BROTHERS IN BETRAYAL?    (Posted 04 Nov. 2011)

The similarities in the positions of Jeremiah and Josephus vis-à-vis their countrymen’s revolts against their respective Imperial overlords is too striking to ignore.  Both men were against these respective rebellions and both men were called traitors by their compatriots for their positions of seeming to favor the enemy over the hometown team.

But were they really traitors?  Or did they have a larger purpose in mind?



Before we begin our discussion, let us review the historical and geopolitical backgrounds of both situations.  During Jeremiah’s time, the late 7th century and more particularly the early 6th century B.C. there were two great powers that dominated events in the Near and Middle east.  One was the declining power of the once great Egypt, and the other was the Neo-Babylonian Empire which appeared on the scene like a supernova in 626 B.C. (though it had inherited the technological and cultural advances of all the previous Mesopotamian states).  The emergence of Babylon as a great power occurred at about the same time that Jeremiah began his prophetic services.  Small states like Jeremiah’s Judah were caught between these two great powers—both of whom were vying for influence in, and control of, Judah and the surrounding states.


Likewise, during the time of Josephus, the 1st century A.D., the entire known ("civilized") world was divided up between the Roman Empire in the west, which considered the Mediterranean Sea to be its private lake, and the Parthian Empire in the East which claimed descent from, and the birthright of, the Old Persian Achaemenid Empire.  Once again the small states of the Levant like Judah (Iudea to the Romans) were caught between these two giant world-spanning empires, and both empires sought influence in, and control over, these border countries.


In Jeremiah’s case there is copious archaeological (as well as Biblical) evidence for a deep split in Judean society between those who were pro-Babylonian and those who were pro-Egyptian.  And, likewise, during the time of Josephus, there was a deep split in Judean society between pro and anti-Roman factions.


Josephus obviously belonged to the pro-Roman faction.  Once a Judean military commander, he defected to the Romans after the rebellion got underway.  Upon surrendering, Josephus obtained a meeting with General Vespasian, the commander of the Roman forces.  During this meeting Josephus prophesied that Vespasian would become emperor some day.  Vespasian investigated Josephus’s credentials and learned that he had been a veracious prophet in other matters and so impressed was the general with the man’s intelligence that he freed him and took him under his wing. Josephus then proceeded to urge the Judean defenders of Jerusalem to surrender while telling them that God was on the side of the Romans.

Josephus subsequently went to Rome with Vespasian when the latter did in fact become Emperor in 69 A.D.  And, in Rome, under Vespasian’s patronage, he was well treated.  He then returned to Judea with Vespasian’s son Titus who took over command of the Roman forces besieging Jerusalem.


Throughout, Josephus claimed that his arguments against the Jewish revolt were an attempt to preserve the identity of the Jews as a nation.  As a matter of fact, the Jews, on the whole, had been treated fairly well under the Romans prior to their revolt.  Two of the key figures of that era, Julius Caesar and Augustus, were quite favorably disposed towards the Jews.  Whenever there were disputes, or questions, the Jews were always allowed to send a delegation to Rome to argue their case.  Usually all the Romans needed was to be convinced that whatever idiosyncrasies the nation of Judah had, with regards to their religion or what not, these idiosyncrasies did not constitute a threat to Rome or constitute any form of insubordination.   


The Romans also realized that by this time in history they themselves were a minority within their own Empire.  The majority of the people did not speak Latin and so they realized, for the most part, that benign policies were the most efficient way of holding the Empire together.  The Pax Romana had brought prosperity to the conquered states, as it had to Rome itself, but the maintenance of that Pax Romana required the paying of taxes by the provinces.


While taxes are always a source of friction between the people who have to pay them and the government that collects them, regardless of who that government is, Josephus felt that whatever grievances that the anti-Roman factions in Judea had against the Romans, they were not sufficient to warrant a revolt—especially when he could see that such a revolt would mean the total destruction of the nation of the Jews.


