2 Chronicles 14-16: The Rise and Fall of King Asa

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Asa gets only a fairly small section in Kings (1 Kgs 15:9-24) in which he does some religious purification, deposes the queen mother, but falls short of clearing out the high places. Despite this one little flaw, he was a true faithful throughout his whole life and brought many treasures to the Temple, then took a fair number right back out again to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into turning against his alliance with Israel. In his old age, however, he was plagued by a disease of the feet.

2 Chronicles 14-16 follows much the same plotline, but much bloated, and includes some interesting differences.

Enter Ethiopia

When Asa took the throne, we learn that he saw peace for ten years, during which he was well regarded by God, largely because of his religious intolerance. He destroyed the foreign altars and high places, broke down the pillars and Asherim, and commanded Judah to seek God and keep the commandments. He also, as it happens, built up Judah’s fortifications, raised an army of 300,000 spearmen from Judah and 280.000 archers from Benjamin, and the land prospered under his rule.

Unique to the Chronicler, we find another battle story bordering on moral tale, like the battle against Israel in 2 Chron. 13. This time, Judah fights Zerah, an Ethiopian. According to my study Bible, no such king is known outside of this passage. However, it seems that there is some evidence (including the mention of camels we will come to shortly) that suggest that Zerah may have been an Arabian king, rather than an Ethiopian one.

Zerah attacks Judah with an army of a million men and 300 chariots, making it as far as Mareshah. He is met there, at the valley of Zephathah, by Asa’s army. Asa cried out to God for help, goading him, making the conflict out to be one of the powers of man against the powers of God (2 Chron. 14:11). Yet this doesn’t seem to bother God, who hands Asa victory.

The Judahites pursue the Ethiopians as far as Gerar, in Philistine story, until there are no Ethiopians left. With the conflict over, the Judahites take to looting – plundering the cities around Gerar before destroying them, and even destroying the tents of the nomadic herders in the area, carrying away sheep, camels, and much booty. The Chronicler tells us that they did this “for the fear of the Lord was upon them” (2 Chron. 14:14), though it seems rather opportunistic. Some commentators try to excuse Asa’s actions by claiming that the Philistines had been working with the Ethiopians, though there doesn’t seem to be anything in the text to suggest this.

Further Cleansing

Asa’s religious persecutions weren’t quite done (or, perhaps, are re-narrated).

Asa encountered a prophet by the name of Azariah, son of Obed, who told him that he would be blessed so long as he doesn’t forsake God. He claims that Israel has been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without law for a long time, but that God was found when he was sought. There had been no peace, city fought against city, nation against, nation, etc. Asa’s hands must be strong, says Azariah, for his work will be rewarded (2 Chron. 15:7).

The major trouble with this passage is that no one seems to know what it’s supposed to refer to. The obvious answer is that it refers to the reigns of Rehoboam and Abijah, with the conflict Azariah mentions being the civil war between Judah and Israel. However, the Chronicler’s account is rather kind toward Abijah, so it seems unlikely that he would add a prophecy that seems to contradict his own account.

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

The dominant view seems to be that it’s a reference to the more chaotic time of Judges. But that was around 100 years prior to this prophecy (assuming that the Chronicler discounts Saul, as I’m sure he’d be wont to do), so it’s hard to see the relevance here. Azariah’s speech makes it seem as though Asa is to be a turning point, so it’s hard to see why he would be talking about pre-monarchic times.

In any case, the speech seems to have the desired effect, and Asa persecutes “undesirable” religious expression with renewed vigor. He destroys all the idols in Judah and Benjamin, plus those in the communities of Ephraim that he’d managed to conquer. He was also motivated to repair the altar that was in front of the vestibule of the Temple.

Finally, he deposed the queen mother, Maacah (called his mother here, in 2 Chron. 15:16, but his grandmother, or bears the same name, according to 2 Chron. 11:20 and 1 Kgs 15:2), cutting down and burning her Asherah at the brook of Kidron. This was, by the way, Josiah’s preferred idol disposal location, too, in 2 Kgs 23:4-14. Maacah’s deposition matches 1 Kgs 15:13.

