A Podcast on Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and Jewish History
The latter years of the First Temple period saw the Kingdom of Judah contending with dangers posed by the politics of the region and the fluctuating strengths and flaws of the reigning Judean kings. In this podcast episode, David examines the eighth to sixth centuries BCE. He discusses the perilous journey of the nation of Israel amid a changing geopolitical landscape; the rise and influence of the prophets of Israel; and the profound impact and historical reverberations of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jewish people into Babylon.
Those who want to apologise for the awfulness of King Menashe’s reign – sorry you missed the intro – will tell you he didn’t have a lot of choices because when we look at the wider picture, we have to understand how the society of Judah at the time is embedded in a wider political and cultural reality.
And that looks something like this. Here’s the Land of Israel. And here is Assyria. And as we know by now – I mean, even 20 years before here, when the Assyrians had conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel, they were entering the height of their expansive phase. Certainly, by now, by here by 700, under rulers, not just like Shalmaneser V and Sargon II and also Sancheriv as the Bible calls him or, Sancheriv who was the ruler here.
The Assyrian consolidation of the Assyrian Empire is just massive. And even though Hezekiah had managed to somehow get Jerusalem and the small pocket of land around Jerusalem, that was like a reduced state of Judean independence through that expansion, it didn’t mean that Judah was unaffected.
So, by the time you get to Manasseh, we are allowed our independence, but we are effectively a vassal state. We are effectively a vassal state and here’s Judah and Manasseh is having to pay tribute constantly to the powers in Assyria. When Sancheriv, who had been the Assyrian King that had dried to wipe out Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah, when he died in the six eighties and he didn’t die nicely, he was killed by his sons.
And one of the sons that wasn’t actually there at his assassination was the one that went on to become king. And in fact, pursued his brothers, killed them and became king. Look, I know that it’s not a memory test for us. Right. We didn’t have to sit out, and he’s just going to say a whole lot of names, but I say these names, and if I only have a certain amount of time to talk about this period, then the names I say are important and you can look into them at your leisure, but bear in mind that there are universities with entire departments devoted to Assyriology.
It is not simply a few paragraphs here and there. This is an entire discourse which was at its height in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as archeologists were discovering the most amazing things about the engine world, and the are entire departments and professorships of Assyriology were created.
So, these figures are big, and we know a lot about them. And I’ll talk more in a moment about why we know a lot about them. So, the first success to Sancheriv was at the height of the Assyrian expansive empire was Esarhaddon pronounced – it’s got different pronunciations in Latin and in Greek and in Acadian and whatever, but we know him as Esarhaddon.
A huge king and a king that had no time for anyone who wasn’t going to be completely in line with the Assyrian state ideology. And I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again because we’ve got to realise: Ashur means Assyria. Ashur was a place. Ashur was the empire. Ashur was the state religion. Ashur was the G-d.
The Neo Assyrians had been around for about 50 – the Assyrians themselves – had been around for 1500 years, but in this particular phase of ascendancy, they took their own religion and ideology and universalised it and made it the dominant religion and ideology of everywhere they went.
And you had to pay obedience to Assur in order to keep Judean independence, Manasseh had to not only pay a lot of tribute – and of course, symbols of loyalty – but he also had to allow a certain amount of openness and religious tolerance inside Judea itself. So that is why even after the great religious reforms of Hezekiah, who’d been a big champion for G-d of Israel, his son Menasheh had to allow temples to Baal and to Ashur, and to some of the other Middle Eastern gods, like a type of multiculturalism. And that would have been seen as an effective way of showing loyalty to the Assyrian powers.
If you read rabbinic literature on Menasheh, they’ll tell you a lot more about him – because they really, really, really don’t like him. What they’ll also tell you, to some extent backed up by historical sources, is that Menasheh wasn’t just encouraging religious syncretism, which as you can imagine, was pissing a few people off – especially the sorts of people that wrote letters to the AJN (Australian Jewish News). But he also was a political tyrant and was brooking no opposition and was famous, obviously, for having any opposition assassinated – and particularly opposition from the prophetic class.
So, whereas we have quite a few prophets that we know of here – Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, Micah – that whole class of prophets there. And we have prophets here that we are going to talk about – Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel – all these prophets here. But there are no prophets from this entire period. We learn that Menasheh filled Jerusalem with the blood of his opponents. In fact, there is only one prophet really that survived from this whole period. And that interestingly is a prophet that’s in the Tanach, it’s in the Bible, but not many people know about this prophet because there are no Haftorahs from this prophet and we’re not often exposed to him. It’s not a long book – but he’s regarded as the one prophet that survived this period. Anyone know who that prophet is?
It is the prophet Nachum. The prophet Nachum is three small chapters and they’re talking about one thing: The destruction of Assyria. And in fact, it’s quite amazing because when Assyria is destroyed it’s pretty much exactly how he said it’s going to be. But at this time we’re talking about the absolute height.
Now, at one point we understand from some historical sources – there’s a mention of this not in the main narrative in Kings, but the Book of Chronicles, but also in other places, it’s possible to understand that at some point Manasseh’s loyalty was questioned by the Assyrian kings. And he was summoned to Assyria, where he had to undergo some form of torture, and after which he relented on some of the harsher aspects of his kingdom. But for most of this period, it was Menasheh and he drove the nation towards more and more reliance on an alliance with Assyria – culturally. That’s the really important part, culturally, as well as politically. Religion? Oh, you want to worship the G-d of Israel, you want to have your temple? Okay. But there’s a lot of other things going on.