The Romans, knowing that they were a minority within their own Empire, were very sensitive towards any hint of disloyalty.  They were especially fearful of any province that might flirt with an alliance with the dreaded Parthians.  And, they saw the Jewish revolt as just such a case.  Undoubtedly so did many of the Jews.  Jewish literature and mythology has given an almost deified position to Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Old Persian Empire, and so it was tempting for them to look to the Parthians as the heirs of Cyrus, people who might give them the special treatment that they (erroneously) believed that Cyrus the Great did.  In other words, they deluded themselves into believing that the Parthians would give them a better deal than the Romans did.


Add to this the fact that the Jews made up about ten percent of the total population of the Roman Empire, including large Jewish settlements in various places around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea, and one can easily see why the Romans, a minority themselves, so greatly feared a pan-Jewish revolt.  Thus they acted with all the force at their disposal to put the revolt down and to destroy the symbols of Jewish nationhood (such as the temple) to the extent that there would be no more revolts (actually there were two more Jewish revolts (both in the early 2nd century A.D.) and the Romans eventually had to evict all the Jews from their capital city of Jerusalem).


In turning back to Jeremiah, we see an almost identical pattern.  It is almost as if Josephus had copied the script laid down six centuries earlier by Jeremiah.

Prior to the Babylonian suzerainty of Judah, the region had been subject to Egyptian overlordship.  The tribute Egypt forced out of Judah was so extortionary that the Jews gladly welcomed its replacement by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 604 B.C., and Judah’s king Yahu Yaqim gladly swore an oath of allegiance to Babylon in turn for having kicked the Egyptians out.


The Babylonians generally treated their subject nations rather well.  The taxes (or tribute as some call it) were not as unbearable as they had been under the Egyptians.  And, the Babylonian Empire encouraged trade between and among its various regions, as did the Pax Romana of six centuries later.  This started out as a golden age of Jewish prosperity and cultural achievement.  However, the Babylonians, like the Romans of six centuries later, were very sensitive about subject nations flirting with rival powers.  In this case, the Babylonians considered Egypt to be their mortal enemy (Egypt had invaded Mesopotamia several years previously, in 610-609 B.C.), and so the primary condition that they imposed upon Judah was that they must not seek any sort of alliance with Egypt.


Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they did around 600 B.C.  (with Egyptian encouragement).   Consequently, Jeremiah preached against this rebellion and prophesized its failure.  The revolt collapsed in 597 B.C.  But the Babylonians only slapped their wrists (took a few goodies out of the temple, named a new king, Zedeqiah who swore an oath of allegiance to Babylon, and relocated a few thousand upper echelon people to Mesopotamia, including the former king Yahu Yakin (son and successor to Yahu Yaqim), while leaving the entire city of Jerusalem, including its temple, and its defensive walls, intact) and so Judah revolted again in 590 B.C. (Again with Egyptian influence and meddling).  Jeremiah continued to prophesy against this second rebellion.


Throughout his career of counseling against war with Babylon, Jeremiah not only predicted that the Babylonians would win (just as Josephus was to predict six centuries later that the Romans would win), but he also preached that Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant and that Yahwah would use him to punish a wayward nation (just as Josephus was to state six centuries later that God was on the side of Rome).


While Jeremiah was not a military leader and therefore not in a position to “defect” as Josephus was to do, he did appear to have a lot of contact with the Babylonians.  During the war the city of Mizpah and the other Benjaminite areas north of Jerusalem were thought to have been hotbeds of pro-Babylonian sentiment and Jeremiah had contacts there and visited there at various times while the war was going on.   Archaeological evidence reveals that Mizpah and several other Benjaminite towns were left untouched by the destruction that the Babylonians eventually leveled upon Jerusalem, Lachish, and other rebellious cities (Miller, J. Maxwell and John H. Hayes, A HISTORY OF ANCIENT ISRAEL AND JUDAH, p. 479).  And this indicates that these above (Benjaminite) areas did not take part in the revolt, and may well have been pro-Babylonian.  There may even have been an “alternate” government of some sort functioning in Mizpah, which had been the major Israelite cult center during the pre-dynastic era (late 2nd millennium B.C.) (Miller and Hayes, p. 484). 


