Amos 8: Oh my sweet summer fruit

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Returning to the formula of Amos’s first and second visions, his fourth begins with, “Thus the Lord God showed me” (Amos 8:1).

This time, God is showing Amos a basket of summer fruit, and he tells him that the end is coming for the people of Israel. On that day, temple music will become wailing and many will die.

There’s some wordplay here, as Jim Linville points out: “Amos sees a basket of summer fruit, קיץ qays, but upon identifying it, YHWH announces the end קץ qes of Israel” (“Vision and Voices: Amos 7-9.” Biblical Studies on the Web, Vol.80, p.34).

The pun is wonderful. It isn’t just the use of homophones (near homophones?), but in this case the summer fruit can also be seen to represent Israel – which, under Jeroboam, was bloated with prosperity. According to Amos, this abundance warns of Israel’s fall just as the abundance of summer harvests warns of coming winter.

My RSV gives Amos 8:3 as: “The dead bodies shall be many; in every place they shall be cast out in silence.” Other translations, however, have something more along the lines of: “Many are the corpses, in every place he has cast. Silence!”

This second translation is important for Linville, who asks who the intended speaker of the exclamation might be. One possibility is that it is YHWH himself, commanding silence from the people so that they can hear the warning that follows. Another possibility is that he is demanding “silent awe” from those who have survived as they survey the dead. Or perhaps he speaks to the dead, who will never speak again.

Linville also proposes that it could be from Amos, who sees where God is going with this and begs for him not to speak it aloud. Or perhaps the exclamation is “a warning to himself not to interfere.” Linville’s final suggestion is that Amos is demanding “silence from God’s victims when he himself is coerced into declaring their doom” (“Vision and Voices,” p.35).

Hear This

After this, the narrative switches to direct speech for a while as the speaker, presumably Amos, addresses the audience. He calls to them to listen, naming them those who trample the needy and the poor.

The speaker accuses the listener of asking when the new moon will end so they can sell grain, or when it’s the sabbath so they can sell wheat? I initially interpreted this as meaning that they were using the cultic calendar to time their economic activities, rather than using the festivals as reminders of God’s true command: Justice. My study Bible, however, interprets the passage as meaning that the “merchants are impatient for the holy days to pass so they can resume their fraudulent business.”

The visions of Amos, 16th cent.

The visions of Amos, 16th cent.

The speaker accuses the listener of making the ephah small and the shekel great, of dealing deceitfully with false balances. This is clearly a reference to the use of scales in transactions, and merchants rigging them in their own favour.

The listener is accused of selling the refuse of wheat and, as in Amos 2:6, the listener is accused of buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. As I noted in my post on Amos 2: “This is likely a reference to bribery in the justice system, rather than a real buyer’s market in the slave trade.”

Swearing by the pride of Jacob (which God abhors, as per Amos 6:8), God vows never to forget “their” (Amos 8:7) deeds. The use of “their” really threw me, because suddenly the speaker is no longer speaking to the listeners, but about them! I get the impression of God and Amos, standing around the water cooler, dissing the Israelites just loudly enough that the Israelites can hear but quietly enough for it not to be obvious that it’s intentional.

Then comes some more doom-and-gloom as God vows that the land itself will tremble, and that all who dwell within it will mourn. All of it will rise up like the Nile, be tossed about, and sink (a reference to the annual flooding of the Nile – perhaps with the symbolic expectation of subsequent renewal, as the Nile’s flooding brings silt that makes the river’s watershed fertile).

On that day, God promises to make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth during the day (perhaps an echoing of Amos 5:18, where Amos promises that the day of the Lord is “darkness, and not light”). God will turn feasts into mourning, and he will turn songs into lamentations.

He promises to bring sackcloth to every loin and baldness to every head. Given the context, I suspect that the threat of baldness refers to hair cutting/shaving as part of mourning. In any case, God promises to make it like the mourning for an only son – implying that the destruction will be complete, and leave Israel without a future lineage.