Now sometime in the minus 660s. And I’m sorry that I have to go into a little bit of Assyrian history, but I’m telling you, I’m giving us the tip of the iceberg, just so that we can understand the Bible and we can understand Jewish History. But Esarhaddon dies and he is succeeded by his son. And his son becomes the most famous of all the Assyrian kings.
If I had said to you before tonight’s talk named one Assyrian king, this is the one that you would say- maybe.
Some of you may not have heard of him so I don’t want to make people feel bad, but if you’re into Assyriology, he’s the dude, right? And his name – very, very big king – his name is Ashurbanipal.
Now, the reason he is super important is not merely because Ashurbanipal was the last of the great Assyrian kings. After him, it started the whole empire started to disintegrate. He wasn’t just the last, but he’s the most famous because of one basic fact.
You see Ashurbanipal was not meant to be king. His older brother was going to be king. He was a crown prince, he was the brother of the guy who’s going to become king. And what do you do with a prince who is probably not going to go onto the throne? You got to give him something useful to do so you teach him useful stuff like reading. Ashurbanipal was unique among kings in the ancient world because he could read, and he liked reading.
His brother died and Ashurbanipal found himself on the throne and he still liked reading. And so, using all of his resources, he created a phenomenal library, which is known as – by us – the library of Ashurbanipal.
And we knew about this library. And then at the end of the 19th century, when archeologists – French, German, British archeologists – are crawling all over the Middle East looking for their fame and fortune. They discover the library of Ashurbanipal, 30,000 cuneiform tablets describing every aspect of Assyrian existence.
That, over the next proceeding decades, gets translated, and therefore the foundation of what we call the science or the discipline of Assyriology. So, the library of Ashurbanipal is hugely important.
We know a lot about Ashurbanipal and Ashurbanipal is this massive king, sitting here also during the reign of Menasheh, but Ashurbanipal, whose reign goes up until about 627, is the last of the great, great Assyrian kings.
And when I say the great Assyrian rulers, the Assyrian Empire extended into Egypt and not quite as far as the Indus, but it did have quite a few things going on. East and Asia minor and so on in this whole area. And of course, Arabia. Massive, massive empire.
Now Menasheh dies sometime in the 630s.
Sorry? No natural death. In fact, it’s interesting because that forms part of what was troubling some of the prophets. How is it that this guy who was so awful was allowed to have one of the longest, the most stable rains of all Judean kings?
Manasseh was followed by his son. His son’s name was Amon. Just to give you an idea of just how deeply the religious syncretism and polytheistic tolerance had permeated Jewish society, that his son actually has the name of an Egyptian G-d.
Was Amon a good king or a bad king? Which way was this going to go?
Turns out Amon was like his dad on crack. And Amom not only continued all of the abominable practices politically and religiously and ethically and morally of his father. Because during that time of stability with Menasheh we saw – as we saw earlier in the Northern kingdom, which freaked out the prophets – this tremendous social injustice that was creeping into society – the gap between rich and poor, the abuse of the law towards the underprivileged, the lack of equality and the tremendous corruption that was going on.
He didn’t stop any of that. And in fact, he went further in his anti-religious zeal and his attempt to suck up to the Assyrians. Famously, this is what the rabbi-historians of the Talmud tell us – and we don’t have any alternative narrative – and it makes sense about what’s going to happen next.
Amon had every fragment of holy text that we had – effectively meaning the Torah – burnt.
He attempted singlehandedly to eradicate the entire textual tradition of the Jewish people. And he was on the throne for two years before he was assassinated. In that two years, he did a lot of damage.
And when Amon died in around minus 641, his eight-year-old son came to the throne, who had only ever known his grandfather Menasheh and his father Amon.
So Menasheh is succeeded by Amon and Amon is succeeded around 640 by his eight-year-old son. When this eight-year-old son is round about bar mitzvah – he’s too young to effectively rule so obviously he’s got regents and advisors who are dealing with things until he comes into some form of maturity. And boys of royal families in that era were regarded as reaching maturity at the age of 12. From 12 they were seen as able to rule in their own right. They were, before the law, men.
And roundabout his bar mitzvah, this young boy went: (sound of explosion) Whoa, who am I? I mean, who actually am I? I don’t want to be a king like my father. I don’t want to be a king like my grandfather. I am told that I am actually on the throne of King David and that I have, because of that, some special covenant with the G-d of Israel. And that I am on this throne to lead this nation in the path of justice and righteousness. I want to be a king like King David, my ancestor. I want to be a good king.
He comes to the throne and around about 640; he has this realisation probably 638, 637. And he is the extraordinary pivot around which everything that we’re going to talk about for the rest of this talk really revolves. He’s the most important figure in the Bible, certainly in terms of kings after Hezekiah – if not one of the most important in the whole of the First Temple Period, and his name is Josiah.
And he goes about effecting what historians now refer to as the Josianic revolution.
We’re sitting in a Chabad House in Melbourne in 2016, and we have a certain perception – I’m sure it varies amongst all of us, but a unified perception of what Judaism means and what Jewish History means and what the Jewish people are – and so much of that is due to the reforms and effects of the Josianic revolution.
I’m going to say something for a minute that’s a little bit of a spoiler. But I want to do it, so we don’t get confused.
Josiah has a number of sons. Over the course of the next few years, he’s going to father sons, according to some three, according to some, four. All of them, including one grandson, are going to become king in the next few decades. I need you to understand that so we don’t get confused and I’ll fill in these spaces as we get there.
We talk about a messianic complex and we even talk now, we even talk possibly in relation to this, a Josianic complex – it’s a term. Because he saw himself as ‘the one’.
