How Long Did Gedaliah Govern before He Was Assassinated?
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah to be governor of the province:
מלכים ב כה:כב וְהָעָם הַנִּשְׁאָר בְּאֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר הִשְׁאִיר נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וַיַּפְקֵד עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶּן אֲחִיקָם בֶּן שָׁפָן.
2 Kgs 25:22 King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan in charge of the people whom he left in the land of Judah.
A stamp seal of Gedaliah’s, found in Lachish in 1935, which reads לגדליהו אשר על הבית “Belonging to Gedaliah, who is over the House,” i.e., the royal steward, the highest official in the land, shows that Gedaliah was a very important person during the monarchy.
Nebuchadnezzar likely chose Gedaliah because he came from an elite family. Gedaliah’s grandfather was Shaphan the Royal Scribe, mentioned in Kings in connection with the finding of the book of the Torah in the time of King Josiah (2 Kgs 22). More significantly, his father, Ahikam, was a royal official who saved Jeremiah from being killed by an angry crowd reacting to his prophecy that Babylon would destroy Jerusalem:
ירמיה כו:כד אַךְ יַד אֲחִיקָם בֶּן שָׁפָן הָיְתָה אֶת יִרְמְיָהוּ לְבִלְתִּי תֵּת אֹתוֹ בְיַד הָעָם לַהֲמִיתוֹ.
Jer 26:24 However, Ahikam son of Shaphan protected Jeremiah, so that he was not handed over to the people for execution.
Jeremiah was against the rebellion, and was public about the need to remain loyal to the Babylonians. If Gedaliah, like his father, was a supporter of Jeremiah, then Nebuchadnezzar’s choice of Gedaliah makes good sense: He wanted someone whose views implied that he would remain loyal to Babylonia, as opposed to someone from the royal family that had rebelled against him twice.
The Scion of the Davidic Line Assassinates Gedaliah
Unfortunately for Gedaliah, Ishmael ben Netaniah, a surviving member of the royal family, saw Gedaliah’s appointment as an afront, and assassinated him on the seventh month:
מלכים ב כה:כה וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בָּא יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה בֶּן אֱלִישָׁמָע מִזֶּרַע הַמְּלוּכָה וַעֲשָׂרָה אֲנָשִׁים אִתּוֹ וַיַּכּוּ אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ וַיָּמֹת וְאֶת הַיְּהוּדִים וְאֶת הַכַּשְׂדִּים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ אִתּוֹ בַּמִּצְפָּה.
2 Kgs 25:25 In the seventh month [or: On the New Moon of the seventh month], Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama, who was of royal descent, came with ten men, and they struck down Gedaliah and he died; [they also killed] the Judeans and the Chaldeans who were present with him at Mizpah.
If the (unprovenanced) bulla that says לישמעאל בן המלך “Belonging to Ishmael, son of the king” is legitimate, then it most likely belonged to Ishmael ben Netaniah, who clearly wished to emphasis his royal status. It is not surprising, therefore, that seeing a former official take charge would have offended him so. But Ishmael was not working alone.
An Ammonite Agent
The book of Jeremiah offers a much more detailed account (chs. 40–44), in which we learn that Ishmael ben Netaniah was in league with the Ammonite king Baalis, whose name we know from a bulla of one of his officials found in the Ammonite city of Tell al-‘Umayri, which reads, למלכומאור עבד בעלישע “Belonging to Milkom-Or servant of Baalis.” Another, very broken bulla, reconstructed to read בעלישע מלך בנ עמנ “Baalis, King of the Ammonites,” is unprovenanced.
Yonahan ben Kareah warns Gedaliah of the conspiracy, but to no avail:
ירמיה מ:יג וְיוֹחָנָן בֶּן קָרֵחַ וְכָל שָׂרֵי הַחֲיָלִים אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה בָּאוּ אֶל גְּדַלְיָהוּ הַמִּצְפָּתָה. מ:יד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו הֲיָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי בַּעֲלִיס מֶלֶךְ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן שָׁלַח אֶת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה לְהַכֹּתְךָ נָפֶשׁ וְלֹא הֶאֱמִין לָהֶם גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶּן אֲחִיקָם.
