2 Chronicles 2-4: Arts & Crafts

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In these chapters, after so much build up, we finally get to see the building of the Temple. Maybe it would have made a better climax for an audience that fluently knew terms like “cubit” and “talent,” but as a modern reader, it’s a slog. Generally speaking, if your climax is a slog, you’re doing something wrong.

Oh, I’m sure that the Chronicler achieved his goals of making the Temple’s wealth seem rather impressive and presenting a sort of blueprint for the construction of Temple 2.0, but the narrative impact is sorely lacking.

With The Aid of Tyre

As in 1 Kings 5, Solomon enlists the help of Tyre. The basic story in both chapters is that Solomon asks King Huram of Tyre (who appears as King Hiram in the Samuel-Kings accounts) to provide wood in exchange for food offerings and labourers to do the actual felling. King Hiram agrees, the two kings butter each other up a bit, and everyone is happy. Of course, the differences are in the details.

In 2 Chron. 2:1, we are told that “Solomon purposed to build a temple for the name of the Lord, and a royal palace for himself.” I found that the sentence felt rather out of place with what we’ve seen so far from the Chronicler. Up until this point, the build up has been very focused on the construction of the Temple; to mention a royal palace in the same breath almost suggests and equivalence that doesn’t fit.

The second issue is with the phrase “Solomon purposed,” as if there were no plans for a Temple up until Solomon decided that a Temple would be a lovely use for that empty mount. Until this verse, it has been David who purposed the building of a Temple, driving Solomon toward that goal. This shift to Solomon’s purposes feels rather too abrupt.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chronicler had copied this verse from another source. If he did, though, it doesn’t seem to have been 1 Kgs 5:1-6, where Solomon “purposed” to build a Temple (1 Kgs 5:5), but not a palace. He does, of course, also build himself a palace, which is described in 1 Kgs 7:1-12 (though, ironically, absent from the 2 Chron. account), but no mention of it is made during his interactions with Tyre.

It’s possible that the Chronicler had a reason to add the palace to Solomon’s To Do list at this point. After all, David already got wood for the Temple’s construction from Tyre in 1 Chron. 22:2-5. The easiest way for the Chronicler to fudge this is to add a reference to a personal palace, thus increasing the wood needed from the amount that David had anticipated.

It was a perfect plan, but if that’s the case, the Chronicler wasn’t quite as attentive to detail as he should have been. When Solomon initiates contact with King Huram, he cites David’s order of wood for the construction of his palace (2 Chron. 2:3, which is narrated in 2 Sam. 5:11), not for the Temple (which would put it in line with 1 Chron. 22:2-5). Someone fire that scribe!

We see a minor difference in the payment the two kings agree upon. Here, Solomon offers wheat, barley, wine, and oil, whereas 1 Kgs 5:11 mentions only the wheat and oil.

The interaction is peppered with performed humility and praises of God – interestingly, these latter come from Huram as well. This isn’t necessarily a problem since, as the New Bible Commentary says: “In a polytheistic society politeness to a neighbour’s god cost[sic] nothing” (p.384). The Chronicler adds a bit to this fawning, but the tone remains the same.

James Bradford Pate offers the possibility that some of the changes between our two accounts could be to implicitly put Solomon above Huram. One way of doing this is to give Huram more to say about God’s greatness. Another comes at the very beginning: In 1 Kgs 5:1, it is Hiram who initiates contact (a fairly standard check-in to make sure that an alliance remains despite a new brow under the crown), whereas it is Solomon to initiates the interaction in 2 Chron. 2 – almost implying that he commanded Huram’s service as one might a vassal.

A final difference between our two accounts is that, in his reply, Huram specifies that he will send the resources by raft to Joppa, from where Solomon can bring them to Jerusalem. The reference to Joppa is left out of the 1 Kgs 5 version.

Skilled and Unskilled Labour

In the 2 Chron. 2 account, Solomon asks King Huram to send him a skilled craftsman, someone who can work with gold, silver, bronze, and iron, as well as fabrics (specifically purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, though I’m not sure why the colour matters). As I’ve done a fair bit of work in IT, this sort of job ad looks pretty familiar in its impossibility. Could a single person really be a master in all of these crafts? For only $25,000 a year with benefits?

Building of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Jean Fouquet, c.1470

Building of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Jean Fouquet, c.1470

Despite the absurdity of the requirements, King Huram knows just the man: Huram-abi. Not only that, but he’s part Israelite, too, as his mother is from the tribe of Dan (though she is from Naphtali in 1 Kgs 7:13-14). Another difference between the two accounts is that, in 2 Chron. 2, Solomon asks King Huram to send someone, whereas in 1 Kgs 7:13-14, Solomon is said to have invited Hiram (as he is there called) directly (which is not necessarily a contraction, as the invitation could mean a request for an unspecified individual who happened to be Hiram).

The bigger difference, though, is in the requirements themselves. In 1 Kgs 7:13-14, Hiram is only a master of bronze, not of all that other stuff. This meshes with the Chronicler’s own account later on, in the list of all the things Huram-abi built for the Temple found in 2 Chron. 4:11-18: They are all bronze!

So why did Solomon request all those other skills, and why was Huram’s parentage switched over to Dan? Probably because it connects him to Bezalel and Oholiab, the craftsmen Moses puts in charge of building the tabernacle. Bezalel’s skills in metalworking (omitting iron) are listed in the same order as Huram-abi’s in Ex. 31:3-5 and Ex. 35:31-33. As for Huram-abi’s competency with fabrics, these mirror Bezalel and Oholiab’s from Ex. 35:35, write down to the colours (and so we know why Huram-abi’s competency in working with certain colours was brought up!). Finally, Oholiab is from the tribe of Dan (Ex. 31:6, Ex. 35:34), so switching Huram-abi’s parentage makes more sense.

I’ve noted before that the Chronicler seems to be trying quite hard to tie the constructions of the Temple to Moses’s constructions in Exodus, and this seems to be yet more evidence of that. As Brant Clements points out, it could be that this mirroring is intended to legitimate the Temple as a central place of worship, an acceptable replacement for the tabernacle.

As for Solomon outsourcing the skilled work, my New Bible Commentary puts it rather bluntly: “Archaeology has fully borne out Israel’s backwardness in the arts at this time” (p.384). Ouch.

As important as skilled labour might be, so is the unskilled. For this, Solomon turns again to foreigners. Specifically, he finds himself 153,600 “aliens” hanging about Israel, and assigns 70,000 to bear burdens, 80,000 to quarry in the hills, and 3,600 to oversee the rest. The figure appears in the same in 2 Chron. 2:2 and 2 Chron. 2:17-18, though there are only 3,300 overseers in 1 Kgs 5:15-16. A more important is that neither 2 Chron. 2:2 nor 1 Kgs 5:13-18 mentions that these workers were sojourners or foreigners (in fact, 1 Kgs 5:13 describes them as “a levy of forced labor out of all Israel”, strongly implying that they were native Israelites). It’s only in 2 Chron. 2:17-18 that they are cast as outsiders.

James Bradford Pate notes also that the Chronicler omits the details from 1 Kgs 5:13-18, and specifically its mention of Solomon employing Israelite workers. Pate lists a few possibilities for this, including:

  • The author of Kings seems to be critical of Solomon for enslaving the Israelites, and the Chronicler generally tends to avoid unfavourable details;
  • The Chronicler may be trying to emphasize the idea that Israel is dominant over foreign peoples (with the added irony that these foreigners, who had fought against God’s people, are now being forced to build his Temple).

Construction Begins

2 Chron. 3 opens with construction beginning on Mount Moriah, where God had appeared to David at Ornan’s threshing floor. This appearance belongs to the Chronicler, narrated in 1 Chron. 21:16, but missing from 2 Sam. 24:16.

The mention here that the threshing floor was located on Mount Moriah is utterly new. Nowhere else is the Temple mound given such a name. In fact, the only other place in which the name “Moriah” appears is in Gen. 22:2, where it is the area in which the mountain where Abraham tries to sacrifice Isaac is located (not even the name of the mountain itself).

I posted a little while ago about a theory that Hebron had once been the most important Hebrew holy site, but the area was difficult to defend. So as the government changed and the need arose for an easily defensible location, propaganda began to elevate Jerusalem as the most important holy site. I mentioned the theory at the time because I like it, it has a ring of truthiness that I find appealing. But it seems odd that such a grand attempt to shift the cultural/cultic focus should only survive in this one small passage (and not even anywhere else in the Chronicler’s own account, despite being directly relevant in 1 Chron. 21).

As in 1 Kgs 6:1, though phrased quite differently, construction began in the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. Following the “narrative” of Kings, dimensions and materials are given in excruciating detail. For the sake of my sanity, I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that the description keeps pretty well to 1 Kgs 6 and the description of the pillars found in 1 Kgs 7:15-17. The differences I was able to dredge up are:

  • The vestibule’s height is given as 120 cubits in 2 Chron. 3:4, yet the total height of the Temple is only 30 cubits in 1 Kgs 6:2;
  • Without figures, 1 Kgs 6 does mention quite a bit of gold, but I’m given to understand that the 600 talents of gold mentioned in 2 Chron. 3:8 is unrealistically high. That said, 1 Chron. 22:14 has David setting aside 100,000 talents of gold and Israel’s elite contribute an additional 5,000 talents and 10,000 darics in 1 Chron. 29:7, so I’m not sure why the commentaries are so over-awed by the 600 talent figure;
  • 1 Kgs 6:31 describes the doors of the inner sanctuary, which are absent from Chronicles. Instead, 2 Chron. 3:14 has a veil in their place (which is absent from the Kings account). The most likely explanation is that we’re seeing an evolving tradition (it’s worth noting that it is the veil that wins out, as we see it being used in Matthew 27:51);
  • The bronze pillars, Jachin and Boaz, are 18 cubits high in 1 Kgs 7:15, but only 35 cubits tall in 2 Chron. 3:15.

The Equipment

The next chapter presents us with the Temple’s furnishings, and is every bit as boring as you might imagine. It mostly corresponds to 1 Kgs 7:23-51, though with a few minor differences, of course.

