The murder of Gedaliah, governor of Judea

Was Gedaliah 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.

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
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 Scotland.
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.
His name 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.
It 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 court.
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 repercussions.
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 retaliate.
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 would happen.
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.
The 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 silenced.
The assassination of Gedalyiah changed Jewish history.
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.