2 Chronicles 36: So This Is The End…

Leave a comment

In our final chapter, the Chronicler condenses material from the end of 2 Kgs 23 all the way through 2 Kgs 25. It almost feels like he’s tripping over himself to get to the end. To me, that suggests that the Chronicler’s focus lies earlier. But we can talk about that in my next post.

We open after Josiah’s death, when the people crown his 23-year-old son, Jehoahaz. Within three months, however, the Egyptians had deposed him and taken him back to Egypt as a captive. In his place, they set up Jehoahaz’s brother, Eliakim, whom they renamed Jehoiakim – perhaps choosing such a similar name in the hopes that no one would notice.

James Bradford Pate offers a discussion of these name changes. In particular, he notes that the names forced onto Israelites by foreign powers often seem to be honouring the Israelite God. In this case, he explains that Eliakim means “My God Raises”, while Jehoiakim means “The Lord Raises”. “The two names essentially mean the same thing, only the latter identifies God by his personal covenant name. The king of Egypt changed Eliakim’s name to a name that was devoutly Yahwist, Israelite, and similar in meaning to Eliakim.” Strange indeed, and you can see more of that discussion over in his blog post.

Jehoiakim was 25 years old when he was installed by the Egyptians, making him Josiah’s older son. So why had the people of the land installed a younger son in 2 Chron. 36:1? We may be getting a glimpse of at least two factions in the Israelite political landscape – perhaps one that favoured vassalage to Egypt and another that favoured independence. Perhaps it was the People’s Front of Judea that installed a younger, but more amenable, son as king.

The problem with this theory is that both kings are deemed to have done evil in both Chronicles and Kings. It seems that both authors would have liked a pro-independence king, so perhaps something else was going on.

In any case, Jehoiakim lasted a whole 11 years. During this time, Egypt’s power was waning while Babylon’s strength was rising again. This spelled trouble for the Egypt-installed Jehoiakim.

The Chronicler skips over the episode in 2 Kgs 24:1-2, where Nebuchadnezzar took control of Judah, keeping Jehoiakim has his puppet. After three years, Jehoiakim tried to rebel, leaving Judah open to attack from its neighbours (Chaldeans, Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites are named).

Instead, we skip right to when Judah was attacked by Nebuchadnezzar, and Jehoiakim was taken to Babylon in fetters (along with many vessels taken from the Temple).

After Jehoiakim came his son, Jehoiachin (called Jehoiakin in Kings), who was only 8 years old (2 Chron. 36:9). Or maybe he was 18 (2 Kgs 24:8). If the Chronicler is correct, I wonder what people who believe in an “age of responsibility” make of it when the Chronicler judges him a bad king. More likely, though, the Chronicler typo’d.

In any case, Jehoiachin only lasted for 3 months and a handful of days before Nebuchadnezzar came after him, too. He, like his father, was taken to Babylon along with more loot from the Temple.

Incidentally, Jehoiachin’s career continued beyond his stint as king of Judah. In Lawrence Mykytiuk’s 50 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaelogically, we learn that Jehoiachin is mentioned:

in four Babylonian administrative tablets regarding oil rations or deliveries, during his exile in Babylonia (Raging Torrent, p. 209; ANEHST, pp. 386–387). Discovered at Babylon, they are dated from the tenth to the thirty-fifth year of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylonia and conqueror of Jerusalem. One tablet calls Jehoiachin “king” (Text Babylon 28122, obverse, line 29; ANET, p. 308). A second, fragmentary text mentions him as king in an immediate context that refers to “[. . . so]ns of the king of Judah” and “Judahites” (Text Babylon 28178, obverse, col. 2, lines 38–40; ANET, p. 308). The third tablet calls him “the son of the king of Judah” and refers to “the five sons of the king of Judah” (Text Babylon 28186, reverse, col. 2, lines 17–18; ANET, p. 308). The fourth text, the most fragmentary of all, confirms “Judah” and part of Jehoiachin’s name, but contributes no data that is not found in the other texts.

This seems to indicate that Jehoiachin lived to be at least 45 years old, with much of his life in Babylonian captivity.

