Assassination of Gedaliah (2 Kings 25:23-26; Jeremiah 40:7-41:18) December 20-21
Not all Judean soldiers were exiled to Babylon. Some would have escaped with King Zedekiah while others manned fortresses throughout Judah. These army commanders had formed a resistance movement against the Babylonians and now came to Mizpah to meet the new Babylon-appointed Jewish governor, Gedaliah. With reference to one of the commanders, Jaazaniah or Jezaniah (2 Kings 25:23; Jeremiah 40:8), biblical historian Walter Kaiser makes this observation: "In the ruins of Mizpah, if Tell en Nasbeh is ancient Mizpah, a seal was found with this inscription: 'Belonging to Jaazaniah, servant of the king'" (A History of Israel, 1988, pp. 406).
The Harper Study Bible notes on Jeremiah 40:11-14: "There was rest in Judah under Gedaliah, who was capable and prudent. Jews who had been dispersed all over Palestine returned to Judah and came under the care and control of Gedaliah. Some degree of prosperity came, inasmuch as they gathered a goodly supply of wine and summer fruits. [But] a dark cloud hung over the infant state under Gedaliah. Baalis king of the Ammonites wanted to destroy Gedaliah. He employed Ishmael, a Jew of royal stock, to settle in Gedaliah's territory in order to slay the governor. Johanan, a friend of Gedaliah, tried to warn him about the plot, offering to kill Ishmael. But Gedaliah, a peaceful and honorable man, refused the offer and maintained his friend was speaking lies about Ishmael. Johanan's warning, however, eventually proved to be well-founded."
Author R.K. Harrison offers further explanation: "After the Chaldeans had devastated Judah, Gedaliah, who had befriended Jeremiah (Jer. 39:14), was appointed governor over the 'poor of the land.' Remnants of the old royal house who had managed to escape to Egypt regarded him as a collaborationist, however, and Ishmael, a descendant of the royal Hebrew line, slew Gedaliah at Mizpah while he was endeavoring to resettle the scattered populace" (Old Testament Times, 1970, p. 253).
"The 'ten men' [involved in the plot] (v. 2) should not be thought of as being alone, for they may have brought a retinue of attendants with them" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on 41:2-3).
"The year of the assassination of Gedaliah," it should be pointed out, "is not given, only the month—the seventh month of Tishri—September-October. The murder of the governor could have taken place as soon as three months after the fall of Jerusalem [in 586 B.C.] Others associate the third deportation of 582 B.C. [of 745 Judeans (see Jeremiah 52:30)] with this rebellion. Ishmael's act was especially despicable since it took place during a banquet" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 41:1-2).
Moreover, it is a sad reflection on Ishmael (and his collaborators) that in a time of utter devastation of his homeland and people, he would not only assassinate a decent leader but would also try to destroy the tiny remnant of poor people living there. He even kills a group of 80 men on a pilgrimage to the temple from Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria. These were probably Jews who, during the Babylonian invasion, had taken refuge in what was now Samaritan territory. It may be that they did not know that the temple was destroyed—although, as they were in mourning, it is also possible that they did know but considered the temple ruins as holy, just as Jews now consider the Western Wall of the temple to be. "These eighty men were mourning for the destroyed temple as well as for the ruined city (cf. 16:6; 47:5; 48:37). They had even gashed themselves—a relapse into heathen custom forbidden in Deuteronomy 14:1" (Expositor's, note on verses 4-5)—demonstrating the corruption of Jewish religious practice at this time.
Ishmael then tries to take a group of captives into Ammon. Notice that among them are the "king's daughters" (verse 10)—showing that all of Zedekiah's children were not killed. He still had at least two surviving daughters (the number is not specified).
With Johanan's forces in pursuit, Ishmael gives up his captives and manages to escape into Ammon. Johanan and those who are left worry that Babylon will come down hard on everyone, even those who weren't involved. "Fearing imminent reprisal from the Babylonians on account of the rebellion, Johanan gathered the inhabitants of Mizpah, including Jeremiah, together with those he had rescued and began a trek toward Egypt, seeking a place of safety. Egypt was the only country in the region that was free from Babylonian control" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Jeremiah 41:16-18).
We see how vulnerable people become when the government that structured their lives is torn from them—first their king and his government, then the governor put over them by Babylon. They are fearful, anxious for security and therefore vulnerable to self-seeking ambitious men who are eager to seize the leadership. It was a true test of whether they would trust God and His true servant or the men who seemed to offer security in a frightful time.
They camp near Bethlehem. We'll see more about what they decide to do in our next reading.