Immediately after the two days of Rosh Hashanah, and shortly before Yom Kippur,
we suffer another fast: Tzom Gedaliah, the Fast of Gedaliah, that commemorates
the murder of Gedaliah, a commoner and civil servant. Was he so important and
his death so significant that we have to take in another fast a few days just
before the greatest fast of all, the Day of Atonement?
Yes, the events
surrounding the murder of Gedaliah were dramatic, historic and horrific. The
Greeks would have recorded them if they had known and Shakespeare would surely
have written a play on the subject if it had happened in England, Wales or
The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE, took away King
Jehoyachin and appointed Zedekiah his uncle in his place, but when he rebelled
some 10 years later by joining with Egypt, they came back and destroyed the city
and the Temple in 586 BCE. This time they ignored the royal family and appointed
a civil servant, a functionary, to govern the ruined province.
was Gedaliah ben Ahikam ben Shaphan, whose father, Ahikam ben Shaphan, also a
senior civil servant, had saved Jeremiah from the people under the previous
reign (Jeremiah 26:24). Both Ahikam and his father Shaphan, the royal scribe,
had been sent by King Josiah to check the scroll of the Law that the priest
Hilkiah had found while repairing the Temple (2 Kings 22:12). They were a
distinguished ministerial line, but not a royal one.
Gedaliah ruled from
Mizpah, north of the Jerusalem that lay in ruins. We have the name of his
grandfather on a seal found in the City of David in Jerusalem, and the seal of
Gedaliah, “asher al habayit” (Lord Chamberlain) was found some years ago at
Lachish, second city of Judea.
Gedaliah worked hard to put life back into
some sort of order and it seems the people came out of hiding to join his court.
They respected him – but not so the royal family. Their members, those who had
not been deported, had fled to Transjordan. They had abandoned the people of
Jerusalem to their plight, but now they came back to denounce Gedaliah. They
could not tolerate a non-royal ruler and in their envy and jealousy they went so
far as to murder him.
GEDALIAH HAD been warned but was too trusting to
take precautions. The royal party, led by one Ishmael ben Netaniah, came with
seven other officers and a bodyguard to Mizpah, where Gedaliah invited them to a
banquet and assured them of his good intentions and the future benign policy of
the Babylonians, whom he, Gedaliah, would confront in any necessary
negotiations, so that the country could proceed in peace and quiet.
happened on the first of Tishrei (Jeremiah 41:1), the day of the New Year, and
the royal party came willingly from across the Jordan. They enjoyed Gedaliah’s
hospitality and then closed ranks and murdered him and his Babylonian guards, as
well as massacring the civilian Judeans that had assembled at his
Not that the royalists had any chance of supplanting his rule, for
there was no chance of the Babylonians appointing another king. It was on their
part pure jealousy, spite and enmity, pride and punishment, that a commoner
should have been appointed to govern Judea.
The perpetrators retreated,
but first they went so far as to murder a group of pilgrims that had come from
Shechem and Shiloh to bring plant offerings to the ruined Temple (Jeremiah 41:7)
and threw their bodies into a great pit together with the bodies of Gedaliah and
the people and guards that had been with him.
Ishmael ben Netaniah had
taken care to kill all who could have testified against him and escaped
unpunished back to Transjordan, but his dastardly deeds had enormous
Judea was left without governance and adjoining nations
like Edom took the opportunity to invade the south and illegally annex its
lands. The population were unable to retaliate, they were leaderless and
traumatized by their fear of the drastic revenge expected from the Babylonians.
The Judeans had crossed a red line and the colonial power would surely
Many of the population fled to Egypt and forced Jeremiah to
flee with them (Jeremiah 43:7), and there they camped at Tahpanhes to see what
But nothing did; the Babylonians were sick of Judea, had
their own problems at home and they did not retaliate. No further governor was
appointed, no royal party was promoted and the land lay ungoverned. Jews from
distant parts came back to claim their property and view the destroyed city, the
locals started to clear the ruins and slowly, slowly, life returned to a
semblance of normality. The threat of further retaliation from Babylon receded
and the priests took charge in Jerusalem while the farmers went about their work
in the countryside outside the city. Royalist Ishmael ben Netaniah, an obscure
descendant of David, remained in Moab, uncrowned and unpunished.
murder of Gedaliah had crossed a red line, a line of blood, that revealed the
overweening pride of the Hebrew aristocracy, but it went no further. No king was
appointed, no king arose, no governor arose.
It seems the people were
shocked into a democratic normality. The exiles came back from Egypt, but
without Jeremiah who had presumably died there.
Some years later the
exiles returned from Babylon and the old order was eventually restored, but
without a monarchical line, just a priestly aristocracy under satraps of Persian
rule, that the people could tolerate.
The monarchy had been stifled and
The assassination of Gedalyiah changed Jewish
It was a shocking deed but one, perhaps, for the better in the
long run. Shakespeare would have loved it. He should have written “Gedaliah,
Governor of Judea,” and then we would all have acquired in school a somewhat
better knowledge of this lurid tragedy.
The writer is a Senior Fellow of
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.