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 3: The Sheep of Moab

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

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

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

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

On to Moab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s also all very short-lived.

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

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

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

1 Kings 22: Tricking the Prophets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Micaiah

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

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

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

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

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

Ramoth-Gilead

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

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

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

Chronology

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

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

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

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

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

When he died, he was succeeded by Jehoram.

1 Kings 11: Mistakes were made

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When it comes to women, Solomon has gotta catch them all – or at least a multi-national representative sample. Over his lifetime, he manages to accumulate 700 wives and 300 concubines (almost certainly hyperbole, though such numbers – and higher – are not unheard of for kings), brought in from many nations, including some that God specifically forbade (a reference to passages like Deut. 7:1-4).

The passage is clearly meant to be a shock, an indication of just how far Solomon had fallen, though it’s the sin seems more to be the foreignness of the women than their number.

Solomon led astray, by Giovanni Battista Venanzi, 1668

Solomon led astray, by Giovanni Battista Venanzi, 1668

As Solomon ages, we are told that his wives began to steer him toward their foreign gods, even though God had specifically told Solomon not to stray! Solomon builds a “high place” dedicated to Chemosh (the Moabite god) and Molech (the Ammonite god), and his wives build some high places of their own.

At first reading, I assumed that this meant that Solomon was a polytheist (or at least taking Pascal’s Wager to its logical conclusion), but now I’m wondering if accommodating his wives’ faiths might not simply have been part of the marriage deal. The women are described as princesses, and the marriages are diplomatic. Dogmatically cutting off the women from something as deeply meaningful as the worship of their natal lands could have caused trouble. It’s entirely possible, then, that Solomon remained personally faithful to YHWH, but provided accommodations for the other faiths in his household.

Regardless, God is a jealous god, and he decides that he will give Israel to Solomon’s “servant” (1 Kgs 11:11). Only, for David’s sake, he will wait until after Solomon has died before doing it. The use of Israel here refers to the northern tribes, as will be made clear later on. Once again, it seems rather clear that Deut. 17:14-20 was written specifically with Solomon in mind.

Adversaries

As punishment for Solomon tolerating other gods, God raises up three adversaries to make trouble for David’s dynasty.

The first is Hadad of Edom. We’re told that David campaigned in Edom, and that Joab slaughtered every male Edomite (it’s not clear whether this was at David’s command or just another example of Joab being Joab). Either way, it’s clearly hyperbole.

Hadad was only a child (or perhaps a young man) when this happened, and he fled with a small retinue to Egypt, where he was given shelter and the Pharaoh’s sister-in-law for a wife. He seems to have had a fairly close relationship with the Pharaoh, as his son, Genubath, was weaned by the queen and raised alongside the princes. He asked to return to Israel once he hears that David has died.

Incidentally, the queen is named Tahpenes. My New Bible Commentary claims that this is “believed to be an Egyptian title meaning ‘the wife of the king'” (p.336), making it the equivalent of “Pharaoh,” rather than a personal name. However, I didn’t find very much support for this online. Instead, sources like this one seem to agree that Tahpenes seems related to the name of a city, and that both mean “Head of the Age.”

The second adversary is Rezon, the son of Eliada. The grammar is a little fuddled, but either Rezon or Eliada fled from King Hadadezer of Zobah, and Rezon became a bandit leader. With his band, he returned to Damascus and was made the king of Syria. The trajectory of fleeing a court, raising an army, and returning to take power is eerily similar to David’s own rise. Incidentally, it seems that we may have some independent attestations for King Hadadezer.

The final adversary is internal, and this one has God’s backing. Jeroboam, son of Nebat and Zeruah, was an Ephraimite and a servant of Solomon. Remember back in 1 Kgs 11:11, where God said he would give Israel to one of Solomon’s servants? Yeah, the author just stuck a big neon sign pointing directly at Jeroboam.

Jeroboam was put in charge of the forced labour raised from “the house of Joseph” (1 Kgs 11:29), meaning from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, during the construction of the Millo. One day, he left Jerusalem and met the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite. It seems that Shiloh was not destroyed as implied by 1 Samuel 6, and was still a location of sufficient cultic significance to still be producing prophets.

Ahijah tore his robe (which we are told was new, so we can know that he really meant it) into twelve pieces in some rather obvious symbolism. He handed Jeroboam ten of those pieces, indicating that God would grant Jeroboam leadership of ten tribes (the northern tribes). One piece of the robe is to belong to Solomon, for David’s sake. The twelfth piece is never mentioned – there are several theories circulating for why this might be the case, but nothing seems particularly definitive.

If he is faithful, Jeroboam will get his dynasty (albeit only a temporary one) once Solomon has died.

It seems that Jeroboam was not quite willing to wait that long, or perhaps had thought to get a head start at winning the support of the northern tribes, because Solomon tried to kill him. In a story that feels rather similar to David’s escape from Saul to the court of a foreign king, Jeroboam flees to Egypt and the court of King Shishak – the first Pharaoh to be mentioned by name. He remains there until Solomon’s death.

