2 Kings 9: Coup

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In our last chapter, we read that King Joram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah were fighting against King Hazael of Syria. While they were fighting at Ramoth-Gilead, Joram was injured, so he and Ahaziah retreated to Jezreel until Joram’s recovery. We can gather from this chapter that a fair portion of the army was left behind. And it’s there that we find Jehu, a commander of the Israelite army that Elijah had been told to anoint as king way back in 1 Kings 19:15-18 (his reign is intended as a punishment for Israel, which is perhaps not the most desirable quality to be hired for).

Elijah failed to carry out most of the jobs God gave him, though at least in the last chapter (where Elisha anointed Hazael), we could chalk it up to a conflation of the two prophets. Here, however, even Elisha outsources the work.

In what looks extraordinarily like a set up for a practical joke, Elisha tasks one of the sons of the Prophets with going to Ramoth-Gilead, splash some oil at Jehu, then run away. Which he does, inviting Jehu into a house and pouring oil over him. He delivers a quick speech about bringing down the house of Ahab and getting vengeance on Jezebel, then flees.

Jehu’s servants are obviously confused by their leader now dripping with oil and the weird guy who just dashed off toward the horizon. At first, Jehu refuses to explain (displaying the typical humility we’ve been associated with our prophet-anointed leaders), but at least explains that he has been anointed the new king of Israel. His followers respond by removing their clothes and putting them “under him on the bare steps” (2 Kgs 9:13), apparently as a way of declaring their support for Jehu. Finishing off the ceremony, they blow some trumpets and proclaim him their king.

It points to the fluidity of the monarchy. We saw Saul anointed by a prophet and then, separately, accepted by the people in 1 Sam. 9-11. While he was still king, the same prophet then anointed David in 1 Sam. 16:13. More recently, Hazael was anointed while another king of Syria still ruled (2 Kings 8). It seems that getting anointed by a prophet was an important step in a successful coup.

My New Bible Commentary suggests the possibility that Jehu and his commanders had already been considering a coup (prompted by the mention of the commanders being “in council” in 2 Kgs 9:5). Whether or not that’s the case, Jehu is certainly quite amenable to the suggestion – just as Hazael was in the last chapter.

To Jezreel

Having been declared Israel’s new king by its army, Jehu immediately locks Ramoth-Gilead down to prevent word of it from getting to Joram. When he rides out toward Jezreel, it’s under the cover of secrecy, giving Joram no chance to prepare a defence.

Jehu can’t hide from Jezreel’s watch, however, and they see his army’s approach. Unfortunately for Joram, the messenger he sends out to ask if Jehu comes in peace is convinced to switch sides, joining the advance on Jezreel. When the same happens with a second messenger, Joram decides that he needs to talk to Jehu for himself. If you want something done right…

When Joram leaves the protection of Jezreel, he brings Ahaziah along with him. As it just so happens, the two kings meet the rebels on Naboth’s vineyard – the stealing of which led to the cursing of Jezebel and her husband’s dynasty in 1 Kings 21. When they come face to face, Joram – ever hopeful – asks again if Jehu has come in peace. “What peace can there be, so long as the harlotries and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many?” (2 Kgs 9:22) is the reply. So, basically, that’s a no.

Realizing that he’s in big trouble, Joram reels around and tries to flee, but Jehu shoots him in the back with an arrow. The death is perhaps a little more honourable than Hazael’s suffocation of Benhadad, but only by a smidge. Jehu has his aide, Bidkar, toss the body onto Naboth’s old land to fulfil the curse from 1 Kings 21:17-19.

Ahaziah remains, at least for now. When he tries to flee, Jehu pursues him and his men manage to shoot the king of Judah as well. He doesn’t die instantly as Joram had, however. Instead, he makes it all the way to Megiddo before he falls, and is then conveyed back to Jerusalem for burial. We also get a rather out-of-place verse telling us that Ahaziah began his reign in the eleventh year of Joram (2 Kings 9:29), which is not only appearing at the wrong end, but also conflicts with 2 Kings 8:25.

The Fall of Jezebel

It’s hard not to feel for Jezebel as she sees Jehu coming, presumably knowing that he’s just killed her son and is now coming after her. Instead of trying to run away as both Joram and Ahaziah had done, she dresses herself in queenly regalia and faces Jehu from her window. She knows what’s coming, yet she meets her fate head on and in the full dignity of her station.

