Sorry for the lateness! But at least my tardiness is thematically relevant!
We now move into Hezekiah, who is one of the greats. He gets a lot of page space, too, with three chapters in 2 Kgs 18-20 and four chapters in 2 Chron. 29-32. But for all that, the breadth is really missing. Essentially, Hezekiah whips up a religious revival, but, like so many of his predecessors, he fell short at the very end.
We begin with Hezekiah’s record entry: He was 25 years old when his reign began, and he ruled for 29 years. His mother’s name was Abijah, daughter of Zechariah.
On the first day of the first month of the first year of his reign, Hezekiah decided to purify the Temple. This needs a bit of unpacking, because while it’s certainly possible that it truly refers to the first day of Hezekiah’s reign, it seems like rather incredible timing in light of 2 Chron. 30:1, where Hezekiah postpones the Passover celebration for a month. Passover is normally held in Nissan, the first month, meaning that Hezekiah would have had to just happen to start his first day on our equivalent of January 1. This seems lie rather too unlikely, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that the author means that Hezekiah started his focus on the Temple on the first day of his first full year.
Which gives us a new question: Why would Hezekiah wait before turning his attention to the Temple – especially when it will mean not being ready in time for Passover and having to delay the celebration. One possibility is that the new year, as a new beginning, was just too symbolically resonant to pass up even if it meant delaying the Passover. Another has to do with the Chronicler’s own motives. I’ll discuss this in more detail later, but there may be a theme of lateness in Chronicles that, perhaps, relates to the rebuilding of the cultic structure.
In any case, Hezekiah reopened the Temple and began purging it of inappropriate cultic items on the first day of the first year of his reign – whatever that happens to mean.
Not to get too nitpicky, but the detail about reopening the doors of the Temple is in line with 2 Chron. 28:24, where Ahaz closed the Temple’s doors, but does not align with 2 Kgs 16:10-16, where it’s apparent that Ahaz continued the use of the Temple for worship. The New Bible Commentary harmonizes this by arguing that the author would not have considered the worship of foreign gods as real worship (p.391), making the closing of the doors a symbolic description (or perhaps it was the inner sanctuary doors that were literally closed).
Hezekiah then gathered up the priests and Levites and, in keeping with the idea of a fresh start, told them all to sanctify first themselves, then the Temple. He gives his reasoning for this in a speech about how their parents had forsaken God, and this is why their fathers have fallen to swords and their sons, daughters, and wives have been taken into captivity.
If this sounds a bit like a post-exilic formula to you, I would agree. That said, 2 Chron. 28 does feature an awful lot of warfare and taking into captivity.
The priests and Levites got to work under the leadership of:
- Kohathites: Mahath son of Amasai, and Joel son of Azariah;
- Merarites: Kish son of Abdi, and Azariah son of Jehallelel;
- Gershonites: Joah son of Zimmah, and Eden son of Joah;
- Of the sons of Elizaphan: Shimri and Jeuel;
- Of the sons of Asaph: Zechariah and Mattaniah;
- Of the sons of Heman: Jehuel and Shimei;
- Of the sons of Jeduthun: Shemaiah and Uzziel.
Together, on the 8th day of the month, they brought all the uncleanness that had gathered in the Temple, though the Chronicler doesn’t mention Moses’s Nehushtan (2 Kgs 18:4). All the refuse is brought out to the brook of Kidron – Kidron being the favoured place for idol disposal (as we saw in places like 1 Kgs 15:13, 2 Kgs 23:4-6, and 2 Chron. 15:16).
The sanctification process takes eight days, ending on the 16th of the month. When they tell Hezekiah that they are done, he gathers up the Jerusalem city officials to make a big sacrifice and splash lots of blood around. Hezekiah then stations Levitical musicians in the Temple to sing the words of David and of Asaph the seer.
The Passover Celebration
It took a while to get the Temple (and its officiants) up to snuff, so Hezekiah conferred with the “princes” (likely meaning the people of his court with social clout, rather than his own sons) and they decided to postpone the Passover until the second month. The measure was necessary because the priests still hadn’t finished sanctifying themselves, and the people hadn’t had a chance to make it to Jerusalem.
Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out that the idea of celebrating a belated Passover when either travelling or purity requirements can’t be met on time can find precedent in Num. 9:9-11.
In discussing the possibility that Hezekia’s Passover might be a fabrication, James Bradford Pate brings up the idea that the Chronicler wouldn’t invent such a messy, chaotic, and delayed celebration. However, Pate cites 2 Chron. 24:5-6 as another example of delay, and proposes that perhaps there is a purposeful theme to be found. Specifically, Pate ties it to the post-exilic “lateness”, both forgiving the lateness itself and “exhorting the post-exilic Jews to get on the ball.” Sort of a “better late than never” message.
The reason that the historicity of Hezekiah’s Passover is that it isn’t found in 2 Kings, and Josiah’s proclamation in 2 Kgs 23:21-23 certainly seems to indicate that, if there had been a grand Passover in Hezekiah’s time, Josiah wasn’t aware of it. Turning back to Pate, he presents the argument that the author of Kings was trying to be literary – he wanted to highlight Josiah, and mentioning a similar Passover in the context of Hezekiah would have diluted that story. So the absence of the Passover in 2 Kings doesn’t necessarily indicate that Hezekiah’s Passover is a fabrication.
At this point the story is a bit muddled, and there may be some time-skipping. There could have been multiple sacrifice events, but I’m picking a chronology and sticking with it. However, I am noting that the text isn’t nearly as clear.
