The Mysterious Silver Hoard from Eshtemoa. Biblical Archaeology Review 13/6: 38-44.