2 Chronicles 14-16: The Rise and Fall of King Asa

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Asa gets only a fairly small section in Kings (1 Kgs 15:9-24) in which he does some religious purification, deposes the queen mother, but falls short of clearing out the high places. Despite this one little flaw, he was a true faithful throughout his whole life and brought many treasures to the Temple, then took a fair number right back out again to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into turning against his alliance with Israel. In his old age, however, he was plagued by a disease of the feet.

2 Chronicles 14-16 follows much the same plotline, but much bloated, and includes some interesting differences.

Enter Ethiopia

When Asa took the throne, we learn that he saw peace for ten years, during which he was well regarded by God, largely because of his religious intolerance. He destroyed the foreign altars and high places, broke down the pillars and Asherim, and commanded Judah to seek God and keep the commandments. He also, as it happens, built up Judah’s fortifications, raised an army of 300,000 spearmen from Judah and 280.000 archers from Benjamin, and the land prospered under his rule.

Unique to the Chronicler, we find another battle story bordering on moral tale, like the battle against Israel in 2 Chron. 13. This time, Judah fights Zerah, an Ethiopian. According to my study Bible, no such king is known outside of this passage. However, it seems that there is some evidence (including the mention of camels we will come to shortly) that suggest that Zerah may have been an Arabian king, rather than an Ethiopian one.

Zerah attacks Judah with an army of a million men and 300 chariots, making it as far as Mareshah. He is met there, at the valley of Zephathah, by Asa’s army. Asa cried out to God for help, goading him, making the conflict out to be one of the powers of man against the powers of God (2 Chron. 14:11). Yet this doesn’t seem to bother God, who hands Asa victory.

The Judahites pursue the Ethiopians as far as Gerar, in Philistine story, until there are no Ethiopians left. With the conflict over, the Judahites take to looting – plundering the cities around Gerar before destroying them, and even destroying the tents of the nomadic herders in the area, carrying away sheep, camels, and much booty. The Chronicler tells us that they did this “for the fear of the Lord was upon them” (2 Chron. 14:14), though it seems rather opportunistic. Some commentators try to excuse Asa’s actions by claiming that the Philistines had been working with the Ethiopians, though there doesn’t seem to be anything in the text to suggest this.

Further Cleansing

Asa’s religious persecutions weren’t quite done (or, perhaps, are re-narrated).

Asa encountered a prophet by the name of Azariah, son of Obed, who told him that he would be blessed so long as he doesn’t forsake God. He claims that Israel has been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without law for a long time, but that God was found when he was sought. There had been no peace, city fought against city, nation against, nation, etc. Asa’s hands must be strong, says Azariah, for his work will be rewarded (2 Chron. 15:7).

The major trouble with this passage is that no one seems to know what it’s supposed to refer to. The obvious answer is that it refers to the reigns of Rehoboam and Abijah, with the conflict Azariah mentions being the civil war between Judah and Israel. However, the Chronicler’s account is rather kind toward Abijah, so it seems unlikely that he would add a prophecy that seems to contradict his own account.

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

The dominant view seems to be that it’s a reference to the more chaotic time of Judges. But that was around 100 years prior to this prophecy (assuming that the Chronicler discounts Saul, as I’m sure he’d be wont to do), so it’s hard to see the relevance here. Azariah’s speech makes it seem as though Asa is to be a turning point, so it’s hard to see why he would be talking about pre-monarchic times.

In any case, the speech seems to have the desired effect, and Asa persecutes “undesirable” religious expression with renewed vigor. He destroys all the idols in Judah and Benjamin, plus those in the communities of Ephraim that he’d managed to conquer. He was also motivated to repair the altar that was in front of the vestibule of the Temple.

Finally, he deposed the queen mother, Maacah (called his mother here, in 2 Chron. 15:16, but his grandmother, or bears the same name, according to 2 Chron. 11:20 and 1 Kgs 15:2), cutting down and burning her Asherah at the brook of Kidron. This was, by the way, Josiah’s preferred idol disposal location, too, in 2 Kgs 23:4-14. Maacah’s deposition matches 1 Kgs 15:13.