King Shishak is thought to be Sheshonk I, the founder of the Kushite dynasty in Egypt. He is known to have lead a campaign into Canaan, which might explain why two out of our three adversaries found protection and support in Egypt. A great strategy for winning military campaigns is to destabilize a country by stirring up and supporting internal dissent.

Finishing up the chapter, we are directed to the book of the acts of Solomon if we’d like to know more details about Solomon’s reign. But for text itself, the author is content to simply tell us that he reigned forty years, died, and was succeeded by his son, Rehoboam.

1 Kings 9: Hints of trouble

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God last phoned home in 1 Kings 3, where he gifted Solomon some wisdom (among other things). Like an absent father who does try to keep in touch sometimes, God calls in to congratulate Solomon for having build “all that Solomon desired to build” (1 Kgs 9:1), what with the temple and the palace, and a bunch of fortifications, and the palace for his Egyptian queen, and whatnot.

The conversation is fairly typical Deuteronomist fair: Follow the rules and all will be well, disobey and I’ll exile you. This time, he has a temple to point to and can tell Solomon that “this house will become a heap of ruins” (1 Kgs 9:8) if he’s disobeyed. Interestingly, he points again to David as both a religious exemplar and as an example of the rewards for faithfulness. You know, the David who lost a child and then his throne at least once (possibly twice) because God was angry with him. But now the gears have shifted and he is the paragon king. It’s the privilege of the dead, I suppose.

Dream of Solomon, by Luca Giordano, 1693

Dream of Solomon, by Luca Giordano, 1693

The rest of the chapter hints at Solomon’s mismanagement of Israel as he focused on his grandiose building projects. We’re told that he gave twenty cities to King Hiram of Tyre, who had previously sold him the wood for use in construction. It would be an odd thank you gift, since Solomon paid for the wood, and is made odder still when we learn that King Hiram sent Solomon 120 talents of gold. This suggests that Solomon sold parts of the country to Tyre. But Solomon seems to be a jerk to his friends as well as his subjects, as Hiram was quite disappointed in the cities when he visited them. So disappointed, in fact, that “they are called the land of Cabul to this day” (1 Kgs 9:13). The meaning of Cabul is unknown, but seems related to “like nothing.”

This is followed by a list of Solomon’s building projects, which required forced labour to build. The list includes something called “the Millo,” which is mentioned as already existing in 2 Sam. 5:9, so either Solomon improved it, rebuilt it, or one of the sources was in error. The list also includes Gezer, which we are told was conquered from the Canaanite inhabitants by Pharaoh. Despite burning the city down and slaughtering its inhabitants, Pharaoh thought it was still a suitable dowry, and gave it to Solomon along with his daughter. Solomon then rebuilt it.

Apparently contradicting 1 Kgs 5:13, we’re here told that the forced labour Solomon used was of the non-Israelite variety. Instead, he forcibly enslaved all the other ethnic groups left in the country, such as the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Unlike the Israelite levy, these other enslaved groups remained enslaved “to this day” (1 Kgs 9:21). It’s possible that the distinction is in the type of forced labour, that when the text reads that “of the Israelites Solomon made no slaves” (1 Kgs 9:22), what is meant is that they are merely forced to work for the government for a defined period of time, but that their status is not changed to slave. It could also be that the brute labour was to be done by the non-Israelites, whereas the Israelite levy was to work as overseers and such (which appears to be supported by this chapter).

There’s a very brief mention of Solomon’s cultic activities, telling us that he made offerings three times a year at the temple. Knowledge of the context is assumed, unfortunately, but it seemed to me that Solomon was acting as a Priest King, leading the sacrifices at three major festivals per year. If that’s correct, then we see something of a continuation of the Mosaic tradition, with the strict division between king and priest not being introduced until later on. This would all be supported by 2 Samuel 8:18, where David’s sons were made priests despite being Judahites, not Levites. It seems that, at the time of the early monarchy, the royal family was still intimately involved in the ritual life of the nation.

There’s a final note about one of Solomon’s trade ventures. Despite the disappointment of the twenty cities, King Hiram continues to be on Team Israel and helps Solomon build a bunch of ships for a trade mission to Ophir so that Solomon can get gold.

2 Samuel 8: Israel’s Board of Directors

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In this chapter, we get what appears to be a summary of David’s reign, focusing mostly on his military exploits. We find out, for example, that he captured Methegammah after finally defeating the Philistines. If you’re anything like me, you probably sighed with relief, glad that the intense suspense over the fate of Methegammah is finally over.

Or perhaps you looked online and found that the correlating passage in 1 Chronicles 18:1 replaces Methegammah with “Gath and its villages.” Depending on chronological order, this may help to explain how a Githite – someone from Gath – like Obededom came to be trusted with the ark of the covenant in 2 Samuel 6.

David them defeated Moab. As I learned in reading World War Z by Max Brooks, to decimate means to kill one in every ten, usually as a punishment for the group. If that sounds terrible, gird your loins. David has the Moabites lie on the ground in three lines. He then kills two of the lines and makes the third his vassals.

