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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 41

 

 

Verses 1-3

Ishmael’s Plot Comes To Fruition And Gedaliah Is Assassinated (Jeremiah 41:1-3).

Gedaliah was to be proved wrong. Ishmael comes to Gedaliah with an offer of friendship, something evidenced by his ‘eating bread’ with him. Thereby he was giving a guarantee of loyalty, for ancient custom saw this as indicating a guarantee of friendship. To eat bread with someone towards who you had evil intentions was seen as unthinkable. So no doubt once this occurred Gedalaiah felt that he had been justified in his faith in Ishmael. But then Ishmael and his men falsely turned on Gedaliah and those who supported him and slew them without mercy. The enormity of what he had done is emphasised by the phrase, ‘and slew him whom the king of Babylon had made governor over the land.’ It was not only an act of treachery against Gedaliah, but also against Nebuchadrezzar himself. And along with Gedaliah Ishmael and his men slew the Babylonian representatives at the Judean court and the token contingent of Babylonian soldiers who were stationed in Mizpah. This demonstrates that Ishmael’s intention was not just against Gedaliah. It was an act that invited repercussions from Babylon.

The immensity of Ishmael’s treachery does not come home to the modern reader, but for an oriental to ‘eat bread together’ with someone was to make an absolute guarantee of friendship and peace. Thus for Ishmael to eat bread with Gedaliah and then to assassinate him would have been seen by all, friend and foe alike, as a crime of the highest order. Ishmael’s action would therefore have been severely disapproved of, even by those who might otherwise have sympathised with him.

His evil nature, and his antagonism against YHWH, will further be brought out by his slaughter of some pilgrims who were passing by Mizpah on the way to interceding before YHWH at the Temple site, which could only be seen as an act of pure vindictiveness and of extreme anti-Yahwism, the latter possibly resulting from what had happened to his family. It may well be that he had become a worshipper of Melech (Molech - Milcom) the god of Ammon, a god who was also worshipped widely throughout Canaan and was very bloodthirsty.

Jeremiah 41:1

‘Now it came about in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, of the seed royal and one of the chief officers of the king, and ten men with him, came to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam to Mizpah, and there they ate bread together in Mizpah.’

‘In the seventh month.’ If this was the seventh month of the same year as mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3 then all this happened within three months of Gedaliah’s appointment. However, as we have seen, this is a new section of the prophecy, and it is therefore probable that the two datings are unconnected. That being so we do not have any reference to which year this was. The reason for mentioning the seventh month is that it was the month in which the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated, thus it would be quite normal to have a large celebratory feast in that month. Many scholars would in fact date the year by the fact that in 582 BC Nebuchadrezzar again sought retribution against Judah, resulting in further exiles (see Jeremiah 52:30). If this is so it would mean that Gedaliah had ruled for a number of years.

It is stressed here that Ishmael was ‘of the seed royal and one of the chief officers of the king’. This would explain why he had fled to Ammon for refuge in order to escape Nebuchadrezzar’s vengeance, and once there he had seemingly become willingly involved in the intrigues of the king of Ammon. His important status in Judah is brought out by the fact that he and his men alone were invited to the governor’s feast. Note the underlining again of the fact that ‘they ate bread together’. As all knew this should have been a guarantee of friendship and peace. To agree to eat bread with someone against whom you had evil intentions went against all codes of decency and honour in the eyes of an oriental.

‘Ten men’ probably indicates a small unit similar to a platoon. It was large enough for the purpose that Ishmael had in mind whilst still not being suspicious. These would be the ones who attended the feast. Ishmael had quite probably also brought other men with him who acted under his orders outside the feast.

‘The son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama.’ This was perhaps the secretary of state mentioned in Jeremiah 36:12, or more likely the son of David who bore this name (2 Samuel 5:6; 1 Chronicles 3:8; 1 Chronicles 14:7).

Jeremiah 41:2

‘Then Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, and the ten men who were with him, arose and smote Gedaliah the son of Ahikam the son of Shaphan with the sword, and slew him whom the king of Babylon had made governor over the land.’

Once the feast had got under way Ishmael and his men revealed their hand. No doubt waiting until most of the guests were drunk they rose up and assassinated Gedaliah and his other guests, which would have included prominent Babylonian officials and other Jewish leaders. But the emphasis here is on the fact that they slew Nebuchadrezzar’s appointed representative, a heinous crime demanding certain retribution. Nebuchadrezzar would not be able to overlook such an act. It was an act of open rebellion.