During or after all of this, Asa gathered all his people together in the 3rd month of the 15th year of his reign. They made sacrifices of the spoils they had brought (by context, this would presumably be from the conflict with Zerah, which would have occurred 5 years prior, according to 2 Chron. 14:1). They confirmed the covenant, and decided that anyone who doesn’t seek God should be put to death, no matter who they may be.

Contrary to 2 Chron. 14:2-5, Asa was not able to rid Israel (presumably using the name to refer to Judah, the true Israel, as elsewhere) of all its high places. This is in keeping with 1 Kgs 15:14, where this was seen as great Asa’s only flaw. One possible explanation rests with the word “foreign” in 2 Chron. 14:3. The idea being that Asa was able to rid Judah of the shrines to foreign gods, but not the many local shrines of YHWH. In other words, we may have evidence of the faith’s evolution, and of the Chronicler’s anachronistic judgement.

Despite this one little failing, we are told that Asa was utterly blameless throughout his reign, though this will, as we shall soon see, prove false. He brought many votive gifts to the Temple, and for the 35 years under Asa, there was no more war (excluding the Ethiopians, I’m sure).

The Troublesome Baasha

Despite the claims of 2 Chron. 15:17, things soon change for Asa.

In Asa’s 36th year, King Baasha of Israel launched an attack on Judah. This presents us with a problem, since 1 Kgs 15:33 has Baasha’s reign ending in Asa’s 27th year, and 1 Kgs 16:8 has it ending in Asa’s 26th. This isn’t a contradiction, since it’s easy enough to be off by one when counting years, but it puts Asa’s 36th year right out of the running. James Bradford Pate proposes a few possible fudgings, but I think the most likely explanation is that there’s simply been an error somewhere. 1 Kgs 15 avoids the issue by omitting a date reference.

Baasha built Ramah to box Judah in, laying siege to the whole nation. Asa took silver and gold from the Temple and palace treasuries (despite being noted for putting money in to the Temple treasuries) to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into breaking his alliance with Baasha.

Benhadad is convinced, and he sends his armies against Israel instead of supporting Israel against Judah, conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelmaim, and all the store-cities of Naphtali. Baasha retreats, abandoning Ramah and leaving it open to scavenging from Asa, who took its stones and timber in his own building projects, this time in Geba and Mizpah.

The Chronicler adds a story about Hanani the seer, who approached Asa to condemn him for turning to Syria instead of God. Had God not helped Asa in the battle against the Ethioians (and, apparently, Lybians)? Because of Asa’s poor choice of allies, Judah will henceforth suffer wars.

Asa, blaming the messenger, threw Hanani in prison. According to the text, this was not the only cruelty he inflicted on his people. Such a rapid turnabout seems unlikely. It seems, rather, that the Chronicler didn’t care much about Asa’s cruelties so long as he trusted in God to manage his military affairs.

Conclusion

For the rest of Asa’s story, we are directed to the non-extant Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.

In the 39th year of his reign, Asa suffered from a disease in his feet. This corresponds to 1 Kgs 15:23, though in the Chronicler’s version, Asa sinned in this, too, by seeking out physicians rather than turning to God. I’m sure this passage gets its use in arguments in favour of faith healing which, I think, I needn’t say is rather troubling, even if consulting a physician at the time might well have been the worse idea (what with the state of ancient medicine).

Finally, Asa died in his 41st year, and was buried in a tomb he had hewn out for himself in the city of David. He was laid out on a bier that had been spiced and performed, and they lit a great fire in his honour. I found the amount of detail on the funerary arrangements rather interesting, given that they are so infrequent.

I see no explanation for the Chronicler’s contradiction of the 1 Kgs 15 account of Asa’s life (as well as 2 Chron. 15:17). I don’t understand why the Chronicler chose to save Abijah/Abijam’s reputation in 2 Chron. 13, and to tarnish Asa’s reputation here.

1 Kings 21: A vineyard to die for

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We return to the sins of Ahab and his household for this chapter. This time, we find him coveting a neighbouring vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. Fairly reasonably, Ahab offers to either buy or trade for the land. Also reasonably, Naboth refuses. In this case, he’s refusing on religious grounds, as selling land is prohibited in, for example, Numbers 36:7 and through much of Leviticus 25. So far, so good. Ahab’s reaction, however, is not exactly flattering. He takes to his bed and refuses to eat in a dramatic hiss-fit worthy of the most assiduous toddler. But it is Jezebel who gets to be the convenient baddie in this story.