This strays quite far from the prescribed rule in Deut. 2:9 – “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” It’s also a little odd given David’s own apparent connection to the Moabite Ruth, as given in Ruth 4:17, and his trust in the Moabites to keep his family safe in 1 Sam. 22:3-4.

Of course, it’s not too far off from Judges 3:28-30, and Saul’s own enmity in 1 Sam. 14:47.

King David In Prayer, by Pieter de Grebber, c.1635-1640

King David In Prayer, by Pieter de Grebber, c.1635-1640

Next, David defeats Hadadezer, son of Rehob and king of Zobah, the only named individual enemy in this chapter. We are told that he had attempted to restore his power at the Euphrates (though we don’t know how or why or when he lost it). David met him there and took 1700 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers, who apparently willingly join the Israelites.

He also keeps enough horses for 100 chariots, but hamstrings the rest. The Israelite antipathy toward chariots from Joshua 11:6 is clearly still live and well. I’ve read but not confirmed that much of ancient Palestine’s terrain, being rather hilly, was unsuitable for chariots. This would also have meant that the Israelites would not necessarily know how to use them effectively. Ultimately, it clearly wouldn’t have made sense for David to keep the chariot horses, and leaving them would have place them back into the hands of his enemies, so I understand the logic behind disposing of the horses in some way, though hamstringing seems a little cruel.

After David defeats Hadadezer, the Syrians of Damascus come to his defense. Of course, David beats them as well, slaying 22,000 Syrians.He then puts garrisons in Aram (where the Syrians were from), making the Syrians his vassals.

We also find out that David took several golden shields from Hadadezer and brought them to Jerusalem, which immediately made me think of Pontius Pilate’s golden shields, though I suppose the tone of the event was likely quite different. David also pillaged a lot of bronze from Hadadezer’s cities, Betah and Berothai.

But it wasn’t all conquering and bloodshed! When King Toi of Hamath heard about David’s exploits, he sent his son, Joram, to David as an emissary. Joram greets and congratulates David, because Toi and Hadadezer had been at war, and the enemy of my enemy is apparently my friend. Joram brought with him gifts of silver, gold, and bronze, which David dedicated to God along with all gold and silver he’d pillaged from the subdued nations, listed here as Edom, Moab, the Ammonites, the Philistines, Amalek, and Hadadezer (who continues to be, inexplicably, a personal enemy).

According to my New Bible Commentary, the mention of Edom here may be in error, as the Hebrew reads “Aram”/Syria (p.305).

We find out that David is making a name for himself, that he slew 18,000 Edomites, and that he put garrisons in Edom and made them his vassals.

David’s Cabinet

To close off the chapter, we find out about some of the key players in David’s administration:

  • Joab so of Zerniah was in charge of David’s army.
  • Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was David’s recorder.
  • Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were his high priests.
  • Seraiah was secretary.
  • Benaiah son of Jehoiada was in charge of the Cherethites and Pelethites (possibly a foreign mercenary contingent).
  • David’s sons served as priests.

The mention of Ahimelech here may be an error, since paternity is reversed in all previous mentions. This isn’t definitive, though, since it’s always possible that Abiathar had a son, named after the child’s grandfather, who succeeded him.

Zadok’s paternity is interesting, since Ahitub is named in 1 Sam. 22:20 as the father of Ahimelech. While it’s completely plausible that this is just a coincidence, it may indicate that Zadok and Ahimelech are related to each other in some way, possibly brothers or cousins. Or it could be that records were kept well enough that names were remembered, but not so well that anyone could recall who was supposed to fit where, so that multiple authors arranged them in different combinations to construct conflicting genealogies.

The mention of David’s sons serving as priests is an interesting one, since David is so explicitly not a Levite. In combination with David taking a central role in the cultic procession of 2 Samuel 6, Abinadab’s charge of the ark and the naming of his son, Eleazar, as its caretaker in 1 Samuel 7, we can see clear evidence of how the priesthood evolved over time in ancient Palestine. Assuming, of course, that David’s sons were priests of YHWH.

As for Zadok and why there should be two high priests, my New Bible Companion presents the following theories:

It has been widely conjectured, however, that Zadok was not even a Levite; he may in that case have been priest in Jerusalem to ‘God Most High’ (Gn. 14:18) before David’s capture of the city (as H. H. Rowley suggested). But an equally attractive possibility, which accepts the biblical genealogies, is that Saul had made Zadok high priest after the Nob slaughter. It seems considerably more likely that David should have tried to placate the followers of Saul, by uniting Saul’s high priest with his own, that that he should have accepted the pre-Israelite (?Jebusite) priest of Jerusalem. One might add that since David himself seems to have become in some sense a priest-king, ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ (Ps. 110:4), there will scarcely have been any place in the hierarchy for an existing Jerusalem priest. (p.305-306)

1 Samuel 14: Rambo has a bite of honey

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When chapter 14 opens, Saul is hanging out by “the pomegranate tree” near Gibeah (evidently a once-known landmark) with his 600 men. It occurs to me that perhaps the 600, down from the 3,000 he began 1 Sam. 13 with, may be all that are left after the desertions in the last chapter. If so, it makes his decision to proceed with the sacrifice without the tardy Samuel seem quite a bit more reasonable. With his army is Ahijah, the great-grandson of Eli (via Phinehas) and evidently the new high priest as he is said to be carrying the ephod.