Jeremiah may have also visited Babylon—just as Josephus was to visit Rome six centuries later.  The parable about Jeremiah burying his loincloth on the banks of the Euphrates is probably a reflection of a visit to Babylonia (Jer. 13:1-5).  The purpose of the visit may have been just to warn the Jewish refugees living there (those that Nebuchadnezzar had taken away from Jerusalem at the conclusion of the first Jewish revolt in 597 B.C.) to not listen to the false prophets who were prophesying an early collapse of Babylon and a return of the exiles.  In other words, “don’t get any false hopes up, but instead make the best of your situation in Babylonia.”  But of course, Jeremiah’s presence in Babylonia, whether to bury his loincloth or speak with the exiles, would have provided him with an opportunity to speak with the Babylonian leadership.


At any rate, like Josephus six centuries later, Jeremiah was to be on hand to witness the fall of the city and its total destruction by the besieging forces.  However, instead of being with the Babylonian forces at the end, as Josephus was with the Roman forces, Jeremiah re-entered the city of Jerusalem in a last fateful effort to try to convince them to surrender and seek the best deal they could from the Babylonians, because if they forced the Babylonians to continue to pursue the siege, the Babylonians would destroy the entire city, including the temple.  Consequently Jeremiah was accused of treason again, and imprisoned once more by the Jerusalem authorities. 


When it was all over, Jeremiah, like Josephus six centuries later, was treated rather well by the victors.  “Now Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, gave charge concerning Jeremiah to Nabu Zaradan, the captain of the king’s personal bodyguard saying:  Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm; but do with him as he shall instruct thee.  So, Nabu Zaradan, the captain of the king’s personal bodyguard and the generals Nergal Shar User and Nabu Shasban, they took Jeremiah out of the court of the prison, and committed him unto Gedaliah that he should carry him home (Jer. 39:11-15).   And the captain of the (Babylonian) guard took Jeremiah, and said unto him, the Lord thy God hath pronounced this evil upon this place, because your people have sinned and have not obeyed his voice.  And, now, behold, I loose thee this day from the chains upon your hands.  If it seem good to thee, come with me into Babylon.  Come, and I will look well unto thee.  But if you had rather not, then behold, all the land is before thee.  Whither it seemeth good and convenient for thee to go, thither go.  (If you choose) go back to Gedaliah (Gedal Yahu) whom the king of Babylon hath made governor over the cities of Judah, and dwell with him among the people, or go wheresoever it seemeth convenient unto thee to go.   So the captain of the guard gave him victuals AND A REWARD and let him go (Jer. 40:2-5).   


The paying of the “reward” by the Babylonians has led many to continue to believe that Jeremiah had been under the pay of the Babylonians all along, and therefore really was a traitor.  However, a onetime payment, if that is what it was, does not constitute “being under the pay of the Babylonians” since the Babylonians also paid out “seed money” to those they carted off to Babylon as well.  A treasure trove of thousands of clay tablets have been found in the rubble of the royal library in the northeast corner of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon, and these tablets list the names of virtually all of the Jews relocated from Judah to Babylonia, the plots of land they were granted, and the amount of “seed money,” or “starter money” that they were paid.  So, in that context Jeremiah’s receipt of a “reward” from the Babylonian leadership can be seen as S.O.P. for the Babylonians. 


Yes, the Babylonians did loot the city of Jerusalem and did cart away all of the remaining treasures in the temple.  Looting was common practice in the Ancient World because that is largely how governments and armies financed their wars.  The Babylonians, however, appear to have been unique in that they returned a portion of that wealth back to their victims in order to help them start a new life in their new locations so that they could become productive tax paying citizens once again.  Interestingly, in the case of Judah, the Babylonians went one step further and implemented an almost Marxist “wealth redistribution” plan.  The properties of the 30,000 upper echelon Jews that they relocated to Babylon were seized and then turned over to the remaining peasantry in the country.  Thus, when Jeremiah’s “reward” from the Babylonians is looked at from that angle, and if it truly was a one-time payment, there is no grounds for assuming that he was “under the pay of the Babylonians” for the purpose of undermining Judah’s will to fight.  


