1-2 Kings: Closing Thoughts

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1 & 2 Kings covers the history of Israel (and, later, Judah and Israel) from David’s death until the destruction of his dynasty. In that time, we see the waxing and waning of the Hebrew nations over the years, as well as many tantalizing hints about the politics of the region. From our little vantage point, we get to see Syria rise, then be replaced by Assyria, and then the rise of Babylon. We see Egypt’s ebb and flow over the region, and the clash of superpowers over the Hebrews’ head. We see periods of peace and prosperity, and we see periods of great upheaval.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba, by Edward Poynter, 1890

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba, by Edward Poynter, 1890

In reflecting on my reading, it seems a statistical miracle these are the records we have, and that this is the people that survived. Especially given how radically the conception of God had to change over a relatively short period of time in order to survive (which shows through even when the authorial theology is relatively consistent).

There’s a love of narrative conflict in 1-2 Kings. We see a tension between the folk story style that we mostly saw in Genesis and Judges, and an attempt to present an authoritative history. Sometimes the two strains are blended nicely, but sometimes (1 Kings 13 jumps to mind), the mix is very awkward and requires rather more of a suspension of disbelief than even I am capable of.

And then there is the odd intrusion of Elijah and Elisha, who dominate about ten chapters in what is otherwise very much a book of kings.

We also see a good deal of conflict between what the authors believed about their subjects and what the stories actually show. It’s clear that the Deuteronomists knew David as a great king, the proud founder of a long dynasty, and Solomon as Solomon the Wise. And yet in the stories of these two kings, a very different picture emerges. Just in the taste we get of David in 1 Kings, we see a petty, weak old man using his deathbed speech to settle ancient scores (he asks Solomon to kill both Joab and Shimei – Joab who had been too powerful to kill, and Shimei for a personal insult that David had promised not to avenge). And Solomon’s wisdom? The story of the two prostitutes and the baby is completely ridiculous, and his patronage of many cults is clearly at odds with the Deuteronomists’ religious purity campaign.

This conflict between the information the authors had available and the ideology that required historical cooperation is seen in several places, particularly in the mixed up chronologies it causes. There are events that happy after (sometimes centuries after) the folk traditions that they seem to have generated. The easiest example of this is Jeroboam’s calves, which are built generations after the placement of the morality story that condemns them.

I really enjoyed the historical aspect of 1-2 Kings, particularly in later chapters where I got more opportunities to look at extra-biblical sources. I realize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I rather enjoyed the lists of kings, and the hints they provided about what might have been going on at the time.

Unfortunately, the names were a real problem for me. So many of the names were similar to each other, and I had at least one occasion (that I was able to catch) where I completely messed up familial relationships because of this.

But now we’re done! And with this, we have completed 31% of the Old Testament’s books, and 43% of its pages. If I continue at a pace of two chapters per week, I should be finished in just over 5.5 years. Of course, I’ll have to extend that time a little because I had some personal issues that ate through my post buffer. To help me catch up, I will be taking the rest of June and all of July off, resuming with my normal posts on August 3.

2 Kings 25: The Fall of the House of David

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I mentioned in the last chapter that the Chaldeans were the tribal group that had taken control of Babylon, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire – the empire that Judah is currently dancing with – was ruled by a Chaldean dynasty.

While at the time, I was making the argument that the mention of “Chaldeans” was meant to indicate a group separate from those directly under Babylonian control (in other words, not the state army). Here, however, “Chaldeans” is apparently used interchangeably with “Babylonians.” I will still be trying to use whichever term the text uses in that instance, just in case, but I’m not perceiving that a distinction is being made.

Zedekiah’s Rebellion

At the very end of the last chapter, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon. It’s unclear why he would have done this, particularly since he had been installed by Babylon in the first place, but the results were disastrous.

From this point onwards, the dates are given with absolute precision. No longer are we learning only the year of an event, but also the month and even the day.

So in the 10th day of the 10th month of the 9th year of Zedekiah’s reign, Babylon retaliated, besieging Jerusalem. The siege lasts about a year and a half before the famine in Jerusalem became unbearable.

In what appears to be a desperate bid to save himself, Zedekiah breaches his own wall and, with a bunch of soldiers, makes a run for it at night, heading for the Arabah. The venture fails, however, and the Chaldeans soon overtake the fleeing Hebrews. They manage to capture Zedekiah and bring him before Nebuchadnezzar.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850

As punishment, they make Zedekiah watch as they kill his sons, then put out his eyes. The last thing he ever saw was the murder of his children.

He was then bound and taken to Babylon.

The city now fallen, Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the bodyguard, Nebuzaradan, burned the city to the ground – including Solomon’s temple. The Chaldean soldiers even tore down the city’s walls. All the people remaining, regardless of their allegiances, were taken off into exile (except, we are told, for the very poorest, who are left behind to tend the farms).

The fall of Jerusalem occurs, we are told, in the 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. Unless I’ve missed something, the math adds up, as Nebuchadnezzar had already ruled 8 years by the time he installed Zedekiah as king of Judah (2 Kings 24:12), and Zedekiah ruled 11 years (2 Kings 24:18).

Presumably before setting the fires, the Chaldeans raid the temple for its metals – particularly bronze, silver, and gold. Anything too large to be carried off whole was broken down. It’s difficult to imagine how much gold was left after Nebuchadnezzar did the same thing in 2 Kings 24:13, but it seems that they were able to find something.

After razing the city, Nebuzaradan took the chief priest (Seraiah), second priest (Zephaniah), the three keepers of the temple’s threshold, the military commander, the commander’s secretary, the give men of the king’s council, and 60 other unspecified men. Be brought them to Nebuchadnezzar, who had them killed.

Tim Bulkeley points out that the description of the razing of Jerusalem isn’t nearly as awful as some of the other sieges we’ve read about. On the whole, it seems that Babylon was almost kind in their treatment of the Judahites. And yet, at the same time, the horror of the destruction was a much greater blow to the Jewish psyche. After all, Jerusalem was the seat of God’s power, and what did it say about God to have it destroyed? That, of course, is what the Hebrew people in exile had to sort out.

