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The word that G-d spoke to Jeremiah the prophet when Nebuchadnezzer, king of Babylon was coming to attack the land of Egypt… (Jeremiah 46:13)
The prophet Jeremiah lived during the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth century BCE, and he lived to witness the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. He was active during the reigns of five different kings of Judah: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah - to four of whom he brought messages from G-d.
From the text of his book, he appears to have had only one task, to which he applied himself single-mindedly. That was to warn the people that Judah would be destroyed unless the Jews repented.
Jeremiah was neither allowed to marry (Jer. 16:1-2), nor to commiserate with his people. His conveyance of the Word of G-d to the Jews did not win him popularity, and he was reviled, beaten, and imprisoned. He was threatened with death more than once, and his would-be assassins almost succeeded. He survived, only living to see the Temple destroyed, the wealthier classes exiled to Babylon, and himself dragged over the border to Egypt, where he remained until his death.
As in the previous Haftara, the text prophesizes on the punishment of Egypt during this period - when it would fall to the Babylonian invasion under Nebuchadnezzer. Ancient Egypt, as the Haftara relates and as history shows, was brought to terminal ruin and devastation by that same nation that exiled Judea, and its power and influence in the region was no more.
In Ezekiel (29:6-7), it was clear the Egypt was to be punished for not coming to Judah's aid during the siege of Jerusalem in 588 to 586 BCE. The reason for Egypt's demise is not so clear in Jeremiah. However, there is a clue in a sentence several verses before the start of the Haftara. There, the word of G-d came to Jeremiah concerning the nations, and in particular:
'…concerning Egypt, concerning Pharaoh Necho… who was at the river Euphrates in Carchemish, and which was defeated by Nebuchadnezzer, in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah' (Jer. 46:2).
The battle between Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzer (608 BCE) sadly altered the future of Judea. For at the end of Josiah's reign, that Pharaoh marched to Carchemish in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Assyria - the then waning Great Power of Mesopotamia - falling to the rising power of Babylon. Pharaoh led the Egyptians through the main overland from Egypt to Mesopotamia (the Via Maris) that traverses the Holy Land. He met with the temporary resistance of Josiah, King of Judah, at Megiddo - a fortress city with strong geographical control over the Via Maris. Josiah urged, but to no avail, that Pharaoh should return home and abandon his military support of Assyria. Pharaoh did not take heed. In the ensuing battle, Josiah was killed, and was deeply lamented by Jeremiah, Judah, and Jerusalem (Chronicles II 35:20-25).
Thus the Haftara seems to take the line that Pharoah Necho's killing of Josiah was the spiritual reason for the fall of Ancient Egypt. Josiah was known for his righteousness, his successful campaign against idolatry, and his re-instituting the Law of Moses- a personality who the text describes in terms of 'there was no other king … before or afterwards who returned to G-d with all his heart, and soul, and might.' (Kings II 23:25). Egypt was already defeated at Carchemish, but the Haftara shows that retribution would go very much further, and result in the ultimate demise of Egypt as a significant power and nation. And Egypt did indeed fall to Babylonia a few years after Judah.
The Jews in Egypt - of whom by then Jeremiah was one - were reassured that they would eventually be saved - 'Fear not, My servant Jacob; do not be afraid… although I will punish you as you deserve, I will not utterly destroy you.' We do not know what happened to the Jewish refugees in Egypt - we assume that they and Jeremiah died there, as we have no record of them returning to Judah. It seems most likely that they settled there - some founding Jewish colonies as on Elephantine Island (near Aswan), and possibly traveling further south - making converts in Ethiopia.
The text - as discussed above - implies that Pharoah Necho's killing of Josiah was the spiritual reason for the fall of Ancient Egypt. Josiah, it must be recalled, is described by the text in superlative terms as being a righteous king - the only one since Hezekiah, who reigned a century before: 'there was no other king … before or afterwards who returned to G-d with all his heart, and soul, and might.' (Kings II 23:25).
What prompted Josiah to intervene in Pharoah's aspirations in Mesopotamia in the first place? Why did he block the path of the Egyptian army? Not only was he losing the goodwill of a potential ally in the future, but it seems he was interfering into a matter that was none of his concern.
The following suggestion involves looking at a well-known Midrash concerning the conduct of the Israelites:
If you follow My decrees and observe My commandments… the sword will not cross your land (Lev. 26:1-6).
The Midrash (Sifra Bechukotai 2:3) explains that G-d's blessing of peace for the righteous will be so pervasive that armies will not even attempt to use the Holy Land en route to battle in some other country.
King Josiah, it will be recalled, banished idolatry and brought the Jews within the fold of the Law of Moses - in sharp contrast to his predecessors Menasseh and Amon, and the three kings who ruled Judea after him. As such, he interpreted Egyptian military passage as something that he should not allow to take place. As a king, he knew that the people of Judea appear to have repented and were worthy of absolute peace. He therefore used his royal position to be G-d's agent to bring that peace about - by attempting to prevent the Egyptian progress along the way to Carchemish in Mesopotamia.
But that was not the way of G-d. The very fact that the Jews did not follow continue to follow the trends he set after his death suggests that his reforms, though successful in his lifetimes, were of a much more superficial effect than he believed at the time. Thus he, Josiah, may have followed G-d with 'all his heart, and soul, and might'. Many of the people of Judea were more passive - possibly they observed the commandments because that was the right thing to do socially, rather than with Josiah's decree of conviction.
G-d knew that, but Josiah did not.
That would explain why G-d did not count the good deeds of Jews of Josiah's reign as worthy enough to counterbalance the bad deeds of Menasseh's reign (Kings II 23:26-27). G-d did not cancel His ultimate of destruction and exile, but only postponed it…
Josiah, in attempting to bring total peace to Judea by stopping Pharaoh Necho was not acting as a Torah guardian, but as G-d's policeman. 'Do you work and I will do Mine according to My understanding of the situation! Do not force My hand!' would have been the lesson to be learnt from Josiah's untimely death.
As Ecclestiastes puts it:
Do not become too righteous! Do not be too clever! Why should you be brought to ruin? (Eccl. 7:16)
For the historical background, I referred to Rosenberg S.G.: The Haftara Cycle (2000), pp. 56-9.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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