After finding out what’s eating Ahab, she comes up with a plan to secure the desired vineyard. What’s really interesting, and more than a little surprising, about this story is how deftly Jezebel uses Jewish law to achieve her goals. Far from being the colonialist foreigner who simply dismisses the local religion as she brings over her own traditions, she is portrayed as someone who has taken the time to become completely fluent in the local customs – and she deftly uses that knowledge to her husband’s advantage.

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

Using Ahab’s seal and in his name, Jezebel writes to the elders and nobles of Jezreel, instructing them to find “two base fellows” (1 Kings 21:10) willing to testify that Naboth had cursed both God and king. The crime she accuses Naboth of is prohibited in Exodus 22:28 (and a case study found in Leviticus 24:10-16). The requirement that two witnesses be produced is found in Deuteronomy 17:5-6 and Deuteronomy 19:15.

Naboth is, of course, found guilty and stoned to death, freeing up his vineyard for a new owner. (It seems that someone wondered why the vineyard wasn’t simply inherited by Naboth’s sons, resulting in 2 Kings 9:26 having the sons die along with their father.)

Thankfully, God isn’t well pleased with all this. Unfortunately, rather than finding a way to save Naboth, he merely sends the prophet Elijah over with some stern words for Ahab. That’ll show him.

Specifically, Elijah curses Ahab, saying that his own blood will be licked up by dogs in the same place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood. He definitely gets points for vivid imagery. After a bunch of the usual promises to bring down Ahab’s dynasty, he comes back to the dogs: “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel” (1 Kings 21:23).

Staying on a image that is clearly working for him, he then pronounces that any of Ahab’s followers who die in urban areas will be eaten by dogs, while Ahab’s followers who die in rural areas will be eaten by birds. This threat is nearly a word-for-word repetition of the threat given to Jeroboam in 1 Kings 14:11. Either God’s running out of material, or an editor said “oh hey, dogs! I love dogs! I read this other thing about dogs once that would go really well in this passage!”

There’s a very odd passage that reads strongly as an insert reminding us that Ahab was just the worst. I suppose that after all that stuff about dogs eating people, an editor was concerned that we might start to feel sorry for Ahab?

Ahab, prone to dramatic displays, hears this and has another episode – this time rending his clothes, fasting, wearing sackcloth, and going “about dejectedly” (1 Kings 21:27). This time, it’s precisely the right thing to do. Taking this display as repentance, God decides to spare Ahab and to punish his kids instead. Thanks, God!

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)

The Kings of Judah and Israel

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There seems to be some wiggle room in the dates given for the various kings of Israel and Judah. We’ll be seeing several instances of overlapping reigns, totals that don’t add up, and other problems. This is, it seems, compounded once the dates are verified against external references, such as the names and dates from Egypt or Assyria. As a result, the dates my New Bible Commentary settles on are wildly different form the dates John Collins has settled on for his Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. For my own purposes, I’ll be following the latter. For ease of reference, here’s the chart:

Kings of Judah Kings of Israel
Rehoboam 922-915 Jeroboam 922-901
Abijah (Abijam) 915-873
Asa 913-873 Nadab 901-900
Baasha 900-877
Elah 877-876
Zimri 876
Omride Era
Omri 876-869
Jehoshaphat 873-849 Ahab 869-850
Ahaziah 850-849
Jehoram 849-843 Jehoram 849-843
Ahaziah 843-842 Jehu Dynasty
Jehu 843-815
Athaliah 842-837
Joash 837-800
Jehoahaz 815-802
Amaziah 800-783 Jehoash 802-786
Uzziah (Azariah) 783-742 Jeroboam II 786-746
Assyrian Intervention
Jotham 742-735 Zechariah 746-745
Shallum 745
Menahem 745-737
Pekahiah 737-736
Ahaz 735-727/715 Pekah 736-732
Hoshea 732-722
Hezekiah 727/715-687
Fall of Samaria 722
Manasseh 687-642
Amon 642-640
Josiah 640-609
Jehoahaz 609
Jehoiakim 609-598
Jehoiachin 598-597
Babylonian capture of Jerusalem 597
Zedekiah 597-586
Destruction of Jerusalem 586