Amos 1-2: Finger Pointing

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Amos opens with a thesis statement in the third person: “The words of Amos […] which he saw concerning Israel” (Amos 1:1).

This statement is mixed in with some biographical information, telling us that Amos was among the shepherds of Tekoa, and that he saw the words when Uzziah was king in Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash was king in Israel, two years before an earthquake.

With regards to his profession as a shepherd, the particular word used is only used in one other place: 2 Kgs 3:4, in reference to the king of Moab. The king of Moab, of course, would hardly be some lowly peasant. Given that Amos was apparently literate, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to see him as the same category of shepherd – the owner of a large flock that was tended by employees.

Claude Mariottini discusses Amos’s occupation in more detail in a blog post.

God Roared

The section proper begins with a verse that reads almost like an incantation:

The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers.

If the verse is original to Amos, the fact that the geographical markers are all from the southern kingdom seems rather odd. There’s something just so Deuteronomistic about Jerusalem as the place from which God is roaring. According to Collins, that’s one reason why this verse is considered by many to be an addition from after the Babylonian exile (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.159).

The use of the term “Zion” is interesting as well, since it’s not a word that’s come up a whole lot in our readings so far. We saw it a fair bit in Lamentations, which is dated to the Babylonian exile. Other than that, we’ve only seen it used a sprinkling of times in Kings and Chronicles, and once in 2 Sam. 5:7, which Wikipedia gives as the earliest use of the word. This seems to be fairly compelling evidence in support of Collins’s assertion.

The Condemnations

The condemnations themselves follow a pattern:

  1. It begins with the phrase: “Thus says the Lord.” According to Claude Mariottini, this phrase is frequently found in prophetic books, and would have been used by royal messengers speaking on behalf of a king to a designated individual (as in the case with Rabshakeh, envoy from King Sennacherib of Assyria to King Hezekiah of Judah in 2 Kgs 18:19).
  2. “For three transgressions of [transgressor], and for four, I will not revoke punishment.” The phrase likely means something along the lines of “three transgressions would have been bad enough, but you’ve gone and had four of them!” (Except, of course, with the specific numbers being literally figurative.)
  3. This is followed by a surprisingly brief explanation of their crimes…
  4. And a surprisingly brief explanation of the punishment that awaits them. This largely involves a fire that will consume their walls and strongholds (except in the case of Israel).
  5. Closing each condemnation (except for those of Tyre and Edom), Amos concludes with: “says the Lord God.”

Amos 1:3-5
Target: Damascus, Syria
Transgressions: They threshed Gilead, which we read about in 2 Kgs 10:32-33.
Punishment: God will send fire down on the house of Hazael, and it will devour the strongholds of Benhadad (both Hazael and Behadad were kings of Syria). The people of Syria will be forced into exile to Kir. This will indeed happen when the Assyrians take Damascus in 2 Kgs 16:9. Also of interest is that Amos himself seems to believe that the Syrians originated from Kir (Amos 9:7).

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Amos 1:6-8
Target: Gaza, Philistia
Transgressions: For carrying a whole people into exile, and for selling them to Edom.
Punishment: God will send fire onto the wall of Gaza, destroying her strongholds. The inhabitants will be cut off from Ashdod and the one who holds the scepter of Ashkelon. God will turn his hand against Ekron and the last of the Philistines will die. This all happened when Assyria took over in a series of campaigns (Gaza fell to Tiglath-Pileser in 734BCE, Ashdod to Sargon in 711BCE, and Ashkelon and Ekron to Sennacherib in 701BCE).

Amos 1:9-10
Target: Tyre
Transgressions: For selling people to Edom, and for forgetting the covenant of brotherhood (this latter likely a reference to the close relationship between Tyre and Israel during the reigns of David and Solomon, as per 2 Sam. 5:11 and 1 Kgs 5:1).
Punishment: God will set fire to the wall of Tyre and devour its strongholds. This prophecy also came true, this time when Tyre became a tributary to Assyria and then fell to Nebuchadnezzar 585BCE, after a lengthy siege. It was then destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332BCE.

Amos 1:11-12
Target: Edom
Transgressions: For having pursued his brother with the sword, without pity. Edom was perpetually torn by anger and wrath.
Punishment: God will send fire down on Teman, and it will devour the strongholds of Bozrah. This prophecy also came true, as Edom was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE.

