The kingdom deteriorated badly after the death of Josiah. However, as Judea was dying a tiny seed planted in Babylon would take root as serve as a symbol of Jewish rejuvenation for all time.
The last kings of Judea were Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin (who is also called Jeconiah) and Zedekiah, a period covering 23 years. All were contemporary with the prophet Jeremiah.
King Josiah had been killed in battle. His oldest son Jehoahaz, who was 23 at the time, succeeded him. He felt justifiably insecure on the throne. Judea had been a pawn between the two great empires of Egypt to the south and Babylon to the north. His father took a hard-line stance against Egypt, and Jehoahaz continued it.
From the point of view of the prophets, the proper diplomatic stance of Judea should have been not to engage in power politics. Judea by then was a small and militarily insignificant nation that had little or no political role to play in the Middle East. Its task was to be a holy people, who preserved the Torah and Temple service. Its job was not to engage itself in the great power struggles of the times.
The prophets also believed it was better to have peace and retain one’s presence in the Land of Israel, with the Temple as a functioning unit, rather than indulging in heroic wars of glory, which ultimately would prove to be pyrrhic victories.
That rubs against the grain of Western culture and literature, including everything from Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey to Beowulf to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nonetheless, it is one of the often repeated refrains of the prophets.
In his three month reign, Jehoahaz quickly attempted to undo all the good that his righteous father Josiah had taken decades to accomplish. “He did what was evil in the eyes of God” (II Kings 23:32).
By continuing his father’s hard line, Josiah had antagonized the great king of Egypt, Pharaoh Necho (whose mummified remains are on display in the British Museum). As a result, he imposed an enormous tax of 100 talents of silver and a talent of gold (II Kings 23:33) on Jehoahaz. When he refused to pay it, the Egyptian army besieged Jerusalem and took the king into captivity as the ransom. Pharaoh Necho then placed Jehoahaz’ brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne.
Jehoahaz was brought in exile to Egypt and died there. However, his arrival marked the beginning of the great Jewish community in Egypt, which would become a major Jewish center for well over a thousand years, and last as a community much longer. Even until the 1940s there was a noticeable Jewish presence in Egypt.
It all dated back to Jehoahaz, who arrived with an entire entourage of fellow exiles, including members of his court and servants. They came as hostages, but once they came they stayed and prospered and helped build a thriving community.
Jehoiakim – the Archetypal Self-Hating Jew
Jehoiakim paid Egypt’s exorbitant ransom off the backs of the downtrodden and poor. He was arguably the most evil and immoral king ever descended from the House of David. He went out of his way to express contempt for the Jewish religion, God and everything holy. In that regard, he was forerunner of self-hating Jews who thrived especially in pre-Holocaust Europe.
Jehoiakim’s hatred was pathological. He purposely wore garments of linen and wool to violate the commandment in Deuteronomy 22:11. He tried to have his foreskin reattached. He engaged in all sorts of sexual excesses, including incest with his mother and daughters-in-law. He kidnapped women and tortured their husbands to death in front of their eyes. Then he assaulted the women and ultimately killed them too before finally confiscating their property. He was the Jewish Caligula. It was a reign of terror.
As all tyrants, he had his own Secret Police. One time, they reported to him that Jeremiah had written a subversive document, later to become know to the world as the Book of Lamentations, which foretells the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Judea. They called Jeremiah in and asked him to read from it. When he came to the verse, “The most evil of them are their leaders” (Lamentations 1:5) Jehoiakim asked, “Who said that?”
“God,” the prophet replied.
Jehoiakim then took the scroll and burned it in fire. The Talmud says that Jehoiakim was so evil that God was ready to return the world to “void and desolation” (Genesis 1:2). He did not because there were a significant number of righteous people still living in the city. If not for them, God would have destroyed everything. The few saved the many, a common theme in the Bible. One good person outweighs a good deal of evil people. That is why, temporarily at least, Jerusalem was spared.
His Just Desserts
Jehoiakim’s payment of the hefty ransom to Pharaoh did not go unnoticed by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He said to himself that if Judea had that much money for Egypt then they must surely have it for Babylon as well.
Consequently, shortly after Judea officially became the ally of Egypt, Babylon responded by attacking Judea. Jehoiakim had not been worried because he trusted Pharaoh Necho to come to his aid.
