Amos 3-4: Disciplinary Strategies

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In Amos 1-2, it was easy to see a structure. I had noted at the time that Amos seemed to be drawing the Samarians in with some bravado about how terrible foreign nations are, then drawing ever closer until he dropped the bomb: indicting Samaria itself.

I see a few similar rhetorical tactics in Amos 3-4, but they are shorter. I’m getting the impression that the book of Amos is a collection of arguments/prophecies, rather than something that would have been meant as a complete treatise.

Most of Amos 3-4 is told as if it were the direct words of Gods (“spoken against you” – Amos 3:1), though with periodic speech tags in case anyone forgets.

Amos 3 begins by identifying Israel as a chosen people (or “family,” as they are called here). As Collins points out, “this should be good news.” Instead, however, it is because God has only known (in the biblical sense) Israel that the nation will be punished. “Election only means greater responsibility” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).

A Rhetorical Questioning

Amos 3:3-8 contains a series of rhetorical questions, culminating with the argument that God is the agent of Samaria’s suffering. The questions themselves are ones of obviousness, along the lines of “Is the pope Catholic?”

They start off rather unrelated to the point being made: Do two people walk together unless they have, at some point, met each other? Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey? (While I typically think of lions as being savannah dwellers, the Asiatic lion can, apparently, live in forests, and would have been the lion Amos was most familiar with.)

The questions inch closer to the point: Can a trumpet be blown in a city without making the people afraid?

And, finally: Can evil befall a city without it being God’s doing?

After the questions, we are told that God does not act without revealing it to the prophets (Amos 3:7). This, then, leads into:

The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

This is clearly a call back to Amos 1:2, but also reinforces the argument. God causes evil => God lets the prophets know when he does so => I have heard God tell me so, and am therefore compelled to tell you.

See the Oppression!

The reader is bidden to witness the tumult and oppression in Samaria. Clearly, Amos is one of them SJWs, because this injustice is prompting punishment from God.

The imagery is striking: Just as a shepherd might pull a few body parts out of a lion’s mouth, so will some small minority of Israelites be rescued from Samaria’s fate (Amos 3:12). The implication is clear – you may survive what’s coming, but you won’t be whole.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

Special mention is made of the altars at Bethel, whose horns will be cut off. These would be Jeroboam’s altars, built in 1 Kgs 12:25-33.

God will also destroy all the fancy houses, including the houses of ivory. An ivory house is mentioned in 1 Kgs 22:39, which my study Bible identifies as a Samarian palace “decorated with carved ivory inlay and containing furniture so decorated.” (It seems that some of these ivory inlays have survived.)

The listing of the palaces that will be destroyed concludes with “and the great houses shall come to an end” (Amos 3:15), which seems to be another example of a pun on the word “house” (which can mean both a physical structure and a dynasty). One of the more elaborate examples of these came in 1 Chron. 17:1-15, where David and God keep offering to build houses for each other, variously meaning palaces, dynasties, and temples.

Amos then turns his attention to the women of Samaria, whom he calls “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1). Bashan, it seems, was a “fertile area in Transjordan” (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 156), meaning that they are basically being called “fat cows.”

The women’s crimes are pretty terrible. You see, they have oppressed the poor, crushed the needy, and asked their husbands for something to drink. Yikes. Fat cows and hen-peckers? For this, their days are numbered and they will be cast forth into Harmon.

Next come the cultic practices, as God, via Amos, invites the Samarians to keep sinning at Bethel and Gilgal (both associated with prophets in 2 Kgs 2:1-2). They are invited to keep bringing their sacrifices and tithes, and to “publish them” as they so love to do (Amos 4:5).

The mention of the shrines made me wonder if it was a Deuteronomistic criticism of worship outside of the Jerusalem Temple. However, what follows makes it seem more like the criticism is of the pomp and circumstance, and the publicity of it all. It rang similar to Matthew 6:5, calling out the public display of pious peacocking as hypocrisy.

Collins points to another possibility, that ritual “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the serve of God, but actually an impediment to it. The service of God is about justice. It is not about offerings at all” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 158).

Expecting A Different Result

There have been portions of tonight’s reading that I’ve appreciated (the mentions of social justice, the condemnation of religious hypocrisy), and parts that have made me gag (the overt patriarchy of Amos’s condemnation of wives who presume). But the second half of Amos 4 is just plain silly.

In it, God lists all the punishments he’s given Samaria, ending each with, “yet you did not return to me.”

See, I’m a parent. I don’t go with the whole punishment thing as a general rule because the concept is rather silly. Most of what we read as “misbehaviour” actually turns out to be age-appropriate responses to asking too much from itty-bitty people. When I adjust my expectations and plan ahead for the unavoidable, nearly all “disciplinary” issues disappear. What remains can almost always be dealt with through teaching.

Punishments usually end up being counter productive, because punishing a child for age-appropriate behaviours doesn’t actually fix the problems. All it does is either break the child so they become unable to cope and meet their own needs, or it fosters an adversarial relationship that will then require parents to maintain constant vigilance in order to maintain the family hierarchy. Neither of which sounds like a positive outcome to me.

So here we have a God who sees the same behaviours repeated over and over again, and responds every time with punishments. And even though these punishments are clearly not working, he doggedly sticks to this one strategy while wringing his hands because it never ever works.

It reads like bad comedy.

The punishments themselves are:

  • Giving the people clean teeth and lack of bread;
  • Withholding rain when it was still 3 months before the harvest;
  • Arbitrarily withering some fields and not others;
  • Smiting with blight and mildew, laying waste to gardens and vineyards, devouring fig and olive trees with locusts;
  • Sending a pestilence (in the manner of Egypt);
  • Slaying Samaria’s young men with the sword and carrying away its horses;
  • Making the stench of Samaria’s camps go up their nostrils (I do believe this is scatological);
  • And overthrowing bits of Samaria, “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Amos 4:11 – you may notice the POV break here).