Amos 1:13-15
Target: The Ammonites
Transgressions: For having ripped up pregnant women in Gilead to enlarge their borders. This war against Gilead doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere else.
Punishment: God will send fire down to the wall of Rabbah, devouring its strongholds. This will happen with great shouting in the day of battle, and with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind. The Ammonite king and princes will be taken into exile.

Amos 2:1-3
Target: Moab
Transgressions: For having burned to lime the bones of the Edomite king. This is an interesting complaint. While the crimes of the other foreign nations can be read as offenses against Israel (the big Israel, the one that includes Judah), this is a crime against another foreign nation. As Collins puts it, “this is a crime of one Gentile against another and can only be viewed as a crime against humanity. Amos operates with a concept of universal justice, such as we often find in the wisdom literature” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).
Punishment: Fire will rain down upon Moab (though not, at least, it’s walls) and devour the strongholds of Kerioth. Moab will die amid uproar, shouting, and the sound of the trumpet. Its ruler and its princes will be slain.

Amos 2:4-5
Target: Judah
Transgressions: For rejecting the law of God and failing to keep his statutes. For having been led astray by their lies, in the way their fathers walked. This passage is sometimes considered to have been added by a later editor, in large part because of how closely the writing resembles that of the Deuteronomical books.
Punishment: God will bring fire down on Judah devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Of course, this came to pass in 2 Kgs 24-25.

Turning to Israel

While the authenticity of certain passages is in question, the rhetorical flow works quite well. First, Amos lures his readers/listeners in by raging at the other guy. Then he moves a little closer with the next batch, raging at nations considered ‘cousins’: Edom is mythically descended from Jacob’s brother (Gen. 25:19-34), while the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot (Gen. 19:36-38). Circling ever closer, Amos turns to Judah.

And then Amos pounces, throwing the sins of Israel into their faces.

The sins of Israel are many:

  • They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. This is likely a reference to bribery in the justice system, rather than a real buyer’s market in the slave trade.
  • They trampled the heads of the poor into the dust. This seemed fairly self-evident to me, but the New Bible Commentary made it all about real estate, saying that they were begrudging the poor even the small amount of dust that they put on their heads when mourning (p.731). This could be a translation issue, or perhaps I’m just not getting it, but it’s certainly a powerful image.
  • A man and his father have sex with the same woman, thus profaning God’s holy name. This is generally prohibited in Lev. 20:11, but it seems that many commentaries read this as a condemnation of cultic prostitution (which would explain the reference to God’s holy name). The man and the father would therefore not necessarily be literal, but an indication that the whole of the community is involved in this sin. Of course, once interpretation does not exclude the other, and a double meaning may have been intended.
  • They lay down beside every altar (clearly, Israel wasn’t quite monotheistic enough), upon garments taken in pledge (likely a reference to the same string of laws that gave us Deut. 24:17, prohibiting the taking of a widow’s clothing in pledge).
  • They drink the wine of those who have been fined in the house of their God. The idea that enforcement agencies might profit from greater fines for smaller infractions is certainly still a problem.

Amos breaks the pattern by reminding his audience that God destroyed the Amorites for them – even though the Amorites were as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks. God brought them out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness, then gave them the Amorite lands to call their own. He raised prophets and Nazirites (a person who voluntarily makes a vow, as discussed in Num. 6) from among them, and yet… And yet they have made the Nazirites drink wine and commanded the prophets not to prophecy (a sore point for Amos, I’m sure).

Apparently, the authenticity of this passage about prophets and Nazirites (Amos 2:11-12) is in question, and it’s not hard to see why. It does break the pattern of the condemnations.

In punishment for all of this, God will press them down. Flight will perish from the swift, strength will vanish from the strong, even the mightiest won’t be able to save themselves from the coming punishment. It will be so bad that even the stout of heart will flee naked. Harsh times, indeed.

So, did Amos’s prophecies come true? Well, yes, but given a large enough time frame, foreseeing the doom of just about any nation is a sure bet. One possibility I’m seeing is that of a late authorship – if the book was written during the Deuteronomic reforms or into the exile, the events Amos is predicting would already have been known, and perhaps setting them in the mouth of Amos, or setting Amos in the time of Jeroboam, served a different purpose. Sifting through the arguments for either side is well above my pay grade, but the commentaries I tend to trust the most seem unanimous in the idea that Amos is largely authentic with some possible late additions.