I had gotten the impression that the high priest status had transferred to Samuel at Eli’s death because Eli’s sons were corrupt, but it apparently merely hopped that generation. There’s also no hint here of how the priesthood survived the destruction of Shiloh, or if the office has relocated to Kiriath-jearim to be with the ark, if the ark has been moved (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years – 1 Sam. 7:2), etc.

Jonathan and his unnamed armour-bearer decide to sneak out of the camp and assault a nearby Philistine garrison, Rambo-style. They tell no one that they are leaving.

1 Sam 14When they reach the outskirts of the Philistine camp, they decide to reveal themselves. If they Philistines tell them to wait there, they agree that they will do so. If they Philistines beckon them over, they will approach. The latter will be taken as a sign that God has delivered the garrison to them, for some reason.

The Philistines chide them, saying “look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hid themselves” (1 Sam. 14:11), referencing 1 Sam. 13:6. It seems that they believe Jonathan and his armour-bearers to be defectors. So the Philistines call them over, promising to “show you a thing” (1 Sam. 14:12). What the “thing” is, or whether it’s part of their teasing, is never revealed, because Jonathan and his armour-bearer go full River Tam as soon as they get near, killing 20 Philistines.

This causes a panic among the Philistines, no doubt fanned by a timely earthquake.

Saul’s watchmen see the Philistines running about, so he orders a headcount and discovers that Jonathan and the armour-bearer are missing. Having apparently figured out what’s going on, Saul decides to press his advantage. He tells Ahijah to bring the ark. Maybe. Apparently, the LXX has Saul call for the ephod here, which makes more sense in context.

Before Ahijah can do anything, they hear the tumult growing in the Philistine camp, and Saul tells Ahijah to “withdraw your hand” (1 Sam. 14:19). This suggests that Saul wanted to go after the panicking Philistines, but he wanted to check in with God for permission first (presumably by using the Umim and Thummim kept in the ephod for divination). When it became obvious that the Philistines were easy pickings, he decided to just go for it.

The battle depiction is rather confusing, but what I take from it is that the Philistines are just completely irrational in their fear and are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the Israelites. The battle is so one-sided that the Israelites who had hidden all come out, and even the Israelites who had joined the Philistines switch back to Saul’s side.

The lack of weapons among the Israelites is, apparently, no longer a concern.

The Bite

For reasons not given, Saul makes an oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Here are a few possible reasons for the vow:

  • The narrative chronology is muddled, and he actually made this vow before going into battle in the hopes that it would ensure his victory (fasting as a prayer amplifier is far from unknown). The fact that the Israelites are already faint from hunger before the Philistines are defeated suggests that this may be the case.
  • I’ve seen it argued that the vow is meant to expunge his earlier faux pas with the sacrifice. This would be ironic since – as we shall soon find out – this too is a rash decision that meddles in cultic matters and will end up backfiring.
  • Or the point is just to show that Saul keeps doing stuff that fall under religious jurisdiction without consulting the proper authorities, reinforcing the rationale for denying him his dynastic posterity.

Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn’t get the memo. If we accept the explanation that Saul made his vow before going after the Philistines, it could be that Jonathan is still returning from his Ramboing and, therefore, didn’t hear it.

This is important, because the army finds a honey field (a forest with honey, according to my translation, but I’ve seen arguments that the term for “forest” could also mean hives. It’s possibly, then, that they stumbled upon an apiary). Jonathan pokes at a honeycomb with his staff and has a taste. Much like me when I eat chocolate, Jonathan’s “eyes became bright” (1 Sam. 14:27).

A companion tells him about Saul’s vow, but Jonathan seems not to interpret this as a danger to himself. Rather, he argues that the vow was a bad idea because now the soldiers are so hungry that they are too weak to slaughter the Philistines. In his argument, Jonathan says that it would have been “better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found” (1 Sam. 14:30).

The argument seems strange given the prohibition on taking spoils during a holy war (a prohibition illustrated in Joshua 7, though one that has already been applied inconsistently elsewhere). Still, the story seems to mirror the story of Jephthah’s vow, and Jonathan seems to highlight that it is not a good idea to make rash oaths.

The soldiers are so starved (after only a day, albeit one of battle) that they “flew upon the spoil” (1 Sam. 14:32). Unfortunately, in their hurry, they eat the Philistine livestock with the blood – prohibited in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 19:26, and Deut. 12:16. Additionally, it seems that they are slaughtering the animals as they find them, rather than having priests do it on altars.

Saul tries to remedy the issue by having a rock brought, making a an altar for the people to bring the livestock to for slaughtering.  With that, the issue seems resolved.

Saul then suggests a night attack on the Philistines, but the priest says that should be hanging out with God instead. Saul calls on God, asking him if they should proceed against the Philistines, but God does not answer him. They assume that this is a result of some unknown sin.