I just happened to be reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, and I came on the following relevant passage, given the mention of the harvest:

Before the time of the harvest, rich and poor alike waited. The Mediterranean is notorious for the variability of its harvests, due to unstable climatic conditions. The carefully tended fields were menaced by flattening cloudbursts, by random scything by hailstorms, and by the perpetual menace of prolonged drought (along its eastern and southern shores) and of “dry” winters (winters without snow and thus without moisture) in the plateaus of its hinterlands, notably in Anatolia. “Harvest shocks” caused by unforeseen shortfalls in the crops were the norm. In all areas except Egypt, yields could vary by over 50 percent from year to year.

Not surprisingly, therefore, wealth was widely thought of as lying in the hands of the gods. A good harvest was the smile of God or of the gods spreading across an obedient landscape. In 311, one of the last pagan emperors (the eastern emperor Maximin Daia) informed the citizens of Tyre that his persecution of the Christians had pleased the gods. The weather itself had changed for the better:

“Let them look at the standing crops already flourishing with waving heads in the broad fields, and at the meadows, glittering with plants and flowers, in response to abundant rains and to the restored mildness and softness of the atmosphere.” (p.12)

After all of that, though, the sermon just sort of… fizzles. Because all these punishments haven’t worked, God will send more. “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).

Then it derails entirely, telling us that he who makes mountains and creates wind is the God of hosts. It seems that I’m not the only one who feels that the passage seems odd in this spot, and the authenticity of Amos 4:13 is questioned, mostly because “the passages are abrupt in their context” (New Bible Commentary, p.728).

Lamentations 5: Remember, O Lord

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I found the fifth ode to be an easier read than the others, less challenging. It’s certainly the shortest, as the crow counts words, but I also found it to have the most easily-grasped structure. Bob MacDonald has some interesting notes on the poetry of the ode, but I’ll just stick to content.

More so than the other four odes, it can be fairly well summarized by its opening verse: “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; behold, and see our disgrace!” (Lam. 5:1)

What follows is a lengthy description of said disgrace, with most verses containing an inversion of the desired/previous (assumed) social order. I say “assumed” because I suspect that there may be an element of romanticising of the before-days. I find it difficult to believe that women were not raped before the coming of Babylon (Lam. 5:11), or that much of the population was not hard driven (Lam. 5:5) or forced to stagger under heavy loads (Lam. 5:13). Perhaps these things became more common, or perhaps they started to affect the literate classes as well as the poor, but I find it unlikely that a substantial portion of the Israelite population was not forced to labour under unfair conditions while under solid Israelite rule.

Nebuzaradan burns down the temple, from Petrus Comestor's "Bible Historiale", 1372

Nebuzaradan burns down the temple, from Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

The complaints are fairly standard for what we’ve seen so far. There are several mentions of starvation and hard labour, and there’s the rape I mentioned above. Other than that, there are several complaints of the high having been brought low: The idea that Israel’s crown has fallen (Lam. 5:16), and that even princes now find themselves hung by their hands (Lam. 5:12).

But a few of the complaints stood out, for various reasons:

The first (in order) is the complaint that the Israelites now have to pay for the water and wood they use (Lam. 5:4), which is certainly timely given the water crisis in Michigan (both Flint more recently, and the shut offs in Detroit not too long ago). This idea that having to pay others for basic necessities of life as a sign of exile and things gone shockingly wrong strikes me especially in light of the Christian Right’s often libertarian leanings. But it’s also, I think, another commentary on the “high brought low,” as the Israelites are cut off from the means of self-sufficiency.

The narrator complains that it is their fathers who did the sinning, but they are dead and it is the present generation who must suffer as punishment (Lam. 5:7). It feels like there’s almost a sense of injustice at such a moral system, though of course the narrator never goes so far as to directly question God.

Lam. 5:8 complains that the Israelites are ruled by slaves. This struck me as rather strange, and I wondered if it might be an imperialistic assumption – that foreigners are meant to be slaves, and yet here they are as rulers. My Study Bible, however, notes that: “Important posts were sometimes given to slaves of the king.” In other words, the verse may well be literal – in that the Israelites are working under overseers who are, in fact, slaves.

The narrator tells us that Mount Zion has become desolate, and that it is prowled by jackals. Jackals, who have powerful stomachs that can even digest (and derive nutrition from) bones, are often associated with graveyards and the dead in ancient mythologies (having, in times of desperation, dug up corpses to supplement their diet). The Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, is frequently associated with jackals, though apparently that’s been complicated by recent research. In any case, the point seems to be clear: The holy centre of Israel is now as desolate as a graveyard.

God’s Reign

The final four verses of the ode work well as a conclusion. God’s power is established, and the narrator makes a plea for Israel to be restored. And yet, the very final verse, Lam. 5:22, wonders if perhaps God is just too angry, and Israel is utterly rejected.

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 32: Hezekiah’s Better Side

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Hezekiah’s Passover, which gets no mention in Kings, took up three chapters. That leaves us with only a single chapter to cover all of the content from 2 Kgs 18-20. It goes without saying that the story ends up a wee bit abbreviated. And since the Chronicler seems to have decided that the Hezekiah is a stand up kinda guy, that abbreviation frequently ends up making him look better.

We begin with the Assyrian assault on Judah, though it’s introduced rather awkwardly: “After these things and these acts of faithfulness [referring to the Passover and religious revival] Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah” (2 Chron. 32:1). With all the ado made in our readings so far about faithfulness keeping enemies at bay, I found this first – as it is constructed – rather striking.

Of course, the Chronicler does try to soften the blow when he has Sennacherib only lay siege on Judah’s cities in the hope of taking them, whereas he succeeds in taking them in 2 Kgs 18:13.

Hezekiah meets with his officers to form their strategy, and they decide to focus on defence. So they stop up the water coming to Jerusalem from springs outside the city, making an extended siege more difficult for the Assyrians. Though not mentioned until 2 Chron. 32:30, tradition and 2 Kgs 20:20 credit Hezekiah with the construction of the Siloam tunnel, which would have been a far more defensible means of getting water into the city.

He also built up the city’s defensive structures, as well as a stockpile of weapons and shields. And while he really should have done so earlier, he at least took the time now to appoint commanders for his armies.