The Unfortunate Gaffer

The Babylonians have another go at installing a local man to govern Judah – this time as governor rather than as king. They choose Gedaliah, the son of Josiah’s advisor Ahikam (2 Kings 22:12). Though not of the royal dynasty, he would clearly have been well positioned to know what needed to be known about the nation’s governance, and would have all the right connections.

Apparently quite soon after, a number of men present themselves to Gedaliah at Mizpah (apparently a temporary replacement capitol following the destruction of Jerusalem) to swear their allegiance. Among them were: Jehoanan son of Kareah, Seraiah son of Tanhumeth, Jazaniah son of ‘the Maacathite’, and Ishmael son of Nethaniah. This last was, apparently, a member of the previously-royal Judahite dynasty.

When the men swear their allegiance, Gedaliah delivers a short speech in which he urges them not to fear the Chaldean occupation. So long as they serve Babylon, he says, everything will be fine!

Unfortunately for me, all was not fine. Just a few months later, Ishmael gathered together ten men and murdered Gedaliah, along with both Jewish and Chaldean people with him. After that, they flew to Egypt in fear of the Chaldeans.

It’s hard to imagine what Ishmael was hoping to achieve. Was he trying to restore his dynasty? Become king himself? Or was it simply an act of defiance?

The book ends with Jehoiachin, who had been in exile 37 years when Evil-merodach (who has one of the best names in the Bible so far) became king of Babylon. He “graciously freed” Jehoiachin (2 Kings 25:27), and treated him extremely well and with high honour – even going so far as seating him higher than all of the other kings (presumably excluding himself) in Babylon.

My study Bible explains that there may be a very good reason for concluding the book in this way: “The writer may have used this information to end hi sbook with a note of modest hope, as though to say (in spite of 24.9): the Davidic dynasty has not been snuffed out.”

 

2 Kings 24: The Twilight of Jerusalem

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The region seems to be in turmoil, with Judah caught in the middle as Egypt and Babylon clash.

Jehoiakim, who had been installed by the Egyptian Pharaoh in 2 Kings 23:34, now apparently finds himself vulnerable as Egypt’s power wanes to Babylon’s waxing. As the text tells us, “And the king of Egypt did not come again out of his land, for the king of Babylon had taken all that belonged to the king of Egypt from the Brook of Egypt to the river Euphrates” (2 Kings 24:7). So Judah spends three years as a vassal to Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.

Nebuchadnezza II, from Firaxis's Civilization V

Nebuchadnezzar II, from Firaxis’s Civilization V

After three years, Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon, and was soon under attack by bands of Chaldeans, Syrians, Moabites, and Amonites. As usual, the text is light on explanation, but we might conclude that losing their vassal status, becoming a fairly small, weak state nation with no superpower protector, might have made Judah an easy target for roving bands.

The mention of the Chaldeans complicates this a bit. It was the Chaldean tribe that took control of Babylon during the Neo-Babylonian era, a dynasty of which Nebuchadnezzar was a member. From the context, it doesn’t seem that these Chaldeans were acting on Babylon’s request, however. The reference is likely to members of the geographic/ethnic group instead.

This, our narrator assures us, was “surely” (2 Kings 24:3) at God’s command for the crimes of Manasseh. He are reminded of 2 Kings 21:16, that Manasseh filled the streets of Jerusalem with the blood of the innocent.

The Short Siege

Things only get worse after Jehoiakim’s death. He was succeeded by his son, Jehoiakin (who, I am convinced, was named solely to confuse me). He was 18 years old when he became king, and reigned a mere three months. In that time, he apparently managed to convince our narrator that he was one of the bad kids.

Just as he was coming to power, Babylon besieged Jerusalem and Jehoiakin surrendered. He was then taken prisoner, along with the rest of the family (including his mother, Nehushta), much of Jerusalem’s wealth, and all it’s skilled labour – leaving behind only the poorest people. This, we are told, happened in the eighth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (2 Kings 24:12), which is the first time I can recall a dating anchored on a king outside of Judah or Israel.

Jehoiakin was replaced as king, but his career was far from over. In Lawrence Mykytiuk’s 50 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaeologically, we learn that Jehoiakin is mentioned:

in four Babylonian administrative tablets regarding oil rations or deliveries, during his exile in Babylonia (Raging Torrent, p. 209; ANEHST, pp. 386–387). Discovered at Babylon, they are dated from the tenth to the thirty-fifth year of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylonia and conqueror of Jerusalem. One tablet calls Jehoiachin “king” (Text Babylon 28122, obverse, line 29; ANET, p. 308). A second, fragmentary text mentions him as king in an immediate context that refers to “[. . . so]ns of the king of Judah” and “Judahites” (Text Babylon 28178, obverse, col. 2, lines 38–40; ANET, p. 308). The third tablet calls him “the son of the king of Judah” and refers to “the five sons of the king of Judah” (Text Babylon 28186, reverse, col. 2, lines 17–18; ANET, p. 308). The fourth text, the most fragmentary of all, confirms “Judah” and part of Jehoiachin’s name, but contributes no data that is not found in the other texts.

This seems to indicate that Jehoiakin lived to be at least 45 years old, with more than half of his life in Babylonian captivity.

Back in Judah, Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiakin’s uncle, Mattaniah as king – renaming him Zedekiah. Zedekiah was 21 years old, and managed to keep his crown for 11 years. His mother was Hamutal, making him Jehoahaz’s full brother.

The chapter break is rather abrupt, occurring in mid-sentence in my RSV. We learn only that Zedekiah rebelled against the hand that crowned him.

2 Kings 23: To Little, Too Late

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This chapter mostly focuses on Josiah’s rather violent religious reforms. But first, he gathers all the people together at the temple to read out his new Book of Law, and to reconsecrate Judah under the covenant.

The reforms themselves are everything we’ve come to expect. Altars to other gods (and astral bodies) are destroyed, Asherah are burned, priests are murdered.

One thing that stands out is the length to which Josiah goes, not just to destroy non-approved shrines, but to totally desecrate them. He murders priests over their altars, burning their bones there in mock sacrifice. He cuts down the Asherim and fills the holes with human bones. He burns religious objects and spreads the ashes “upon the graves of the common people” (2 Kings 23:6).

