This chapter continues to chronicle the political and spiritual collapse of the Jewish remnant left in the land after the fall of Jerusalem. Seven months into Gedaliah’s governorship, Ishmael returns to meet with Gedaliah. Ishmael, who is almost always referred to as “son of Nethaniah”, had been one of Zedekiah’s (“the king) officers and was “of royal blood” (1). In the previous chapter, Johanan had privately met with Gedaliah, accusing Ishmael of being an assassin working for Baalis, king of the Ammonites (40:14). That accusation, dismissed by Gedaliah, now proves true.
While we aren’t told his motives (envy? revenge? money?), we are told his actions. He comes with ten men to meet with Gedaliah (1). During a meal together, he overpowers and kills Gedaliah and “all the Jews who were with Gedaliah at Mizpah, as well as the Babylonian soldiers who were there” (3).
The following day, before word of the assassination spreads, he continues the slaughter. Eighty men come by Mizpah, headed for the “house of the Lord” (5). Several curious things are reported about these men: they are headed for the Temple with “offerings and incense” (5) but the temple has been recently demolished. Perhaps an altar for sacrifice had been rebuilt in the intervening months. They come from “Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria”—places not associated with faithful worship of YHWH. They had “shaved off their beards, torn their clothes and cut themselves” (5). These were all signs of mourning, though cutting was expressly prohibited by the Mosaic Law (Lev. 19:28).
For some reason (robbery?), Ishmael sets a trap for them. He meets them weeping and invites them to come to Gedaliah (6), perhaps telling them a tragedy has taken place. Once in Mizpah, he kills seventy of the men, sparing ten who claim to know where a stash of goods is hidden (8). He throws the dead bodies into a cistern containing the corpses of the previous night’s crimes (9). Jeremiah adds that King Asa had built this cistern during a time of tension with Baasha, king of Israel (9).
What are we to make of all this? Why the details about the eighty men and King Asa’s cistern? It may be that Jeremiah is revealing details to show the degraded state of the Israelite remnant. A former officer to the king, even one of royal blood, is a murderous traitor. Those in mourning and coming to worship at the Temple ruins are spiritually syncretistic, blending banned religious practices with legitimate offerings to God. Their dead bodies are thrown into a cistern originally constructed under the leadership of a godly king for protection; now it is defiled and turned into a mass grave. Jeremiah’s account is evidence of his earlier prediction that the remnant left in the land of Israel would be “bad figs” (Jer. 24).
When Johanan hears the news about Ishmael’s treachery, he leads a group of military officers and troops to hunt Ishmael down. Ishmael has taken captives from Mizpah and is headed towards Ammon and Johanan catches up to him near Gibeon (a few miles south of Mizpah). The captives break free and run towards Johanan; Ishmael, with eight of his men, escapes and returns to Ammon.
The whole episode is bleak and unsatisfying. Gedaliah is needlessly killed. The Babylonians are provoked. The villainous Ishmael gets away with murder. The remnant is further diminished and decimated. Yet all this is a partial fulfillment of the prophetic word through Jeremiah about the destruction of those remaining in the land—the ones God compares to “bad figs”(Jeremiah 24). The Lord had said He would make them “abhorrent . . . to all the kingdoms of the earth” (24:9) and send the “sword” against them (24:10). Here the sword of Ammon is used against them, cutting down the leader and officials who sought to take care of them. The judgment that came with the destruction of Jerusalem continues to shadow and reduce the remnant in the land.
Johanan and the people he rescued now find themselves in a deeper dilemma. Jeremiah’s account reveals their fear: “They were afraid of them [the Babylonians] because Ishmael son of Nethaniah had killed Gedaliah son of Ahikam, whom the king of Babylon had appointed as governor over the land” (41:17). They are terrified that Nebuchadnezzar, after hearing of the assassination of his appointed governor, will send troops to punish them further. Traumatized and terrified, they decide their best option is to flee. So from Gibeon, they head south to Egypt, stopping to camp near Bethlehem (roughly 10 miles south of Gibeon). So now the whole remnant—military officials led by Johanan, court officials, king’s daughters, men, women and children—head out on a long journey towards Egypt.
It’s hard to imagine the trauma they have experienced and the fear that grips them. They have lived through the carnage of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of many of their friends and countrymen. They had barely begun to try and rebuild their lives when Ishmael brought further death and captivity. They want to run away, to get as far from the sound of battle and war as possible. Egypt seems to offer some stability so they decide to head south. While such a trek will be dangerous and difficult, they have concluded that staying put in Israel will mean certain death at the hands of the Babylonians.
As we will see in the following chapter, their faith is at a low ebb at this point as well. Their confidence in God’s protection of them and their temple (7:4) has been rocked or even shattered. They feel orphaned, on their own. Sadly, it soon becomes apparent they have lost their trust in the Lord and will rely on their own understanding to get them through life (contra Proverbs 3:5-6).