The most interesting difference is that the Chronicles account includes a bronze altar, which is not mentioned in 1 Kgs 7, nor even in the summary of stuff later on in 2 Chron. 4. We do see it mentioned as an existing Temple feature in 1 Kgs 8:64 and 2 Kgs 16:14, but with no mention of its provenance.

There is a bronze altar built in Exodus 27:1-5, though it seems strange to give Solomon credit for its construction (unless the Chronicler is trying to mirror Moses again by having Solomon also build a bronze altar? That seems a stretch, though).

Another possibility is that the Chronicler knew of a bronze altar, and accidentally gave the credit of its construction both to Solomon (here) and to David (1 Chron. 21:18, which was lifted from 2 Sam. 24:18-19).

We find a few minor discrepancies, as well. For example, 2 Chron. 4:5 has Solomon building 3,000 baths, whereas he builds only 2,000 in 1 Kgs 7:26.

As a point of interest, Steve Wells uses the measurements given for the molten sea to calculate that the Biblical value of pi is only 3.

1 Chronicles 26-27: More Officials

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I mentioned in my last post that, while 1 Chron. 26 deals with more Temple-related positions, I was going to lump it in with the civic positions of 1 Chron. 27 for the sake of I-wanted-to-go-to-bed.

It’s a good thing, too, because there are parts of 1 Chron. 26 that gave me some trouble. I suspect that there’s been some textual garbling, or perhaps I’m just overtired (I write – though it won’t be posted for a month – as my son begins kindergarten, and adjusting to the new routine is taking its toll on everyone!).

In any case, on with post!

The Gatekeepers

We begin with the gatekeepers, whose gates will not be built for quite a while. Even if we accept that David did all of the planning work for the Temple, assembled all the materials, and then assigned the gatekeepers just before his death, 1 Kgs 9:10 tells us that the Temple still won’t be built until 20 years into Solomon’s reign. Given that we’ve already been told that David hasn’t bothered to count anyone under the age 20, the very youngest of the men he selects will be around 40 years old by the time any gates are around for them to keep. There’s a pretty good chance that many of these men will die before they ever see the job they’ve been assigned.

The chiefs of the army, by James Tissot

The chiefs of the army, by James Tissot

The only way to get around this is if we assume that David lived on for nearly two decades after he ceded his crown to Solomon. In which case, these assignments may have been given on his deathbed, perhaps as the Temple neared completion. Or perhaps the Chronicler is merely attributing to David what his sources (or the sources of his sources) had attributed to Solomon because he had a personal/theological/political reason to connect David directly to the origins of these positions. I’ll let Occam decide.

The leadership of the gatekeepers is held by a handful of families:

From among the Korahites, we get Meshelemiah son of Kore, who is descended from Asaph. He is joined by his sons: Zechariah (who upgraded from guarding the tent of meeting in 1 Chron. 9:21), Jediael, Zebadiah, Jathniel, Elam, Jehohanan, and Eliehoenai. Altogether, there are 18 members of his group.

In Obededom’s family, we get his sons: Shemaiah, Jehozabad, Joah, Sachar, Nethanel, Ammiel, Issachar, and Peullethai. Shemaiah’s sons, who were men of “great ability” (1 Chron. 26:6) were: Othni, Rephael, Obed, Elzabad, Elihi, and Semachiah. Altogether, there were 62 men in this from descended from Obededom (though he is described as being in a group of 68 in 1 Chron. 16:37-38 – albeit as ministers of the ark).

From Merari, we  have Hosah and his sons: Shimri (who becomes the leader of his household by his father’s decree, even though he wasn’t the firstborn), Hilkiah, Tebaliah, and Zechariah. Altogether, the sons and brethren of Hosah produce 13 members for the group.

There are a few familiar names here, such as Asaph and Obededom – both of whom are musicians. It seems that maybe the duties of gatekeeper and of musician were related in some way.

And speaking of Obededom, that name is definitely familiar. If this is the same person, we saw David entrusting the ark into his care for three months (1 Chron. 13:13-14), he – along with Jeiel – is listed as both a gatekeeper and a singer in 1 Chron. 15:18-21, then again as a musician (1 Chron. 16:5), and as a both musician and gatekeeper (1 Chron. 16:37-38). Clearly, the man was involved.

As with the other Temple staff, the gatekeepers are divided into groups. This time, however, each group is responsible for a different gate, rather than a different time of year:

  • The east gate group is led by Shelemiah, with 6 people working each day;
  • The north gate group is led by Shelemiah’s son, Zechariah (described as a “shrewd counsellor” in 1 Chron. 26:14), with 4 people working each day;
  • The south gate group is led by Obededom, with 4 people working each day;
  • The storehouse group is led by the sons of Obededom (all of them? do they rotate?), with 2 and 2 (presumably there were two doors) people working each day;
  • The west gate group is led by Shuppim and Hosah, with 4 people at the road each day, and 2 at the “parbar” (the meaning of which is apparently unknown).

This all presents us with two problems. The first is the math. If we look at each place where it mentions the number of gatekeepers, none of our numbers add up:

  • 93 is the total of members mentioned in each group above (1 Chron. 26:1-11);
  • 24 is the total of the people said to work each day at each gate;
  • 212 is the number of gatekeepers in 1 Chron. 9:22;
  • 4,000 is the number of Levites that David assigns as gatekeepers in 1 Chron. 23:5.

The closest I can rationalize is that the 24 is the number working each day, but each group actually has a four day rotation. This gives us a total of 96 members, which would be our 93 figure plus Meshelemiah, Obededom, and Hosah. We can further assume that these are leaders, specifically, and that they have around 4,000 men at their command. That still leaves out the 212 figure, but I’m afraid I’m at a loss for that one.

The second problem we have is that the gates haven’t been built yet. So how do we know that one of the gates is named Shallecheth (1 Chron. 26:16)? How can David (via the Chronicler) describe one of the gates as the one with the road? Just how detailed are David’s plans?

If we assume that the Chronicler is assigning to David the job of assigning these roles for some personal/political/theological purpose, where do the names actually come from? Are these the first gatekeepers assigned once the Temple was built? It’s all very confusing.

The Treasurers

The second half of 1 Chron. 26 is given to the treasurers. This portion is a little garbled, but the best I can figure it is this: Ahijah, a Levite, oversaw all the treasuries. Under him, we have the Temple treasuries (in the charge of Jehieli, Zetham, and Joel) and the treasuries of dedicated gifts (in the charge of Shelomoth).

While Jehieli is here described as the father of Zetham and Joel (1 Chron. 26:22), the three of them are brothers (sons of Ladan the Gershonite) in 1 Chron. 23:8.

There’s also something in there about someone named Shebuel, another Gershonite, who was in charge of the Amramites, Izharites, Hebronites, and Uzzielites, who all looked over the treasuries.

Shelomoth, who is in charge of the treasuries of dedicated gifts, is the son of Zichri, son of Joram, son of Jeshaiah, son of Rehabiah, son of Eliezer. These dedicated gifts would be the things that David and the other prominent leaders of Israel had dedicated, plus any spoils of battle, plus the things that Samuel, Saul, Abner son of Ner, and Joab son of Zeruiah had dedicated. (Though Samuel, Saul, Abner, and likely Joab all died long before the Temple was built, it’s quite possible that they would have dedicated stuff to the ark/tabernacle, and that these were transferred over to the Temple holdings once there was a Temple to transfer to.)

Other Officials

Chenaniah and his sons (of the Izharites) are appointed throughout Israel as officers and judges.

There are also a number of men who are appointed for vaguer duties, simply for “all the work of the Lord and for the service of the king” (1 Chron. 26:30), whatever that means. In the CisJordan, this falls to 1700 Hebronites, led by Hashabiah. In the TransJordan, there are 2700 men under the direction of Jerijah (the chief of the Hebronites).

Commanders

This category is a little fuzzier. It seems that these men are in charge of the army (though I see some commenters claiming that they were in charge of David’s bodyguard only, which makes the number terribly absurd). They are divided into 12 divisions, each serving for one month out of the year. This is the same system we saw for the priests in 1 Chron. 24:7-19, albeit serving for twice the length of time. A rotation system like this would allow the individuals to fulfil their civic duties, while still leaving them the time to look after their personal households.

The divisions are led by:

  1. Jashobeam son of Zabdiel (he is descended from Perez) – There is a Jashobeam, albeit the son of Hachmoni, who served as the chief of David’s Three (1 Chron. 11:11);
  2. Dodai the Ahohite – There is no Dodai among David’s mighty men, but there is an Eleazar, who is the son of Dodo the Ahohite in 1 Chron. 11:12;
  3. Benaiah son of Jehoiada (the priest) – He was one of David’s Thirty, and in charge of David’s bodyguard (1 Chron. 11:22-25). While he features a fair bit in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, this is the first time it’s mentioned that his father was a priest. Referring to the story in 1 Kings 2 where Joab tries to hide from Solomon by clinging to the horns of the altar, James Bradford Pate wonders if “Solomon assign[ed] this task [to kill Joab] specifically to Benaiah because Benaiah was the son of priest and thus had a right to enter the sanctuary?”;
  4. Asahel, Joab’s brother, and his son Zebadiah after him – This fudges up our timeline a bit, since the text heavily implies that these divisions are set up in David’s old age, after he ceded his crown to Solomon (1 Chron. 23:1-2), but Asahel died in 2 Sam. 3, when David still ruled from Hebron (he wouldn’t become king of Israel until 2 Sam. 5). So when was Asahel able to run the fourth month?’
  5. Shamhuth the Izrahite (there is no match for Shamhuth, unless he is Shammoth of Harod, described as one of the “warriors of the armies” in 1 Chron. 11:26-47);
  6. Ira son of Ikkesh the Tekoite (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  7. Helez the Pelonite, of the sons of Ephraim (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  8. Sibbecai the Hushathite, of the Zerahites (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  9. Abiezer of Anathoth, a Benjaminite (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  10. Maharai of Netophah, of the Zerahites (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  11. Benaiah of Pirathon, of the sons of Ephraim (another of the “warriors of the armies”);
  12. Heldai the Netophathite, of Othniel (the closest match is Heled son of Baanah of Netophah, who is one of the “warriors of the armies”).

