“What Conquest Brings He Home?” Vayikra Rabba 19:6 (Part 3)
The midrash now moves on to a verse from the II Chronicles passage which it understands as referring to the events immediately following Yehoyakim’s death:
“Now the rest of the acts of Yehoyakim, and his abominations which he did, and that which was found in him (ha-nimtza alav), behold they are written in the book of the Kings of Israel and Judah” (II Chron. 36:8).
Three Amoraim [differ as to ‘the abomination which was found on him’].
One said it was that he wore the prohibited mixture of wool and linen;
another said that he had disguised his circumcision;
another said an etched-in inscription was found engraved on his flesh.
The phrase ha-nimtza alav is a difficult one. JPS translates it as “what was found against him.” However, literally it means “that was found upon him.” The midrash understands this to mean that various abominations and sins were found on Yehoyakim’s body after his death.
The midrash lists three sins that can be found on the body. The first is that he was wearing a garment that contained sha’atnez (the prohibited mixture of linen and wool). The second is that he drew forward his foreskin, reversing his circumcision. The last is that he had a tattoo. In addition to the fact that these three all relate to the body, they might also be seen as rejections of Jewish identity. This is obviously the case for reversing circumcision. Tattooing the name of a pagan god was a way of showing one’s allegiance to him. Finally, wearing sha’atnez may suggest wearing Gentile garments as opposed to Jewish ones.
The reversal of circumcision needs to be further placed in its cultural context. In the Greek and Roman worlds, a curious confluence of cultural norms led to a very difficult situation for many Jews. On the one hand, nudity was an important part of Greco-Roman culture. Forums such as the gymnasium and the bathhouse required that participants shed their clothes. These places were important for making social and commercial contacts. To refrain from nudity was to withdraw from full participation in life in Hellenistic cities. Yet, the Greeks and Romans found the exposure of the glans of the penis to be abhorrent. Hence, for a circumcised Jew to appear naked in polite Greco-Roman society would attract negative attention and disapproval. In order to resolve this problem many Jews who sought to fully participate in Greco-Roman civic life underwent a surgical procedure known as epispasm, which was meant to make the circumcised penis appear uncircumcised. In mentioning that Yehoyakim had his circumcision reversed, the rabbis are likely engaging in a contemporary polemic against the practice of epispasm.
The midrash continues to identify even more of Yehoyakim’s sins:
R. Yochanan said:
it was that he had had incestuous intercourse with his mother, and with his daughter-in-law, and with his father's wife.
R. Yochanan further said:
In a word, he entered the very ‘gateway’ whence he had come out.
R. Yochanan argues that Yehoyakim’s sins were of a sexual nature. More specifically, he accuses Yehoyakim of engaging in incest with his mother, his daughter-in-law and his step-mother. Incest is not only among the most serious violations of the halakha, it is a behavior that most people find inherently repulsive and most cultures deem unnatural.
But why did R. Yochanan choose these three particular incestuous relations? Clearly engaging in relations with one’s mother is the most revolting form of incest. At the end of the section quoted above, R. Yochanan emphasizes how this act is a reversal of the natural order. A child is meant to come out of his mother, not go into her.
But what of the other two cases? Why single out the daughter-in-law and step-mother? It is worth noting that the prohibitions against incest are repeated twice in Vayikra. In chapter 18 (Parashat Acharei Mot), the Torah outlines the complete list of forbidden relations. Notably, the prohibition against having relations with one’s mother is emphasized at the top of the list. Two chapters later in chapter 20 (Parashat Kedoshim), the Torah presents a list of sins, many of them sexual in nature, which are identified as marring the holy status of Israel. Among these, the Torah lists two forms of incest, with one’s step-mother and one’s daughter-in-law. We still need to explain why these two are singled out by the Torah. However, R. Yochanan’s choice to indict Yehoyakim on these two specific counts of incest almost certainly was inspired by the Torah’s singling out of these two sins.
