The Last Kings of Judah
In the final classes of this course, I would like to examine an extended sippur darshani, or midrashic story, which appears in Vayikra Rabba 19:6. The story deals with the reigns of two of the last Jewish kings in Jerusalem preceding the Babylonian Exile. This story combines perfectly the different concerns that throughout this year we have argued underlie the creation of Midrash.
On the one hand, the story is an act of biblical interpretation. It seeks to reconstruct the events of the reigns of Yehoyakim and Yechonya on the basis of the various biblical sources. Yet, it is also a moral tale with an ideological message about sin, repentance and leadership that has little basis in the biblical texts. Finally, it is work of art in its own right, a carefully crafted story meant to bring pleasure to its readers.
Before engaging the text of the midrash, I would like to review the various biblical sources which discuss the lives of Yehoyakim and Yechonya (also known as Yehoyachin). This will help us to better understand the interpretive aspects of our midrash.
The history of the later Judean Kings is documented in numerous biblical books. First and foremost is the Book of Kings, which presents a comprehensive account of all of the kings of Judah and Israel. Also important are the various later prophets who were active during this period and often make reference to contemporary events. Finally, there is the Book of Chronicles (Divrei Ha-yamim) which retells much of the material from Kings, often providing an alternate view of events. In our case, these sources present significantly different versions of events, which must be reconciled into a single account by the midrash.
We will begin with the sources from II Kings:
Yehoyakim was twenty five years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Zevuda daughter of Pedaya of Ruma. He did what was displeasing in the eyes of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done. In his days Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia came up, and Yehoyakim became his vassal for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. The Lord let loose against him the raiding bands of the Chaldeans, Arameans, Moabites, and Amonites; He let them loose against Judah to destroy it, in accordance with the word that the Lord has spoken through His servants the prophets. All this befell Judah at the command of the Lord, who banished [them] from his presence because of all the sins that Menashe had committed and also because of the blood of the innocent that he shed. For he filled Jerusalem with the blood of the innocent, and the Lord would not forgive. The other events of Yehoyakim’s reign, and all of his actions, are recorded in the Annals of the Kings of Judah. Yehoyakim slept with his fathers and his son Yehoyachin succeeded him as king (II Kings 23:36-24:6).
This is the Book of Kings’ entire account of the reign of Yehoyakim. Yehoyakim was first and foremost a bad king. It was during his time that Nebuchadnezzar first took control of Judah, making Yehoyakim his vassal. After a few years, Yehoyakim rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, unwittingly following the Divine plan, unleashed a fearsome army against Judah, made up of Babylonian soldiers as well as troops from the surrounding area. The text does not explicitly tell us the outcome of this invasion. It seems that much damage was done but Yehoyakim remained in power as king of Judah. Finally, the phrase “slept with his fathers” would seem to suggest that Yehoyakim died peacefully in Jerusalem.
A few verses later the prophet continues with an account of the reign of Yehoyachin (AKA Yechonya):
Yehoyachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Nechushta daughter of Elnatan of Jerusalem. He did what was displeasing in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father has done. At that time, the troops of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched against Jerusalem, and the city came under siege. King Nebuchanezzar of Babylon advanced against the city while his troops were besieging it. Thereupon King Yehoyachin of Judah, along with his mother, and his courtiers and commanders, and officers, surrendered to the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon took him captive in the eighth year of his reign. He carried off from there all the treasures of the House of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace; he stripped off all the decorations of the Temple of the Lord – which King Solomon of Israel had made – as the Lord had warned. He exiled all of Jerusalem: all of the commanders and all the warriors – ten thousand exiles – as well as all the craftsmen and smiths; only the poorest people in the land were left. He deported Yehoyachin to Babylon; all the king’s wives and officers and the notables of the land were brought as exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon. All the able men, to the number of seven thousand – all of them warriors, trained for battle – and a thousand craftsmen and smiths were brought to Babylon as exiles by the king of Babylon. And the King of Babylon appointed Mattaniah, Yehoyachin’s uncle, king in his place, changing his name to Tzidkiya (II Kings 24:8-17).