Amidst all of that, there is a mention of priests that I believe refers to priests of YHWH serving at local shrines. These, Josiah seems to invite to serve in Jerusalem, but they refuse to come. Even so, however, they “ate unleavened bread among their brethren” (2 Kings 23:9). In trying to make sense of this, my New Bible Commentary suggests that we may interpret this to mean that “these priests were admitted to the sacred meal but were not allowed to sacrifice” (p.366). However, the impression I got was that it was the priests who refused Josiah’s reforms, rather than that they were barred from participating. It is, without a doubt, a difficult passage to make sense of.

A final act worth mentioning is Josiah’s destruction of Jeroboam’s shrine at Bethel, which has been causing so much hand-wringing through our narrative. Just to be an extra jerk about it, he digs up corpses from nearby tombs and burns them on Jeroboam’s altar to defile it.

As he’s looking for more bodies to defile altars, Josiah comes upon a particular monument and asks the locals about it. They tell him that it’s the tomb of a Judahite prophet who had predicted what Josiah is currently doing to the Bethel shrine. This sounds an awful lot like the unnamed prophet from 1 Kings 13.

I had pointed out at the time that the chapter had a very “folk myth” feel to it. In it, the unnamed prophet tells Jeroboam that his altar will someday be destroyed by a Davidic king named Josiah. Jeroboam, furious, raises his hand to command that the prophet be arrested. This hand withers, until the prophet takes pity on Jeroboam and restores it.

I noted that the story was very out of place among the histories. In particular, the fact that such a specific prophecy was made, yet had no impact on any of the named characters (despite the fact that Jeroboam witnessed a very specific and very powerful miracle) strongly suggests that it was added to the record of Jeroboam’s reign, probably after the fact. Given the explicit mention of Josiah, it seems likely that one of Josiah’s supporters either wrote the story from whole cloth, or adapted some local folk tradition for propagandic purposes. As Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic puts it, the prophecy is “suspiciously specific.”

Finding some measure of respect for the dead – or, at least, this dead – Josiah commands that this tomb remain unmolested, along with the bones of another prophet, this one from Samaria. Again, this second prophet is not identified. My study Bible suggests that the mention of Samaria “is probably an error for Bethel,” perhaps suggesting that there is some special grave for local prophets. However, I saw it as a reference to the Israelite prophet mentioned later on in 1 Kings 13 (though I’m not sure why Josiah should preserve that grave).

While our narrative talks about destroying, burning, and grinding up ashes, Victor Matthews suggests that perhaps Josiah wasn’t quite as thorough as he’d like us to think:

Archaeological findings from this period include fragments of a horned altar found incorporated into a wall at Arad. That the altar was dismantled and used in the construction of a non-sacred structure suggests an attempt to eliminate sacrificial activity at Arad. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.98)

Back in Jerusalem, Josiah enacts one final reform: the “restitution” of the Passover celebration. I use scare quotes because it’s not really clear what the history of the celebration is. I’ve seen some commenters suggest that Josiah invented the practice, which I personally find unlikely. The narrative itself claims that it was done up until the days of the judges, and then not again until now (in Josiah’s 18th year). Personally, I find it likely that it was a local festival that perhaps had been celebrated for quite a while, and that Josiah simply made part of the centralized/orthodox version of the YHWH cult that he was trying to create.

But not all was well

Josiah was a wonderful king, and close to God’s heart. In fact, there had never been and never will be a king who gave himself so entirely over to God. But, unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. God had already decided to erase Judah, and to cast away the city and temple he had chosen for himself, mostly because of that big baddie Manasseh. It’s hard not to read this account as personal.

Despite the prophecy in 2 Kings 22:20, there is war. Although Josiah seems to have brought his fate on himself.

The narrative tells us that Neco, pharaoh of Egypt, went to the king of Assyria. At this time, Josiah decided to meet the pharaoh at Megiddo, where their armies clash and Josiah is killed.

A small kneeling bronze statuette, likely Necho II, now residing in the Brooklyn Museum

A small kneeling bronze statuette, likely Necho II, now residing in the Brooklyn Museum

My study Bible helps to fill in the details, explaining that Assyria had mostly fallen to Medes and Chaldea (though it seems that nearly everyone in the area was taking advantage of Assyria’s weakness – the Wikipedia page describes something of a pile-on), but was still fighting to survive. Egypt, Assyria’s ally at that time, may have been moving to help fight some other enemy. Since Judah had so recently been a vassal state (or perhaps still was), it would have made sense for them to join the fray in the hopes of further weakening Assyria, and perhaps scooping up some of its lands.

In any case, it appears to have been the wrong choice, and Josiah’s corpse was brought back to Jerusalem in a chariot for burial.

With Josiah dead, the people raise his son, Jehoahaz, to succeed him. Jehoahaz, son of Hamutal, was 23 years old at the time, and lasted a mere 3 months. He was deposed by Pharaoh Neco, imprisoned, then died in Egypt.

Neco installed a successor of his own choosing: Josiah’s other son, Eliakim (whom the Pharaoh renames Jehoiakim). The condition of Jehoiakim’s rule appears to have been vassalage, and the new king of Judah pays a tribute to Egypt.

Jehoiakim was 25 years old and the son of Zebidah. He lasted 11 years. Both sons are described as evil, though it’s difficult to imagine how Jehoahaz had the time to prove himself such.

There are a few tantalizing hints here as to Judah’s political landscape. Perhaps the biggest is that Jehoahaz, who was appointed by the people, was the younger of Josiah’s two sons. For whatever reason, the Judahites decided to forego the tradition of primogeniture to give him the crown.

Perhaps the fact that Egypt crowned Jehoiakim can give us a clue. It may be reasonable to assume that Jehoiakim had expressed a desire to give in to Egypt, whereas Jehoahaz was in favour of resistance. We may be seeing a glimpse, then, of competing factions within Judah. The fact that the narrative condemns both as evil complicates matters, and I’m really not sure what to make of that.

In any case, we are clearly approaching the fall of Judah.