The Final King

After tucking Jehoiachin safely away, Nebuchadnezzar appointed his brother (2 Chron. 36:10), or perhaps his uncle (2 Kgs 24:17) as king in his place.

He was only 21 years old and, like his father or brother, he lasted 11 years. Unfortunately, he failed to humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah, and we all know what that means.

Though the Chronicler doesn’t bother to mention it, it seems that the new king, Zedekiah, was also named by the foreign ruler who installed him (2 Kgs 24:17 gives his original name as Mattaniah). James Bradford Pate gives the meaning of Zedekiah as “Yah is righteous”. He will later be punished for rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar, so Pate wonders if perhaps the Babylonian king had given him that name in the “hope that the LORD would righteously punish Zedekiah if Zedekiah rebels.” Or, at the very least, that Zedekiah would believe that. Nebuchadnezzar needn’t believe it himself.

What’s really interesting about this is that the Chronicler also charged Zedekiah with rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar – which he deems bad because Nebuchadnezzar had made him swear fealty by God. So even though the Chronicler seems very much against dealings with foreign powers, that seems to be trumped by his feelings against breaking an oath made by invoking God. And suddenly, his name becomes very salient.

From about this point on, the author of Kings provides precise date references – down to the very day – for every event. The Chronicler has kept none of these.

The Exile of Babylon, by Marie Odile de Laforcade

The Exile of Babylon, by Marie Odile de Laforcade

Zedekiah’s sins are many, and under his leadership the people were all exceedingly awful. The “leading priests” (2 Chron. 36:14) are included in this group, which I found rather interesting. Why only the leading priests, while the rest of the people are dismissed en masse? My best guess is that this is another example of the Chronicler’s favouritism – notice that only the leading priests are mentioned, not the Levites and not the musicians?

God kept sending prophets to warn the Israelites, because he had so much compassion and hoped that they would turn back from their terrible doings. But they mocked the prophets, and they polluted the Temple, and God just got angrier and angrier.

In the end, he sent the “king of the Chaldeans” (2 Chron. 36:17) after them.

By this point in Kings, the author had been using the term Babylonian and Chaldean interchangeably. The Chaldeans, you see, had taken control of babylon during the Neo-Babylonian era, founding the dynasty that had produced Nebuchadnezzar. So, technically, both terms might apply.

When the Chaldeans/Babylonians come, they slay the young men with swords – even in the Temple! The Chronicler tells us that they had no compassion whatsoever for the Israelites – not even the young or the old, man or woman. This sounds just awful, but lacks the gruesome details of 2 Kgs 25, in which Zedekiah is blinded after being forced to watch his sons killed, so that their deaths are the last thing he ever sees.

Nebuchadnezzar then takes vessels from the Temple (again??), as well as all the other treasures from both Temple and palace. He took the princes of Israel captive to Babylon and had Jerusalem’s walls, palaces, and Temple torn down and burned.

Anyone who survived the assault was taken in servitude to Babylon, where they remained captive until the rise of Persia. All of this, we are told, was in fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, and so the land kept its Sabbath (apparently referring to sabbatical years, as per Deut. 15 and Lev. 25:1-7, where the land is left fallow) for 70 years.

This is called the “Myth of an Empty Land” – the idea that Israel just sat there, empty, waiting for the return of its people. Claude Mariottini discusses the myth in some more detail in a blog post, and Victor Matthews writes, in Manners & Customs of the Bible, that the myth is “reflected in the later disputes between the returning exiles and the Samaritans, and other “peoples of the land”” (p.138).

The impression is also in direct conflict with the account in Kings, in which we are specifically told that the poorest were left behind to tend the land (2 Kgs 25:12).

To Be Continued

The Chronicler doesn’t bother mentioning the ill-fated Babylonian governor, Gedaliah.

Instead, we end on a high note, skipping right to King Cyrus of Persia, whose spirit was stirred by God in his first year to allow the Israelites to return and to commission the building of a second Temple.

According to my study Bible, these last few verses are almost identical to the first few of the book of Ezra. It may be that they were once a single book, and the repetition was a way of indicating that the story doesn’t end here. My study Bible also proposes that, since 2 Chronicles is the final book of the Hebrew Old Testament, the words were added here by a later editor “so that the Old Testament would not end on a note of doom.”

