Amos 5-6: Lamentations

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Amos 5-6 give us a lamentation very similar to what we read in the book of Lamentations. The difference is largely one of tense – Lamentations bemoans the horror that has happened, while Amos is looking forward to a coming horror.

As in Lamentations, Israel is feminized. And, again, we see the theme of friendlessness, the “virgin Israel” (Amos 5:2) is forsaken in her own lands, and no one will help her.

The Day of the Lord

Amos warns that the “day of the Lord” (Amos 5:18) is coming. He bemoans those who look forward to the day of God, because it is a day of darkness, not one of light. To look forward to such a day would be like to flee from a lion only to encounter a bear (Amos 5:19).

Given a lot of the context, the “day of the Lord” seems to refer to a day of judgement. And, given the commentaries, that’s definitely how many others seem to read it. But Collins gives an interesting alternative possibility:

In later times it came to mean the day of judgement. In this context, however, it clearly refers to a cultic celebration, perhaps the Festival of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, which was known as “the feast of YHWH” in later times. Tabernacles was celebrated at the end of the grape harvest. It was a joyful festival, marked by drinking wine. It was a day of light, in the sense of being a joyful occasion. For Amos, however, the day of the Lord was darkness and not light, gloom with no brightness. He is sweeping in his rejection of the sacrificial cult, in all its aspects. Instead, he asks that “justice roll down like waters.” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.157)

In other words, this could be Amos condemning the excess of a festival, rather than naming the anticipated day of judgement. Either interpretation could easily fit the context.

But if the “day of the Lord” does refer to a day of judgement, Amos has very clear ideas of what it will look like and why it’s deserved. The people of Samaria hate those who “reprove in the gate” and those who speak the truth (Amos 5:10), which sounds rather personal coming from a prophet. They also trample the poor and take from them exactions of wheat. While Amos certainly cares about social justice issues, his personal pique seems just a tad more important.

Amos warns the people that though they’ve built lovely stone houses, they won’t get to live in them. Though they’ve planted nice vineyards, they won’t get to dink the wine. Because God knows how great their sins are, and he knows that the people of Samaria afflict the righteous, turn aside the needy at the gate, and take bribes (the city gate being where justice is served – or, as the case may be not).

Because of all these things, God will destroy the strong. The cities will be decimated, and there will be wailing in all quarters when God “will pass through the midst of you” (Amos 5:17).

The only chance will be to seek God, and to seek good instead of evil. Bring justice back to the gates (Amos 5:15) and maybe God will be gracious.

I Despise Your Feasts

God calls to the people of Samaria to “seek me and live” (Amos 5:4), but not to bother at Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba.

God hates their feasts and their solemn assemblies. The people make their offerings, but God won’t accept them. He even asks that they take away the noise of their songs (a strong contrast to what we read in Chronicles!).

Amos, by John Sargent

Amos, by John Sargent

Instead of all this pomp and ceremony, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It’s a hard argument to disagree with.

For Collins, the problem isn’t necessarily with the ceremonies themselves, but rather that they “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the service of God, but actually an impediment to it” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.158).

God, via Amos, asks if the people brought him sacrifices and offerings during their forty years of wandering in the desert (Amos 5:25). In the context,this seems to be used to call back to a state of purity, when justice (rather than ritual) reigned. Therefore, the only answer Amos could have expected from his audience is a “no.” This is a problem in light of the Pentateuch, where the origins of ritual traditions are tied to the exodus.

In Amos 5:25, God promises to take the Samarian people into exile to Damascus because they worshiped idols, including the Assyrian gods Sakkuth and Kaiwan. According to Collins, this could be a problem for the dating of Amos. Because while Samaria was, in fact, eventually destroyed by Assyrians:

[T]he Assyrian threat was not in evidence during the reign of Jeroboam and developed only in the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, whose reign began about the time of Jeroboam’s death. Amos never mentions Assyria in his oracles, but a few passages refer to the punishment of exile, which was typical Assyrian policy (5:5,27). These oracles are more easily explained if they are dated somewhat later, when Assyria was a threat to Israel. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.155)

I Abhor Your Pride

Amos 6 is quite a bit shorter than the preceding chapter, and mostly focuses on the pride of Samaria.