2 Kings 22: Religion of the Book

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This chapter is fairly short, but important. After Amon’s rather abrupt deposition, his son Josiah became the king of Judah. Josiah was eight years old at the time, and would reign for a total of thirty-one years. His mother’s name was Jadidah, and he was just wonderful.

It seems to have taken eighteen years before Josiah did anything worthy of note. This intrigued me because it seems that Josiah mirrors Jehoash in several ways. In both cases, they were installed as king while still children (Jehoash was seven, according to 2 Kings 11:21) after their predecessors were murdered. It feels like, unhappy with the current administration, the conspirators placed children on the throne in the hopes that they would be easier to control.

In both cases, years go by before we get any information about their deeds, and the first deed involves trying to make arrangements for temple repairs (23 years pass for Jehoash – 2 Kings 12:6 – and 18 for Josiah – 2 Kings 22:3). The wording of the two passages is nearly identical: In both cases, the kings request that money collected by the temple should be given to the workmen who are in charge of making repairs. In both cases, it is specified that the workmen need not present an accounting of their expenses, for they deal honestly (2 Kings 12:15; 2 Kings 22:7).

After this, however, the accounts diverge. In speaking with Hilkiah, the high priest, regarding these repairs, Josiah sent Shaphan, the secretary, as his go-between.

The Book of Law

The transition into the story of the book’s discovery is rather odd. It is implied that during Shaphan’s conversation with Hilkiah, Hilkiah mentions that he has found an old book of law in the temple. There’s no reason given for why it was found now, or why Hilkiah chooses this moment to bring it up (though I’ve seen suggestions that the book was found in the collections box).

La bible dévoilée, by Franck Dion, 2004

La bible dévoilée, by Franck Dion, 2004

Hilkiah gives this new/old book to Shaphan who, after reading it, rushes to present it to his king along with the report regarding the temple funds. He reads the new book to Josiah, at which point Josiah rends his clothes.

He sends Hilkiah (the high priest), Shaphan (the secretary), Ahikam (Shaphan’s son), Achbor, and Asaiah out to inquire of God about the contents of the book, because it is clear that Judah has definitely not be following them!

It is believed (largely based on the descriptions of the reforms as we get them in future chapters) that the “book of law” is some early form of Deuteronomy (my New Bible Commentary narrows it down to Deut. 12-16).

This, of course, raises a great many questions that the text so far does not help us resolve. If the book of law truly was old at the time of its “discovery,” what had happened to it? When had it been lost? (In trying to construct a possible narrative, I imagined that Manasseh might have forbidden writings of the YHWH cult during his apparent persecution of that group, possibly referenced in 2 Kings 21:16, and that perhaps a priest had hidden the book away where it could later be found by Hilkiah.)

Another possibility is that the book was written by Hilkiah himself (or at his command), then presented to the king as a foundling. Considering Deuteronomy’s emphasis on centralized worship (and the amount of power this would grant the high priest in Jerusalem), I don’t find this an unreasonable explanation.

Generally, though, it seems that Josiah himself is credited with writing (or commanding to be written) the book of law that would later become the basis of Deuteronomy.

Another detail in this story that fascinated me was that when Josiah’s representatives were sent out to consult with God, they appealed to a prophetess – Huldah, wife of Shallum, the keeper of the wardrobe.

Predictably, God is terribly furious that the Judahites have not been following the rules laid out in a book that they didn’t know about. However, because Josiah showed such remorse, he would go to his grave before seeing the terrible evil of God’s punishment come to pass. Not to spoil too much, but this is an odd prediction given that Josiah will die in battle in the next chapter (2 Kings 23:29). I’m seeing some argue that this portion, at least, of Huldah’s prophecy must be original, since it is false (sometimes presented along with the argument that the rest may be original too – though it talks predictively about a great evil falling upon Judah, given the political climate in the region at that time, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a contemporary giving such a warning). But would that, according to Deut. 18:21-22, make Huldah a false prophet? Or is her statement ambiguous enough that we can let her slip through?

I’d like to turn the final word over to Collins for a little historical context:

The long-term effects of the reform were more profound than anyone could have anticipated in 621 B.C.E. Less than a generation later, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed and the leading citizens were taken into exile in Babylon. The exiles in Babylon had to live without their temple, but they had “the book of the law,” which acquired new importance in this setting. Henceforth, Judaism would be to a great degree a religion of the book. Study of the law would take the place of sacrifice. The synagogue would gradually emerge as the place of worship, first for Jews outside the land of Israel, later even within Israel itself. These changes took place gradually, over centuries, but they had their origin in the Deuteronomic reform, which put a book at the center of religious observance for the first time. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.91)

2 Kings 21: A Wicked Interlude

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Manasseh was twelve years old when he claimed the throne, but ruled for a rather impressive fifty-five years. His mother’s name was Hephzibah, and he was just the absolute liverwurst.

He was pretty much his father’s polar opposite, undoing much of Hezekiah’s work. He rebuilt the high places, built altars for Baal, worshiped the whole host of heaven (which seems to mean that he worshiped celestial bodies), practiced soothsaying, and made friendly with wizards. He installed altars to the host of heaven, as well as Asherah, in the temple, and even burned his own son as an offering.

Mentioned separately, we learn that he also shed a great deal of innocent blood. My study Bible claims that these innocents were proper YHWHists, whom Manasseh persecuted.

2 Kings 21Through prophets, God says (to whom?) that because Manasseh was so terrible – even more terrible than the Amorites!! – God will therefore bring upon Jerusalem and Judah “such evil that the ears of every one who hears of it will tingle” (2 Kings 21:12). (Incidentally, in its notes for 2 Samuel 21:2, my study Bible explains that “the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine are sometimes called Canaanites, sometimes Amorites.”) He will therefore deliver Judah over to its enemies.

The fact that the prophets who receive this message are never named, nor are the recipients named, suggests to me that this passage was an editor’s personal insertion – quite apart from the fact that it describes events which have not yet happened.

