Historical Lessons from Yirmiya – Parts 1 and 2

Historical Lessons from Yirmiya – Parts 1 and 2

Chananya Weissman

October 3, 2021

Tanach is not a history book. Every dot is divinely measured; nothing is superfluous. The historical information included in Tanach is only there for the loftier lessons we are supposed to learn from it. After all, there is so much about the events of the time and the interesting people involved that is not told to us. Those who read Tanach like just another literary work are totally missing the point.

The book of Yirmiya intersperses prophecies about the imminent destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash and exile of the remnant of survivors with prophecies about the near and distant future and historical narratives. It is easy for the reader to run through the latter, but if he pays attention there are critical lessons from these stories that jump off the page. Some of the characters in these stories are obscure, which only further indicates that their inclusion is meant to teach us a lesson that transcends the value of the historical information.

Here are several such lessons that pertain to our situation.

Yirmiya was persecuted throughout his career as a prophet. At times his resolve wavered; he even cursed the day he was born (20:14-18). He was witnessing his nation bring the ultimate calamity upon itself, and they considered him the enemy for trying to save them.

At one point Yirmiya complained bitterly about the relentless abuse and attempts on his life. Referring to his prophecy, or his experiences with the people, or the protection he was relying upon he said: “Why is my pain constant and my wound extremely painful? It refused to be healed. It is to me like a spring that fails, like waters that cannot be relied upon.” (15:18)

Hashem replied: “Therefore, so says Hashem: If you return, I will return you. You will stand before me. And if you take out the precious from the gluttons, you will be like My mouth. They will return to you and you will not return to them.” (15:19)

These verses are explained in various ways. Radak says that Yirmiya went too far with his complaints and was told to repent. Other commentaries are not critical of Yirmiya, but explain verse 19 as yet another call for the Jews to repent. Either way, Hashem was encouraging Yirmiya to continue in his mission and save whoever he could. The generation was most likely doomed, but even if Yirmiya managed to reach only a few individuals, his reward would be great.

We can surely relate to Yirmiya’s frustrations as we watch a generation marching to its doom, while they abuse those who strive to save them. We can also take solace in Hashem’s reply. Maybe we will succeed in salvaging a few precious souls from the overall rot of society. Our reward will surely be great, and eventually the people who rejected us will seek us, instead of us chasing after them.

Yirmiya faced strong opposition from the false prophets, who represented the establishment and the mass media of the time. They attempted to discredit and silence him every possible way.

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One of his main foes was the false prophet Chananya ben Azur, who made a living whitewashing the sins of the people and claiming Yirmiya’s dire warnings were misinformation. Chapter 28 in Yirmiya relates a public confrontation between them in the Beis Hamikdash, before the kohanim and the people. Chananya falsely stated in Hashem’s name that in two years Bavel’s power over Israel would be broken, and the exiles would return with everything that was looted from the Beis Hamikdash.

Yirmiya sarcastically answered “amen” to that, and rejected Chananya’s false prophecy. Chananya assaulted Yirmiya and broke the wooden yoke he was wearing as a symbol of Israel’s impending servitude in exile. Chananya then doubled down on his false prophecy.

Hashem then spoke to Yirmiya and told him to make an iron yoke in place of the wooden one, for Bavel’s power would now be increased. Yirmiya also prophesied that Chananya would die that year. The chapter concludes by stating that Chananya died that year in the seventh month.

Chazal note that the seventh month is Tishrei, which is actually the first month of the new calendar year; Rosh Hashana is the first day of Tishrei, while the months are ordered from Nisan. If this is true, then Chananya would have died the following year!

They explain that Chananya indeed died before Rosh Hashana, but before he died he commanded his children to conceal the date of his death and bury him after Rosh Hashana, in order to “prove” that Yirmiya’s prophecy didn’t come true. (Perhaps all the hospitals fudging death certificates today got their inspiration from here.)

Think about this. Chananya ben Azur was a prominent “leading rabbi”, and might have even convinced himself that he had achieved real prophecy. Even on his deathbed, when he could no longer deny that Yirmiya was the true prophet, he was still obsessed with discrediting Yirmiya above all else. His final instructions to his family were not sage advice, let alone repentance in his final moments, but to perpetuate the lie after his death. He was willing to let his dead body lie in disgrace for several days just so people could play Gotcha and argue that Yirmiya’s prediction came true a minute too late.

We might think this is not the behavior of a normal person, but it is indeed normal once someone has become corrupted by falsehood and stubborn pride. They will simply not back down, no matter how stark the truth is, and no matter what they have to lose. They will even drag their children down with them rather than admit their errors and repent.

Indeed, we find that Chananya’s grandson served as an officer in the army. He arrested Yirmiya attempting to flee Jerusalem before the city fell, falsely charged Yirmiya with defecting to the enemy, and turned him over to his tormentors (37:13). This would have been a wonderful opportunity to make amends for Chananya’s actions, but his grandson continued the family tradition.

