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 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 11: Athaliah’s brief reign

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EDIT: I have been tricked by too many Ah- and Je- names. In my initial writing of this post, I mistakenly identified Joash as Athaliah’s son, rather than as Ahaziah’s.

When Jehu kills Ahaziah, he creates a power vacuum in Judah – one that Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, takes advantage of. To secure her hold on the country, she murders her late husband’s entire family. All except for Jehosheba and Joash (a shortening of Jehoash). Jehosheba is the daughter of Jehoram, sister to Ahaziah. Her nephew, Joash, is Ahaziah’s son.

When Athaliah came after the dynasty members, Jehosheba hid her little nephew and his nurse in a room, saving the child. She kept him with her for six years, hidden “in the house of the Lord.” Not to get into spoilers, but 2 Ch. 22:11 tells us that Jehosheba was the wife of the high priest Jehoiada. It seems likely, then, that her nephew was being raised in her household, perhaps in an apartment attached to the temple complex.

In the meantime, Athaliah ruled Judah. This is a somewhat amusing turn of events since Athaliah was born into Ahab’s dynasty (likely his daughter or sister – 2 Kings 8:26). So while Jehu was purging the dynasty from Israel, he provided the opportunity for it to take control in Judah!

Coup and counter-coup

After six years in hiding, it was time for Joash’s triumphant return.

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour's Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour’s Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Jehoiada called several guard captains (including the captains of the “Carites,” which may be a variation of “Cherethites,” as mentioned in 2 Sam. 20:23) to the temple. There, the high priest showed them the prince, revealing that he still lived. It seems odd that his continued existence would have gone unnoticed – did Athaliah forget about her own grandson when she went on her murderous rampage?

Or perhaps he was known to have escaped, but not where he was hiding. Or, my favourite theory, he was an imposter and Jehoiada hoped to control the country through a puppet king, young enough to be controlled.

Jehoiada organizes the captains, forming a plan of attack. There’s much mention of the Sabbath, which seems to imply that the coup is meant to take place on that day (perhaps while there is a change of guard, resulting in two companies being nearby instead of only one). Either way, the captains agree and follow the priest’s directions. They bring Joash out and perform a coronation ceremony.

Queen Athaliah hears the noise they are making and emerges to find her seven-year-old grandson, surrounded by arms-men, wearing a crown. She tears at her clothes and screams out, “Treason! Treason!” Which, of course, it is. (And, yes, she’s murdered every member of the previous dynasty that she could get her hands on, but so has every other dynasty founder we’ve seen so far – including David, though his actions were painted a pretty colour of apologism).

Jehoiada calls for the queen to be brought outside the temple and murdered, along with anyone loyal to her. Murder is just fine, but he doesn’t want it happening inside the temple.

The priest then makes a covenant between God, the new king, and the people. While it is blessedly not given in detail this time, it’s clear that this is the same sort of covenant that we saw Moses, Joshua, and David all swear. Which makes sense, since David’s dynasty was interrupted by Athaliah and now needs a sort of re-launching.

Before they can bring the new king to his palace, however, they have one more task: The destruction of the local temple of Baal (and murder of its high priest, Mattan, before its altars). They say that a Dothraki coronation without at least two deaths and a temple burning is considered a dull affair.

In a final verse, we learn that Joash was only seven years old when the crown was put on his head. An interesting little note here, this verse (2 Kings 11:21) is the first time that his name is spelled out, Jehoash. This would seem to indicate that the information about his age at ascension came from a different source from the story of the events surrounding it. Or, perhaps, as a chronicle detail, it was meant to be written more formally.

2 Kings 10: Taking care of the competition

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We have a rather gruesome chapter here as Jehu, newly become king of Israel, solidifies his position. He begins with Ahab’s seventy sons (a number no dou bt inflated by counting all male descendants, including grandsons, though still rather impressive). Jehu writes to the rulers and elders of Samaria, as well as to the guardians of these princelings (I’m assuming that not all of them were underaged, though presumably a fair number would have been. He asks them to select the best of Ahab’s descendants and set him up on Ahab’s throne to fight in Samaria’s defense.

The rulers, elders, and guardians are rightly wary of this, since Jehu has just assassinated two kings. What chance would a brand new, untried king have? So instead of setting up a new king, which would only lead to war and sieges (we saw just how terrible those can be in 2 Kings 7: 24-31), they throw themselves at Jehu’s mercy. They will do anything he asks, they say, except instate a new king.

In his second letter, Jehu accepts the leaders’ submission and asks that they behead all of Ahab’s sons (again, this could refer to any male descendant) and bring them to Jezreel the next day.