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.

2 Kings 13: The rule of the J names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elisha’s Terminal Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria’s Succession

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

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

2 Kings 8: The Expedient

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We return to the narrative of the Shunammite woman, here identified instead by her relationship to The Boy Who Lived. Elisha is again showing her some special favour by warning her of a coming famine that would last seven years. Following his advice, she packs up her family and moves to Philistia to wait out the disaster.

At the end of the seven years, the family returns and the woman appeals to the king of Israel (still unnamed) for the restoration of her house and lands. As luck would have it (or perhaps it was orchestrated by Elisha), she happens to arrive just as Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, is telling the king of Israel all about her son’s miraculous resurrection. She is able to confirm the story and, awed, the king not only restores all her stuff, he even backdates it to the time she left Israel.

Gehazi’s leprosy (acquired in 2 Kgs 5:27) isn’t mentioned here. Commentaries mostly seem to explain this by assuming that the stories are presented out of order, and that the healing of Naaman has not yet occurred. It could also be a simple omission on the narrator’s part, or it could be that the two stories come from separate traditions (one of which does not include a leprous Gehazi).

However, I noticed that the description of Gehazi’s skin as being “white as snow” sounded familiar and, sure enough, it is the same description used of Miriam’s leprosy in Numbers 12:10. In Miriam’s case, her condition only seems to have lasted for seven days (or less). It’s possible, then, that the disease referred to was a short-lived one (perhaps infection, so that Gehazi caught it from Naaman), and that Gehazi’s skin condition had cleared up prior to this chapter. This would, however, appear to conflict with Elisha’s curse that the condition would affect Gehazi’s descendants as well, unless he simply means that they would all contract a bout of it at some point.

That said, given the possibility of different traditions or the stories simply being out of order, it’s unnecessary to look quite so far for an explanation.

Another thing I noticed about this story is that the property is described as belonging to the Shunammite woman, and the king of Israel restores it to her. In fact, her husband is not mentioned at all in this chapter. It’s possible that she is a widow by this time (her husband is described as old in 2 Kgs 4:14), though she’s never referred to as such.

Benhadad’s Illness

In 2 Kgs 1:2-4, Ahaziah, the king of Israel, was ill. Wanting to know if he would recover, he sent messengers out to Ekron to ask the god Baalzebub after his fate. Here, we get something of a reversal. It is Benhadad, the king of Syria, who is ill, and he sends out a messenger to ask YHWH if he will recover.

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Taking advantage of the fact that Elisha is in Damascus, Benhadad sends out Hazael with gifts. Elisha predicts that Benhadad will recover from his illness, but he is still fated to die. There is a difficult passage in here where it seems that Elisha stares at Hazael until Hazael is ashamed, or perhaps Elisha and Hazael stare at each other until Elisha is ashamed, or Hazael stares at Elisha until Elisha is ashamed, or… you get the point. It’s a nice bout of the pronoun game that unnecessarily complicates the passage. At the end, Elisha begins to weep.

Hazael asks why Elisha is weeping, and the latter responds that Hazael will do some really awful things to Israel. Hazael seems confused, and asks how someone of his status could possibly manage to do that. Elisha then reveals that Hazael will become king of Syria. When Hazael returns to his king, he relates only that Benhadad will recover from his illness. The next day, however, he suffocates Benhadad in his bed and declares himself king.

There’s some question here about what’s going on: Was Hazael going to kill Benhadad all along (which would make sense of the earlier passage, if Elisha sees the future and stares at Hazael, who feels some shame at what he’d been planning), or did Elisha plant the idea in Hazael’s mind (and therefore was himself ashamed at what he was about to do)? Some commentaries argue that God wanted to punish Israel and had decided to use Hazael for that purpose (which would fit with 1 Kgs 19:14-18), yet needed Elisha to nudge Hazael to make it happen.

We also see some more of the odd conflation of Elijah and Elisha. In 1 Kgs 19:15, God commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael king of Syria – which he never did (at least not that was narrated). Yet it seems that Elisha is, if not anointing, at least announcing Hazael’s social ascent.