Kings tried something similar by ending with Jehoiachin – in Babylon but freed from captivity, as if to hint at a hope for a renewed Davidic dynasty.

2 Kings 23: To Little, Too Late

Leave a comment

This chapter mostly focuses on Josiah’s rather violent religious reforms. But first, he gathers all the people together at the temple to read out his new Book of Law, and to reconsecrate Judah under the covenant.

The reforms themselves are everything we’ve come to expect. Altars to other gods (and astral bodies) are destroyed, Asherah are burned, priests are murdered.

One thing that stands out is the length to which Josiah goes, not just to destroy non-approved shrines, but to totally desecrate them. He murders priests over their altars, burning their bones there in mock sacrifice. He cuts down the Asherim and fills the holes with human bones. He burns religious objects and spreads the ashes “upon the graves of the common people” (2 Kings 23:6).

Amidst all of that, there is a mention of priests that I believe refers to priests of YHWH serving at local shrines. These, Josiah seems to invite to serve in Jerusalem, but they refuse to come. Even so, however, they “ate unleavened bread among their brethren” (2 Kings 23:9). In trying to make sense of this, my New Bible Commentary suggests that we may interpret this to mean that “these priests were admitted to the sacred meal but were not allowed to sacrifice” (p.366). However, the impression I got was that it was the priests who refused Josiah’s reforms, rather than that they were barred from participating. It is, without a doubt, a difficult passage to make sense of.

A final act worth mentioning is Josiah’s destruction of Jeroboam’s shrine at Bethel, which has been causing so much hand-wringing through our narrative. Just to be an extra jerk about it, he digs up corpses from nearby tombs and burns them on Jeroboam’s altar to defile it.

As he’s looking for more bodies to defile altars, Josiah comes upon a particular monument and asks the locals about it. They tell him that it’s the tomb of a Judahite prophet who had predicted what Josiah is currently doing to the Bethel shrine. This sounds an awful lot like the unnamed prophet from 1 Kings 13.

I had pointed out at the time that the chapter had a very “folk myth” feel to it. In it, the unnamed prophet tells Jeroboam that his altar will someday be destroyed by a Davidic king named Josiah. Jeroboam, furious, raises his hand to command that the prophet be arrested. This hand withers, until the prophet takes pity on Jeroboam and restores it.

I noted that the story was very out of place among the histories. In particular, the fact that such a specific prophecy was made, yet had no impact on any of the named characters (despite the fact that Jeroboam witnessed a very specific and very powerful miracle) strongly suggests that it was added to the record of Jeroboam’s reign, probably after the fact. Given the explicit mention of Josiah, it seems likely that one of Josiah’s supporters either wrote the story from whole cloth, or adapted some local folk tradition for propagandic purposes. As Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic puts it, the prophecy is “suspiciously specific.”

Finding some measure of respect for the dead – or, at least, this dead – Josiah commands that this tomb remain unmolested, along with the bones of another prophet, this one from Samaria. Again, this second prophet is not identified. My study Bible suggests that the mention of Samaria “is probably an error for Bethel,” perhaps suggesting that there is some special grave for local prophets. However, I saw it as a reference to the Israelite prophet mentioned later on in 1 Kings 13 (though I’m not sure why Josiah should preserve that grave).

While our narrative talks about destroying, burning, and grinding up ashes, Victor Matthews suggests that perhaps Josiah wasn’t quite as thorough as he’d like us to think:

Archaeological findings from this period include fragments of a horned altar found incorporated into a wall at Arad. That the altar was dismantled and used in the construction of a non-sacred structure suggests an attempt to eliminate sacrificial activity at Arad. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.98)

Back in Jerusalem, Josiah enacts one final reform: the “restitution” of the Passover celebration. I use scare quotes because it’s not really clear what the history of the celebration is. I’ve seen some commenters suggest that Josiah invented the practice, which I personally find unlikely. The narrative itself claims that it was done up until the days of the judges, and then not again until now (in Josiah’s 18th year). Personally, I find it likely that it was a local festival that perhaps had been celebrated for quite a while, and that Josiah simply made part of the centralized/orthodox version of the YHWH cult that he was trying to create.