When Manasseh died, he was not buried “with his fathers,” as previous kings had been. Instead, we are told that he was buried in his garden, called the garden of Uzza. On this, Victor Matthews writes:

A group of rock-cut tombs have been found on the northern end of the Ophel Hill on Mount Zion, and these may also be royal sepulchers. Perhaps this is the spot where Absalom prepared an elaborate monument tomb for himself “in the King’s Valley,” with a pillar to mark the spot (2 Sam 18:17-18). The mention that Manasseh’s tomb (7th cent. B.C.) was located in the Garden of Uzza (2 Kings 21:18) may suggest that a new site was designated for royal burials after the original area was filled. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.118)

Personally, I wondered if it might have something to do with Manasseh apparently not being a worshiper of YHWH. If, perhaps, he wanted to signal a clean break from the Hebrew monarchy (in the same way that Akhenaten built a whole new city to signal his break from the previous religion of Egypt). Perhaps, for example, the garden of Uzza had some special significance in Manasseh’s religious beliefs.

After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Amon.

Amon was twenty-two years old when his reign began, but lasted a mere two years. His mother’s name was Meshullemeth, the daughter of Haruz of Jotbah. The narrative describes him as being just as bad as Manasseh, though it’s a little hard to see how he might have had time to show this in such a short reign.

In the end, he was murdered by conspirators, and his son – Josiah – was made king in his stead. He, too, was buried in the garden of Uzza.

2 Kings 20: Hezekiah’s Figgy Pudding

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In this chapter, we get two stories involving King Hezekiah (of Judah) being ill. My study Bible argues that the stories are presented in the wrong chronological space, as they should be taking place prior to Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem in 701BCE. As I’ll note when we come to them, there are some minor hints in the narratives that suggest this to be the case.

The chapter opens as Hezekiah is ill and near death. His illness is unspecified here, but we find out later that it involves a boil, so enjoy that lovely image.

Isaiah came to Hezekiah’s bedside to tell him that his illness is a terminal one, so he should get his affairs in order. At this, Hezekiah turns to face the wall and prays to God, reminding God of all the lovely Asherah he cut down and how he’s always played for Team God.

Isaiah was just leaving when God turned him back to tell Hezekiah that his prayer has been heard and that he will be healed. Much is made of the prediction that, in three days, Hezekiah would go to the temple. This presumably means that he will be well enough to do so (indicating his recovery) and/or that he will be making a sacrifice in gratitude for a successful healing. After this, he will be allowed to live in additional fifteen years, and God will deliver both Hezekiah and Jerusalem from Assyrian hands.

This is our first set of clues that Hezekiah’s illness is meant to take place prior to the events of the last two chapters. If Hezekiah died in 687 BCE, then 15 years prior to that would put the year around 702 BCE. Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem is believed to have taken place in 701 BCE. Also, the idea that Hezekiah and Jerusalem should require deliverance from Assyria suggests either that the attack is impeding, or that they are currently in the middle of it (since Jerusalem had already been delivered from Assyrian hands in the last chapter).

To help Hezekiah recover, Isaiah has a fig cake brought to him, which he then lays over Hezekiah’s boil (and which, hopefully, no one will mistake for leftovers later on). This sounded rather folksy to be, and my study Bible confirms that the use of a fig cake “as a poultice was widespread in Bible times.” It seems that Isaiah was here doing what would have been done anyway, and perhaps we’re to understand that it only worked in this case – the condition being so serious – because of divine intercession.

But Hezekiah isn’t content with any of this, so he demands that Isaiah give him a sign that the prophecy is a true one. Isaiah, ever obliging, gives him a choice: Would he like to see shadows moving backward or forward?

Hezekiah has seen plenty of shadows lengthen, so he would like to see them shorten. It’s an odd statement, perhaps indicative of Hezekiah’s sleep habits. Because, of course, shadows do shorten in the mornings, then length again as the sun moves (from our perspective) away from its apex. So has Hezekiah just never woken up before noon?

Or perhaps a clause indicating the current time of day in which this story takes place is needed. What Hezekiah really means is, then, that he does not see shadows shortening at this time of day.

In any case, Isaiah acquiesces, and they see the shadow moving back on the “dial of Ahaz” (2 Kings 20:11). Commenters seem to assume that this is a miracle similar to the one in Joshua 10:13, in which God temporarily alters the movement of the sun. However, I didn’t find this clearly stated. It’s perfectly plausible that God simply made the shadow move independently of the sun’s position in the sky, which is just as nifty a miracle.

The Babylonian Envoys

While Hezekiah is ill, we’re told that King Merodach-baladan of Babylon sent him some get well cards and a gift. Hezekiah seems to be better by the time they reach him, however, as he seems to have no trouble giving them a tour around his palace and the temple, showing off all the nice stuff he has.

2 Kings 20When Isaiah asks him what that was all about, Hezekiah explains that he was just showing off Judah’s wealth to the Babylonian envoys. Isaiah is not impressed, and warns him that all that nice stuff the envoys have just seen will be carried off to Babylon in later days, and none of it will be left in Judah.

Hezekiah isn’t particularly bothered, so long as he gets peace in his own lifetime. This, I remind you, is the guy our authors describe as doing “what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3).

According to Wikipedia, Merodach-baladan (or Madruk-apla-iddina II) “was a Chaldean prince who usurped the Babylonian throne in 721 BC and reigned in 722 BC–710 BC, and 703 BC–702 BC.” It seems that he ruled over a very unstable time, and had Assyrians to contend with himself. Josephus’s explanation that his gift would have been an attempt to secure allies seems plausible (Antiquities 2.2).

My New Bible Commentary goes a step further and wonders if it was Merodach-baladan’s resistance against the Assyrians that prompted Hezekiah to goad them, leading to the events of 2 Kings 18-19 (p.364).

Of the rest of his reign, we hear only that Hezekiah built a pool with a conduit to bring water into Jerusalem. My study Bible wonders if this might have been to provide an alternative source of water in preparation for an Assyrian attack. The conduit is believed to (possibly) be referring to Hezekiah’s Tunnel (or the Siloam Tunnel).

When Hezekiah died, he was succeeded by his son, Manasseh.

2 Kings 18-19: God Versus Assyria

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It seems that despite Hoshea’s removal from power and the destruction of Israel as a nation, Hoshea’s son Elah managed to succeed his father. It seems that the political situation in Israel/Samaria is a little more complex than the text has so far indicated.