Famine

Amos’s God promises a famine but, unlike what we’ve seen in so many other places, this is not a famine for bread or water. Rather, it is a famine of hearing the words of God. The people will wander from sea to sea seeking the word of God, but they won’t find it.

When I was a child, the concept of hell was described to me as separation from God. It seems that Amos has similar ideas.

On the coming day, even the young will faint for thirst. Those who worship Ashimah of Samaria and say: “as thy god lives, O Dan” and those who say “as the way of Beersheba lives” (Amos 8:14) will fall and never rise again. In other words, as my study Bible puts it: “The patron deities of pagan shrines, from the farthest north (Dan) to the farthest south (Beer-sheba), will be of no help on that day.”

The Linville article I am mercilessly quote-mining this evening notes an evolution in the sorts of punishments Amos envisions: “Rather than predict the end of the shrines of Isaac, the sanctuaries of Israel, and the house of Jeroboam (Amos 7,9, matters reintroduced by Amaziah, in 7,10-13), the fourth vision attacks the people directly. The subsequent oracles give reasons for this: social injustice has motivated God’s action (8,4-6)” (“Vision and Voices”, p.34).

Amos 5-6: Lamentations

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Amos 5-6 give us a lamentation very similar to what we read in the book of Lamentations. The difference is largely one of tense – Lamentations bemoans the horror that has happened, while Amos is looking forward to a coming horror.

As in Lamentations, Israel is feminized. And, again, we see the theme of friendlessness, the “virgin Israel” (Amos 5:2) is forsaken in her own lands, and no one will help her.

The Day of the Lord

Amos warns that the “day of the Lord” (Amos 5:18) is coming. He bemoans those who look forward to the day of God, because it is a day of darkness, not one of light. To look forward to such a day would be like to flee from a lion only to encounter a bear (Amos 5:19).

Given a lot of the context, the “day of the Lord” seems to refer to a day of judgement. And, given the commentaries, that’s definitely how many others seem to read it. But Collins gives an interesting alternative possibility:

In later times it came to mean the day of judgement. In this context, however, it clearly refers to a cultic celebration, perhaps the Festival of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, which was known as “the feast of YHWH” in later times. Tabernacles was celebrated at the end of the grape harvest. It was a joyful festival, marked by drinking wine. It was a day of light, in the sense of being a joyful occasion. For Amos, however, the day of the Lord was darkness and not light, gloom with no brightness. He is sweeping in his rejection of the sacrificial cult, in all its aspects. Instead, he asks that “justice roll down like waters.” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.157)

In other words, this could be Amos condemning the excess of a festival, rather than naming the anticipated day of judgement. Either interpretation could easily fit the context.

But if the “day of the Lord” does refer to a day of judgement, Amos has very clear ideas of what it will look like and why it’s deserved. The people of Samaria hate those who “reprove in the gate” and those who speak the truth (Amos 5:10), which sounds rather personal coming from a prophet. They also trample the poor and take from them exactions of wheat. While Amos certainly cares about social justice issues, his personal pique seems just a tad more important.

Amos warns the people that though they’ve built lovely stone houses, they won’t get to live in them. Though they’ve planted nice vineyards, they won’t get to dink the wine. Because God knows how great their sins are, and he knows that the people of Samaria afflict the righteous, turn aside the needy at the gate, and take bribes (the city gate being where justice is served – or, as the case may be not).

Because of all these things, God will destroy the strong. The cities will be decimated, and there will be wailing in all quarters when God “will pass through the midst of you” (Amos 5:17).

The only chance will be to seek God, and to seek good instead of evil. Bring justice back to the gates (Amos 5:15) and maybe God will be gracious.

I Despise Your Feasts

God calls to the people of Samaria to “seek me and live” (Amos 5:4), but not to bother at Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba.

God hates their feasts and their solemn assemblies. The people make their offerings, but God won’t accept them. He even asks that they take away the noise of their songs (a strong contrast to what we read in Chronicles!).

Amos, by John Sargent

Amos, by John Sargent

Instead of all this pomp and ceremony, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It’s a hard argument to disagree with.

For Collins, the problem isn’t necessarily with the ceremonies themselves, but rather that they “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the service of God, but actually an impediment to it” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.158).

