Heart of the Story: Gedaliah disregarded Johanan warning that a member of the Jewish royal family planned to murder him. After Gedaliah was murdered, Johanan lead survivors to Egypt to escape war and famine.
Backstory: In 597 B.C. the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, killed King Zedekiah, and made Gedaliah governor of Judea. Although most of the Jewish royal family was killed, Ishmael son of Nethaniah (son of Elishama) remained alive. The Bible didn’t identify how he was related to the kings of Judah. Soon after Gedaliah was appointed governor, Ishmael and King Baalis of Ammon plotted to kill him.
Story Line: Johanan was a military captain in the Judean countryside and not swept up in the captive train to Babylon. Johanan and other officers warned Gedaliah that Ishmael and Baalis plotted to kill him. Johanan offered to kill Ishmael. He contended that if Gedaliah was murdered, the Jewish remnant would scatter and perish. Gedaliah didn’t believe Johanan’s accusation against Ishmael and forbid him to kill Ishmael.
Sometime later Gedaliah welcomed Ishmael and 10 of his men to Mizpah and invited them for a meal. While they were eating, Ishmael and his men killed not only Gedaliah but the Babylonian soldiers who were with him. Ishmael captured the Jews under Gedaliah’s care and started to Ammon.
Johanan and his men heard what happened at Mizpah. They caught up with Ishmael at the pool of Gibeon. In the subsequent fight two of Ishmael’s 10 men were killed; however, Ishmael and the remainder fled to Ammon. The relieved captives joined Johanan and he was left to deal with the aftermath of Gedaliah’s murder. The plight of the Jews couldn’t have been worse. They knew that Nebuchadnezzar’s retaliation would be fast and furious. All wanted to escape further bloodshed; none want to experience famine such as occurred in the siege of Jerusalem.
Stressed and scared Johanan halted near Bethlehem and turned to Jeremiah. Amazingly the faithful prophet was still among the Mizpah refugees. Johanan and the Jews promised Jeremiah that if he asked God what they should do, they would follow God’s direction. Jeremiah asked God and after 10 days of silence, God responded: the Jews should remain in Judea. In Judea God would keep them safe; however, if they went to Egypt, they would die by sword, famine, and pestilence.
Johanan and other insolent Jewish leaders responded that Jeremiah was lying – God never said that they shouldn’t go to Egypt! The men accused Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, of swaying Jeremiah to deliver them to the Babylonians. Then, Johanan and other military officers took the Jewish remnant to Egypt. Jeremiah was forced to go with them.
Analysis of Johanan’s relationships: When the Bible first portrayed Johanan, he seems even honorable, even likeable. He supported Gedaliah and cared about the Jewish remnant. He offered to kill Gedaliah’s enemy who was in league with the Ammonite king. When Johanan learned that Ishmael killed Gedaliah and took Jews captive, he hurried to free them.
Something changed in Johanan. Maybe it was the realization that he was no longer responsible only for himself and his battle-hardened soldiers. Now, helpless men, women and children depended on him. How could he keep them safe? Where could he get them food, clothing and security? We can almost see Johanan’s stomach tightening as he realized the extent of his responsibility.
Johanan didn’t want to go to Egypt. Even though the Israelite exodus from Egypt was 900 years early, Egypt stuck in Israelites’ craws. Psalmists, sages, and prophets continued to tell stories about the horrific years the Israelites spent in Egypt. On the other hand, Egypt remained one of the few countries not overrun by the Babylonians and Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient Middle East. His people had such a fear of famine and starvation.
Johanan weighed his inclination to avoid Egypt and Jeremiah’s words against his responsibility to caring for these few Jews left after the war with Babylon. Johanan decided to play it safe and take the Jewish remnant to Egypt. Johanan disregarded God’s words spoken through God’s Jeremiah even though he had ample evidence that Jeremiah spoke for God.
From the time Johanan rejected Jeremiah’s message, the Bible recorded no information about him. A few years later Pharaoh Hophra was assassinated. Nebuchadnezzar took advantage of the political upheaval, invaded Egypt and destroy the country. Most of the Jewish refugees in Egypt perished. Probably, Johanan also died. Hopefully, he died as a soldier fighting for the lives of his people.
Conclusion: Most of us ask “How could Johanan disregard God?” The answer may be that Johanan was a military officer of his time, a time when the Jewish kings and military ignored God. Perhaps, Johanan was like many individuals today who see wars, rumors of wars, and natural disasters. If what we see and read corresponds to end time descriptions in the Holy Scriptures, we term them coincidence.
Copyright: May 18, 2015: Carolyn A. Roth