He was chosen by G-d to sit on the throne of Judah at that time in history to effect the great big apocalypse Armageddon -the end, this is it. We’re going to enter the big picture now. And he doesn’t have access to a Torah because they’ve all been burned by his father and grandfather. But has a few people around him who give him some indication of what he needs to do.
And he knows he needs to run a society based on justice and based on what righteousness. And he’s also aware that the G-d of Israel has a big problem with idol worship. So, the first thing he does without knowing anything else is he takes his army and he goes right through the whole land – police force, army, whatever – and they destroy every single remnant of idolatry that they can – at a level way beyond whatever Hezekiah did. Hezekiah got rid of the bamot (stages/platforms), and he got rid of some of the idols, but Josiah was total.
He got rid of those golden calves that had been in the Northern kingdom – he had control over the Northern Kingdom, or what was the Northern Kingdom – over Samaria. They even dug up the bones of priests that had idol worship and burnt those bones. He desecrated any religious shrine that he saw to an idol. He was total.
How could he do this? Why was he able to do this? Because in minus 627, Ashurbanipal dies and already in the last few years of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian Empire – as happens with all great empires – was disintegrating from within. And they could no longer keep a hold on all of their peripheral conquests.
That allowed various states around the place to start feeling a sense of autonomy and independence from Assyrian control. The Assyrians were still nominally in charge, but they did not have the resources to hold their empire together, especially because so much of Assyrian resources were being sucked up in controlling the rising power of new quasi empires, such as Babylon and Media. Therefore, Egypt was able to flick the forks at the Assyrian Empire and we start seeing in the dynasty of the middle kingdom of Egypt, we see the rise of some very, very big Egyptian rulers, the most famous of whom is probably one of the most famous Egyptian rulers of that entire period. And that is – and I’ll put him down here in Egypt – Necho II.
So, Josiah is able to run around making these reforms and then, in the 620s – probably roundabout 620, so not long after Ashurbanipal dies and the library of Ashurbanipal, they found that underneath the gates of Ishtar. The Gates of Ishtar you can go and you can look at in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. They excavated underneath there. In the 1930s. They found the library – they found the Chronicles of Babylonia. And these issues we’re talking about are covered there.
But in around 627, Josiah decides that he needs to have the temple cleaned up. This was the first major maintenance project and restoration project on the temple that had taken place since when? Since your Yehoash, who I spoke about last week. Remember that kid that had been saved after the bloodbath of Atalia? And he grew up in the Temple, and when he was older, he set about establishing a system of maintenance.
It had fallen into a lot of disrepair. Plus, during the reign of Menasheh and Amon things had gone decrepit and there needed to be a lot of cleaning up there and Josiah started organising repairs on the Temple.
So, they’re doing that, and they are poking around, and they open up a little crack in the wall and they open it further and they find, secreted inside one of the walls of the Temple, and they find a Torah. And they bring it to Josiah and Josiah opens it up and his eyes land on a verse.
Remember, you’re Josiah. You are it. You are Neo. You are the one. And you get this Torah. It’s the first Torah to be found. So, everything is according with how amazing your life already is. And this is obviously meant to happen. So, the first verse you look at is going to be significant.
And the first verse that he sees is Deuteronomy 29:36, which is? Deuteronomy 29:36: “And G-d will lead your king into exile. To a land that your fathers knew not where they will worship gods of brick and stone and wood.”
They send that this document they found, this Torah, to the spiritual leader of the age to determine: a) is this really the Torah? And b) is this really going to happen?
And the spiritual leader of the age was, of course, a woman. It was the prophetess, Hulda. This is at a time, even with Jeremiah and Habakkuk and Zephaniah. She was regarded as the great spiritual luminary of that generation.
We’re told that she’s referred to as Hulda. The word Hulda is a Hebrew word that means a weasel. She’s called the weasel and we’re not sure of her real name. The rabbis tell us she was called the weasel because of the way that she disrespected the king when she responded to the delegation that was sent to her.
Others say that she was called Hulda because she would spend her time teaching children. That’s why there was during the Second Temple Period, one of the gates of the temple was called the gate of Hulda.
She was one of the conduits that led from the First to the Second Temple, spiritually. She’s an amazing woman.
But she said: Go and tell Josiah that that is in fact the Torah and that prophecy is going to happen because the bloodshed and the violence and the corruption that has built up under the proceeding kings of Judah must be requited. We can’t stop that punishment.
But because you are a righteous king, Josiah, and because you have humbled yourself before G-d, it’s not going to happen in your lifetime.
And Josiah goes: Okay. I can deal with that. It’s like what Hezekiah was told. Yeah, not in my lifetime. That’s okay. Not my problem, someone else’s problem.
Now, what’s important, even secular historians will come, and they will tell you that the Josianic reforms were real and they created the Book of Deuteronomy as the central constitution of the Jewish people.
Some chazer-fressing apikorosim (Jewish sceptics) will tell you that the Book of Deuteronomy was discovered then because the Book of Deuteronomy was written then. That opinion doesn’t need to freak us out. Historians have one way of looking at it and rabbis have another way of looking at it. But at the end of the day, it was just Josiah who was responsible for establishing the Torah as the central code of what was going to happen. And also encouraged and sponsored all of what they call the Deuteronomistic histories of Israel, which is the books of Judges; the books of Samuel; the books of Kings – all of the narrative of the kings that we’ve been talking about leading up to that time. It’s extremely influential.
