2 Chronicles 32: Hezekiah’s Better Side

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Hezekiah’s Passover, which gets no mention in Kings, took up three chapters. That leaves us with only a single chapter to cover all of the content from 2 Kgs 18-20. It goes without saying that the story ends up a wee bit abbreviated. And since the Chronicler seems to have decided that the Hezekiah is a stand up kinda guy, that abbreviation frequently ends up making him look better.

We begin with the Assyrian assault on Judah, though it’s introduced rather awkwardly: “After these things and these acts of faithfulness [referring to the Passover and religious revival] Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah” (2 Chron. 32:1). With all the ado made in our readings so far about faithfulness keeping enemies at bay, I found this first – as it is constructed – rather striking.

Of course, the Chronicler does try to soften the blow when he has Sennacherib only lay siege on Judah’s cities in the hope of taking them, whereas he succeeds in taking them in 2 Kgs 18:13.

Hezekiah meets with his officers to form their strategy, and they decide to focus on defence. So they stop up the water coming to Jerusalem from springs outside the city, making an extended siege more difficult for the Assyrians. Though not mentioned until 2 Chron. 32:30, tradition and 2 Kgs 20:20 credit Hezekiah with the construction of the Siloam tunnel, which would have been a far more defensible means of getting water into the city.

He also built up the city’s defensive structures, as well as a stockpile of weapons and shields. And while he really should have done so earlier, he at least took the time now to appoint commanders for his armies.

In discussing these preparations, James Bradford Pate noted that the Chronicler seems to generally approve of building up Judah’s strength for defence or conquest, but only so long as it doesn’t involve other nations. Hiring mercenaries or forming alliances always seems to earn a punishment, ostensibly because it displays a lack of trust in God to provide protection and victory. Yet, Pate points out, aren’t Hezekiah’s preparations essentially the same thing?

For Pate, a difference is that involving other nations might lead to compromise. I would add that alliances, such as the one Kings describes between Hezekiah and Egypt, probably weren’t founded on friendship between two equal parties. In a case like that, it’s doubtful that Egypt would have needed Judah’s aid so much as Judah needed Egypt’s. That kind of arrangement, though called an alliance, might well have been something more like a vassal agreement, and therefore a show of weakness as far as the Chronicler was concerned.

Building up Judah’s own strength is the opposite of that – it is increasing strength. If the Chronicler were to wear a trucker hat, it would likely read, “Make Judah great again!”

All of these preparations are in marked contrast to 2 Kgs 18, where Hezekiah’s response to Sennacherib’s advances is to capitulate immediately. He asks Sennacherib for a price, then pays it by stripping the Temple. (Though, ultimately, the gesture appears to have been futile, as both Hezekiah’s still end up with the Assyrians at Jerusalem’s walls.)

Back to Chronicles, Hezekiah gathers all of his commanders together in the square by the city gate. Though gathering the nation’s entire leadership structure together in a confined space may not seem like a particularly inspired plan, it does allow Hezekiah to give them all a nice little pep talk about how the Assyrians are nothing to be concerned about, “for there is one greater with us than with [Sennacherib]” (2 Chron. 32:7).

The Siege

During all this, Sennacherib was busy besieging Lachish with his entire force. Unable to make it to Jerusalem himself, he sent some servants to tell the people of the city that Hezekiah was misleading them, condemning them to die by famine and thirst.

The Death of Sennacherib, by an unknown Italian master, c.1300

The Death of Sennacherib, by an unknown Italian master, c.1300

Shouting in the language of Judah so that the people inside the city could hear and understand, the Assyrians ask how Hezekiah can claim that God will stand by them when he has been dismantling so many of God’s altars. We may take this either as further evidence of the YHWH cult’s evolution, or as evidence of Sennacherib’s own ignorance of the Jerusalem religion.

The messengers go on to boast of Sennacherib’s many conquests, and of the many gods who have so been unable to protect their peoples against him: “No god of any nation or kingdom has been able to deliver his people from my hand or from the hand of my fathers” (2 Chron. 32:15).