The scene is a powerful one. The sons were “with the great men of the city, who were bringing them up” (2 Kgs 10:6), people they trusted, when Jehu’s letter arrived. Suddenly, the leaders turned on their charges, killing them and filling baskets with their heads. When they are brought to him, Jehu leaves the heads in heaps at the city gates overnight. The next morning, he addresses the Israelites, taking responsibility for killing Joram but reminding them that they were the ones who had killed his descendants. He reminded them, too, that Elijah had predicted that this would happen to Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kgs 21:21)… and his followers. And with that, it seems that he killed all of them as well (“So Jehu slew all that remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his great men, and his familiar friends, and his priests, until he left him none remaining” – 2 Kgs 10:11).

Not quite done yet, he came to Betheked of the Shepherds, where he found the kinsmen of the (now slain) king of Judah, Ahaziah. They were on their way to Samaria to visit their king, as well as the “royal princes and the sons of the queen mother” (2 Kgs 10:13) – which I take to mean Jezebel and the recently murdered seventy sons.

Jehu orders his followers to take the travellers alive. Which, we’re told, they do, but only in order to bring them to a pit. There, they murder all forty-two of them. This was, apparently, what Jehu had in mind when he told them to “take them alive.”

Though the reasoning isn’t explained in the text, King Ahaziah was the son of Athaliah, who was related to Ahab and possibly Jezebel – she was either their daughter, or possibly Ahab’s sister (2 Kgs 8:26 only tells us that she was a daughter of Ahab’s dynasty). So I’m seeing the argument being made that the whole dynasty of Judah was made complicit in Ahab and Jezebel’s sins through their unfortunate marriage alliance.

Cultic Concerns

After all this bloodshed, Jehu meets up with Jehonadab, the son of Rechab. They great each other, and it seems that Jehu asks Jehonadab if he’s on board with Jehu’s “cleansing” of Israel. Not to give away too many spoilers, but it seems that we’ll learn about the Rechabites later on (such as 1 Chr. 2:55). According to my Study Bible, they “fiercely maintained the old desert way of life, believing that only thus could they properly worship the Lord.” It makes sense, then, that Jehu would approach a man who appears to be their leader for help as he turns his attentions to wiping out the worship of Baal in Israel.

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

It seems that tradition also gives the two men more of a relationship. My New Bible Commentary cites a reference in Josephus (Ant. ix.6.6) to Jehu and Jehonadab being “friends of long standing” (p.355).

When Jehonadab answers that his goals align with Jehu’s, Jehu stretches out his hand and lifts Jehonadab onto his chariot. Together, they ride off into the sunset so that Jehonadab can see Jehu’s “zeal for the Lord” (2 Kgs 10:16). Presumably with Jehonadab watching, he rode all the way to Samaria and, there, killed Ahab’s remaining supporters.

With that done, Jehu assembles all the people and announces: “Ahab served Baal a little; but Jehu will serve him much” (2 Kgs 10:18). He calls for all the prophets, priests, and worshippers of Baal to attend a great sacrifice he’ll be hosting. We’re quickly informed, however, that it was all a trick (though, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already guessed as much from Jehu’s weasel-y words – he’ll serve Baal much, eh?).

The set up is clearly meant to be read humorously, a point reinforced by what seems to be a play on words. My New Bible Commentary says that, in Hebrew, the word used here to mean “served” is very close to a word meaning “destroyed”. “To a person not paying attention, the words would sound alike” (p.356). I think we can assume that Jehu may have been smirking while he delivered this little speech.

Baal’s followers all came and filled his temple. They brought out special vestments and everything.

Jehu and Jehonadab addressed the throng, making sure that only Baal worshippers were present. Jehu presided over the sacrifices while, outside eighty soldiers guarded the exits with instructions not to let any of the Baal worshippers escape (if any did, the punishment was death).

When the sacrifice is done, Jehu gives the order and his soldiers rush in, slaughtering all the worshippers. Done, they brought out “the pillar that was in the house of Baal” (2 Kgs 10:26), presumably an object of some sacral significance, and burned it. After tearing down Baal’s temple, they made it into a latrine.

A Retrospective

Jehu may have wiped out the worship of Baal from Israel, but he still failed at achieving proper cultic purity. What this means, of course, is that he failed to tear down Jeroboam’s golden calves, located in Bethel and Dan.

This is a sore point for the Deuteronomist, for whom idolatry was a focus. It seems likely, however, that the charge is anachronistic. There’s little evidence that the YHWH cult at the time had rejected the use of idols. If we expand that to include symbolic imagery (I’ve seen the argument made that the golden calves were not meant to represent YHWH, but rather to form a seat on which he was to sit – much as the cherubim function in Solomon’s temple), we have a fair bit of evidence to the contrary.

