2 Chronicles 33: Manasseh the Repentant

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The Chronicler agrees with the general impression of Manasseh and his son Amon given to us in 2 Kings 21, though there are some rather significant differences between the two accounts.

We begin when Manasseh is raised to the throne at the age of twelve. 1 Kgs 21:1 tells us that his mother’s name was Hephzibah – a detail that the Chronicler omits. Unless I am mistaken, this is the first time that the Chronicler doesn’t give us a queen mother’s name that is found in Kings (both sources neglected Ahaz’s mother). It could have been an error, but there’s always the intriguing possibility that it was an intentional choice, and the fun speculation about why that might have been. The fact that Manasseh was only 12, and therefore likely under the control of a regent for several years, offers up a few possibilities.

But whether on his own or shared at times, Manasseh managed to rule for 55 years, though neither source thinks those were very good ones.

Manasseh, you see, doesn’t seem to have been quite on board with the whole YHWH cult thing. All of Hezekiah’s hard work is undone as Manasseh goes around building altars to Baals and making Asherahs (though both appear in the singular in 2 Kgs 21:3, but the pluralization definitely makes it sound worse!), and worshipping “all the host of heaven” (2 Chron. 33:3). From what I can find, it seems that the host of heaven either refers to God’s heavenly court (perhaps angels, perhaps other gods, perhaps a non-unified Trinity if that’s your bent) or to celestial bodies. Though I don’t suppose the two are mutually exclusive.

Manasseh also burned his sons in offering in the valley of the son of Hinnom. You’ll remember this as the same place where Ahaz sacrificed his own sons in 2 Chron. 28:3. The location is identified with child sacrifice elsewhere, such as 2 Kgs 23:10, where Josiah defiles the area so that no one would sacrifice their children to Molech there any more. Wikipedia identifies Gehenna as the Aramaic version of the name, and argues that the association with the cult of Molech led to the name being used figuratively to refer to hell (or a hell-like concept). However, 2 Kgs 21:6 only has Manasseh sacrifice a single son, and the location of the ritual is not indicated. So either the Chronicler was working with another source, or he placed Manasseh’s rituals in the valley of Hinnom because of the place’s reputation.

Manasseh practised soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and he dealt with wizards and mediums.

He also added several altars, dedicated to the host of heaven, and an idol to the Temple. In 2 Kgs 21:7, the idol is specified as a “carved image of Asherah,” while the Chronicler doesn’t indicate that the idol was for any god other than YHWH. While he doesn’t specify that the idol was of God, it seems like he would tell us if it wasn’t.

Under Manasseh’s seduction, the people of Judah were led to evil beyond even what the Canaanites had managed.

Predictably, God wasn’t particularly pleased.

Bringing Manasseh Around

The Chronicler tells us that God tried to speak to Manasseh and his people, but they didn’t listen. Strangely, he doesn’t bother to give us God’s words, nor does he tell us – as Kings does – that they were relayed through prophets. 2 Kgs 21:10-15, on the other hand, gives us God’s lengthy curse so terrible that it is sure to induce ear tingles in anyone who hears it.

I’m often confused by the details that the Chronicler chooses to leave out – in this case cutting what has been presented as God’s own words. I suppose he felt that his audience would already be familiar with them from other sources, but it just seems so… odd.

Having gone unheard, God reached for the next best thing: the Assyrian army.

I found it interesting that the Chronicler frames the arrival of the Assyrians as a punishment, even though the same thing happened to Hezekiah. It reminds me a bit of the modern “personal Jesus” who punishes the people I don’t like by making them lose their keys, but rewards me for faithfulness by helping me find mine.

Manasseh taken captive, by Bernard Picart and Louis Surugue, 1728

Manasseh taken captive, by Bernard Picart and Louis Surugue, 1728

Though I suppose the attack got a little more serious this time, as Manasseh himself was taken to Babylon in fetters. His captivity earns no mention in Kings. That said, my study Bible tells me that Manasseh’s name does appear in an inscription as “a vassal of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, sometimes under suspicion. Thus the Babylonian captivity of Manasseh is historically possible.”

James Bradford Pate argues that there may be some evidence that Assyrians released captive monarches who “repented” by submitting to their authority. From there, Pate raises the possibility that Manasseh’s subsequent building projects (which we will get to shortly) had more to do with protecting Assyria’s southern border from the Egyptians than strengthening Judah.

As for why the Assyrians would take Manasseh to Babylon rather than to an Assyrian city, I have no answers. Pate offers a possible solution, but I lack the knowledge base to tackle the question.

In any case, the Chronicler writes that it is in Babylon that Manasseh finally cried out to God and humbled himself, and it is for this reason that he was sent back to Jerusalem. Once home, he set to work trying to undo the damage he had done, taking down the altars to foreign gods and the idol from the Temple and tossing them outside the city (though, it’s worth noting, no destroying them, and no mention is made of Kidron – the place where all idols go to die).

He also restored God’s own altar and made some sacrifices and commanded the people of Judah to worship God. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the people of Judah are not easily unseduced. Though the Chronicler does note that they at least only worshipped God, even if they did so at the high places.

Manasseh’s repentance isn’t found in Kings, and the Chronicler doesn’t mention Manasseh’s slaughter of the innocents (presumed by many commentaries to be the faithful followers of God) from 2 Kgs 21:16. The New Bible Commentary argues that Manasseh’s repentance might have occurred very late in his reign, which would make his reforms “too little, too late” for Kings to bother mentioning (p.392). Other commentaries argue that Kings focused on the harm done by the kings leading up to Josiah to better emphasize the saviour aspect of the boy-king, whereas the Chronicler perhaps had reason to soften the rough edges of the Davidic dynasty as he was trying to argue for its desirable return. Another possibility, of course, is that Manasseh was a complex and sometimes contradictory person, as are we all, and that his life was compressed and contorted by different authors to fit their own two-dimensional image of him.

Other than that, Manasseh seems to have set himself to working on Judah’s defences: building up a a very tall outer wall around the city of David, and appointing commanders in all the fortified cities of Judah. As in other places, the Chronicler adds unique passages detailing construction projects that are not found in Kings. The obvious explanation for this is that he had access to a source that lists the building works of each king, though I can’t help but wonder if he had a purpose for these details.