The Tribal Chiefs

We turn now to what appears to be the results of David’s ill-fated census from 1 Chron. 21, the leaders of each tribe:

  1. Reuben: Eliezer son of Zichri;
  2. Simeon: Shephatiah son of Maacah;
  3. Levi: Hashabiah son of Kemuel;
  4. Aaron: Zadok;
  5. Judah: Elihu, described as one of David’s brothers (possibly Eliab from 1 Sam. 16:6 and 1 Chron. 2:13);
  6. Issachar: Omri son of Michael;
  7. Zebulun: Ishmaiah son of Obadiah;
  8. Nephtali: Jeremoth son of Azriel;
  9. Ephraim: Hoshea son of Azaziah;
  10. CisJordan half of Manasseh: Joel son of Pedaiah;
  11. TransJordan half of Manasseh: Iddo son of Zechariah;
  12. Benjamin: Jaasiel son of Abner;
  13. Dan: Azarel son of Jeroham.

There are a few interesting things going on here. The first, of course, is that both Gad and Asher are omitted. The second is that Aaron is listed as a separate tribe. I won’t even try to unpack that, but Paul Davidson does discuss the evolution of the tribes and how they are presented on his blog, Is that in the Bible?

We are reminded that David hadn’t bothered to count up the number of people under the age 20. We are also told that Joab had started counting, but didn’t finish (a reference to 1 Chron. 21:5-6, in which Joab chose not to count Levi and Benjamin in defiance of David). Even so, the counting still earned God’s wrath, and so it was never entered in the chronicles of King David. Except, of course, that numbers are given in both 1 Chron. 21:5-6 and 2 Sam. 24:9 (albeit wildly different numbers).

David’s Stewards

To finish up, we get the “miscellaneous other” category of civil positions:

  • Charge of the king’s treasuries: Azmaveth son of Adiel;
  • Charge of the national treasuries: Jonathan son of Uzzian;
  • Command over the field workers: Ezri son of Chelub;
  • Charge of the vineyards: Shimei the Rathmathite;
  • Charge of the wine cellars and the produce from the vineyards: Zabdi the Shiphmite;
  • Charge of the sycamore and olive trees in the Shephelah: Baalhanan the Gederite;
  • Charge of the stores of oil: Joash;
  • Charge of the herds that pasture in Sharon: Shitrai the Sharonite;
  • Charge of the herds in the valleys: Shaphat son of Adlei;
  • Charge of the camels: Obil the Ishmaelite;
  • Charge of the female donkeys: Jehdeiah the Meronothite (the male donkeys are, it seems, allowed to just run wild!);
  • Charge of the flocks: Jaziz the Higrite.

David’s sons are tutored by Jonathan, David’s uncle (who is described as a counsellor, a man of understanding, and a scribe), and Jehiel son of Hachmoni.

At first, the king’s counsellor is Ahithophel. He was then succeeded by Jehoiada son of Benaiah, and Abiathar. Elsewhere, the warrior Benaiah is described as the son of Jehoiada. It’s possible that this is the same Benaiah, and that he gave his son the same name as his father.

Joab, of course, commanded David’s army.

Finally, there’s Hushai the Archite, who is described as the “king’s friend” (1 Chron. 27:33), which has to be the saddest job title. Curious, I poked around to see what this is all about. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Hushai the King’s Friend. He appeared in 2 Sam. 15:32-37, described in the same terms. There, David sends him back into Jerusalem to spy on Absalom after he’s been forced into hiding, which he does in 2 Sam. 16:15-19. In 2 Sam. 17, Hushai is able to use his position at Absalom’s side to convince him not to hunt David down right away (giving Hushai time to warn David to flee).

As for the phrase itself, it’s clearly a title. In the roster of Solomon’s cabinet 1 Kgs 4:1-6, we find Zabud son of Nathan serving as Solomon’s king’s friend. But where did the title come from, and what did the position entail?

I’m finding several throwaway references to the title being Egyptian in origin, imported. But other sources claim that the Egyptian title refers to what is essentially a courtier class, a way of designating a group of people as those closest to the king, rather than a position that would, presumably, come with its own set of responsibilities. Obviously, I lack the expertise in all relevant fields to say which side has the right in this.

But I did find a hint that the title might possibly be Canaanite in origin. In Genesis 26:26, King Abimelech of Gerar comes to negotiate with Isaac. He is accompanied by two men: His advisor Ahuzath, and his army commander Phicol. Some translations, such as the KJV, give Ahuzath as Abimelech’s friend, rather than his advisor.

Of course, none of the commentaries I could lay my hands on gave any explanation of the different translation choices. Because why would they do something so helpful? In desperation, I thought to check a translation of the Septuagint, just to see what it says. Sure enough, Abimelech shows up to the meeting with Phichol, and with “Ochozath his friend”.

So my conclusion is that “King’s Friend” was definitely an official position, with its own responsibilities (possibly similar to that of advisor or confidant), and I’m tentatively assuming that it’s a Canaanite custom rather than an Egyptian one.

1 Chronicles 19-20: The Case of the Missing Wife

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Chapter 19 parallels 2 Samuel 10, skipping the story of David finding Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son. The author of Samuel seemed to be trying to lessen the perception of David as a usurper by emphasizing his positive relationship with Saul’s heir, his rival. And so the love David and Jonathan shared is emphasized, and David is shown to extend great kindness to Jonathan’s son (even though Mephibosheth, and his descendants, could easily become David’s rivals – whether or not Mephibosheth was being kept in David’s court as a prisoner/hostage is a different discussion).

The Chronicler, however, simply is not interested in Saul’s failed dynasty. As far as he is concerned, it was a false start, lacking in the legitimacy of David’s true dynasty. Given this, portraying David’s relationships with his rival Saulides becomes unimportant, and the Chronicler merely skips over those details.

At War Again

King Nahash of the Ammonites has died, and is succeeded by his son, Hanun. As in 2 Sam. 10, the text tells us that Nahash had been good to David, so David wishes to be good to his son in return. Though both versions of the story mention this, Nahash’s actual faithful dealings are not recorded. All we hear about him prior to this episode is that he was harassing the citizens of Jabesh-gilead in 1 Sam. 11. This provides an opportunity for Saul to achieve his first military victory.

In any case, David decides to send messengers to console Hanun in his mourning. At least, that’s what the text tells us. Hanun and his court immediately suspect that the messengers are actually spies, scouting out their lands in preparation for an invasion. This isn’t an unreasonable assumption, given all the aggressive wars David has been fighting in the last few chapters. And since we have no record of Nahash’s faithful dealings with David, only his history of antagonism toward Israel under Saul, it’s hard not to side with the new king.

Hanun mistreats David's messengers, from 'Speculum humanae salvationis', c.1450

Hanun mistreats David’s messengers, from ‘Speculum humanae salvationis’, c.1450

There is a further strike against David’s story: Deut. 23:3-6 forbids such kindnesses toward the Ammonites (and Moabites). James Pate discusses some possible loopholes, and of course we can always argue that this story comes from a different tradition than the prohibition in Deuteronomy and therefore cannot legitimately be applied. Still, I’m siding with Hanun’s suspicion on this one.

Unfortunately, Hanun’s retaliation seems rather ill-considered, as he shaves and partially disrobes the messengers before sending them back to David. The men are so humiliated that David tells them to stay in Jericho until their bears have grown back in (in many cultures, particularly around the middle east, facial hair is seen as a sign of adulthood – often not allowed to grow in until a man is married; in shaving the messengers’ beards, Hanun was emasculating them, symbolically removing their status as the patriarchs of their families).

The text tells us that the Ammonites quickly realize their mistake, that they’ve made an enemy out of a potential friend, and that it is for this reason that they gather up an army. It seems more likely, however, than the shaving of the messengers was, in itself, a declaration of war. I realize that Hanun was new to his crown, and that new kings can sometimes be a little overzealous in trying to establish their power (and with good reason, since factions often use the occasion of a new and inexperienced king to reshuffle power structures), yet the act seems far too pointed and hostile to be explained as a simple miscalculation.

In any case, they spend 1,000 talents of silver on mercenary chariots (32,000 of them) and horsemen from Mesopotamia, Aramaacah, and Zobah. For comparison, Amaziah will later hire 100,000 men for a mere 100 talents in 2 Chron. 25:6. The numbers are a little different in 2 Sam. 10:6, however, where the Ammonites hire 20,000 infantry, plus 1,000 men with the king of Maacah, and 12,000 men of Tob (suggesting that the figure for the number of chariots in this chapter is the sum of the total number of men – charioteers or no – listed in 2 Sam. 10; the king of Maacah, and presumably his 1,000 men, are listed separately in 1 Chron. 19:7).

When David learns that the Ammonites are mustering, he sends Joab out to deal with them.

The battle doesn’t go well for Joab, however, and he is surrounded. Thankfully, Joab comes up with the amazing, clever, and totally realistically likely to win strategy of splitting his army in half so he can focus on each front separately. He keeps command of the half fighting the Syrians, while he puts his brother Abishai in charge of fighting the Ammonites. The idea is that they will divide and conquer, helping each other out if either half becomes overwhelmed.

When Joab advances on the Syrians, they flee before him. When the Ammonites see that their allies are fleeing, they, too, flee, and Joab returns to Jerusalem victorious.

Having been defeated, the Syrians send out messengers to the other half of the Syrian army, led by Shophach, which was located on the other side of the Euphrates.

Realizing that the Syrian forces are about to return in force, David gathers up a large army and crosses the Jordan to meet them. The Syrians are routed, and the commander, Shophach, is killed. The Israelites also kill 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 infantry (1 Chron. 19:18), whereas 2 Sam. 10:18 has them kill 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen.

In the Spring…

Chapter 20 begins as 2 Samuel 11 did, in the springtime, when kings are wont to make war. As in the case of 2 Samuel 11, it is Joab who leads the army out to harass Ammonites and besiege Rabbah, while David remains in Jerusalem.

