I – A Calculated Risk Goes Awry
An Avoidable Siege
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Asara B’Teves commemorates the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that would
ultimately result in churban bayis rishon (the destruction of the First
Temple). It is the first of four fast days that relate to the destruction
and/or its aftermath (the other three being 17 Tammuz, 9 Av and 3 Tishrei (Tzom
Gedaliah). While our historical vantage point leads us to view these dates
as fated givens, the reality is that they were avoidable had there only been
a greater willingness to adhere to the words of the leading prophets and
engage in genuine repentance.
Towards the end of the reign of the righteous king Yoshiyahu, the
Babylonians emerged as a world power. At the same time, we find a rising
force to the south of Judah, the Twenty-sixth Egyptian Dynasty. Earlier, the
Assyrians had formed an alliance with Egypt in the hope of strengthening
their position against invading Babylonian armies. In the year 445 BCE,
Pharaoh Necho II marched a large Egyptian force through Israel in an attempt
to reach Assyria and assist their allies in battle. Yoshiyahu tried to stop
him but was killed in the battle.
As the Egyptian army returned home, Necho marched his armies back through
Judah, setting up a puppet king Yehoyakim, who displayed loyalty to Egypt.
Necho then imposed a heavy tax on Judah, which the Jewish vassal king passed
on to the people.
In 442 BCE the Babylonian king Nevuchadnezzar campaigned throughout most of
Philistia and Judah, destroying every city in his path. Yehoyakim
surrendered to Babylon the next year, sparing Jerusalem for the time being.
This submission would prove short lived. Two years later, Nevuchadnezzar
attacked Egypt proper. During this campaign both sides incurred heavy
losses. Nevuchadnezzar retreated empty handed. Encouraged by this defeat,
Yehoyakim rebelled, again joining with the Egyptians and withheld the
customary tribute from Babylon. In response, Nevudachdnezzar marched on
Jerusalem in Yehoyakim’s fourth year.
“(He took with him) some of the vessels of the house of God … (and)
certain of the children of Israel, and of the royal seed, and of the nobles,
youths in whom was no blemish, but fair to look on, and skilful in all
wisdom, and skilful in knowledge, and discerning in thought, and such as had
ability to stand in the king’s palace.” (Daniel 1:1-4)
These youths would later become some of the most prominent advisors to
Babylonian kings and to leaders of Babylonian Jewry. The best known include
Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. This event was labeled Galus
Yehoyakim, or the Exile of Yehoyakim.
Seven years later, the Babylonians returned to the area and again marched on
Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, Yehoyakim died. His eighteen-year-old son
Yechanya was raised to the throne in his place. Three months later Yechanya
wisely surrendered to Nevuchadnezzar, thus temporarily saving Judah from
destruction. He was exiled together with members of the royal family, other
heads of state, the Judean military, and many artisans. In all, out of an
estimated total population of over one million, approximately 10,000 people,
exclusive of artisans, were exiled. This event is known as Galus Yechanya.
Though the cream of the Jewish crop was now exiled from Judah, the
majority of Jews remained after Yechanya’s surrender. Most of these Jews,
known as the am ha’aretz, were uneducated and inexperienced in political
affairs. They lacked the leadership skills necessary to guide the Jewish
people through this next delicate phase in their history.
The last king of the Jewish people before the final exile was Tzidkiyahu. He
began his puppet reign as a Babylonian vassal when he was only 21 years old.
Tzidkiyahu was a weak king with limited experience and poor advisors.
Zealous princes in Judah together with other national leaders persuaded him
to join forces in rebellion against Nevuchadnezzar.
The advisors used two arguments to support their recommendation. They first
claimed the Babylonians would not bother with their small uprising. In
addition, they argued that even if the Babylonians did indeed march on
Judah, the powerful Egyptians would intercede on the Jews’ behalf in order
to keep the former out of their immediate region. Neither argument would
prove to be correct. By acquiescing to their arguments, Tzidkiyahu acted in
open opposition to the prophet Yirmiyahu’s advice. The prophet had said that
only repentance could save the people from destruction. When his message
went unheeded, he realized that destruction was inevitable. He thus
counseled submission to Babylon, opposing any talk of revolt.