Indeed this act had such devastating consequences that it became commemorated by a special fast on ‘the 3rd of Tishri’ (see Zechariah 7:5; Zechariah 8:19). It was the seeming end of Judah’s hopes of re-establishing itself.

Jeremiah 41:3

‘Ishmael also slew all the Jews who were with him, to wit, with Gedaliah, at Mizpah, and the Chaldeans who were found there, the men of war.’

How widespread the slaughter was we are not told in detail. The aim was clearly to decimate the loyal Jewish leadership and to get rid of all traces of the Babylonians left there by Nebuchadrezzar. The former suggests that the act was in order to destabilise an already weakened Judah, and make it vulnerable to outside interference, presumably by Ammon. The latter indicates a deliberate attempt to incite retribution from Babylon.


Verses 4-10

Ishmael Continues His Bloodthirsty Slaughter And Seeks To Escape To Ammon (Jeremiah 41:4-10).

Having carried out his bloodbath Ishmael now learned of a party of pilgrims who were approaching Mizpah, coming from the northern former Israelite towns of Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria, all of which had been important religious sanctuaries. They were in mourning, and their aim was apparently to intercede with YHWH at the Temple site. The road that they were taking for Jerusalem led past Mizpah which was close to the road leading from the north. The fact that he so unnecessarily perpetrated evil against such men suggests that he was violently anti-Yahwist and against all things Yahwist, perhaps as a reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem and the royal house, although it may also be that he was fearful of what the reaction of such good men would be to what he had done (news would inevitably have filtered out into the countryside). He knew that what he had done in abusing hospitality would inevitably be frowned on by all people of goodwill. Furthermore he may also have seen their approaching Mizpah as evidence of their support for Gedaliah. But the detail given about the men suggests that it was primarily to be seen as an act of rebellion against YHWH. They were religious men connected with recognised religious sanctuaries.

Jeremiah 41:4-5

‘And it came about on the second day after he had slain Gedaliah, and no man knew it, that there came men from Shechem, from Shiloh, and from Samaria, even fourscore men, having their beards shaven and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves, with meal-offerings and frankincense in their hand, to bring them to the house of YHWH.’

It is apparent from this that the site of the ruined Temple of Solomon was still seen as holy, and as ‘the house of YHWH’. Their aim may simply have been worship at an especially holy site, or it may have been in order to pray for the restoration of the Temple. The approximately eighty men in question would have had to pass near Mizpah on the road leading from the north to Jerusalem. They would be pious descendants of Israelites in the northern kingdom who had preserved their faith, and were connected with the ancient sanctuaries. Indeed we know from what happened later on that many in the northern kingdom had continued to serve YHWH by coming to Jerusalem, where they used to attend the regular feasts (2 Chronicles 34:9; compare Jeremiah 30:11). They had possibly been inspired into this action by their observance of the Day of Atonement on the 10th day of the month. It will be noted that here they brought meal offerings and frankincense which could be offered within the ruins of the Temple. This was necessary because there was now no altar of sacrifice. It can be seen that particular emphasis is being laid on the piety of the men. Thus to attack them was to attack YHWH.

‘Having their beards shaven and their clothes rent, and having cut themselves.’ These were recognised signs of mourning. The paring of the beard and the cutting of themselves was forbidden by the Law of Moses (Leviticus 19:28; Leviticus 21:5), but they were still customs which were commonly practised. These men were thus not totally orthodox. But they were unquestionably pious YHWH worshippers. ‘Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria’ are placed in the order in which they became sanctuaries. They could be seen as summing up northern Israel’s religious history.

Jeremiah 41:6

‘And Ishmael the son of Nethaniah went forth from Mizpah to meet them, weeping all along as he went, and it came about, as he met them, that he said to them, “Come to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam.”