It never happened.
Nebuchadnezzar gave Jehoiakim an ultimatum. If he would agree to be subservient to Babylon — in essence to become a vassal state and pay tax to them — they would leave him in power. Realizing that Egypt was not coming to his defense he had no choice but to agree.
However, shortly after the Babylonians withdrew, Jehoiakim changed his mind and mounted a rebellion. He held out three years, but in the seventh year of his reign the Babylonians returned with a vengeance.
Jehoiakim mounted a defense, but it was meaningless. They spared the city, but tied him up in chains and sent him to Babylon to parade him about in a triumph and then publicly execute him. However, Jehoiakim died in captivity first. Enraged, Nebuchadnezzar ordered his body cut up, tied to a donkey — as Jeremiah had predicted (Jeremiah 22:19) — and dragged around the land for others to see.
Jehoiachin – the Remarkable Transformation
Jehoiakim’s son was Jehoiachin, who was also known as Jeconiah. He took over after his father’s demise and quickly adopted in his father’s vile ways. However, it only lasted three months. Nebuchadnezzar turned the army around and demanded that the Judeans hand over Jehoiachin.
Jehoiachin gave up, was paraded in a triumph and cast him into a very deep and narrow dungeon in solitary confinement. The Talmud tells about the remarkable transformation that took place there. Sometimes, it takes hard knocks in life to straighten a person out.
As the last of the Davidic line, and childless, there was a great danger that the House of David would end with Jehoiachin. People tried unsuccessfully to apply all types of political pressure to allow his wife to visit him, but Nebuchadnezzar could not be persuaded. However, they convinced his queen to allow Jehoiachin’s wife to visit her husband in the dungeon.
She was lowered to him, but she was descending she suddenly became ritually unclean; relations between them were now forbidden by Torah law. At that moment, the man who was the son of one of the most uncontrolled hedonistic people who ever lived found the inner fortitude to resist temptation.
All of a sudden, he realized that the only thing he had in life was his ability to keep the will of God. They could take everything away from him but his free will. At that moment, his repentance was so profound that not only were his sins forgiven but he became the symbol of the sincere repentant, Maimonides writes.
After a short while, his wife was sent back down to him and she eventually conceived and gave birth. The Davidic line was restored and continued through him.
There are many people who completely transform themselves. A person may know them at one stage in his life and think of them one way, while another person knows them at another point of life and thinks of them in an entirely different way. It depends which stage in life you meet him. The same with careers. There are people who were unsuccessful in one time and place but not another. And vice versa. Life is very strange and people are unpredictable.
Jehioachin was not the same person he was when he was first put in the dungeon. If you saw him in Jerusalem you would not have recognized him in Babylon. Later, after many years, he was released and he devoted himself to the up-building of the Jewish community in Babylon. In recognition of his profound transformation, one of the gates in the rebuilt Temple was named after him. He died in Babylon, and according to one tradition his gravesite was known and served as a holy site for many centuries. His story is really the story of the Jewish people in exile.
Seeds of the Future
When the Babylonians took Jehoiachin away into exile they also took 10,000 Jewish prisoners with him. These were the leaders in Jerusalem: men of war, wealth and influence. The Talmud says that most significantly of all they took away the Sanhedrin and the greatest Torah scholars, i.e. the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. The Babylonians hoped thereby to take away their ability to rebel and make war.
Included in the group was Mordechai, who would save the Jews along with Queen Esther as related in the Book of Esther. Also included were the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.
It turned out to be a hidden blessing, because in the next eleven years these leaders set the foundation for the Jewish community of Babylon for the next 2,000 years! When the exiles would come a decade later they came to an existing Jewish community with an infrastructure. There were sages and scholars and prophets. That is why Babylon would become the center of Jewish life in exile.
The Jews remaining in Judea could not see that, or admit it. Even at this late stage in the game, after crushing defeats and the prophecies of Jeremiah, they held out hope that their situation would change. As they saw it, the future of the Jewish people lay with them. If they went down, then the Jewish people would go down. Since that was inconceivable, they held on to any strand of hope, real or imaginary, that they could grasp. That hope took the form of a descendant of David name Zedekiah, whom history would come to know as the last king of Judea.