God, via Amos, asks if the people brought him sacrifices and offerings during their forty years of wandering in the desert (Amos 5:25). In the context,this seems to be used to call back to a state of purity, when justice (rather than ritual) reigned. Therefore, the only answer Amos could have expected from his audience is a “no.” This is a problem in light of the Pentateuch, where the origins of ritual traditions are tied to the exodus.

In Amos 5:25, God promises to take the Samarian people into exile to Damascus because they worshiped idols, including the Assyrian gods Sakkuth and Kaiwan. According to Collins, this could be a problem for the dating of Amos. Because while Samaria was, in fact, eventually destroyed by Assyrians:

[T]he Assyrian threat was not in evidence during the reign of Jeroboam and developed only in the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, whose reign began about the time of Jeroboam’s death. Amos never mentions Assyria in his oracles, but a few passages refer to the punishment of exile, which was typical Assyrian policy (5:5,27). These oracles are more easily explained if they are dated somewhat later, when Assyria was a threat to Israel. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.155)

I Abhor Your Pride

Amos 6 is quite a bit shorter than the preceding chapter, and mostly focuses on the pride of Samaria.

It begins with a lament for those who feel at ease or secure, whether in Zion or Samaria (Amos 6:1). That tossing in of Jerusalem seems so casual, and yet there it is.

Amos asks, is Samaria better than Calneh or Hamath (according to my study Bible, these were important commercial centres in Assyria), or Gath (an important Philistine city)? Or is their territory greater than yours?

Amos predicts woe coming to the wealthy: Those who lie on ivory beds, those who eat lamb and calf, those who drink drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves, those who sing idle songs, those who, like David, invent for themselves instruments of music (Amos 6:5). After reading the fawning over David in Chronicles, this dismissal of him as something of a layabout really struck me. In any case, these creatures of wealth and comfort would be the first to go into exile, and their revelry will pass away. This did, of course, prove to come true.

God hates the pride of Jacob, he hates his strongholds, and so he has commanded that the great houses be smitten into fragments and the small houses into bits (Amos 6:11).

Though Samaria may congratulate itself for its military prowess, God will raise a nation against it (Amos 6:13-14).

Returning to rhetorical questions, Amos asks if horses run on rocks, or if oxen are used to plow the sea? Though the answers are apparently obvious no, the people have Samaria have managed to turn justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (Amos 6:12). In other words, the injustice seen in Samaria is a perversion of the natural order.

A Celestial Deity

Before I leave Amos 5-6, I wanted to mention Amos 5:8:

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name.

This makes God seem like an amalgam of typical Near Eastern male nature deities. God is the god of the stars, of the sun and moon, and of rain. It feels deliberate, like Amos is asserting that his god is the true god of these things, and that the worship of these things (either directly or through other gods) is idolatry. Maybe.

Amos 3-4: Disciplinary Strategies

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In Amos 1-2, it was easy to see a structure. I had noted at the time that Amos seemed to be drawing the Samarians in with some bravado about how terrible foreign nations are, then drawing ever closer until he dropped the bomb: indicting Samaria itself.

I see a few similar rhetorical tactics in Amos 3-4, but they are shorter. I’m getting the impression that the book of Amos is a collection of arguments/prophecies, rather than something that would have been meant as a complete treatise.

Most of Amos 3-4 is told as if it were the direct words of Gods (“spoken against you” – Amos 3:1), though with periodic speech tags in case anyone forgets.

Amos 3 begins by identifying Israel as a chosen people (or “family,” as they are called here). As Collins points out, “this should be good news.” Instead, however, it is because God has only known (in the biblical sense) Israel that the nation will be punished. “Election only means greater responsibility” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).

A Rhetorical Questioning

Amos 3:3-8 contains a series of rhetorical questions, culminating with the argument that God is the agent of Samaria’s suffering. The questions themselves are ones of obviousness, along the lines of “Is the pope Catholic?”

