1. Settling down?

After the battle for Baghdad in 2003 it seems that many in the scattered Iraqi army fled the city before the American soldiers arrive – abandoning their posts, some formed insurgent groups and others melted into the civilian world. This allowed a number of them continue to wage war against the invading western forces. In a similar way, after the siege of Jerusalem, many of the Judean soldiers had fled and were still scattered in the countryside around the Jerusalem area. Perhaps they planned to fight a guerrilla war against the Babylonians. The Babylonians had however wisely attempted to forge a new government in the country under the governorship of Gedaliah. I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that Gedaliah’s family was reasonably well known and had a reputation for integrity: Gedaliah’s father, Ahikam and his grandfather, two uncles and cousin all feature in Jeremiah’s account and all were involved in positive activities. As news of the appointment of Gedaliah spread, some of the army officers and their men headed to Mizpah the new seat of Judean government. They wanted to meet and talk to the new governor. Among these men was Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, who was ‘of royal blood.’

Gedaliah’s key policy of government was simple: ‘Do not be afraid to serve the Babylonians. Settle down in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it will go well with you.’ The people had work to do, they were to bring in the harvest. It’s amazing that after the horror of a long siege and the suffering and toll on human life, that the people could start to re-build their lives so quickly. They had the privilege of a good leader and now the opportunity to restore order and re-stock their food supplies. Despite the terrible judgment inflicted upon them, God was providing once again. The harvest was for wine, summer fruit and olive oil, and the people were to re-populate the towns. This was a better situation that many in Judea could have reasonably expected. As word spread of Gedaliah and his now government, the people returned from their exile in the surrounding countries of Moab, Ammon and Edom. Jeremiah records that they harvested ‘an abundance of wine and summer fruit.’ This was a remarkable turnaround and how it must have brought a sense of purpose, relief and maybe even joy to the people who returned and participated. But self-inflicted disaster was not far away.

2. The assassination

One of the soldiers who returned to Mizpah, Johanan and all the accompanying officers approached Gedaliah with disturbing news. The king of Ammon was plotting to assassinate Gedaliah. The motivation for this is not clear,  but perhaps Ammon hoped to gain some territorial advantage after the fall of Judah and killing Gedaliah would throw the country back into turmoil and facilitate these aspirations. The king of Ammon had recruited one of the Judean soldiers, Ishmael. It is not known why Ishmael was willing to carry out this assassination, but perhaps since he was described as ‘of royal blood’ he was consumed by envy towards Gedaliah, thinking that he himself ought to have been made governor.

Johanan was so concerned about the seriousness of this situation that he suggested that Gedaliah should permit him to kill Ishmael. It could be done secretly, no one would know. Johanan had the necessary men to accomplish this, Gedaliah just needed to say the word. The consequences of inaction and Gedaliah’s untimely death would likely end in the loss of all the gains that Gedaliah had brought about – the people would be scattered; Judah would be finished. Johanan’s thinking was that it was Gedaliah’s influence and integrity that had brought the people together – lose him at this stage and the country would be lost: a Judean-led assassination on the Babylonian-appointed governor would surely see the return of the fury of the Babylonians.

Gedaliah made a seriously wrong decision. He refused to believe that Ishmael would kill him, and he forbade Johanan of any moves against Ishmael. Was Gedaliah weak in the face of opposition or was he simply a decent man who was more willing to see the good in people rather than the worst? Perhaps there is a lesson for us in this. The church has an enemy who is scheming against believers and the church. Paul invites us to armour ourselves against his schemes. We should not be unaware of Satan’s schemes says Paul (2 Corinthians 2:2, 11). When Jesus sent the disciples out, he warned them that they were being sent out like sheep amongst wolves – they needed to be ‘as shrewd as snakes and as gentle as doves. (Matthew 10, 16).’  Gedaliah could have used such advice.