It’s also possible that the later Deuteronomist condemnation of the calves had its roots at this time, in which case we seem to be looking at competing geographic variations of the YHWH cult. The Jerusalem/Judah variation seems to have begun forming a more rigid, urban, centralized, top-down cultic structure, and may well have seen the more rural, disparate, folk-based Israelite variation as a serious threat.

The text tells us that God told Jehu that, because of this oversight, his dynasty would only last four generations before it, too, would fall. The construction, “the Lord said to Jehu” (2 Kgs 10:30) struck me. For the last little while, God’s messages have all either been issued to prophets or relayed through them, suggesting that the messages were connected to stories about those prophets. Here, however, the prophet is omitted. To me, this suggested that the author of this chapter was not referencing a pre-existing tradition, but rather adding in new material.

In this case, the author would have known that Jehu’s dynasty would fall in four generations, and sought an explanation. After all, the Jehu material so far casts him as a sincere and zealous worshipper (I’m a little too cynical to take that slant at face value, since getting rid of the Baal worshippers would have also meant getting rid of a lot of potentially influential competitors, many of whom may have enjoyed the support of the previous royal dynasty, while solidifying Jehu’s control over the YHWHist base – especially when we see his two named supporters being Elisha and Jehonadab, both apparently religious leaders). That a fall was to come would have required some explanation, and the calves were convenient scape-cattle. And, of course, the message suits the Deuteronomist’s motives quite neatly.

The final few verses give us some more of the chronology. We learn that pieces of Israel were being shaved off as Hazael, the Syrian king, seems to have been taking advantage of Israel’s political upheaval. It seems that, in this time, Israel lost everything east of the Jordan to Syria.

Jehu held onto Israel (or, at least, parts of it) for 28 years before he was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz.

2 Kings 3: The Sheep of Moab

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We begin the chapter on a rather confusing note, as our narrator tells us that Jehoram succeeded Ahab in the 18th year of Jehoshaphat’s rule in Judah. This presents us with a problem, since it conflicts with 2 Kings 1:17, where Jehoram succeeded Ahaziah (who is here skipped over) in the second year of Jehoram, king of Judah (the son of Jehoshaphat).

This works in terms of Omri’s dynastic lineage, since Ahaziah and Jehoram were brothers, and therefore both Ahab’s sons. It’s also conceivable that a chronicler skipped over Ahaziah because of the shortness of his reign (easily forgotten, hardly worth mentioning). However, none of this can square with the matching against Judah’s chronology.

For that, the dominant explanation seems to be that there was a co-regency period during which both Jehoram of Judah and Jehoshaphat were kings (perhaps while one did the battle thing, the other stayed home and did the statecraft thing). It seems more likely, however, that we just suffer either from shoddy chroniclers and/or  from our poor author trying to piece together the records found in two (or more) separate books and feeling just as frustrated as we are when the numbers just won’t add up no matter how many times he shuffles the beads around on his abacus (I am certainly familiar with those feelz).

Yet while our author may be confused about the dates, he’s quite clear when it comes to his assessment of Jehoram. Spoilers: He was just awful. But at least he wasn’t the same sort of awful as his parents, and did put aside his Baals (hopefully before he got hairy palms). Unfortunately, he walked the way of Jeroboam, which I suppose means that he either built multiple unsanctioned shrines, or allowed worship to take place in them. In the end, he ruled, Baal-less, for twelve years.

On to Moab

What’s really interesting about this chapter is that we actually have two versions of the story – one from the Hebrew side, and the other from the Moabite side. The frustrating thing is that there don’t seem to be any accessible authoritative translations of the Moabite version, found in the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone). I’m finding claims about its contents, but I can’t confirm them against anything other than Wikipedia’s own claims, which leaves me rather vulnerable to circular evidence chains.

From what I can glean, however, both agree that Israel lost the conflict (sorry, spoilers) and both seem to credit Moab’s victory to their god, Chemosh. I know, I know! But more on that when we get to it. First, the set up.

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

Prophet Elisha, Russian icon from the first quarter of the 18th century

It seems that Moab was a vassal state, and required to pay an annual tribute of 100,000 lambs, plus the wool of 100,000 rams. The numbers seem rather excessive, and I’m seeing some conjecture that it was only a one-time payment, or that it was meant to be spread out over a number of years, but I think it likely that this is just a nice big-sounding number used as a stand in to indicate that it was, like, totally a lot of lambs and wool.