For the rest of the acts of Manasseh, including his prayer to “his God” (2 Chron. 33:18 – not the emphasis on possession, which underscores Manasseh’s repentance), as well as the words of the seers who spoke to him in the name of God, the Chronicler sends us to the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. But for information on his prayer and how God received it, as well as a list of all his sins and the sites on which he built high places and Asherim before he humbled himself, the Chronicler asks us to consult the Chronicles of the Seers.

When Manasseh dies, he is buried in his own home, as is proper for a king who wasn’t terribly berries. However, the Chronicler’s Shadow Council of Burial actually agrees with Kings for once, as 2 Kgs 21:18 puts the king’s corpse in the garden of his house.

Enter Amon

After his death, Manasseh was succeeded by his son, Amon. As was the case with Manasseh, Amon’s queen mother is skipped over (2 Kgs 21:19 gives us Meshullemeth as her name). Also as was the case with his father, Amon was just awful, though the Chronicler doesn’t explain why he failed to listen to Manasseh’s conversion.

Amon’s reign began when he was 22 years old, and lasted for a mere two years. In this time, he made sacrifices to all the idols Manasseh had made, and he failed to humble himself the way his father had.

In the end, Amon was murdered by his own servants, in his own house. In retaliation, his subjects killed the conspirators, and they made Josiah, Amon’s son, king.

Interestingly, the Chronicler fails to tell us where Amon was buried, though 2 Kgs 21:26 puts him in the garden with his father.

2 Chronicles 19-20: Jumping Jehoshaphat!

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The second half of Jehoshaphat’s story begins with the king’s return to Jerusalem from his ill-fated adventures with Ahab.

Unfortunately for him, the matter isn’t quite settled yet. He must first deal with Jehu, the son of Hanani the seer. Jehu, as it happens, has taken up the family business, and is ready to accost the king!

He berates Jehoshaphat for “[helping] the wicked and [loving] those who hate the Lord” (2 Chron. 19:2). God, you see, doesn’t seem to have entered his “love thine enemies” phase just yet (or perhaps we should read that more literally – it is our enemies who must be loved, but God is allowed some pettiness). While Jehu never specifics what he’s talking about, the placement and topic implies that he means Jehoshaphat’s alliance with Ahab. In any case, God is mad but at least Jehoshaphat has been a complete jerk to people of other faiths, so he’ll let this one go.

We have another mention of a prophet named Jehu son of Hanani, who goes to Baasha, king of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 16:1-4). Just glancing at my chart o’ kings, we can see that Baasha’s rule seems to have ended around 877 BCE and Jehoshaphat’s rule began around 873 BCE – close enough for both events to occur within the lifetime of a single plausible prophet.

Commentators all seem to disagree, however, and probably for very good reasons. They put the two appearances 50 years apart, making it unlikely (though still not impossible) for Jehu’s mission to overlap both kings.

It’s possible that the Chronicler wanted to insert an explicit condemnation of Jehoshaphat’s dealings with the northern kingdom, and he had Jehu’s name from his source materials in Kings. Adopting the name of a recognized authority to give your words more weight was viewed far more favourably in antiquity than it is now, so it’s not impossible that this explains Jehu’s appearance here.

My New Bible Commentary proposes a second solution (p.388): That Jehu was given the same name as his grandfather (as was Hanani). This king of repeat naming isn’t exactly unheard of either.

Legal Reforms

We know from the book of Judges that individual communities had (titular) ways of dealing with local disputes. As the nation moved in a more national direction, the monarch was understood as a judge writ large. But that kind of power just doesn’t scale well.

That’s Victor Matthews’s interpretation, as he writes: “During the early monarchy, royal judicial authority was held as a prerogative of the king, and little delegation of authority to local judges was allowed. However, by the reign of King Jehoshaphat (ca. 873-849 B.C.), the complexity of running the nation of Judah, and the sheer number of cases, led to a major reform of the judicial system” (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.119).

The Triumph of Jehoshaphat, by Jean Fouquet, 1470-1475

The Triumph of Jehoshaphat, by Jean Fouquet, 1470-1475

So while Jehoshaphat hides from his errors in Jerusalem, he appoints judges throughout the country and urges them to take their jobs seriously (not to take partiality, to avoid partiality, etc.) because they are doing God’s work, not humanity’s.

We saw a similar story in Ex. 18:13-27, where Moses found that the needs of a whole people were just too much for a single leader to tend. In that story, it took Moses’s father-in-law to convince him that it was time to delegate. Jehoshaphat needed no such prompting.

Incidentally, we’ve seen the Chronicler allude to Moses quite a bit, but I haven’t noticed it since Solomon’s passing. Given the perfect opportunity here, I think it’s safe to say that the Chronicler was only interested in casting David and Solomon as Mosaic figures and is now just really into miraculous battle scenes.

To supervise these local judges, Jehoshaphat appoints the high priest, Amariah, over the Levitical judges, and one of the king’s chief officers, Zebadiah, over the civil judges.

I found the dichotomy rather interesting, since the books of ordinances didn’t really seem to see a distinction between religious and secular life.

Realizing that local judges may not be quite enough, Jehoshaphat also appoints a supreme court of sources, based in Jerusalem and comprised of Levites, priests, and family heads. They exist to clarify matters of law and to oversee disputed cases. Again he urges them to take their job seriously, and again he appoints the chief priest Amariah as their leader (Zebadiah, however, is set as governor of the house of Judah and in charge of the king’s matters). Levites serve as this supreme court’s officers.

This mention of judges isn’t found in Kings, and it seems rather convenient that, according to my study Bible, Jehoshaphat’s name means “the Lord judges.” It’s possible that the Chronicler used the occasion of Jehoshaphat’s name to insert some subtle instructions for how to handle judicial matters once the kingdom is re-established.

Yet Another Miraculous Battle

It what the New Bible Commentary sees as the fulfilment of Jehu’s prophecy in 2 Chron. 19:1-3 (p.388), an army moves against Judah. This time, it is comprised of Moabites, Ammonites, and some of the Meunites, apparently coming from Edom.

Wait, Meunites? It seems we have a mystery group. From what I can tell, they only seem to appear in Chronicles and other books that were apparently written from the same historical vantage point (they appear in Ezra 2:50, Nehemiah 7:52, 1 Chron. 4:41, and 2 Chron. 26:7). It seems likely that the Meunites were anachronistically written into this story.