Like his father, Yechonya (for the sake of consistency, we will refer to him as Yechonya and not Yehoyachin, following the preference of the Midrash) is portrayed as a wicked king. During his reign Nebuchadnezzar once again comes to Jerusalem, besieging the city. Yechonya surrenders and Nebuchadnezzar deports him to Babylon, along with the elite of the city, and the warrior and craftsmen classes. Nebuchadnezzer places a new king, Tzidkiya, on the throne. This would appear to be the end of the story of Yechonya. However, at the very end of the Book of Kings, the author presents an epilogue to Yechonya’s story:
In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Yehoyachin of Judah, on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month, King Evil-Merodach of Babylon, in the year he became king, raised the head of King Yehoyachin of Judah and released him from prison. He spoke kindly to him, and gave him a throne above those of other kings who were with him in Babylon. His prison garments were removed and he received regular rations by his favor for the rest of his life. A regular allotment of food was given him at the insistence of the king – an allotment each day – all the days of his life (II Kings 25:27-30).
The first thing we learn from this passage is that upon being taken to Babylon, Yechonya is put in prison for thirty-seven years. It is only with the death of Nebuchadnezzar and the ascendancy of Evil-Merodach as king of Babylon that Yechonya is released from prison. Yechonya lives out the rest of his days as a respected member of the Babylonian court, with a pension guaranteed for life.
This concludes the account of Yehoyakim and Yechonya’s reigns as found in the Book of Kings. We now turn to the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through this tumultuous period. In chapter twenty-two of the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet prophesies about both Yehoyakim and Yechonya. First, Jeremiah discusses the circumstances of the death of Yehoyakim:
But your eyes and your mind are only on ill-gotten gains, on shedding blood of the innocent, on committing fraud and violence. Assuredly, thus said the Lord concerning Yehoyakim son of Yoshiyahu, King of Judah: They shall not mourn for him, “Ah brother!” “Ah sister!” They shall not mourn for him, “Ah Lord, Ah his majesty!” He shall have the burial of an ass, dragged out and left dying outside the gates of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 22:17-19).
Jeremiah declares that Yehoyakim will suffer an undignified death, without a proper funeral or mourning rites. Instead, he will be left for dead outside of the gates of Jerusalem. The Book of Kings does not make any mention of such a death. Quite to the contrary, as we have seen, the passage in Kings appears to suggest that Yehoyakim died an unremarkable death in Jerusalem.
Jeremiah then goes on to talk about Yechonya, whom he refers to as Conyahu.
As I live - declares the Lord - if you O Conyahu, son of Yehoyakim of Judah, were a signet on My right hand, I would tear you off even from there. I will deliver you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those you dread, into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another land, where you were not born; there you shall both die. They shall not return to the land they yearn to come back to. Is this man Conyahu a wretched broken pot, a vessel no one wants? Why are he and his offspring hurled out, and cast away in a land they knew not? O land, land, land, Hear the words of the Lord! Thus said the Lord: Record this man as without succession, one who will never be found acceptable; For no man of his offspring shall be accepted to sit on the throne of David and to rule again in Judah (Jeremiah 22:24-30).
This passage prophesies that Yechonya will be captured by Nebuchadnezzar and sent into exile in Babylon for the rest of his life. This is essentially in line with the account found in Kings. However, Jeremiah goes even further. He cites an oath taken by God that Yechonya’s line will be cut off and that none of his descendants will ever rule in Judah again. As we shall see, this prophecy is only partially fulfilled.
Jeremiah’s younger contemporary Ezekiel also discusses some of the last kings of Judah, but in a less direct manner:
And you are to intone a dirge over the princes of Israel and say: What a lioness was your mother among the lions! Crouching among the great beasts, she reared her cubs. She raised up one of her cubs. He became a great beast; he learned to hunt prey- he devoured men. Nations heeded the call against him; he was caught in their snare. They dragged him off with hooks to the land of Egypt. When she saw herself frustrated, her hope defeated, She took another of her cubs and set him up as a great beast. He stalked among the lions, he was a great beast. He learned to hunt prey- he devoured men. He ravished their widows, laid waste to their cities. The land and all in it were appalled at the sound of his roaring. Nations from the countries roundabout arrayed themselves against him. They spread their net over him, He was caught in their snare. With hooks he was put in a cage, they carried him off to the king of Babylon and confined him in a fortress, so that never again should his roar be heard on the hills of Israel (Ezekiel 19:1-9).