Interestingly, it seems that King Shalmaneser III of Assyria wrote about Hazael’s usupring of the Syrian crown, describing him as the “son of a nobody” (meaning someone outside of the dynastic line). No mention is made of the method, though.

Dynastic Details

We return to the dynastic records with Jehoram, who took the crown of Judah in the fifth year of Israel’s Joram (Joram being a variation of Jehoram, clearly employed to make this confusing chronology slightly less so). The record here seems to agree with 2 Kgs 3:1, though not with 2 Kgs 1:17 (unless, as I’ve mentioned previously, we write in a co-reign). He was 32 years and ruled for 8 years (a figure that apparently varies quite a bit between versions, like as beleaguered scribes tried to make all the dates match).

Our author has a dim view of Jehoram, largely, it seems, because of his marriage to Ahab’s daughter. Still, he stayed his hand against Judah for David’s sake.

While Jehoram’s greatest fault seems to be his marriage, it was also during his reign that Judah lost control over Edom and Libnah. It seems that King Joram of Israel tried to take advantage of the situation by going after Edom for himself (or perhaps he was trying to help Judah put down the rebellion). Unfortunately for him, he was overwhelmed by the Edomite forces. He managed to fight his way free, but by then his army had already routed.

After Jehoram came Ahaziah, ascending in the twelfth year of Joram of Israel. He was twenty-two years old, and reigned for only one year. His mother was Athaliah, listed here as the granddaughter of Omri, presumably the daughter of Ahab who married Jehoram. Our narrator wasn’t a fan of Ahaziah either, and for the same reason that he disliked his father – his close relationship with the kings of Israel (in this case by parentage rather than marriage).

The only note we get here about Ahaziah’s single year as king is that he fought against King Hazael of Syria alongside King Joram of Israel. During the conflict, Joram was injured at Ramoth-gilead, and Ahaziah went to visit him while he was recovering in Jezreel.

2 Kings 6-7: Elisha versus the Syrians

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The first miracle of this chapter pair is similar to what we’ve been seeing – tricks to show off Elisha’s power without much apparent theological significance.

In it, the sons of the prophets complain that the place where they’ve been living is too small, and ask Elisha for permission to go to the Jordan river and build a new home for themselves there. As a side note, this provides us with some clue about who the sons of the prophets were, since they are living “under [Elisha’s] charge” (2 Kgs 6:1). It seems that these sons, at least, were perhaps Elisha’s apprentices, or under-priests.

As one of the sons is cutting wood, his axe head falls into the water. This is doubly a disaster because it was a loaner. Elisha is able to retrieve the axe head by throwing a stick into the water, causing the iron of the axe head to float.

A Tricky Escape

The next two stories return to the Syria/Israel conflict. In the first, Syria has been raiding Israel and, it seems, setting up ambushes. Sadly for the still unnamed king of Syria, Elisha can apparently hear him at all times (even in his bedroom!) and has been tipping off the unnamed king of Israel.

The Syrian king initially believes that there is a spy, but his servant tells him about Elisha. So the Syrian king decides to eliminate the problem at its root and sends an army out to Dothan to capture Elisha.

When they wake in the morning, Elisha and his retinue find the Syrian army outside. In a scene that seems straight out of a Christian chain letter, one of Elisha’s servants expresses his concern, to which Elisha says: “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kgs 6:8). With a prayer, he opens the servant’s eyes, allowing him to see a surrounding host of chariots and horses made of fire (perhaps the company Elijah’s horse and chariot came from in 2 Kgs 2:11).

The chariots of fire are a bit of a red herring, though, because Elijah defeats the army by making them all blind. He then goes out and tells them that they’ve gone the wrong way. Never fear, however, because Elisha will lead them to Elisha. My New Bible Commentary notes on the theological problem of a prophet lying, which illustrates the problem of trying to reinterpret humour/power stories as moral tales.

Rather than lead the blind Syrians to himself, however, Elisha takes them strait into the heart of Samaria. When he returns their vision, they realize that they’ve been brought into the power centre of their enemies.

The king of Israel is pleased as punch with the opportunity to rid himself of some enemies, but Elisha refuses. The soldiers are to be treated like POWs: They are to be fed and released. The king acquiesces and, either in fear of Elisha’s power or in gratitude for their treatment, the Syrians stopped raiding Israel.

