2 Kings 23: To Little, Too Late

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not all was well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Kings 11: Mistakes were made

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When it comes to women, Solomon has gotta catch them all – or at least a multi-national representative sample. Over his lifetime, he manages to accumulate 700 wives and 300 concubines (almost certainly hyperbole, though such numbers – and higher – are not unheard of for kings), brought in from many nations, including some that God specifically forbade (a reference to passages like Deut. 7:1-4).

The passage is clearly meant to be a shock, an indication of just how far Solomon had fallen, though it’s the sin seems more to be the foreignness of the women than their number.

Solomon led astray, by Giovanni Battista Venanzi, 1668

Solomon led astray, by Giovanni Battista Venanzi, 1668

As Solomon ages, we are told that his wives began to steer him toward their foreign gods, even though God had specifically told Solomon not to stray! Solomon builds a “high place” dedicated to Chemosh (the Moabite god) and Molech (the Ammonite god), and his wives build some high places of their own.

At first reading, I assumed that this meant that Solomon was a polytheist (or at least taking Pascal’s Wager to its logical conclusion), but now I’m wondering if accommodating his wives’ faiths might not simply have been part of the marriage deal. The women are described as princesses, and the marriages are diplomatic. Dogmatically cutting off the women from something as deeply meaningful as the worship of their natal lands could have caused trouble. It’s entirely possible, then, that Solomon remained personally faithful to YHWH, but provided accommodations for the other faiths in his household.

Regardless, God is a jealous god, and he decides that he will give Israel to Solomon’s “servant” (1 Kgs 11:11). Only, for David’s sake, he will wait until after Solomon has died before doing it. The use of Israel here refers to the northern tribes, as will be made clear later on. Once again, it seems rather clear that Deut. 17:14-20 was written specifically with Solomon in mind.

Adversaries

As punishment for Solomon tolerating other gods, God raises up three adversaries to make trouble for David’s dynasty.

The first is Hadad of Edom. We’re told that David campaigned in Edom, and that Joab slaughtered every male Edomite (it’s not clear whether this was at David’s command or just another example of Joab being Joab). Either way, it’s clearly hyperbole.

Hadad was only a child (or perhaps a young man) when this happened, and he fled with a small retinue to Egypt, where he was given shelter and the Pharaoh’s sister-in-law for a wife. He seems to have had a fairly close relationship with the Pharaoh, as his son, Genubath, was weaned by the queen and raised alongside the princes. He asked to return to Israel once he hears that David has died.

Incidentally, the queen is named Tahpenes. My New Bible Commentary claims that this is “believed to be an Egyptian title meaning ‘the wife of the king'” (p.336), making it the equivalent of “Pharaoh,” rather than a personal name. However, I didn’t find very much support for this online. Instead, sources like this one seem to agree that Tahpenes seems related to the name of a city, and that both mean “Head of the Age.”

The second adversary is Rezon, the son of Eliada. The grammar is a little fuddled, but either Rezon or Eliada fled from King Hadadezer of Zobah, and Rezon became a bandit leader. With his band, he returned to Damascus and was made the king of Syria. The trajectory of fleeing a court, raising an army, and returning to take power is eerily similar to David’s own rise. Incidentally, it seems that we may have some independent attestations for King Hadadezer.

The final adversary is internal, and this one has God’s backing. Jeroboam, son of Nebat and Zeruah, was an Ephraimite and a servant of Solomon. Remember back in 1 Kgs 11:11, where God said he would give Israel to one of Solomon’s servants? Yeah, the author just stuck a big neon sign pointing directly at Jeroboam.

Jeroboam was put in charge of the forced labour raised from “the house of Joseph” (1 Kgs 11:29), meaning from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, during the construction of the Millo. One day, he left Jerusalem and met the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite. It seems that Shiloh was not destroyed as implied by 1 Samuel 6, and was still a location of sufficient cultic significance to still be producing prophets.