It begins with a lament for those who feel at ease or secure, whether in Zion or Samaria (Amos 6:1). That tossing in of Jerusalem seems so casual, and yet there it is.

Amos asks, is Samaria better than Calneh or Hamath (according to my study Bible, these were important commercial centres in Assyria), or Gath (an important Philistine city)? Or is their territory greater than yours?

Amos predicts woe coming to the wealthy: Those who lie on ivory beds, those who eat lamb and calf, those who drink drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves, those who sing idle songs, those who, like David, invent for themselves instruments of music (Amos 6:5). After reading the fawning over David in Chronicles, this dismissal of him as something of a layabout really struck me. In any case, these creatures of wealth and comfort would be the first to go into exile, and their revelry will pass away. This did, of course, prove to come true.

God hates the pride of Jacob, he hates his strongholds, and so he has commanded that the great houses be smitten into fragments and the small houses into bits (Amos 6:11).

Though Samaria may congratulate itself for its military prowess, God will raise a nation against it (Amos 6:13-14).

Returning to rhetorical questions, Amos asks if horses run on rocks, or if oxen are used to plow the sea? Though the answers are apparently obvious no, the people have Samaria have managed to turn justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (Amos 6:12). In other words, the injustice seen in Samaria is a perversion of the natural order.

A Celestial Deity

Before I leave Amos 5-6, I wanted to mention Amos 5:8:

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name.

This makes God seem like an amalgam of typical Near Eastern male nature deities. God is the god of the stars, of the sun and moon, and of rain. It feels deliberate, like Amos is asserting that his god is the true god of these things, and that the worship of these things (either directly or through other gods) is idolatry. Maybe.

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 28: Big Bad Ahaz

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

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

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

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

Israel’s Invasion

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

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

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

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

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

Ahaz Betrayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Chronicles 18: A Nation At War

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This chapter very closely resembles 2 Samuel 8. In fact, they are (very nearly) identical in their descriptions of David’s military exploits.

We encounter our first difference in the very first verse. After defeating the Philistines, David takes control of Gath and its villages. In 2 Sam. 8:1, David takes control of Methegammah, instead. This could be a correction on the Chronicler’s part, as Biblehub suggests that the name is, actually, no name at all, and should have been translated to read that David “took control of the mother city” rather than rendering the phrase as a proper noun. To complicate matters, the Septuagint version of 2 Sam. 8:1 reads that David took tribute from Philistia, with no mention of a city at all.

David’s next exploits are against Moab, whom he defeats and makes his vassals. The 2 Sam. 8:2 version is far more gruesome, reading: “He also defeated the Moabites and, making them lie down on the ground, measured them off with a cord; he measured two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those who were to be spared. And the Moabites became servants to David and brought tribute.” It seems that the Chronicler kept the first and last parts of the verse, but struck out that nasty middle bit.

But why? Why was David so cruel toward Moab (particularly as his own ancestress, Ruth, was a Moabite, and the Moabite king sheltered David’s parents while he was on the run from Saul (1 Sam. 22:3-4)? And why did the Chronicler omit the detail? I think it likely that the second question is answered by the fact that the first can be asked.

As for the first, James Pate mentions an answer given by Rashi: “According to Rashi, the reason that David had an ax to grind against Moab was that, when his family was there taking refuge, the Moabites slaughtered all but one of David’s brothers (the one survivor being Elihu, who is mentioned in I Chronicles 27:18).”

The Hadadezer Chronicles

The next section of the chapter focuses on King Hadadezer of Zobah, who came to the Euphrates to build a monument (1 Chron. 18:3), or perhaps to restore his power (2 Sam. 8:3). This sounds like a possible contradiction, but really isn’t. It’s the flag principle of ownership, where planting a flag or building a monument is a statement of ownership over the surrounding area.

David defeats the Philistines, by master of Otto van Moerdrecht, c.1430

David defeats the Philistines, by master of Otto van Moerdrecht, c.1430

This seems to have been too close for comfort, as David went on the attack. The blow was devastating, with the Israelites heading home with 1,000 chariots, 7,000 horsemen, and 20,000 infantry that had recently belonged to Zobah. The number is a little scaled down in 2 Sam. 8:4, where only 700 horsemen are taken (though the Septuagint translation agrees with Chronicles, perhaps indicating that the inflated figure was the original one). Having little use for chariots in the Israelite terrain, David hamstrung all the horses, saving only enough to power 100 chariots.