Tzidkiyahu’s decision to rebel proved catastrophic. Nevuchadnezzar arrived
shortly thereafter and laid siege to Jerusalem. For a while it appeared that
his gamble would pay off, as the Egyptian army came to the city’s defense
and put a temporary end to the barricade. However, once the Egyptian army
left, the Babylonians returned on 10 Teves to resume their siege of
Jerusalem. It lasted for two years, until all supplies were exhausted in the
city. On the 9th day of Tammuz, 423 BCE, the city walls were breached. A
month later, on 9 Av, the destruction of the Temple began.
For breaking his oath of allegiance, Tzidkiyahu was forced to witness the
death of his sons before he himself was blinded and exiled to Babylon. Other
leading officials were likewise put to death. All but the poorest were sent
into exile. The kingdom of Judah was thereby terminated.
II – Why Didn’t They Listen?
In the previous segment, we noted how the Judean king Tzidkiyahu’s
stubborn refusal to listen to the prophet Yirmiyahu resulted in the siege of
Jerusalem and the eventual destruction of the first Temple. It is very
difficult for us to understand why a leader would refuse to listen to the
word of God. We, who continuously crave for clarity and certainty in our
daily lives, would rush at the opportunity to hear divine words directly
from the prophet! So why didn’t Tzidkiyahu and others from his period
listen? Some different explanations have been offered to address this
“It’s so hard to listen” – It is neither easy nor desirable for
people to hear the implication that personal and communal change is in
order. Thus, the prophets were painted as forecasters of doom. Their
predictions of exile and destruction fell largely on deaf ears.
“How could He do this?” – During this entire time period, the world
was divided into two theological camps. The overwhelming majority of the
world was comprised of pagans. The Jews alone were monotheistic. Everyone
knew that the Jews were different. How then, the Jews argued, could God
destroy His own house and terminate His sole source of representation in
“God needs us!” – This point is similar to the previous one. In the
relationship between God and His People, there exists an interesting
paradox. On one hand, God is omnipotent, completely in control. He issues
positive and negative commandments that we are expected to follow. Reward is
given for those who adhere to his laws, punishment for those who do not.
Yet, we know that “In the gathering of people is the king’s glory; but in
the lack of people is the downfall of the prince.” (Proverbs 14:28) A king
cannot function without a nation who is prepared to accept his rule. How
then could God exile and seemingly dismiss the Jewish People? Where would
that leave Him as King?
“I’ll worry about it then” – As scary and real as the words of the
prophets may have seemed, they never specified a particular year or era of
actualization. Over 90 years had passed since the first prophetic words
predicting the destruction were uttered, and all the while the Temple
remained standing. The fact that punishment would arrive at some point was
not sufficient to generate significant change.
“It can’t really be that bad!” – The optimists amongst the Jewish
people thought that the prophets were overstating Heavenly retaliation for
our misdeeds. They were unable to see that God would actually impose such a
strong punishment on His Chosen Nation.
“Who says that they’re right?” – There were numerous false prophets
in Israel during these years, many of whom dismissed the problems facing the
Jewish people and predicted deliverance from their enemies. It was not
clear, even in the era of prophecy, as to who actually represented the Word
Sadly, our history has proven that tangible threats, even exile or death,
are often the most successful means by which to inspire the Jewish nation to
The removal of Achashveirosh’s ring was more successful than forty-
eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. All these
were not able to improve Israel’s ways, and the removal of the ring did
improve their ways. (Talmud, Megilla 14a)
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting
(ImpactfulCoaching.com), which provides support services to leaders and
executives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Yehudah Prero and Torah.org.
The author has Rabbinic ordination from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, NY.