Using the Umim and Thumim, they first ask whether the sin is in either Saul or Jonathan, or in the people. The Umim is drawn, indicating that it is either in Saul or Jonathan. The stones are drawn again, revealing that the sin was in Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to confess to the honey-eating.

It seems that the story about the soldiers eating livestock without draining the blood was an insert, or else the chapter loses narrative continuity. Presumably, it was intended to explain the origins of an altar associated with Saul.

Both Jonathan and Saul agree that Jonathan should be put to death, but the people protest. According to my New Bible Commentary, this shows Saul to be “an insecure king outvoted by his troops” (p. 294). Surprisingly, God is apparently okay with the people ransoming Jonathan’s life, presumably by substituting an animal as in the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

Saul’s deeds and family

The chapter closes with a brief summary of Saul’s deeds and a listing of his nearer relatives.

We are told that he fought enemies on all sides: The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the kings of Zobah.

We are told about his children: his sons Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua, and his daughters Merab and Michal.

Saul’s wife is named Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. His army commander is his cousin, Abner, the son of Ner (Saul’s uncle).

Judges 10-12: Of bastards, bandits, and child sacrifice

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Abimelech is never, as far as I can tell, explicitly called a judge. He is included in the book of Judges, but his narrative could have been intended as a follow-up to Gideon’s story. Here, Judges 10 begins: “After Abimelech there arose to deliver Israel […]” (Judges 10:1). This phrasing is a little ambiguous. Does it mean that the sentence will finish by naming the judge who follows the judge Abimelech, or does it mean that Israel needed saving after Abimelech was through with it?

It’s important because our interpretation informs our idea of what it means to be a judge – is the important point that the individual be a leader appointed by God, or merely a leader?

Following Abimelech, we hear of two judges, called “minor” because they lack the stories of the main judges named in the book:

  1. Tola, son of Puah son of Dodo. Though of Issachar, he lived in Ephraim’s territory. He was judge for 23 years.
  2. Jair of Gilead was judge for 22 years. He had thirty sons who rode thirty asses (*gigglesnort*) and had thirty cities, called Havvothjair.

This isn’t actually our first mention of our friend Jair – in Numbers 32:41, Jair – there listed as a son of Manasseh – attacked and took the villages of Ham, calling them Havvothjair.

Setting the stage

Once again, the people fall into evil, “serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 10:6), as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. As punishment, God sells them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites for 18 years, except they only oppressed the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. But the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. The narrative is a little confused/confusing.

Whatever God did, it was bad and it involved the Ammonites (and maybe the Philistines?). The people repent and beg God for help.

God, clearly claiming the moral high ground, gives an “I told you so” speech and tells them to go cry to the other gods since they seem to love them so much.

Rags to riches

Meanwhile, we learn about Jephthah. His parentage is a little confused – he is the “son of a harlot” (Judges 11:2), but his father appears to be Gilead himself.

As in Judges 1, it seems that the tribe is appearing in a personified form, here capable of having sons. Yet I’m having trouble finding any information on Gilead as a tribal entity. A quick google search is only telling me that it’s a region – not a tribe. Yet in Judges, it seems that it is used instead of Gad. This is clearly something that I will have to look into more.

Father issues aside, Jephthah, as a bastard, is cast out from his home when his ‘natural born’ brothers reach adulthood. Denied a share of his father’s inheritance, he turns to a life of crime – becoming some sort of bandit king in Tob.

Though the Ammonites make war against Israel (Judges 11:4), only Gilead seems particularly affected. Once again, we see what appears to be a local story clumsily edited to appear national.

So the elders of Gilead come to Jephthah, because for some reason he is the only person capable of defeating the Ammonites. Jephthah jumps at the change to gloat now that his brothers have come grovelling.

It’s a little unclear whose idea it is, but somehow everyone agrees that Jephthah will come to fight the Ammonites and, when he wins, he will become the leader of Gilead (Judges 11:8-10).

With that, he ties on his bandanna and moves out.

Confronting the Ammonites

Interestingly, Jephthah doesn’t just charge into battle as other judges have done. Rather, he first tries talking to the Ammonites, to understand why they are being such meanies. It reminds me of Joshua 22, where the altar-builders are asked why they’ve built the altar and given the chance to explain.

The Ammonites claim that the Israelites, on coming out of Egypt, took their land. Their campaign, then, is merely to reclaim the lands that had previously been theirs. They ask that Jephthah hand it over peaceably.

Jephthah denies their complaint, arguing that Israel hasn’t taken land from either the Moabites or the Ammonites (which would be in keeping with Deut. 2:19, 37). Rather, he explains, they asked for passage through Edom and Moab, were denied, so they went around. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, which means that they can’t have touched the Moabites. The Israelites then sent word to King Sihon of the Amorites in Heshbon asking for passage. Rather than simply refusing, the Amorites attacked, Israel won, and they took possession of Amorite lands. It is this land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, that they took – Amorite land, not Ammonite.

If Jephthah’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because we saw something similar in Numbers 20-22. But not all of those chapters are quoted. In fact, if we subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, it seems that the authors of Jephthah had access to only one of the sources that went into Numbers 20-22.

Abbie has a discussion of the sources used up on Better Than Esdras (she even has a chart!).