The parable in this passage presents two successive kings of Judah as if they were lions. To which kings does the prophet refer? Based on the account of the first “lion” being trapped and dragged down to Egypt, it seems pretty clear that this lion is meant to represent Yeho’achaz, Yehoyakim’s half brother and immediate predecessor on the throne. II Kings, in its account of his reign (23:31-37), describes how he is imprisoned by Pharaoh Necho and eventually brought down to Egypt, where he remains until his death. If Yeho’achaz is the first lion, then it follows that Yehoyakim is the second. However, Ezekiel describes a very different fate for Yehoyakim than that described either in Kings or in Jeremiah. These earlier texts describe Yehoyakim as dying in or near Jerusalem, though under different circumstances. Ezekiel, on the other hand, tells us of a king who is seized and brought back to Babylon, where he is imprisoned. This sounds more like Yechonya than Yehoyakim. If we read these verses as referring to Yehoyakim, they reflect a very different version of his life than we have seen previously in other sources.
Finally, we come to the sources in Chronicles. There are two relevant passages. In I Chronicles 3:17-19, we find a genealogy of Yechonya, with a surprising revelation:
The sons of Yechonya, the captive: She’altiel his son, Malkhiram, Pedaya, Shenatzar, Yekamya, Hoshama and Nedavya. The sons of Pedaya Zerubbavel and Shim’i.
From this we learn that Zerubbavel, the governor of Judah in the early Persian period, is a descendant of Yechonya. According to the book of Ezra, Zerubbavel is the son of She’altiel, whereas Chronicles identifies him as Pedaya’s son. One way or another, the member of the house of David to hold political power in Jerusalem is the grandson of Yechonya. This would appear to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of God’s curse against Yechonya reported in Jeremiah. There God swears that Yechonya’s line will be cut off, “For no man of his offspring shall be accepted to sit on the throne of David and to rule again in Judah.” Literally, this oath may be seen as precluding a descendant of Yechonya only from becoming king, and not an imperially appointed governor. Nevertheless, the fact that Yechonya merits to have Zerubbavel as a descendant would seem to suggest that God did not enforce His oath to the fullest extent possible.
The second passage comes at the very end of Chronicles:
Yehoyakim was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. He did what was displeasing to the Lord his God. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched against him. He bound him in fetters to convey him to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar also brought some vessels of the house of the Lord to Babylon and set them in his palace in Babylon. The other events of Yehoyakim’s reign and the abominable things he did, and what was found against him, are recorded in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah. His son Yehoyachin succeeded him as king. Yehoyachin was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem. He did what was displeasing in the eyes of the Lord. At the turn of the year, King Nebuchadnezzar sent to have him brought to Babylon with the precious vessels of the house of the Lord, and he made his kinsman Tzidkiya king over Judah and Jerusalem (II Chronicles 36:5-10).
This account of our two kings basically conforms to the one found in Kings. There is however one crucial difference. Of Yehoyakim we read that Nebuchadnezzar “bound him in fetters to convey him to Babylon.” This would seem to agree with Ezekiel’s account of “the second lion” being bound and taken to Babylon. This would then contradict the accounts in Kings and Jeremiah which make no mention of deportation and speak of Yehoyakim dying in Jerusalem. However, the verses in Chronicles never explicitly state that Yehoyakim was taken to Babylon. This opens the possibility that he was never actually taken to Babylon, despite Nebuchadnezzar’s intentions.
The different biblical books thus present differing accounts of the reigns of Yehoyakim and Yechonya. With regard to Yehoyakim, the main issue of contention is his ultimate fate. Kings portrays him dying peacefully in Jerusalem, having survived a devastating Babylonian attack. Jeremiah foretells a violent and undignified death in which Yehoyakim’s body is left as carrion at the gates of Jerusalem. Ezekiel and Chronicles both seem to suggest that Yehoyakim, like his son, is deported to Babylon, where he presumably remains until his death.
In contrast, the sources seem to agree that Yechonya is an evil king who is exiled to Babylon along with the middle and upper classes of Jerusalem. Jeremiah records that God curses Yechonya, declaring that neither he nor his descendants would ever rule again. Nevertheless, some sources seem to suggest that Yechonya merits a certain degree of rehabilitation, either at the end of his life or posthumously. According to the concluding passage in Kings (and its parallel at the end of Jeremiah), Yechonya is released from prison after many decades and lives out the rest of his live comfortably as a member of the Babylonian royal court. Chronicles also reports that Yechonya merits to have a grandson who is the most prominent leader of his generation, Zerubbavel, the governor of Judea.
Next week we will begin to look at how the midrash weaves together these disparate stories to create a cohesive and compelling narrative.