In discussing these preparations, James Bradford Pate noted that the Chronicler seems to generally approve of building up Judah’s strength for defence or conquest, but only so long as it doesn’t involve other nations. Hiring mercenaries or forming alliances always seems to earn a punishment, ostensibly because it displays a lack of trust in God to provide protection and victory. Yet, Pate points out, aren’t Hezekiah’s preparations essentially the same thing?

For Pate, a difference is that involving other nations might lead to compromise. I would add that alliances, such as the one Kings describes between Hezekiah and Egypt, probably weren’t founded on friendship between two equal parties. In a case like that, it’s doubtful that Egypt would have needed Judah’s aid so much as Judah needed Egypt’s. That kind of arrangement, though called an alliance, might well have been something more like a vassal agreement, and therefore a show of weakness as far as the Chronicler was concerned.

Building up Judah’s own strength is the opposite of that – it is increasing strength. If the Chronicler were to wear a trucker hat, it would likely read, “Make Judah great again!”

All of these preparations are in marked contrast to 2 Kgs 18, where Hezekiah’s response to Sennacherib’s advances is to capitulate immediately. He asks Sennacherib for a price, then pays it by stripping the Temple. (Though, ultimately, the gesture appears to have been futile, as both Hezekiah’s still end up with the Assyrians at Jerusalem’s walls.)

Back to Chronicles, Hezekiah gathers all of his commanders together in the square by the city gate. Though gathering the nation’s entire leadership structure together in a confined space may not seem like a particularly inspired plan, it does allow Hezekiah to give them all a nice little pep talk about how the Assyrians are nothing to be concerned about, “for there is one greater with us than with [Sennacherib]” (2 Chron. 32:7).

The Siege

During all this, Sennacherib was busy besieging Lachish with his entire force. Unable to make it to Jerusalem himself, he sent some servants to tell the people of the city that Hezekiah was misleading them, condemning them to die by famine and thirst.

The Death of Sennacherib, by an unknown Italian master, c.1300

The Death of Sennacherib, by an unknown Italian master, c.1300

Shouting in the language of Judah so that the people inside the city could hear and understand, the Assyrians ask how Hezekiah can claim that God will stand by them when he has been dismantling so many of God’s altars. We may take this either as further evidence of the YHWH cult’s evolution, or as evidence of Sennacherib’s own ignorance of the Jerusalem religion.

The messengers go on to boast of Sennacherib’s many conquests, and of the many gods who have so been unable to protect their peoples against him: “No god of any nation or kingdom has been able to deliver his people from my hand or from the hand of my fathers” (2 Chron. 32:15).

This all plays out somewhat differently in 2 Kgs 18, where representatives of Hezekiah go out to meet Sennacherib’s messengers and implore them to speak Aramaic so that the denizens of Jerusalem won’t understand their taunts (they, of course, refuse). In that account, the Assyrians make similar accusations about Hezekiah destroying God’s shrines, but also add that Egypt won’t be able to save Jerusalem either. The Chronicler makes no mention of Hezekia’s alliance with Egypt.

2 Chron. 32:20 has Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz praying and crying out to heaven, but leaves out all the detail (including Isaiah’s prophecy) from 2 Kgs 19:14-34.

In both accounts, God sends an angel to slaughter Sennacherib’s army, though 2 Kgs 19:35 has the angel kill 185,000 soldiers, apparently indiscriminatingly, while 2 Chron. 32:21 mentions no number and targets the commanders and “mighty warriors.” In both cases, the result is the same: the Assyrian army is forced to retreat in shame.

When Sennacherib, back in his own homeland, enters the temple of his god, he is murdered by his own sons. The Chronicler’s language (or, perhaps, his translators’) suggests that this occurred as soon as he returned from the failed conquest of Judah, and perhaps because of it (to ask for forgiveness, or perhaps to express anger at having been let down). 2 Kgs 19:36-37, however, do not seem to connect the circumstances of Sennacherib’s death to Judah.

If there really were bodies left on the field after the Assyrian retreat, I would imagine that these accounts exaggerate the damage that the defending army had been able to do to the invading army, and that Sennacherib’s sudden retreat likely had more to do with pressing matters at home (as his eventual fate suggests).

However victory was achieved, the Chronicler tells us that Hezekiah was exalted in the sight of all nations for it, and received many gifts and tributes.

In Closing

The story of Hezekiah’s illness and Isaiah’s use of a festively appropriate figgy pudding in 2 Kgs 20:1-11 is almost entirely glanced over. All we get is a little mention of Hezekiah being ill, God answering his prayers, and Hezekiah not appreciating it because he was too proud (2 Chron. 32:25).

This caused wrath to come down on both him and Judah, but Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem humbled themselves, and God stayed his hand. Hezekiah was therefore able to continue accumulating his wealth.

The Chronicler briefly mentions envoys from Babylon who come to Hezekiah, but tells us only that God kept mum to see what Hezekiah would do. This would be a very strange detail without the context from 2 Kgs 20:12-19, where Hezekiah shows off his wealth to the Babylonians. He is then rebuked by Isaiah, who tells him that all the nice stuff he’s shown them will one day be taken – along with the people of Judah – off to Babylon. Hezekiah treats this as good news because it means that it won’t happen during his own lifetime.

And thus our section on Hezekiah comes to a close. For more information, the Chronicler sends us to the writings of Isaiah the Prophet in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.

The council of funerary technicians apparently approved of Hezekiah, for he was buried among his fathers, and all of Judah and Jerusalem did him honours. He was succeeded by his son, Manasseh.

2 Chronicles 29-31: Dedicated and Dedicating

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Sorry for the lateness! But at least my tardiness is thematically relevant! 

We now move into Hezekiah, who is one of the greats. He gets a lot of page space, too, with three chapters in 2 Kgs 18-20 and four chapters in 2 Chron. 29-32. But for all that, the breadth is really missing. Essentially, Hezekiah whips up a religious revival, but, like so many of his predecessors, he fell short at the very end.

We begin with Hezekiah’s record entry: He was 25 years old when his reign began, and he ruled for 29 years. His mother’s name was Abijah, daughter of Zechariah.