When Jehoshaphat finds out that the army is coming, he becomes afraid and seeks out God. He declares a national fast, and gathers the people for an assembly. This is, of course, accompanied by the usual speech while all of Judah (explicitly including women and children) look on.

The Spirit of God delivers, broadcasting through a member of the crowd – Jahaziel son of Zechariah son of Benaiah son of Jeiel son of Mattaniah, a Levite in the line of Asaph (whose historicity may be confirmed by archeologists). He calls out for them not to fear the large number of enemies approaching, for God himself will be taking them on. He instructs the people to assemble east of the wilderness of Jeruel tomorrow. No fighting will be necessary, just show up with popcorn. (The speech has echoes of Deut. 20.)

Jehoshaphat and the Judahites all face-plant, and the Korahites sing out God’s praises.

The next morning, the Judahites woke early and head out to the meeting place. Jehoshaphat gives another speech, this time about believing in God and his prophets. While God had never asked for it, “the people” (2 Chron. 20:21) suggest that singers be appointed to lead the procession, and Jehoshaphat agrees.

As the singers sing, we learn that God set up an ambush. Ambushes typically require bodies – were there fighting angels? I had fun imaging the Edomite-affiliated army being surrounded by the mist Mashadar like in the final battle of Wheel of Time. The New Bible Commentary went a little more realistic and images retaliation from the inhabitants of the overrun lands (p.389). But I think, given the next passage, that we’re meant to understand that this was an ambush of a more spiritual kind. The ambush, you see, turns the allied armies against each other, so that they destroy each other before ever reaching the gathered Judahites.

When the Judahites arrive at their watchpost, they find the invaders slaughtered with no survivors. You’d think there’d be at least one – the one to kill the final comrade – but no. Firm believers in “waste not, want not,” the Judahites rush out into the battlefield to scavenge. They find much cattle, many goods, many clothes, and plenty of precious things. They loaded themselves up until they could carry no more.

On the fourth day, the Judahites gathered again to bless God – this time in the Valley of Beracah, giving the name to the location (which my study Bible says means “blessing”). Then they return to Jerusalem, pleased as punch.

When surrounding nations hear about this miraculous battle, they became afraid and left Judah in peace.

This story, as with many of the Chronicler’s miraculous battles, doesn’t appear in Kings. It does, however, share some general similarities with the invasion of Israel by Moab in 2 Kgs 3:4-27. In that story, the Moabites take advantage of Ahab’s death to rebel against Israel, and Israel’s new king, Jehoram, calls out to Jehoshaphat for help. The prophet in that story is Elisha, and God grants them victory out of his regard for Jehoshaphat. Whether the Chronicler adapted that story, both refer to the same historical event in their own special way, or the two are simply different stories with a few coincidental similarities.

Wrap Up

We definitely return to Kings for the ending of Jehoshaphat’s story.

After the victory over the Edomite-affiliated army, Jehoshaphat joins in an alliance with King Ahaziah of Israel. Ahaziah was a bad bad man, and Jehoshaphat apparently has trouble learning lessons.

Together, the kings build some ships to go to Tarshish. A prophet named Eliezer son of Dodavahu of Mareshah prophesied against this venture, warning that Jehoshaphat will be destroyed by it, but the kings go ahead with it anyway. Of course, the ships were wrecked before they ever reach Tarshish. (In the 1 Kgs 22:48 version, no prophet appears and the wrecking of the ships is not seen as a judgement).

Despite Eliezer’s claims, this episode doesn’t seem to have any bearing on Jehoshaphat’s fate. He is not stricken by any foot disease, or tossed from a window and eaten by dogs, or overthrown by a new dynasty.

Instead, he dies at the perfectly respectable age of 60, having ruled for 25 years.

His mother’s name was Azubah daughter of Shilhi. He is deemed a good and godly king, despite the fact that he failed to remove the high places (agreeing with 1 Kgs 22:42-43, but contradicting 2 Chron. 17:5-6) and his people were not homogeneous in their cultic preferences.

For more information, the Chronicler sends us in search for the chronicles of Jehu son of Hanani, which are recorded in the Book of the Kings of Israel.

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 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 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 13: The rule of the J names

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Note: This post is coming a bit late and I missed Friday’s. Oops! I’ve eaten through my buffer and am now writing on deadlines (or, rather, not). Sorry!

Much of this chapter continues the chronology Israel’s rulers. Unfortunately, nearly all of them have names that start with Js and there are loads of repeats, so it can get pretty confusing. I found that I needed to refer back to the timeline I posted in March to be able to follow along.

We begin in the twenty-third year of Joash’s reign in Judah, when Jehu is replaced by Jehoahaz. He ruled for seventeen years, but was terrible in the way of Jeroboam (in other words, he either maintained or failed to destroy the rural shrines).

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a ruler of one country abolishing his local forms of worship to bow instead to a newer form completely under the political control of a rival king. Still, we’re apparently counting this as a sin.

A sin so bad that God punished Israel by putting it into the hands of Hazael, king of Syria (followed by his son, Benhadad).

To his credit, Jehoahaz did call out to God, and God listened by sending the Israelites a saviour who, it seems, managed to get Israel a temporary reprieve from Syria’s attacks. But because the Israelites still didn’t destroy their local centres of worship (and this time the presence of Asherah is also mentioned – which may or may not have once/still been part of the broader YHWH cult), the Syrians returned with a vengeance.

The construction sounds an awful lot like the formula used in Judges. Except that the focus is on the monarchy. That means that a) the king is the one calling out to God, rather than the people, and b) whoever the saviour is or what their deeds were goes completely unmentioned.

After Jehoahaz’s death, he was succeeded by Jehoash (also called Joash in one instance). Jehoash’s reign lasted for sixteen years, during which he continued to allow local expressions of faith, in the way of Jeroboam. Otherwise, all we get in this quick summary is that he fought against King Amaziah of Judah (who followed King Joash). After his death, he was succeeded by yet another Jeroboam.