Jer 40:13 Yohanan son of Kareah, and all the officers of the troops in the open country, came to Gedaliah at Mizpah 40:14 and said to him, “Do you know that King Baalis of Ammon has sent Ishmael son of Netaniah to kill you?” But Gedaliah son of Ahikam would not believe them.
But Gedaliah was wrong:
ירמיה מא:א וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בָּא יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה בֶן אֱלִישָׁמָע מִזֶּרַע הַמְּלוּכָה וְרַבֵּי הַמֶּלֶךְ וַעֲשָׂרָה אֲנָשִׁים אִתּוֹ אֶל גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן אֲחִיקָם הַמִּצְפָּתָה וַיֹּאכְלוּ שָׁם לֶחֶם יַחְדָּו בַּמִּצְפָּה. מא:ב וַיָּקָם יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה וַעֲשֶׂרֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ אִתּוֹ וַיַּכּוּ אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן אֲחִיקָם בֶּן שָׁפָן בַּחֶרֶב וַיָּמֶת אֹתוֹ אֲשֶׁר הִפְקִיד מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בָּאָרֶץ.
Jer 41:1 In the seventh month, Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama, who was of royal descent and one of the king’s commanders, came with ten men to Gedaliah son of Ahikam at Mizpah; and they ate together there at Mizpah. 41:2 Then Ishmael son of Nethaniah and the ten men who were with him arose and struck down Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan with the sword and killed him, because the king of Babylon had put him in charge of the land.
Ishmael also slaughters Gedaliah’s compatriots, and even goes so far as to kill the Chaldean (=Babylonian) soldiers stationed there:
מא:ג וְאֵת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ אִתּוֹ אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ בַּמִּצְפָּה וְאֶת הַכַּשְׂדִּים אֲשֶׁר נִמְצְאוּ שָׁם אֵת אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה הִכָּה יִשְׁמָעֵאל.
41:3 Ishmael also killed all the Judeans who were with him—with Gedaliah in Mizpah—and the Chaldean soldiers who were stationed there.
Ishmael goes on a killing spree the next day, after which he gathers up his family members, as well as other people in the vicinity, and runs away to Ammon:
ירמיה מא:י וַיִּשְׁבְּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל אֶת כָּל שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּצְפָּה אֶת בְּנוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֶת כָּל הָעָם הַנִּשְׁאָרִים בַּמִּצְפָּה אֲשֶׁר הִפְקִיד נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב טַבָּחִים אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶּן אֲחִיקָם וַיִּשְׁבֵּם יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן נְתַנְיָה וַיֵּלֶךְ לַעֲבֹר אֶל בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן.
Jer 41:10 Ishmael carried off all the rest of the people who were in Mizpah, including the daughters of the king—all the people left in Mizpah, over whom Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam. Ishmael son of Nethaniah carried them off, and set out to cross over to the Ammonites.
Ishmael was likely afraid of reprisals, both by other Judeans, such as Yohanan ben Kareah and his followers, and by the Babylonians, since once Nebuchadnezzar got wind of what Ishmael did, he was almost certain to respond.
How Long Was Gedaliah Governor?
The Bible does not say exactly when Gedaliah was assassinated, and thus how long he governed. All we are told is that the assassination took place in the seventh month, but the year is not stated. Many scholars assume that he was assassinated in the same year as the destruction of the Temple, in the fifth month (Av) of 586 B.C.E.
This would imply that Gedaliah’s tenure would have lasted a little less than two months, a very short period of time. Such an understanding is already evident in the 2nd cent. C.E. Seder Olam Rabbah, a rabbinic text which summarizes Jewish history from creation until the author’s time, which writes (ch. 26):
בשלשה בתשרי אחר חורבן הבית נ"ב יום נהרג גדליה בן אחיקם בן שפן והיהודים אשר היו במצפה...
On the third of Tishrei, 52 days after the destruction of the Temple, Gedaliah ben Ahikam was killed together with the other Judeans in Mitzpeh…
And yet, the biblical description of his tenure suggests a longer timeframe.
