Bible Story: Ethiopian Rescues Prophet from Ugly Death
Based on Jeremiah 38:1–13
Retold by Paul Katula

The BASIC STORY

Four princes — Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malchiah — were sent out by the king to report back on what the great prophet Jeremiah was telling people in the army and on the streets.

So they went out and listened to Jeremiah for a little while. At the time, King Zedekiah and his armies were fighting a war against Babylon. The situation was not too good for Jeremiah's home people, and that is basically what he was saying.

"I'm telling you," the prophet cried among the troops and generally in the streets. "The Lord has said that anyone who stays and fights against Babylon will surely die in battle, so you might as well just turn yourselves over to the Babylonian king and beg for mercy to spare your lives."

Not Making the Home Crowd Happy
King Zedekiah's princes returned with news of what Jeremiah was saying. "He's telling everyone to give up the fight and just surrender," they reported, making the king very unhappy with Jeremiah, who was trying to deliver the Lord's message to his people.

Of course, the Babylonian armies had already cut off water and food supplies to the city, hoping they could force a surrender without actually killing anyone. But they were ready to do whatever it might take to secure a victory.

"Jeremiah is causing everyone in our army to get depressed and want to surrender," the princes told King Zedekiah. "This so-called prophet isn't doing it to bring us a victory, but he's helping the Babylonians defeat us. We have to shut him up before our whole army deserts us."

King Zedekiah told his princes that he had no control over what they might do to Jeremiah. Therefore, they decided to take action themselves: they threw Jeremiah into a cistern, which was like a well or a big hole in the ground. In this particular cistern, one owned by the king's son Malchiah, there was no water because the Babylonians had cut off the supply, and Jeremiah sank deep into the mud.

No Water and No Way Out
Jeremiah knew he would die within a few days, because there was no water in the cistern for him to drink and no way out of the hole.

But a servant of the king, Ebed-melech, who was known as an Ethiopian, heard about Jeremiah's certain death. On a map, Ethiopia was not where it is today, although it was in Africa. It was, at the time of Jeremiah, a lot closer to the Middle East, in Northern Africa. Still Africans were seen as foreigners in the Hebrew world: their skin was much darker than the Hebrews, and they were often forced into being slaves.

Anyway, Ebed-melech rushed to the king to tell him what his princes had done to Jeremiah. The king was sitting at the Benjamin Gate, where he probably was conducting the normal, day-to-day business of being a king: settling legal disputes that arose between people in his city, and so on. Ebed-melech's news was very disturbing to King Zedekiah.

"That's not what I meant for them to do when I handed him over to them," the king said. "I just wanted to improve morale in the city and within my army. I didn't want him to die in a mud hole."

"I didn't think so," Ebed-melech said.

"Take a few men with you and get him out of there," the king said to Ebed-melech, who gathered a few men and developed a strategy to rescue Jeremiah. They thought they could lower some ropes down into the cistern and pull Jeremiah back up, so they got some ropes.

Rescue!
Before Ebed-melech went out to the cistern, he collected a few old clothes and torn rags from the king's closet. Lowering the rope to Jeremiah, he said, "Here, take these rags and old clothes and put them between the rope and your armpits when we pull you up."

These old rags were important, because without them, the ropes would have cut Jeremiah's skin. Jeremiah was rescued and came out of the cistern in good shape, thanks to Ebed-melech's rescue plan.

Later, King Zedekiah consulted Jeremiah again, this time with very different results.

The MORAL of the STORY

Ebed-melech was a foreigner and people in Jeremiah's home town were prejudiced against "outsiders" like Ethiopians. But did you ever notice an instance where outsiders seemed to care more about something than people who actually lived in the town their whole lives? Here, a foreigner who was hated cared more about this prophet of the Lord than did Jeremiah's own people. As shameful as it may be, it's how the world works sometimes.

Can you recall a time when you might have tried to help people in other cities or at other schools, and there were already big problems in your own city or at your own school? How do you feel when someone from another team tries to give you advice on how to play a better game? That type of thing is also part of the lesson we learn from this story in the Bible. The princes of Jeremiah's home town leave him for dead in a muddy well, but the foreigner, who isn't even supposed to like the people of this city, pleads for his life with the king and then not only rescues him, but takes some rags along so that Jeremiah will not be uncomfortable during the rescue.

What are examples of "old clothes and torn rags" in the stories in your life? Do you not just go to help people in a bad situation but also provide them with comfort as you are helping them? Dentists, for example, provide you with a shot of novacaine as they rescue you from decay in your teeth with a drill. They know the drill will be painful, so they provide you with some "old clothes and torn rags" so that it won't hurt while they are making you better with their drill. Of course, dentists aren't really "foreigners" who aren't supposed to like you.

But can you think of other instances where comfort is provided by rescuers who aren't supposed to care about the people they're rescuing? If so, you can learn a lot from Ebed-melech and his rescue of the prophet Jeremiah.