Elisha’s Terminal Illness

Elisha has fallen sick, and we’re told that it’s the illness that will eventually kill him. There’s no reason to think that people would have known this at the time, though he’s been active in enough stories to peg his age somewhere around “very advanced,” so it’s hard to imagine that his death wasn’t anticipated.

So King Jehoash of Israel comes to him weeping, and calls out: “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” (2 Kgs 13:14), a phrase that is a clear call back to Elisha’s own words to Elijah in 2 Kgs 2:12, and that make as little sense here as they did then. I can only assume that it’s a Humpty Dumpty reference and move on from there.

Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, by William Dyce, 1844

Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, by William Dyce, 1844

As a final living miracle, Elisha instructs the king to draw a bow. He lays his hands over the king’s hands and tells him to fire out through the window. When the Jehoash does so, Elisha announces that this signals the impending victory over Syria.

This story is similar to God telling Joshua to hold his javelin out toward Ai in Jos. 8:18. In both cases, there’s a question of whether this counts as sympathetic magic.

In particular, this case has a trial aspect. Jehoash is then instructed to take the remaining arrows and strike the ground with them. He does so three times, then stops. Elisha is furious because it means that he will only beat Syria three times, not the five or six times needed to really defeat Syria. So because Jehoash did not properly complete the ritual, the victory he had asked for would only be half-way achieved. It really is hard to see this as anything other than sympathetic magic.

When Elisha dies, he is buried in an area where Moabites are known to invade in the spring. At some later point in time, another funeral is being held in the area when the Moabites are seen approaching. The attendees panic, tossing the corpse into Elisha’s grave, and flee. When the corpse lands on Elisha – specifically, when it touches Elisha’s bones – the man revives.

The story cuts off there, but we might imagine that he would be rather unhappy to find himself in the middle of a Moabite raid. We can imagine how brief his return might have been.

Also, was Elisha’s grave just sitting open? Was the man being buried in the same tomb as Elisha?

Syria’s Succession

While Hazael, king of Syria, continually harassed Israel during Jehoahaz’s reign, God never allowed Israel to be destroyed completely. This is attributed in part to how “gracious” he is (2 Kgs 13:23 – just try and read that without sarcasm), and in part because of the covenant he had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When Hazael died, he was succeeded by his son, Benhadad. Perhaps profiting from the destabilization that usually accompanies a change in leadership, Jehoash was able to retake many of the Israelite cities Syria had conquered – these, then, are the three victories he earned himself earlier with Elisha.

1 Kings 15-16: A House Divided

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The following chapters take us into the first few decades after the deaths of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Important dates are given as references to the Xth year of the other half’s king’s reign – an interesting relational dating system that could only work in a divided monarchy. By necessity, this means that we skip around in the chronology a little. The story begins in Judah for Abijam and Asa, then moves up into Israel for Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab.

Abijam

Abijam came to power in the 18th year of Jeroboam’s reign, and ruled a total of three years. His mother was Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom, who seems to be identified by some with Absalom, making Maacah David’s granddaughter.

Of Abijam’s reign, we’re told only that he failed to live up to David’s greatness – though at least here, for once, the narrator admits that David’s greatness was slightly complicated by that whole Uriah business (1 Kgs 15:5). We also learn that hostilities continued between Israel and Judah during his reign, with the rather out-of-place verse: “Now there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life” (1 Kgs 15:6). It may be possible to explain away by seeing Rehoboam as a reference to his family rather than to the individual, but this seems a stretch. Given that the wording is very similar to 1 Kgs 14:30 and that the verse is not found here in the Septuagint, it seems likely that it’s inclusion here was in error.

No information is given about the circumstances of Abijam’s death, but he only ruled for three years.

Asa

Asa gets the best assessment of anyone in these two chapters. He is crowned king in the 20th year of Jeroboam and ruled for a rather impressive forty-one years. Weirdly, though he is described as Abijam’s son, his mother is also Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom. Either this is an extraordinary coincidence, terribly incestuous, or there’s an error somewhere – it could be that Maacah’s name is duplicated, or that Asa and Abijam were brothers.

The narrator’s principal definition of an awesome king is that Asa cracked down a bit on non-approved cultic practices. Namely, he put away the male cultic prostitutes (no word on the female ones), and removed his mother from her position as Queen Mother because she had commissioned an Asherah – which Asa had cut down and burned. He also brought votive gifts to the Temple, both his own and some from his father. His only failing was that he didn’t take down the high places.

During Asa’s reign, the king of Israel – Baasha, whom we’ll learn about shortly – built Ramah, barring the border between the two nations and apparently serving a defensive function. Given its proximity to Jerusalem (about 8km, or 4 miles), this may have been an aggressive structure as well, or at least perceived as such. In response, Asa took all the silver and gold from both Temple and palace treasuries, and brought it to King Benhadad of Syria. It seems that Benhadad had been supporting Baasha, but he was successfully bribed to switch sides – conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelbethmaacah, all of Chinneroth, and all of Naphtali.

Defeated, Baasha stopped building Ramah. It’s also implied that, as a consequence of this defeat, he dwelt in Tirzah – suggesting that perhaps he was building Ramah with the intention of moving Israel’s capitol there and had to retreat back to Tirzah, which we know from 1 Kgs 14:17 was the current capitol. Once Baasha had retreated, Asa ordered all of Judah (“none was exempt” – 1 Kgs 15:22) to carry away the stones and timber of Ramah, using them instead to build Geba in Benjamin and Mizpah. It seems that few lessons were learned regarding the dangers of conscription.

In his old age, Asa suffered from diseased feet, which my New Bible Commentary speculates may have been dropsy (p.340). After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Jehoshaphat.

Israel

Nadab

Back in Israel, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Nadab, in the second year of Asa’s reign. The narrator found him unworthy, and so, apparently, did others. He only managed to rule for two years before Baasha, the son of Ahijah of Issachar, revolted and killed Nadab at Gibbethon. It’s not spelled out, but since we are told that Gibbethon belonged to Philistia, it seems probable that Baasha took advantage of the battle to turn on his king.

Baasha

Baasha was crowned in the third year of Asa’s reign, and his first act as king was to slaughter all the remaining members of Jeroboam’s house – not an uncommon practice when trying to found a new dynasty. He ruled a total of twenty-four years, with Tirzah as his capitol. Of course, our narrator was no fan.