The Siege of Samaria

Just kidding. The very first thing we learn after being told that the Syrians ceased attacking Israel is that the king of Syria is mustering an army against Israel. He clearly didn’t get the memo. (Or, more likely, the stories have been placed together without too much mind for chronology or continuity.)

Samaria falling to the AssyriansThis time, the Syrian king is named – Benhadad – though the king of Israel still lacks one. While the Syrian king’s name should help us locate the story in time, there’s more than one Benhadad and, without knowing the Israelite king’s name, our window for these Elisha stories is quite broad.

The Syrian army besieges Samaria, resulting in a rather nasty famine. It’s bad enough that the king of Israel is accosted by woman while he’s out walking. She begs for help because she made a deal with another woman that they would eat her son on the first day, and the other woman’s son on the second day. They ate her son, but on the second day the other woman hid her son. The king is suitably heartbroken by the story and rends his clothes, displaying the sackcloth he had been wearing underneath – a gratifying detail that shows that the king’s grief is apparently genuine rather than performed.

For some reason, he blames Elisha for the situation and vows to have him beheaded.

Elisha knows they are coming, however, and bars his door. When they arrive, he tells them that all will soon be well. By tomorrow, he assures them, food will be plenty. One of the king’s captains is doubtful, so Elisha predicts that, while the city will soon be eating, the captain won’t.

The Four Lepers

While all this is going on, four lepers are hanging out by the gates of Samaria, feeling sorry for themselves. Figuring that they will die if they stay where they are and die if they go into the city, they might as well take a chance on the Syrians and the possibility of mercy.

When they get to the Syrian camp, however, they find it empty. It seems that the Syrians fled when they heard the supernatural sounds of a great army descending upon them.

The lepers are rather overjoyed by their discovery and set to work eating from the army’s supplies. They loot the tents, carrying the stuff away and hiding it. After a few trips, however, it occurs to them that they really should let the rest of the Samarians know. It doesn’t seem to be an attack of conscience, though, so much as the fear that they might be punished if it’s found out that they knew and didn’t tell the others.

The king is still cautious, thinking it could be an ambush. On the advice of a servant, he sends out scouts who get as far as the Jordan river following the discards of the fleeing army. Satisfied, the Samarians head out to plunder the Syrian camp, fulfilling Elisha’s prediction.

The doubting captain had been guarding the city gates and was trampled when the hungry citizens rushed out, thereby fulfilling the second part of Elisha’s prophecy. Our narrator repeats the whole interaction between Elisha and the captain, connecting all the dots for any reader who may have forgotten to pay attention. While the story doesn’t explicitly state that the captain was killed as punishment for his doubt (as opposed to a prediction of an event that would have happened regardless), this little moralizing note certainly makes it seem that way.

1 Kings 20: A Wild Lion Appears!

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Elijah disappears from our narrative for a while, leaving us with a chapter that is surprisingly favourable toward Ahab – at least at first. We find Ahab as King Benhadad of Syria decides that he will invade Samaria. When the Syrians arrive, Benhadad demands that Ahab give him all his gold, silver, and fairest wives and children (or, perhaps, fairest wives, and children). Ahab immediately acquiesces. Perhaps realizing that Israel is being led by a pushover, Benhadad figures he can get away with more: the next day, he will send in some servants to just take whatever they want.

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

This goes too far, and Ahab balks. With the backing of his elders, he sends word that he is still willing to comply with the first demand, but he does not consent to the second. Benhadad, of course, is enraged and declares that his followers will not be going home with nothing but handfuls of dust. To this, Ahab replies: “Let not him that girds on his armor boast himself as he that puts it off” (1 Kings 20:11) – in other words, this ain’t over.

I was trying to figure out why Ahab so readily conceded to the first request, but stood firm on the second. After all, if the Syrians are already going to make off with all the gold, silver, wives, and children, what is Ahab worried about them getting? My first thought was that the difference might lie in who is robbed – in the first, it is Ahab’s household that will be plundered (Ahab’s gold, Ahab’s wives, Ahab’s children). In the second request, Benhadad is saying that he will loot “your house and the houses of your servants” (1 Kings 20:6). So one possibility is that Ahab was willing to give away his own possessions, but unwilling to allow the whole city to be looted.