After Ahab’s death, however, King Mesha of Moab decided that maybe he didn’t have to make those tributes any more. The testing of a new leader is certainly not uncommon. Jehoram responds by mustering his army and calling on King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. When they decide to go through Edom, it seems that its king and army joined in the fun (with the strong implication that Edom was also a vassal state, and perhaps did not have much choice in the matter).

Unfortunately for these combined armies, they were unable to find enough water to sustain them. So they decide to consult with God, calling on Elisha to serve as their telephone. Elisha initially refuses, sore over Jehoram’s dynasty’s infidelity toward God. In response, Jehoram argues that the drought that is about to win Moab the war is God’s doing, so yes, they’d like to speak with God, please. The whole exchange sounds like it would have been delivered with sneers.

Elisha does query God in the end, however, with the help of a (trance inducing) minstrel. God promises that the dry riverbeds will soon be full of pools and that Israel will defeat Moab.

Well, the first part comes true, anyway. By morning, pools had formed in the riverbeds, and the Israelite (plus allies) army was able to water itself.

God seems to have really tried to fulfill the second portion as well. When the Moabites saw the water, it appeared red – tricking them into thinking that the various encamped armies had turned on each other, and it was their blood pooling in the riverbed. My study Bible thinks that the colour comes from the “red sandstone of Edom” (pointing to the connection between Edom and the colour references in Genesis 25:30), while my New Bible Companion proposes that it was a reflection of the sunrise.

Figuring that they’d just scored a really great looting opportunity, they head out to the Israelite camp, only to find it full of very much alive Israelites. The Israelites attack, and thoroughly smash the Moabites. They start taking cities, and there’s a bit in there about throwing stones. It’s all very victorious-y.

It’s also all very short-lived.

Realizing that he’s beaten, King Mesha pulls his Hail Mary move – sacrificing his eldest son, his heir, on a city wall. Chemosh isn’t named here, but Mesha is a Moabite, so it seems fair to assume that the sacrifice was made to that God rather than the Hebrew one. The sacrifice is effective and causes a “great wrath” (2 Kings 3:27) on the Israelite army, forcing them into retreat.

This appears very much to be a conflict between gods, with God having promised the Israelites a victory and Chemosh having denied it. Of course, my New Bible Commentary calls this “a highly unlikely suggestion” (p.351), but they would, wouldn’t they? The explanation they give is that it might have been disgust at the act – which, done on the wall, would have been fully visible by the attacking Israelites – that drove the Israelites away. A few commentators connect the verse with the one before it, in which we see Mesha meeting Edom on the battlefield, to conclude that it was the king of Edom’s son who was murdered on the wall rather than Mesha’s. If seen this way, Israelites retreat would have been a morale issue.

Either way, it seems undeniable that Israel lost its attack and Moab was freed from its vassalage, and both sides’ records tell us that same story. What’s really interesting here is that Israel’s victory was promised by God yet not granted, and that this wasn’t somehow turned into some sermon on the sins of Israel.

1 Kings 22: Tricking the Prophets

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Though ostensibly about Ahab, the majority of this story does not mention Ahab by name (he is mentioned only once, in 1 Kings 22:19, before the the chronicle of the kings portion that comes right at the end). Rather, the story talks about “the king of Israel.” According to J.R. Porter, this could be an indication that this story “was not originally about Ahab at all” (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.90). Particularly since, as Porter points out, the phrase used in the chronicle section – that Ahab “slept with his ancestors” – tends to indicate a peaceful death.

The peace we saw forged in 1 Kings 20 between Syria and Israel lasted for only three years. According to my study Bible, during this time, Syria and Israel formed a military alliance to defend against the Assyrians (culminating in a battle at Qarqar in 853 B.C.E.). Though the text doesn’t explain why, suddenly, Israel was willing to break the alliance, the historical events suggest that Israel may no longer have considered it necessary with the Assyrians defeated.

1 Kings 22In the text, we just have King Jehoshaphat of Judah coming to visit, and Ahab proposing on a lark that they go conquer Ramoth-gilead together (apparently it was one city that the Syrians did not return, as per Benhadad’s promise in 1 Kings 20:34).

Jehoshaphat is game with bells on, saying: “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses” (1 Kings 22:4). This response seems a little subservient to me, as does Jehoshaphat’s agreement to go along with Ahab’s plan later on, and I’m not sure what to make of that.

Jehoshaphat’s only reservation is that prophets ought to be consulted first, before they get into a messy military conflict. According to Collins, “Most prophets were not isolated individuals but were members of a guild. One of the functions of prophets seems to have been to whip up enthusiasm at the beginning of a campaign. Here the prophets hold a virtual pep rally for the king” (A Short History of the Hebrew Bible, p.141).

