Despite the chaos in the Land of Israel after the destruction there was hope that the remnant would rally around a man named Gedaliah. His story and the efforts of the prophet Jeremiah to revive and lead the people are the theme of this tragic chapter in Jewish history.
After the destruction of the First Temple, the vast majority of Jews from Judea and Jerusalem were taken into exile in Babylon. However, not all were taken.
For a number of reasons, political and military, the Babylonians decided to leave a remnant of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. The vacuum of an emptied land was an invitation to others who would not necessarily be friendly to the Babylonian cause to occupy it. Therefore, their idea was to have a controllable remnant of Jews build up the country as loyal subjects.
Eleven years earlier, the Babylonians had exiled 10,000 Jewish leaders, including the intelligentsia, wealthy and prophets. Those who remained were among the lower and average elements socially, economically and religiously.
At the same time, the Babylonian plan was to set up a puppet government. Consequently, they appointed a man by the name of Gedaliah the son of Ahikam. His first important qualification, in their mind, was that he was not from the royal house of David. He was someone that would have no pretensions of becoming the Jewish king and invoking a replay of the previous rebellions.
Gedaliah’s headquarters was in the town of Mizpah, which was north and somewhat east of Jerusalem. Even though his fledgling government was under the supervision of the Babylonians, he was given some autonomy.
Jeremiah arrived at the court of Gedaliah on Rosh Hashanah, which was only about seven weeks after the destruction of the Temple. Along with Jeremiah was his principle disciple, Baruch the son of Neriah. Much of the Book of Jeremiah as well as the Book of Lamentations were transcribed and written by him. One day he would also become the teacher of Ezra, the great prophet and conduit for Torah for all future generations.
The Plot Thickens
The king of Ammon, whose kingdom was located in modern today Trans-Jordan, was named Baalis. He objected to a continued Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, because he hated the Jewish people and because he wanted to annex part of it (the west bank of the Jordan River) to his kingdom.
He fumed when he heard that the Babylonians had appointed Gedaliah to be governor-general of the area — and that a substantial number of Jews remained who would have the right to till the earth and live semi-autonomously. This effectively wrecked his plans to expand his borders.
Consequently, he devised a scheme to undermine the new Jewish government. The first part was to assassinate Gedaliah – and the second part was to get a Jew to do it! Then he would be able to lay the blame on the Jews in front of the Babylonians, and claim that they were willing to rebel yet again by assassinating Nebuchadnezzar’s hand-picked leader. The only way to handle the Jewish people, he would claim, would be to get rid of them all.
All he needed now was a Jew to set the scheme in motion. He found that in the person of Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, who was a member of the royal household (Jeremiah 41:1). As a descendant of the House of David, he was naturally very upset by the appointment of Gedaliah, who was not of Davidic descent.
Ishmael had a personal ax to grind. That is why he was very receptive to the idea of Baalis, who promised him that after he assassinated Gedaliah he would be paid a handsome sum of money and if there was ever an autonomous Jewish kingdom established that he would be the head of it. It was an easy sell for Baalis.
The Dark Day
It can be implied from the biblical account that the assassination took place on Rosh Hashanah (II Kings 25:5; Jeremiah 41:1), the Jewish New Year and the Day of Judgment. Moreover, it took place at the Rosh Hashanah meal. This only compounded the hideous felony.
Gedaliah had a palace guard, Johanan the son of Kareah, who learned about the assassination plot beforehand (Jeremiah 40:14). He asked Gedaliah to let him kill the potential assassin first, which is in line with the Talmudic axiom that, “If someone comes to kill you, wake up earlier and kill him.” Preemptive self-defense is a valid reason in Jewish law, and many times in national life it is necessary.
Not much is known about Gedaliah, but what we can discern is that he had a magnanimous, friendly, trusting and almost naïve personality. Those are great qualities for the president of a synagogue, but not for a leader with Gedaliah’s responsibility. He did not believe the report and accused Johanan of speaking falsely about Ishmael (ibid 40:14, 16) and even asked him to join them at the Rosh Hashanah meal.