This all plays out somewhat differently in 2 Kgs 18, where representatives of Hezekiah go out to meet Sennacherib’s messengers and implore them to speak Aramaic so that the denizens of Jerusalem won’t understand their taunts (they, of course, refuse). In that account, the Assyrians make similar accusations about Hezekiah destroying God’s shrines, but also add that Egypt won’t be able to save Jerusalem either. The Chronicler makes no mention of Hezekia’s alliance with Egypt.

2 Chron. 32:20 has Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz praying and crying out to heaven, but leaves out all the detail (including Isaiah’s prophecy) from 2 Kgs 19:14-34.

In both accounts, God sends an angel to slaughter Sennacherib’s army, though 2 Kgs 19:35 has the angel kill 185,000 soldiers, apparently indiscriminatingly, while 2 Chron. 32:21 mentions no number and targets the commanders and “mighty warriors.” In both cases, the result is the same: the Assyrian army is forced to retreat in shame.

When Sennacherib, back in his own homeland, enters the temple of his god, he is murdered by his own sons. The Chronicler’s language (or, perhaps, his translators’) suggests that this occurred as soon as he returned from the failed conquest of Judah, and perhaps because of it (to ask for forgiveness, or perhaps to express anger at having been let down). 2 Kgs 19:36-37, however, do not seem to connect the circumstances of Sennacherib’s death to Judah.

If there really were bodies left on the field after the Assyrian retreat, I would imagine that these accounts exaggerate the damage that the defending army had been able to do to the invading army, and that Sennacherib’s sudden retreat likely had more to do with pressing matters at home (as his eventual fate suggests).

However victory was achieved, the Chronicler tells us that Hezekiah was exalted in the sight of all nations for it, and received many gifts and tributes.

In Closing

The story of Hezekiah’s illness and Isaiah’s use of a festively appropriate figgy pudding in 2 Kgs 20:1-11 is almost entirely glanced over. All we get is a little mention of Hezekiah being ill, God answering his prayers, and Hezekiah not appreciating it because he was too proud (2 Chron. 32:25).

This caused wrath to come down on both him and Judah, but Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem humbled themselves, and God stayed his hand. Hezekiah was therefore able to continue accumulating his wealth.

The Chronicler briefly mentions envoys from Babylon who come to Hezekiah, but tells us only that God kept mum to see what Hezekiah would do. This would be a very strange detail without the context from 2 Kgs 20:12-19, where Hezekiah shows off his wealth to the Babylonians. He is then rebuked by Isaiah, who tells him that all the nice stuff he’s shown them will one day be taken – along with the people of Judah – off to Babylon. Hezekiah treats this as good news because it means that it won’t happen during his own lifetime.

And thus our section on Hezekiah comes to a close. For more information, the Chronicler sends us to the writings of Isaiah the Prophet in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.

The council of funerary technicians apparently approved of Hezekiah, for he was buried among his fathers, and all of Judah and Jerusalem did him honours. He was succeeded by his son, Manasseh.

2 Kings 20: Hezekiah’s Figgy Pudding

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In this chapter, we get two stories involving King Hezekiah (of Judah) being ill. My study Bible argues that the stories are presented in the wrong chronological space, as they should be taking place prior to Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem in 701BCE. As I’ll note when we come to them, there are some minor hints in the narratives that suggest this to be the case.

The chapter opens as Hezekiah is ill and near death. His illness is unspecified here, but we find out later that it involves a boil, so enjoy that lovely image.

Isaiah came to Hezekiah’s bedside to tell him that his illness is a terminal one, so he should get his affairs in order. At this, Hezekiah turns to face the wall and prays to God, reminding God of all the lovely Asherah he cut down and how he’s always played for Team God.