Now, by the time we get to round about 609 -610, so Josiah’s at the height of his kingship. He is autonomous, he has control over Samaria as well now. Egypt is definitively independent, and in fact, Egypt is starting to flex its muscles.
Egypt has always, always, seen itself as a major power broker. Even today, of course, if we look at the context of the Middle East, Egypt always sees itself as a major power broker and that’s how it was then. They say: We’ve been around for a long time. We’ve seen empires come and go and if the Assyrians are now on the wane, then it’s time for us to flex our muscle a bit and become ‘Egypt’ yet again.
But Josiah is doing the same thing in Judah – not expanding but wanting to be this neutral spiritual entity that is a messianic state. That’s the historical picture of Josiah that we have at the moment.
Now in minus 612, Babylon finally broke free of Assyrian domination. They had a similar culture – similar, but different. Similar religion, but different – much more focused on a priesthood rule in Babylonia and a much richer mythology. Even under Assyrian domination, the Babylonians had always seen themselves as special.
And there were certain grievous things that the Assyrians had done to them and eventually, they broke free and they created their own empire. And in 612, they shmeissed (destroyed) the Assyrians, the Assyrian army, at the capital of Assyria Nineveh.
At Nineveh, the famous destruction of Nineveh in minus 612. The destruction that was so awful, the king committed suicide. That was the destruction that Nachum had been talking about. That happens in 612. It wasn’t the end of the Assyrian Empire yet, but it was the death blow. The Assyrian Empire or the Assyrian army and the Assyrian royal family then reconstituted itself in Harran. Harran is like in Northern Syria, near the border with Turkey. The Assyrians reestablish themselves here.
So, the Babylonians come at them. The Babylonians come at them in 609 and Necho, who for years the Egyptians had been in this power struggle with the Assyrians, but now that the Assyrians are on their knees, Necho doesn’t want the expansion of Babylonia into the area, so he thinks it would be a good idea to shore up the remains of the Assyrian defence.
Everybody follow? So Necho takes his army from Egypt and goes to Harran to assist the Assyrians in their defence against the Babylonians. All right? What’s the quickest way?
Josiah. I’m Josiah. What do you mean you’re going to march through the Land of Israel? If this is the messianic period as described in the Book of Deuteronomy, then we are the fulfillment of messianic conditions. And one of the messianic conditions is: “v’cherev lo tavor b’artzechem” (וחרב לא תעבר בארצכם ) – No sword will pass through your land.
You can’t march your army to fight the Assyrians. I don’t need that. You want to go around? Much, much, much, much, much, much longer trip. That’s your business. But you’re not going to march through Israel. And he took the entire army of Israel and he met Necho’s army. Where? Famously? At?
Josiah’s last stand. You’ve heard of this place. You’re going to go: Oh, that’s why it’s famous. At Megiddo.
So Necho comes with his army. Because at Megiddo is the narrow pass you have to go through into the Jezreel Valley to then find yourself going all the way up through Lebanon, right up to Northern Syria, where he had to get to.
So, the Judean army is blocking it. Necho goes: Ah, what’s your problem, dude? Like my fight’s not with you. Out of my way. I’m on my way to fight the Babylonians at Harran with the Assyrians. Just let me through. And Josiah goes: No, you’re not going to have the Egyptian army walk through Israel.
You’re not going to affect our sovereignty here.
There was a battle. There are different accounts. Some say it was a bit fierce. Some say there was hardly a battle at all. Necho told his archers to concentrate all of their firepower on the king. And within minutes, 300 arrows pierced the body of Josiah and he was dead – and Necho’s army just marches through.
Josiah’s body was brought back to Jerusalem with great solemnity and precipitated a very, very great moral crisis in Judean society. That this king who had been so enthused and passionate, empowered with his own vision of what he wanted Israel to be, suddenly had met a death like that.
Necho had said to him: Why are you standing in my way? I have been sent by G-d. So, you’re only obstructing G-d’s will. He wasn’t going to listen to that. But the prophet Jeremiah, according to legend, had told Josiah not to prevent Necho from passing through. But Josiah was his own man, and it ended tragically.
He was then replaced by his second-oldest son – not his oldest son – his second-oldest son called Yehoahaz. Now Yehoahaz was popular because he was much more like his father. He was in fact of the same mind as Josiah – to continue the same policies. Ascended to the throne a bit sooner than he thought, but he wanted to be like his dad. And therefore, he had got popular support for that.
A number of historians blame the death of Josiah for the unraveling that’s about to happen. Yehoahaz was on the throne for only about three months because Necho having not done terribly well in Harran, because it was a bit of a stalemate The Assyrians didn’t achieve their objectives. But Necho came back and on his way back through decided, you know what? I’m not going to pass through here. I’m going to make some decisions over here.
So, he takes Yehoahaz, the new king, and he deposes him. And he takes him into exile. That is the fulfillment. That is the first fulfillment. Many people don’t realise. How was verse fulfilled? It was first fulfilled in this little-known king, who was the son of Josiah, called Yehoahaz, who sat on the throne for three months.
He died in exile. It was very sad. He was taken to Riblah; he was tortured. And Necho, in his stead, placed on the throne a puppet king that would be a vessel to Egypt. Yehoahaz’s older brother called, Elyakim, who we know as Yehoyakim.
And Yehoyakim was not like his dad. Yehoyakim was much more like his grandfather and his great-grandfather. He says, but whereas granddad and great-granddad tried to anger G-d, they were amateurs. This is what the rabbis tell us Yehoyakim said. And one of the first things he did was to have the name of G-d tattooed on his whatnot.