It would appear that had Ishmael not gone out to these pious men they would have passed Mizpah by. It may well, however, have been that Ishmael feared that they would hear news of what he had done and would spread it abroad. On the other hand the great emphasis on their religious status suggests that this was to be seen as an open attack on YHWH. Whatever may be the case, he went out to them, making a pretence of mourning along with them, in order to win their confidence. He then deliberately lured them into Mizpah by inviting them to meet the governor, thus once again abusing the laws of hospitality. The worshippers would see such an invitation as one not to be refused, the equivalent of an official command. Thus he obtained his way by trickery. His sole aim was murder, and that of pious worshippers of YHWH.

Jeremiah 41:7

‘And it was so, when they came into the midst of the city, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah slew them, and cast them into the midst of the pit, he, and the men who were with him.”

But once the worshippers had innocently entered the city all but ten of them were slain by Ishmael and his men, who then cast their bodies into a pit. The pit would be an excavation in the form of a cistern, or subterranean storehouse, constructed in the open country, for the purpose of storing grain and other produce. The opening or entrance to it would be concealed so that it would not be perceived by those intent on stealing the produce. Alternately it may have been the cistern which supplied the city’s water supply in time of siege, and have been a deliberate attempt to make it useless and ‘unclean’, thus preventing its use in any future defence of the city when Nebuchadrezzar came seeking vengeance.

Jeremiah 41:8

‘But ten men were found among them who said to Ishmael, “Do not kill us, for we have stores hidden in the countryside, of wheat, and of barley, and of oil, and of honey.” So he forbore, and did not kill them among their brethren.’

Ten of the men were spared, but the only reason for this was that they offered to divulge the whereabouts of hidden stores as a bribe in return for their lives, possibly requiring confirmation of the agreement by oath so as to make it binding. Ishmael’s greed was even greater than his hatred of YHWH.

Jeremiah 41:9

‘Now the pit in which Ishmael cast all the dead bodies of the men whom he had slain, by the side of Gedaliah (the same was that which Asa the king had made for fear of Baasha king of Israel,) Ishmael the son of Nethaniah filled it with those who were slain.’

The pit in question was one which Asa of Judah had built in preparing defences against Baasha king of Israel. The purpose in mentioning this may merely have been as an historical explanation of the existence of the pit, or it may have been an ironical indication that what had been made for the purpose of deliverance from fear, had become the very opposite. It was the same pit into which Gedaliah’s body had been thrown, along with many of those slain with him. There is no mention of the construction of this pit elsewhere, but its background was clearly well known at the time. It may have consisted of defenceworks, or have been for the purpose of water storage in readiness for times of siege.

Jeremiah 41:10

‘Then Ishmael carried away captive all the residue of the people who were in Mizpah, even the king’s daughters, and all the people who remained in Mizpah, whom Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard had committed to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, Ishmael the son of Nethaniah carried them away captive, and departed to go over to the children of Ammon.’

No doubt hoping that news of his escapades had not spread Ishmael then gathered, possibly as hostages, all those who had been left in Gedaliah’s care by Nebuzaradan, including among them the king’s daughters (the royal household), and presumably Jeremiah. Taking them captive he set out for Ammon where he intended to find refuge, having fulfilled the king of Ammon’s requirements. We note here how provision had been made by Nebuchadrezzar for the king’s daughters to live in the manner to which they were accustomed. Apart from when carrying out vengeance royalty showed consideration towards royalty. Among other things it helped to retain the goodwill of the people. Ishmael’s taking of responsibility for the royal household may indicate an intention to represent himself as having royal status as ‘head of the house’ with the future in mind. Establishing a ‘royal house’ in exile would prepare the way for a later claim to kingship. But it was not to be.


Verses 11-15

Ishmael Is Pursued By The Loyal Men Of Judah Who Recover The Captives, Although Ishmael Himself Escapes Retribution (Jeremiah 41:11-15).

Despite Ishmael’s best efforts news of what he had done swiftly and inevitably reached the ears of the loyal Judean commanders who, when they heard of it, determined to recover the captives and gain revenge. Gathering their men they came to the rescue. They succeeded in respect of the captives, but failed in respect of the capture of Ishmael, who, on seeing the approach of a determined force, deserted the captives and with eight of his men (the remainder of ‘the ten’ had possibly been killed at some stage) and fled post haste to Ammon, no doubt on fast horses.

Jeremiah 41:11

‘But when Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains of the forces who were with him, heard of all the evil that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah had done,’

It was inevitable that loyal Judeans would slip out of Mizpah, despite all the precautions that Ishmael had taken, and would make for the cities where the loyal commanders were stationed. The news of what had happened therefore reached Johanan and the other captives post haste.