Gedaliah Reestablishes Settlement and Agriculture
Soon after his appointment, Gedaliah holds a meeting with the remaining Judahites (Jer 40:7–8), including some of the important representatives such as the aforementioned Yohanan ben Kareah and Ishmael ben Netaniah:
ירמיה מ:ט וַיִּשָּׁבַע לָהֶם גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶן אֲחִיקָם בֶּן שָׁפָן וּלְאַנְשֵׁיהֶם לֵאמֹר אַל תִּירְאוּ מֵעֲבוֹד הַכַּשְׂדִּים שְׁבוּ בָאָרֶץ וְעִבְדוּ אֶת מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וְיִיטַב לָכֶם. מ:י וַאֲנִי הִנְנִי יֹשֵׁב בַּמִּצְפָּה לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הַכַּשְׂדִּים אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ אֵלֵינוּ וְאַתֶּם אִסְפוּ יַיִן וְקַיִץ וְשֶׁמֶן וְשִׂמוּ בִּכְלֵיכֶם וּשְׁבוּ בְּעָרֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר תְּפַשְׂתֶּם.
Jer 40:9 Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan reassured them and their men, saying, “Do not be afraid to serve the Chaldeans. Stay in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it will go well with you. 40:10 I am going to stay in Mizpah to attend upon the Chaldeans who will come to us. But you may gather wine and figs and oil and put them in your own vessels, and settle in the towns you have occupied.”
The speech convinces not only the locals but Judahites scattered throughout the lands, who begin to return:
ירמיה מ:יא וְגַם כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּמוֹאָב וּבִבְנֵי עַמּוֹן וּבֶאֱדוֹם וַאֲשֶׁר בְּכָל הָאֲרָצוֹת שָׁמְעוּ כִּי נָתַן מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל שְׁאֵרִית לִיהוּדָה וְכִי הִפְקִיד עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת גְּדַלְיָהוּ בֶּן אֲחִיקָם בֶּן שָׁפָן. מ:יב וַיָּשֻׁבוּ כָל הַיְּהוּדִים מִכָּל הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר נִדְּחוּ שָׁם וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה אֶל גְּדַלְיָהוּ הַמִּצְפָּתָה וַיַּאַסְפוּ יַיִן וָקַיִץ הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד.
Jer 40:11 Likewise, all the Judeans who were in Moab, Ammon, and Edom, or who were in other lands, heard that the king of Babylon had let a remnant stay in Judah, and that he had put Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan in charge of them. 40:12 All these Judeans returned from all the places to which they had scattered. They came to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah, and they gathered large quantities of wine and figs.
Similarly, the conspiracy built by Ishmael and the Ammonites would likely have taken more than a few weeks to establish; it is unlikely that it could have been planned and actualized in two months. Moreover, the fact that Gedaliah’s assassination was so traumatic, that it engendered a fast day—the biblical fast of the seventh month (Zech 7:5, 8:19), known as Tzom Gedaliah in Rabbinic Judaism—implies that his tenure had accomplished something important before it was ended.
Thus, some scholars have suggested that we should understand the seventh month as the seventh month of some later unspecified year. But if so, when? Three pieces of evidence point to a campaign by Nebuchadnezzar into the Levant in 582 B.C.E., four years after the destruction of the Temple, which may best be understood as a Babylonian reprisal for Ishmael’s assassinating the governor and killing Babylonian soldiers.
1. A Third Exile of Judeans
The final chapter of Jeremiah contains a historical overview of the fall of Judah that tells about another deportation of Judahites, dated to around 582 B.C.E., four years after the fall of Jerusalem:
ירמיה נב:ל בִּשְׁנַת שָׁלֹשׁ וְעֶשְׂרִים לִנְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר הֶגְלָה נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב טַבָּחִים יְהוּדִים נֶפֶשׁ שְׁבַע מֵאוֹת אַרְבָּעִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה כָּל נֶפֶשׁ אַרְבַּעַת אֲלָפִים וְשֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת.
Jer 52:30 In the twenty-third year of Nebuchadrezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took into exile of the Judeans seven hundred forty-five persons; all the persons were four thousand six hundred.
We are given no context for this third deportation in the biblical text, but as a response to the assassination of Gedaliah, it would make sense.
2. Josephus: Nebuchadnezzar’s Campaign against Ammon and Moab
In Judean Antiquities, Josephus describes a military campaign of Nebuchadnezzar into the Levant (Coele-Syria) in his 23rd regnal year:
Jud. Ant. 10 §181 And so it happened; for in the fifth year after the sacking of Jerusalem, which was the twenty-third year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar marched against Coele-Syria and, after occupying it, made war both on the Moabites and the Ammonites. (LCL trans.)