The Chronicler keeps the verse, though it reflects poorly on David (kings are meant to go to war in the spring, so what is David doing staying behind?). He does not, however, keep the story that follows. In fact, Bathsheba is mentioned only once in all of Chronicles, and that is as the mother of Solomon in 1 Chron. 3:5, where she is referred to as Bathshua.

And so instead of using the opportunity of his staying behind to rape the wife of Uriah (a loyal member of David’s inner circle) and then cover up the crime by arranging for Uriah to be killed in battle, the Chronicler’s David is merely staying behind in Jerusalem until Joab is victorious.

Skipping forward to 2 Sam. 12:30-21, once Joab takes the city of Rabbah, David comes up to collect its king’s crown – a huge honking thing weighing a whole talent of gold (I am assured that this is a lot, and James Pate discusses some of the theories that have been proposed to allow David to wear such a heavy thing).

In addition to the crown, David returns from the war in which he did not participate with quite a lot of booty, including an enslaved population. It seems that they didn’t stop at Rabbah – though it is the only city mentioned – but instead went on to take the rest of the Ammonite cities before returning to Jerusalem.

Skipping over many of the less utopic episodes of David’s career – including the incestuous rape of his daughter, his son’s rebellion, David’s flight from Jerusalem, the execution of more of Saul’s descendants, and the general disgruntlement of the northern tribes – the Chronicler takes us all the way to 2 Sam. 21:18-22, when the Israelites are again at war with the Philistines.

This time, they are to fight at Gezer (which is God in 2 Sam. 21:18). It is here that Sibbecai the Hushathite slew Sippai (called Saph in 2 Sam. 21:18), who was descended from giants. After that, the Philistines were subdued for a while.

But not a long while. In another war, Elhanan son of Jair slew Lahmi, who was the brother of Goliath. Yes, that Goliath. In the corresponding passage, Elhanan slew Goliath himself, and no mention is made of Lahmi (2 Sam. 21:19 – which the KJV alters to bring into alignment with 1 Chron. 20:5 and to avoid contradiction with 1 Sam. 17:49-51).

In yet another war, there was a tall, six-fingered, six-toed man who was also descended from giants, and who was defeated by Jonathan, David’s nephew through Shimea.

Regarding Goliath, Paul Davidson has a really great deconstruction of the “so who actually killed Goliath?” problem on his blog, Is That In The Bible? Over at Remnants of Giants, Dr. Deane Galbraith looks at efforts to diagnose Goliath’s gigantism and why that may or may not (mostly not) be supportable by the text.

1 Chronicles 12: Like a magnet

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We continue our coverage of David’s magnetic charisma. The section begins with a group of Benjaminites who defected to David during his stay at Ziklag (the town he was given by the Philistine king Achish in exchange for his raiding in 1 Sam. 27:5-12). The Chronicler makes absolutely certain that no reader can come away from this passage without realizing that the Benjaminites, despite being Saul’s kinsmen, chose to follow David while the two men were in open conflict. The point is clear: Even Saul’s own tribesmen realized that David was the better man.

This is likely why the Benjaminites are listed first, despite the Gadites being the first to join David chronologically. The point of David’s fitness to rule Israel is better made with Benjaminite defectors.

Coronation of King David, from the Paris Psalter, 10th cent.

Coronation of King David, from the Paris Psalter, 10th cent.

Of these Benjaminites, we learn that they were ambidextrous, capable of shooting arrows and slinging stones with either hand. The association between Benjaminites and handedness is nothing new. They are specifically associated with left-handedness in Judges 20:15-16, and the Benjaminite hero Ehud is left-handed in Judges 3:15. As James Page points out, it’s likely that they were left-handed, but forced by superstition to train with their right hands until they came to be known for being ambidextrous.

They were led by Ahiezer and his second-in-command, Joash, both sons of Shemaah of Gibeah. This, too, reinforces David’s powers of attraction, as Gibeah was Saul’s home town.

Other notable Benjaminites to join David include:

  • Jeziel and Pelet, sons of Azmaveth;
  • Beracah;
  • Jehu of Anathoth;
  • Jeremiah;
  • Jahaziel;
  • Johanan;
  • Jozabad of Gederah;
  • Eluzai;
  • Jerimoth;
  • Bealiah;
  • Shemariah;
  • Shephatiah the Haruphite;
  • The Korahites: Elkanah, Isshiah, Azarel, Joezer, and Jashobeam;
  • Joelah and Zebediah, sons of Jeroham of Gedor;
  • And Ishmaiah of Gibeon, who is said to be a leader of the Thirty (1 Chron. 12:4) despite not getting a mention in the last chapter, and the fact that Abishai is named the leader of the Thirty in both 2 Sam. 23:18-19 and 1 Chron. 11:20. It could be an error, or perhaps Ishmaiah led the Thirty at one time, and Abishai at another.

The Gadites

The Gadites come next. They came to David while he was “at the stronghold in the wilderness” (1 Chron. 12:8), which is likely a reference to Adullam. This would make them the first tribe to join David, listed second here because their joining isn’t quite as important, from a propagandic point of view, as the Benjaminites.

They are described as having faces like those of lions, which echoes Moses’s words in Deut. 33:20-21. Their speciality was fighting with shield and spear, and they were as swift as gazelles when in the mountains.

They were led by Ezer, and the other leaders were, in order: Obadiah, Eliab, Mishmannah, Jeremiah, Attai, Eliel, Johanan, Elzabad, Jeremiah, and Machbannai. Each of these chiefs led a company of at least a hundred men, with the largest company being over a thousand strong.

They crossed the Jordan in the first month, when it would have been overflowing and likely a rather dangerous crossing. Not only that, but they put to flight those on either bank.

James Pate notes that this isn’t the first time the Gadites were first:

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary believes it is significant that the tribe of Gad was the first Israelite tribe to side with David.  Building on such Jewish sources as Genesis Rabbah 99:2 and the Midrash Lekach Tov, it notes that Gad is notorious for firsts: it was the first tribe to enter the land of Canaan, it was the first to accept David as king when David was still in exile from King Saul, and Elijah (perhaps a Gadite) will be the first to recognize the Messiah.

The Spirit Clothes Himself

While David was staying at a stronghold (again, this seems to be a reference to Adullam, though the place isn’t named), some men from Benjamin and Judah approached and David came out to meet him. This would have been during David’s time on the run, and it must have been concerning if Benjaminites were among those who approached (see, for example, 1 Sam. 23:15-29).

David asks if the men approach as friends – in which case he welcomes them – or as enemies – in which case he hopes that God will punish them (evidence, perhaps, of his dire situation at that point in his political career).

The spirit comes upon Amasai, prompting him to declare the visitors’ allegiance to David, and offering him their help. Interestingly, the literal phrase is that “the spirit clothed himself with Amasai,” which is just a delightful phrase. I’m rather disappointed with the RSV’s decision to render it as “the Spirit came upon Amasai” (1 Chron. 12:18) when such a poetic phrasing was readily available.

David seems to be so moved by Amasai’s declaration that he appoints the visitors as officers over his troops.

Interestingly, Amasai doesn’t appear elsewhere, and it seems that either Abishai or Amasa was meant.

Manasseh’s Defectors

The next group to join David happens in the context of Saul’s final battle against the Philistines, while David was still working for one of the Philistine kings. As was the case in 1 Sam. 29-30, we are assured that David took no part in the battle. However, it’s somewhat disconcerting that, in both narratives, it is not David who asks not to fight against Saul and the Israelites. Rather, it’s the Philistines themselves who express concern that he might defect, and so send him home. Those who would defend David would argue that this was, in fact, David’s plan, but there really isn’t anything in the text (in either place) that indicates this to be the case.

On his way back to Ziklag, David passes through the territory of Manasseh. As he does so, several men desert their tribe to join him: Adnah, Jozabad, Jediael, Michael, Jozabad, Elihu, and Zillethai. They commanded thousands, and they helped David fight an unnamed and unreferenced band of raiders.

And so, day by day, David’s army grew larger.

On To Hebron

Finally, we cycle back to where we were in 1 Chron. 11, with the Israelites meeting at Hebron “to turn the kingdom of Saul over to [David]” (1 Chron. 12:23). Each tribe is listed with the men they brought along:

  • Judah: 6,800
  • Simeon: 7,100
  • Benjamin: 3,000 (the majority of whom were newly converted from Saul’s side)
  • Ephraim:20,800
  • The Cis-Jordan half of Manasseh: 18,000
  • Issachar: 200 chiefs, plus the men they commanded (of Issachar, the Chronicler tells us that they understood the times and knew what Israel ought to do – 1 Chron. 12:32 – whatever that’s supposed to mean)
  • Zebulun: 50,000
  • Naphtali: 1,000 commanders, with 37,000 men
  • Dan: 28,600
  • Asher: 40,000
  • The Transjordan tribes (Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh): 120,000

The Levites are also listed along with the others, but are interestingly divided into two groups: The house of Aaron, led by the prince Jehoiada, had 3,700, and Zadok leading 22 commanders. Paul Davidson (Is That In The Bible) sees this as “evidence in the biblical texts of rival priestly groups vying for control of the temple and other religious positions.”

Brant Clements (Both Saint and Cynic) notes that, “interestingly, the more remote tribes send far greater numbers of soldiers.” The numbers are clearly fictional, but this observation seems like it should be significant. Perhaps even more so if the numbers are not historical.

The Israelites all met with the purpose of making David their king. They stayed at Hebron for three days, during which they feasted and made preparations.

1 Chronicles 6: The Levitical Line

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We next turn our attentions to the tribe of Levi. It’s worth noting both how detailed a treatment they get compared to the other tribes, and the fact that they are placed in the very middle of the genealogies, just as they were physically placed in the middle of the camp in Numbers 2. It’s hard to ignore the symbolism.

Roughly speaking, the narrative begins with the priestly genealogies, then discusses the temple musicians, and ends by looking at the territories under direct Levitical control.