On the first day of the first month of the first year of his reign, Hezekiah decided to purify the Temple. This needs a bit of unpacking, because while it’s certainly possible that it truly refers to the first day of Hezekiah’s reign, it seems like rather incredible timing in light of 2 Chron. 30:1, where Hezekiah postpones the Passover celebration for a month. Passover is normally held in Nissan, the first month, meaning that Hezekiah would have had to just happen to start his first day on our equivalent of January 1. This seems lie rather too unlikely, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that the author means that Hezekiah started his focus on the Temple on the first day of his first full year.

Which gives us a new question: Why would Hezekiah wait before turning his attention to the Temple – especially when it will mean not being ready in time for Passover and having to delay the celebration. One possibility is that the new year, as a new beginning, was just too symbolically resonant to pass up even if it meant delaying the Passover. Another has to do with the Chronicler’s own motives. I’ll discuss this in more detail later, but there may be a theme of lateness in Chronicles that, perhaps, relates to the rebuilding of the cultic structure.

In any case, Hezekiah reopened the Temple and began purging it of inappropriate cultic items on the first day of the first year of his reign – whatever that happens to mean.

Not to get too nitpicky, but the detail about reopening the doors of the Temple is in line with 2 Chron. 28:24, where Ahaz closed the Temple’s doors, but does not align with 2 Kgs 16:10-16, where it’s apparent that Ahaz continued the use of the Temple for worship. The New Bible Commentary harmonizes this by arguing that the author would not have considered the worship of foreign gods as real worship (p.391), making the closing of the doors a symbolic description (or perhaps it was the inner sanctuary doors that were literally closed).

Hezekiah then gathered up the priests and Levites and, in keeping with the idea of a fresh start, told them all to sanctify first themselves, then the Temple. He gives his reasoning for this in a speech about how their parents had forsaken God, and this is why their fathers have fallen to swords and their sons, daughters, and wives have been taken into captivity.

If this sounds a bit like a post-exilic formula to you, I would agree. That said, 2 Chron. 28 does feature an awful lot of warfare and taking into captivity.

The priests and Levites got to work under the leadership of:

  • Kohathites: Mahath son of Amasai, and Joel son of Azariah;
  • Merarites: Kish son of Abdi, and Azariah son of Jehallelel;
  • Gershonites: Joah son of Zimmah, and Eden son of Joah;
  • Of the sons of Elizaphan: Shimri and Jeuel;
  • Of the sons of Asaph: Zechariah and Mattaniah;
  • Of the sons of Heman: Jehuel and Shimei;
  • Of the sons of Jeduthun: Shemaiah and Uzziel.

Together, on the 8th day of the month, they brought all the uncleanness that had gathered in the Temple, though the Chronicler doesn’t mention Moses’s Nehushtan (2 Kgs 18:4). All the refuse is brought out to the brook of Kidron – Kidron being the favoured place for idol disposal (as we saw in places like 1 Kgs 15:13, 2 Kgs 23:4-6, and 2 Chron. 15:16).

The sanctification process takes eight days, ending on the 16th of the month. When they tell Hezekiah that they are done, he gathers up the Jerusalem city officials to make a big sacrifice and splash lots of blood around. Hezekiah then stations Levitical musicians in the Temple to sing the words of David and of Asaph the seer.

The Passover Celebration

It took a while to get the Temple (and its officiants) up to snuff, so Hezekiah conferred with the “princes” (likely meaning the people of his court with social clout, rather than his own sons) and they decided to postpone the Passover until the second month. The measure was necessary because the priests still hadn’t finished sanctifying themselves, and the people hadn’t had a chance to make it to Jerusalem.

Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out that the idea of celebrating a belated Passover when either travelling or purity requirements can’t be met on time can find precedent in Num. 9:9-11.

In discussing the possibility that Hezekia’s Passover might be a fabrication, James Bradford Pate brings up the idea that the Chronicler wouldn’t invent such a messy, chaotic, and delayed celebration. However, Pate cites 2 Chron. 24:5-6 as another example of delay, and proposes that perhaps there is a purposeful theme to be found. Specifically, Pate ties it to the post-exilic “lateness”, both forgiving the lateness itself and “exhorting the post-exilic Jews to get on the ball.” Sort of a “better late than never” message.

From the 'Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum', by Guillaume Rouille

From the ‘Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum’, by Guillaume Rouille

The reason that the historicity of Hezekiah’s Passover is that it isn’t found in 2 Kings, and Josiah’s proclamation in 2 Kgs 23:21-23 certainly seems to indicate that, if there had been a grand Passover in Hezekiah’s time, Josiah wasn’t aware of it. Turning back to Pate, he presents the argument that the author of Kings was trying to be literary – he wanted to highlight Josiah, and mentioning a similar Passover in the context of Hezekiah would have diluted that story. So the absence of the Passover in 2 Kings doesn’t necessarily indicate that Hezekiah’s Passover is a fabrication.

At this point the story is a bit muddled, and there may be some time-skipping. There could have been multiple sacrifice events, but I’m picking a chronology and sticking with it. However, I am noting that the text isn’t nearly as clear.

Hezekiah sends invitations out to all of Judah, as well as all of Israel, encouraging everyone “from Beer-sheba to Dan” (2 Chron. 30:5) to attend the Passover in Jerusalem. The language here mimics the language of the unified nation – both pre-monarchy and unified. The use of the phrase “from Beer-sheba to Dan” serves to underscore the point, as it’s a phrase we’ve seen quite a bit before when referring to the nation as a whole (see, for example, Judges 20:1, 1 Sam. 3:20, 2 Sam. 3:10, 2 Sam. 17:11, 1 Kgs 4:25). My Study Bible calls Hezekiah’s invitation a “prophetic hope of the return of the northern tribes to their former loyalty to Jerusalem”, and compares it to Ezek. 37:15-23.

The invitation explains that the Passover hasn’t been properly kept, and the people need to do better. But if they come now and are good, then their children and brethren’s captors will show compassion, and perhaps allow them to return home.

It really is hard not to see some post-exilic sentiments creeping in here.