And that’s precisely what they do. Four hundred prophets are summoned, and they are unanimous: Yes! Fight! You’ll be victorious! It’ll be great! One prophet, Zedekiah, is so excited that he even makes a pair of iron horns and declares that Ahab will use them to vanquish Syria (the imagery is quite similar to Deut. 33:17).

But Jehoshaphat isn’t convinced, and wants to get a 401st opinion. It could be that he is meant to see through the political purpose of the prophets Ahab has chosen and wants to hear what a real prophet has to say. However, as we later find out, the 400 prophets aren’t just Yes Men, they are relaying what they believe to be God’s message to Ahab (and, in fact, that’s precisely what it is). So the charge that they are just sycophants is misplaced. What, then, does that say about Jehoshaphat’s mistrust? It seems like a small thing, but it becomes quite a complicated knot, and makes for difficult theology.

Enter Micaiah

There is one other prophet, admits Ahab, but he’s a total jerk. Micaiah, son of Imlah, never prophecies anything good. But Jehoshaphat insists and, surprising everyone, Micaiah actually agrees with the other prophets. Ahab is rightly suspicious.

Only then does Micaiah admit that, it’s true, his real prophecy is that the Israelites will soon be scattered and masterless. That’s more like it, says Ahab.

Micaiah continues to describe his vision, in which God sat on his throne, surrounded by host of heaven. God asked his entourage to come up with a way to mess with Ahab and entice him to his death at Ramoth-Gilead. Several spirits make suggestions, but the winner is the one who suggests that he be a “lying spirit” (1 Kings 22:22) and plant a false prophecy. Again, we see the prioritizing of God’s strength and power over his goodness. Lying may be forbidden, but it is perfectly acceptable to view God as the originator/director of the lie so long as it demonstrates that nothing happens outside of his direct control.

None of this makes Zedekiah “Iron Horns” ben Chenaanah very happy, so he punches Micaiah in the face. “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?” (1 Kings 22:24), he asks. According to my New Bible Commentary, he is asking “by what authority does Micaiah give a prophecy different from that of the other prophets?” (p.348). However, I read it as an acknowledgement of Micaiah’s superior prophecy, and a resentment that God had chosen to give Zedekiah only the trick version.

To this, Micaiah tells Zedekiah that he will see once he goes into hiding. I think. It’s a little unclear, but I think the point he’s making is that Micaiah has proven himself willing to challenge Ahab (and therefore has perhaps needed to go into hiding to dodge the repercussions on a few occasions), and that this is why he was chosen to receive the true prophecy. Since Zedekiah was acting more the cheerleader, he was given the false prophecy instead.

Ramoth-Gilead

Ahab is furious about Micaiah’s prophecy and has him arrested. Yet he does still seem to believe him – or has at least decided to hedge his bets. While he still goes after Ramoth-Gilead, he disguises himself, while Jehoshaphat is to wear his normal royal getup.

This initially seems to work, as the king of Syria (here unnamed) orders his men to focus fire on the king. They see Jehoshaphat wearing royal garb and head for him, but realize that he isn’t Ahab once they get close and they break off. As they are moving away from Jehoshaphat, however, they loose an arrow that just happens to Ahab by chance. This “you can’t escape your fate” motif is a very common in mythology.

So Ahab is indeed brought down at Ramoth-Gilead, and his body ends up bleeding out in the floor of his chariot while his men scatter, masterless. Finally, his chariot is brought back to Samaria and washed out by a pool, from which the dogs drink (1 Kings 21:19) and harlots bathe. Even though this takes place in Samaria and not in Jezreel (where Naboth died, though 1 Kings 21:19 is quite specific that Ahab’s blood will be licked by dogs in the same place as Naboth’s), and even though the referenced passage doesn’t mention anything about harlots, my study Bible suggests that the treatment of Ahab’s body and the fate of his blood may have been an editorial insert, intended to make his death harmonize with the earlier prediction.

Chronology

After the Ahab-themed narrative interlude, we return to the princely chronology. Once Ahab was safely tucked in with his fathers, it was his son Ahaziah’s turn at the throne, in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat. He only reigned two years, and was a total baddie.