But not all was well

Josiah was a wonderful king, and close to God’s heart. In fact, there had never been and never will be a king who gave himself so entirely over to God. But, unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. God had already decided to erase Judah, and to cast away the city and temple he had chosen for himself, mostly because of that big baddie Manasseh. It’s hard not to read this account as personal.

Despite the prophecy in 2 Kings 22:20, there is war. Although Josiah seems to have brought his fate on himself.

The narrative tells us that Neco, pharaoh of Egypt, went to the king of Assyria. At this time, Josiah decided to meet the pharaoh at Megiddo, where their armies clash and Josiah is killed.

A small kneeling bronze statuette, likely Necho II, now residing in the Brooklyn Museum

A small kneeling bronze statuette, likely Necho II, now residing in the Brooklyn Museum

My study Bible helps to fill in the details, explaining that Assyria had mostly fallen to Medes and Chaldea (though it seems that nearly everyone in the area was taking advantage of Assyria’s weakness – the Wikipedia page describes something of a pile-on), but was still fighting to survive. Egypt, Assyria’s ally at that time, may have been moving to help fight some other enemy. Since Judah had so recently been a vassal state (or perhaps still was), it would have made sense for them to join the fray in the hopes of further weakening Assyria, and perhaps scooping up some of its lands.

In any case, it appears to have been the wrong choice, and Josiah’s corpse was brought back to Jerusalem in a chariot for burial.

With Josiah dead, the people raise his son, Jehoahaz, to succeed him. Jehoahaz, son of Hamutal, was 23 years old at the time, and lasted a mere 3 months. He was deposed by Pharaoh Neco, imprisoned, then died in Egypt.

Neco installed a successor of his own choosing: Josiah’s other son, Eliakim (whom the Pharaoh renames Jehoiakim). The condition of Jehoiakim’s rule appears to have been vassalage, and the new king of Judah pays a tribute to Egypt.

Jehoiakim was 25 years old and the son of Zebidah. He lasted 11 years. Both sons are described as evil, though it’s difficult to imagine how Jehoahaz had the time to prove himself such.

There are a few tantalizing hints here as to Judah’s political landscape. Perhaps the biggest is that Jehoahaz, who was appointed by the people, was the younger of Josiah’s two sons. For whatever reason, the Judahites decided to forego the tradition of primogeniture to give him the crown.

Perhaps the fact that Egypt crowned Jehoiakim can give us a clue. It may be reasonable to assume that Jehoiakim had expressed a desire to give in to Egypt, whereas Jehoahaz was in favour of resistance. We may be seeing a glimpse, then, of competing factions within Judah. The fact that the narrative condemns both as evil complicates matters, and I’m really not sure what to make of that.

In any case, we are clearly approaching the fall of Judah.

2 Kings 18-19: God Versus Assyria

1 Comment

It seems that despite Hoshea’s removal from power and the destruction of Israel as a nation, Hoshea’s son Elah managed to succeed his father. It seems that the political situation in Israel/Samaria is a little more complex than the text has so far indicated.

The narrative turns back toward Judah where, in the third year of Israel’s Elah, Hezekiah came to power. He was 25 years old when he took the crown, and ruled for a total of 29 years. When compared to 2 Kings 16:2 and run a little math, we find that Jezekiah must have been born when his father, Ahaz, was only 11 years old. Hezekiah’s mother was Abi, the daughter of Zechariah.

Hezekiah gets, by far, the best review of all the kings we’ve seen so far (including David since, despite our current author’s nostalgic view, he did not get such a great review while he was the star of the story). God just adored Jezekiah.

What did he do to merit such credit? He finally destroyed those pesky high places, broke pillars, and cut down the Asherah. He also broke Moses’ bronze serpent (made in Numbers 21:6-9) because people had been burning incense to it and calling it Nehushtan.