The Syrians (or Arameans, if you prefer) try to help Hadadezer, but David killed 22,000 of them, defeating them so completely that he was able to place Israelite garrisons in Syria and it his vassal.

We also learn that David was able to capture a number of golden shields that had been carried by Hadadezer’s servants, bringing them to Jerusalem. A golden shield is a purely decorative item (a metal as soft as gold has very few practical uses), and I wonder if they had been brought as part of some sort of ceremony to consecrate Hadadezer’s intended monument. In any case, they ended up in Jerusalem.

David was also able to take a great deal of bronze from Tibhath and Cun, two of Hadadezer’s cities. In 2 Sam. 8:8, the two cities are named Betah and Berothai. The 2 Sam. 8 reference ends here, with David acquiring the bronze. Here, however, the Chronicler adds a detail: That this bronze would later be used by Solomon in making the bronze sea, pillars, and vessels for his temple.

The final chapter in the Hadadezer saga involves Tou, king of Hamath – who appears as Toi in 2 Sam. 8:9, while the Septuagint version of the same verse agrees with the Chronicler. It seems that Tou and Hadadezer had been butting heads quite a bit lately, so Tou is quite pleased at David’s success. To thank him, he sends his own son, Hadoram (or Joram, as 2 Sam. 8:10 would have it) to David along with a large gift of gold, silver, and bronze.

Along with Tou’s gift, David dedicates all of the gold and silver he has managed to carry off from his wars to God (his wars against Edom, Moab, the Ammonites, the Philistines, and Amalek are all listed).

Further Details

Of the Edomites, we learn that they were defeated by Abishai son of Zeruiah, who managed to kill 18,000 of them in the Valley of Salt. After this defeat, David was able to place garrisons in Edom and the Edomites became his vassals. Interestingly, the verses (1 Chron. 18:12-13) are identical, word for word, to those found in 2 Sam. 8:13-14, with one little exception: 2 Sam. 8 gives the victory to David, not to Abishai (Abishai is not mentioned at all in 2 Sam. 8).

This isn’t a contradiction, since we commonly attribute victories to particular generals or, going a step higher, to monarchs, rather than to the individuals that make up the army. The contradiction disappears as soon as we acknowledge that everyone higher up the chain of command from grunts gets a claim to credit in our silly hierarchical systems.

What’s interesting about the passage is that it is the author of Samuel who credits David, while the Chronicler hands the victory over to Abishai instead. Given the Chronicler’s fawning over David, it just seems rather odd that he would take this one little deed away from him.

We are told that “David reigned over all Israel; and he administered justice and equity to all his people” (1 Chron. 18:14). James Pate rightly wonders if this justice and equity was applied to the conquered lands as well, given that it comes at the close of a list of conquests. To resolve the issue, he posits that “maybe the point of v 14 is that David could finally devote his energies to reigning now that he had subdued any external threats to Israel’s security.”

I suspect that’s probably what was meant, though I would expand it a little. I think that David’s conquests (and the bringing of riches into Jerusalem) were seen as part of David’s administering of justice and equity. By winning his wars, he brought honour and riches to the nation, elevating it and its people.

The chapter closes with a list of David’s cabinet:

  • Joab son of Zeruiah had control of the army;
  • Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was the recorder;
  • Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests (Abiathar is named as Ahimelech’s son, not his father, in 1 Sam. 22:20 and 1 Sam. 23:6, though it’s not inconceivable that a grandson might share a name with his grandfather);
  • Shavsha was the secretary (Shavsha’s name seems to vary quite a bit. He appears as Shisha in 1 Kgs. 4:3, Seraiah in 2 Sam. 8:17, and Sheva in 2 Sam. 20:25. My New Bible Commentary explains this with the possibility that he was a foreigner, with a name that Hebrew scribes weren’t quite sure what to do with (p.379));
  • Benaiah son of Jehoiada had control over the Cherethites and the Pelethites;
  • And David’s sons were the king’s chief officials (a change from being priests in 2 Sam. 8:18, undoubtedly due to the Chronicler’s discomfort with the idea of Judahite priests).