The narrative turns back toward Judah where, in the third year of Israel’s Elah, Hezekiah came to power. He was 25 years old when he took the crown, and ruled for a total of 29 years. When compared to 2 Kings 16:2 and run a little math, we find that Jezekiah must have been born when his father, Ahaz, was only 11 years old. Hezekiah’s mother was Abi, the daughter of Zechariah.

Hezekiah gets, by far, the best review of all the kings we’ve seen so far (including David since, despite our current author’s nostalgic view, he did not get such a great review while he was the star of the story). God just adored Jezekiah.

What did he do to merit such credit? He finally destroyed those pesky high places, broke pillars, and cut down the Asherah. He also broke Moses’ bronze serpent (made in Numbers 21:6-9) because people had been burning incense to it and calling it Nehushtan.

The position of our author seems rather clear: that the object belonged to Moses and was later worshipped as a symbol (or perhaps an actual deity) in itself. This is rather interesting given that the serpent appears to have been one of the symbols of Baal, and likely a part of the pre-Israelite Canaanite religion. So it seems that this pre-Israelite symbol survived the evolution of the YHWH cult, its pagan associations erased as it is given a compatible origin story, up until this point. Suggesting that perhaps its non-Israelite origins were still known at this point in our narrative, despite the co-existing association to Moses.

He also rebelled against Assyria, and killed many Philistines.

Assyria Ascending

There is a brief nod to the events in Israel, mostly repeating 2 Kings 17:5-6. In the fourth year of Hezekiah and the seventh year of Hoshea, Shalmaneser besieged Samaria, taking it three years later. The Israelites were deported because they had failed to obey God.

This seems to have been included to serve as a contrast as we begin the narrative of Assyria’s attack on Judah, juxtaposing the non-god-fearing Israelites to the (now) god-fearing Judahites under Hezekiah’s leadership.

A decade later, in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, Assyria comes after Judah. This time, however, it is led by King Sennacherib. The Assyrians seem to have made quite a bit of headway through Judah, conquering “all fortified cities of Judah” (2 Kgs 18:13) – Jerusalem is not explicitly excluded from this description. Hezekiah tells Sennacherib to withdraw, to which Sennacherib responds with a price: 300 talents of silver and 300 talents of gold.

Despite his big talk, Hezekiah is willing to pay, though it means stripping the gold from the doors and pillars of the temple.

Incidentally, it seems that Sennacherib’s own records confirm this interaction (at least in its broad strokes): “He [Sennacherib] claims to have laid siege to 46 walled cities and many villages, to have taken 200,150 people, and to have shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem ‘as a bird in a cage’. His figure, ‘300 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, plus many other items’, is in close agreement” (New Bible Commentary, p.362).

From here, the narrative dives straight into what appears to be a description of an active siege on Jerusalem (which, spoilers, ends with Assyria’s retreat). Given that the rest of this narrative is unnecessary if Hezekiah successfully met Sennacherib’s demands, it has been argued that there are actually two conflict events being described: One in which Assyria is paid off, and one in which they are forced to abandon their campaign for reasons that we will discuss later on. There doesn’t appear to be any direct evidence for this “two campaign” theory, but the narrative hardly makes sense otherwise.

My personal feeling here is that Hezekiah paid tribute to Assyria after the initial show of force, but perhaps refused to pay a later tribute, much as Hoshea did in 2 Kings 17. As in Israel’s case, this would have led to Assyria’s retaliation.

Proceeding with this assumption, I will discuss the remainder of the narrative as though it refers to a separate incident.

Assyria’s Return

Assyria’s army is encamped at Lachish (as it was in 2 Kings 18:14, during the “first invasion”). They send three representatives to Jerusalem, here identified as the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh (according to the New Bible Commentary, these are the Akkadian terms for ‘second in command,’ a high military official, and probably a civil official, respectively, p.363). From this point onward, the titles are used as if they were given names.

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

The representatives call out for Hezekiah, but Judah’s king sends three representatives of his own instead: Eliakim son of Hilkiah (who is described as being “over the household,” which I took to mean he was the steward), Shebnah (the secretary), and Joah son of Asaph (the recorder).

The Rabshakeh seems to assume that Judah is relying on Egypt to protect them (again, this is very reminiscent of Hoshea’s rebellion in 2 Kings 17:4). He then asks if Judah would rely on their god when Hezekiah himself has been destroying so many of God’s shrines? It’s hard to determine if this is meant to be a joke about Assyria’s lack of understanding of the Hebrew religion, or if it’s further evidence that the local shrines were very much still an important part of the folk religion. Likely a bit of both.

The Rabshakeh ends with a baiting wager: Assyria will give Judah 2,000 horses if they can produce enough riders for them. The intention of this bait is made clear as Rabshakeh asks how Judah expects to fight off Assyria’s captains when they rely on Egypt for their chariots and cavalry?

These interactions certainly indicate that there was far more to Judah and Israel’s relationship with Egypt than we see explained in our text.

Rabshakeh’s final insult reads more like editorializing, as he declares that it is on behalf of Judah’s own God that they have come – reiterating the punitive nature of Judah’s troubles. It seems unlikely that the Assyrian would have taken this position.

Eliakim, Shebnah, and Joah ask Rabshakeh to speak to them in Aramaic rather than “the language of Judah,” so that the people on the walls – who are apparently within earshot – would not understand. Rabshakeh refuses, saying that his master has sent him to speak to them all, as they are all doomed to eat their own dung and drink their own urine. He does seem like a lovely fellow, no? In any case, this seems like a refusal to acknowledge Hezekiah’s representatives as a special diplomatic class. Rabshakeh is addressing Judah as a whole, he is not there to negotiate.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

There appear to be two separate versions of what happens next:

In the first, Rabshakeh calls out loudly in the language of Judah, telling the Judahites not to be deceived by Hezekiah’s claims that God can save them from Assyria. Assyria has defeated all other gods, and it would be better for the people of Judah to simply surrender now. The words have little effect, however, as the people keep their silence as per Hezekiah’s orders.