Verse 1 of chapter 41 tells us that it was the seventh month – it is not certain if this was the first year of Gedaliah’s governorship or not, but the significance of the 7th month was that this was the month of 3 Jewish festivals: the feast of trumpets, the day of atonement and the feast of tabernacles. Ishmael arrived in Mizpah at this time and, along with 10 of his men. Gedaliah graciously invited them to a meal, some of Gedaliah’s men and a few Babylonian soldiers were also present. It was during that meal that Ishmael and his men killed Gedaliah and all those present. No one present survived the killing spree.

The following day, while the news of Gedaliah’s assassination was still unknown, 80 pilgrims arrived! They were on their way to what remained of the temple to make sacrifices. Jeremiah records them as having shaved off their beards, torn their clothes and cut themselves – they were in full mourning mode! It was a forbidden practice for Israelites to cut themselves (Deuteronomy 14:1), so these pilgrims were at least in part influenced by pagan practices. Since they were headed to the temple, they seem to have retained at least some recognition of the former practices of worship in Jerusalem. Perhaps they intended to observe the day of atonement. As they approached Mizpah, Ishmael went out to meet them. We learn something of Ishmael’s cynical, manipulative and lying nature: Ishmael wept apparently in a show of shared grief with the mourning pilgrims. As he invited the pilgrims to see Gedaliah it seems he had already decided to kill them to prevent his murderous act from immediate discovery. 70 were killed and the remaining 10 were only spared as they offered Ishmael provisions they claimed to have hidden in a field. By now there were a lot of dead bodies to dispose of! Some three hundred years before these events, a war was raging between the king of Judah (Asa), and Baasah, king of Israel. King Baasha had fortified the city of Ramah against the king of Judah. With the assistance of the king of Aram (a Nation to the north east of Israel), King Asa forced King Baasha to abandon Ramah. This allowed King Asa to fortify Mizpah with materials looted from Ramah. King Asa should not have relied on a foreign king to attack his own people. It was during this period that a cistern was dug by King Asa in Mizpah as part of the city’s defensive resilience against attacks from king Baasah. It was this very cistern, built at a time of Asa’s wavering faith and reliance on a pagan king, that offered Isahmael a place to dispose of the bodies of those he had murdered.

Ishmael now took all the remaining people in Mizpah, including the king’s daughters and headed for what he thought was safety towards the territory of the Ammonites. It seems that in taking Gedaliah’s life, Ishmael really had no plan and was merely out to destroy and prevent any in Judah from serving the Babylonians. This was contrary to the clear messages from the Lord given through Jeremiah.  

3. The fight back

News of the slaughter reached Johanan and the other military officers who were with him. They set off in pursuit. Given that Ishmael had taken a significant group of people including women and children, it did not take Johanan long to find them. They found them near the ‘great pool of Gibeon’ , about 6 miles north west of Jerusalem. This pool is also mentioned in the book of Samuel (2 Samuel 2: 12-17). An American archaeologist lead six investigations at the site of this pool between 1956 and 1962. During that work the site was confirmed as the pool of Gibeon and the dimensions of the pool were made. It was found to be dug out of the limestone rock and was dug to a depth of 88 feet to reach the water table. A spiral staircase around the walls of the pool allowed access to the water.

There was great relief amongst those captured by Ishmael when they saw Johanan and his men. Realising he was outnumbered Ismael and his men fled to the Ammonites.

What now? What was Johanan to do? He was effectively in charge of the significant number of people who had gone to Mizpah under the governorship of Gedaliah. Should they return to Mizpah and face possible Babylonian retribution? It seemed to Johanan that they had no choice but to leave their land and head south to safety in Egypt. Jeremiah had never advocated such a thing, but surely circumstances were different now. A course was set for the apparent safety of Egypt.

Where was Jeremiah in all of this? Although he is not mentioned, Jeremiah was almost certainly amongst the group of people rescued by Johanan. Jeremiah would be asked to seek God’s leading on this most important decision. A clear plan was needed urgently: it would not be long before the news of Gedaliah’s death would reach Babylon, they would surely act swiftly and decisively. What would Jeremiah say, and would the people follow his advice? We will find out in the next chapter.