Ahijah tore his robe (which we are told was new, so we can know that he really meant it) into twelve pieces in some rather obvious symbolism. He handed Jeroboam ten of those pieces, indicating that God would grant Jeroboam leadership of ten tribes (the northern tribes). One piece of the robe is to belong to Solomon, for David’s sake. The twelfth piece is never mentioned – there are several theories circulating for why this might be the case, but nothing seems particularly definitive.

If he is faithful, Jeroboam will get his dynasty (albeit only a temporary one) once Solomon has died.

It seems that Jeroboam was not quite willing to wait that long, or perhaps had thought to get a head start at winning the support of the northern tribes, because Solomon tried to kill him. In a story that feels rather similar to David’s escape from Saul to the court of a foreign king, Jeroboam flees to Egypt and the court of King Shishak – the first Pharaoh to be mentioned by name. He remains there until Solomon’s death.

King Shishak is thought to be Sheshonk I, the founder of the Kushite dynasty in Egypt. He is known to have lead a campaign into Canaan, which might explain why two out of our three adversaries found protection and support in Egypt. A great strategy for winning military campaigns is to destabilize a country by stirring up and supporting internal dissent.

Finishing up the chapter, we are directed to the book of the acts of Solomon if we’d like to know more details about Solomon’s reign. But for text itself, the author is content to simply tell us that he reigned forty years, died, and was succeeded by his son, Rehoboam.

Leviticus 20: “Off with her head!”

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In this chapter, we get to hear all about the punishments that are to be given for breaking the ordinances we’ve already covered. And, since I live with the compulsion to categorise things, I will be organizing by type of punishment. Please hold on and keep your arms and legs inside the ordinance at all times.

Punishment: To be cut off from the people

If a person knows that someone is sacrificing his child(ren) to Molech and does nothing, the whole family and anyone following that person is to be cut off from the people.

I’m not a fan of the “guilt by association” aspect of this, but I do agree with condemning those who know that child sacrifice is going on but fail to do anything to prevent it. The only problem with this is that “the whole family” would apply to any of the children who haven’t been sacrificed yet as well, and that’s obviously problematic.

Leviticus 20 - MolechIf someone turns to “mediums and wizards” (v.6).

After the somewhat recent kerfuffle with Sylvia Brown (yes, again), there’s a part of me that definitely wants to agree with this one.

If a man has sex with his sister, his aunt (by blood or marriage), or his brother’s wife. Both should be cut off and, for some of these, they shall die childless.

Not sure how the childlessness would be enforced. I assume it’s a God curse thing, but would there have been earthly repercussions as well? For example, would a man who had slept with his aunt be denied the right to have an heir? Would any of his (or her) children be considered bastards?

If a man has sex with a menstruating woman, both should be cut off from the people.

Some women report better sex while menstruating (extra lubrication, hormonal softening of the cervix and other tissue in the genital region, increased libido, etc). This just seems mean-spirited towards those women.

Punishment: Death penalty

If a man sacrifices his children to Molech. This applies to both Israelites and to “sojourners,” and the punishment is death by stoning.

You know what? That’s fair. Even applied to non-Jews or to non-Israelites, this is one case where I can get behind a universal law. We can debate the ethics of the death penalty, but I think that we can all agree (I’d hope, though the next one makes me wonder) that killing your children is a bad bad thing.

If someone curses one (or, presumably, both) of his parents.

No “and your parents were very nice to you and never abusive” or anything like that. Just straight up cursing your parents warrants the death penalty. This is what a patriarchal society looks like – authority is valued far above anything else.

If a man has sex with his neighbour’s wife, his father’s wife, or his daughter-in-law. Both get the death penalty.

If a man marries both a woman and her mother. All three must be burned to death with fire.

I’m assuming that any mention of “neighbour” in these rules refers to fellow Israelites, and not to literal neighbours. I’m also assuming that, though the language lists only  men as the active parties, that it applies only if the women are willing participants.

If a man has sex with a man.

If either a man or a woman has sex with an animal. Both person and animal are to be killed.

