Skip to main content
Reading Midrash -
Lesson 51

Coup d’Etat Vayikra Rabba 19:6 Part II

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan
Text file

Having surveyed the biblical sources on which it is based, we are now ready to begin our study of the midrashic account of the careers of King Yehoyakim and King Yechonya. This story comes at the end of parasha 19 of Vayikra Rabba, which concludes the Midrash’s treatment of Parashat Metzora. Parasha 19 deals with the laws of the zava, a woman who has an irregular menstrual flow, rendering her ritually impure. The story opens:



Who observed the precept relating to menstruation?

Yechonya, the son of Yehoyakim.


This opening sets up a type of narrative suspense, similar to that found in petichta’ot. The introduction to the story declares that Yechonya observed the laws of zava.  Yet, Yechonya does not enter the stage until halfway through the story and we do not find out how he fulfilled this commandment until the very end. The reader thus reads the story in expectation, wondering how the plot will lead to its inevitable conclusion.


The story proper now begins:


They say that when Nebuchadnezzar went up to destroy Jerusalem,

and came up and took up his abode in Daphne of Antioch,

the Great Sanhedrin went down to meet him, and said to him:

'Has the time come for this House to be destroyed?’

Said he to them:

'No. It is only that Yehoyakim has rebelled against me; deliver him up to me, and I shall go away.’


In this first scene, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, marches on Jerusalem. Along the way he encamps at the city of Daphne in Syria. There the Sanhedrin comes to meet him and find out his intentions. The Sanhedrin here appears as a powerful body which represents the nation in high affairs of state. As the story progresses, we learn that the Sanhedrin acts on its own accord, not on behalf of the King. Indeed, as we shall see, the Sanhedrin is so powerful that it even has the power to depose the king.


The reader will no doubt recall that in the biblical accounts of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasions and relations with the kings of Judah, no mention is made of the Sanhedrin or a similar such  body of elders. Indeed, the Bible makes little mention of anything resembling a Sanhedrin at any point in the era of the monarchy and the First Temple. This was a period that was dominated by kings and prophets, not by scholars or jurists. It was only in the Second Temple period, with the disappearance of prophecy, that the Oral Law and its expositors came to dominate Jewish life. The insertion of the Sanhedrin into a central role in the story, is a prime example of the way in which the midrash “rabbinizes” the biblical world, imbuing it with the values and institutions of the Oral Law.


When the Sanhedrin arrives at Nebuchadnezzar’s camp, they ask the king if the time has come for the Temple to be destroyed. The rabbis seem to take for granted that the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar is inevitable. The only question is, when will the great king choose to fulfill his destiny. This is reminiscent of the stories about R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, who, at the time of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, took for granted that Jerusalem would be destroyed by Vespasian. In both cases the destruction of the Temple is only an external manifestation of a state of exile that has already come into effect. Nevertheless, the Sanhedrin seeks to delay the inevitable as long as possible. The elders are probably relieved when Nebuchadnezzar tells them that he has no intention of destroying Jerusalem just yet. Rather, all he seeks is custody of King Yehoyakim.


They approached Yehoyakim, and said to him:

'Nebuchadnezzar demands you.’

Said he: ‘Is this the right thing to do, namely to disregard one human life in favor of another;

to disregard my life so as to preserve your lives?

Why, it is written,

“You shall not deliver a slave unto his master”, etc. (Deut. 23:16).’


When the Sanhedrin relays this message to Yehoyakim, with the implicit demand that that he turn himself over to Nebuchadnezzar, he refuses. The dispute between the Sanhedrin and the king is a fundamental one. The choice is between handing over the king or risking the almost certain destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. From the rabbis’ perspective, the job of the king is to defend Jerusalem and the Temple and he must be ready to forfeit his life to do so. Yehoyakim takes a more egotistical view, seeing no reason why he should give up his life for others.


Yehoyakim makes a further argument. At first it seems as if this is a principled moral argument - one cannot weigh the value of human life. Hence, one cannot kill one person to save another. This is indeed a sound halakhic principle.  However, as we shall see, it does not apply in this case.


Yehoyakim goes on to transform this moral argument into an attack against the Sanhedrin. He accuses them of seeking to sacrifice his life in order to save their own. According to him, the rabbis act not out of principle but out of naked self-interest. This accusation perhaps reflects Yehoyakim’s own preoccupation with self-preservation at all costs.