That is the kind of thing that angers G-d and the prophets and so on. But as a symbol of his relationship with the traditional spiritual values and religion of the people of Israel, he re-entered and opened all the polytheistic syncretism that was around.
And Elyakim fancied himself as a local ruler. He didn’t like the fact that for the first three or four years he had to pay homage to Necho, to Egypt. He realised that was the geopolitical reality, but he didn’t like it. Yehoyakim comes down to us as a king that is constantly busting to try to get away – he wants to be like his dad, but he doesn’t have the same conditions that his dad had. He doesn’t want to be like his dad in leadership direction, but he wants to be like his dad and the autonomy that Josiah was enjoying under the Assyrian disintegration.
And then minus 605 is a very, very important date in world history because in minus 605, the last gasp of the Assyrian Empire and its military assembled at a place called Carchemish. Some of you will have heard of the battle of Carchemish. The battle of Carchemish was fought in 605 and Necho joined that party. So, the Assyrians up here at Carchemish. Necho once again, on another expedition to help the Assyrians because they thought now is our time because the ruler of the Babylonians – and the Babylonians are expanding, but they’re not fully in they’re not fully at their ascendancy yet – and their king, Nabopolassar, is ill. And so he’s gone back to Babylon to recover. So, they are morally compromised. So, now’s the time if we get the right allies together – and it’s amazing because, for so many centuries, Assyria and Egypt had been at loggerheads, but now they’re joining to stop the Babylonians and because Nabopolassar is ill.
So, they gather at Carchemish and they all build themselves into a friend’s and they go: Yeah, we’re going to kick some Babylonian butt.
Nabopolassar didn’t turn up, but he sent his son, the fresh crown-prince who we know as Nebuchadnezzar. And Nebuchadnezzar comes, and that is a massive turning point in history because he comes to Carchemish and it’s just…
Very, very few battles in the ancient world are as one-sided as the battle of Carchemish. If you look into the Battle of Carchemish, you will see it was a total slaughter. The Babylonian army came in the utterly geshmeissed (destroyed) the Assyrians. The Egyptians, who arrived just in time to witness this, turn and run. The entire Egyptian army.
The Babylonians pursued the retreating Egyptian army, overtook them, and slaughtered them as well.
Necho barely got back to Egypt. It totally wiped out any power claims of Egypt. For hundreds of years, Egypt didn’t raise its head. The Assyrian Empire definitively gone. Now Babylonia is in town.
Meanwhile, back in Judah, Yehoyakim realises: Oh, okay, Egypt’s gone. I guess I better pay homage to Babylonia. And Babylonia said: That’s right.
So, he pays a lot of tribute to Babylonia for a couple of years and then Nebuchadnezzar made an attempt to take Egypt that was around 601-602. And it wasn’t so successful.
So, Yehoyakim goes: Oh, maybe the Babylonians are not as strong as they say they are. So, he decides to declare independence from Babylon and ally himself with Egypt and Nebuchadnezzar’s comes to Jerusalem – either that or he sent a very strong army in full delegation.
We’re not entirely sure if he was present at that 603 – if he was, then he came to Jerusalem three times. The first was in 603, where he warned Yehoyakim in strong terms about not rebelling. He reestablished Babylonian primacy, and he took a number of important assets with him back to Babylon – amongst him were members of the royal family and the intellectual elite. Not the big numbers yet, but he took a few.
That is the exile. That’s the very first exile of the elite. And that includes figures like Daniel and Azaryah, Mishael, and Chananya. That wave. It was a small wave and he went back then and Yehoyakim said: Okay, I’ll be good. I’ll be good. I’ll be good.
But Yehoyakim couldn’t be good. He couldn’t stay subservient. That is the time when the prophets of Israel are going: The temple and Jerusalem are going to be destroyed. There’s nothing we can do about it. The only way that you could even have a chance of averting that disaster is by improving your ways.
Tremendous tensions. The Book of Jeremiah is full of the tensions between Jeremiah and Yehoyakim who was the king. And every year Yehoyakim’s calling like a rebellion conference. Some nations come around and they’d take a week at the King David hotel in Jerusalem and they’d sit there and then have a conference and drink cups of tea and go: Oh, should we rebel?
And then in 597 Yehoyakim does it. And he rebels. Nebuchadnezzar marches himself with an army on Jerusalem.
Amazingly, we now have Yehoyakim’s palace. We know where exactly where it is. We know the walls. We know where the Babylonian army stood, and they sieged Jerusalem. That was in 597.
That’s the famous siege, but it’s not the destruction. During that siege, Yehoyakim died and his body was thrown over the wall to the Babylonian army below. Because that’s what you did.
Wasn’t us. It was him.
If you’ve got an army standing sieging you because your king has rebelled – then only way you’re going to survive that is to kill the king and throw him…
Well, we’re not entirely sure if they killed him – but we certainly know that by the time he got to the bottom he was dead. We’re not sure if he had died before or after they threw him over the wall.
And then there was some plotzing (prevaricating) around for a couple of months. And during that couple of months, they put Yehoyakim’s son – it gets confusing so don’t freak out.
I’ll remember it for us.
Yehoyakin. Now Yehoyakin was on the throne for three months. And finally, Nebuchadnezzar comes into the city and he conquers Jerusalem and he takes Yehoyakin into exile – unlike Yehoahaz who’d been exiled westward into Egypt, Yehoyakin is exiled eastward to Babylon.
With around 3000 of the administrative and intellectual elite of the Jewish people. Anybody who knew anything or how to do things, a lot of the cream of the priestly class, a lot of the prophets or the intellectuals, a lot of the administrators, bureaucrats, and much of the nobility, the king’s family – all shipped off.