Jephthah continues: The Israelites own the land that they are on because they were taken in battle and because God says so (Judges 11:23). “Will you not posses what Chemosh your god gives you to posses?” (Judges 11:24), he asks. Perhaps the question means “what would you do in our place? Wouldn’t you hold on to land given to you by your god?” Though I have also seen Jephthah’s argument interpreted to mean that they should go inhabit the land that their god is strong enough to give them rather than bothering the Israelites (in other words, make it a battle between gods rather than between people).

Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say because, according to my study Bible, “Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites, whose chief god was called Milcom (or Molech)” (p.310).

Besides, continues Jephthah, do the Ammonites think themselves better than Balak son of Zippor (who, here, is either the king of Moab or the son of a king, though I don’t believe that any mention was made of this in Balak’s story in Numbers 22-24). Balak didn’t go to war against Israel, so why do the Ammorites think that they have the right to?

Jephthah’s final argument is that Israel has now been living in the area for three hundred years, so why have the Ammorites waited so long to lay claim to it? So much time has passed that they can now be considered aggressors, not defenders. I found this argument a little shocking given the relationship between modern Israel and Palestine, and I wonder how this passage is received by those involved in that conflict.

The Ammorites are having nothing of Jephthah’s arguments. So at this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), prompting him to go on the attack.

Predictably, he fights the Ammonites and wins “with a very great slaughter” (Judges 11:33).

Jephthah’s daughter

When he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah vows that if he is successful in his campaign, he will offer up as a sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house to green him when he returns (Judges 11:30-31).

Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

When he returns, the first person he sees is his daughter – an only child – who emerges dancing with a timbrel to greet him. Jephthah, in his grief, rends his clothes. His daughter reassures him, insisting that he must fulfil his vow. Only, she asks for two months in which to wander the mountains with her companions and bewail her virginity.

At the end of the two months, she returns and Jephthah fulfils his vow. It is in her honour that, says the text, “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:40).

In reading about this chapter, I’ve come across the argument that this story was intended to serve as a warning against making rash vows. However, he makes his vow after he is entered by the Spirit of the Lord.

As Collins puts it:

While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wrong either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded with victory) or in fulfilling it. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

It seems to me that the story serves simply to explain the origins of a particular holiday – the four days a year that women in Israel honour Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity (bemoaned because, as a virgin, she has had no children and therefore her death marks the end of Jephthah’s line).

The story also seems to take for granted that human sacrifice is a thing that is done, despite later condemnations of the practice. Abraham and Isaac’s story suggests the same, though in that story the human sacrifice is made unnecessary by replacing the victim with an animal.

That is, of course, if sacrifice is really what is meant here. There are some who argue that the “sacrifice” was that Jephthah’s daughter would be consecrated as a nun, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for virginal/celibate female monastic orders in ancient Palestine. Tim Bulkeley provides an explanation of this argument. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch motivated by a desire to bring this story in line with later theology.

Ephraim at it again

As in Gideon’s story in Judges 8:1, Ephraim is angry that Jephthah fought the Ammonites without them. Unlike Gideon, who had simply attacked, Jephthah claims that he did actually ask for help, but that the Ephraimites had refused to come to Gilead’s aid while they were being harassed. It is because Ephraim hadn’t protected Gilead that Jephthah had had to take care of business himself.

That’s the first we’re hearing of this, of course. Perhaps in the first the Ephraimites are hearing of it too! I suspect that the editor of Jephthah’s story added this detail to justify his later actions.

Because, unlike Gideon who mollified Ephraim, Jephthah just goes ahead and attacks them.

During the attack, the Gileadites guard all the fords on the Jordan, preventing the Ephraimites from escaping. Anyone who attempted to cross the ford would be questioned, asked if they were Ephraimites. If they said no, they were then asked to prove it by saying “Shibboleth” (or “ear of grain”). Since the Ephraimites apparently speak a different dialect, they are unable to pronounce the ‘sh-‘ and instead say “Sibboleth,” betraying their identity. It’s quite a little bit of linguistic detail!

All told, the Gileadites kill 42,000 Ephraimites – or, as Victor Matthews argues, they kill “forty-two eleph of the enemies. Though most translations render this as forty-two “thousand,” an eleph is more likely a designation for a military unit” (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59). Either way, quite a high number.

A few more minor judges

Jephthah rules for six years before he dies. He is followed by three more minor judges:

  1. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who is said to have had thirty sons and thirty daughters, all of whom he married to people outside of his own clan. He was judge for seven years.
  2. Elon the Zebulunite was judge for ten years.
  3. Abdon, the son of Hillel the Pirathonite, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who, altogether, rode on seventy asses. He was judge for 8 years.

I don’t know what the significance is of the asses in the record of Abdon and Jair. Does anyone have any ideas?

Judges 4-5: On the dangers of camping equipment

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Judges 4 and Judges 5 retell essentially the same story – that of our only female judge, Deborah. The story in Judge 4 is told in prose form, while the story in Judge 5 is a song/poem supposedly sung by two of the principle characters as a summary of the events that have recently transpired. In that sense, it’s quite like Miriam’s song in Exodus 15.

