(Paraphrase: R' Yehoshua b. Korha said that an old Jerusalemite told him that Nevuzaradan, the Babylonian general, killed 940,000 persons, so that their blood streamed and merged with that of Zecharia. [The murder of Zecharia the prophet is not in the Tanach; it's asserted in midrash, e.g., Sanh. 96b (one of the sources for the text here), Eicha R. petihta 5, and it may be based on Ezek. 24:7-8.] Nevuzaradan found Zecharia's blood still bubbling, and asked what it was. The priests, apparently trying to conceal the murder, claimed that it was blood from a sacrifice. Nevuzaradan was dubious, called for another sacrifice, compared its blood with the suspicious blood, and concluded that the latter was human blood. He forced the priests to confess by threatening them with torture (raking their flesh, not waterboarding), and they admitted that it was a prophet who had rebuked the city, and that they had murdered him several years before, but that his blood kept bubbling. Nevuzaradan pledged to avenge the murder; he killed the great Sanhedrin and a small (23-judge) sanhedrin, then young priests, and then young men and women, and finally young schoolchildren, but nothing stopped the bubbling of the blood. Finally, Nevuzaradan rebuked Zecharia -- "I have killed the best of them, do you want me to kill them all?" -- and the bubbling stopped. At which point, Nevuzaradan thought, "If this occurs when they killed only one person, I've killed all of these people, which is all the more serious," and he fled and converted to Judaism.)
The multiple ambivalences of this midrash are intriguing:
The particularly heinous crime of murdering a prophet is denounced not by any Israelite, but by the enemy general.
Vengeance is sought not by identifying and killing the particular individuals who committed the murder, but against the entire people, through its choicest persons -- the sages (the great and small sanhedriot), who are the intellectual elite; the priests, who are the elite caste; the youngest adult generation, who are, perhaps, the freshest individuals who have an individual identity (i.e., assuming children were not perceived as having such an identity); and the children, who are the innocent, and/or the future.
The scale of the vengeance so outweighs the original crime that even Nevuzaradan perceives the disparity. He has killed many, and threatens to kill all the rest. He turns the responsibility onto Zecharia himself -- how much damage will Zecharia demand to be appeased?
Finally, the enemy general and killer of hundreds of thousands winds up converting.
These ambivalences parallel ambivalences in other stories of the destruction. The people commit much evil and deserve destruction, but God holds off. God decides on destruction but the Patriarchs, Moshe, and Rahel intervene. The enemy enter the Temple and try to destroy it, but God's angels destroy it preemptively. The enemy brags about the destruction, but God says that the city was already condemned, so the enemy destroys a city that was, in a sense, already destroyed. God cries.
[I would like to dedicate this dvar torah to the memory of mori v'rabi, my teacher and guru, R' Arnold Jacob Wolf, who died this past Tuesday. Yehi zichro baruch.]