In the late seventh century B.C.E., the Babylonians became the major power in the Near East, imposing heavy tribute payments upon all conquered peoples including the states of the Levant. Within Judah, there were dissenting opinions as to whether or not to accept Babylonian hegemony. Generally speaking, whenever an opportunity arose (such as inner turmoil in Babylonia or external threats to the empire), Judah and her neighbors revolted.
After one such effort at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, responded with a punitive campaign against Judah. When Jerusalem surrendered, Nebuchadnezzar seized the palace and Temple treasures and exiled members of the upper classes, including young King Jehoiachin, who had ascended to the throne during the siege. Jerusalem, however, was spared, and Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, as king of Judah (2 Kings 24:8-17).
Seal of Gedaliah
It was not long, however, before Zedekiah also rebelled. In 586 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar returned to the region. This time, neither Jerusalem nor the Temple was spared. Zedekiah attempted to flee but was captured. He was brought before Nebuchadnezzar and forced to witness his children’s execution, before his eyes were poked out. Again, booty and prisoners were carried off to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21; Jeremiah 39:1-7).
The physical losses suffered by the Jews at this time were indeed great. Psychologically, however, the losses were greater. The Davidic dynasty, which God promised would be eternal, now sat in exile in Babylon. Moreover, the Temple itself had been a symbol of God’s presence among God’s people. Its destruction thus suggested that God had abandoned the chosen people, thereby making them all the more vulnerable (see, for example, 2 Kings 24:20). It is in this setting that we encounter Gedaliah.
Historical References to Gedaliah
The earliest attestation of Gedaliah appears to come from an extra-biblical source. A seal impression found at Lachish (southwest of Jerusalem), dating to roughly 600 B.C.E., bears the inscription, “Gedalyahu, who is over the house.” The title refers to a chief cabinet position within the king’s court. The name, a variant of the name Gedaliah, has been taken by some as a reference to the subject of the Fast of Gedaliah. Thus Gedaliah, in his early career, appears to have held a high position in the Judahite royal court.
Another potential reference to our Gedaliah is found in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible dating roughly to the second century B.C.E.). In the Septuagint’s rendering of Jeremiah 36:25, we find a group of men protesting the Judahite king’s burning of a scroll containing the prophecies of Jeremiah. One of these men, identified in the Hebrew text as Delaiah, is identified as Gedaliah in the Septuagint. If the Greek text preserves an authentic reading, it would suggest that Gedaliah long had sympathy for the opinions of the prophet Jeremiah who advocated a conciliatory approach to the Babylonians.
Gedaliah’s story is told in 2 Kings 25:22-26 and Jeremiah 39:13-14; 40:1-41:18. He is introduced as Gedaliah son of Ahikam and grandson of Shaphan, a prominent scribe of the period and the head of a household that supported both Josiah’s religious reforms and the prophet Jeremiah. Immediately following the assault on Jerusalem, the Babylonians charged Gedaliah with the care of Jeremiah, who was previously imprisoned for opposing King Zedekiah’s anti-Babylonian policies.
Later the Babylonians installed Gedaliah as ruler of those Jews who remained in Judah after the destruction of 586 B.C.E.. Gedaliah established his administration in Mitzpah, north of Jerusalem, and initially, his control over Judah was strong enough to induce refugees who had fled east of the Jordan River to Ammon, Moab, and Edom, to return to Judah.
Gedeliah’s power, however, did not last long. At the instigation of the king of neighboring Ammon, a group led by Ishmael son of Nethaniah assassinated Gedaliah and went on to murder a group that had come to mourn Gedaliah. Then they gathered the rest of the people who remained in Mitzpah, including members of the royal family, and fled toward Ammon. A group of Gedaliah loyalists, however, intercepted Ishmael and rescued the prisoners.
Out of fear for a Babylonian reprisal, the loyalists subsequently headed for Egypt. Jeremiah, who had often prophesied against going to Egypt, was reluctantly dragged along. Thus, the occupation of the land that began with an exodus from Egypt ended with a self-imposed exile to Egypt.
It is worth taking a moment to examine the reasons for Gedaliah’s assassination. Since the coup was instigated by the king of Ammon (in modern-day Jordan), it is worth noting that there are hints of Ammon’s resistance to the Babylonians elsewhere in the biblical text (Jeremiah 27:1-11; Ezekiel 21:23-34). Moreover, Ishmael was himself a member of the royal family, and being a member of the Davidic line, he may have felt a rightful claim to the leadership of what remained of Judah. Thus, the assassination of Gedaliah may have been the result of an effort to renew the anti-Babylonian effort and restore the throne of Judah to the Davidic family.
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