R. Yochanan does not offer any proof text in support of his charges. It is possible that he had none. He merely had a tradition that Yehoyakim was a sinner of the worst kind, and these where three of the worst sins he could think of. However, in the following section R. Yehoshua ben Levi suggests a proof text to back his charge of sex crimes of a different sort:
R. Yehoshua b. Levi said:
[Scripture censured Yehoyakim] because he made baraniyot in Jerusalem.
What is the meaning of baraniyot?
’He rendered women husbandless and violated them,’
for he used to kill their husbands, outrage them, and impound their wealth for his treasury.
This is [indicated in] what is written:
“And he knew their widows” (Ezek. 19:7).
According to R. Yehoshua b. Levi, Yohoyakim was guilty of leaving “barren and desolate” women in Jerusalem. That is, he would have women’s husbands executed, rape them, and then seize their husbands’ estates for the benefit of the royal treasury. These actions combine within them the two paradigmatic royal crimes described in Tanakh. First was the crime of David who had Uriah the Hittite killed and took his wife Batsheva for himself. Second was the crime of Achav who had Navot executed on trumped up charges and then seized his property, a vineyard. Achav was famously reproved by Eliyahu who declared, “Have you murdered and then inherited?!” Yehoyakim’s crime thus combines these two historic atrocities, showing that he represents the worst aspects of the kings of Judah and Israel.
R. Yehoshua brings as a proof text a verse from the Ezekiel passage that poetically describes Yehoyakim. The meaning of the term “va-yeda almenotav” in this context is unclear. The lines before and after describe Yehoyakim’s military prowess. In light of this, both the Da’at Mikra commentary and the JPS translation suggest reading almenotav as a variant of the word armenotav - their palaces. The phrase thus reads “And he ravaged their palaces and destroyed their cities.” However, the midrash insists on reading these words literally, “and he knew their widows,” despite the difficulty posed by the context of the words. According to the midrash, these words refer to Yehoyakim’s rape of the widows of Jerusalem, whose husbands were killed as a part of Yehoyakim’s machinations.
This ends the midrash’s account of Yehoyakim’s career. It is not so much a story of his life, but of his death. The narrative focuses on the gruesome circumstances of his death and the horrific sins which make Yehoyakim deserving of such an end.
Now the midrash moves on to King Yechonya, taking a very different biographical approach:
When Nebuchadnezzar put him to death, he appointed Yechonya king in his place, and went down to Babylon.
All the Babylonians came out to praise him, and said to him:
‘What have you accomplished?’
Said he to them:
‘Yehoyakim rebelled against me and I put him to death, and set up his son Yechonya as king in his place.’
Said they to him:
'A proverb says: Do not rear a gentle cub of a vicious dog, much less a vicious cub of a vicious dog.’
These lines represent a sort of intermediate section of the story, separating the first half of the story focusing on Yehoyakim from the second half of the story focusing on Yechonya. Unlike the rest of the story, where the action centers around Jerusalem, these lines takes place in Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar returns to Babylon and is at first greeted by the masses like a returning conqueror. When the people find out that Nebuchadnezzar has deposed Yehoyakim and installed his son Yechonya in his place they immediately voice their disapproval. They cite a popular expression about the folly of expecting the pup of a bad dog to grow to be a good dog. In modern parlance we might say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Since Yehoyakim was not loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, we can expect his son to be similarly disloyal.
This section serves an important exegetical function. The verses in II Kings make it clear that the reason Nebbuchadnezzar marches against Yehoyakim is that he had rebelled against him. What none of the biblical sources explain is why Nebbuchadnezzar returns to Jerusalem in the time of Yechonya and deports him along with the elites of the city. Why would Nebuchadnezzar take such unprovoked actions against a king he himself had installed?
This passage gives us the answer. Nebuchadnezzar had a change of heart when he returned to Babylon. He decided he could not trust Yehoyakim’s son as king. So, he turned around and went back to Jerusalem, where he deposed Yochonya and replaced him with Tzidkiya.
The story now leaves Babylon behind and returns to its focus on Jerusalem and its kings:
He hearkened to them at once and went up to Daphne Antiochena.
The Great Sanhedrin went down to meet him,
and said to him:
‘Has then the time arrived for the House [i.e. Temple] to be destroyed? '
He said to them:
'No, but hand over to me him whom I have set up as king, and I shall depart.’