Tim Bulkeley proposes an alternative – that the whole interaction is a misunderstanding between Benhadad, who is just here to plunder, and Ahab, who believes that Israel is being made a vassal state. In other words, when Ahab answers that “I am yours, and all that I have” (1 King 20:4), what he meant was that he would agree to being placed under Benhadad’s control, not that all that he has would literally be carried away. In this interpretation, Benhadad’s second message is not adding to his original demand, but clarifying it.

Israel Fights Back

With Benhadad unwilling to compromise and Ahab unwilling to let Samaria be looted bare, war is inevitable. What’s really interesting about this chapter in context is that the prophets, and God, are on Ahab’s side (at least for now). The two obvious explanations for this are: a) the story is presented out of chronological order, and actually occurs before Ahab started slaughtering all the prophets, or b) the story’s source was generally more sympathetic toward Ahab, excluding the final few verses that we’ll come to later.

So an unnamed prophet comes to Ahab and tells him that he will win the upcoming battle, and that he must be the one to initiate the fighting. Ahab gathers 7,000 soldiers (an interesting number, as that is the same number of true believers who were set aside to be spared in 1 Kings 19:18, though I have no idea if this is just a coincidence), and marches forth. Benhadad, clearly not expecting the Israelites to show pluck, was busy getting drunk.

When he finds out that the Israelites are advancing, he gives the following order: “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; or if they have come out for war, take them alive” (1 Kings 20:18), which is rather silly and redundant. The Tim Bulkeley podcast I linked to above discusses the various purposes that this verse might have had. In particular, he notices that the word order has been changed from: “If for peace they have come out, seize them alive, and if for war they have come out, alive you shall seize them.” Referencing the 19th century Rabbi Malbim, he wonders if the word order is meant to draw particular attention to the words in bold.

Bulkeley also discusses a theory put forward by the Bible commentator Abrabanel, who suggested that the line is meant to be confusing and absurd, an indication of Benhadad’s inebriation.

Of course, with the Syrians drunk, unprepared, overconfident, and lacking in God’s favour, the Samarians win, though Benhadad himself escapes with his cavalry.

Try, Try Again

Another unnamed prophet, or perhaps the same one, warns Ahab that Benhadad will be back in the spring. Sure enough, Benhadad’s advisors convince him that the Syrians only lost because the Israelite gods are gods of hills, their power at its strongest in the hill country. Therefore, if Benhadad were to engage the Israelite army in the plains, they’ll lose their divine advantage and will lose. They focus their mustering on chariots and cavalry, which are extremely effective in flat country where they can really get up speed and ram through infantry lines.

But they underestimated God! A prophet tells Ahab not to worry. Because Benhadad believes that God’s power is lacking in the plains, the Israelites will win the conflict and thereby prove that God’s genitals are the biggest (for such a powerful deity, he really does go on about how much he has to prove, doesn’t he?).

The two armies set up camp next to each other, but wait seven days before fighting. When they do, as predicted, the Israelites win (slaughtering an impossible number of Syrians in the process), but Benhadad escapes again.

Realizing that the jig is up, Benhadad and his followers wear sackcloth and put ropes on their heads, which apparently signals that they are very very sorry that they ever bothered Samaria. The kings of Israel, they say, have a reputation for being merciful. Sure enough, Ahab decides to spare Benhadad, and the two form a covenant in which all lands that Syria has taken from Israel in the last few generations are to be returned, and Israel gets to set up a bazaar in Damascus.

“Hit Me”

Which is just awful because, as we well know, there are few things that God hates more than mercy. In a story that is reminiscent of 2 Sam. 12:1-7, an unnamed prophet (who is at first referred to as a “certain man of the sons of the prophets” – 1 Kings 20:35 – apparently signifying that he was only a disciple) asks someone to hit him. When that person refuses, he is eaten by a lion. The prophet asks a second person to hit him, and the second person immediately complies. Sadly, there is no twist ending where the second person realizes that the prophet was a figment of his imagination all along.

Bruised and bandaged, the prophet goes to Ahab and tells him a story about having been entrusted to guard a man and letting him escape, tricking Ahab into passing judgement on himself by getting him to judge the prophet. You see, says the prophet as he rips off his disguise, Ahab was entrusted by God to kill Benhadad, but he showed mercy. God hates mercy. Because of his failure, Ahab’s life will have to serve as a substitute for Benhadad’s.

And there it ends. Perhaps God didn’t really mean it after all.

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)