The genealogy portion seems to be based on Exodus 6:16-25, but with some variations.

The sons of Levi are: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari. There’s some duplication of information as each section serves a different purpose that sometimes requires the same information. However, since my purpose is different than the Chronicler’s, I’ll be condensing a little.

The sons of Kohath are: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. From Amram came Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. From Aaron, we get Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. From this point, we follow Eleazar down in a direct line:

  1. Phinehas
  2. Abishua
  3. Bukki
  4. Uzzi
  5. Zerahiah
  6. Meraioth
  7. Amariah
  8. Ahitub
  9. Zadok
  10. Ahimaaz
  11. Azariah: According to 1 Kgs 4:2, Azariah was Zadok’s son, not his grandson. However, this wouldn’t be the first time that “son” might have been used simply to mean “a descendant of.”
  12. Johanan
  13. Azariah: The text specifies that he was priest when Solomon built the temple.
  14. Amariah
  15. Ahitub
  16. Zadok
  17. Shallum
  18. Hilkiah
  19. Azariah
  20. Seraiah
  21. Jehozadak: The text indicates that he was taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar after the fall of Jerusalem.
Aaron, from the Frauenkirche, Dresden

Aaron, from the Frauenkirche, Dresden

There is apparently some discussion as to whether or not Zadok (#9 on this list) was really of Levitical descent. Apparently, the Jebusite Hypothesis argues that Zadok was a priest in Jerusalem, serving the Jebusite god El Elyon, when it was conquered by David. Further, it argues that David may have appointed him as high priest as an appeasement to the conquered residents of the city (not only offering some continuity of leadership, but also bridging David’s god and their own).

In support of this, the similarity between Zadok’s name and the names of pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem is pointed out (for example, Melchizedek in Gen. 14:18 and Adonizedek in Jos. 10:1).

Some apparently also cite his role in Nathan and Bathsheba’s conspiracy to place Solomon on the throne, instead of Adonijah (1 Kgs 2). The argument goes that Solomon, born in Jerusalem, would have been preferred over Adonijah, who was born in Hebron.

The second lineage of Kohath: We also get a secondary list of the sons of Kohath, which is clearly not the same as above, beginning with Amminadab, and tracing down:

  1. Korah
  2. Assir
  3. Elkanah
  4. Ebiasaph (appearing as Abiasaph in Ex. 6:24)
  5. Assir
  6. Tahath
  7. Uriel
  8. Uzziah
  9. Shaul

A few sources I looked at suggested that Amminadab might be an error here (albeit a strange one). Drawing from Exodus 6:21, they argue that Izhar may have been meant instead, which would certainly make a lot more sense.

We then get a list of descendants of someone named Elkanah, who is clearly not the Elkanah who was a descendant of Kohath. The grammar is a little fudgy, but it looks like he had two sons: Amasai and Ahimoth. Then, through Ahimoth, we get:

  1. Elkanah
  2. Zophai
  3. Nahath
  4. Eliab
  5. Jeroham
  6. Elkanah

The sons of Samuel: In 1 Chron. 6:28, switch briefly over to a Samuel, who is presumably the Samuel of 1-2 Samuel, and meant to be related to the just-named Elkanah. This works for a little while, since 1 Samuel 1:1 names Samuel’s father Elkanah, and his grandfather Jeroham. It breaks down after that, however, as Jeroham is the son of Elihu, who is the son of Tohu, who is the son of Zuph. (A genealogy that matches better occurs below, in the discussion of musicians.)

Further, since Zuph is specifically named as an Ephraimite, we have to do a bit of juggling to make him also a Levite. It’s not impossible, since we could imagine a Levitical line living in Ephraim’s territory being identified by their geographical location rather than tribal descent. It’s worth noting that there were Kohathite territories within Ephraim (listed later in 1 Chron. 6:66-69).

In this case, however, there are too many pieces that don’t fit. It seems that, the Chronicler (who at least one of his sources) wished to shoe-horn Samuel into the Levitical line to excuse the fact that he was performing cultic duties. The problem with that, though, is that Samuel is seen making burnt offerings (for example, 1 Sam. 7:10), so why not place him directly in the Aaronic line? And why not mention in 1 Samuel that he was of Levitical descent?

In any case, the sons of Samuel are listed, in order, as Joel and Abijah.

The sons of Gershom are: Libni and Shimei. Gershom, by the way, is sometimes spelled Gershon. Given the phonetic similarity, I’m assuming this is just an error, and I will use the two forms interchangeably. Gershom traces the line down through Libni:

  1. Jahath
  2. Zimmah
  3. Joah
  4. Iddo
  5. Zerah
  6. Jeatherai

The sons of Merari are:  Mahli and Mushi. Going down through Mahli, we get:

  1. Libni
  2. Shimei
  3. Uzzah
  4. Shimei
  5. Uzzah
  6. Shimea
  7. Haggiah
  8. Asaiah

Musicians

David is credited with founding the musical portion of the tabernacle service (or, at least, with reforming the system). When he initially brought the ark to Jerusalem, he appointed to “[minister] with son before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (1 Chron. 6:32). When Solomon built the temple, they moved with the ark.

The lineages are presented in reverse order. I’ll re-arrange them as a descent just to make the lineages more comparable to the ones we had above. Keeping in mind that it is the final member of the line who was appointed by David. I’ve bolded the appointees.

From the Kohathites:

  1. Israel
  2. Levi
  3. Kohath
  4. Izhar
  5. Korah
  6. Ebiasaph
  7. Assir
  8. Tahath
  9. Zephaniah
  10. Azariah
  11. Joel
  12. Elkanah
  13. Amasai
  14. Mahath
  15. Elkanah
  16. Zuph
  17. Toah
  18. Eliel
  19. Jeroham
  20. Elkanah
  21. Samuel
  22. Joel
  23. Heman the singer

If the Samuel listed as Heman’s grandfather is meant to be the Samuel who went around anointing Israel’s first few kings, the lineage matches much better than the one we got in 1 Chron. 6:25-28. The only differences are easily attributable to phonetic variations or scribal sloppiness (Eliel is listed as Elihu in 1 Samuel 1:1, and Toah as Tohu).

A second musician, Asaph, is identified as Heman’s brother in 1 Chron. 6:39. However, given the differences in the lineage, it seems probable that the term is meant to mean “brother in craft,” rather than as a description of a blood tie. His lineage is as follows:

  1. Levi
  2. Gershom
  3. Jahath
  4. Shimei
  5. Zimmah
  6. Ethan
  7. Adaiah
  8. Zerah
  9. Ethni
  10. Malchijah
  11. Baaseiah
  12. Michael
  13. Shimea
  14. Berechiah
  15. Asaph

The obvious problem here is that generations are skipped. Gershom’s sons are Libni and Shimei in 1 Chron. 6:17. Jahath isn’t listed until 1 Chron. 6:20, as the son of Libni (Gershom’s grandson). Shimei is missing from the 1 Chron. 6:20 version. After that, the comparison breaks down entirely, as the 1 Chron. 6:21 version continues with Joah, while this list continues through Ethan.

The first two errors can be fairly easily explained either as accidental errors, or as the Chronicler finding himself with a list containing a lovely symbolically resonant fourteen generations between Levi and Asaph, yet finding that it does not quite match his other source. He may have sacrificed Libni in order to include Shimei while still preserving the desired number of generations.

The final error also isn’t too difficult to explain, as there is nothing to say that Zimmah had only one son. His eldest might well have been Joah, while Asaph was descended from a secondary branch.

From the Merarites: The Merarites put forward one appointee, Ethan. His lineage goes:

  1. Levi
  2. Merari
  3. Mushi
  4. Mahli
  5. Shemer
  6. Bani
  7. Amzi
  8. Hilkiah
  9. Amaziah
  10. Hashabiah
  11. Malluch
  12. Abdi
  13. Kishi
  14. Ethan

The sons of Aaron: But only descendants of Aaron were allowed to make offerings, at least in the Chronicler’s time. His lineage is repeated down to Ahimaaz, and is identical to the one in 1 Chron. 6:4-8.

Levitical Territories

In 1 Chron. 6:54, the narrative moves into a discussion of the territories controlled by the tribe of Levi. This list corresponds largely to the one in Joshua 21, even presenting them in the same order (first to the Kohathites, then the Gershonites, then the Merarites).

Kohathite Cities: To the Kohathites, specifically the descendants of Aaron, Judah provided the following cities of refuge: Hebron, Libnah, Jattir, Eshtemoa, Hilen, Debir, Ashan, and Beth-shemesh. An added detail is given about Hebron: While the Levites get the town’s surrounding pasture lands, the fields and villages belong to Caleb son of Jephunneh.

Simeon won’t be listed here as a contributing tribe, but Ashan is allotted to them in Jos. 19:7. This suggests that Simeon had already been absorbed by Judah by the time the Chronicler’s source was written.

From Benjamin, the Kohathites received: Geba, Alameth, and Anathoth.

At this point, the text tells us that the Kohathites control 13 towns (1 Chron. 6:60), but the actual count reveals only 11. By comparing the list to Jos. 21:13-19, we can assume that Juttah and Gibeon were accidentally dropped by the Chronicler (or a subsequent scribe).

There appears to be a corruption of the text in 1 Chron. 6:61. The corresponding spot in Joshua is Jos. 21:5, where we learn that the Kohathites receive ten further towns from Ephraim, Dan, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The towns are not named in either location.

From Ephraim, they received Shechem, Gezer, Jokmeam, Beth-horon, Aijalon, and Gathrimmon.

The cities contributed by Dan aren’t listed, but  Jos. 21:23-24 names both Aijalon and Gathrimmon as coming from Dan. This seems to be another scribal error.

From the half-tribe of Manasseh, they received Aner and Bileam.

Gershomite Cities: Gershom received thirteen cities from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh.

From the half-tribe of Manasseh, they received: Golan in Bashan, and Ashtaroth. From Issachar, they received Kedesh, Daberath, Ramoth, and Anem. From Asher, they received Mashal, Abdon, Hukok, and Rehob. And from Naphtali, they received Kedesh in Galilee, Hammon, and Kiriathaim.