Incidentally, John Collins writes in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible that there is “a famous letter from Elephantine in Egypt in the late fifth century B.C.E. regarding the observance of the Passover, but letters are anachronistic in the time of Hezekiah, some 300 years earlier” (p.233).

Unfortunately, most of the people just laughed at Hezekiah’s couriers. Only a few men of Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun came out to Jerusalem. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that we have some anti-Samarianism cropping in here. But also, my New Bible Commentary points out that the fact that “Hezekiah’s messengers went only as far as Zebulun suggests that in the far north of Galilee the Israelite elements had already disappeared” (p.392). Turning back to Collins, he notes that the “fact that emissaries are sent to Ephraim and Manasseh presupposes that the northern kingdom of Israel is no more. Yet, amazingly, the Chronicler has not even mentioned the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.233).

Even so, the assembly in Jerusalem was quite impressive, and perhaps it was a good thing that so few Samarians showed up because the priests couldn’t keep up with all the sacrifices. Eventually, the Levites had to step in to fill the gaps, “for the Levites were more upright in heart than the priests in sanctifying themselves” (2 Chron. 29:34).

Many commentaries note the dig at non-Levitical priests, but more interesting is the idea that the priests are the ones doing all the slaughtering, causing the backlog problem. The New Bible Commentary, for example, notes that it should normally be the worshiper’s job to slaughter the offerings, so the issue shouldn’t really be an issue in the first place (p.392). I’m seeing verses like Ex. 12:3-6, Deut. 16:5-6, and Lev. 1:1-6 in support of this, though I personally found all those verses to be rather ambiguous.

Unfortunately, many of the people in the congregation (specifically many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun) had failed to properly cleanse themselves, yet ate the Passover offerings anyway. Hezekiah addressed them in prayer, saying that God pardons all who seek them out, even if they aren’t doing it by the rules – sort of an Old Timey equivalent of “it’s the thought that counts” – a sentiment that quite surprised me but, in retrospect, makes a lot of sense in the post-exilic context, when the Chronicler must be absolutely frantic about just  getting the Israelites back “to the old ways,” even if they aren’t quite perfect about it.

Also worthy of note is, as Victor Matthews points out in Manners  Customs of the Bible, the way in which the king’s involvement in cultic practices has been diminishing as we make our way down the line:

While David was credited with establishing the temple priesthood (1 Chr 15:1-24), and Solomon was recognized as significantly reorganizing it (1 Kgs 2:35), the Levitical priesthood eventually disputed the idea of the king as both political and religious leader. Over time, the Levites gained more complete control of the sacrificial rituals; and the king, while still an advocate for the people with God, took a secondary role. For example, whereas Solomon functions in a priestly role by offering sacrifices, prayers, and blessings at the dedication of the temple (1 Kgs 8), generations later, Hezekiah offers only a brief prayer on behalf of the people, as the priests and Levites offer sacrifices during the reinstatement of the Passover (2 Chr 30:13-27). (p.130)

Still, Hezekiah’s prayer is seen as pivotal, and it is when God hears it that he heals the people (though, of course, it’s unclear what is actually meant by that – were there miraculous physical healings, or were the people spiritually healed?).

The feast of the unleavened bread lasted for seven days. At the end of this time, the people rushed out into all the cities of Judah and broke up the pillars, Asherim, high places, and altars they could find in the territories of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh, destroying them all before heading home.

Administration

The Passover over, Hezekiah turns his attention to appointing the divisions of the priests and Levites. The priests may have been taking control over the religious side of ancient Israelite life, but it’s clear that there was still a strong interplay between the secular and religious powers.

Hezekiah also provided the priests with regular offerings to make, and commanded the people living in Jerusalem to give the priests the portions they were due, “that they might give themselves to the law of the Lord” (2 Chron. 31:4) – which I interpreted to mean that the people of Jerusalem are to support the Temple so that the priests can focus their energies on God, rather than on subsistence.

It’s interesting that Hezekiah only tells the inhabitants of Jerusalem to give to the priests, whereas elsewhere the rules have been universal.

In any case, the people of Israel give abundantly anyway. So abundantly that special chambers had to be prepared in the Temple to store it all, and the person in charge of these donations was Conaniah the Levite (with his brother, Shimei, as his second-in-command). Conaniah was also assisted by Jehiel, Azaziah, Nahath, Asahel, Jerimoth, Jozabad, Eliel, Ismachiah, Mahath, and Benaiah, who had all been appointed by Hezekiah and the Temple’s chief officer, Azariah.

Kore son of Imnah, a Levite, was keeper of the east gate and was in charge of freewill offerings, as well as apportioning the contribution reserved for God. He was assisted by Eden, Miniamin, Jeshua, Shemaiah, Amariah, and Shecaniah, who distributed the donations out to the priests in their cities, according to their divisions.

2 Chronicles 28: Big Bad Ahaz

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After a run of good kings, we’re about due for a bad one, and this one is really bad. Unfortunately, our sources can’t seem to agree on exactly what he did. The Kings parallel for this chapter is 2 Kgs 16, and the two are quite different.

The basic biographical details remain the same in both sources: Ahaz was 20 years old when he became king, and he reigned for 16 years. Interestingly, his mother is not named in either source – rather odd for the Judean kings.

The summary of his rule is bad. Israel bad. But the Chronicler tells us that he made molten images of Baal, burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire (likely meaning that he sacrificed them, as several translations have it). Kings, however, only has him worshipping outside of the Temple and making a single son pass through fire.

Whatever his crimes, God punishes him by sending enemies against Judah. The first is Syria, though the Chronicler doesn’t name the responsible king (given as King Rezin in 2 Kgs 16:5), and many Judahites are taken captive back to Damascus.

Israel’s Invasion

The next enemy is Israel, led by King Pekah son of Remaliah. In Kings, Pekah manages to besiege Jerusalem, but isn’t able to conquer it, and that is all that we hear of the attack.

In the Chronicler’s version, however, Pekah thoroughly defeats Ahaz, slaying 120,000 Judahite men of valour in a single day. One of their member, named Zichri, murders Ahaz’s son Maaseiah, his palace commander Azrikam, and his second in command Elkanah.