Finally, Yehoyakim cites the verse from Devarim: “You shall not deliver a slave unto his master.” Now Yehoyakim makes a technical halakhic argument. He seeks protection under the law prohibiting the return of escaped slaves, as he is a vassal on the run from his overlord.  Yehoyakim’s citation of this verse is ironic. In doing so, he compares himself, a King of Israel, to a common slave. In making his case, he degrades his own stature.


The Sanhedrin counters the king’s primary argument by citing a precedent from the court of none other than King David.


Said they to him:

‘Did not your grandfather do so to Sheva the son of Bichri?’


The story of Sheva ben Bichri and his revolt against King David is told in II Samuel 20. David’s general Yoav chases Sheva ben Bichri to Beit Ma’acha, and lays siege to the city. Just as Yoav is ready to breach the walls, a wise woman from the city calls down to Yoav and demands to know why Yoav seeks to destroy her city. Yoav responds that he seeks only the life of Sheva ben Bichri. The woman then instructs the people of the city to behead Sheva ben Bichri and to throw his head over the wall to Yoav, thereby saving the city from destruction.


The legal significance of this story is spelled out in the Tosefta, Terumot 7:23.


If a group of people is approached by Gentiles and told:

“Hand over one of you so that we can kill him,

otherwise we will kill all of you,”

they should all let themselves be killed

rather than hand over a single Jewish life.

However, if they specified a particular person,

they should hand him over

and not give up their lives,

as in the case of Sheva ben Bichri.


The rabbis learn from the story of Sheva ben Bichri that, though it is prohibited to turn over a Jew, even in order to save many other lives, if the enemy demands a particular individual, it is permitted to turn him over. Hence, Yehoyakim’s claim that it would be immoral to hand him over to Nebuchadnezzar even for the purpose of saving lives, is not halakhically defensible


This discussion about handing over individuals to the authorities may have had contemporary resonance. In Bereishit Rabba (94:9) right after the midrash retells the story of Sheva ben Bichri and cites the Tosefta regarding its halakhic implications, it tells the following story: R. Yehoshua b. Levi once took in a certain Ulla ben Kishor, a fugitive from Roman justice.  The Romans sent messengers, demanding that R. Yehoshua hand over Ulla and R. Yehoshua did so. After this incident Elijah the prophet ceases to visit R. Yehoshua.  After R. Yehoshua fasts for thirty days, Elijah returns to him. Elijah calls him a moser, noting that even though the Halakha permitted his actions, this was not appropriate behavior for the truly righteous.


This story would seem to suggest that the rabbis were ambivalent about this law permitting the turning over of fugitives and were not comfortable with those who, relying on this law, turned over fellow Jews to the Romans. Along similar lines we might see our story as presenting a covert rebuke against leaders who claim that it is immoral to turn them over to the authorities simply because it will save lives.


The Sanhedrin loses no time in responding to Yehoyakim’s intransigence.


Seeing that he did not hearken to them, they arose and seized him and bound him.

Now, how did they let him down?

R. Eliezer and R. Shimon differed on the point.

R. Eliezer b. R. Natan said they bound him alive, as it is said,

“And they put him in a cage with hooks (ba-chachim) and brought him to the king of Babylon” (Ezek. 19:9);

 it [viz. the word for ‘with hooks’] is written ba-chayim, i.e. ‘alive’.

R. Shimon said:

They bound him dead, as it is said,

“So that his voice should no more be heard” (ib.).

R. Yehoshua b. Levi said:

I confirm the words of both of them: they bound him alive, but being delicate he died under their hands.


The notion that Yehoyakim was bound in chains is found in Chronicles and in the passage from Ezekiel, which is cited as a proof text in the continuation. Both of these sources would appear to state that Yehoyakim was then brought to Babylon as a prisoner. This assumption would appear to underlie R. Eliezer’s position that Yehoyakim was bound alive. Indeed, why would one bind a dead person?  Though R. Eliezer proposes a midrash on the word ba-chachim “hooks” in Ezekiel, reading it as ba-chayim “alive," in fact he was most likely motivated by the simple reading of the verse. 