2 Kings 16: Redecorating

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For this chapter, we head back to Judah, and to King Ahaz.

Ahaz came to his crown in the seventeenth year of Israel’s Pekah, when he was twenty years old. He lasted a total of sixteen years, during which he did not impress our narrator in the least.

Of his bad deeds, we learn that he sacrificed his own son. Or, made him “pass trough the fire,” which certainly seems to be a euphemism for child sacrifice. Not all interpretations agree, however, as I noted when the phrase appeared in Deuteronomy 18. It could also refer to some sort of trial by ordeal or a symbolic action. This might find some support in Numbers 31:23, when talking about symbolically passing objects through fire in order to consecrate them. Those objects that would not survive the fire were to be consecrated with water instead. It’s not inconceivable that the same intention of the consecrated “object” making it through the fire intact applied to the child sacrifices as well.

Our narrator here tells us that this practice was once common among the original inhabitants of the area, before God drove them out to make room for the Hebrew people. Certainly, we’ve seen the practice of passing children “through fire” associated with Molech, as in Leviticus 18:21.

In addition to this, Ahaz is described as walking “in the way of the kings of Israel” (2 Kgs 16:3) – which presumably refers to the worship at idols – and worshipping personally at the high places and under every green tree (it’s hard to imagine how he had time for anything else if he really was worshipping at every green tree!).

Conflicts

Meanwhile, it seems that Syria and Israel have been harassing Judah (led my Rezin and Pekah, respectively). They get as far as besieging Ahaz, but fail to conquer him.

The harassment is enough that it apparently gives Edom the opportunity to take back Elath and expel all the settled Judahites in the region.

2 Kings 16Clearly desperate, Ahaz appeals to Assyria’s Tiglath-pileser for air, offering a tribute of gold and silver from both temple and royal palace. Tiglath-pileser accepts the offering and takes Damascus from Syria, killing King Rezin and taking the locals captive. This practice of taking conquered peoples out of their homelands is a growing theme, as we’ve been seeing.

Ahaz goes to Damascus to meet with Tiglath-pileser, and there sees the local altar. He’s so impressed with its design that he sends a model back to the temple priest, Uriah. By the time he returns to Jerusalem, his own version has been completed, and he has it installed in temple altar’s place (moving the original altar to the north side of the new addition).

The wording here was a little fuzzy to me, but it seems that Ahaz has the original altar continue to be used for all the regular sacrifices, but he reserves the new altar for his own personal use – which appears to be divination.

While he was at it, he made a bunch of other decorative changes to the temple, generally taking things down. This was done “because of the king of Assyria” (2 Kgs 16:18). I initially interpreted this to mean that he had entered a vassal contract with the Assyrians, and that one of the terms was the importation of the Assyrian national religion. However, my study Bible sees it to mean that many of the temple installations were removed as further tributes to the Assyrians (or perhaps part of the original tribute, but simply presented out of chronological order).

My New Bible Commentary notes that, from this point onward, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria.

As per our formula, the chapter closes with the death of Ahaz and the ascension of his son, Hezekiah.

2 Kings 14-15: Precarious Politics

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My eyes are glazing over with the timelines, but my New Bible Commentary is very adamant that there are discrepancies. I’m inclined to take them at their word, since they seem so uncomfortable with it. They variously try to explain discrepancies through co-regencies, pretenders, and attempts to erase predecessors from the record following a coup. A fourth option that they don’t acknowledge is simple error – typos, guesswork to fill in incomplete records, and differences in regional record keeping are all perfectly plausible explanations.

We begin with Amaziah, who took the crown of Judah in the second year of Israel’s Joash. He was 25 years old when he became king, and he ruled for 29 years. His mother was Jehoaddin, a Jerusalem local.

Amaziah was great, but our narrator wants to make sure we understand that he wasn’t as great as David. His major downside is that he failed to destroy the “high places” – local centres of worship.

When Amaziah settled into his crown, he went after the conspirators who had murdered his father in 2 Kgs 12:20-21. He did, at least, spare their children, “according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses” (2 Kgs 14:6) – a reference to Deut. 24:16, and not Deut. 5:9-10.