During Baasha’s reign, there was a new prophet: Jehu, son of Hanani. He was no fan of Baasha either. He prophesies that God is displeased that Baasha is no better than his predecessors and, as punishment, will see his house utterly destroyed.

Elah

In the 26th year of Asa, Elah inherited the crown of Israel from his father. Unfortunately, his reign was troubled from the start. While he was getting plastered, Zimri – the commander of half of Elah’s chariots – murdered him. It seems significant that Zimri commanded only half of the chariots – I’m not sure if this would have been common practice, or if this is meant to signify that there were already divisions happening.

Either way, Elah was deposed in the 27th year of Asa.

Zimri

While clearly a go-getter, Zimri failed to get all his ducks in a row before taking the crown through murder. After only seven days, during which he just barely had time to murder every male kin and friend of Baasha’s dynasty, he fell.

Elah’s troops had been encamped at Gibbethon, perhaps continuing the conflict that saw Nadab’s death. When they heard of Elah’s murder, they made their commander, Omri, king. Omri brought the army back to Tirzah and besieged the city. Clearly seeing that he wasn’t going to hold on to the power he’d only just taken, Zimri set the citadel of the king’s house on fire, with himself inside.

Just as a point of interest, the term used for the men associated with Baasha’s dynasty in 1 Kgs 16:11 in the King James Bible is “one that pisseth against a wall.” This is, apparently, how men are to be defined by people who clearly never met a woman who does a lot of hiking or camping.

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Omri

Despite having the support of the soldiers under his command, Omri’s transition was not particularly smooth. Half of Israel followed Tibni, son of Ginath. While Omri defeated Tibni, the fact that Zimri’s rise and fall occured in the 27th year of Asa yet Omri’s reign is not said to have begun until the 31st year of Asa, it seems that the conflict between the two men lasted four years.

We’re told that Omri reigned a total of twelve years, six of which were in Tirzah. Yet to make the numbers of work, four of those years would have been the years of civil war, giving him only two solid years in Tirzah. After that, he bought land from a man named Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on it the city of Samaria. Not only was this the new capitol of Israel, Israel itself soon came to be known as Samaria.

Despite the text’s assessment of Omri as evil, he seems to have been quite important. From Micah 6:16, it seems that he was known for instituting some kind of legal reform, though no details are preserved. Omri is also the first Hebrew king for which we have direct non-biblical evidence:

The Moabite Stone, which was discovered in 1868, tells of the conflict between Mesha, king of Moab, and Omri, who humbled Moab for many years but was eventually defeated (ANET, 321). The inscription is remarkable for the similarty it shows between the religion of Moab and that of Israel. Mesha acts at the behest of his god, Chemosh, just as the Israelites act at the behest of YHWH. Most remarkable is that Mesha boasts of having slaughtered every man, woman, and child in Nebo, “for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.” Omri’s son, Ahab, is mentioned in the Monolith Inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser as having contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers to an Aramean coalition that halted an Assyrian advance (ANET, 279). Assyrian records continued to refer to Israel as “the house of Omri” long after Omri’s descendants had ceased to rule. Omri and Ahab were kings to be reckoned with. There is much more evidence outside the Bible for their power and influence than was the case with Solomon. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137,138)

Ahab

In the 38th year of Asa, Omri was succeeded by his son, Ahab. Though described by the text as just the absolute worst, Ahab seems to have been able to maintain a bit of stability in the unstable nation of Israel, ruling for an impressive twenty-two years. He was married to a woman named Jezebel, whose name should be familiar to any cultural Christian. She was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidonia and, through her, Ahab came to serve Baal. Not only does he make an Asherah, he also builds a temple for Baal in Samaria. As in the case of his father, we have an independent attestation of Ahab’s existence.

Somewhat out of place in this narrative, we get a note about a man named Hiel of Bethel who rebuilt Jericho. We’re told that the foundation of the city came at the cost of his first-born son, Abiram, and that the gates were built at the cost of his youngest son, Segub. This is all, says the narrative, a fulfilment of Joshua’s prophecy, given in Joshua 6:29. The most charitable reading has the two boys either having their deaths attributed to the construction (as we saw Bathsheba’s first son’s death attributed to David’s sin in 2 Samuel 12), or perhaps both sons assisted in the construction and died accidentally. There’s no reason to assume that Joshua’s prophecy predicted a future event, as opposed to Joshua’s prophecy, written after the events, describing events that it full well knew would come later when Jericho was rebuilt.

A third possibility, and perhaps the likeliest, was that these were ritual killings, human sacrifices intended to bless the construction. These sorts of sacrifices (both human and animal) have been found in much of the world, and knowledge of them survived in folk mythology even longer (as we see in this German legend). The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying quotes a book by Nigel Davies:

In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981, p. 61)

Judges 6-8: Gideon’s 300

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Israel was at rest for forty years, presumably under Deborah as judge. At the end of that time, the cycle resets and God gives the Israelites over to Midian for seven years. The Midianites, who are suddenly joined by the Amalekites and miscellaneous eastern peoples, harass the Israelites so much that they build “dens” (Judges 6:2) in the mountains – defensible caves and strongholds. They harass the Israelites, and come through with so many people and cattle that they are “like locusts” (Judges 6:5), both in number and in the effect they have on the land. They’ve apparently bounced back quite admirably from the culling they received Num. 31:7, 16-17.

The situation is so terrible that it prompts God to give a big lecture and then he appoints his new judge, Gideon.

Gideon’s appointment story reminded me a lot of Moses’s call from Exodus 3. First, there’s the presence of Midianites (though in Moses’s case, of course, he was rather friendly with them). But the real connection is that Gideon is the first “hero” called since Moses who goes through the refusal stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The idea behind the refusal is that only a narcissist would accept becoming God’s Special BFF without protest. An initial refusal of the position demonstrates humility, therefore signifying to the audience that the hero is worthy of the position.

Gideon is visited by a figure who is alternately God and an angel of God – something we saw a bit of in Genesis, such as Gen. 16:10-11 and Gen. 22:11, then again in Balaam’s story in Numbers 22, and then not again until Judges.

This angel sits under an oak at Ophrah, on land belonging to Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon, his son, was beating out wheat in the wine press instead of out in the open “to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11).