What then is the basis of the second two opinions, that Yehoyakim was bound already dead, or died soon after? First, we should note that neither Ezekiel nor Chronicles states explicitly that Yehoyakim was taken back to Babylon. Ezekiel states that he was brought to the king of Babylon. However, according to the midrash’s account, Nebuchadnezzar was already on his way to Jerusalem at that time, so it is possible that Yehoyakim was delivered to Nebuchadnezzar without his actually leaving Jerusalem. Similarly, Chronicles merely states that “Nebuchadnezzar sent to have him brought to Babylon.” It never states that he was actually brought to Babylon. This leaves open the possibility that Chronicles and Ezekiel can be reconciled with the other biblical sources that state that Yehoyakim dies in Jerusalem and is never taken to Babylon. In particular, as we shall see, the midrash would like to follow Jeremiah, who states that Yehoyakim dies an ignoble death at the gates of Jerusalem.


The translation and interpretation of these lines presented thus far are based on the assumption that the word shilshelu used by the midrash means “to bind”. However, this word also has another meaning - “to lower down” on a rope. Given the text as it appears in most of the manuscripts, it makes most sense to translate the word as “bound” as we have. However, the printed edition and one manuscript from the Vatican library (known as “Vat Ebraco 32”) have one extra word: they read shilshelu lo. With the addition of this indirect object “to him," it makes more sense to render the phrase as, “they lowered him down to him.” Namely the Sanhedrin lowered Yehoyakim over the walls of Jerusalem to Nebbuchadnezzar.


Why would the story-teller add this detail? There is certainly no hint of such an event in the Biblical accounts. The answer to this appears at the end of the story, where the term shilshelu appears once again, this time describing how Yechonya’s wife is lowered down to him in prison. Regardless of which version we choose, the appearance of the word at the beginning and the end of the story creates a literary framework. According to most of the manuscripts in which shilshelu means different things at the beginning and the end of the story, this framework exists purely on the linguistic level. The word is repeated but not the meaning. However, according to the printed editions and the Vatican manuscript, someone is lowered by rope at both the beginning and the end of the story. At the beginning this lowering signals Yehoyakim’s demise, while at the end it signal’s Yehoyachin’s redemption. We thus have the sophisticated use of a narrative motif to create a sense of closure within the story.


This is an excellent example of how studying manuscripts can enrich our understanding of a midrashic text. The variant readings are minor differences resulting from careless copyists. But in this case, one reading seeks to further the midrash’s agenda of biblical interpretation, while the other seeks to further the midrash’s aesthetic agenda by making a more well-crafted story.


The midrash now continues the story on the basis of R. Eliezer’s position that Yehoyakim is handed over alive. However, even in this version it turns out, he does not make it back to Babylon but is soon executed by Nebuchadnezzer, in line with Jeremiah’s prophecy:


What did Nebuchadnezzar do to him?

R. Judah and R. Nechemya differed in their accounts.

R. Judah said:

He took him and carried him round through all the cities of Judah, and sat over him [in judgment] in the public place of trial, and put him to death;

he also tore open an ass and placed him [i.e. Jehoiakim]

within it [i.e. the carcass of the ass],

as it is said,

“He shall be buried the burial of an ass” (Jer. 22:19).

R. Nechemya said:

They took him around all the cities of Israel and put him to death, and cut from him pieces the size of an olive and cast them to the dogs,

which is indicated in what is written,

“He shall be buried the burial of an ass” (ibid.).

Where is the burial of an ass, if not in the belly of a dog?


Once again, the midrash presents two versions of the events, this time of Yehoyakim’s ignoble death as described by Jeremiah. The dispute is based on two different readings of the term kevurat chamor, which might be literally translated as “a donkey burial.” Previously, we understood this phrase as meaning “a donkey’s burial,” namely, being left unburied to be eaten by scavengers.  R. Yehuda takes what we might call a hyper-literal meaning of the term, understanding it to mean “a burial in donkey.” That is, Yehoyakim’s body was placed inside of a ripped open donkey. This certainly fits the words. It also provides for a most grisly burial, in line with Jeremiah’s general intent. R. Nechemya, on the other hand, adopts our suggested reading of “a donkey’s burial.” However, he suggests an even more gruesome fate than simply being left for carrion. According to him, Yehoyakim’s body was cut up and actively fed to the dogs. This reading has the further advantage of portraying an actual burial - inside the dogs - as opposed to our reading which does not present a burial at all.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!