The Israelites also take spoils and 200,000 women and children captives back to Samaria. When they reach the city, however, they are met by the prophet Oded. Oded appeals to them not to keep the captives, highlighting the kinship between the Israelites and the Judahites, because their war was only one because of God’s anger against the Judahites – yet have the Israeltes themselves not done plenty to anger God as well?

Four chiefs pay attention to Oded’s words: Azariah son of Johanan, Berechiah son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah son of Shallum, and Amas son of Hadalai. They go out to meet the incoming army and command them not to bring the captives into Samaria lest they bring guilt down on Israel, “in addition to our present sins and guilt” (2 Chron. 28:13 – which, I will venture, is a fabricated quote).

So the army gives the captives over to the four chiefs, who cloth them with their own spoils, provide them with food and water, mount the feeble up on donkeys, and bring them to their kin in Jericho. Then they retreat back to Samaria.

Ahaz Betrayed

In the Kings account, Ahaz appears to the king of Assyria, Tilgath-pileser (here called Tilgath-pilneser) for help against the Syrians and Israelites. In that version of the story, the Assyrians agree, and they conquer Syria and kill its king.

2 Chronicles 28Here, however, Ahaz appeals for help against the Edomites, who joining the party in Judah and taking captives (while in 2 Kgs 16:6, the Edomites are only taking back land that Judah had previously taken from them, and instead of taking captives, they send the settled Judahites back to Judah proper).

The Chronicler also throws in a mention of Philistines, absent in 2 Kings 16, who are raiding and conquering several of Judah’s cities.

Another major difference is that, here, Tilgath-Pilneser refuses, joining in on Judah’s beat down rather than coming to Ahaz’s aid.

This causes a problem for the list of Ahaz’s sins, however. In Kings, Ahaz goes to Damascus to meet with Tilgath-pileser. While there, he is so impressed with their altar that he has a replica built in Jerusalem – the building carried out by the priest Uriah.

The Chronicler, however, has Ahaz taking up the worship of the Syrian gods, after seeing the Syrians win their battles. So while the Chronicler has Ahaz impressed with the power of the Syrian gods, Kings has the Syrians defeated and their king killed. And while he does take the design for the Syrian altar, his interest seems to be purely aesthetic, and there’s no indication that he worshipped any god other than Yahweh on it.

And while in both sources, Ahaz raids the Temple for treasures, it’s only in Chronicles that he shuts up its doors (while Kings certainly seems to indicate that worship continued there). In Chronicles, Ahaz also built altars all around Jerusalem and made high places all over Judah.

On a roll, the Chronicler gives us one final difference when he has the dead Ahaz buried in the city, not in the tombs of the kings of Israel. In 2 Kgs 16:20, however, it’s clear that he is buried with his ancestors. The Chronicler seems to like the idea of a burial council that decides the worthiness of each king after his death.

1 Chronicles 4-5: The Tribal Histories

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In these two chapters, we get something of an infodump on the tribes of Judah, Simeon, Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The portions about Judah and Simeon (1 Chron. 4) seem largely taken from Joshua 15 and Joshua 19, respectively. It seems that the two tribes were rather closely related, and that Simeon was at some point absorbed into Judah.

In 1 Chron. 5, we get the Transjordan tribes: Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (the Transjordan portion of the tribe).

Judah

We begin with the sons of Judah: Perez, Hezron, Carmi, Hur, and Shobal. Following Shobal’s line, we get Reaiah, and Reaiah’s son Jahath. Jahath was the father of Ahumai and Lahad. These, we are told, were the families of the Zorathites.

It’s clear right from here that this is a very different kind of history than the one we got a few chapters ago. This list of Judah’s sons bears little resemblance to the one we got in 1 Chron. 2:3-8. More to the point, I recognize many of the names as place names. I think it likely that this is a list of founders (mythical or otherwise) of the various settlements in Judah.

If I read the grammar correctly, we then skip over to a Hur, son of Ephrathah (the founder, or “father” of Bethlehem). He had two sons: Etam, Penuel, and Ezer. Etam’s children were Jezreel, Ishma, and Idbash (plus a daughter, Hazzelelponi), Penuel fathered Gedor, and Ezer fathered Hushah.

Ashhur, Tekoa’s father, had two wives: Helah and Naarah. Naarah gave birth to Ahuzzam, Hepher, Temeni, and Haahashtari. Helah gave birth to Zereth, Izhar, and Ethnan.

Koz fathered Anub, Zobebah, and the families of Aharhel (the son of Harum).

We start seeing a little more detail with Jabez, who “was more honorable than his brothers” (1 Chron. 4:9). His name, which means “he giveth pain,” was given to him by his mother after what appears to have been a particularly difficult labour. We are told that Jabez prayed to God to bless him, give him more land, and not hurt him. His prayer was granted, inspiring a Bruce Wilkinson book titled The Prayer of Jabez, which has been accused of flirting with the prosperity gospel (the essence of which is that praying and giving all your money to your pastor will lead to earthly prosperity).

It’s easy enough to see how this mini-story might lend itself to something like the prosperity gospel (though I can’t say that Wilkinson actually falls into that, since I haven’t read the book). However, given the cultural context and the power names were thought to have had, it seems likely that this was just a little detail meant to show that, through faith, Jabez was able to overcome the curse of his name.

Chelub was brother to Shuhah and father of Mehir, and Mehir was father of Eshton. Eshton, in turn, fathered Bethrapha, Paseah, and Tehinnah. Tehinnah fathered Irnahash. These guys were from a place called Recah.

Kenaz fathered Othniel and Seraiah. Othniel fathered Hathath and Meonothai. Meonothai fathered Ophrai. Seraiah fathered Joab, who fathered Geharashim (which, we are told, was so called because they were craftsmen – 1 Chron. 4:14).

Caleb, the son of Jephunneh (almost certainly the same Caleb as can be found in Joshua 15:13-19), had the following sons: Iru, Elah, and Naam. Elah fathered Kenaz. My New Bible Commentary points out that this Caleb’s genealogy does not link up at any point, reinforcing the notion that he was a non-Israelite who was adopted into Judah (p.373).

