An Emancipation Proclamation
Yirmeyahu 34 describes how Tzidkiyahu makes a covenant with the people, calling for the emancipation of their slaves. The move is met with Hashem's approval, but apparently it does not take long for the nation to renege on their promise and re-enslave their former servants. As a result of their actions, Hashem warns that they will be delivered into the hands of their enemies.
The chapter does not provide a motive for either the emancipation or the re-enslavement. What prompted the king to suddenly proclaim liberty for all? Was he driven by a desire to fulfill the Torah's ordinances or by more mundane concerns? If the former, why specifically now did he decide to heed Hashem's words, and, out of all possible laws to observe, why did he choose this one specifically? Finally, why was the move so short-lived? What changed that led the people to go back on their word and repossess their slaves?
The chapter raises several other questions which might bear on the issues discussed above:
- Historical backdrop – Our story is not dated, making its historical backdrop somewhat ambiguous. However, the verses immediately preceding our story (34:1-7) suggest that Yerushalayim was under attack by the Babylonians, and surrounding chapters speak of the Babylonian siege. How might these events have affected the various decisions of the king and people regarding their slaves?
- Role of Yirmeyahu – The chapter does not mention any role played by Yirmeyahu in the freeing of the slaves. Does this imply that he did not participate in the event? If so, why not?
- The covenant – Why was the decision to free the slaves sealed by a covenant, and why did the ceremony take place in the Mikdash itself (v. 15)? The ceremony is reminiscent of the Covenant Between the Pieces (Bereshit 15:9-18), as it, too, involved slicing a calf in two and passing between its pieces. Is there any significance to the similarity? Did the people intentionally model their covenant after that of Hashem and Avraham, or is this simply the customary manner in which covenants were made?