It is in that exile, that wave of exile, where we see people like the prophet Ezekiel. Or, for example, when you open up the Book of Esther and you read about Mordechai. It says that Mordechai was exiled in the days of Yehonya, who is Yehoyakin. That was the king Yehoyakin who was exiled.
Nebuchadnezzar, in place of Yehoyakin, puts his uncle, the last son of Josiah on the throne – who is the last king of Judah. Who is Zedekiah – Zidkiyahu.
Zedekiah is a complex fellow. By the way, Yehoyakin’s life in Babylon was not pleasant. He was in prison. And, we could look at other times, but the tremendous pathos that was going on with that exile and the letters and communications that were going back and forth between the prophet Jeremiah and others with Babylon about the conditions of the new exilic community. This was a remarkable community that had to set itself up in Babylon now without much idea about what they should do. No one had invented shules or community centres yet. They didn’t know. They didn’t even know if G-d could hear them over there.
That’s why the prophecies of the prophet Ezekiel in Babylon were so remarkable because it was his first time that prophecy had been received. This whole picture is on another parallel narrative – which we will have to look at another time – is also seeing a transformation in the Jewish concept of G-d. Because the prophets of Israel, especially these prophets around about the destruction: Habakkuk looking at the problems of suffering and the problems of evil; And Zephaniah looking at the purpose of exile; and Jeremiah.
If you read any chapter from the Book of Jeremiah, read chapter seven, because in chapter seven Jeremiah goes down to the Temple – he goes up to the Temple and he gives this amazing speech where he says: You think that because you have the Temple and you have the Davidic kingship and you have everything that you are inviolable, that Jerusalem will never be destroyed and the Temple will always be standing because it is an eternal building built by King Solomon, dedicated to G-d. And you think, therefore, because you have all of that, that nothing’s going to happen to you. Well, I’m here to tell you in the name of G-d if you don’t thint I will destroy this place, go and look for Shiloh, where the Ark stood for 300 years. Go and look! You won’t find it.
The Babylonian army is coming, and you know who’s at the head of the army? G-d. “Heyitu darkechem umaalleichem” (הֵיטִיבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶם וּמַעַלְלֵיכֶם) Improve your ways and your deeds. But if you do not lead a society that is just and righteous and equitable and nice, you’re going to get kicked out and Jerusalem’s going to get destroyed. And I don’t care that it’s the temple of the Holy of Holies and the priesthood and the sacrifices.
And the whole concept of G-d is getting ethicised and universalised before our eyes through the prophets of these generations. That’s the amazing thing as the pressure cooker builds and builds.
Zedekiah is a complex figure and the prophets like Jeremiah are thrown in and out of jail, but Zedekiah’s trying to play a chess game with all the different machinations going around him.
Can I rebel, should I, rebel? Is Egypt strong enough? What if we make an alliance here, an alliance there?
Jeremiah famously wears his yoke around his neck to symbolise the fact that all G-d wants you to do now is to submit to Babylon. But the population wasn’t with him, and in 588, Zedekiah decides: Now’s my moment.
He senses a moment of weakness in Babylonian supremacy and he and Egypt and a few other nations decide we’re not going to pay tribute to the Babylonians anymore and we’re going to go with ourselves. We’re going to be independent. Let’s see if they call our bluff.
Nebuchadnezzar called their bluff. And he came to Jerusalem again. And this time, as the Americans would say: He was pissed. He was annoyed that he had to schlepp to Jerusalem. He had to schlepp to Israel yet again. With a massive army. And this time he came, and he sieged Jerusalem.
This is in 588-587 because this siege lasted like 30 months. The day that siege began, what day did that siege begin?
All the fast days of the Jewish calendar outside of Yom Kippur are around these momentous events. 588 he arrives – even 589 – and the siege begins on the 10th of Tevet. The 10th of Tevet.
Now it was a horrendous siege. We’re going to see in a couple of weeks’ time with the Romans at the end of the Second Temple, what their siege was like. Vespasian’s siege was no picnic, but the Babylonian siege was profound, and it had a deep, not only psychologically demoralising effect on Jerusalem but a profoundly physical one.
We’re told by eyewitness accounts that parents were eating their children. Once you get to that point, it doesn’t get any worse. You don’t need to describe anything else. There was no food. The people were dying. Eventually, Nebuchadnezzar breaches the walls, and he breaches the walls on the 17th of Tamuz.
And then in 586, that’s the big number 586, the 17th of Tamuz, he breaches the wall. And by the 9th of Av, which is three weeks later, Jerusalem was in ruins and the temple was smoking.
Ezekiel has a massive vision where he sees the Divine presence leaving the temple in stages. I mean, if we talk about Ezekiel, we will get side-tracked, but if you read the book of Ezekiel and his descriptions of the visions that G-d shows him about what’s going on in Jerusalem, about the horrendous practices. It’s fascinating actually, the different ways in which they were worshiping different types of entities, the corruption that was going on.
When the Divine chariot leaves the sanctuary, leaves the temple, Ezekiel sees in a spiritual vision and metaphorically that an angel reaches down and grabs the coals, the fiery coals from underneath the Divine chariot as it ascends up to the Mount of Olives. And then he just throws these coals on Jerusalem and the whole … goes up in flames. It was cataclysmic.