Right from the start, Gideon challenges God. When the angel tells him that “the Lord is with you” (Judges 6:12), Gideon asks how that can be when the situation is so terrible. What happened, he asks, to the great deeds of the exodus? To which God replies, “do not I send you?” (Judges 6:14). That got a good chuckle out!

Gideon proceeds to make various excuses for why he can’t possibly be the deliverer of the Israelites – the Abiezrites are the weakest clan in Manasseh, and he has the lowest status within it. It reminded me of all the excuses Moses made when faced with a similar situation. God, however, still maintains that Gideon will do fine because he will have God at his side.

Still unsure, Gideon (who clearly never read Deut. 6:16) proposes a test and asks the angel/God to hang around for a bit. He runs off and prepares a meal, then brings it back to the where the angel/God is still waiting under the tree, offering the meal. God tells him to put the meal on a rock and to pour broth over it. That done, God touches it with the tip of his staff and it bursts into flame. The miraculous fire at the time of the call is another connection to the Moses story – and I wonder if the pouring of the broth over the food is intended to give the miracle a little more oomph, since it would pre-emptively shoot down any objections that perhaps Gideon’s meatloaf is just so dry that it spontaneously combusts like underbrush in a drought. Though the parameters of the test were never stated, this seems to satisfy Gideon – for now.

Unfortunately, it satisfies him too well, and Gideon freaks out as it dawns on him that he has seen God face-to-face (this being a death sentence, as per Exod. 33:20). God reassures him – “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die” (Judges 6:23).

Altar Real Estate

Like the patriarchs of Genesis, Gideon builds an altar that “to this day still stands at Ophrah” (Judges 6:24) on the spot where he communed with God. Details like this and the references to the “angel of the Lord” make me wonder if this story may not have originated from the same tradition that later birthed Genesis. Certainly, it seems that the bulk of the story comes from a very different set of traditions than the other books we’ve read so far.

Now that God has his altar at Ophrah, he asks Gideon to pull down his father’s altar to Ball and cut down his father’s Asherah – two separate monuments to two separate gods located on the same real estate.

The wording is a little confusing, but it seems that Gideon uses one of his father’s bulls to do this work, then builds (another?) altar to God, then sacrifices a second of his father’s bulls using the wood from the Asherah. I’m not sure whether these are two separate bulls, or if Joash’s second best bull is being used to both purposes.

I was somewhat shocked that God would ask Gideon to use the wood from the Asherah to build the sacrificial pyre since it would have been consecrated to another God. There’s no mention of, for example, reusing the materials from Baal’s altar in the building of the new one. I haven’t looked into it, but I’ve heard whispers that Asherah may have been proto-God’s consort before Judaism got all monotheistic. I’m just using a little wild conjecture but, if that’s the case, is it possible that using wood from an Asherah was at one time part of how sacrifices were supposed to be made to God, at least in a particular region?

Gideon, who seems to be depicted truly as the “least” (Judges 6:15). When we first see him, he is working in hiding, then demurs from God’s call, and now is willing destroy his father’s altars only under the cover at night for fear of his family and the townsfolk.

In the morning, the townsfolk see what happen and tell Joash to bring out his son. Despite the fact that Gideon had worked at night for fear of his family and the fact that the altars were his fathers, Joash seems quite firmly on Team Gideon.

He faces the mob, and he says: “If he [Baal] is a god, let him content for himself” (Judges 6:31) – a message that I truly wish were preached from the pulpit a bit more often. It seems to work because the townsfolk are not mentioned again.

Even though Joash is the one who says this, we are told that this is how Gideon earns his new name – Jerubbaal, which means “Let Baal content against him” (Judges 6:32).

On this name, my study Bible says:

The explanation given of the name Jerubbaal is not the natural one; the bearer of such a name was certainly a worshiper of Baal, not an antagonist.

This leads me to wonder if perhaps this portion of the story wasn’t invented to explain away a name that was associated with Gideon.

Abbie from Better Than Esdras asks, in a similar vein, if perhaps Gideon might not have originated as a Canaanite folk hero.

The Battle

With enemies amassing, “the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (Judges 6:34), which I assume is just another way of saying that he girded his loins.

Gideon calls out to Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the rest of Manassehfor help. Before moving out, however, Gideon wants to make absolutely sure that God will be with him. Rather than simply asking for confirmation, he instead sets up a new test.

First, Gideon sets out a fleece of wool and tells God that, in the morning, the fleece should be wet with dew but not the ground around it. On the second morning, the fleece should be dry while the ground is wet. God abides.

Convinced, Gideon/Jerubbaal assembles his army and gets ready to head out. This time, it’s God’s turn to have reservations. He’s concerned that the gathered army of 32,000 men is too impressive – when they win, they will surely think that it was their number that won the battle and not God.

God would like the defeat of the Midianites (who are sporadically accompanied by Amalekites and assorted eastern peoples) to be an obvious miracle, so he proposes tests to reduce the number of soldiers in Gideon’s army.

  1. Anyone who is fearful is told to head home. This leaves only 10,000 soldiers, but the number is still too high for God’s liking.
  2. God has Gideon send the soldiers down to the river and take a drink. Those who lap at the water with their tongues like a dog may remain, while those who kneel to drink must go home. This leaves the 300 most savage and uncivilized Israelites – Gideon’s very own 300.

Timid Gideon who prefers hiding in wine presses and in the dark of night is woken in the wee hours and told to attack. Anticipating that he’ll object, God pre-empts any further testing and just tells Gideon to take his servant, Purah, and eavesdrop on the Midianite camp.

There, Gideon overhears two men talking. One of them has had a dream wherein a cake of barley bread tumbled into camp and crushed a tent. His friend interprets the dream, seeing the barley bread as a stand-in for Joshua’s sword. Because nothing says “sword” like a loaf of bread shaped to tumble.

My study Bible helpfully supplements this interpretation – the barley bread is a symbol of a settled, agrarian society (the Israelites), while the tent symbolises a nomadic culture (which the Midianites apparently are).

What follows is a bit of trickery – or, at least, I read it as such. I get the sense from both Better Than Esdras (where it is described as “SO WEIRD”) and Both Saint and Cynic (who refers to the Israelite army being “armed with pottery jars” but makes no reference to their purpose) that perhaps this is not the obvious interpretation I thought it was.