A Jehallelel fathered Ziph, Ziphah, Tiria, and Asarel, while an Ezrah fathered Jether, Mered, Epher, and Jalon. Mered married Bithiah, the daughter of a Pharaoh, and they produced Miriam, Shammai, and Ishbah (Ishbah fathered Eshtemoa). Mered also had a Jewish wife, who bore Jered (who fathered Gedor), Heber (who fathered Soco), and Jekuthiel (who fathered Zanoah).

Someone by the name of Hodiah married a sister of Naham. Their sons were the fathers of Keilah the Garmite and Eshtemoa the Maacathite.

A Shimon fathered Amnon, Rinnah, Benhanan, and Tilon. Ishi fathered Zoheth and Benzoheth (a rather strange arrangement, given that “Benzoheth” would mean “son of Zoheth”).

Shelah, Judah’s son, fathered Er (father of Lecah), Laadah (father of Mareshah), and the families of the linen workers of Bethashbea.

Jokim and the men of Cozeba, Joash, and Saraph ruled in Moab, but returned to Lehem. They were the potters and inhabitants of Netaim and Gederah, and lived there to work for the king. My New Bible Commentary brings up an interesting note: “Archeology has shown that the potter’s craft was hereditary” (p.373). The more you know.

Simeon

For the second part of 1 Chron. 4, we turn to Simeon. I noted above that Simeon was apparently absorbed into Judah at some point. It’s a point that many of my sources claim without commentary or explanation. A fact that I found rather frustrating.

It took a little bit of a digging, but I started to find some textual clues. For example, Genesis 49:5-7 links Simeon with Levi – the landless priestly tribe – and promises to “divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” By the time we get to Moses’s blessing in Deut. 33, Simeon is absent entirely.

As for its absorption into Judah, specifically, we can turn to Joshua 15:26-32, where several of Simeon’s towns are listed as being allotted to Judah.

The final piece comes from this very chapter. When the towns of Simeon are listed, the passage ends by stating that: “These were their cities until David reigned” (1 Chron. 4:32). I find that this one small verse is solidifying the perception of David that I got through reading 1-2 Samuel and 1 Kings – that he was a local warlord who came to control his tribe and, from there, continued his warlord-y activities. Evidently, that seems to have included an ongoing campaign against surrounding tribes.

We also learn in 1 Samuel 27:6 that David came into possession of Ziklag, one of the towns we will see listed as those belonging to Simeon.

From this, it seems rather clear that Simeon had ceased to be a distinct group long before the Chronicler came to write his account (despite the fact that they seemed to have maintained some kind of separate identity, at least for a while, as “they kept a genealogical record” – 1 Chron. 4:33). So why would the Chronicler bother to include them in his treatment of the tribes? The obvious answer is that the first portion of Chronicles is meant to present an ideal Israel, of which Simeon is a part.

As with Judah, the genealogy is clearly not meant to be such. We begin with a list of sons which deviates rather significantly from what we’ve seen before. Here, Simeon’s sons are Nemuel, Jamin, Jarib, Zerah, and Shaul. In Genesis 46:10, Nemuel is Jemuel, Jarib seems to be Jachin, Zerah seems to be Zohar, Ohad is added, and only Jamin and Shaul remain unchanged.

The next connection is unclear, as we are told that “Shallum was his son” (1 Chron. 4:25), but the “his” is not identified. From there, Shallum’s son is Mibsam, who fathered Mishma.

The sons of Mishma are Hammuel, Zaccur, and Shimei (though the grammar makes it possible that this is a lineage, Mishma to Hammuel to Zaccur to Shimei). Shimei had 16 sons and 6 daughters, but his brothers didn’t have many children, “nor did all their family multiply like the men of Judah” (1 Chron. 4:27). We see this represented in Numbers where, in the first census, the tribe held 59,300 men capable of fighting (Num. 1:22-23), whereas by the time of the second census, they had only 22,200 (Num. 26:12-14).

The text goes on to list their cities, which roughly corresponds to their allotment in Jos. 19:2-8: Beersheba, Moladah, Hazarshual, Bilhah (appearing as Balah in Joshua), Ezem, Tolad (appearing as Eltolad in Joshua), Bethuel (appearing as Bethul in Joshua), Hormah, Ziklag, Bethmarcaboth, Hazarsusim (appearing as Hazarsusah in Joshua), Bethbiri (possibly corresponding to Joshua’s Bethlebaoth), and Shaaraim (possibly corresponding to Joshua’s Sharuhen), which they controlled until David’s reign. This list is only missing Sheba from Joshua’s version.

Next come their villages, which again corresponds to Jos. 19:2-8: Etam (which does not appear in Joshua), Ain, Rimmon, Tochen (which does not appear in Joshua), and Ashan. The Joshua version also adds a town called Ether, making the count five here and four in Joshua.

While the tribe of Simeon, as a whole, was shrinking, some families seem to have been doing all right. The following princes’ houses “increased greatly” (1 Chron. 4:38: Meshobab, Jamlech, Joshah son of Amaziah, Joel, Jehu son of Joshibiah (the son of Seraiah son of Asiel), Elioenai, Jaakobah, Jeshohaiah, Asaiah, Adiel, Jesimiel, Benaiah, and Ziza son of Shiphi (the son of Allon son Jedaiah son of Shimri son of Shemaiah).

These princes migrated to the better pastureland in Gedor, in lands that used to belong to the descendants of Ham. In the days of King Hezekiah of Judah, they came and destroyed the Meunim who were living there, and settled down (it seems that they had maintained a nomadic lifestyle up until that point, see the reference to tents in 1 Chron. 4:41).

Another group, or perhaps an offshoot group, went to Mount Seir. These were led by the sons of Ishi: Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah, and Uzziel. There, they killed off the remnant of the Amalekites.

Reuben

Reuben’s section kicks off 1 Chron. 5. Right off the bat, we are given an explanation for why he does not appear at the head of the list despite being the first-born son of Jacob (here consistently called Israel). It is, of course, because he “polluted his father’s couch” (1 Chon. 5:1), presumably a reference to his sleeping with his father’s concubine in Gen. 35:22.