They start off rather unrelated to the point being made: Do two people walk together unless they have, at some point, met each other? Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey? (While I typically think of lions as being savannah dwellers, the Asiatic lion can, apparently, live in forests, and would have been the lion Amos was most familiar with.)

The questions inch closer to the point: Can a trumpet be blown in a city without making the people afraid?

And, finally: Can evil befall a city without it being God’s doing?

After the questions, we are told that God does not act without revealing it to the prophets (Amos 3:7). This, then, leads into:

The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

This is clearly a call back to Amos 1:2, but also reinforces the argument. God causes evil => God lets the prophets know when he does so => I have heard God tell me so, and am therefore compelled to tell you.

See the Oppression!

The reader is bidden to witness the tumult and oppression in Samaria. Clearly, Amos is one of them SJWs, because this injustice is prompting punishment from God.

The imagery is striking: Just as a shepherd might pull a few body parts out of a lion’s mouth, so will some small minority of Israelites be rescued from Samaria’s fate (Amos 3:12). The implication is clear – you may survive what’s coming, but you won’t be whole.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

Special mention is made of the altars at Bethel, whose horns will be cut off. These would be Jeroboam’s altars, built in 1 Kgs 12:25-33.

God will also destroy all the fancy houses, including the houses of ivory. An ivory house is mentioned in 1 Kgs 22:39, which my study Bible identifies as a Samarian palace “decorated with carved ivory inlay and containing furniture so decorated.” (It seems that some of these ivory inlays have survived.)

The listing of the palaces that will be destroyed concludes with “and the great houses shall come to an end” (Amos 3:15), which seems to be another example of a pun on the word “house” (which can mean both a physical structure and a dynasty). One of the more elaborate examples of these came in 1 Chron. 17:1-15, where David and God keep offering to build houses for each other, variously meaning palaces, dynasties, and temples.

Amos then turns his attention to the women of Samaria, whom he calls “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1). Bashan, it seems, was a “fertile area in Transjordan” (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 156), meaning that they are basically being called “fat cows.”

The women’s crimes are pretty terrible. You see, they have oppressed the poor, crushed the needy, and asked their husbands for something to drink. Yikes. Fat cows and hen-peckers? For this, their days are numbered and they will be cast forth into Harmon.

Next come the cultic practices, as God, via Amos, invites the Samarians to keep sinning at Bethel and Gilgal (both associated with prophets in 2 Kgs 2:1-2). They are invited to keep bringing their sacrifices and tithes, and to “publish them” as they so love to do (Amos 4:5).

The mention of the shrines made me wonder if it was a Deuteronomistic criticism of worship outside of the Jerusalem Temple. However, what follows makes it seem more like the criticism is of the pomp and circumstance, and the publicity of it all. It rang similar to Matthew 6:5, calling out the public display of pious peacocking as hypocrisy.

Collins points to another possibility, that ritual “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the serve of God, but actually an impediment to it. The service of God is about justice. It is not about offerings at all” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 158).

Expecting A Different Result

There have been portions of tonight’s reading that I’ve appreciated (the mentions of social justice, the condemnation of religious hypocrisy), and parts that have made me gag (the overt patriarchy of Amos’s condemnation of wives who presume). But the second half of Amos 4 is just plain silly.

In it, God lists all the punishments he’s given Samaria, ending each with, “yet you did not return to me.”

See, I’m a parent. I don’t go with the whole punishment thing as a general rule because the concept is rather silly. Most of what we read as “misbehaviour” actually turns out to be age-appropriate responses to asking too much from itty-bitty people. When I adjust my expectations and plan ahead for the unavoidable, nearly all “disciplinary” issues disappear. What remains can almost always be dealt with through teaching.

Punishments usually end up being counter productive, because punishing a child for age-appropriate behaviours doesn’t actually fix the problems. All it does is either break the child so they become unable to cope and meet their own needs, or it fosters an adversarial relationship that will then require parents to maintain constant vigilance in order to maintain the family hierarchy. Neither of which sounds like a positive outcome to me.

So here we have a God who sees the same behaviours repeated over and over again, and responds every time with punishments. And even though these punishments are clearly not working, he doggedly sticks to this one strategy while wringing his hands because it never ever works.

