Carried Away Captives: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

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A prominently displayed phrase around the campus of Brigham Young University (BYU) is “Enter to learn, go forth to serve.” I’ve always loved this phrase as a reminder of the goal of a BYU education – to serve others and spread light, truth, and knowledge.

Four verses in Jeremiah reminded me of that phrase: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Now what exactly do those verses have to do with that phrase seen often at BYU?

The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter (an epistle in the terminology of the New Testament) to “the residue of the elders which were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:1). This letter was sent to the diaspora Jews and other descendants of Israel. Jeremiah counseled those who were taken away captive to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children, and so forth. They were to live their lives, just as the Israelites did in Egypt. Further, they were to “seek the peace of the city…and pray unto the Lord for it.”

So they were to put down roots. Captive Israelites were to prepare for their return but plant symbolic and real fruit trees. They were to strive to be good citizens and even pray for their captors – their enemies – for if their captors were at peace, they would have peace.

Now for our modern application. We should bloom where we are planted. We should build Zion wherever we are – good, bad, or mediocre. A BYU education is a call to service. Graduates have an opportunity, a responsibility, to go out and strengthen the stakes and enlarge the tent of Zion wherever they (we) are. If we are in a land of wickedness, if we are in a city full of oppressors, we should pray for them and pray and work for peace. This reminds me of a quote ascribed to Joseph Smith: “If we [the Saints] go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society.” (Teachings of Joseph Smith, chapter 45).

Wherever we are, we should have sons and daughters or risk being “diminished.” Wherever we are called to be in life, we can strive for peace around us and improve the shining moments. We might not be able to bid Babylon farewell to dwell in the mountains of Ephraim but it we merely wait for a Moses, we might be waiting a long time. Instead, we should build our houses upon the rock of our Redeemer and find peace in Babylon without becoming of Babylon. We can dwell in Babylon without it dwelling in us. That is the essence of a consecrated life – a life a holiness, dedicated to God, and separated (set apart) from the things of the world with Zion in our hearts and homes. We can build our own personal gardens and eat of their fruit rather than live on the fruit of the Assyrian gardens, impressive though they may appear, that do not produce the fruit of the Tree of Life.

"Hanging Gardens of Babylon". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon.jpg

“Hanging Gardens of Babylon”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon.jpg

Broken Cisterns That Can Hold No Water

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Israel during the Iron Age (started before 1000 B.C. and ended around 700 A.D.¹) is believed to have had a climate similar to today’s. It can be very hot and dry, particularly during the summer months. Jerusalem typically receives less than 22 inches (554 mm), which is significant rain for a semi-arid region, but Jerusalem receives no to trace amounts of rain on average during the months of May through September. This makes the storage of potable water vital for sustaining life. In ancient times (and modern) cisterns were cut into rock and, if necessary, lined with waterproof plaster. Cisterns could be small or large, even large enough to be classified as reservoirs. Cisterns could collect rain water directly or receive run-off water that was filtered through layers of sand, silt, and rocks. Methods of construction varied by location throughout Israel and as technology advanced. One example of a cistern found in Israel is depicted below (Figure 1). Other cisterns were open and many were small. Open cisterns, such as those that were common throughout ancient Israel, were constructed in the following manner: “Only the conduits and the upper opening of the cistern can be seen on the surface. The opening is marked by a large stone in which a hole was cut, to which a wooden or an iron door was often attached. Below the opening a bottleneck was cut, lined with well-cut and dressed stones. This neck went down to the bedrock, usually the soft chalk. Below the bottleneck the cistern widened, typically in a rounded shape achieved by cutting into bedrock.” (Rubin, 1988). Many homes had cisterns built into the foundation in order to collect rain and drainage from the roof (Figure 2).

cistern

Figure 1. From Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. "Water conservation methods in Israel's Negev desert in late antiquity." Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Water was and is important. Cisterns had to be constructed correctly otherwise they could leak water or the water could become contaminated. Cisterns had to be lined precisely and often needed plastering for waterproofing. If this was not done or was done incorrectly, the cistern was broken and could not hold water.

The prophet Jeremiah was from a village called Anathoth, which was 3 miles (4.83 km) north of Jerusalem. He lived around 600 B.C. The Lord called Jeremiah as a prophet and Jeremiah began his ministry around 626 B.C. and continued at least until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

Jeremiah showed great courage in the face of many trials. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and called the people to repentance. The prophet Lehi, who plays a prominent role early in the Book of Mormon, was a contemporary of Jeremiah. Whereas Jeremiah’s mission was to remain as a warning voice to Israel, Lehi was commanded to flee Jerusalem, running over the wall, and head to a new, promised land. How lush and bountiful the Americas were compared to the land of Israel!

Jeremiah has been referred to as the “Weeping Prophet” because of his lamentations over the destruction of Israel and the wickedness of the people: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.” (Lamentations 1:1-2). The great artist Rembrandt painted lamenting Jeremiah (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the book of Jeremiah we read of the two great evils of the people of Israel: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13). The people of Israel turned away from God. They rejected the Living Fountain. The people of Israel had forgotten the miracle of Moses – the great salvation provided by God – when their mothers and fathers wandered in the wilderness: “And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Exodus 17:3-6).

The Israelites forsook the Lord. They also “hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Broken cisterns were life-threatening, particularly during the summer months. Wells and other sources of water were available but cisterns could be built close to homes and could be more easily defended. The Lord, through Jeremiah, lamented over the poor eternal craftsmanship of the Israelites. They were more focused on the things of the world than they were on the things of God. Many Israelites made choices to worship the golden calves created by their hands rather than turn to the Lord in remembrance of His great power and salvation. The people of Israel longed for the things of Babylon while not believing that destructive Babylon was on their doorstep, about to demolish their homes and lead them away into captivity. Rather than partaking of the living waters of the Lord and remaining free, their cisterns were broken and many perished. It’s no wonder that Jeremiah lamented!

                                                                                                                                     

¹Side note on the subject of iron and carbonized iron (steel). Steel was likely first produced before 3000 B.C. There is evidence of manufactured steel dating to about 1800 B.C. found in an archaeological site in Turkey (Akanuma, H. (2005). “The significance of the composition of excavated iron fragments taken from Stratum III at the site of Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey”. Anatolian Archaeological Studies 14: 147–158.). Steel dating from 667 B.C. has also been found in archaeological excavations in Thebes  (Williams, Alan R., and K. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. “Ancient steel from Egypt.”Journal of Archaeological Science 3, no. 4 (1976): 283-305.). This steel was thought to be brought by an invading Assyrian army. While bronze, copper, and iron were used broadly, steel was manufactured for tools and weapons all around the Mediterranean region, particularly the near/middle east. Steel was thus produced and used during the time of Jeremiah (which was also the time of Lehi, Nephi, and Laban [who, according to the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, owned a steel sword]).