Josephus does not mention an attack on Judah, but it is the same year as the note in Jeremiah 52, so it is certainly the same campaign. Moreover, the fact that Nebuchadnezzar targets the Ammonites implies that the same intelligence about Ammonites conspiring with Ishmael reported by Yohanan to Gedaliah reached the ears of Babylon. The conquest of Ammon makes sense as Nebuchadnezzar’s natural response to this conspiracy.
Josephus: Nebuchadnezzar’s Campaign against Egypt
Josephus continues by explaining how, after the campaign in the Levant, Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt:
182 Then, after making these nations subject to him, he invaded Egypt, in order to subdue it and, having killed the king who was then reigning and appointed another, he again took captive the Jews who were in the country, and carried them to Babylon.
We know that Pharaoh Apries (biblical Hophra) was not killed in this year, and thus scholars typically dismissed Josephus’ entire account here, suggesting that he reworked the prophecies of Jeremiah 43–44, which predict a Babylonian invasion of Egypt, treating them as if they were history.
Nevertheless, the discovery in 2011 of a stela dating to the eighth regnal year of Pharaoh Apries, unearthed at Tell Defeneh (biblical Tahpanhes) in the Nile Delta, changed this assessment.
3. The Stela of Apries
The text of the Apries Stela originally constituted 12 columns, of which only the right half has survived. The main text starts with the events of his regnal year 7, dating to mid-December 582 B.C.E., describing the king’s preparations against an invasion from the East. This could only be the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar II, as no other power at the time could have possibly made such an attempt:
In year 7, in the 4th month of summer, His Majesty went out to Sinai, taking the road to the East in its entirety, the army of the country following him. The foreigners (=probably Greek auxiliaries, DK) accompanying His Majesty, the King in person; He made the battlefield favorable to him. He assembled chosen men; he set in place troops, and favorably chose commander(s) of companies. He has made a protective enclosure around Egypt, by rendering impracticable access to all his roads…
The text at this point becomes harder to read, but we learn that a loyal vassal of Egypt informs the king something about the movement of the enemy, designated “those of bad character.” Apparently, the enemy king is attempting to hide his troops’ military actions, and the vassal warns that, on this account, the position of the Egyptian army is too far away and deployed at the wrong place.
At this point, the text likely told of the Egyptian army heading toward the invading Babylonian army and the subsequent military engagement, but regrettably, the text breaks off here. Given that Pharaoh Apries put this up as a victory stela, and that he remained Pharaoh of an independent Egypt for more than a decade after this, it is likely that Egypt repulsed the Babylonian invasion, as it had in Nebuchadnezzar’s earlier attempt in his fourth regnal year (601/600 B.C.E.).
The Double Agenda of Nebuchadnezzar’s 582 Campaign
Putting together this information, we can suggest the following timeline: Gedaliah is assassinated in the seventh month during his fourth year as governor, in 583 B.C.E., by Ishmael ben Netaniah, who was in league with the Ammonites. This was three years after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
Predictably, Nebuchadnezzar responds by attacking the Ammonites and the Moabites (Josephus) and taking another group of Judahites captive (Jer 52). Nebuchadnezzar also takes the opportunity to make another attempt to conquer Egypt, as he tried to do in 601 B.C.E., but is again stopped at the border by the Pharaoh’s army, without any significant gains.
In sum, Gedaliah’s tenure likely lasted several years, not two months. This fits better with the biblical the story. It is the optimism people felt at the beginning of his tenure, the steps taken to rebuild Judah’s economy, and for Judahites that escaped to return to the land during this three-year period that explain the extent of the tragedy of his assassination which has been mourned on the Fast of Gedaliah for 2500 years and counting.
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Prof. Dan’el Kahn is Professor of Bible and Ancient Near East in the University of Haifa's Department of Biblical Studies. He holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology and the History of Israel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he focused on Egypt's 25th dynasty. He is the co-editor of Treasures on Camels' Humps (Magnes 2008); Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature (Brill, 2009); The Ancient Near East in the 12th-10th Centuries BCE (Ugarit Verlag, 2012), and the author of Sennacherib's Campaign Against Judah: A Source Analysis of Isaiah 36–37 (Cambridge, 2020).
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