The Israelites position themselves in companies on different sides of the Midianite encampment perimeter. They all carry trumpets and torches, but the torches are kept inside jars. Once they are in position, they smash the jars and blow the trumpets. In my interpretation, the strategy here is to use the jars to hide the light from the torches during the approach (depending on the shape of these jars, it could allow for a focused beam of light so that the soldiers can see where they are going without being seen by the Midianites). When they smash the jars, the torches are revealed. Combined with their positions and the blowing of the trumpets, they would give the illusion that their number is far greater, which is what scares the Midianites, prompting them to flee.

The text implies that all the Midianites flee and that there is no actual battle at this point.

Ephraim’s Victory

With the Midianites fleeing, Gideon sends word to Ephraim to kill off the deserters coming their way. The Ephraimites manage to capture two Midianite chieftains, Oreb and Zeeb. They kill Oreb at a rock of the same name, and Zeeb at a winepress of the same name.

But all of this happens after something of a river-hopping chase. Being unfamiliar with the geography, I noticed nothing strange about the description of the movements. Abbie, from Better Than Esdras, however, did a little more research than I:

The Midianites flee. The average reader wouldn’t realize it, but the OSE [Oxford Study Bible] editors note that the places they flee to are all east of the Jordan (outside of Canaan). If you’ve been paying ANY attention you’ll know all the action has taken place in Ephraim, west of the Jordan. So, logically, the Midianites have crossed the Jordan. TAKE NOTE OF THIS.

[She then quotes Judges 7:24-25]

See any problems? The Ephraimites are trying to prevent the Midianites from crossing the Jordan… and apparently they succeed (the fords are held, right?) But the Midianites, we know from their locations, just crossed the river. Major, major contradictions here. And then what is up with the king’s heads? Which side of the river are they even headed towards? HAHAHA.

How to solve these contradictions? Sift out the sources. After a lot of puzzlement, here is my FINAL ANSWER. I believe that the main text of chapter 7 ends abruptly partway through verse 22. Then, 7:22b-7:24 is a short bridge, drawn from several fragments. Finally, 7:25-8:3 is a cohesive insert. The text beginning 8:4 apparently continues the main story from Chapter 7.

The chieftains dispatched, the Ephraimites turn on Gideon, angry that they were not called in to the war efforts earlier. Gideon mollifies them by arguing that the capture of Oreb and Zeeb was a greater victory than the ruse at the Midianite camp.

Zebah and Zalmunna

Gideon and his 300 men pursue two more chieftains, Zebah and Zalmunna (or, more likely, origin stories for locations known as Oreb and Zeeb got associated with the story of Gideon’s triumph over Midian and something to do with two kings, and we’re seeing two very different versions of the same story).

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

The soldiers are exhausted, so they stop at Succoth and ask for bread. The residents of Succoth refuse, saying that Gideon hasn’t yet caught Zebah and Zalmunna (which I see some people interpret as a taunt, though I saw it as choosing the side they anticipate will be the winner, having seen how much smaller Gideon’s army is). Furious, Gideon tells them that he’s busy right now, but when the chieftains are caught, he’ll come back and flay the people of Succoth with thorns and briars.

Still hungry, the Israelites stop in Penuel and the same thing happens, only this time Gideon says that he will return and break down their tower.

Eventually, the 301 Israelites catch up to Zebah, Zalmunna, and their 15,000 men in Karkor. Gideon’s army attacks and wins. This is clearly not the timid Gideon we’ve seen so far who hides in the shadows. Rather, the Gideon of this portion of the story resembles more the Israelite-hero-who-kills-everything archetype we’ve seen so much of.

He returns to Succoth with his two prisoners and confronts a young man they find from the city. The young man – under what conditions it is not described – gives up the names of Succoth’s 77 elders. Gideon confronts the elders, presenting his captive chieftains, and then “taught the men of Succoth” (Judges 8:16) by flaying them, as promised, with his thorns and briars. He then moves on to Penuel and takes down their tower, slaying their men too, for good measure.

I think it’s rather clear that there was a story in which Gideon asked for help from a town, was rejected, and then got revenge, though different areas had attributed it to different towns. These two divergent threads were then stitched back into the same narrative by the Judges editor.

Having shown off Zebah and Zalmunna to his enemies, Gideon then questions them about men they killed at Tabor. To chieftains confess to having killed them, and Gideon reveals that “they were my brothers, the sons of my mother” (Judges 8:19). Wait, what??

According to J.R. Porter:

[Gideon] seems to have been originally a simple folk-hero of a small clan group, who was remembered as one who upheld the fundamental social institution of the blood-feud by slaughtering the two kings of Midian who had killed his brothers (Judg. 8.18-21). (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 68)

In other words, there seems to have been a story where, instead of being called by God to liberate the Israelites, Gideon was instead on a personal quest for revenge. I wonder if Gideon and Jerubbaal might not have originally been separate figures who were combined at some point, and then given an origin story that better fit with the Judges pattern of judges being elected to free Israel from the hands of some enemy.

That the story had originally been of revenge rather that freedom is the only way that I can see to explain his reaction when the chieftains confess to the killing: “if you had saved them alive, I would not slay you” (Judges 8:19). I don’t think we have any example of the hero from a freedom narrative sparing the enemy leaders, but in the context of a blood feud, Gideon would have no basis for killing them if his brothers still lived.

At first, Gideon tells his eldest son, Jether, to kill the chieftains (wait, if he was the “least” in his family back in Judges 6, does that mean that his status was lower, even, than his own son? How on earth did literalphilia ever become a thing?). Jether, taking after his dad, refuses, and the text tells us that it’s because he was so young. Surprisingly, he is not stricken down or killed for his refusal, and Gideon simply does the job himself.

Monarchy and Heresy

Having seen him in action, the Israelites ask Gideon to become their king, and for his position to be hereditary. Gideon refuses (Judges 8:23).

He does, however, ask a favour of his soldiers – he asks them all to give him the gold earrings they had taken from their enemies, who have suddenly transformed from Midianites to Ishmaelites. These, he melts down with the crescent jewellery he’d taken from the Midianite kings, and uses the gold to build an ephod. This he sets up in Ophrah, presumably near the (two) altar(s) he made for God.

