Servant of the king
Ebedmelech, a Judahite official whom the Bible identifies as a Cushite,1 makes a brief but command appearance in the Book of Jeremiah during the horrifying Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, c. 588–586 B.C.E. (Jeremiah 38:7–13). Showing honor in chaos, his level-headed actions save Jeremiah’s life. In the life-and-death drama of Jerusalem’s fall, Ebedmelech interacts not only with Jeremiah but also with the city’s nobles and Zedekiah, the last king of Judah (c. 597–586 B.C.E.).
Jeremiah’s unpopular prophetic words provide the drama’s conflict. He delivers what seems a paradoxical—even treasonous!—message to Jerusalem’s inhabitants: Surrender to the Babylonians and live or face death by sword, famine, and pestilence (Jeremiah 38:2–3, 17–18). He delivers versions of it consistently. He prophesies Jerusalem’s fall, but the way it falls is the people’s choice (Clements 1988, 222). Ultimately, the king, nobles, and city dwellers choose not to surrender. The breaching of Jerusalem’s walls, slaughter, and the burning of the king’s house and the people’s houses follow (Jeremiah 39:8).
The Main Characters
Jeremiah, of course, dominates the book bearing his name. The Lord commissioned Jeremiah while a reluctant, questioning youth and appointed him “a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4–10). Decades later, he seems weary, alone, sad, and afraid, yet he faithfully relays whatever he hears from the Lord. He resides in a city facing judgment and among a people “skilled in doing evil” (Jeremiah 4:22 [NIV]). His neighbors perceive him as a traitor (Brueggemann 2003, 184). He’s in and out of prison and often under guard. Prevailing public sentiment agrees that God will protect his city, temple, and people. After all, had he not done so more than a century earlier when Hezekiah and Jerusalem faced the Assyrians (Isaiah 38:4–6)? Some expect a similar divine intervention against the Babylonians (also known as the Chaldeans). Others look to Egypt (see Jeremiah 37:5).
Other than identifying him as a Cushite, the text remains silent about Ebedmelch’s background. How did he come to Jerusalem? Was he a mercenary, advisor, servant, or perhaps a proselyte, a believer in Israel’s God, as his name, “servant of the king,” suggests? This silence follows the biblical practice of giving only enough information to advance a book’s themes. Ebedmelech’s words and actions show his character; they advance the dominant themes of God’s upcoming judgement on Judah and the nations, and the need for repentance. The Bible indicates Ebedmelech is some sort of court official of King Zedekiah, one enjoying access to power and well known throughout the city.2 He has the king’s ear, eye, and trust.
Zedekiah’s words and actions portray him unfavorably. Bullied by Jerusalem’s nobles, he easily acquiesces to their demands (Jeremiah 38:5). Depicted as vacillating, he summons the prophet frequently. He hopes to hear that God has changed his mind. However, Jeremiah routinely relates the two prophetic words of choice—surrender to the Babylonians and live or do not surrender and the people will die by sword, famine, and pestilence.
Jeremiah’s prophetic words carry a time limit. While Zedekiah dilly-dallies, Jerusalem’s rationed bread runs out. Lamentations 4:10 recalls in poetic brush strokes the horrific conditions that ensued: “The hands of compassionate women…boiled their own children; they have become their food.” Evidently cannibalism likewise prevailed earlier during the time of the Aramaean king Ben-Hadad’s siege of Samaria (2 Kings 6:24–31).
A fence-sitter, Zedekiah’s choice to delay means he chooses the latter prophetic word—and it happens. When the city falls, Zedekiah acts the coward. With soldiers and sons, he sneaks out at night through the garden gate between Jerusalem’s double walls. The Babylonians soon capture the escapees on “the plains of Jericho” (Jeremiah 39:4–5).
Zedekiah ends pitiably. Taken to Riblah (a town in Syria), he faces Nebuchadrezzar (also called Nebuchadnezzar), the Babylonian king. The Bible recounts the verdict but not the trial. Zedekiah watches the slaughter of his sons; then his eyes are gouged out. Bound in fetters, he is taken to Babylon (Jeremiah 39:5–7).