Hezekiah sends invitations out to all of Judah, as well as all of Israel, encouraging everyone “from Beer-sheba to Dan” (2 Chron. 30:5) to attend the Passover in Jerusalem. The language here mimics the language of the unified nation – both pre-monarchy and unified. The use of the phrase “from Beer-sheba to Dan” serves to underscore the point, as it’s a phrase we’ve seen quite a bit before when referring to the nation as a whole (see, for example, Judges 20:1, 1 Sam. 3:20, 2 Sam. 3:10, 2 Sam. 17:11, 1 Kgs 4:25). My Study Bible calls Hezekiah’s invitation a “prophetic hope of the return of the northern tribes to their former loyalty to Jerusalem”, and compares it to Ezek. 37:15-23.
The invitation explains that the Passover hasn’t been properly kept, and the people need to do better. But if they come now and are good, then their children and brethren’s captors will show compassion, and perhaps allow them to return home.
It really is hard not to see some post-exilic sentiments creeping in here.
Incidentally, John Collins writes in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible that there is “a famous letter from Elephantine in Egypt in the late fifth century B.C.E. regarding the observance of the Passover, but letters are anachronistic in the time of Hezekiah, some 300 years earlier” (p.233).
Unfortunately, most of the people just laughed at Hezekiah’s couriers. Only a few men of Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun came out to Jerusalem. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that we have some anti-Samarianism cropping in here. But also, my New Bible Commentary points out that the fact that “Hezekiah’s messengers went only as far as Zebulun suggests that in the far north of Galilee the Israelite elements had already disappeared” (p.392). Turning back to Collins, he notes that the “fact that emissaries are sent to Ephraim and Manasseh presupposes that the northern kingdom of Israel is no more. Yet, amazingly, the Chronicler has not even mentioned the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.233).
Even so, the assembly in Jerusalem was quite impressive, and perhaps it was a good thing that so few Samarians showed up because the priests couldn’t keep up with all the sacrifices. Eventually, the Levites had to step in to fill the gaps, “for the Levites were more upright in heart than the priests in sanctifying themselves” (2 Chron. 29:34).
Many commentaries note the dig at non-Levitical priests, but more interesting is the idea that the priests are the ones doing all the slaughtering, causing the backlog problem. The New Bible Commentary, for example, notes that it should normally be the worshiper’s job to slaughter the offerings, so the issue shouldn’t really be an issue in the first place (p.392). I’m seeing verses like Ex. 12:3-6, Deut. 16:5-6, and Lev. 1:1-6 in support of this, though I personally found all those verses to be rather ambiguous.
Unfortunately, many of the people in the congregation (specifically many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun) had failed to properly cleanse themselves, yet ate the Passover offerings anyway. Hezekiah addressed them in prayer, saying that God pardons all who seek them out, even if they aren’t doing it by the rules – sort of an Old Timey equivalent of “it’s the thought that counts” – a sentiment that quite surprised me but, in retrospect, makes a lot of sense in the post-exilic context, when the Chronicler must be absolutely frantic about just getting the Israelites back “to the old ways,” even if they aren’t quite perfect about it.
Also worthy of note is, as Victor Matthews points out in Manners Customs of the Bible, the way in which the king’s involvement in cultic practices has been diminishing as we make our way down the line:
While David was credited with establishing the temple priesthood (1 Chr 15:1-24), and Solomon was recognized as significantly reorganizing it (1 Kgs 2:35), the Levitical priesthood eventually disputed the idea of the king as both political and religious leader. Over time, the Levites gained more complete control of the sacrificial rituals; and the king, while still an advocate for the people with God, took a secondary role. For example, whereas Solomon functions in a priestly role by offering sacrifices, prayers, and blessings at the dedication of the temple (1 Kgs 8), generations later, Hezekiah offers only a brief prayer on behalf of the people, as the priests and Levites offer sacrifices during the reinstatement of the Passover (2 Chr 30:13-27). (p.130)
Still, Hezekiah’s prayer is seen as pivotal, and it is when God hears it that he heals the people (though, of course, it’s unclear what is actually meant by that – were there miraculous physical healings, or were the people spiritually healed?).
The feast of the unleavened bread lasted for seven days. At the end of this time, the people rushed out into all the cities of Judah and broke up the pillars, Asherim, high places, and altars they could find in the territories of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh, destroying them all before heading home.
The Passover over, Hezekiah turns his attention to appointing the divisions of the priests and Levites. The priests may have been taking control over the religious side of ancient Israelite life, but it’s clear that there was still a strong interplay between the secular and religious powers.
Hezekiah also provided the priests with regular offerings to make, and commanded the people living in Jerusalem to give the priests the portions they were due, “that they might give themselves to the law of the Lord” (2 Chron. 31:4) – which I interpreted to mean that the people of Jerusalem are to support the Temple so that the priests can focus their energies on God, rather than on subsistence.
It’s interesting that Hezekiah only tells the inhabitants of Jerusalem to give to the priests, whereas elsewhere the rules have been universal.
In any case, the people of Israel give abundantly anyway. So abundantly that special chambers had to be prepared in the Temple to store it all, and the person in charge of these donations was Conaniah the Levite (with his brother, Shimei, as his second-in-command). Conaniah was also assisted by Jehiel, Azaziah, Nahath, Asahel, Jerimoth, Jozabad, Eliel, Ismachiah, Mahath, and Benaiah, who had all been appointed by Hezekiah and the Temple’s chief officer, Azariah.
Kore son of Imnah, a Levite, was keeper of the east gate and was in charge of freewill offerings, as well as apportioning the contribution reserved for God. He was assisted by Eden, Miniamin, Jeshua, Shemaiah, Amariah, and Shecaniah, who distributed the donations out to the priests in their cities, according to their divisions.