It reads like bad comedy.

The punishments themselves are:

  • Giving the people clean teeth and lack of bread;
  • Withholding rain when it was still 3 months before the harvest;
  • Arbitrarily withering some fields and not others;
  • Smiting with blight and mildew, laying waste to gardens and vineyards, devouring fig and olive trees with locusts;
  • Sending a pestilence (in the manner of Egypt);
  • Slaying Samaria’s young men with the sword and carrying away its horses;
  • Making the stench of Samaria’s camps go up their nostrils (I do believe this is scatological);
  • And overthrowing bits of Samaria, “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Amos 4:11 – you may notice the POV break here).

I just happened to be reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, and I came on the following relevant passage, given the mention of the harvest:

Before the time of the harvest, rich and poor alike waited. The Mediterranean is notorious for the variability of its harvests, due to unstable climatic conditions. The carefully tended fields were menaced by flattening cloudbursts, by random scything by hailstorms, and by the perpetual menace of prolonged drought (along its eastern and southern shores) and of “dry” winters (winters without snow and thus without moisture) in the plateaus of its hinterlands, notably in Anatolia. “Harvest shocks” caused by unforeseen shortfalls in the crops were the norm. In all areas except Egypt, yields could vary by over 50 percent from year to year.

Not surprisingly, therefore, wealth was widely thought of as lying in the hands of the gods. A good harvest was the smile of God or of the gods spreading across an obedient landscape. In 311, one of the last pagan emperors (the eastern emperor Maximin Daia) informed the citizens of Tyre that his persecution of the Christians had pleased the gods. The weather itself had changed for the better:

“Let them look at the standing crops already flourishing with waving heads in the broad fields, and at the meadows, glittering with plants and flowers, in response to abundant rains and to the restored mildness and softness of the atmosphere.” (p.12)

After all of that, though, the sermon just sort of… fizzles. Because all these punishments haven’t worked, God will send more. “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).

Then it derails entirely, telling us that he who makes mountains and creates wind is the God of hosts. It seems that I’m not the only one who feels that the passage seems odd in this spot, and the authenticity of Amos 4:13 is questioned, mostly because “the passages are abrupt in their context” (New Bible Commentary, p.728).

2 Chronicles 28: Big Bad Ahaz

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After a run of good kings, we’re about due for a bad one, and this one is really bad. Unfortunately, our sources can’t seem to agree on exactly what he did. The Kings parallel for this chapter is 2 Kgs 16, and the two are quite different.

The basic biographical details remain the same in both sources: Ahaz was 20 years old when he became king, and he reigned for 16 years. Interestingly, his mother is not named in either source – rather odd for the Judean kings.

The summary of his rule is bad. Israel bad. But the Chronicler tells us that he made molten images of Baal, burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire (likely meaning that he sacrificed them, as several translations have it). Kings, however, only has him worshipping outside of the Temple and making a single son pass through fire.

Whatever his crimes, God punishes him by sending enemies against Judah. The first is Syria, though the Chronicler doesn’t name the responsible king (given as King Rezin in 2 Kgs 16:5), and many Judahites are taken captive back to Damascus.

Israel’s Invasion

The next enemy is Israel, led by King Pekah son of Remaliah. In Kings, Pekah manages to besiege Jerusalem, but isn’t able to conquer it, and that is all that we hear of the attack.

In the Chronicler’s version, however, Pekah thoroughly defeats Ahaz, slaying 120,000 Judahite men of valour in a single day. One of their member, named Zichri, murders Ahaz’s son Maaseiah, his palace commander Azrikam, and his second in command Elkanah.

The Israelites also take spoils and 200,000 women and children captives back to Samaria. When they reach the city, however, they are met by the prophet Oded. Oded appeals to them not to keep the captives, highlighting the kinship between the Israelites and the Judahites, because their war was only one because of God’s anger against the Judahites – yet have the Israeltes themselves not done plenty to anger God as well?