All of that being said, however, there is an intriguing hint in the text of the book of Jeremiah which just might indicate that Jeremiah received more than just that “one time” payment by the Babylonians at the end of the war.  Jeremiah 32:9 says that Jeremiah paid his cousin 17 shekels for a plot of land in Anathoth, a region in the Benjaminite territories.  (And this was long before the end of the war).   Most commentators look upon this as nothing more than a shrewd business deal.  With warfare ravaging the country, there were undoubtedly lots of people trying to unload their land at any price (indeed, thousands of Jews fled to Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and other regions during this time in order to escape the war).  So, Jeremiah certainly got a good price for the land—much like buying a house in Las Vegas during the 2009-2012 housing collapse.  Jeremiah was also trying to show through his purchase of land, that peace would one day come to the land, and that life would go on under the inevitable Babylonian hegemony and people would once again turn to growing things on their lands.


However, his purchase of the land also raises the question as to where did the 17 skekels come from that he used to pay for the land?  Maybe he came from a wealthy family and just happened to have that money to burn.  While his father and uncle appear to have at one time belonged to the nobility, nowhere in the Bible is there any indication that Jeremiah had any sort of occupation.  In fact, he appears to have belonged to some sort of cult that required its members to withdraw from the world much like the Essenes of the two centuries prior to Josephus’s time.  So, again, where did those 17 shekels come from?


Another little footnote that I’d like to add here just for kicks before getting back to, and summing up, the main topic is that even after the Babylonians tore down all of the defensive walls of Jerusalem block by block, and tore down the temple brick by brick, and completely destroyed the city and took the 30,000 upper echelon people away to Babylon, the Jews managed to mount a third rebellion.  A disgruntled military leader by the name of Yishma’ El, who had feigned his support for the Babylonian appointed governor Gedaliah and had even sworn an oath to Gedaliah, assassinated Gedaliah and the entire Babylonian garrison with the help of co-conspirators once the Babylonians had removed the major portion of their army.  

Thus, the three rebellions of the Jews against the Romans in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries A.D. (Josephus’s time) were playing harmony to the three rebellions by the Jews against the Babylonians during Jeremiah’s time.  And the circle was complete.


All of that being said, however, and regardless of whether or not Jeremiah was actually “under the pay of the Babylonians,” it is obvious from the reading of the book of Jeremiah that his primary concern in his anti-war demonstrations and preachings was to preserve the nationhood of Judah and to prevent the possible destruction of the temple and much of Judah’s cultural heritage, writings, and treasures.  This also seems to have been the primary motive of Josephus six centuries later. 


Where they differed was that Jeremiah coupled his pro-Babylonian, anti-war rhetoric, with the condemnation of decadence and immorality that he perceived in the Judean society of his age.  He coupled the breaking of Judah’s oath of covenant with Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon with Judah’s breaking of its covenant with Yahweh.  Josephus, on the other hand, did not get into the theology and religious dogma, as far as we know, as a reason for the destruction of Jerusalem.  Also, Jeremiah preached that after the cleansing and the exile (the destruction by Babylon and the Babylonian “captivity”) there would some day be a return of the exiles and a rebuilding of Jewish nationhood.  Josephus never promised such. 


Josephus was not mentioned at all in the either the Talmud or the Midrashim indicating that subsequent Jewish scholars were unable to forgive him and still considered him to be a traitor.  Jeremiah on the other hand, though he was called a traitor by many during the time of his preaching, was eventually forgiven by subsequent Jewish scholars as is indicated by his book being a part of the official Hebrew Old Testament, or Tanakh.



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