Amaziah and Jehoash go to war

Back in 2 Kings 13:10-13, in the overview of the Israelite monarchy, we learned that Jehoash fought against Amaziah. Despite the fact that Jehoash’s death was recorded there, the narrative now brings us back to fill out the details of the war between Judah and Israel (because all the name repetitions wouldn’t be confusing enough without time skipping). This time, however, we get things from Judah’s point of view.

At some point during his reign, Amaziah defeated the Edomites – killing ten thousand of them and securing Shela (which he renamed Joktheel).

He later sent messengers to Jehoash, king of Israel, asking for a face-to-face meeting. Jehoash responds with a parable in which a thistle asks a cedar for their children to marry, then a wild beast comes by and tramples the thistle. (The parable may be a reference to – or using the same established conventions as – the one found in Judges 9:8-15.) He concludes by warning Amaziah: You’ve beaten the Edomites and are giddy with your success, but don’t provoke trouble lest you lead to your (and Judah’s) downfall.

2 Kings 14-15The meaning seems clear enough: Jehoash sees Amaziah as below him (just a thistle to his cedar), and he’ll end up getting trampled in a completely unrelated event if he tries to arrange a marriage with Jehoash? I’m not sure the parallels are quite straight. Regardless, the insult seems clear.

What’s less clear is the reason for it. When Jehoash says, “Be content with your glory, and stay at home” (2 Kgs 14:10), it makes me think that Amaziah was so pumped by his success against Edom that he was planning on coming after Israel next.

Certainly, what comes next seems to bear out this interpretation, since we’re told that Amaziah wouldn’t listen and, therefore, the two nations met in battle at Beth-shemesh.

Unfortunately for Amaziah, Israel wins the day and he is captured. Jehoash then pushed forward to Jerusalem, crashing through its walls, sacking the city, and taking hostages. Though not stated here, my study Bible suggests that the hostages were taken in exchange for Amaziah’s return. This seems plausible, and there’s no contradicting mention here of Amaziah’s return to Jerusalem, where we find him later in the chapter.

The narrative skips forward to Jehoash’s death, after which he is succeeded by his son, Jeroboam.

Back to Judah, Amaziah outlived Jehoash by 15 years. He finally died at the hands of another conspiracy (perhaps related to the one that killed his father in 2 Kgs 12:20-21, or maybe retribution for Amaziah’s slaughter of the last conspirators, or maybe just a sign of how unstable the region was at the time). The conspiracy forced Amaziah to flee to Lachish, and it’s there that he was killed. His body was returned to Jerusalem for burial.

The narrative tells us that his son, Azariah (elsewhere called Uzziah), was made king at the age of 16. I was unclear whether he simply succeeded his father, or if he was perhaps the centre of the coup that saw his father killed. The phrasing is ambiguous enough that I was able to concoct a narrative in which Azariah is crowned, and that this prompted Amaziah to flee to Lachish.

Of Azariah’s reign, we learn only that he built a place to Elath and “restored it to Judah” (2 Kgs 14:22). I wasn’t sure what this meant, but my study Bible suggests that it may have been a seaport that could be restored once the Edomites were pushed back.

The reign of Jeroboam II

The narrative then moves back to Israel, where Jeroboam took the crown in the fifteenth year of Judah’s Amaziah. He reigned for forty-one years and, like his predecessors, carried on the sins of the first Jeroboam.

Which seems like such an odd complaint, since it’s clear that that the kings of Judah are doing the same (in keeping the high places). Yet while this qualifies as a mere first strike for the kings of Judah, it damns the kings of Israel – despite how anachronistic the demand for a fully centralized cult seems to be.

Of Jeroboam’s reign, we learn that he restored the borders of Israel, acting as God’s agent in sparing Israel from destruction. All of this was in fulfilment of the prophecy delivered by Jonah – yes, that Jonah.

After his death, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Zechariah.

The reign of Azariah

We then skip back down to Judah, where Amaziah’s son, Azariah, took the crown in the 27th year of Israel’s Jeroboam. As above, he came to power at 16, and he ruled for 52 years. His mother, another Jerusalem native, was named Jecoliah. He gets God’s stamp of approval, despite the fact that he did not remove the high places.

At some point during his reign, Azariah became a leper and shut himself away. Though he continued as king in name, his son, Jotham, took over governance.