Since the two cover much of the same ground, I will be following the Judges 4 account and only reference Judges 5 as interests me at the relevant points in the story.

The story takes up after Ehud’s death (skipping over poor Shamgar and his ox-goad), when God sells the people into the hands of King Jabin of the Canaanites. King Jabin, as I am certain you recall, was killed by Joshua in Josh. 11:10-11.

But not so fast, contradiction thumpers! Claude Mariottini has an alternative explanation:

In Joshua 11:1-14 Jabin appears as the king of Hazor who formed a confederacy of Canaanite kings to fight against Joshua and the people of Israel. In Judges 4:2, Jabin appears as a king of Canaan whose kingdom was in Hazor. For this reason, scholars believe that Jabin was a throne name for the kings of Hazor.

Or, of course, it’s possible that the author(s) of Joshua simply ascribed to him all the heroic conquest-related deeds that they’d heard of, which included some that had originally been told of local heroes, called ‘judges’ in this book.

This King Jabin has been oppressing the Israelites for 20 years with the help of his commander, Sisera. It is Sisera who plays the part of arch-nemesis to our intrepid heroes in these chapters, and he is certainly a worthy opponent. We are told that Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots! Nine hundred! Iron chariots, if you’ll remember from Judges 1:19, are the super weapon that even an army with God on its side can’t stand against.

The Song of Deborah is a little less clear on the aggressor-victim dichotomy, perhaps having been spared, by virtue of its poetic flow, the editing hand that has been making all these heroic stories conform to the ‘a) the people sin, b) God leaves them, c) God takes pity, d) a judge rises, e) the judge brings peace, f) it all starts again’ narrative pattern.

And so we are told of God marching out, causing the mountains to quake before him. And we’re told of the caravans ceasing in the days of Shamgar (yes, he does get a mention in Judges 5, though the preceding chapter seems never to have heard of him), implying perhaps that it was the Israelites who were raiding caravans.

It’s not clear and, frankly, the language is so awkward that I had trouble following it. It’s Collins who clued me in that there might be a difference between the two accounts:

According to Judges 4, the Lord delivered Israel into the hand of King Jabin of Hazor. One might assume, then, that Jabin was the oppressor. The song in chapter 5, however, gives a different impression, as it boasts that the Israelites were successfully plundering the caravan routes. The battle that ensued was not a war of liberation but simply a clash between two groups that had competing economic interests. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 110)

Enter Deborah

We are told of Deborah, Ephraimite prophetess and the wife of Lappidoth. We are told that she was “judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4) from under a palm between Ramah and Bethel, where the people would come to her for judgement.

I noted as I was reading that the situation looks just like a government seating, in which a leader (a king, chief, or elder) would hear petitions and arbitrate. But it struck me that this was being done under a palm tree – not in a courthouse, or a divan, or even at the city gates.

It changed the tone, and the image I got was less “sanctioned official of the law” and more “wise woman in the woods who has popular authority but not legal authority.” Claude Mariottini seems to agree:

Since Deborah would not have fit into the traditional social and legal structures of Israel and since she could not act as a judge at the city gate, she probably performed her role at another place and in another setting: under a palm tree.

It’s strange, both that she is unique as a female judge and that she seems to be operating outside of the normal social structure. In the words of God himself:

Verily, I have never divined what it was about the ancient Jews’ rigidly patriarchal polygamous society that made it so hard for its female chattel to succeed therein; Especially since women were regarded as clean, uncursed, and fit to appear in public nearly three-quarters of the time. (The Last Testament, Javerbaum. p.120)

Deborah summons Barak, a military leader. Whatever her seat under the palm tree may suggest, her ability to muster Israel’s armies certainly does give her an aura of formally recognized authority.

When she summons Barak son of Abinoam, of the tribe of Naphtali, she tells him in the prose version to gather together soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun.

In the verse, she has him summon Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (apparently another name for Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali. The Transjordan tribes, Reuben and Gilead (apparently another name for Gad), and the coastal tribes of Dan and Asher refused to come. Judah, Simeon, and Levi get no mention at all.

And then there’s Meroz. According to Collins:

The song singles out the otherwise unknown Meroz to be cursed, because its inhabitants did not come to the aid of the Lord. The song suggests that there was an alliance of tribes who worshipped YHWH. There was some obligation of mutual defense, but there are no sanctions against the tribes that did not show up, with the exception of Meroz (which may not have been a tribe at all). The alliance did not extend to all twelve tribes. The omission of Judah is significant. The bond between Judah and the northern tribes was weak, and this eventually led to the separation of the two kingdoms after the death of Solomon.

Judah is included in the Blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33, but there Simeon is missing. It would seem that the number twelve was not as stable in the premonarchic period as is often supposed. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.104)

As long as you follow

When given his instructions, Barak is unsure. He says: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8).

According to Claude Mariottini, all of this has to do with the belief that God is with Deborah:

Barak was so convinced that Deborah was sent by God that he refused to go into battle without her presence, since her presence with the army would insure the presence of God with Israel and victory against the enemies.