Jeremiah 41:12

‘Then they took all the men, and went to fight with Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, and found him by the great waters that are in Gibeon.’

So they quickly rallied their forces and set off in pursuit of Ishmael and his party, and the speed at which they did so is brought out by the fact that they caught up with them at ‘the great waters that were in Gibeon’. A pool at Gibeon (modern el-jibe) is mentioned in 2 Samuel 2:13, and would have been one of the large receptacles for water, traces of which can still be found. This was only about 3 kilometres (2 miles) from Mizpah so that Ishmael and his party had clearly not travelled very far. It is indeed probable that, thinking himself safe, hostages were still being rounded up, and brought there.

Jeremiah 41:13

‘Now it came about that, when all the people who were with Ishmael saw Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains of the forces who were with him, then they were glad.’

When the captives saw the approaching loyalist forces they were glad. They had no desire to go to Ammon, and were heartened at the thought of being rescued. It is being emphasised that Ishmael had no local support.

Jeremiah 41:14-15

‘So all the people whom Ishmael had carried away captive from Mizpah turned about and came back, and went to Johanan the son of Kareah. But Ishmael the son of Nethaniah escaped from Johanan with eight men, and went to the children of Ammon.’

It is apparent that when Ishmael saw the approaching forces he recognised that he was no match for them, and made his escape on horseback as rapidly as possible, leaving the captives to do whatever they wanted. The captives immediately went back to meet the pursuers, rejoicing in their deliverance. This would slow down any pursuit, thus enabling Ishmael and eight of his men to escape and make their way to Ammon.


Verse 16-17

Recognising That Nebuchadrezzar Would Wreak Vengeance For The Assassination Of His Appointed Representative The Judeans Determine To Seek Refuge In Egypt (Jeremiah 41:16-17).

In what is a much abbreviated account (Johanan’s men would hardly have left without their wives and children) we learn that all those who could have been seen as in any way involved in connection with the assassination of Gedaliah, including those who had failed to bring the assassins to justice and whose safety had been guaranteed by Gedaliah, determined to seek refuge in Egypt from the anticipated revenge of Nebuchadrezzar. Such revenge was rarely discriminatory. Anyone could find themselves involved in it.

Jeremiah 41:16

‘Then Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains of the forces who were with him, took all the remnant of the people whom he had recovered from Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, from Mizpah, after that he had slain Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, to wit, the men of war, and the women, and the children, and the eunuchs, whom he had brought back from Gibeon,’

Recognising that Nebuchadrezzar might well seek revenge on those who had failed to protect his representative from assassination, namely all the important people in Mizpah, and on those who had let the murderers escape, namely Johanan and his allies, whose guarantee of safety had anyway lain in the hands of Gedaliah, Johanan and his fellow-commanders decided to seek refuge in Egypt. From now on Mizpah would not be a safe place in which to live, being a target of Nebuchadrezzar’s vengeance. It should be noted that while large, the numbers of refugees are limited. The large part of the inhabitants of Judah would remain in Judah, well away from Mizpah.

Jeremiah 41:17-18

‘And they departed, and stayed in Geruth Chimham, which is by Beth-lehem, to go to enter into Egypt, because of the Chaldeans. For they were afraid of them, because Ishmael the son of Nethaniah had slain Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, whom the king of Babylon had made governor over the land.’

The basis of their fears is here emphasised. It was because the one whom Nebuchadrezzar had appointed as governor had been slain. This really left Nebuchadrezzar with no option but to wreak some kind of revenge as an object lesson to all his subjects everywhere as to what would happen to them if they did not protect his appointed representatives. And Mizpah would be the main target of his revenge.

So rather than returning to Mizpah they took up temporary residence in Geruth Chimham (or ‘at the inn/resting-place of Chimham’). It is an indication of their sense of foreboding, and of their fear of an attack at any time, that they clearly panicked and determined to flee the scene. No one wanted to be found in Mizpah. That they were at least partly right, humanly speaking, can be gathered from the fact that Nebuchadrezzar’s forces did later arrive and seek vengeance on Judah in 582 BC, resulting in further exiles (see Jeremiah 52:30).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 41:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-41.html. 2013.

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Sunday, September 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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