During or after all of this, Asa gathered all his people together in the 3rd month of the 15th year of his reign. They made sacrifices of the spoils they had brought (by context, this would presumably be from the conflict with Zerah, which would have occurred 5 years prior, according to 2 Chron. 14:1). They confirmed the covenant, and decided that anyone who doesn’t seek God should be put to death, no matter who they may be.

Contrary to 2 Chron. 14:2-5, Asa was not able to rid Israel (presumably using the name to refer to Judah, the true Israel, as elsewhere) of all its high places. This is in keeping with 1 Kgs 15:14, where this was seen as great Asa’s only flaw. One possible explanation rests with the word “foreign” in 2 Chron. 14:3. The idea being that Asa was able to rid Judah of the shrines to foreign gods, but not the many local shrines of YHWH. In other words, we may have evidence of the faith’s evolution, and of the Chronicler’s anachronistic judgement.

Despite this one little failing, we are told that Asa was utterly blameless throughout his reign, though this will, as we shall soon see, prove false. He brought many votive gifts to the Temple, and for the 35 years under Asa, there was no more war (excluding the Ethiopians, I’m sure).

The Troublesome Baasha

Despite the claims of 2 Chron. 15:17, things soon change for Asa.

In Asa’s 36th year, King Baasha of Israel launched an attack on Judah. This presents us with a problem, since 1 Kgs 15:33 has Baasha’s reign ending in Asa’s 27th year, and 1 Kgs 16:8 has it ending in Asa’s 26th. This isn’t a contradiction, since it’s easy enough to be off by one when counting years, but it puts Asa’s 36th year right out of the running. James Bradford Pate proposes a few possible fudgings, but I think the most likely explanation is that there’s simply been an error somewhere. 1 Kgs 15 avoids the issue by omitting a date reference.

Baasha built Ramah to box Judah in, laying siege to the whole nation. Asa took silver and gold from the Temple and palace treasuries (despite being noted for putting money in to the Temple treasuries) to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into breaking his alliance with Baasha.

Benhadad is convinced, and he sends his armies against Israel instead of supporting Israel against Judah, conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelmaim, and all the store-cities of Naphtali. Baasha retreats, abandoning Ramah and leaving it open to scavenging from Asa, who took its stones and timber in his own building projects, this time in Geba and Mizpah.

The Chronicler adds a story about Hanani the seer, who approached Asa to condemn him for turning to Syria instead of God. Had God not helped Asa in the battle against the Ethioians (and, apparently, Lybians)? Because of Asa’s poor choice of allies, Judah will henceforth suffer wars.

Asa, blaming the messenger, threw Hanani in prison. According to the text, this was not the only cruelty he inflicted on his people. Such a rapid turnabout seems unlikely. It seems, rather, that the Chronicler didn’t care much about Asa’s cruelties so long as he trusted in God to manage his military affairs.

Conclusion

For the rest of Asa’s story, we are directed to the non-extant Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.

In the 39th year of his reign, Asa suffered from a disease in his feet. This corresponds to 1 Kgs 15:23, though in the Chronicler’s version, Asa sinned in this, too, by seeking out physicians rather than turning to God. I’m sure this passage gets its use in arguments in favour of faith healing which, I think, I needn’t say is rather troubling, even if consulting a physician at the time might well have been the worse idea (what with the state of ancient medicine).

Finally, Asa died in his 41st year, and was buried in a tomb he had hewn out for himself in the city of David. He was laid out on a bier that had been spiced and performed, and they lit a great fire in his honour. I found the amount of detail on the funerary arrangements rather interesting, given that they are so infrequent.

I see no explanation for the Chronicler’s contradiction of the 1 Kgs 15 account of Asa’s life (as well as 2 Chron. 15:17). I don’t understand why the Chronicler chose to save Abijah/Abijam’s reputation in 2 Chron. 13, and to tarnish Asa’s reputation here.

Genesis 26: The Apple Falls Close to the Tree

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In this chapter, Isaac basically just wanders around copying a bunch of stuff his dad did.