According to Porter, there’s some evidence that Ahab was actually a fairly accomplished ruler, who oversaw a surprisingly stable government given the external pressures:

He built cities and secured his state by renewing the Israelite alliance with the Phoenicians of Tyre. He dominated the southern kingdom of Judah through marriage of his daughter, Athaliah, to Jehoram, the son of the Judean king Jehoshaphat (873-849 BCE). Ahab’s importance is strikingly shown in an inscription of Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria (ca. 859-824 BCE), the first Assyrian monument to include an Israelite king’s name. Ahab allied with Israel’s old foe, Damascus, against Shalmaneser, and the allies met the Assyrians at Qarqar in the Orontes Valley in 853 BCE. Although Shalmaneser claimed victory, his advance was checked. His inscription records that Ahab had two thousand chariots and then thousand infantry. (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 90)

Back over in Judah, Jehoshaphat came to the throne in Ahab’s fourth year, when he was 35 years old. He then reigned for a further 25 years from Jerusalem. His parents were Asa and Azubah, the daughter of Shilhi. According to the author, he was one cool dude, and a chip off the ol’ block. His only downside was that he did not take away the high places, though he did get rid of male cultic prostitution. He managed to oversee a period of peace, at last, between Judah and Israel.

He seems to have had control over Edom, appointing a deputy to rule it on his behalf. While he lost merchant ships at Eziongeber, Ahaziah still wanted to partner in on subsequent trade excursions, which Jehoshaphat refused.

When he died, he was succeeded by Jehoram.

1 Kings 19: Meditation Retreat

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Following from the story in the last chapter, Ahab rushes home to tell Jezebel about the slaughter of the prophets. I think we’re supposed to understand something about the power dynamics at Israel’s royal court.

When Jezebel vows to come after Elijah, he flees the country again, this time going to Beersheba in Judah. He stops just long enough to deposit his servant before walking off into the wilderness, finding a tree to sit under, and ask God to let him die.

The accuracy of this description of depression is quite accurate, right down to the part where Elijah falls asleep and refuses to get up again for what appears to be a rather long time. During that time, an angel wakes him, gets him to eat a bit of miracle food, and Elijah goes back to sleep. A little later, the angel wakes him again to eat, saying that he must make sure to eat or else “the journey will be too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7).

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Apparently on those two meals alone, Elijah is able to walk for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness to Horeb. This is a clear reference of the Exodus story, and is perhaps intended to lend some vicarious credibility to Elijah.

Once Elijah finds himself a cave to live in, the same encounter repeats itself, nearly word for word. In both, God asks Elijah what he’s doing there. Elijah responds that he has been very jealous for God because the Israelites have forsaken the covenants, slain the prophets, and thrown down the altars – the latter being rather amusing in light of the Deuteronomist “smash the altars” position.

Similar to Moses’s sighting in Exodus 33:21-23, God tells Elijah to come out and look look at him. Of course, there’s a lengthy pre-show to get through first, complete with great winds, the rocks in God’s path smashing into pieces, an earthquake, and a fire. Lest readers get the wrong theological idea, we’re told explicitly that God is none of these things.

Rather, God is… something. Various translations give it as “a still small voice,” “a gentle whisper,” “a gentle blowing,” “a whistling of a gentle air,” and “a voice of gentle silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah covers his face with his mantle and emerges from the cave, suggesting that perhaps he hadn’t actually seen all the natural disasters that preceded the voice. Since this is where the narrative loops, it seems that two traditions were stitched together, or perhaps this detail of Elijah emerging from the cave migrated a little.

The voice repeats the question: “What are you doing, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13). I think it would be a mistake to take this question literally. It’s more like when you walk into the kitchen and find your preschooler, as well as the entire kitchen, utterly covered in flour. You know what he’s doing, you’re not asking to find out.

After Elijah confesses to his jealousy (again), God sends him to the wilderness of Damascus so that he can anoint Hazael as king of Syria. After that, he’s to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel. Finally, he’s to anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat, as his own successor. The idea is to destroy Israel. Hazael will take the first swing, anyone who misses while fall to Jehu, and Elisha will sweep up the remainder. Only seven thousand Israelites, those who never bowed to Baal, will survive.

Disregarding God’s wishes, Elijah instead heads straight out to where Elisha is ploughing with twelve oxen. I doubt that the number of oxen is a coincidence.

Rather than anoint him (unless we take “anoint” metaphorically), Elijah places his own mantle over Elisha. Elisha then becomes Elijah’s servant, signifying that he will be Elijah’s successor as Joshua served Moses in Exodus 24:13.

But before Elisha leaves, he slaughters his twelve oxen and throws a feast for the people.

1 Kings 18: Battle of the Bulls

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The following chapter is a strange one, and I’m really not surprised that I never heard about Elijah in Sunday School. While the story is one of Yahweh’s triumph over Baal, it functions as a blueprint for dismissing all gods (sort of, but I’ll go into more detail when we get to the right spot in the narrative).

Three years later, we’re introduced to Obadiah, a faithful Hebrew and Ahab’s steward. When Jezebel ordered all the prophets of Yahweh killed, Obadiah sheltered a hundred of them in caves, sneaking them bread and water. It seems in this chapter that the word “prophet” is used somewhat interchangeably with “priest.” If there’s a distinction, I’m not picking up on it.