The position of our author seems rather clear: that the object belonged to Moses and was later worshipped as a symbol (or perhaps an actual deity) in itself. This is rather interesting given that the serpent appears to have been one of the symbols of Baal, and likely a part of the pre-Israelite Canaanite religion. So it seems that this pre-Israelite symbol survived the evolution of the YHWH cult, its pagan associations erased as it is given a compatible origin story, up until this point. Suggesting that perhaps its non-Israelite origins were still known at this point in our narrative, despite the co-existing association to Moses.

He also rebelled against Assyria, and killed many Philistines.

Assyria Ascending

There is a brief nod to the events in Israel, mostly repeating 2 Kings 17:5-6. In the fourth year of Hezekiah and the seventh year of Hoshea, Shalmaneser besieged Samaria, taking it three years later. The Israelites were deported because they had failed to obey God.

This seems to have been included to serve as a contrast as we begin the narrative of Assyria’s attack on Judah, juxtaposing the non-god-fearing Israelites to the (now) god-fearing Judahites under Hezekiah’s leadership.

A decade later, in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, Assyria comes after Judah. This time, however, it is led by King Sennacherib. The Assyrians seem to have made quite a bit of headway through Judah, conquering “all fortified cities of Judah” (2 Kgs 18:13) – Jerusalem is not explicitly excluded from this description. Hezekiah tells Sennacherib to withdraw, to which Sennacherib responds with a price: 300 talents of silver and 300 talents of gold.

Despite his big talk, Hezekiah is willing to pay, though it means stripping the gold from the doors and pillars of the temple.

Incidentally, it seems that Sennacherib’s own records confirm this interaction (at least in its broad strokes): “He [Sennacherib] claims to have laid siege to 46 walled cities and many villages, to have taken 200,150 people, and to have shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem ‘as a bird in a cage’. His figure, ‘300 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, plus many other items’, is in close agreement” (New Bible Commentary, p.362).

From here, the narrative dives straight into what appears to be a description of an active siege on Jerusalem (which, spoilers, ends with Assyria’s retreat). Given that the rest of this narrative is unnecessary if Hezekiah successfully met Sennacherib’s demands, it has been argued that there are actually two conflict events being described: One in which Assyria is paid off, and one in which they are forced to abandon their campaign for reasons that we will discuss later on. There doesn’t appear to be any direct evidence for this “two campaign” theory, but the narrative hardly makes sense otherwise.

My personal feeling here is that Hezekiah paid tribute to Assyria after the initial show of force, but perhaps refused to pay a later tribute, much as Hoshea did in 2 Kings 17. As in Israel’s case, this would have led to Assyria’s retaliation.

Proceeding with this assumption, I will discuss the remainder of the narrative as though it refers to a separate incident.

Assyria’s Return

Assyria’s army is encamped at Lachish (as it was in 2 Kings 18:14, during the “first invasion”). They send three representatives to Jerusalem, here identified as the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh (according to the New Bible Commentary, these are the Akkadian terms for ‘second in command,’ a high military official, and probably a civil official, respectively, p.363). From this point onward, the titles are used as if they were given names.

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

The representatives call out for Hezekiah, but Judah’s king sends three representatives of his own instead: Eliakim son of Hilkiah (who is described as being “over the household,” which I took to mean he was the steward), Shebnah (the secretary), and Joah son of Asaph (the recorder).

The Rabshakeh seems to assume that Judah is relying on Egypt to protect them (again, this is very reminiscent of Hoshea’s rebellion in 2 Kings 17:4). He then asks if Judah would rely on their god when Hezekiah himself has been destroying so many of God’s shrines? It’s hard to determine if this is meant to be a joke about Assyria’s lack of understanding of the Hebrew religion, or if it’s further evidence that the local shrines were very much still an important part of the folk religion. Likely a bit of both.

The Rabshakeh ends with a baiting wager: Assyria will give Judah 2,000 horses if they can produce enough riders for them. The intention of this bait is made clear as Rabshakeh asks how Judah expects to fight off Assyria’s captains when they rely on Egypt for their chariots and cavalry?

These interactions certainly indicate that there was far more to Judah and Israel’s relationship with Egypt than we see explained in our text.

Rabshakeh’s final insult reads more like editorializing, as he declares that it is on behalf of Judah’s own God that they have come – reiterating the punitive nature of Judah’s troubles. It seems unlikely that the Assyrian would have taken this position.