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

Or she’s a dirty dirty whore who was so vain that she took the time to put on her whore paint and shriek out of her window before getting her totally justified comeuppance. Either interpretation is perfectly valid. Really. (Does my eye-roll transcend the information superhighway?)

As Jehu approaches, Jezebel calls him a “Zimri” – a reference to another Israelite military coup leader who murdered his king. The accusation is both an apt comparison and a curse, since Zimri was himself deposed after only seven days. The story can be found in 1 Kings 16:8-20.

Rather than respond to the accusation, Jehu calls out to any of Jezebel’s servants who might be on his side, asking them to throw her down. Two or three eunuchs respond, tossing their mistress from the window, after which her body was trampled by Jehu’s horses.

Jehu took the time to eat and drink, presumably in celebration, before finally calling for Jezebel’s body to be properly buried, as befits her status as a king’s daughter (she was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon, 1 Kings 16:31). By that time, however, her corpse had been eaten by dogs, leaving nothing more than that her skull, feet, and the palm of her hands. Basically, it’s the exact opposite of a mob hit.

To close off the story, we get Jehu justifying his actions by calling it all the will of God, as prophesied by Elijah in 1 Kings 21:23 (though Jehu’s version adds a few gruesome details).

1 Kings 21: A vineyard to die for

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We return to the sins of Ahab and his household for this chapter. This time, we find him coveting a neighbouring vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. Fairly reasonably, Ahab offers to either buy or trade for the land. Also reasonably, Naboth refuses. In this case, he’s refusing on religious grounds, as selling land is prohibited in, for example, Numbers 36:7 and through much of Leviticus 25. So far, so good. Ahab’s reaction, however, is not exactly flattering. He takes to his bed and refuses to eat in a dramatic hiss-fit worthy of the most assiduous toddler. But it is Jezebel who gets to be the convenient baddie in this story.

After finding out what’s eating Ahab, she comes up with a plan to secure the desired vineyard. What’s really interesting, and more than a little surprising, about this story is how deftly Jezebel uses Jewish law to achieve her goals. Far from being the colonialist foreigner who simply dismisses the local religion as she brings over her own traditions, she is portrayed as someone who has taken the time to become completely fluent in the local customs – and she deftly uses that knowledge to her husband’s advantage.

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

Using Ahab’s seal and in his name, Jezebel writes to the elders and nobles of Jezreel, instructing them to find “two base fellows” (1 Kings 21:10) willing to testify that Naboth had cursed both God and king. The crime she accuses Naboth of is prohibited in Exodus 22:28 (and a case study found in Leviticus 24:10-16). The requirement that two witnesses be produced is found in Deuteronomy 17:5-6 and Deuteronomy 19:15.

Naboth is, of course, found guilty and stoned to death, freeing up his vineyard for a new owner. (It seems that someone wondered why the vineyard wasn’t simply inherited by Naboth’s sons, resulting in 2 Kings 9:26 having the sons die along with their father.)

Thankfully, God isn’t well pleased with all this. Unfortunately, rather than finding a way to save Naboth, he merely sends the prophet Elijah over with some stern words for Ahab. That’ll show him.

Specifically, Elijah curses Ahab, saying that his own blood will be licked up by dogs in the same place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood. He definitely gets points for vivid imagery. After a bunch of the usual promises to bring down Ahab’s dynasty, he comes back to the dogs: “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel” (1 Kings 21:23).

Staying on a image that is clearly working for him, he then pronounces that any of Ahab’s followers who die in urban areas will be eaten by dogs, while Ahab’s followers who die in rural areas will be eaten by birds. This threat is nearly a word-for-word repetition of the threat given to Jeroboam in 1 Kings 14:11. Either God’s running out of material, or an editor said “oh hey, dogs! I love dogs! I read this other thing about dogs once that would go really well in this passage!”

There’s a very odd passage that reads strongly as an insert reminding us that Ahab was just the worst. I suppose that after all that stuff about dogs eating people, an editor was concerned that we might start to feel sorry for Ahab?

Ahab, prone to dramatic displays, hears this and has another episode – this time rending his clothes, fasting, wearing sackcloth, and going “about dejectedly” (1 Kings 21:27). This time, it’s precisely the right thing to do. Taking this display as repentance, God decides to spare Ahab and to punish his kids instead. Thanks, God!