When we think of the conquest of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem, we tend to think of the exiles taken into captivity, hauled off to build a city of their own along the banks of Euphrates, to play their songs for those who will never truly appreciate those songs, and to weep and mourn and remember the loss.
But there was another remnant of Judah whose lives were also changed by the war that laid waste to Jerusalem:
9 Then Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, carried into exile to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained. 10 Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time. (Jeremiah 39:9-10 ESV)
The elites have been carried into exile. The people who keep and preserve the stories, rituals, and myths of Israel, who tend the temple, who count the coins in the treasury, who determine and manage the affairs of the court and the nation — they are gone. The city is broken and burnt, as wasteland, a shell of what it once was.
But only the elite have gone into exile. Judah is still full of Judeans, who are still God’s people, people with a language and culture and customs, and they have inherited the land from its dispossessed elite. The occupiers have doled out some of that which they have taken from the people they have conquered, and given it to the poor, to those “who owned nothing.”
It is interesting to note how this distribution of land comes about. As a result of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah’s elite. I wonder how many of those who “owned nothing” were actually debtors who had been dispossessed, for whom this is something of a redemption as outlined in Leviticus 25. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers [תוֹשָׁבִ֛ים] and sojourners [גֵרִ֧ים] with me. And in all the country that you possess, you shall allow redemption of the land,” God tells Israel through Moses in Leviticus 25:23-24.
So, this land doesn’t belong to Israel. It belongs to God. Any talk of promised land and title deed needs to remember that. And even as Babylon has taken possession, it is still God’s land. Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian captain of the guard who with his own hands packed Israel off into exile, speaks to Jeremiah with the voice and authority of God — “The Lord your [singular] God pronounced this disaster against this place. The Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said. Because you [plural] sinned against the Lord and sis not about his voice, this thing has come upon you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:2-3) He appoints a governor, Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, to rule the remnant in Judah.
And Gedaliah speaks to the conquered remnant of Judah: “Do not be afraid to serve the Chaldeans. Dwell in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:9) And many refugees return to Judah, all but the elites of Jerusalem, and “they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance.” (Jeremiah 40:12)
So, perhaps it makes some sense that in the wake of the disaster, the land that had belonged to the elites — who sit in carts and trudge in long caravans on their way to far-off exile — gets doled out to “the poor people who owned nothing.” They are still the people of God, these poor who own nothing, still inheritors of the promise, even as their elites have been carted off into exile.
There are two remnants here. Those in Babylon, who would found the settlement of Tel Aviv along the banks of the Euphrates, who would wonder what the promise of God meant given the disaster that transpired, and what the promise of God to dwell among his people meant given that God’s house has been reduced to rubble and is, to boot, so far away. And those is Judah, who have inherited the land, who are left to work it.
Of course, there is chaos. Gedaliah, the leader of the Judean remnant, is murdered by a member of the dispossessed royal family. And his murderers eventually flee with Jeremiah and many of the other remnant of Judah to Egypt, even after Jeremiah warns them not to. Jeremiah pronounces doom on those who flee to Egypt, and says few will return to Judah. Those who go to Egypt will be tempted by its gods, and that remnant will be consumed by sword and fire and famine.
And they are. Again, this is no abstract if-then, else-then.
But it’s worth it to remember Jeremiah’s words to the remnant in Judah, as they pondered their fates following the assassination of Gedaliah. While Israel did not heed Jeremiah’s words, it is worth remembering God’s promise to a conquered and occupied people:
10 If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you. 11 Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him, declares the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. 12 I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land. (Jeremiah 42:10-12 ESV)