Take it away, Collins!

The juxtaposition of the prohibition of male homosexuality with that of bestiality and the fact that the death penalty is prescribed for all parties in both cases shows that the issue is not exploitation of the weak by the strong.

[…]

Procreation is the common theme. Waste of reproductive seed is an issue here. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 80)

If someone is a medium or wizard.

I don’t think I need to go into how much suffering this one has caused (and continues to cause).

The chapter concludes with a bunch of jabber about the importance of not violating the ordinances, yadda yadda. At one point, God describes himself as the one who has “separated you from the peoples” (v.24). As in countless stories, from the Tower of Babel on, God is standing in the way of good relations between Israel and its neighbours – and is proud of it.

And we finish up with a reminder to “make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean” (v.25).

Leviticus 18: Uncovering nakedness

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In this chapter, we get a little list of all the prohibited sexual relationships. The list is introduced by forbidding sexual relations with “anyone near of kin” (Lev. 18:6), and then following that up with specifics:

  1. Your mother
  2. Your father’s wife
  3. Your sister or half-sister (on either your mother’s or father’s side), whether she “was born at home or abroad” (v.9)
  4. Your granddaughter (whether through your son or your daughter)
  5. Your father’s wife’s daughter, if she was “begotten by your father” (v.11)
  6. Your aunt by blood (whether through your father or your mother)
  7. Your aunt by marriage (only on your father’s side)
  8. Your brother’s wife (though I assume that this excludes the Levirate Marriage)
  9. A woman and her daughter, or a woman and her granddaughter (or, presumably, all three)
  10. Your wife’s sister, so long as your wife is still living
  11. A menstruating woman
  12. Your neighbour’s wife
  13. A man
  14. An animal (this is the only prohibition that is given to women as well)

My translation uses the euphemism “uncover the nakedness of” rather than “have sexual relations with,” which I’m definitely glad of. Should I ever be a grandmother, I will site “you shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter” (v.10) to get out of diaper duty. It’s in the Bible, okay? I’d love to help change diapers, but God forbids it!

The Flight of Moloch by William Blake

The Flight of Moloch by William Blake

A few of the rules come with justification, and the implications of ownership are interesting. For example, the list begins with: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother” (v.7). This is not a prohibition against sleeping with your father (which, I suppose, would be covered by “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” in v.22). Rather, it’s saying that you shouldn’t sleep with your mother because your mother’s nether regions belong to your father. Or, looking at a different translation, because it would “dishonor” (New International Version), “violate” (New Living Translation), or “shame” (Holman Christian Standard Bible) your father.

Again and again, we are reminded that a woman’s sexual act is a reflection of her patriarch, or that a violation of a woman is actually a violation of her patriarch. Having sex with your granddaughter, for example, is bad because “their nakedness is your own nakedness” (v.10), so you would be shaming yourself not because such a relationship would be inherently predatory, but because it would devalue your granddaughter and, thereby, devalue yourself.

On last note that I feel needs to be made is that there is no explicit prohibition against a man having sex with his daughter. It’s implied under the rule that he should not sleep with both a woman and her daughter, which does in practice cover his own daughters, but it’s not explicit. Given how inherently predatory such a sexual relationship would be, the omission is problematic. It makes it clear that the reasons for these laws have to do with cultic purity and not with the health or wellbeing of individuals.

Homosexuality

Leviticus 18:22, along with Leviticus 20, make up the only two explicit condemnations of homosexuality in the Old Testament. Which isn’t particularly impressive given how much air time homosexuality gets among conservatives, especially since both are mere one-liners while the prohibition on the consumption of blood gets a whole chapter (and multiple references).

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it seems to me that people might dislike homosexuality for personal reasons and are using the Bible as justification, rather than actually coming to the conclusion that homosexuality is worthy of the attention it’s getting after having read the Bible. Or, rather, the prohibition on homosexuality has been hyper-inflated in the cultural tradition, just like the story of Lucifer the fallen angel. Rather ironic given the sola scriptura basis for Protestantism (and, by extension, the very evangelical culture that is so quick to make a special case of homosexuality – singling it out among such a wide and varied field of abominations).