He starts off by going into Gerar (because of a famine – which we’re told is a different famine from the one that sent Abraham into Egypt), the land of Abimelech. He does this because God tells him not to go into Egypt (see? Different!).

God then goes into yet another speech about how blessed Abraham’s family is, and how they will have so many lands, multitudes of descendants, and the blessing of nations. Yadda yadda. God, apparently, can’t get enough of telling people this (even though he never did end up giving them that land).

Back to the story, Isaac gets to Gerar and starts telling people that Rebekah is his sister. This is, of course, the same lie Abraham told to both the Pharaoh of Egypt and, more coincidentally, to Abimelech of Gerar. This family apparently has a thing for lying to people and pretending to be siblings with their spouses. It’s kinda weird.

But Abimelech (my favourite biblical character so far) doesn’t fall for it a second time. This time, he catches Isaac fondling Rebekah and puts two and two together.

He says to Isaac: “Behold, she is your wife; how then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” (Gen. 26:9). When Isaac gives the standard excuse of being afraid because she’s so beautiful and the Philistines are such beasts that he couldn’t trust them not to kill him for her, Abimelech continues: “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us” (Gen. 26:10).

This is why Abimelech is my favourite character – he tells it like it is. It’s too bad he’s suffering from amnesia. Then again, he’s probably rather old at this point.

In any case, he tells his people that anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah will be put to death. Once again, he proves that he’s an upstanding guy and that Abraham and Isaac’s fears were completely misplaced and irrational.

Isaac gets rich

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Continuing on with the accounting sub-theme of this book, we’re told that Isaac sowed the land and became very rich (even though he was the sole inheritor of his father, who was also very rich). Like his daddy, he has tons of possessions. In fact, he has so many possessions that the Philistines envy him and, I guess because of their envy, filled up all the wells Abraham had dug.

Abimelech tells Isaac to leave, “for you are much mightier than we” (Gen. 26:16).

I think it’s important to keep in mind, at this point, that Isaac is the stand-in for the Israelites and that this is a book written by Israelites. It makes me think of that weird kid in every High School who keeps writing in his journal that the reason no one likes him is that he’s just so awesome and cool that they’re all jealous.

So yeah, after both Abraham and Isaac lie to Abimelech, the former causing Abimelech’s household to be cursed and the latter nearly so, I’m totally sure that the reason Abimelech tells Isaac to scram is because he’s just so mighty.

Isaac starts re-digging all the wells his dad dug, but the locals keep telling him that they own that water and send him packing. He finally finds an uncontested well, but moves on anyway. At some point, God comes to him and reminds him, again, that he’s blessed and will have many descendants, so Isaac builds an altar.

Another covenant with Abimelech

Mirroring Chapter 21, Isaac gets a visit from Abimelech and his commander, Phicol. This time, he’s also brought Ahuzzath, his adviser. They ask Isaac to form a covenant not to harm them (and, just like when he formed a covenant with Abraham, he reminds Isaac that he hasn’t harmed him).

They swear the oath to each other and, that same day, Isaac finishes digging a well. Since the well was finished on the same day as the pact was made, he calls it Beersheba (even though it was already named Beersheba under the same circumstances by Abraham).

Esau’s genealogy

At 40 years old, Esau marries Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite. He also marries Bashemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite.

Bit of a weird ending to this chapter. We’re told that this (Esau’s marriages) make life “bitter” for Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 26:35). We aren’t told why, but I hope we find out!

Genesis 20: Abraham Lies Again

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Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham by Caspar Luiken 1712

Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham by Caspar Luiken 1712

Some people just never learn their lesson. After getting into some trouble by prostituting his wife to the Pharaoh of Egypt while pretending that she was his sister, Abraham then does it again to Abimelech, king of Gerar.

Once again, God is on the right side of the moral question. He comes to Abimelech in a dream and says: “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man’s wife” (Gen. 20:3). Like Pharaoh, Abimelech is rather taken aback since he was deliberately lied to. But unlike Pharaoh, he has the gumption to say something about it.

