Monday, May 12, 2014

Jeremiah 39-44: Judah After the Conquest

Ilya Repin, Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem
For the last few weeks, the Book of Jeremiah has consisted of episodes and narratives that were in no particular sequence.  We've jumped back and forth over a period of ten or fifteen years, watching the holy man Jeremiah rail against rich and poor alike during the death throes of Judah.

From Jeremiah 39 to Jeremiah 44, we get a sustained history of the final fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and then some of what happened afterwards.  As is often the case, what happens once the war is over is even more unpleasantness.  Once a power structure has been toppled, people tend to go about looking for ways to take advantage of the situation, and this has not often boded well for the average Joe.

The Fall of Jerusalem

The Babylonians put the city under siege in the 10th month of the 9th year of Zedekiah's reign, and the siege lasts until the 4th month of the 11th year -- the last month, as it turns out -- of the reign.  (39:1-2) That's a year and a half of siege, and if you've ever looked into pre-modern warfare, you can imagine that it must have been one grim and horrible year.  If you haven't ever looked into pre-modern warfare, here's how a siege works: a large and confident army surrounds your city, and since you can't get to the fields or the outside world, you slowly run out of food.  Your weakened, starving, tight-packed population becomes a ripe breeding ground for disease, and lots of people start dying horribly.  Nevertheless, you try to hold out for as long as humanly possible, because as soon as they get inside the walls your invading guests are going to vigorously work off their frustrations about having been kept waiting so long.

When Jerusalem falls, Zedekiah and his court try a night escape through a back gate, but the slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes and also killed all the nobles of Judah.  Then he put out Zedekiah's eyes and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon. (39:6-7)
Babylonians catch up with them and take him to Nebuchadnezzar at a place called Riblah.  Now, in Jeremiah 38 Jeremiah had promised Zedekiah that the Babylonians wouldn't kill him.  And they don't.  Nebuchadnezzar only

Back in Jerusalem, the Babylonians burn the city and tear down the walls.  Most of the people who lived in town are marched off to Babylon, where they will join the Jewish community that has been in exile already for a decade or two, since the first sack of Jerusalem.

Zedekiah brought before Nebuchadnezzar
Life Under Gedaliah the Governor

An official named Gedaliah is named Babylonian governor of the district.  The population that is left is rural and poor, and there are hints that they actually have a pretty good deal for a while.  Some people move into the abandoned towns, and there is a good harvest with fewer mouths to feed.  Jews who took refuge from the war in neighboring kingdoms come back to Judah.  Remnants of the Judean army straggle in from the wilderness.  Jeremiah himself sticks around.  Things go well for about seven months.

Gedaliah seems like a pretty humane governor, but he is also overconfident, and when people tell him that neighboring kings may want to take him out of the game, he just doesn't believe them.  So when one Ishmael son of Nethaniah, working for the king of the Ammonites, brings a band of thugs to his headquarters, he sits down with them to a meal.  Presumably relying on the element of surprise, Ishmael ruins the banquet by assassinating Gedaliah, slaughtering his entourage, and even killing the small Babylonian garrison.

Ishmael is a real rotter, and when a religious procession arrives at the encampment the next morning, he invites them in and then kills 70 of the 80 (ten of them are able to bribe him into letting them live).  He fills a cistern with the bodies of everybody his men have killed in the last few days.  Then he rounds up everybody whom he hasn't killed, and sets out for the Ammonite kingdom.

An army officer from the old army of Judah named Johanan organizes a posse, basically, and soon catches up with Ishmael.  Ishmael is forced to let his captives go, but he and his men escape across the border.

Should We Stay or Should We Go, Now?

Johanan, having almost accidentally made himself the de facto leader of what's left of organized Judean society, now has a real dilemma on his hands.  If he and his group stick around, they run the risk that Nebuchadnezzar will not be interested in the details of Gedaliah's assassination, but will take reprisals against everyone who was around when it happened.  Too, it must have seemed like any attention from Babylon was likely to result in more people being taken into exile.  Some of the group are in favor of trusting to the Babylonians; others for hoofing it to Egypt.  Johanan asks Jeremiah what he thinks.

"O Remnant of Judah," says Jeremiah, "the Lord has told you, 'Do not go to Egypt.'" (42:19)  Jeremiah says this in no uncertain terms, throughout Chapters 42, 43, and 44.  But they have already made up their minds, and make for Egypt.  Jeremiah tells them they will regret it.

In Chapter 44, an interesting argument breaks out about idolatry.  Jeremiah says that their current predicament is punishment for the women having worshiped the "Queen of Heaven," and for their husbands knowing about this and not having stopped them.  "We were actually doing pretty well when we worshiped the Queen of Heaven," some of the people answer.  "It's after we stopped that all of these terrible things happened." (44:15-19)  Jeremiah's response is that God's memory is long enough to allow for a delayed response.  Then he makes a prophecy: as soon as the Judeans get comfortable in Egypt, the reigning Pharaoh will fall, and the resulting chaos will be bad news indeed.

But that's where the run of historical narrative breaks off, and Jeremiah 45 jumps back to recount a trivial incident from many years earlier.  We'll pick up from there next week.

Carl Ebert, Jeremias Klagenlieder auf den Trümmern von Jerusalem.

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