This opening scene of the second part of the story exactly parallels the opening of the first half. The crucial difference being that in the first section, Nebuchadnezzar seeks the father, Yehoyakim, and in the second he seeks the son, Yechonya. By placing the father and the son into identical situations, that narrator gives us an opportunity to view the difference between the two men as expressed by the differing responses to the situation:
They went and said to Yechonya:
'Nebuchadnezzar demands you.’
What did he [Yechonya] do?
He collected all the keys of the Temple and ascended the roof [of the Temple],
‘Lord of the Universe! Seeing that we have hitherto not proved worthy stewards, faithful custodians for You, from now and henceforth, behold Your keys are Yours.’
Two Amoraim [differ as to what followed].
A kind of a fiery hand descended and took them from him;
the other said:
As he threw them upward they did not come down any more.
Yehoyakim refused to turn himself over to Nebuchadnezzar, arguing that his life took precedence over the risk to Jerusalem and the Temple. Yechonya, in contrast, accepts the fact that he must turn himself over to Nebuchadnezzar. He further understands that as king of Judah, he is responsible for the security of the Temple. He understands Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation order to be a sign from heaven that he is no longer worthy to serve as the Temple’s custodian. Yechonya appears as a righteous king who places the interests of the Temple and of the people before his own and meekly accepts the divine decree.
Yechonya’s image thus contrasts sharply with that of his wicked father and ironically upsets the expectations set by the people of Babylon, who thought that the son would be bad like the father. However, this image also flatly contradicts the Biblical accounts, which repeatedly state that “he did evil in the eyes of God”. According to Jeremiah, Yechonya was cursed by God. How did this wicked king of the Bible become transformed into the model king of the midrash? I don’t know. I am not aware of any other case in which a biblical villain is transformed by the rabbis into a hero.
With regard to the descriptions of the throwing of the keys heavenward, they are among the most dramatic and cinematic aggadic images that I am familiar with. Despite the fact that Yehoyachin and the people are going into exile, God affirms His connection with them by miraculously accepting the gift that they seek to return to Him. The first opinion that a hand comes out from heaven seems to suggest one final Divine revelation before the exile. In the second opinion, the keys simply fly up to heaven. This suggests a more hidden God who does not reveal Himself so blatantly.
One may ask the question: The Temple stood for some dozen years after Yechonya’s deportation. How did it function if the keys had been returned to God? This may not sound like a terribly compelling issue, but the problem is compounded when we read on in the midrash:
What did the young men of Israel do?
They ascended the house-tops and threw themselves down and were killed.
This is [alluded to in] what is written:
“The burden concerning the Valley of Vision. What ails you now, that are wholly gone up to the house-tops...? (Isa. XXI 1).
What prompts this mass suicide of the young men of Israel? They still have a king (Tzidkiyahu succeeds Yechonya), and Jerusalem and the Temple are safe for now. Why such a dire reaction? In order to better understand this passage it will help to take a look at the parallel passage found in the Talmud (Ta’anit 29a):
The Rabbis taught:
When the Temple was being destroyed,
groups of the flower of the priesthood gathered
and the keys to the Temple were in their hands.
They went up to the roof of the Temple and said
Master of the Universe!
Since we did not merit to be
These keys are given over to you.
They threw them upwards
And something like a hand came out and received them.
And they jumped and fell into the flames.
And about them Isaiah the prophet laments:
The burden concerning the Valley of Vision.
What ails you now,
that are wholly gone up to the house-tops...? (Isa. XXII 1).
This version of the story takes place during the destruction of the Temple. As such, the reason for returning the keys of the Temple as well as for the mass suicide is much clearer. Furthermore, the two events are clearly linked. The same young priests who ascend to the roof of the Temple to return the keys jump to their deaths from the same spot. I would like to suggest that the Talmud records the original version of this story. The creators of our midrashic story adapted this tradition into their narrative, by making Yechonya the one who returns the keys. The young men commit suicide in a separate incident. Nevertheless, rough edges remain. The motivations of the characters in this story are not as clear as they are in the Talmud’s version.