Lessons from the Pit

By Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
Professor of History
Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
New York University
August 2012

The ground just south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem seems to have never been busier, archeologically speaking. In the past 20 years, and particularly in the recent decade, archeological excavations in the area of Temple Mount are in full swing. At this phase, not only secular archeologists are involved but also decidedly religious organizations or movements such as the Islamic Waqf, digging in the mountain itself, and the Jewish settler-based organization “Ir David” (City of David) that focuses on the Kidron Valley and the Palestinian village of Silwan. As always, ever since Edward Robinson (1794-1863) led the first archeological expedition to Jerusalem in 1838, biblical past plays a decisive role in the digging. As always, ever since the British royal engineer Sir Charles Warren (1840-1927) began excavating the area in the 1870s, diggings are controversial and politically fraught, oftentimes instigating or steering violence. The City of David is back, and it wants to teach us something.

The problematic nature of recent archeological activity is nevertheless exciting sometimes. It does produce new findings and new, or “revived” archeological discoveries about the first or second temple period. Quite naturally, discoveries from the first temple period are far more exciting—after all this was the time when an anointed king from the House of David ruled the city. These discoveries, unashamedly used in the battle over East Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians, are almost always the subject of serious debates and disputes among professional archeologists. But nevertheless they are marketed in the media and by “Ir David” as clear undisputed evidence that biblical story about Jerusalem is the correct one also historically.

I do not wish to enter such debates, nor am equipped with the expertise to do so. The discovery I wish discuss here seems to be undisputed: it is a pit, a dungeon that truly makes one understand the meaning of the biblical term “prison pit” (bor Keleh, where Joseph did some time, twice). The pit, round and dark, several meters deep, its walls covered with silt, is connected to the surface by a narrow pathway through which the prisoner is thrown. The press in Israel reported the discovery specifically on the eve of the Ninth Day of Av, the day Jews mourn the destruction of both temples, the first by the Babylonians, in 586 BCE, and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.

The date is of course not incidental at all. We read about a pit just like this, perhaps this very pit, in Jeremiah precisely at the time just before the Babylonians destroyed the first temple. Jeremiah, the prophet that warned against, and later witnessed and lamented, the destruction of the temple was arrested and thrown into the pit: “So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud” (Jeremiah 38:6). Jeremiah, the first prophet who prophesied with an “embedded” scribe (Baruch son of Neriah), tells us exactly and in detail how and why he was thrown into the pit and his life put in so much danger. Lamentations, the book attributed to Jeremiah, alludes to his experience in the pit poetically (3:52-55): “They have chased me sore like a bird, that are mine enemies without cause; They have cut off my life in the dungeon, and have cast stones upon me; Waters flowed over my head; I said: ‘I am cut off; I called upon Thy name, O LORD, Out of the lowest dungeon; I called upon Thy name, O LORD, Out of the lowest dungeon.”

Jeremiah was thrown into the pit following relentless attempts to silence him. He was first put under “house arrest” in the house of an official, and then officially arrested in a “courtyard of the guard” (Hatsar Ha-Matara). When all of this did not work, he was thrown into the pit. It is clear that the authorities in Jerusalem were trying hard to silence the prophet for quite a while without any success till they had to throw him in the pit. We should also take into account an earlier attempt to silence him when king Jehoiakim burned his scrolls about 15 years before the events described here. Jeremiah was therefore speaking constantly against the authorities, and his voice was quite laud.

As usual, the prophet called to “listen to god” but in this context the most immediate concrete meaning of listening to god was doing the right thing politically and diplomatically. Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s time was self-destructing and he was trying desperately to reverse the course and pull it back from the path towards catastrophe. In less than three decades Judah had repeated colossal political setbacks in the international arena. The tragic pointless death of King Josiah in 609 BCE at Megiddo; the meaningless revolt and death of his son Jehoiakim in 601; and the occupation of Jerusalem by the Babylonian and the partial exile of King Jeconiah in 597 BCE. All of these setbacks resulted directly from misreading and miscalculating the political goings-on in the international arena. Judah under Josiah miscalculated Egypt’s interests and powers when the vanishing Assyrian empire was retreating from the region. So amazing was this miscalculation that Chronicles (35:21) even expresses the surprise of the Pharaoh, Necho II, himself. Having learned that Judah’s armies were standing in his way to help the Assyrians against the rising Babylonians in the Battle of Carchemish he asks: “What have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war; and God hath given command to speed me; forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that He destroy thee not.” Josiah did not listen and lost his life, his death put an end to the perhaps most ambitious theological-political project ever carried out by Israelites in the Land of Israel till present day. In 601, King Jehoyakim was tempted to join a revolt against the new powerful empire of the Babylonians thinking that Egypt might come to help. He was wrong and lost his life. The Babylonian sent a clear message about their intentions—they orchestrated the murder of Jehoyakim, and in 597 occupied Jerusalem and “carried away” back to Babylon the new king Jeconiah and the elite. The city itself was spared and the Babylonians appointed the elderly son of Josiah, prince Mattanyahu, uncle of the deposed Jeconiah, as King Zedekiah. Nothing perhaps symbolizes the weak position Judah was in more than the appointment of the weak king Mattanyahu. The Babylonians clearly wished to avoid another revolt. But it did not take long before Mattanyahu himself was tempted, seduced by a faction of war, to revolt again.