From The History of Joseph and His Brethren, illustration by Owen Jones, 1869

From The History of Joseph and His Brethren, illustration by Owen Jones, 1869

Instead, continues the Chronicler, Reuben’s special portion (a “double portion,” according to Deut. 21:15-17) transferred to the sons of Joseph. This makes little sense to me, since Joseph was not the next in line. Looking at Gen. 29-30, we see that the next children were, in order, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Since Simeon and Levi were “scattered,” that leaves Judah as the principle inheritor (which would make sense). However, 1 Chron. 5:1 specifically states that “his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph,” who wasn’t born until Gen. 30:23-24, making him the penultimate son (Benjamin being the youngest).

The explanation is, of course, both that Joseph received a “double portion” by having both of his sons inherit as if they were his brothers, and in the fact that both Ephraim and Manasseh were large tribes in control of comparatively large patches of territory. But in the personification story, it makes little sense.

The narrative then moves on to the sons of Reuben, listed here as: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi. This corresponds neatly to the list found in Num. 26:5-6, but for some reason doesn’t include the further descendants from Num. 26:7-9 (was the Chronicler not interested? Or did he not have access to the complete list?).

We then move on to the lineage of Joel, whose connection to Reuben’s genealogy is not clear, but at least the final of which was a Reubenite chieftain. It goes from Joel, to Shemaiah, to Gog, to Shimei, to Micah, to Reaiah, to Baal, and finally to Beerah, who was carried into exile by Assyria’s Tilgath-pilneser.

His (I assume this refers back to Beerah) kinsmen were Jeiel (a chief), Zechariah, and Bela. Bela was the son of Azaz, who was the son of Shema, who was the son of Joel. Perhaps the same Joel as above. Joel lived in Aroer, as far as Nebo and Baalmeon, but it seems that the group’s territory was forced east as their herds multiplied.

While Saul was king, the Reubenites fought and won against the Hagrites.

Gad

Strangely, this section does not list the sons of Gad (which can be found in Gen. 46:16), but rather goes straight into a discussion of its prominent members. Except that this doesn’t match the similar list found in Num. 26:15-18.

Here, the descendants of Gad who live “in the land of Bashan as far as Salecah” (1 Chron. 5:11) are: Joel the chief (the same as the Reubenite Joel?), Shapham, Janai, and Shaphat. They had the following kinsmen: Michael, Meshullam, Sheba, Jorai, Jacan, Zia, and Eber. These seven were the sons of Abihail, who was the son of Huri, who was the son of Jaroah, who was the son of Gilead, who was the son of Michael, who was the son of Jeshishai, who was the son of Jahdo, who was the son of Buz. Their chief seems to have been a certain Ahi son of Abdiel (who was the son of Guni).

These names were all recorded in the days of King Jotham of Judah and King Jeroboam of Israel. The importance of these men is not stated, and they were likely included simply because they were names that the Chronicler had available to him.

Just as a point of interest, it seems that the Moabite Stone (or Mesha Stele) specifically mentions the men of Gad. From this, we know that Gad was known as its own tribal identity at least in this point of time – around 840 BCE.

The Hagrite War

Before finishing up the record of the Transjordan tribes, the narrative turns to a description of war against the Hagrites, likely the same as was mentioned above.

The Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had great warriors who did normal warrior things and had normal warrior equipment. In this account, there were 44,760 men, across the three tribes, who were ready to fight. The number is almost certainly inflated, of course.

This massive number of soldiers moved against the Hagrites. Specifically, these Hagrites: Jetur, Naphish, and Nodab. The Transjordan tribes cried out to God during the battle and, because of this (and surely not their massive numbers), they won the war. This allowed them to carry off 50,000 camels, 250,000 sheep, 2,000 donkeys, and 100,000 people. Unfortunately, the number of people they were able to carry off was diminished by the high casualties on the loser’s side, “because the war was of God” (1 Chron. 5:22).

The Hagrites seem to have been an Arab group. The name itself sounds rather like Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden and the mother of Ishmael. That’s flimsy enough, but two of the Hagrite names (Jetur and Naphish) can be found in the list of Ishmael’s sons in Gen. 25:12-15.

The half-tribe of Manasseh

Finally, we reach the final Transjordan tribe. It might seem strange that the details about the war against the Hagrites was crowbarred in the middle, but the reason will shortly become apparent.

The description of the half-tribe of Manasseh (that would be the portion of it located in the Transjordan) begins by emphasizing just how numerous they were.

The house heads were: Epher, Ishi, Eliel, Azriel, Jeremiah, Jodaviah, and Jahdiel. These men are described as mighty warriors and famous men, despite the fact that I‘ve never heard of them.

Unfortunately, they transgressed against God by worshipping the “gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them: (1 Chron. 5:25). Because of this, God sent Assyria’s Pul and Tilgath-pilneser to conquer and take them into exile.

In other words, the exact opposite of what happened in the war against the Hagrites, where the people prayed to God instead of being unfaithful.

All three Transjordan tribes were taken into exile, and brought to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, where they live even “to this day” (1 Chron. 6:26). This list corresponds, despite the absence of Medes, to the one given in 2 Kgs 17:6 and 2 Kgs 18:11-12.

James Pate points to one possible take-away of this story: That the Transjordan tribes doomed themselves by choosing lands for themselves, rather than waiting for God’s allotment (Numbers 32). However, as he points out, the victory against the Hagrites seems to argue against this interpretation, since they were still granted victory so long as they continued to be faithful to God.

Thoughts

In reading these two chapters, I was struck by how haphazard it seems. While the author(s) of Judges and Deuteronomy each employed a predictable formula to organize their subjects, adding details here and there, these accounts present quite different kinds of information for each tribe. It feels as though the Chronicler only had access to whatever records each tribe happened to keep, the priorities of each tribe depending on its particular flavour.

Names are included without much rhyme or reason. Perhaps censuses were taken, so these were just the names the Chronicler had available.

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 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.

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