“Lord, wilt thou slay an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this” (Gen. 20:4-5). Right on, Abimelech. Right on.

God backtracks like mad and totally tries to play it cool. “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen. 20:6). So God, by his own admission, knew that Abimelech is a victim and that Abraham is a liar who is once again selling his wife into prostitution, and yet he threatens to kill Abimelech and “all that are yours” (Gen. 20:7)… Abraham, as usual, doesn’t get so much as a “hey, maybe you, like, shouldn’t do that any more, eh?”

Well, Abimelech wakes up and tells his servants about his dream. He then calls to Abraham and says: “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (Gen. 20:9). I’m really liking this guy. He’s a true voice of moral reason in a book that is thus far sorely lacking in that department.

So Abraham responds: “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (Gen. 20:11). I see no evidence of this. All I see is a perfectly nice guy nearly getting killed because a douche lied to him and tricked him into offending the big sky-bully.

As Richard Dawkins puts it, Abimelech “expressed his indignation, in almost identical terms to Pharaoh’s, and one can’t help sympathizing with both of them” (The God Delusion, p. 242).

Oh, but Abraham totally wasn’t really lying, though, ’cause Sarah “is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (Gen. 20:12). So the lesson I draw from this episode is that it’s a-OK to lie about your marital status so long as you’re also committing incest. Why was I never taught this in Sunday School?

As punishment for lying to him, Abimelech decides to be really wrathful and give Abraham a bunch of sheep, oxen, slaves, and a thousand pieces of silver and invites Abraham to hang out in his country. Yup, Abraham is rewarded once again for prostituting his wife and lying to people. Abimelech’s gifts, by the way, are to buy back Sarah’s honour (Gen. 20:16), which she lost by marrying her douche brother.

Abraham prays to God, so God heals Abimelech and ‘re-opens’ the wombs of the women in his household (which he had ‘closed’ as punishment for having the audacity of being lied to).

And so we come to the close of Chapter 20. See you on Friday!

Genesis 10: Genealogy – The Sons of Noah

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This is another one of those boring genealogy chapters. In this one, we’re told that the three sons of Noah went off into their own territories, coming up with their own languages. I found it interesting as I was reading that this seemed such a “Just So…” story, explaining the origins of all people. But the problem with that is that “all people” seems to refer exclusively to the regions of the Middle East. Which of the brothers is the ancestor of the Mayans?

The Sons of Japheth

  • Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.
  • Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah.
  • Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.

The sons of Japheth became “the coastland peoples” (Gen. 10:5), which my study bible says would make their political centre in Asia Minor, “the former territory of the Hittites.”

The Sons of Ham

  • Ham: Cush, Egypt*, Phut, and Canaan.
  • Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabtechah.*
  • Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.
  • Egypt: Ludim, An’amim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim, and Caphtorim.
  • Canaan: Sidon and Heth. He is the ancestor of the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. “the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaze, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboi’im, as far as Lasha” (Gen. 10:29).

*In some translations, Egypt is named Mizraim (which is the Hebrew word for Egypt).

*Cush is also the father of Nimrod, even though he isn’t in the original list of sons. Nimrod “was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen. 10:8-9). By the way, my study bible has this to say about Nimrod: “An old fragment of tradition relates how Nimrod, a successful warrior, built a kingdom in Shinar (Babylonia) and Assyria.”

Ham starts off in Babel, Erech, and Accad – “all of them in the land of Shinar” (Gen. 10:10).  After that, he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth, Calah, and Resen. The Philistines come from his grandson, Casluhim.

The Sons of Shem

Of Shem, we’re told that he is “the father of all the children of Eber” (Gen. 10:21), which my study bible notes makes him the progenitor of the Hebrews.

  • Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram.
  • Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash.
  • Arphaxad: Shelah.
  • Shelah: Eber.
  • Eber: Peleg and Joktan.
  • Joktan: Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

The descendants of Shem lived in a territory that “extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east” (Gen. 10:30).

Phew! We made it to the end of Chapter 10!