We’re going to see this in much, much more detail. We have much more detail about the destruction of the Second Temple, but the destruction of the First Temple, which was deliberate, would have been absolutely horrendous. And the sheer paralytic shock that it would have sent the nation into, because this was a nation to whom this was not supposed to happen. But as the prophets had consistently told them, you have misunderstood the fundamental nature of this temple – the fundamental nature of your purpose in the world. That is what the prophets are screaming at the kings of Israel and at the population.
G-d doesn’t need your sacrifices. He’s had enough steak. G-d requires ethical behaviour – righteousness, justice. That’s it. And the temple and the Jewish people are a sacred location that brings Divine consciousness in the world.
In the words of Isaiah: You are to be a light to the nations. But you are not to pursue power for its own sake. And you are not to lead this nation into corruption and degradation. And if you do not deserve to be here, says G-d, I will destroy the temple. And G-d says: the Babylonians, they’re just my shluchim, they’re just my agents.
And Nebuchadnezzar, when he gets to Jerusalem, it’s interesting because through his generals and so on, they go and they find Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah, who at the time was up to his neck and mud and crap and chains…
By the way, Jeremiah on the eve of that destruction had gone and bought a field in Anatot, near Jerusalem. It’s an amazing act of faith where he said… I mean, it’d be like, G-d forbid and with all the chas v’shaloms and everything like that, if you thought that on the eve of a nuclear holocaust in Israel that you went and bought a flat in Tel Aviv – that would be what it would be like.
Because I know, says Jeremiah, that this people will return to this place. And he told the exiles in Babylon, it will be 70 years and you will come back here.
The Babylonians find Jeremiah and they free him, and they say: You’re free to do what you
want because he had prophesied about the Babylonian victory and he’d been telling the Jewish people not to rebel against Babylon.
And so he decides that he will go and live in a little commune that the Babylonians allow to exist – a pathetic attempt to reconstruct Jewish life. And the Babylonians allowed a guy called Gedalia to set up a little commune of people that weren’t any hassle to the Babylonians. And you can grow a few vegetables there and play guitars and just do what you have to do and you’ll slowly rebuild the presence of your traditional culture in this little park over there.
And Jeremiah goes and joins them. Gedalia’s a nice guy. And they come to him and they say: Oh, there’s some very, very cross people who want to kill you because you’re collaborating with the Babylonians. I’m not collaborating with the Babylonians. Let me just sit here with a few families and I’m just… No, no, no, no, no, no, no, they’re going to come and kill you and Gedalia goes: Nah they’re not. They’re just a bunch of hotheads and they’re running around and I’m gonna come and kill me. And then, of course, those people came for dinner and they killed him. That was a horrendous act.
Interestingly, the more you look into it, the more interesting it is that the sages of Israel made that day a fast day. It was Rosh Hashanah, but you can’t of fast on Rosh Hashanah, so the day after Rosh Hashana, on the third of Tishrei is called the Fast of Gedalia.
Till today, people fast the Fast of Gedalia and they don’t realise. And a lot of people don’t realise the parallels between Gedalia, and I’ve always thought – it’s not entirely accurate, so please don’t throw stones at me, but there is a parallel between what happened to Gedalia and what happened to Yitzchak Rabin.
When we assassinate our own people who just want to move things ahead in a quiet way – I know that some people might have an issue with me talking about Rabin in that way – but Gedalia was this just chilled out guy that just said: Okay, let’s just all be friends and let’s just try and move on, just put the destruction behind us. But that wasn’t enough for some people.
And then Jeremiah was forcibly taken to the one place he didn’t want to go to, which was Egypt. And he was forcibly exiled there.
We don’t know a lot about the day-to-day workings of the First Temple. What we do know is by a process of implication and extrapolation from what we definitely know about the Second Temple. And we assume that there were elements of the First Temple that were similar.
One of the things that is emphasised about the First Temple over the Second Temple – and remember when they built the Second Temple as we’ll see next week – G-d says to those old enough to remember the First Temple – you see those old enough to remember the First Temple were crying when they saw the Second Temple – it’s not clear why they’re crying.
Are they crying out of joy because they never thought they would see that day? And G-d says: you can tell your grandchildren that, but I know why you’re crying, says G-d. You’re crying because you remember the First Temple, and this is nothing like the First Temple. The First Temple was amazing.
It was amazing because we are told – this is the way it comes down to us in Jewish tradition – I’m now moving a little way from official history. But what we’re told in the traditions of the Jewish people is that the First Temple was a place of extreme revelation. When you’re in Jerusalem today, there’s a certain energy and there’s all these bizarre waves that come out from the Temple Mount and the closer you get to it, the more psycho things become, and trust me, I know of I’ve lived there. And it’s amazing energy around the place.
In the times of the First Temple, it was Divinity absolutely revealed. And there’s no question that we lost something with the end of the temple. What we mourn when we mourn the loss of the First Temple, is we mourn not only that incredibly intense revealed location of the Divine, but we also lose prophecy. We lose the direct revelation of the word of G-d, because this is signaling now the end of the prophetic age.
And ultimately we lose the monarchy. The monarchy was never reconstituted. Zedekiah was the last king. When the Babylonians found Zedekiah, when the Babylonians came into Jerusalem, when they breached the walls on the 17th of Tamuz in that year, Zedekiah and his close members of his family bolted. And they escaped Jerusalem. And the Babylonians found them.
And what do you think they did to Zedekiah? What do you think Nebuchadnezzar did to Zedekiah? What was the punishment in the ancient world for kings who rebel?
They slaughtered all his sons in front of him and then they blinded him – so that would be the last thing he would see. That don’t kill him. They kill all his children, then they blind him, then they lead him in chains into exile. Zedekiah’s price for his prevarication and his infidelity to not only what the Babylonians wanted of him but what the prophets of Israel wanted of him was huge.