The Ishmaelites, if you’ll remember, are the descendants of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, whom he abandoned in the wilderness. He is considered by Muslims to be the father of Arabs. It struck me that the text should associate these Ishmaelites with crescents twice, that symbol being today associated with Islam.

Wikipedia confounds any conclusions I might draw from this, however, as it seems to have been a symbol in use around the Ancient Near East.

The building of the ephod turns out to be a rather bad idea because “all Israel played the harlot after it, there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27).

Thing is, we have no idea what an ephod is.

Brant Clements discusses the object:

Previously we encountered the word in reference to a priestly garment (Exodus 25:7). That doesn’t seem to be what Gideon made.No, Gideon made some kind of object of worship (an idol). I suspect that, like the priestly garment, it may have been used for divination, but that’s just speculation on my part. Whatever it was, Gideon’s ephod was problematic because people worshiped it.

The Israelites have forty years of rest under Gideon, during which time he has seventy sons via many wives. One, Abimelech, was born of a concubine. We’ll hear more about him later.

When Gideon dies, the Israelites turn to Baalberith as their god.

Exodus 34: The Ten Commandments, redux

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To renew their covenant after the Hebrews cheated on God with golden calf, God decides to re-write the ten commandments on a new set of tablets. But first, he wants to renew his vows.

Which translates to just talking about himself and how wonderful he is for a while.

During this little speech, God describes himself as “slow to anger” (Exod. 34:6). Seriously. Slow to anger. As David Plotz points out: “God certainly doesn’t have self-esteem issues, but I’m not sure He has perfect insight about Himself.”

On this passage, Collins writes in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible:

It does not negate the “jealous” character of God, but it qualifies it. The biblical portrayal of God is not unique in the ancient world. A Babylonian prayer to Marduk addresses him as “warrior Marduk, whose anger is the deluge, whose relenting is that of a merciful father” (p.73).

But, says God, that doesn’t mean that he’s just going to be going around overlooking sins or anything! In fact, he’s so anti-sin that he will be “visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:7). So yeah, God thinks it’s a-okay to punish someone for something his great-great-grandfather did. Even if God is slow to anger, he sure as heck isn’t quick to calm down afterwards!

A little of the old ultraviolence

Once again, God promises to drive out the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Generally, I’d say this is a bad thing. However, I, too, try to get rid of Perizzites, particularly of the intestinal variety.

God writing upon the tables of the covenant by William Blake, c. 1805

God writing upon the tables of the covenant by William Blake, c. 1805

The next bit is a bit speech from God about how the Hebrews shouldn’t become friends with non-Hebrews. In particular, he warns against making any agreements – or covenants – with the people God claims that he will be driving out.

But that’s not enough. The Hebrews should also go around and “tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim” (Exod. 34:13). I don’t think I need to say how gross these kinds of passages are.

A note on Asherim: These are, according to my Study Bible, sacred poles that symbolized Asherah, “the mother goddess of Canaanite religion” (p.113). There’s also some interesting theories about her and her possible dalliance with God, but that’s a subject for another post.

To finish up, our “jealous god” (Exod. 34:14) forbids taking “of their daughters for your sons” (Exod. 34:16), lest they lead the sons towards the worship of their gods. As David Plotz points out: “This suggests a lack of confidence in our God and faith […] Given God’s greatness, wouldn’t intermarriage do the opposite and attract more people to him?”

Someone really should tell Joseph, since he had no trouble marrying the Egyptian Asenath (Gen. 46:20).

The new Ten Commandments

Despite telling us that he “will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables” (Exod. 34:1), God decides to give us a totally different set of Ten Commandments, one that should surprise most of the Christian Right proponents of courthouse/schoolroom monuments. Check Exodus 20 for a quick refresher on what the first Ten Commandments looked like. Now here’s the new ones:

  1. Worship no other god.
  2. Make no molten gods (but feel free to decorate stuff with cherubim, ’cause those look neat-o).
  3. Keep the Passover, or feast of unleavened bread.
  4. “All that opens the womb is mine” (Exod. 34:19). Okay, so this one needs a little looksy. In Biblespeak, what “opens the womb” is the first born child. So God starts off by saying that the Hebrews should “redeem” all firstlings among the cattle. This rule also applies to human children: “All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem” (Exod. 34:20). This is, quite clearly, a call to human sacrifice. However, this is moderated by offering the possibility of making a substitution. “Underlying this commandment is the conviction that all life is from God, and that God’s right to the firstborn must be acknowledged in order to ensure future fertility” (Collins, Hebrew Bible, p.51).
  5. Keep the Sabbath.
  6. Keep the feast of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end. At each of these times during the year, all males must “appear before the Lord God” (Exod. 34:23).
  7. Do not offer blood sacrifice with leavened bread.
  8. Don’t keep leftovers after Passover.
  9. The first fruits of the ground should be given to God.
  10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

As you can see, there’s very few similarities between these commandments and the ones from Exodus 20. The old commandments touched on cultic stuff, but also had a few rules about behaviour (no killing, no stealing, that sort of thing). These ones – the actual, final ten commandments that will be carried around by the Hebrews for the next few thousand years until they are discovered by Indiana Jones – are entirely devoted to cultic issues.

There’s also some question about who actually does the writing onto the stone. Before getting started, God tells Moses that “I will write upon the tables” (Exod. 34:1). However, once he’s done dictating, he tells Moses to “write these words: (Exod. 34:27). In the end, it’s Moses who “wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Exod. 34:28), which explains a little better why it took 40 days to do so.

Maybe it’s Maybelline

Of course, it wasn’t all about engraving stone. All that time spent in the presence of God also gave Moses some lovely glowing skin. When he descends from the mountain, everyone keeps commenting on how fantastic his skin looks. Of course, it may have something to do with the fact that Moses “neither ate bread nor drank water” (Exod. 34:28) the entire time he was up there.

On a more serious note, Joseph Campbell argues that the hero, Moses, having been “blessed by the father returns to represent the father among men […] Since he is now centered in the source, he makes visible the repose and harmony of the central place” (Hero With A Thousand Faces, p.347). If this is the case, we can interpret Moses’ facial sparkles as a visible manifestation of this transformation.

Finally, not one for all that attention, Moses takes to wearing a veil that he removes only to chat with God.