Isaiah was just leaving when God turned him back to tell Hezekiah that his prayer has been heard and that he will be healed. Much is made of the prediction that, in three days, Hezekiah would go to the temple. This presumably means that he will be well enough to do so (indicating his recovery) and/or that he will be making a sacrifice in gratitude for a successful healing. After this, he will be allowed to live in additional fifteen years, and God will deliver both Hezekiah and Jerusalem from Assyrian hands.

This is our first set of clues that Hezekiah’s illness is meant to take place prior to the events of the last two chapters. If Hezekiah died in 687 BCE, then 15 years prior to that would put the year around 702 BCE. Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem is believed to have taken place in 701 BCE. Also, the idea that Hezekiah and Jerusalem should require deliverance from Assyria suggests either that the attack is impeding, or that they are currently in the middle of it (since Jerusalem had already been delivered from Assyrian hands in the last chapter).

To help Hezekiah recover, Isaiah has a fig cake brought to him, which he then lays over Hezekiah’s boil (and which, hopefully, no one will mistake for leftovers later on). This sounded rather folksy to be, and my study Bible confirms that the use of a fig cake “as a poultice was widespread in Bible times.” It seems that Isaiah was here doing what would have been done anyway, and perhaps we’re to understand that it only worked in this case – the condition being so serious – because of divine intercession.

But Hezekiah isn’t content with any of this, so he demands that Isaiah give him a sign that the prophecy is a true one. Isaiah, ever obliging, gives him a choice: Would he like to see shadows moving backward or forward?

Hezekiah has seen plenty of shadows lengthen, so he would like to see them shorten. It’s an odd statement, perhaps indicative of Hezekiah’s sleep habits. Because, of course, shadows do shorten in the mornings, then length again as the sun moves (from our perspective) away from its apex. So has Hezekiah just never woken up before noon?

Or perhaps a clause indicating the current time of day in which this story takes place is needed. What Hezekiah really means is, then, that he does not see shadows shortening at this time of day.

In any case, Isaiah acquiesces, and they see the shadow moving back on the “dial of Ahaz” (2 Kings 20:11). Commenters seem to assume that this is a miracle similar to the one in Joshua 10:13, in which God temporarily alters the movement of the sun. However, I didn’t find this clearly stated. It’s perfectly plausible that God simply made the shadow move independently of the sun’s position in the sky, which is just as nifty a miracle.

The Babylonian Envoys

While Hezekiah is ill, we’re told that King Merodach-baladan of Babylon sent him some get well cards and a gift. Hezekiah seems to be better by the time they reach him, however, as he seems to have no trouble giving them a tour around his palace and the temple, showing off all the nice stuff he has.

2 Kings 20When Isaiah asks him what that was all about, Hezekiah explains that he was just showing off Judah’s wealth to the Babylonian envoys. Isaiah is not impressed, and warns him that all that nice stuff the envoys have just seen will be carried off to Babylon in later days, and none of it will be left in Judah.

Hezekiah isn’t particularly bothered, so long as he gets peace in his own lifetime. This, I remind you, is the guy our authors describe as doing “what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3).

According to Wikipedia, Merodach-baladan (or Madruk-apla-iddina II) “was a Chaldean prince who usurped the Babylonian throne in 721 BC and reigned in 722 BC–710 BC, and 703 BC–702 BC.” It seems that he ruled over a very unstable time, and had Assyrians to contend with himself. Josephus’s explanation that his gift would have been an attempt to secure allies seems plausible (Antiquities 2.2).

My New Bible Commentary goes a step further and wonders if it was Merodach-baladan’s resistance against the Assyrians that prompted Hezekiah to goad them, leading to the events of 2 Kings 18-19 (p.364).

Of the rest of his reign, we hear only that Hezekiah built a pool with a conduit to bring water into Jerusalem. My study Bible wonders if this might have been to provide an alternative source of water in preparation for an Assyrian attack. The conduit is believed to (possibly) be referring to Hezekiah’s Tunnel (or the Siloam Tunnel).

When Hezekiah died, he was succeeded by his son, Manasseh.

2 Kings 18-19: God Versus Assyria

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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.