A limestone tablet was found in Jerusalem with the inscription: “Hither were brought the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah: not to be opened.” This is through to refer to Azariah, though the tablet has been dated to the first century CE. One theory is that Azariah’s corpse may have later been reburied, and that the tablet was made at that time.

Israel changing hands

Over the next few years, we see Israel changing hands multiple times – a testament to the political instability in the region.

In the 38th year of Judah’s Azariah, Zechariah succeeded his father. He ruled for a mere six months, though that was long enough for our narrator to condemn him (once again for continuing the cultic practices of Jeroboam).

He was killed by Shallum, son of Jabesh. This is, of course, in fulfilment of the prophecy that Jehu’s dynasty would last only until the fourth generation, as per 2 Kgs 10:30.

Shallum’s reign began in the 39th year of Azariah, and lasted only a single month. He was murdered by Menahem, son of Gadi.

Menahem seems to have brought a little stability to Israel, keeping hold of his crown for ten years. In that time, or perhaps during his coup, he sacked Tappuah and “ripped up all the women in it who were with child” (2 Kgs 15:16). This rather horrifying act seems to have been a convention of sorts, as we saw Elisha prophecy in 2 Kings 8:12 that Hazael would do the same. Was it really something people in the region were doing, perhaps as a form of psychological warfare? Or is this propaganda meant to highlight the savagery of enemies? Perhaps both…

Menahem receives the same judgement as all the kings of Israel – he was evil ni the way of Jeroboam. During his rule, the Assyrians harassed Israel, lead by a king identified here as Pul (though my study Bible indicates that this is just another name for Tiglath-pileser III). Menahem collected a total of 1,000 talents of silver, taxed from the wealthy men of Israel (50 shekels each, which is apparently the equivalent of about $25), to bribe Pul against attacking. It works, and Pul is turned away.

In the 50th year of Azariah’s reign in Judah, Menahem died and was succeeded by his son, Pekahiah. He, too, was evil in Jeroboam’s way, but lasted only two years before being murdered by his captain, Pekah (aided by fifty Gileadites).

Despite his beginnings, Pekah managed to hold on to power for twenty years, though he spent them losing Israel piece by piece to the Assyrians. We see here the beginning of a diaspora as the Assyrians carry off the Israelites they capture back to Assyria.

Pekah’s rule ended as it began, with a coup. In the 2th year of Judah’s Jotham, Hoshea deposed Pekah and installed himself as king. Though not mentioned here, it seems that an Assyrian inscription has Tiglath-pileser claiming to have placed Hoshea on the throne, perhaps as a puppet.

Back to Judah, we learn that Jotham began his rule in the second year of Israel’s Pekah. He was 25 years old at his ascension, and lasted for sixteen years. His mother’s name was Jerusha, identified as the daughter of Zadok. As with his predecessors, he is judged generally good, but shame about those high places.

Of his rule, we’re only told here that he built the upper gate of the temple, and that his rule saw harassment from Syria (under Rezin) and Israel (under Pekah). He was succeeded by his son, Ahaz.

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 5: A Tale of Two Lepers

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We continue our tale of Elisha’s miracles with Naaman, a highly esteemed Syrian military commander. Sadly, despite his valour and prowess, he was also a leper. His wife had a maidservant who had been captured during one of Syria’s raids into Israel, and, one day, she tells her mistress about a prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman.

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (in the British Museum collection)

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (in the British Museum collection)

Ecstatic about the possibility of a cure, Naaman asks his king (unnamed) for permission to go to Israel and seek out this prophet. His king agrees, and sends him with a letter instructing the king of Israel (also unnamed) to cure Naaman. In a rather amusing scene, the king of Israel mistakenly believes that the letter is instructing him, personally, to cure Naaman, and he rends his clothes over his inability to do so (fearful that failing to obey would result in hostilities between the two countries).

Elisha hears of this and sends word that the king should just send Naaman over to him – precisely what had been intended from the beginning! Sometimes the Bible is a lot like a ’90s sitcom.

The humour continues when Elisha refuses to meet with Naaman, and instead tells him via messenger to go dunk himself in the Jordan river seven times. Naaman is furious, not only that Elisha wouldn’t speak to him directly, but also that the cure should be so simple. Where’s the hand-waving? Where’s the ritual? And why should the Jordan river be necessary to cleanse him? Is it supposed to be better than the perfectly good rivers of Syria?