Four named nobles—Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jucal, and Pashhur—approach the king. Belittling Jeremiah as “this man” and thereby refusing to recognize him as a prophet (italics added), they charge that Jeremiah discourages the soldiers by his words. Furthermore, he does not seek the people’s welfare. They demand his death (Jeremiah 38:1, 4).
Zedekiah “caves,” to use a modern expression and, without disagreement, hands Jeremiah to them, whining in the third person that “the king is powerless against you” (v. 5). The four quickly take Jeremiah to a bowr, a Hebrew word alternately translated as “dungeon” or “cistern.” The translations do agree, however, that it bottoms in a mire. The cistern provides the setting for a slow death by starvation, exhaustion, and suffocation.
When Ebedmelech hears that the nobles have put Jeremiah in a cistern (Jeremiah 38:7), he approaches Zedekiah in public at the Benjamin Gate, perhaps during a routine king-subjects meeting. Ebedmelech declares the nobles have “acted wickedly” against the prophet! The Hebrew word ra’ that he uses denotes moral failure, harm, spoilage, and evil. His denunciation shows courage. By honoring and standing up for the prophet, he puts his life on the line. Ebedmelech predicts that “the prophet Jeremiah” will die there from hunger “for there is no bread left in the city” (Jeremiah 38:7–9) (italics added).
Ebedmelech’s declaration carries this silent question, “Do you want the death of this prophet attributed to your reign?” The king understands. He commands Ebedmelech to take men and get Jeremiah out of the cistern. Translations vary between three and thirty men.
Ebedmelech obeys but pauses at the house of the king. He goes to a room containing rags and worn-out clothes. Arriving at the cistern, he lowers the cloths by ropes and instructs Jeremiah to put them under his armpits. The cloths buffer the prophet’s body. This action shows Ebedmelech’s forethought and compassion. No doubt the three men and Ebedmelech separate, each side pulling in unison. Jeremiah surfaces. The text says Jeremiah “remained in the court of the guard” (Jeremiah 38:11–13).
Seeking a different word from the Lord, Zedekiah soon calls Jeremiah for a private meeting. Jeremiah wisely first bargains for assurance of his life; Zedekiah gives it. The prophetic word comes, updating earlier words and then elaborating on the upcoming ridicule of women against Zedekiah and the future of his children and wives (Jeremiah 38:14–23). Despite Jeremiah’s pleadings, Zedekiah refuses to surrender to the Babylonians. His reason? He fears abuse from the Judeans who have gone over to the Babylonians (v. 19).
Soon the city falls. Few details emerge, perhaps because the original readers knew firsthand the horror of slaughter, pillage, rape, and slavery. The 18-month siege ends with the city’s almost complete destruction (Jeremiah 39:1–3, 8). King Nebuchadrezzar commands his captain of the guard, Nebuzaradan, to look after Jeremiah and to do him no harm (Jeremiah 39:11–12).
The Book of Jeremiah mentions Ebedmelech once more (Jeremiah 39:15–18). In what must have come unexpectedly, he receives a prophetic word of comfort, one similar to that given to Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe (Jeremiah 45). Speaking in the name of “the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel,” Jeremiah assures Ebedmelech that he “shall not be handed over” to those whom he fears. Neither will he “fall by the sword.” God twice assures Ebedmelech that “I will save you.” The prophetic word also commends him. The Lord says through the prophet Jeremiah that Ebedmelech shall have his life “as a prize of war, because you have trusted in me” (v. 18).
Ebedmelech’s cameo appearance in the Book of Jeremiah truly reveals a man more courageous, more honorable, and more kingly than the king.
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
R.E. Clements, Jeremiah: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).
1. For Cushites in the Bible, see Kevin Burrell, “Biblical Profile: Representing Cush in the Hebrew Bible,” BAR, Winter 2020.
2. For insights that the word official may also be translated eunuch, see J. Andrew Dearman, Jeremiah and Lamentations: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, 341n).
i. Unless otherwise indicated, the translation used for this article is the NRSV, the New Revised Standard Version.
Robin Gallaher Branch serves as an adjunct professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, and in a research capacity at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, where she did her Fulbright Fellowship in 2002–2003. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of numerous academic articles and two books, Six Biblical Plays for Contemporary Audiences (Cascade 2016) and Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Wipf & Stock 2018).
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