In another age, Zedekiah might have been an okay king, but he was utterly inept and ill-equipped to be in leadership during the last ten years of that temple period.
Deep into that exile, we have in both Babylonian accounts and in biblical accounts, that Yehonya/Yehoyakin, the nephew, who had already been in exile for quite some time is allowed out of prison and is given a king’s ration and is allowed to live as a free person.
We understand that would have probably happened because by the time several decades had gone by, and it was, I think, in the 37th year of that exile is where that happened is because by now the Jewish community in Babylon was sufficiently strong that they probably would have applied their own lobbying and pressure.
During the whole reign of Zedekiah, I really want to communicate this to you, the difficulty with understanding this period, because during the whole reign of Zedekiah, it was unknown which way it would go. There was an entire faction in Judean society that was saying that it’s all going to be okay. This is the faction against which Jeremiah’s speech is arranged.
It’s all going to be okay because Yehoyakin is going to come back from exile, he’s going to bring all the vessels of the Temple back with him. It’s all going to be cool. And Jeremiah would say: You guys are false prophets; you don’t know what you’re talking about. Destruction is on the way. Destruction on the way. And, in fact, destruction is on the way.
And when we lost the temple, we lost something deeply profound. Judaism now would have to be reformulated. We would have to have a different basis. Yes, we would rebuild the temple, but there had to be a different way in which we would go about managing this concept of power because it is the one thing that the Jewish people consistently struggle with as they attempt to contain the Divine covenant that they are given to survive history with and it’s an extremely formative part of our history.
After the 597 exile, it was only the noch schleppers that were left. Right? I mean, the majority of the population, but much of the administrative class had gone – maybe between three and 10,000 had been exiled.
So, the bulk of the population was left, but few people were capable of doing anything significant. And that’s why Zedekiah ‘s rule of 10- 11 years was so decrepit because he was really struggling with a second-rate administration and bureaucracy trying to put that together. Certainly, no military to speak of.
Jerusalem was a very, very difficult nut to crack in the ancient world. It was obviously not the walls that we see now. The walls that we see now are more recent. They’re 16th century. It had high fortifications. It was in a difficult place. You had to be able to get to Jerusalem and that would mean that if you came from the west; you had to climb the Judean Hills. If you came from the east, you had to go across the Judean desert. It wasn’t an easy place to access. And when you got there, there were these massive walls. And it was not an easy city to crack.
Not just then. Even 600 years later it was no picnic for the Romans either to try to siege Jerusalem. It wasn’t even easy for the Crusader armies. Jerusalem has always been a difficult city to conquer. In fact, it’s interesting. Do you know how many times Jerusalem has been conquered in its history?
People have sat down and worked it out: 44 times. And hopefully, we have seen the last of them.
The last conquering of Jerusalem is in 1967. When we talk about Jerusalem, we’re talking about the Old City. But it’s been at the centre of empire building. All empires try to minimise its importance – some of them do – but all of them are utterly dependent on conquering Jerusalem as part of their expansion because it sits at the complete juncture of continents and directions and importance.
You have to control Jerusalem. And Jerusalem just so happens to be our capital city. And that then ties in very much with the role of the Jewish people in the world.
I don’t want to get preachy about it. And our job is to understand the narrative of Jewish History and my aim is to give us just a framework by which we can then do our own research and understand Jewish History.
But a lot of people treat Jewish history as interesting, but it’s much more than interesting. And the Jewish people are much more than just a cultural club.
We have our hands on the pulse of the destiny of humanity. If we can realise that and realise our potential in the world to be what the Prophet Isaiah and the Prophet Jeremiah are telling us, we can be, which is a light to the nations.
And if we really can transform our society in our place, I know that doesn’t always seem easy in every generation because we have enemies and we have challenges and we have obstacles – as well as all the plethora of first world problems. But these events are historical circumstances that keep coming back again and again and again.
When Jeremiah tells the people being exiled from Jerusalem in the most devastating destruction imaginable: You will come back here and rebuild in 70 years’ time. They’re thinking: loco naboco (he’s crazy).
And if someone had said to the Jews being exiled by the Romans in the first century: In 1900 years’ time, nearly two millennia, your descendants will come back here and rebuild the Land of Israel as a Jewish state, they would have gone: What the?
The words of the prophets and the revelations that are contained around the destruction as difficult as it is for us to read about these appalling mistakes that were made. These are real. And these are our ancestors. And these are us. And when you read these documents, you go: yeah, I can imagine us behaving that way. I can imagine her saying that. I can imagine us doing that. We’re making sometimes the same mistakes.
We are not just reading comic books here. These are real physical journeys that the Jewish people take. And we can also say: Oh, what happened to our ancestors half a millennium ago, what’s it got to do with me?
Because we are those same people and we are doing those same things. And we’re in that same situation. We’re still the Jewish people. Our capital is still Jerusalem. And we’re still struggling with power. We’re still trying to work out the relationship between the diaspora and the centre and how does that all work? And what’s that got to do with G-d? And what G-d’s plan for the world?
And our plan for the world is to create an ethical society that the nations go: Oh, we want to be like that. We’re on the way.
It’s going to get very exciting in the next couple of weeks. The later we get, the more we know. We know a lot about the Second Temple. We know a lot about who destroyed it. And we’re going to be looking at that in quite some detail. But I’m very, very glad that you followed me so far for these first couple of things just to look at the way the First Temple unfolds.
Thanks for listening to this.