He is talked down by his servants, who argue that he had been prepared to follow complex and onerous instructions, so why not just dunk himself in the river a few times just in case it works? So he does it, and he is cured.

When he returns to Elisha, he acknowledges God’s power in terms that sound suspiciously monotheistic (“Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” 2 Kings 5:15). Indeed, this may be one of the stronger monotheistic statements we’ve had so far.

He’s a convert, but he also has his official duties. When his king worships the state god Rimmon, Naaman must be there and he must bow his head. Therefore, he asks pre-emptive forgiveness for performing the faith of Rimmon even while he is, internally, a worshiper of YHWH. This is, of course, an age old dilemma – will God forgive the performance so long as the heart is true? Elisha tells him to “go in peace” (2 Kgs 5:19), which seems to imply that the forgiveness is granted, but still leaves enough ambiguity to keep theologians busy.

Gifts

In their final interaction, Naaman offers gifts to repay Elisha, which Elisha refuses. Before I read any commentaries, I wondered if this was meant to further insult Naaman (certainly, there are plenty of cultures where refusing a gift is considered very rude). However, commentaries seem to be arguing that Elisha was trying to distinguish himself from the prophets we saw in 1 Kings 22. He wasn’t prophesying for pay, but because he was serving God. In context, it might have been very bad for business for him to seem to be using his prophecies in order to increase his personal wealth. Note, for example, that he only used his powers to help the Shunammite woman after she had been providing him with room and board for a while (2 Kgs 4:8-17).

Gehazi isn’t too happy about this, however, and runs out after Naaman. Claiming to speak on Elisha’s behalf, he says that two Ephraimite prophets have just arried, and they require a talent of silver and two festal garments. Naaman, who had come expecting to pay far more, happily grants the amount plus an additional silver talent. According to the notes in my study Bible, this would have been a rather extraordinary amount.

When he returns, Elisha asks him where he’s been. “Nowhere,” answers Gehazi, channeling his internal teenager. Elisha knows better, however, claiming to have followed his servant “in spirit” (2 Kgs 5:26) while he was meeting with Naaman. Now is not the time to accept gifts, he says, then proceeds to lists gifts well beyond what Gehazi actually received. Are these references to things Gehazi has previously swindled? Did Naaman give over much more that was lost from the earlier part of the story? Or does this mean that Elisha does not know what Gehazi actually received?

In any case, Elisha curses his servant, transferring Naaman’s leprosy onto him and all his descendants forever.

Brant Clements points out that the story of Naaman is one of a great man humiliated, over and over again, until he accepts God:

Chapter 5 is taken up by the story of Naaman, the general of Aram’s army, a powerful man who is brought low by a skin disease. Repeatedly, and comically, the powerful Naaman is humbled in this narrative. He takes advice from a slave girl. Elisha won’t even come out to meet him. He is sent to wash in the Jordan, a river he thinks is inferior to his home waterways. In the end he is both cleansed of his leprosy and converted to the worship of Israel’s God.

Challenging the powerful is the best use of mythology!

Elijah’s Apprentice

I wanted to take a moment to talk about Elijah and Elisha. There’s a good deal of repetition between the two (both raise a child from the dead, both help a widow by increasing her supply of oil, both part a river). However, there are differences as well. Collins writes:

The stories about Elijah, however, reflect a greater theological interest. Elijah is engaged in polemic against the worship of Baal, and he emerges as a champion of social justice, whereas Elisha is more simply a wonder-worker. Accordingly, some scholars regard the Elisha stories as older than those about Elijah. There is some doubt about the historicity of Elijah. His name means “YHWH is my God,” and the stories about him have obvious symbolic significance. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.142)

This certainly feels right, though I get a similar feeling from Elisha. Gehazi, in particular, is making me wonder about Elisha’s origins. Both here and in the last chapter, he plays a priestly character – acting as an intercessor between the supplicant and the “god,” and then as a cautionary tale against priestly greed. That certainly doesn’t mean that Elisha is a proto-YHWHist deity turned into a prophet, but he could be an older and highly mythologized cultic figure.

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.

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