Merarite Cities: Merari received twelve cities from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun.

From Zebulun, they received Rimmono and Tabor. In the Transjordan, they received from Reuben: Bezer, Jahzah, Kedemoth, and Mephaath. From Gad, they received Ramoth in Gilead, Mahanaim, Heshbon, and Jazer.

I only get a count of ten cities, rather than the twelve claimed, but there is some grammatical weirdness around 1 Chron. 6:78 that could account for the discrepancy.

2 Kings 10: Taking care of the competition

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We have a rather gruesome chapter here as Jehu, newly become king of Israel, solidifies his position. He begins with Ahab’s seventy sons (a number no dou bt inflated by counting all male descendants, including grandsons, though still rather impressive). Jehu writes to the rulers and elders of Samaria, as well as to the guardians of these princelings (I’m assuming that not all of them were underaged, though presumably a fair number would have been. He asks them to select the best of Ahab’s descendants and set him up on Ahab’s throne to fight in Samaria’s defense.

The rulers, elders, and guardians are rightly wary of this, since Jehu has just assassinated two kings. What chance would a brand new, untried king have? So instead of setting up a new king, which would only lead to war and sieges (we saw just how terrible those can be in 2 Kings 7: 24-31), they throw themselves at Jehu’s mercy. They will do anything he asks, they say, except instate a new king.

In his second letter, Jehu accepts the leaders’ submission and asks that they behead all of Ahab’s sons (again, this could refer to any male descendant) and bring them to Jezreel the next day.

The scene is a powerful one. The sons were “with the great men of the city, who were bringing them up” (2 Kgs 10:6), people they trusted, when Jehu’s letter arrived. Suddenly, the leaders turned on their charges, killing them and filling baskets with their heads. When they are brought to him, Jehu leaves the heads in heaps at the city gates overnight. The next morning, he addresses the Israelites, taking responsibility for killing Joram but reminding them that they were the ones who had killed his descendants. He reminded them, too, that Elijah had predicted that this would happen to Ahab’s dynasty (1 Kgs 21:21)… and his followers. And with that, it seems that he killed all of them as well (“So Jehu slew all that remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his great men, and his familiar friends, and his priests, until he left him none remaining” – 2 Kgs 10:11).

Not quite done yet, he came to Betheked of the Shepherds, where he found the kinsmen of the (now slain) king of Judah, Ahaziah. They were on their way to Samaria to visit their king, as well as the “royal princes and the sons of the queen mother” (2 Kgs 10:13) – which I take to mean Jezebel and the recently murdered seventy sons.

Jehu orders his followers to take the travellers alive. Which, we’re told, they do, but only in order to bring them to a pit. There, they murder all forty-two of them. This was, apparently, what Jehu had in mind when he told them to “take them alive.”

Though the reasoning isn’t explained in the text, King Ahaziah was the son of Athaliah, who was related to Ahab and possibly Jezebel – she was either their daughter, or possibly Ahab’s sister (2 Kgs 8:26 only tells us that she was a daughter of Ahab’s dynasty). So I’m seeing the argument being made that the whole dynasty of Judah was made complicit in Ahab and Jezebel’s sins through their unfortunate marriage alliance.

Cultic Concerns

After all this bloodshed, Jehu meets up with Jehonadab, the son of Rechab. They great each other, and it seems that Jehu asks Jehonadab if he’s on board with Jehu’s “cleansing” of Israel. Not to give away too many spoilers, but it seems that we’ll learn about the Rechabites later on (such as 1 Chr. 2:55). According to my Study Bible, they “fiercely maintained the old desert way of life, believing that only thus could they properly worship the Lord.” It makes sense, then, that Jehu would approach a man who appears to be their leader for help as he turns his attentions to wiping out the worship of Baal in Israel.

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

Possible depiction of Jehu giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud, c.827BCE

It seems that tradition also gives the two men more of a relationship. My New Bible Commentary cites a reference in Josephus (Ant. ix.6.6) to Jehu and Jehonadab being “friends of long standing” (p.355).

When Jehonadab answers that his goals align with Jehu’s, Jehu stretches out his hand and lifts Jehonadab onto his chariot. Together, they ride off into the sunset so that Jehonadab can see Jehu’s “zeal for the Lord” (2 Kgs 10:16). Presumably with Jehonadab watching, he rode all the way to Samaria and, there, killed Ahab’s remaining supporters.

With that done, Jehu assembles all the people and announces: “Ahab served Baal a little; but Jehu will serve him much” (2 Kgs 10:18). He calls for all the prophets, priests, and worshippers of Baal to attend a great sacrifice he’ll be hosting. We’re quickly informed, however, that it was all a trick (though, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already guessed as much from Jehu’s weasel-y words – he’ll serve Baal much, eh?).

The set up is clearly meant to be read humorously, a point reinforced by what seems to be a play on words. My New Bible Commentary says that, in Hebrew, the word used here to mean “served” is very close to a word meaning “destroyed”. “To a person not paying attention, the words would sound alike” (p.356). I think we can assume that Jehu may have been smirking while he delivered this little speech.

Baal’s followers all came and filled his temple. They brought out special vestments and everything.

Jehu and Jehonadab addressed the throng, making sure that only Baal worshippers were present. Jehu presided over the sacrifices while, outside eighty soldiers guarded the exits with instructions not to let any of the Baal worshippers escape (if any did, the punishment was death).

When the sacrifice is done, Jehu gives the order and his soldiers rush in, slaughtering all the worshippers. Done, they brought out “the pillar that was in the house of Baal” (2 Kgs 10:26), presumably an object of some sacral significance, and burned it. After tearing down Baal’s temple, they made it into a latrine.

A Retrospective

Jehu may have wiped out the worship of Baal from Israel, but he still failed at achieving proper cultic purity. What this means, of course, is that he failed to tear down Jeroboam’s golden calves, located in Bethel and Dan.

This is a sore point for the Deuteronomist, for whom idolatry was a focus. It seems likely, however, that the charge is anachronistic. There’s little evidence that the YHWH cult at the time had rejected the use of idols. If we expand that to include symbolic imagery (I’ve seen the argument made that the golden calves were not meant to represent YHWH, but rather to form a seat on which he was to sit – much as the cherubim function in Solomon’s temple), we have a fair bit of evidence to the contrary.

It’s also possible that the later Deuteronomist condemnation of the calves had its roots at this time, in which case we seem to be looking at competing geographic variations of the YHWH cult. The Jerusalem/Judah variation seems to have begun forming a more rigid, urban, centralized, top-down cultic structure, and may well have seen the more rural, disparate, folk-based Israelite variation as a serious threat.

The text tells us that God told Jehu that, because of this oversight, his dynasty would only last four generations before it, too, would fall. The construction, “the Lord said to Jehu” (2 Kgs 10:30) struck me. For the last little while, God’s messages have all either been issued to prophets or relayed through them, suggesting that the messages were connected to stories about those prophets. Here, however, the prophet is omitted. To me, this suggested that the author of this chapter was not referencing a pre-existing tradition, but rather adding in new material.

In this case, the author would have known that Jehu’s dynasty would fall in four generations, and sought an explanation. After all, the Jehu material so far casts him as a sincere and zealous worshipper (I’m a little too cynical to take that slant at face value, since getting rid of the Baal worshippers would have also meant getting rid of a lot of potentially influential competitors, many of whom may have enjoyed the support of the previous royal dynasty, while solidifying Jehu’s control over the YHWHist base – especially when we see his two named supporters being Elisha and Jehonadab, both apparently religious leaders). That a fall was to come would have required some explanation, and the calves were convenient scape-cattle. And, of course, the message suits the Deuteronomist’s motives quite neatly.

The final few verses give us some more of the chronology. We learn that pieces of Israel were being shaved off as Hazael, the Syrian king, seems to have been taking advantage of Israel’s political upheaval. It seems that, in this time, Israel lost everything east of the Jordan to Syria.

Jehu held onto Israel (or, at least, parts of it) for 28 years before he was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz.

2 Kings 6-7: Elisha versus the Syrians

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The first miracle of this chapter pair is similar to what we’ve been seeing – tricks to show off Elisha’s power without much apparent theological significance.

In it, the sons of the prophets complain that the place where they’ve been living is too small, and ask Elisha for permission to go to the Jordan river and build a new home for themselves there. As a side note, this provides us with some clue about who the sons of the prophets were, since they are living “under [Elisha’s] charge” (2 Kgs 6:1). It seems that these sons, at least, were perhaps Elisha’s apprentices, or under-priests.

As one of the sons is cutting wood, his axe head falls into the water. This is doubly a disaster because it was a loaner. Elisha is able to retrieve the axe head by throwing a stick into the water, causing the iron of the axe head to float.

A Tricky Escape

The next two stories return to the Syria/Israel conflict. In the first, Syria has been raiding Israel and, it seems, setting up ambushes. Sadly for the still unnamed king of Syria, Elisha can apparently hear him at all times (even in his bedroom!) and has been tipping off the unnamed king of Israel.

The Syrian king initially believes that there is a spy, but his servant tells him about Elisha. So the Syrian king decides to eliminate the problem at its root and sends an army out to Dothan to capture Elisha.

When they wake in the morning, Elisha and his retinue find the Syrian army outside. In a scene that seems straight out of a Christian chain letter, one of Elisha’s servants expresses his concern, to which Elisha says: “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kgs 6:8). With a prayer, he opens the servant’s eyes, allowing him to see a surrounding host of chariots and horses made of fire (perhaps the company Elijah’s horse and chariot came from in 2 Kgs 2:11).

The chariots of fire are a bit of a red herring, though, because Elijah defeats the army by making them all blind. He then goes out and tells them that they’ve gone the wrong way. Never fear, however, because Elisha will lead them to Elisha. My New Bible Commentary notes on the theological problem of a prophet lying, which illustrates the problem of trying to reinterpret humour/power stories as moral tales.