Eliakim, Shebnah, and Joah ask Rabshakeh to speak to them in Aramaic rather than “the language of Judah,” so that the people on the walls – who are apparently within earshot – would not understand. Rabshakeh refuses, saying that his master has sent him to speak to them all, as they are all doomed to eat their own dung and drink their own urine. He does seem like a lovely fellow, no? In any case, this seems like a refusal to acknowledge Hezekiah’s representatives as a special diplomatic class. Rabshakeh is addressing Judah as a whole, he is not there to negotiate.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

There appear to be two separate versions of what happens next:

In the first, Rabshakeh calls out loudly in the language of Judah, telling the Judahites not to be deceived by Hezekiah’s claims that God can save them from Assyria. Assyria has defeated all other gods, and it would be better for the people of Judah to simply surrender now. The words have little effect, however, as the people keep their silence as per Hezekiah’s orders.

Hezekiah rends his clothes and wears sackcloth, and goes into the temple. He also sends Eliakim, Shebna, and the senior priests – all also wearing sackcloth – to seem the prophet Isaiah (yes, that one) to ask him to encourage God to defend his honour after he has been insulted by the Assyrians.

Isaiah reassures Hezekiah’s representatives that they need not fear the Assyrians because God “will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (2 Kings 19:7).

In the second version, we get a strange detail of Rabshekah hearing that his king has left Lachish to fight against Libnah. When the Assyrian king hears about Tirhakah, the king of Ethiopia, he sends messengers to Hezekiah warning him not to think that God will be able to preserve Judah when all other gods have fallen before Assyria. (The threat is clearly the same one Rabshekah gave earlier).

There’s no explanation of why Sennacherib is fighting Libnah, or what any of this has to do with Tirhakah. It’s all made even more confusing by the fact that, according to my study Bible, Tirhakah was not even the king of Egypt yet (though he was apparently a general first, and that this could be a reference to him in that position instead).

Hezekiah brings the letters to the temple and prays that God would pay attention to Judah’s plight: “Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear; open thy eyes, O Lord, and see” (2 Kings 19:16). He acknowledges that the Assyrians have defeated the local gods of every other nation they have conquered, but those, insists Hezekiah, were man-made gods, made of wood and stone. They were not like YHWH.

Enter Isaiah, who confirms that God has heard Hezekiah’s prayer. What follows is a lengthy poem that I found rather inaccessible. However, there is a bit about how current events were long planned as a punishment. God ends by giving a sign: The Judahites will eat only what grows of itself this year and the next, but will resume farming in the third year. Those who survive will then “again take root downward, and bear fruit upward” (2 Kings 19:30). This seems to indicate that perhaps there will not be the security to farm, due to attacks and raids, over the next two years.

However, says God via Isaiah, the King of Assyria will never enter Jerusalem, nor shoot arrows into it, nor lay siege to it. Instead, he will be routed because God protects Jerusalem for David’s sake. According to the New Bible Commentary, this part of the prophecy is in conflict with Sennacherib’s own version of the campaign. In it, he mentions a rampart, which would indicate a siege (p.363).

That night, the angel of the lord killed 185,000 people in the Assyrian camp, so that the rest of the soldiers woke in the morning to find the bodies. Because of this, Sennacherib retreated back to Nineveh. At some point after that (the text implies a connection, though it seems that many years had passed), Sennacherib was worshipping in the temple of Nisroch when two of his sons, Adramelech and Sharezer, murdered him and escaped to Ararat. A third son, Esarhaddon, then took the crown.

Brant Clements notes that the Assyrian records make no mention of the loss of 185,000 soldiers, though of course this isn’t exactly proof that it didn’t happen.

However, it is clear that something caused the Assyrians to turn back from Jerusalem. Some interpreters, trusting in the biblical account of the mysterious deaths, suggest a plague in the Assyrian camp. Others point to Sennacherib’s troubled end, suggesting that civil unrest at home forced him to abandon the campaign. Certain among the faithful credit God – as does the text. These aren’t, of course, mutually exclusive explanations.