The name of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (משפטים), Exodus 21:1 through 24:18, means “judgments.” The Torah portion contains a list of commandments and guidelines for the exercise of righteousness and justice (mishpat, משפט). … Yeshua declared justice to be the first of three weighty matters of the Torah: “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).[i] This idea of “justice and mercy and faithfulness” is affirmed by the Psalmist as he proclaimed, “He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD,” (Psalm 33:5). Therefore, the mishpatim, here and throughout the Torah, are not burdensome precepts that one has to do but directives on how to live and rightly interact with one another as together we walk out “being holy and He is holy,” (Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1).
Unfortunately, Israel did not walk out the mishpatim, resulting in ADONAI having to discipline Israel as one would a disobedient child, (Hebrews 12:5-8). This Haftarah, Jeremiah 34:8-22 and 33:25-26 could easily be called a Tale of Three Covenants, or maybe a Tale of Two Covenants with an Epilogue.
Covenant #1: sequential in the narrative but not in history, the inhabitants of Judah, specifically in Jerusalem, had practiced the permitted option of “enslaving” or “indenturing” Jewish men and women in order to alleviate poverty (Leviticus 25:39-43). However, they were not being obedient to the commandment of releasing the indentured after six years (Exodus 21:2). The Lord was not happy, King Zedekiah and all those who “owned” the indentured, covenanted before the LORD to be obedient to the Scripture and release the indentured. Sounds, good, there was probably a great deal of rejoicing – for a short time. “…afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection as slaves,” (34:11).
Covenant #2, from history, beginning in 34:13, the LORD recounts the covenant He made with Bnei Israel when He brought them out of Egypt, from the “house of slavery.” He reminds the people that however necessary Hebrew slavery or indenturement might be, it was not to be for life, but only until the Year of Jubilee. “At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service,” (34:14a; Exodus 21:2).
Covenant #3, back to Jeremiah’s time. Covenant #2 was never obeyed by Bnei Israel, “But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me,” (34:14b); they never practiced the mitzvah of releasing the Hebrew slave. The people of Jeremiah’s time, while originally following their ancestors’ practices, when confronted by Jeremiah, covenanted with the LORD that they would release the indentured. But then retracted their vows, (34:11). The LORD confronted the people, “first you did good, according to your word and your vow in the Temple; then you turned around and spit in My face and made yourself liars,” (paraphrase of 34:15-16). Now comes the third covenant or epilogue, “Therefore, thus says the LORD: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty, to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the LORD. … I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.”” 34:17a and :22b). In essence, ADONAI gave liberty to the discipline of the sword, pestilence and famine; as He released the waters of the deep in Noach’s day, so He released the harbingers of justice and discipline upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea.
In light of this passage, two thoughts come to mind from the Apostolic Writings. The first is Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew;
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall carry out your oaths to Adonai.’ But I tell you, do not swear at all—not by heaven, for it is the throne of God; or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. But let your word ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’—anything more than this is from the evil one,” (Matthew 5:33-37).
In Jeremiah 34:15, the LORD’s charge against Jerusalem was not only that the former slaves had been re-indentured, but that the peoples’ promise had been in the form of a sworn covenant, making them oath-breakers as well. The inference, both for Israel and for us today; let our responses, both to the LORD and to others, be simply yes or no, with no elaborations. The second thought figures into this;
“Now what do you think? A man had two sons, and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘I won’t,’ but afterward he had a change of heart and went. The man went to the second son and said the same thing. But he answered, ‘I will, sir,’ and didn’t go. Which of the two did the will of the father,” (Matthew 21:28-31)?
In this parable, it appears that the second son never intended to do the will of his father, regardless of the words of his mouth. Looking back at the situation in Jeremiah’s time, it may have been better for the enslavement to have continued instead of the self-deception of false obedience that followed. What could have resulted in a change of heart and restoration of Covenant #2 dissolved into further disobedience, resulting in discipline and judgment.
Daily, at the end of the Amidah, we recite; “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer,” (Psalm 19:15). In light of this week’s Haftarah, it would to us all well to be cautious with both our words and our thoughts as we walk out our daily life in our communities; so that all we say, do, and think, “are acceptable before Adonai, our Rock and our Redeemer.”