Jeremiah 41-43…The discipline of Judah.
Egypt holds an interesting place in the Old Testament as both Israel’s greatest adversary and one to whom the old covenant community frequently turned for help. On the one hand, Egypt enslaved Jacob’s children for hundreds of years (Gen. 15:12–16; Ex. 12:40–42). However, once the Israelites were liberated, they grumbled about life in the wilderness, and longed for the melons and other treats they had eaten in Egypt (Num. 11:1–6). During the divided monarchy, prophets often had to warn the people not to trust in alliances with Egypt against foes such as Assyria and Babylon (Isa. 30:1–7). Try as it might, the old covenant community could not see why it should not ally itself with a world power such as Egypt.
Jeremiah 42 illustrates that God’s discipline of Judah via Babylon did little to get the ancient Judahites to reconsider that perspective. Having seen Jerusalem fall in fulfillment of the Lord’s revelation through Jeremiah and the other prophets (Isa. 39; Jer. 38–39; Hab. 1:5–11), one might think that the Judahites would have known that the prophetic warnings about trusting Egypt should be followed. In other words, one would expect that the few people left in the land after Babylon took the majority of citizens into exile would avoid the Egyptians “like the plague.” That, however, is not what happened.
Ishmael the son of Netaniah, a relative of King Zedekiah who had escaped Babylonian captivity, had recently murdered Gedaliah, the governor Babylon appointed to rule the few Judahites left in the land who were trying to eke out an existence (Jer. 40:13–41:10). Johanan the son of Kareah, a leader of the Judahite insurgents who had also escaped Babylon, forced Ishmael to flee (41:11–18), leaving the insurgents with the decision as to what they should do after Gedaliah was dead. Nebuchadnezzar was sure to have heard of Ishmael’s actions and would seek to restore order to the newest portion of his empire. So, Johanan and his crew set out for Egypt to escape the chaos that would ensue (v. 17), but not before consulting with Jeremiah as to whether that course of action was wise (42:1–6).
God promised safety if the people were to stay in Judah but certain destruction otherwise (vv. 7–20). Regrettably, their minds were made up, and in trying to escape famine and the sword in Judah, they would find it in the pharaoh’s land (vv. 21–22). Despite having seen the Word of the Lord come true with their own eyes in Jerusalem’s fall, the people still did not trust Him. This lack of trust did not bode well for the nation’s immediate restoration.