Hezekiah rends his clothes and wears sackcloth, and goes into the temple. He also sends Eliakim, Shebna, and the senior priests – all also wearing sackcloth – to seem the prophet Isaiah (yes, that one) to ask him to encourage God to defend his honour after he has been insulted by the Assyrians.

Isaiah reassures Hezekiah’s representatives that they need not fear the Assyrians because God “will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (2 Kings 19:7).

In the second version, we get a strange detail of Rabshekah hearing that his king has left Lachish to fight against Libnah. When the Assyrian king hears about Tirhakah, the king of Ethiopia, he sends messengers to Hezekiah warning him not to think that God will be able to preserve Judah when all other gods have fallen before Assyria. (The threat is clearly the same one Rabshekah gave earlier).

There’s no explanation of why Sennacherib is fighting Libnah, or what any of this has to do with Tirhakah. It’s all made even more confusing by the fact that, according to my study Bible, Tirhakah was not even the king of Egypt yet (though he was apparently a general first, and that this could be a reference to him in that position instead).

Hezekiah brings the letters to the temple and prays that God would pay attention to Judah’s plight: “Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear; open thy eyes, O Lord, and see” (2 Kings 19:16). He acknowledges that the Assyrians have defeated the local gods of every other nation they have conquered, but those, insists Hezekiah, were man-made gods, made of wood and stone. They were not like YHWH.

Enter Isaiah, who confirms that God has heard Hezekiah’s prayer. What follows is a lengthy poem that I found rather inaccessible. However, there is a bit about how current events were long planned as a punishment. God ends by giving a sign: The Judahites will eat only what grows of itself this year and the next, but will resume farming in the third year. Those who survive will then “again take root downward, and bear fruit upward” (2 Kings 19:30). This seems to indicate that perhaps there will not be the security to farm, due to attacks and raids, over the next two years.

However, says God via Isaiah, the King of Assyria will never enter Jerusalem, nor shoot arrows into it, nor lay siege to it. Instead, he will be routed because God protects Jerusalem for David’s sake. According to the New Bible Commentary, this part of the prophecy is in conflict with Sennacherib’s own version of the campaign. In it, he mentions a rampart, which would indicate a siege (p.363).

That night, the angel of the lord killed 185,000 people in the Assyrian camp, so that the rest of the soldiers woke in the morning to find the bodies. Because of this, Sennacherib retreated back to Nineveh. At some point after that (the text implies a connection, though it seems that many years had passed), Sennacherib was worshipping in the temple of Nisroch when two of his sons, Adramelech and Sharezer, murdered him and escaped to Ararat. A third son, Esarhaddon, then took the crown.

Brant Clements notes that the Assyrian records make no mention of the loss of 185,000 soldiers, though of course this isn’t exactly proof that it didn’t happen.

However, it is clear that something caused the Assyrians to turn back from Jerusalem. Some interpreters, trusting in the biblical account of the mysterious deaths, suggest a plague in the Assyrian camp. Others point to Sennacherib’s troubled end, suggesting that civil unrest at home forced him to abandon the campaign. Certain among the faithful credit God – as does the text. These aren’t, of course, mutually exclusive explanations.

2 Kings 17: Of the ashes, Samaria is born

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We’ll see a few different editorial layers in this chapter. The essence of it is that Israel falls, its people are displaced, and the land repopulated with people from other nations. So, of course, the Deuteronomists are all over that, fighting for line space in attempts to turn the event into a moral lesson for Judah (which, of course, would suffer the same fate some 150 years later).

The styles differences and individual particular concerns are easily read through the text. My study Bible specifically identifies passages its editors identify as having been composed by the second Deuteronomist (who already knew that Judah would also fall) and a third who wanted to make absolutely clear that the Samaritans (as the inhabitants of Israel would be known after the nation was conquered) were absolutely incorrect in their worship of YHWH.

The Fall of Hoshea

The opening has our familiar formula as we return to Israel. In the twelfth year of Judah’s King Ahaz, Hoshea son of Elah became king in Israel. We had covered this much in 2 Kings 15, learning that Hoshea took over the crown in a coup in a time when that was clearly in vogue.

I noted then that an Assyrian inscription has the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser directly involved in the coup, perhaps installing Hoshea as a puppet. This seems to have been a poor choice.

Hoshea reigned for nine years, walking in the way of evil (though at least not in the same evil way as his predecessors, though the statement is not clarified). In that time, Israel was a vassal of Assyria, and he paid an annual tribute to Shalmaneser V.

At some point, and for reasons that are not explained, he started communicating with So, the king of Egypt, and stopped paying tribute to Assyria. If Egypt made promises that it reneged on, it’s not mentioned here, and it seems rather foolish of Hoshea to simply stop making tributes. Unfortunately, with so little information on the internal politics and pressures, it’s hard to figure out what he may have been thinking.

A note should be made on the Egyptian king, So, as our Egyptian records give us no such person. Nicolas Grimal suggests two possibilities: The first is that So refers not to a person, but is “a mistaken Hebrew spelling of the city of Sais.” If this is the case, it would be something like a foreign dignitary saying that he’s “contacting Washington.” Glancing at the Egyptian pharaohs, we find that the king would have been Tefnakht. However, Grimal continues, Israel would not have been in much contact with Tefnakht. Rather, they would be in contact with Tanis (“The location of Tanis in the eastern Delta was naturally convenient for relations with Syria-Palestine.”). This region was under the control of Osorkon IV, in which case King So could be an over-correction. (A History of Ancient Egypt, p.342)

My New Bible Commentary, on the other hand, proposes either Shabaka or Shabataka as the likely king. Both of these suggestions seem too late to be likely candidates, however. Another possibility offered up by the NBC is that So could be a mistaken reference, not to a king, but to Sibu, “a ‘Tartan’ or general of Egypt whom [Sargon] defeated at Raphia in 720” (p.361).

Assyria’s vengeance is somewhat swift: Hoshea is imprisoned and Samaria under siege. It’s not explained what Hoshea was doing outside of Samaria in the first place (since the narrative makes clear that he was taken prisoner before the attack on the city began), though I’ve seen suggestions that, perhaps with his plans regarding Egypt falling through, he might have gone to Shalmaneser’s court to beg forgiveness.