Rather than lead the blind Syrians to himself, however, Elisha takes them strait into the heart of Samaria. When he returns their vision, they realize that they’ve been brought into the power centre of their enemies.

The king of Israel is pleased as punch with the opportunity to rid himself of some enemies, but Elisha refuses. The soldiers are to be treated like POWs: They are to be fed and released. The king acquiesces and, either in fear of Elisha’s power or in gratitude for their treatment, the Syrians stopped raiding Israel.

The Siege of Samaria

Just kidding. The very first thing we learn after being told that the Syrians ceased attacking Israel is that the king of Syria is mustering an army against Israel. He clearly didn’t get the memo. (Or, more likely, the stories have been placed together without too much mind for chronology or continuity.)

Samaria falling to the AssyriansThis time, the Syrian king is named – Benhadad – though the king of Israel still lacks one. While the Syrian king’s name should help us locate the story in time, there’s more than one Benhadad and, without knowing the Israelite king’s name, our window for these Elisha stories is quite broad.

The Syrian army besieges Samaria, resulting in a rather nasty famine. It’s bad enough that the king of Israel is accosted by woman while he’s out walking. She begs for help because she made a deal with another woman that they would eat her son on the first day, and the other woman’s son on the second day. They ate her son, but on the second day the other woman hid her son. The king is suitably heartbroken by the story and rends his clothes, displaying the sackcloth he had been wearing underneath – a gratifying detail that shows that the king’s grief is apparently genuine rather than performed.

For some reason, he blames Elisha for the situation and vows to have him beheaded.

Elisha knows they are coming, however, and bars his door. When they arrive, he tells them that all will soon be well. By tomorrow, he assures them, food will be plenty. One of the king’s captains is doubtful, so Elisha predicts that, while the city will soon be eating, the captain won’t.

The Four Lepers

While all this is going on, four lepers are hanging out by the gates of Samaria, feeling sorry for themselves. Figuring that they will die if they stay where they are and die if they go into the city, they might as well take a chance on the Syrians and the possibility of mercy.

When they get to the Syrian camp, however, they find it empty. It seems that the Syrians fled when they heard the supernatural sounds of a great army descending upon them.

The lepers are rather overjoyed by their discovery and set to work eating from the army’s supplies. They loot the tents, carrying the stuff away and hiding it. After a few trips, however, it occurs to them that they really should let the rest of the Samarians know. It doesn’t seem to be an attack of conscience, though, so much as the fear that they might be punished if it’s found out that they knew and didn’t tell the others.

The king is still cautious, thinking it could be an ambush. On the advice of a servant, he sends out scouts who get as far as the Jordan river following the discards of the fleeing army. Satisfied, the Samarians head out to plunder the Syrian camp, fulfilling Elisha’s prediction.

The doubting captain had been guarding the city gates and was trampled when the hungry citizens rushed out, thereby fulfilling the second part of Elisha’s prophecy. Our narrator repeats the whole interaction between Elisha and the captain, connecting all the dots for any reader who may have forgotten to pay attention. While the story doesn’t explicitly state that the captain was killed as punishment for his doubt (as opposed to a prediction of an event that would have happened regardless), this little moralizing note certainly makes it seem that way.

2 Kings 5: A Tale of Two Lepers

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We continue our tale of Elisha’s miracles with Naaman, a highly esteemed Syrian military commander. Sadly, despite his valour and prowess, he was also a leper. His wife had a maidservant who had been captured during one of Syria’s raids into Israel, and, one day, she tells her mistress about a prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman.

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (in the British Museum collection)

Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan, 1150 (in the British Museum collection)

Ecstatic about the possibility of a cure, Naaman asks his king (unnamed) for permission to go to Israel and seek out this prophet. His king agrees, and sends him with a letter instructing the king of Israel (also unnamed) to cure Naaman. In a rather amusing scene, the king of Israel mistakenly believes that the letter is instructing him, personally, to cure Naaman, and he rends his clothes over his inability to do so (fearful that failing to obey would result in hostilities between the two countries).

Elisha hears of this and sends word that the king should just send Naaman over to him – precisely what had been intended from the beginning! Sometimes the Bible is a lot like a ’90s sitcom.

The humour continues when Elisha refuses to meet with Naaman, and instead tells him via messenger to go dunk himself in the Jordan river seven times. Naaman is furious, not only that Elisha wouldn’t speak to him directly, but also that the cure should be so simple. Where’s the hand-waving? Where’s the ritual? And why should the Jordan river be necessary to cleanse him? Is it supposed to be better than the perfectly good rivers of Syria?

He is talked down by his servants, who argue that he had been prepared to follow complex and onerous instructions, so why not just dunk himself in the river a few times just in case it works? So he does it, and he is cured.

When he returns to Elisha, he acknowledges God’s power in terms that sound suspiciously monotheistic (“Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” 2 Kings 5:15). Indeed, this may be one of the stronger monotheistic statements we’ve had so far.

He’s a convert, but he also has his official duties. When his king worships the state god Rimmon, Naaman must be there and he must bow his head. Therefore, he asks pre-emptive forgiveness for performing the faith of Rimmon even while he is, internally, a worshiper of YHWH. This is, of course, an age old dilemma – will God forgive the performance so long as the heart is true? Elisha tells him to “go in peace” (2 Kgs 5:19), which seems to imply that the forgiveness is granted, but still leaves enough ambiguity to keep theologians busy.

Gifts

In their final interaction, Naaman offers gifts to repay Elisha, which Elisha refuses. Before I read any commentaries, I wondered if this was meant to further insult Naaman (certainly, there are plenty of cultures where refusing a gift is considered very rude). However, commentaries seem to be arguing that Elisha was trying to distinguish himself from the prophets we saw in 1 Kings 22. He wasn’t prophesying for pay, but because he was serving God. In context, it might have been very bad for business for him to seem to be using his prophecies in order to increase his personal wealth. Note, for example, that he only used his powers to help the Shunammite woman after she had been providing him with room and board for a while (2 Kgs 4:8-17).

Gehazi isn’t too happy about this, however, and runs out after Naaman. Claiming to speak on Elisha’s behalf, he says that two Ephraimite prophets have just arried, and they require a talent of silver and two festal garments. Naaman, who had come expecting to pay far more, happily grants the amount plus an additional silver talent. According to the notes in my study Bible, this would have been a rather extraordinary amount.

When he returns, Elisha asks him where he’s been. “Nowhere,” answers Gehazi, channeling his internal teenager. Elisha knows better, however, claiming to have followed his servant “in spirit” (2 Kgs 5:26) while he was meeting with Naaman. Now is not the time to accept gifts, he says, then proceeds to lists gifts well beyond what Gehazi actually received. Are these references to things Gehazi has previously swindled? Did Naaman give over much more that was lost from the earlier part of the story? Or does this mean that Elisha does not know what Gehazi actually received?

In any case, Elisha curses his servant, transferring Naaman’s leprosy onto him and all his descendants forever.

Brant Clements points out that the story of Naaman is one of a great man humiliated, over and over again, until he accepts God:

Chapter 5 is taken up by the story of Naaman, the general of Aram’s army, a powerful man who is brought low by a skin disease. Repeatedly, and comically, the powerful Naaman is humbled in this narrative. He takes advice from a slave girl. Elisha won’t even come out to meet him. He is sent to wash in the Jordan, a river he thinks is inferior to his home waterways. In the end he is both cleansed of his leprosy and converted to the worship of Israel’s God.

Challenging the powerful is the best use of mythology!

Elijah’s Apprentice

I wanted to take a moment to talk about Elijah and Elisha. There’s a good deal of repetition between the two (both raise a child from the dead, both help a widow by increasing her supply of oil, both part a river). However, there are differences as well. Collins writes:

The stories about Elijah, however, reflect a greater theological interest. Elijah is engaged in polemic against the worship of Baal, and he emerges as a champion of social justice, whereas Elisha is more simply a wonder-worker. Accordingly, some scholars regard the Elisha stories as older than those about Elijah. There is some doubt about the historicity of Elijah. His name means “YHWH is my God,” and the stories about him have obvious symbolic significance. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.142)

This certainly feels right, though I get a similar feeling from Elisha. Gehazi, in particular, is making me wonder about Elisha’s origins. Both here and in the last chapter, he plays a priestly character – acting as an intercessor between the supplicant and the “god,” and then as a cautionary tale against priestly greed. That certainly doesn’t mean that Elisha is a proto-YHWHist deity turned into a prophet, but he could be an older and highly mythologized cultic figure.

2 Kings 2: The Bald Moses

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The first story in this chapter is about Elijah being taken up by God in a whirlwind. While reading, I kept wondering if this is meant to be an Elijah story (about his ascension) or an Elisha story (about his accession). After some reflection, I think it may be the latter, though it could certainly be argued either way.

Elijah and Elisha begin the chapter by walking about. Each time they stop (first at Bethel, then Jericho, then the river Jordan), Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind, and each time Elisha refuses. Each time, the “sons of the prophets” tell Elisha that God is about to take his master, and Elisha responds that he already knows, and that they should “hold your peace.” By the time they get to the Jordan river, they’ve accumulated fifty sons of the prophets following along, though hanging back.

The term “sons of the prophets” likely refers to either apprentice or lesser prophets, perhaps in some kind of cultic guild. It seems unlikely that it would refer to actual biological offspring. This is reinforced later on in the same chapter (2 Kings 2:12) where Elisha calls Elijah “my father.”

2 Kings 2When Elisha asked the sons of the prophets to keep quiet, it seems an indication of the solemnity of their progress. Combined with the repetition of the journey, it gives the story a sense of ritual. I wonder if there was a time when a local cult periodically did a particular journey (pure conjecture, but perhaps it might have ended with a human sacrifice), and the tradition was later preserved in this story. Or the repetition could just be there to draw attention to Elijah’s ascension, thereby highlighting its importance.

When they reach the river, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water with it, parting it so that Elijah and Elisha can walk across. This is, of course, quite reminiscent of Moses’s parting of the water in Exodus 14:21. I wonder if the Elijah story is meant to be a reference to the Moses story, or if both were a reference to something else?