In response, Deborah agrees to go, but she tells Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). This, according to Mariottini, is so unthinkable that it would constitute proof that God really was involved in the victory.

It’s strange, because my impression when reading was the tonal opposite of what Mariottini sees. In my mind, Barak’s request that Deborah come along was a challenge – he was essentially challenging her legitimacy as a leader when, as a woman, she would not even be going into battle. She rebukes him, not only agreeing to go into battle, but then also taking away (by virtue of her connections with the Big Office) his glory in the endeavour, putting the victory into female hands.

It was the “the road on which you are going” phrasing that framed it for me, I think. What could that refer to, if not to Barak’s questioning of God/Deborah’s will in the matter, and his imposition of conditions upon his obedience to God/Deborah’s command?

Either way, they head off with their army (whatever its tribal composition), and Sisera takes the bait. In the Judges 5 version, a storm causes the Kishon river to sweep away Sisera’s army (presumably miring those terrifying iron chariots).

Seeing the tide of battle and river turn against him, Sisera jumps down from his chariot and runs off on foot.

In Jael’s tent

We are told of Heber the Kenite. Here, again, we are told that the Kenites are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (here called Hobab, which agrees with Num. 10:29. He is called Reuel in Exod. 2:18-21, and Jethro in Exod. 3:1, 4:18, 18:1, and 18:5). This matches their stated origin in Judges 1:16, though it creates problems in light of their clearly pre-dating Hobab (as they were mentioned in Gen. 15:18-21).

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

This Heber has separated from the rest of the Kenites and settled near Kedesh, where the battle is taking place. We are told, also, that there was peace between Heber and King Jabin, so when Sisera saw their camp, he must have thought that he would find asylum.

Instead of meeting Heber, however, he met Heber’s wife, Jael. She invites him into her tent and, in the Judges 4 version, hides him under a rug.

Before long, Sisera asks her for a drink of water, and she brings him milk instead (in both version of the story). In the poetic version, she also brings him “curds in a lordly bowl” (Judges 5:25). Sisera then asks her to stand guard at the door and to tell anyone who asks that she is alone.

In Judges 4, Sisera is exhausted (presumably from his battle and subsequent flight from such), and he falls asleep. Jael takes the opportunity to jam a tent peg into his skull with a hammer so hard that the peg comes out the other side and is driven into the ground. Even more badass, she apparently does it while he is awake in the Judges 5:27 account.

Having murdered Sisera, Jael goes out to meet Barak and shows him the body. For this, she is the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24), and fulfils Deborah’s earlier prophecy.

There are a few difficulties with Jael’s story. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that murdering their military commander qualifies as a violation of a peace agreement. Not only that, but she murdered a guest in her home – something that seems rather clearly to be a huge no-no in her cultural milieu. It seems that she opportunistically chose to back the winners. None of this is addressed in the text, she is simply lauded for her actions. It’s hard to wonder how this could be, except that her actions benefit Israel.

Claude Mariottini takes a different view:

However, Sisera’s action was a violation of Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Sisera’s action was a violation of Heber’s family and dishonored Jael by entering her tent. As a man, Sisera should had approached Heber and not his wife.

[…]

From the perspective of the writer of Judges, Jael’s action was justified. Since Sisera had already violated Jael’s honor, Jael’s act could be seen as a vindication of her honor. The killing of Sisera was one way by which she eliminated the threat to her clan and avenged the violation of her tent.

Sisera’s mother

The final portion of the story is mentioned only in the Judges 5 poetic version: We get Sisera’s mother fretting that her son still hasn’t returned, but comforting herself by imagining that he must be busy dividing the spoils – and, she thinks, “a maiden or two for every man” (Judges 5:30).

It’s rather horrendous that a woman is thinking so callously of the abuse and rape that she imagines others of her gender must presently be subjected to. Of course, in the poem, I suppose it’s meant to be funny – while she imagines her son nailing some captive women, it is in fact a woman who is nailing him.

The poem ends with her thinking about all the lovely spoils that her son will be bringing back for her.

Final notes

Claude Mariottini pointed out something interesting: that the only two women we’ve seen called prophets so far – Deborah and Miriam – both have songs. Deborah’s is, of course, in Judges 5, and Miriam’s is in Exodus 15.

I notice, also, that both songs seem to be quite a bit older than texts surrounding them, and that both appear to be somewhat fragmentary. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps Canaanite culture was once far more female-friendly, and that the strongly patriarchal elements came later. Perhaps.

I should also mention that Claude Mariottini (who has clearly been a huge help to me in my reading of these two chapters!) has a post about the use of the term “judge” in this book – what it does mean, what it doesn’t mean, and what it may mean. If I tried to explain it here, I’d only be quoting the whole thing, so I’ll link to it instead.

Lastly, Jeremy Myers has a post up on Till He Comes that asks whether the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 might not be sexually suggestive. He uses a translation that is quite different from mine, but largely focuses on the juxtaposition between Jael “penetrating” Sisera (with a phallic tent peg) and Sisera’s mother guessing that he must be running late because he’s so busy “penetrating” all those lovely captive ladies.

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