Gedaliah paid for his trust with his life and was assassinated. More than his own life, his death meant the death of any chance to start rebuilding Jewish life in the Land of Israel after the destruction.
Ishmael was not finished. The next day, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 80 men came from surrounding cities in clothes of mourning (ibid 41:4-5). He slew 70 of them. The ten he did not kill bribed him, saying that they had hidden treasures in the fields that they would give him (ibid. v. 8).
Ishmael took them as hostages and fled toward the Jordan River. When Johanan the son of Kareach found out about the assassination he quickly organized a group and pursued Ishmael and freed the hostages. But Ishmael himself escaped.
He made it to Ammon and that is where he died, his dream of serving as head of a revived Jewish state dying with him in an alien land. The only thing that remained of him was his reputation as one of the villains of Jewish history.
Now the survivors were in a quandary. They were very frightened of the reaction by the Nebuchadnezzar. How would he view the assassination?
They asked Jeremiah what to do. Should they stay in the Land of Israel, and explain to the king that it was only a handful of people who perpetrated the assassination — and that their intention was to remain loyal? Or should they abandon the land and flee to Egypt which was seemingly impervious to conquest?
Whatever he would tell them, they said to Jeremiah, “Whether it will be good or bad, we will obey the voice of God…” (Jeremiah 42:6).
Many commentators say that, despite their words, they had already made up their minds, and just wanted Jeremiah to agree with them. Jeremiah delayed giving them an answer for ten days, until after Yom Kippur. Then he gave them God’s answer, which was as surprising as it was strong. Farm your land, Jeremiah told them. Make vineyards and orchards. God will protect you and we will rebuild the country together. Do not forsake the land (ibid. 42:10-12).
Then Jeremiah added that he knew that they wanted to go to Egypt, because they thought that they would somehow be more secure in Egypt, that Babylon would not be able to reach them there. Egypt was a mighty empire in its own right. When Jeremiah told them that they would not find a safe haven in Egypt they were shocked and dismayed. They had their hearts set on going there.
“You are lying,” they said to Jeremiah. “God never sent you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt…’” (Jeremiah 42:2). Then they accused his disciple, Baruch the son of Neriah, of talking Jeremiah into it. Jeremiah himself, they said, was a collaborator working for the Babylonians to get them to go into slavery in Babylon like everyone else and be killed.
This was the crowning climax of Jeremiah’s experiences covering 50 years with the Jewish people. First they said they would do whatever he said. Then they called him a liar and a collaborator who wanted to enslave and kill them.
On the Road to Egypt
Having outright rejected Jeremiah’s words, the remnant of Jews left for Egypt.
Here, again, we see the greatness of Jeremiah. He did not say, “Good riddance. You’ll see I’m right.” Instead, he went with them, because he knew that, ultimately, they would need him if they had any hope of building something in Egypt. His love and loyalty were so strong that he could not abandon them even in the worst of times and even though they were the most disrespectful of Jews. There is hardly a greater testimony to his grandeur of spirit.
The Jews arrived in Egypt in a place called, Tahpanhes (Jeremiah 43:7), which many assume to be the famous city of Thebes, which was the port at the mouth of the Nile and would later be called Alexandria. There Jeremiah prophesied again and in essence told them that they should not get too comfortable in Egypt. The Babylonian lion was coming. Their trust in Egypt’s strength was misplaced.
Indeed, the Babylonians did come and the carnage was great.
Despite everything, the remnant of Jews became the basis of the future great Egyptian community, which was to become one of the largest and wealthiest Jewish communities in the world. A Jewish presence in Egypt continued until our time in an unbroken chain.
The story of Gedaliah’s assassination and Jeremiah’s going to Egypt happened within two months of the destruction. It was the nail in the coffin of the First Temple era. The Land of Israel was now all but empty of Jews.
This epilogue to the destruction of Judea and the Temple is a sad story of how jealousy, divisiveness, terror and violence undermined what could have been the humble beginning of something substantial. Instead of a spark that could have provided desperately needed light in a deepening darkness, it lengthened the shadow of the destruction by several decades and cast a pall of uncertainty over the future of the Jewish people in their land.