Jeremiah, who witnessed all the above detailed setbacks during his long career as a prophet, is the only one in Jerusalem who understands the meaning of this amazing miscalculation. He knows that this time the Babylonians will not have mercy and their punishment will be severe. He fails to persuade the king not to rebel against the Babylonians. The Babylonian laid a siege on Jerusalem and Jeremiah—in a desperate attempt to save as many lives as possible, called upon the people and soldiers of Jerusalem to surrender. When the siege was temporarily lifted, Mattanyahu approved the arrest and imprisonment of the prophet for treason (Jer. 37-38). Shortly thereafter the siege was renewed, Jerusalem destroyed, and the temple was lost. The Judahites went into exile.

Tragically, we have several clear signs in Jeremiah and in II Kings suggesting that Mattanyahu himself knew that the prophet was right and that revolt was going to be a big mistake. But still he kept moving towards destruction and let himself be led by the war faction. The entire episode in Jeremiah reads as if everyone knows what are the consequences of the revolt yet everyone keeps moving helplessly towards the attended catastrophe. The growing cries of the prophet only make the reading worse—how could no one listen to reason? How could no one stop the march towards catastrophe?!

This essay is written is some haste. In the past few weeks, and intensely in the past few days, it seems that Jerusalem is again on the way to catastrophe. It is tempting to find similarities between Jerusalem of 586 BCE under king Mattanyahu, and Jerusalem of 2012 under Prime Minister Nentayahu (recently declared “King” by Time magazine). But the situation is not entirely comparable. Back then, Judah revolted because of the false promise of deliverance. Now Israel plans an attack on Iran in order to avoid a “second holocaust”—the possibility of the opposite of deliverance. A faction of war led the king back then, and now the king himself is pushing ahead pulling everyone behind him. Jerusalem is not under siege as it was back then, but it is the king now who promises that it will be besieged once Iran has the bomb. Back then it was only Jeremiah who spoke against the revolt, today we can see numerous voices—retired generals and intelligence chiefs (speaking apparently on behalf of acting officials as well), intellectuals, and scientists speaking against the war and its consequences. We should add into this the increasingly alarming voices from all over the world, particularly from the US administration, against attacking Iran. Only yesterday, US Military Chief declared clearly that Israel could delay but not destroy the Iranian program. There is an overwhelming majority speaking against going to war. The most generous analysis, by former Israeli Air Force chief Amos Yadlin says that an attack will delay the Iranian program in five years at the most. Arguments calling for more diplomacy or pointing to the possibility that the Iranian society wants peace and could, in time force the regime end the program are ridiculed. Astonishingly, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, the second head of the “faction of war,” admitted just last weekend that it is clear to him that an Israeli attack will not stop the Iranian program. Furthermore, both him and Netanyahu also acknowledge that there will be severe consequences to the bombing of Iran. They only argue that these consequences are better than the “second holocaust” they promise us. “They are messianic!” declared in June former Intelligence Chief Yuval Diskin referring to Barak and Netanyahu’s plans about Iran.

This latter point is where the stories of 586 and 2012 become analogous. Back in 586 BCE the false promise of deliverance was so strong that it kept dragging everyone towards catastrophe even though people seem to have understood what they were doing. The promise of deliverance outweighed the very real possibility of catastrophe. Jerusalem moved ahead despite repeated warnings that it would be a mistake to do so. Today the false possibility (or promise) of a second holocaust outweighs the very real probability of catastrophe. Just like in Jeremiah’s case the voices against going to war are heard, but ignored. 2012 is not 586 BCE, but one cannot help sensing that same nagging feeling: everyone seems to understand what are the attended consequences of a bold move on the part of Jerusalem, no one can stop it. Israel, it looks like, is about to miscalculate again.

In this regard, it is tragically ironic that the Israeli media publicize the discovery of Jeremiah’s pit. Discoveries from the first temple period are often lauded in Israel both as reinforcement of “our claim on the land,” and as sign that the time to restore the days of “David’s Kingdom” has come. This is particularly true since messianic factions such as the settlers of “Ir David” became increasingly involved in archeological activity in Jerusalem. The discovery of Jeremiah’s pit was lauded in the same way. But it is paradoxically the one discovery that should steer us away from the messianic path to catastrophe. Herein is the irony, everyone know what this pit means, and what was Jeremiah doing in the pit, but no one seems to draw that particular lesson for our times.

Comments (2)

I'm of the faction reluctant to discuss the modern amid the ancient. Maybe it would be interesting to know why, by what logic, ancient history or ancient artifacts support or indeed debunk modern political claims. But amen, brother, let there be no war.

#1 - Martin - 08/16/2012 - 16:48

Are Mattanyahu and Netanyahu the same names or of the same origen? Are Mattanyahu, son of King Josiah and Benjamin Netanyahu related? Is the name BenNetanyahu or Ben Netanyahu--For Benjamin Netanyahu?

#2 - Judith R. Brown - 10/31/2013 - 12:23

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