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Historical References to Gedaliah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.