Melakhim Bet Chapter 25
In the eleventh year of Tzidqiyahu’s reign, Nebukhadnezzar initiates his final, ultimately devastating siege of Jerusalem. The city is taken and King Tzidqiyahu flees, only to be captured and brought in chains before the King of Babylonia. Tzidqiyahu’s sons are slaughtered in front of him and he is then blinded and cast into prison in Babylonia.
In the meantime, Nevuzaradan, the captain of Nebukhadnezzar’s army, oversees the absolute destruction of Jerusalem. The Temple and all of the prominent houses are burnt to the ground. The text describes in great detail how the ornate vessels and expensive decorative components of the Temple, originally designed and fashioned in Shelomo’s time, are smashed, and their shattered material carried off to Babylonia. The troops capture a small group of elite individuals who had remained behind to administer the city; they are dragged before the King of Babylonia and executed.
Nebukhadnezzar appoints a governor, Gedaliah ben Ahiqam, to lead the remaining population of Yehuda. Gedalyah’s policy was to respect and cooperate with the Babylonian authorities, not to flee from them or challenge them. At first it appears that he wins the support and endorsement of the community. However, a small band of rebels, led by Yishmael ben Netanya (a descendant of the Davidic royal line), assassinate Gedalyah and all those who were with him. This upheaval attracts the ire of the Babylonian government, and leads to the escape of the rest of the Jews to Egypt for refuge.
Thirty-seven years after the first wave of exile, the perspective of the King of Babylonia (now Nebukhadnezzar’s son and successor, Evil-Merodakh) changes, and he adopts a more compassionate and considerate attitude toward the deposed and imprisoned Yehoyakhin. The King of Babylonia frees Yehoyakhin from prison and elevates his throne above those of the other kings whom he had conquered or subdued. For the rest of his life, Yehoyakhin eats at the table of the king of Babylonia, his dignity (and the dignity of Yehuda) restored.
The Book of Melakhim concludes with the same essential themes that have characterized it throughout – Jewish earthly sovereignty as represented by the monarchy, Jewish religious dedication as represented by the Bet Hamiqdash, and the relationship between them. As the Davidic kingdom is dismantled and stripped of its riches, so is the Temple. As the palace is emptied of its attendants and officers, so is the Temple. And as the glorious houses of the king and of the nobles are set aflame and burned to the ground, so is the Temple.
The parallelism between the destruction of both edifices is a symbolic representation of the parallels in their function and their interconnectedness, a subject that really occupies the entire Book of Melakhim from start to finish. The rise of the monarchy and its stabilization is initially presented as a precursor to the establishment of the presence of the True King of Israel – Hashem – in the midst of the nation through the construction of the Temple.
The Jewish people knew that strong and competent human governance was necessary on a societal level to prevent a descent into chaos and, on a religious level, to provide the kind of environment that would allow for spiritual growth and sanctification of God’s name. When preserving the monarchy became an end in itself, however, the sovereignty of Israel stood in the way of the holy mission of the Jewish people rather than facilitating it.
When the material and political aspirations of the regime trumped its sense of transcendent purpose and covenantal responsibility, when the struggle for power and domination replaced the search for knowledge of and closeness to the Almighty – simply stated, when the Bet Hamiqdash was no longer the focus of the Bet Hamelekh (House of the King) – then the entire infrastructure was condemned to collapse. Only through losing the political independence that was now a liability and experiencing exile once again would the nation be able to repent, refocus and return to autonomous existence in the Holy Land.
Tzidiyahu is treated particularly harshly by Nebukhadnezzar, who “takes him to task” and deliberately tortures him both psychologically and physically. The accounts in Sefer Melakhim and Sefer Divre HaYamim agree that Tzidqiyahu violated his oath of loyalty to Nebukhadnezzar by rebelling against him, thereby incurring the Babylonian King’s wrath. Sefer Divre HaYamim emphasizes that Tziqiyahu was, in fact, punished by Hashem for swearing falsely to Nebukhadnezzar and desecrating His name.