The famine has been particularly hard on Samaria and, in an attempt to save at least some of his animals, Ahab decides to search for water springs. He has Obadiah go one way while he goes the other. It’s during this search that Obadiah happens upon Elijah, who has been sent back by God to confront Ahab.

When Elijah tells Obadiah to go fetch Ahab, Obadiah has a little freak out. Ahab has been looking everywhere for Elijah. If Obadiah tells him that he’s found him, and then they find that he’s disappeared again, Obadiah will be killed! There seems no possibility, in Obadiah’s mind, that Elijah intends to remain. But Elijah convinces Obadiah to go by promising to stay put.

And he does! When Ahab arrives (Obadiah is not dropped from the narrative), Elijah is waiting for him. They have a one-liner exchange in which Ahab calls Elijah “troubler of Israel” (1 Kgs 18:17) and Elijah turns it back against him with a clever “I know you are, but what am I?” Followed with an invitation to gather all the Israelites, including 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, at Mount Carmel. Surprisingly, rather than just killing Elijah on the spot, Ahab complies. As usual, his motivations are never explained.

Interestingly, the prophets of Baal and Asherah are specified as the ones who “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), and I have a feeling that that’s significant. There’s no mention in our readings so far as a table being described as belonging to a woman rather than to her husband, so it seems clear that the author is trying to highlight something. I’m thinking that there are two plausible ways to read this: a) Jezebel is the true ruler of Israel, not Ahab, or b) Ahab tolerates his wife’s religion, but has not converted himself (therefore they are her prophets, not his).

The Contest

The location appears to have been chosen to make a point. According to my New Bible Commentary, “Carmel was one of the heights on which were located places of worship to Baal, and in choosing this Elijah moved into Baal’s own home territory” (p.343).

Ahab arrives, along with all the Israelites. Interestingly, though, the 400 prophets of Asherah are never mentioned at Mount Carmel. It could be that they had been added into the earlier reference, or perhaps Elijah simply never bothered to challenge them. Or maybe they just didn’t show up. For the purposes of the story, it seems clear that this is about a battle between very similar gods, gods who were clearly in competition for the same niche. From a narrative standpoint, this becomes a sort of mirroring, so challenging Asherah as well just wouldn’t have fit.

Elijah addresses the crowd, telling them that they can’t keep waffling between God and Baal. They must choose their god, and they must do it now. The people remain silent, so Elijah proposes a contest: They will fetch two bulls, each cut one bull to pieces and lay it on a pyre. They will then each pray to their god and, whichever sacrifice ignites and consumes itself will declare which god is true.

So the 450 prophets of Baal select their bull and prepare it, and dance around it for hours. At around noon, Elijah starts mocking them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). It could be that Elijah is being literal, asking if Baal really did fall asleep on the job. It feels more like plain mocking, making up absurd excuses to pre-emptively attack the prophets of Baal for what they must surely be preparing to do themselves. Also interesting here is whether Elijah believes that Baal used to be a god who has now been defeated, if he believes that there is and has always been only one god, or if he believes that this is a further demonstration of Yahweh’s power because he is blocking Baal from being able to perform the miracle.

Regardless, I imagine that this passage must be troubling for any adherents who give it some thought. If we challenge God, if we demand a miracle, is failure proof that He has gone aside? That he is asleep?

The prophets of Baal, predictably, react by redoubling their efforts. They cry out and cut themselves, which the text tells us was their way. This reference to self-harm may be intended to be more than just a description of their religious practices. In Deut. 14:1 and Lev. 19:28, where the practice is forbidden (possibly as an attack on Baal worship), it is connected with the worship of the dead. So it could be that the prophets of Baal are starting to lose faith, perhaps they believe that their god has already been defeated and have begun mourning.

Tim Bulkeley mentions the Canaanite Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra, in which Baal is taken to the underworld by Mot. According to him, Anat and El call Baal back to life by cutting themselves. If this is the case, it could be that the use of mourning rituals might have become part of Baal worship. However, I was not able to find this detail in the time I spent Googling (it seems instead that it is Mot who is cut up). What I did find was that the story may be intended as a drought myth, rather than a seasonal myth – which seems more than a tad relevant here.

But no matter how hard the prophets of Baal try, the pyre will not self-ignite.

Elijah’s Turn

Elijah begins by rebuilding God’s altar, which we’re told had been torn down. It’s interesting that Elijah, though clearly presented as a proper prophet of God in the middle of a Temple period, is able to build an altar without any sort of condemnation. The rules seem rather flexible when it comes to putting Baal worshippers in their place.