According to Collins, “the biblical prohibition of male homosexual intercourse is unique in the ancient world” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.80), but, as he points out, Leviticus doesn’t provide us with any reason for the prohibition.

Also notable is the absent of a corollary for women. Though some might argue that these sexual prohibitions are clearly written for a male audience so that the female corollary must be implied, Collins rightly points out that “the following verses carefully indicates that the prohibition of sex with animals applies to women as well as to men,” so it’s absence in the face of lesbian sex is conspicuous. As a possible explanation for the omission, Collins suggests that “sex between women did not concern the Priestly legislators because there was no loss of semen involved.”

Craig Smith, over at BLT, adds that:

Men who allowed themselves to be penetrated by another man were felt to have made themselves like women – who were, of course, not valued in patriarchal cultures. The absence of a similar injunction against “a woman lying with a woman as with a man” indicates that this passage does not refer to homosexuality at all, but to the “dishonor” that one’s maleness would suffer through being penetrated.

[…]

Female homosexuality poses little threat to patriarchal cultures primarily due to the low status of women within the culture.

There also seems to be a clear acceptance of polygamy. While not directly addressed, it does say that “you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister’s yet alive” (v.18). This could be a translation issue, but it seems to be negotiating respect against a backdrop of assumed polygamy.

Child sacrifice

Right in the middle of all these rules about who is off-limits to your penis, we get this rather jarring tangent: “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech” (v.21).

That escalated quickly

I’m assuming that this was just sloppy editing work by someone trying to weave together multiple traditions, but there’s been some really interesting speculation about what the digression might mean.

For example, commenter Brian Hitt over at The King and I paraphrases Leviticus 18 as follows:

Yahweh: Please guys, don’t have sex with other men, animals, or close kin. . . but IF you DO. . . and someone gets pregnant and has kids (well, probably not the men or beasts). . . please don’t burn them to Molech, he’s a real jerk!

Strangers who sojourn among you

Leviticus 18 opens with the following preamble:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. (v.3)

Apparently, the Egyptians and Canaanites really know how to party.

As in Leviticus 17, these rules apply to everyone in Israel, not just to the Jews: “But you shall keep my statues and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you” (v.26). As I wrote in the post about Leviticus 17, the idea of requiring that people who do not belong to your religious community obey your religious laws does not sit well with me. It’s a bit less of an issue when we’re talking about incest rather than eating meat that hasn’t been slaughtered in sacrifice to a particular god, but it’s still an issue.

As an incentive to following these rules, God adds that: “you shall therefore keep my statues and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live” (v.5). Now, presumably, the Egyptians and the Canaanites – who are held up as examples of people who do not follow these specific ordinances – are living (or were living, you get my point). So the promise is not that following God’s rules will be rewarded with life, but rather that doing so will avoid the punishment of death, and that’s an important distinction.

So when it comes to the relationship between God and his Chosen People, cui bono – who benefits? The implication in this chapter is that God is the one who benefits, not the Israelites.

As when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart – resulting in the deaths of far more people and animals than would have had God merely allowed Pharaoh to relent the first time it was his inclination to do so – the concern here is not with presenting God as good or just, but merely powerful. The rules must be followed not because they are good or reasonable, but because God has the power to enforce them. It’s nothing more nor less than ‘might makes right.’

To reinforce his threat, God tells Moses that the Israelites are getting the land “before you” because they are, so far, in his good books. The Canaanites, however, not so much. The Canaanites are painted harshly – “for by all these [the sexual ordinances] the nations I am casting out before you defile themselves” (v.24), so that “the land vomited out its inhabitants” (v.25).

This is a rather convenient excuse for a conquering people. In our own, more recent history, we saw the same rhetoric used in reference to the First Nations / Native American peoples.