(Chazal teach that one who flatters a wicked person will eventually fall into his hands or the hands of one of his descendants, and bring this as an example. They hold Yirmiya accountable for saying “amen” to Chananya’s false prophecy, which might have lent credence to it in some people’s eyes, even though that was clearly not the intention.)

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Chananya ben Azur’s behavior is maddening, but how many people can see it inside themselves? How many people today are continuing to decry every piece of information against the establishment narrative as “misinformation”, while they surrender their bodies, their lives, and their children to regular injections of who-knows-what? What are they gaining at this point beyond upholding their stubborn pride? They are gambling literally everything – their physical and spiritual lives, their liberty, and their children – and they will not concede an inch.

Even when one of them suffers harm or death from the injections, they bend over backwards to deny any possible connection. Many of these people will refuse to cut their losses until they are utterly wiped out.

Chananya ben Azur was not a fool. He was a brilliant, scholarly, charismatic man. He enjoyed prominence and the high esteem of the masses. Perhaps if he chose a path of humility and sincerity he would have achieved true prophecy. Instead, he went down with his ship, disgraced himself even after death, and dragged his descendants down with him.

This will probably not convince anyone who is following the same path; most of them are too far gone to come to their senses now. If nothing else, we see there are biblical precedents for this behavior, and we can better understand it when we see it. Knowing this will help us strengthen ourselves to run in the opposite direction, no matter what.

Eved Melech the Cushi is an obscure figure. It is uncertain that this was even his name. Metzudas David writes that his actual name was indeed Eved Melech, and he was dark-skinned like an Ethiopian (Cushi). Targum Yonasan ben Uziel and Radak translate the words literally as “an Ethiopian servant of the king”, who remains unnamed.

Rashi cites the Midrashic interpretation that identifies Eved Melech as Baruch ben Nerya, the main disciple of Yirmiya. However, this is extremely unlikely, being that Baruch was mentioned by name in many other places, and there is no reason for his identity to be masked in the incident that we will soon discuss. (It is common for the Midrash to identify two different people as one and the same to metaphorically compare them. The most famous examples are Hagar/Ketura and Lavan/Bilam. The latter lived centuries apart.)

In Chapter 38 of Yirmiya, the fall of Jerusalem is imminent. The city has been under siege by the Babylonians for years, and there is hardly any bread left. Many of the residents have fled to neighboring countries (where the sword ultimately followed them) or surrendered to the Babylonians. Yirmiya had been imploring them to do the latter, prophesying that if they surrender, the city and their lives will be spared. At this time he was languishing in a pit, submerged in tar and left to die. The king’s officers, who wanted to hold out until the bitter end, had cast him there.

Tzidkiyahu, the final king of this era, was a complicated character in his own right (more on him later). He displayed sympathy for Yirmiya, but he was a puppet leader, and he expressed powerlessness before his own officers (verse 5).

This is where Eved Melech comes in. He heard that Yirmiya had been removed from his previous, relatively safe imprisonment in one of the palace courtyards and thrown into the pit. The king had gone to the gate of Binyamin, and Eved Melech left the palace to go after him. When Eved Melech found Tzidkiyahu, he said as follows in verse 9: “My lord the king, these men have done evil with all they have done to Yirmiyahu the prophet, that they cast him into the pit. Had they left him in his place he would have died from the famine, for there is no more bread in the city.”

In other words, Yirmiya was going to die of starvation anyway, because everyone was starving, and the officers should not have actively hastened his death by casting him into the pit.

The king accepted these words. He commanded Eved Melech to take thirty men and raise Yirmiya from the pit before he died. Chazal explain that normally only three men would have been needed, but because they were all weak from hunger, they needed ten times that number.

Yirmiya’s life was saved by an anonymous black servant who went out of his way during a dire famine to intercede on his behalf before an impotent king with much more on his mind.

Hashem later gave Yirmiya the following message:

“Go say to Eved Melech the Ethiopian as follows. So says Hashem the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Behold I am bringing My words to this city for harm and not for good, and you will see it before you on that day. And you will be saved on that day, says Hashem, and you will not be given into the hands of those before whom you fear. For I will surely rescue you, and you will not fall by the sword, and your life will be like spoils for you, because you trusted in Me. So says Hashem.” (39:15-18)

While Hashem was bringing cataclysmic destruction upon Jerusalem and its people, He made a point to single out an obscure person who was low on the social ladder to receive special divine protection.

Notice that Hashem did not reward Eved Melech specifically for saving Yirmiya’s life, but for trusting in Him. It was not the result that earned Eved Melech the divine protection – something that was beyond his control – but the moral courage to try.

Do you feel insignificant? Do you feel as if you are being swept along by the massive upheavals in our time, and it doesn’t matter what you do? Do you believe you are powerless to make a difference when rotten people control everything?

Eved Melech proves that you are very significant, and Hashem is keeping track of everything you do. Your efforts to save someone might seem far-fetched, but they matter. Some of these efforts might even be successful; you might save a life!

Either way, you might just save your own.

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