Separated now from the fifty sons of the prophets who had come along, Elijah asks Elisha to ask for a parting gift before he is taken. Elisha asks to inherit a “double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). This seems almost certainly to be a reference to the inheritance portion meant to be given to a firstborn son (Deut. 21:17), thus setting Elisha apart as Elijah’s proper spiritual heir. Elijah’s response, that Elisha will only get his inheritance if he sees Elijah taken, appears to be an acknowledgement that this inheritance is only God’s to grant.

As it is, there are no issues since Elisha does, indeed, see Elijah taken. First, a fire chariot pulled by fire horses comes between Elisha and Elijah, separating them. Then Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (the only other person who appears to have been taken without dying first is Enoch, in Genesis 5:24).

If you’re noticing a pattern and wondering, yes, Elijah does appear to have been a firebender. Certainly, he seems to have been closely associated with the element in his miracles, as we saw in 1 Kings 18:38 and 3 Kings 1:9-16.

With Elijah gone, Elisha rends his clothes in grief, then takes up Elijah’s mantle (for the second time, since Elijah had given it to him in 1 Kings 19:19). He then performs a reverse miracle and strikes the river water with the mantle, as Elijah had done, and parts the water for himself.

The sons of the prophets seem to be of two minds. On the one hand, they immediately recognize Elisha as Elijah’s heir and bow before him. But then they are convinced that God just flicked Elijah off somewhere. Perhaps they’ve seen be play Black & White and think that God is as clumsy a deity as I am? In any case, they ask for permission to go find his body. Though he initially refuses, Elisha does eventually give them permission and they spend three days looking. The lack of a body is, apparently, confirmation that a miracle has taken place.

Further Miracles

Now that he’s the head honcho, it’s time for Elisha to get started on some miracles of his own.

His first is in Jericho, where the water appears to be causing deaths and miscarriages. Elisha solves the problem by throwing some salt into a local spring, thereby purifying it.

The people of the city say that the “land is unfruitful” (2 Kings 2:19), which I thought could mean a drought, but Elisha’s miracle is very specifically purifying the water. It could be, therefore, that it is the people/animals who are unfruitful, due to the miscarriages.

So far so good. I think we can all agree that purifying a water source so that it is no longer causing death and miscarriage is, generally speaking, a net positive. Unfortunately, Elisha then immediately follows that miracle with another in Bethel. There, a few small boys make fun of him for being bald. Rather hilariously, my New Bible Commentary spends a fair bit of time trying to argue that Elisha wasn’t actually bald, and that the boys were just making it up to be insulting. I’m sure there’s a theological purpose there, but I can’t stop laughing long enough to look it up. Whatever it is, it seems to be very important to the NBC editors that Elisha is most definitely not bald!

While Elisha’s earlier miracle was to save a community from what was probably a natural disaster, this time he’s just being a total douche. No one likes to be bullied, but there is such a thing as an appropriate response, and cursing small boys so that forty-two of them are mauled by two bears is definitely not it.

Elisha's Bears

Interestingly in the context of the number’s later significance, my study Bible indicates that 42 was thought to be a number of ill omen.

After the bear episode, Elisha makes his way to Mount Carmel, then returns to Samaria.

1 Kings 17:Precipitative Impotence

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In this chapter, we’re introduced to the prophet Elijah. Or, rather, we aren’t. We’re told that he was a Tishbite from Gilead. According to my study Bible, the sudden entrance may indicate that the cycle’s beginning was lost from the source material. It seems that the story is a northern one, perhaps brought to Judah by refugees. “It must be remembered,” continues my study Bible, “that all final redaction was done in Judah.” As for why the Judahite scholars would have chosen to keep the story of Elijah yet skim so much through the reigns of the kings, it seems rather clear. Elijah is no friend to the Israelite king, Ahab. His message, therefore, is well in line with the Deuteronomist thesis. So it makes sense that Elijah only enters the scene when directly confronting Ahab.

Another attractive aspect for the Deuteronomist is that Elijah is attacking the worship of other gods. Sticking strictly to the text, he appears to merely be informing Ahab  that there will be no rain without God’s say-so. However, we learned in the last chapter that Ahab had been tolerating the worship of Baal, that his wife Jezebel brought with her (1 Kings 16:31-32). Since Baal was a god associated with rain and fertility, saying that the rain would not happen without YHWH’s say so was a direct challenge to the Baal cult in Ahab’s court. There’s far more going on than a simple prediction of coming drought.

Incidentally, James McGrath wrote a post about biblical prophecy not too long ago, titled Prophetic Blizzard. In it, he claimed that the Hebrew prophets were not threatening people with some post-life punishments, but rather with earthly events: “Plagues, famines, pestilence, earthquakes, war, and so on.” He also notes that the punishments were all perfectly ordinary, expected disasters. Here, we have Elijah announcing a drought, not “blizzards. Freak snowstorms.”Of this, McGrath says:

That is worth reflecting on. The prophets are not predicting things that will happen, which otherwise would not have happened – God miraculously bringing an ice storm to their Eastern Mediterranean setting. They are not so much “predicting” as interpreting things which happen regularly, and will inevitably happen again.

Let me say that again. They are not predicting that God will do something miraculous. They are interpreting the kinds of things which happen, based on the assumption that God is behind them.

According to my New Bible Commentary, Josephus “records that according to Menander there was a full year’s drought in the time of Ethbaal, father of Jezebel” (p.342). It’s beyond the point to argue whether it’s the same drought event or simply an indication of how immediate and relevant the threat of drought would have been.

The Ravens

There’s no word on how Ahab reacted to his encounter with Elijah, or how the two met in the first place. Instead, we skip straight to God telling Elijah to go to the brook of Cherith and there to drink straight from the brook and be fed by ravens, who bring him bread and meat twice a day (what sort of meat is not specified, but we might hope that there weren’t any battlefields nearby).

The fact that Elijah appears to be hiding out in the wilderness seems to suggest that Ahab didn’t take too kindly to being denounced, and that perhaps Elijah was on the run. In this case, we’re to understand that God sustains him with a miracle while he is on the lam.

Unless, of course, he was sustained by Arabs, not by ravens. While very nice, it wouldn’t be quite the same miracle. According to my New Bible Commentary, the word for “Arabians” has the same consonants as the Hebrew word for “ravens” (p.342). This seems absurd, since the story is clearly meant to illustrate both God’s power and his favour for Elijah. However, Elijah will soon be fed by a Sidonian woman, so it’s not inconceivable that, in its original telling, the story was of Elijah’s run from Ahab, and was only made miraculous through misunderstanding. That said, given how common stories of important people being miraculously sustained by animals in the wilderness are, trying to explain it away seems unnecessary.

God’s miraculous sustenance doesn’t last long, however, as the brook Elijah has been drinking from dries up. God’s drought-bringing powers lack finesse, it seems.

The Widow

With his prophet no longer able to survive in Cherith, God sends Elijah instead to Zarephath. This was a Sidonian settlement, and so would have been outside Ahab’s control. This continues to support the conclusion that Elijah was on the run. There, God tells Elijah that he will find a widow who has been commanded to feed him. No one appears to have told this widow, however.

When Elijah arrives, he finds her (as assume it’s her, though the text only tells us that she was “a widow” – 1 Kings 17:10 – this gives us the amusing possibility that there was another widow on the other side of town who was really confused when the prophet she was supposed to look after never shows up).

While the first part of the section makes it seem that God cleared his plan with the widow ahead of time, that’s clearly not what happened. Elijah just shows up, finds a widow out by the city gates collecting sticks, and commands her to fetch him some water. Rather than sock him right there, she actually does it. As she’s bringing him the water he asked for, Elijah commands her to get him so bread. No ‘thank you’ or anything.

With saintly restraint, the widow gently explains to Elijah that there’s a drought on, that food is rather dear, and that she needs the bread for herself and her son (though acknowledging that, since it is the last of their store, they will certainly die soon after they finish it). In fact, she was out collecting sticks with which to bake it. Undaunted, Elijah tells her to bring him a cake from the meal she has anyway, but that in exchange her ingredients will replenish themselves so that she and her son won’t starve. She obeys, the store never runs out, and the three of them live together for a while.

Of course, the spin here is that Elijah wasn’t being selfish when he commanded the widow to give him a piece of what little she had. Instead, it is argued, he was testing her faith. This is the same excuse so many people give abused wives – continue to submit, this humiliation and suffering is only a test! Fine, it appears to have worked out for this one widow in a story, but any extrapolation seems rather horrible.

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

My New Bible Commentary presents the possibility that the replenishing jar might not have been a literal miracle. Rather, the widow’s generosity and self-sacrifice moved her better-provisioned neighbours (or shamed them) into providing for her family. While possible, this interpretation is not indicated, and it seems clear that the author intended the event to be miraculous.

Not all goes well for the family, however, as the widow’s son takes ill and “there was no breath left in him” (1 Kings 17:17). She blames Elijah for this, apparently believing that his presence was a spotlight of sorts, leading to her being punished for some unnamed past sin. More like, something like this would be perfectly ordinary in a drought. Malnutrition weakens populations, making it much easier for diseases to spread.

Elijah asks the widow to give him her son’s body, and he takes it up to his room. He lays the boy’s body down on his bed and stretches himself over the corpse three times. While what he’s doing is likely just meant to be some mystical ritual, it looks remarkably like someone performing CPR (while anachronistic, it’s not inconceivable that someone blowing “the breath of life” into a body or accidentally doing chest compressions as part of a ritual might not, on occasion, lead to the victim reviving, thereby cementing the actions as part of a ritual – again, though, this is all a stretch).

While doing all this, Elijah calls out to God, asking him to return the child’s soul. God does so, the boy is brought back to life, and the widow then attests that she now knows that Elijah is truly a man of God (the refilling meal jar did not, apparently, tip her off).

The mention of the soul here is interesting. If we wanted to get theological about it, we might take from this story that the soul is a thing that leaves the body at death and can be returned to the body to reanimate it. It could also be that the term here is used to mean breath or even life, and that it’s return is poetic rather than literal.

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