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

The Rival Sacrifices, by Lucas the Younger Cranach, 1545

He builds the altar using twelve stones, which our pedantic narrator feels the need to tell us represent the twelve tribes. Once this has been done, he digs a large trench around the altar, piles on wood, and lays cow bits over top. To make his magic trick even more astounding, he has the Israelites pour twelve jugs of water over top – soaking the wood and filling the trench that surrounds the altar. That the people were willing to waste so much water is rather surprising.

When Elijah summons God, fire bursts out on the altar, consuming the bull pieces and even moving into the trenches to evaporate the water.

People who really want to see the Bible as a reliable historical record but don’t want to admit that miracles are real have found several ways to explain this one. The most obvious, that Elijah used water from near a fracking site, is a little anachronistic (but I won’t fault the person who came up with it because it was me). That said, some have seriously proposed that Elijah used some hyper flammable liquid instead of water, or perhaps combined two liquids that exploded on contact. Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that the fire was caused by lightening, a first sign of the rain that will come later in the chapter. To all these speculations, I think my New Bible Commentary has the perfect response: These are “only the frenzied attempt to hold on to the Bible without having the faith to believe it” (p.344).

The case is closed, the contest one, and the Israelites are convinced (for now). On Elijah’s orders, they chase down the 450 prophets of Baal and slaughter them.

His blood lust sated, Elijah climbs back up Mount Carmel and puts his face between his knees. He sends his servant to look out toward the see seven times and, on the seventh, the servant sees a little cloud. The drought is about to end.

Elijah tells Ahab to head home quick, because the rain is about to start. That one little cloud doesn’t wait long, though, and the downpour begins. Elijah then girds his loins and runs, managing to beat Ahab back to Jezreel.

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)

1 Samuel 12: The Evil Request

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According to my study Bible, chapter 12 brings us back into the Late Source, and it is clearly suspicious of the monarchy. Even so, there’s no indication in the chapter that Israel has the option of going back to the loose tribal arrangement it had under the judges. Rather, when Samuel addresses the people, he makes it fairly clear that the fate of Israel is now intertwined with the king.

We’ve seen in the Deuteronomical books that speeches are used to signal important transitions. We saw it, for example in Joshua 1 and Joshua 23, framing the conquest. Now, it marks the beginning of the monarchy.

1 Samuel 12So presumably right after Saul’s affirmation at Gilgal (though it’s not specified and reads an awful lot like an editorial insert), Samuel gives a speech, often referred to as Samuel’s Final Address. Despite coming only 1/4 of the way through the books named after him, it certainly reads like a ceding of the reins.

Samuel begins by asking for anyone who has cause to complain about his tenure as Israel’s judge. Has he stolen any oxen? Accepted any bribes? The people affirm that no complaint can rightfully be made.

He then announces that he will list “all the saving deeds of the Lord” (1 Sam. 12:7). These begin when God sends Moses and Aaron to deliver the people from Egypt. The list includes all those times God sold the Israelites into the hands of their enemies (1 Sam. 12:9) which, presumably, is meant to preface the judges who delivered them and not to be taken as saving deeds themselves. The delivering judges named are Jerubbaal, Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel.

It’s interesting that Barak is named, not Deborah, even though his role in the narrative of Judges 4-5 is that of a subordinate. Other than that and the minor judges of Judges 3, Judges 10, and Judges 12, the list follows the narrative of the Book of Judges fairly well. Except, of course, that Samuel mentions himself rather than Samson – a very odd detail coming from Samuel’s own mouth. According to my New Bible Commentary, it seems that some manuscripts to have Samson’s name in Samuel’s place here (p.293).

The Warning

Having prefaced his speech by a listing of God’s mighty deeds – as Deuteronomist prophets are wont to do – Samuel moves on to his warning. It’s the same general stuff we’ve been getting since the Book of Deuteronomy; obey God’s law and things will be okay, but disaster will strike if/when the people stray.

This time, however, the king is included. Israel will prosper so long as both the people and the king obey the law.

To prove that he means business, Samuel calls a thunder storm. This appears to mirror the storm from Exodus 19:16. In this case, the miracle is made impressive because the storm occurs during the wheat harvest, which my study Bible says would be the equivalent of “snow in summer” (p.346).

This thunder storm will somehow show the people that they were wicked for demanding a king (1 Sam. 12:17), and they should pray for themselves because their request was so evil (1 Sam. 12:19). I just wish Sam would tell us how he really feels.

It seems that whatever reassurances God tried to give Samuel in 1 Sam. 8:7, he’s still rather sore about his office being replaced.

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