This segment opens with Yirmiyahu being brought to pray on behalf of the king among the people of Jerusalem during a respite in the siege against the city and then being arrested for prophesying against the city. The people are rejoicing, because the Chaldeans have fallen back to repel Egyptian military aide sent to Jerusalem by the Pharaoh Apries (Hophra in chapter 44). But the challenge was quickly repulsed.
Jerusalem lies in a major trading route that the Chaldeans and Egyptians frequently disputed during this time in history. The Yehudim were caught in the middle. However, the Chaldeans were at the peak of their power, and the Egyptians were at a trough in theirs. For the Yehudim, the desire to overestimate Egyptian military strength was a tempting, but deadly, mistake. As was generally the case for the Prophets, Yirmiyahu was aware of the overall geopolitical situation and warns against rash errors in judgment. He knows the Egyptian advance does not spell victory for the Yehudim, and that Jerusalem will eventually fall. Indeed, Apries’ failed attempt against Nebuchadnezzar is answered by a mutiny of Egyptian soldiers.
Note that Yirmiyahu encounters one Iriah ben Shelemiah ben Hananiah at the Benyamin Gate, when leaving the city. This man is not descended from either of the men named Shelemiah mentioned in chapter 36. Hananiah is the false prophet who charged Yirmiyahu with false prophecy in chapter 28. He ultimately arrests Yirmiyahu on the charge of desertion. It may be assumed that this man was also a descendent of the Shelemiah mentioned in 1D’Vrei ha Yomim (1Chronicles) 26, presumably Iriah’s father’s namesake, and so a Levite. Yirmiyahu’s activities stirred up much animosity among the house of Aharon. Clan feuds play an important role in the history of the Exile and its aftermath.
After being held in the house of Yonatan the scribe, Yirmiyahu pleads his case before King Zedekiyahu. Given Yirmiyahu’s history of loyalty, Zedekiyahu has the prophet moved to the palace guardhouse, where he is guaranteed bread as long as there is any to be had.
In chapter 38, another group of men gain permission to have Yirmiyahu removed from the guardhouse and thrown into a pit without bread or water. These men include Shephatiah ben Mattan, Gedalyahu ben Pashhur, Yucal ben Shelemyahu (referred to elsewhere as Yehucal), and Pashhur ben Malchiah. Despite the connection not being noted, both Pashhur’s are probably the same person. He was the keeper of the Temple household, and had Yirmiyahu thrown in the Benyamin Gate stocks in Yirmiyahu 20, where he is identified as Pashhur ben Immer. According to Nehemiah 11 and 1 Dvrei HaYomim (1 Chronicles) 9, Immer was the founder of the family, and Malchiah was Pashhur’s father. Again, Yirmiyahu is having a run-in with powerful, existing enemies.
These enemies put Yirmiyahu into an empty cistern (not a clean place) belonging to Melkiahu ben Zedekiyahu. Melkiahu should not be confused with Melchiah, the descendent of Immer and father of Pashhur–different spelling, different family, different person. It is important that the cistern belongs to the royal household, as it makes it quite reasonable that Yirmiyahu’s situation would be discovered by Ebed-melech ha Cushi (literally: the Ethiopian servant of the king), who reports the situation to Zedekiahu, and is ordered to put Yirmiyahu back in the guardhouse.
Zedekiyahu also asks Hashem for instructions through Yirmiyahu, as the price of royal protection for Yirmiyahu. Yirmiyahu tells Zedekiyahu to surrender to the Chaldeans. By the end of the chapter, Jerusalem has fallen.
Chapter 39 opens with the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar’s forces and the arrival of the Chaldean king and his entourage in the city. Among the ministers appearing in this grand entrance are four officials identified by their titles:
- Nergal-sarezer. Nergal was a Chaldean war god, and nergal-sarezer means “Nergal protect the king.” Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law (who later overthrew Nebuchadnezzar’s son) bore this title. Presumably, this man’s duties involved protecting the life of the king.
- Samgar-nebo. Nebo was a Chaldean god of wisdom. The meaning of samgar is uncertain, but it could be the Assyrian word meaning “be gracious.”
- Sarsechim Rab-saris. The sarsechim was the chief of slaves (either eunichs or mercenaries, possibly both, since ancient mercenaries were often eunichs). Rabsaris means “chief of officers.” This man was the general of the eunich/mercenary force.
- Nergal-sarezer Rab-mag. Rab-mag is derrived from the Assyrian “rab-mugi,” meaning “chief physician.” Presumably, this man was the king’s primary doctor.
It is also possible that these titles represent a smaller or greater number of men than four, as the beginnings and endings of the titles are not clear. I would not be surprised if the first two titles were for one man. Given the meaning, though, Samgar-nebo could also be the title of a prince.
Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guard is responsible for sending captives to Babylon. Note that the word used both here and in 2 Melechim (2 Kings) 25 to describe deserters is “nephilim”. Elsewhere, this word is translated as “giants”, but it comes from the Hebrew word for “fall” or “fallen”, and is sometimes given the connotation of “apostate.” Perhaps we should not be so quick to ascribe legendary or supernatural meanings to this word in other contexts.
Meanwhile, Nebuchadnezar’s forces chase down and capture the royal court at Rivla (Ribllah) in Hamath. Zedekiyahu’s fate there closely parallels that of his brother, Yehoyahaz, who was also captured at Rivla, albeit by the Pharaoh Necho, and taken into Egyptian captivity.
Nebuchadnezer has his chief officers take custody of Yirmiyahu, and deliver him to Gedaliah, the new governor of Yehudah. Gedaliah is the son of Ahikam, who was one of the five men sent to Huldah the prophetess to inquire about the scroll found by the High Priest Hilkiyahu, Yirmiyahu’s father (2 Melekhim 22). He also protected Yirmiyahu from death, when the prophet was accused of false prophecy in chapter 26. Ahikam was himself, the son of Shaphan the scribe, whom Hilkiyahu had take and read the scroll to Yosiyahu (2 Melekhim 22). Ahikam’s brothers, Gemariah and Elasah, were other important allies of Yirmiyahu (chapters 29 and 36).
Finally, for his loyalty, Yirmiyahu promises safety for the king’s Ethiopian servant, who had saved Yirmiyahu from the cistern.
In chapter 40, Nebuzaradan allows Yirmiyahu to go free, and even provisions him for the journey, because he has seen that Yirmiyahu is a prophet of a powerful god. So Yirmiyahu returns to Yehudah to serve its new governor, Gedaliah ben Shaphan. Gedaliah, meanwhile, has set about repairing the fields, and has been rewarded with an abundant harvest, and has actively promoted the agenda set by Yirmiyahu in his letter related in chapter 29. But Ishmael ben Netanyahu and his allies hatch a plot to assassinate Gedaliah.
In chapter 41, we learn that Ishmael ben Netanyahu’s grandfather was one Elishama, who was a member of the royal family. There is no evidence beyond proximity that this is the same Elishama as Yirmiyahu mentions in chapter 36 as “Elishama the scribe,” but there is no other Elishama recorded who could be an alternative, and Elishama the scribe lived in the royal residence and would have had a stake in the fate of Beit David. The assumption is a safe one. In any case, Ishmael ben Netanyahu’s plot makes sense now that we can cast it as an attempt of a lesser part of the Davidic line to regain rulership over Yehudah.
“Thus shalt thou say unto him: Thus saith the LORD: Behold, that which I have built will I break down, and that which I have planted I will pluck up; and this in the whole land.”