The Talmud recounts a fascinating anecdote in which Tzidqiyahu witnesses Nebukhadnezzar engaging in a grotesque act, consuming a live rabbit. Nebukhadnezzar makes Tzidqiyahu swear in the name of Hashem never to divulge his secret, which he fears might lead to his disgrace in the eyes of others. Years later, at a juncture when Babylonia seems more vulnerable, Tzidqiyahu seeks release from his vow from the Sanhedrin and is therefore able to spread gossip about Nebukhadnezzar, apparently hoping it will weaken his reputation and inspire others to side with him in his rebellion against the depraved emperor.
Nebukhadnezzar confronts Tzidqiyahu on his treachery and eventually approaches the Sanhedrin, who defend their right to absolve petitioners of their vows. Nebukhadnezzar replies that while they may have the right to cancel vows that are purely between man and God, they have no right to cancel a vow made to another person behind that person’s back. The elders of the Sanhedrin are speechless and sit on the ground in mourning, and the final phase of the destruction of Jerusalem ensues.
The message of the story is profound and poignant. Because Tzidqiyahu had sworn allegiance to Nebukhadnezzar in the name of Hashem, his subsequent disregard for that oath was nothing less than a desecration of Hashem’s name. Sure, Tzidqiyahu could rationalize his change of heart and try to justify his decision to violate his word – whether that meant, as in the text, declaring independence from Babylonia, or, per the Midrash, revealing hidden truths about Nebukhadnezzar to the public. And he may have been able to win over the rabbis and scholars and persuade them to endorse his choice. However, the legality of his strategy notwithstanding, the result is a hillul Hashem, a negative reflection upon the Almighty.
In the eyes of Nebukhadnezzar, Tzidqiyahu has openly demonstrated that invoking the name of his God was a mere political ruse that meant nothing to him in reality. This undoubtedly constitutes a desecration of the name of the Almighty. Moreover, in utilizing technical loopholes to free himself from his promise behind Nevukhadnezzar’s back, Tzidqiyahu shows little or no respect for the Babylonian King who is the victim of his treachery and who is probably now even more resentful toward the people, religion and God of Israel. This adds another dimension to the Hillul Hashem involved.
This failure of Tzidqiyahu was not an isolated act; it reflected a lack of concern with the ultimate mission of the Jewish people and the ultimate goal of the Miqdash – sanctification of Hashem’s name across the globe, before the eyes of both Jews and gentiles, and even before the eyes of the tyrannical Nevukhadnezzar. Tzidqiyahu’s indifference to this sacred cause revealed that he considered the political objectives he hoped to achieve with his rebellious behavior more desirable and important than the mandate to faithfully represent Hashem’s truth, wisdom and compassion in the world.
In this sense, Tzidqiyahu’s behavior was not the manifestation of a personal defect as much as it was a clear exemplification of the fundamental failure of the monarchies of Israel and Yehuda as a whole – namely, their abandonment of the Divine purpose for which they had been created in favor of the pursuit of military conquest, independent sovereignty and material success for their own sake.
For us, the lesson to be derived from Tzidqiyahu is, first and foremost, the importance of exhibiting reverence for Hashem’s name and behaving in ways that reflect positively on Him and on His Torah. This means conducting ourselves honestly and truthfully in our dealings with all of God’s creatures and not allowing ourselves to rationalize or justify immoral or unethical activity, no matter how compelling the pretext may seem.
Of course, the book concludes with a clear signal that the story of Jewish nationhood is far from over. A representative of the Davidic dynasty, Yehoyakhin, still lives in Babylonia, favor has shone upon him and his dignity has been restored. Even at the darkest moments in our history, a sliver of hope remains, and we are reminded that the light of our glorious destiny has not yet been extinguished – with Hashem’s help, against all odds, we will rise again.