2 Kings 17The siege against Samaria lasts for three years. While not mentioned in our text, we know from Assyria’s records that, during this time, Shalmaneser died and was replaced by Sargon II.

When Samaria fell, the Assyrians took the Israelites captive and brought them back to Assyria, repopulating the country with people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim.

Sargon’s own records seem to confirm this. According to the New Bible Commentary, Sargon “records for his first year that he beseiged and took Samaria, carried away 27,290 inhabitants and other plunder, and settled people from other lands there” (p.361).

Brant Clements, over at Both Saint and Cynic, writes that deporting “an entire population was impracticable. The Assyrians probably carried the rich, the powerful, and the elite into exile leaving the poor and powerless behind.” I’m sure he’s right, but Sargon’s number of 27,290 is absurdly high for that to be the case (though likely inflated for propagandic purposes). The goal of this kind of displacement would have been to remove those with the resources and social power to organize a rebellion, severing them from their power bases, from the plebeian armies they might raise, and even from other potential co-conspirators. This was done by scattering them in strange lands.

A tale of national destruction could never be complete without some victim-blame-y moralizing, so we get some editorializing about how this disaster only happened because the Israelites had so sinned, even though God had brought them out of Egypt. The complaints are lengthy, and we’ve seen them so many times that I could probably just type them up by rote. I won’t, though, because I suspect that would be as tiresome for you as  it would be for me.

I will note, however, a quick intrusion from a secondary editor who reminds us that Judah totally sucked as well (2 Kings 17:19-20).

The New Samarians

With an all new multicultural immigrant population, Israel rebrands itself as Samaria, and its people as Samaritans.

These Samaritans had a rough beginning in their new home as they suffered through a plague of lion attacks. The king of Assyria is told, as we are, that this is because they do not know or worship the local god.

The theology that comes through in this story shows us a very small god, a god who belongs to a plot of land as much as it belongs to him. God is not a universal god, but the god of this patch of soil. And when that patch’s inhabitants change, they must first acknowledge the local god.

This god is a territorial god.

The Assyrian king seems to have no trouble groking this notion of divinity, and he finds one of the Israelite priests among his captives to send back. The priest is installed in Bethel with instructions to teach the new people of Samaria about their new god, in much the same way that a settler might need to learn the agricultural peculiarities of the region.

The Samaritans, too, seemed to accept that living in Israel means worshipping the god of Israel, and they quickly take up the worship of YHWH. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they are eager to give up their own gods. The Babylonians continued worshipping Succoth-benoth, the Cuthites worshipping Nergal, the Hamathites worshipping Ashima, and the Avvites worshipping Nibhaz and Tartak. The Sepharvites continued to burn their children in the fires of Adrammelech and Anammelech. They simply added YHWH to the pantheons they had brought with them.

Much to our author’s dismay, they quickly took ownership of YHWH, appointing their own priests and setting up their own shrines. Worse yet, they failed to follow God’s statutes and ordinances, even though – our editor reminds us – they ought to have known full well what happened to the last people who failed to follow them!

2 Kings 16: Redecorating

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For this chapter, we head back to Judah, and to King Ahaz.

Ahaz came to his crown in the seventeenth year of Israel’s Pekah, when he was twenty years old. He lasted a total of sixteen years, during which he did not impress our narrator in the least.

Of his bad deeds, we learn that he sacrificed his own son. Or, made him “pass trough the fire,” which certainly seems to be a euphemism for child sacrifice. Not all interpretations agree, however, as I noted when the phrase appeared in Deuteronomy 18. It could also refer to some sort of trial by ordeal or a symbolic action. This might find some support in Numbers 31:23, when talking about symbolically passing objects through fire in order to consecrate them. Those objects that would not survive the fire were to be consecrated with water instead. It’s not inconceivable that the same intention of the consecrated “object” making it through the fire intact applied to the child sacrifices as well.

Our narrator here tells us that this practice was once common among the original inhabitants of the area, before God drove them out to make room for the Hebrew people. Certainly, we’ve seen the practice of passing children “through fire” associated with Molech, as in Leviticus 18:21.

In addition to this, Ahaz is described as walking “in the way of the kings of Israel” (2 Kgs 16:3) – which presumably refers to the worship at idols – and worshipping personally at the high places and under every green tree (it’s hard to imagine how he had time for anything else if he really was worshipping at every green tree!).

Conflicts

Meanwhile, it seems that Syria and Israel have been harassing Judah (led my Rezin and Pekah, respectively). They get as far as besieging Ahaz, but fail to conquer him.

The harassment is enough that it apparently gives Edom the opportunity to take back Elath and expel all the settled Judahites in the region.

2 Kings 16Clearly desperate, Ahaz appeals to Assyria’s Tiglath-pileser for air, offering a tribute of gold and silver from both temple and royal palace. Tiglath-pileser accepts the offering and takes Damascus from Syria, killing King Rezin and taking the locals captive. This practice of taking conquered peoples out of their homelands is a growing theme, as we’ve been seeing.

Ahaz goes to Damascus to meet with Tiglath-pileser, and there sees the local altar. He’s so impressed with its design that he sends a model back to the temple priest, Uriah. By the time he returns to Jerusalem, his own version has been completed, and he has it installed in temple altar’s place (moving the original altar to the north side of the new addition).

The wording here was a little fuzzy to me, but it seems that Ahaz has the original altar continue to be used for all the regular sacrifices, but he reserves the new altar for his own personal use – which appears to be divination.

While he was at it, he made a bunch of other decorative changes to the temple, generally taking things down. This was done “because of the king of Assyria” (2 Kgs 16:18). I initially interpreted this to mean that he had entered a vassal contract with the Assyrians, and that one of the terms was the importation of the Assyrian national religion. However, my study Bible sees it to mean that many of the temple installations were removed as further tributes to the Assyrians (or perhaps part of the original tribute, but simply presented out of chronological order).

My New Bible Commentary notes that, from this point onward, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria.

As per our formula, the chapter closes with the death of Ahaz and the ascension of his son, Hezekiah.

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