Four chiefs pay attention to Oded’s words: Azariah son of Johanan, Berechiah son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah son of Shallum, and Amas son of Hadalai. They go out to meet the incoming army and command them not to bring the captives into Samaria lest they bring guilt down on Israel, “in addition to our present sins and guilt” (2 Chron. 28:13 – which, I will venture, is a fabricated quote).

So the army gives the captives over to the four chiefs, who cloth them with their own spoils, provide them with food and water, mount the feeble up on donkeys, and bring them to their kin in Jericho. Then they retreat back to Samaria.

Ahaz Betrayed

In the Kings account, Ahaz appears to the king of Assyria, Tilgath-pileser (here called Tilgath-pilneser) for help against the Syrians and Israelites. In that version of the story, the Assyrians agree, and they conquer Syria and kill its king.

2 Chronicles 28Here, however, Ahaz appeals for help against the Edomites, who joining the party in Judah and taking captives (while in 2 Kgs 16:6, the Edomites are only taking back land that Judah had previously taken from them, and instead of taking captives, they send the settled Judahites back to Judah proper).

The Chronicler also throws in a mention of Philistines, absent in 2 Kings 16, who are raiding and conquering several of Judah’s cities.

Another major difference is that, here, Tilgath-Pilneser refuses, joining in on Judah’s beat down rather than coming to Ahaz’s aid.

This causes a problem for the list of Ahaz’s sins, however. In Kings, Ahaz goes to Damascus to meet with Tilgath-pileser. While there, he is so impressed with their altar that he has a replica built in Jerusalem – the building carried out by the priest Uriah.

The Chronicler, however, has Ahaz taking up the worship of the Syrian gods, after seeing the Syrians win their battles. So while the Chronicler has Ahaz impressed with the power of the Syrian gods, Kings has the Syrians defeated and their king killed. And while he does take the design for the Syrian altar, his interest seems to be purely aesthetic, and there’s no indication that he worshipped any god other than Yahweh on it.

And while in both sources, Ahaz raids the Temple for treasures, it’s only in Chronicles that he shuts up its doors (while Kings certainly seems to indicate that worship continued there). In Chronicles, Ahaz also built altars all around Jerusalem and made high places all over Judah.

On a roll, the Chronicler gives us one final difference when he has the dead Ahaz buried in the city, not in the tombs of the kings of Israel. In 2 Kgs 16:20, however, it’s clear that he is buried with his ancestors. The Chronicler seems to like the idea of a burial council that decides the worthiness of each king after his death.

2 Chronicles 25: The vicissitudes of Amaziah

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Much like his father’s, Amaziah’s reign is marked by great early faithfulness followed by a descent into idolatry. This time, however, we don’t have a shadowy priest/puppeteer to blame.

In this chapter, which is largely derived from 2 Kgs 14, we find a 25 year old Amaziah as his takes his father’s throne. His father, if you’ll remember, was murdered in his bed to avenge his killing of the prophet Zechariah (son of the high priest Jehoiada).

Once Amaziah took power, he wasn’t long in avenging his father. As soon as he has stabilized himself in his new position, he had the conspirators killed (we saw the same kind of court cleansing with Solomon in 1 Kgs 2, and Jehoram in 2 Chron. 21). Amaziah did, however, spare their children, which the Chronicler tells us was in accordance with the law of Moses (quoting Deut. 24:16).

The Edomite War

In 2 Kgs 14:7, we are told that Amaziah defeated 10,000 Edomites and captured Sela (which he renamed Joktheel). The Chronicler gives us quite a bit more detail:

It begins, as all good battles do, with preparation. Amaziah assembles his army, mustering any males over the age of 20 – this comes out to a total of 300,000 men, a much smaller number than Asa musters in 2 Chron. 14:8.

Amaziah fled to Lachish

Amaziah fled to Lachish

In addition to his native army, Amaziah also hires 100,000 Israelites for 100 talents of silver. God isn’t too happy about this, of course, and sends a prophet to change his mind. The argument is the same that we’ve heard quite a bit: Trust in God because victory comes from him, not from superior numbers. Besides, “the Lord is not with Israel, with all these Ephraimites” (2 Chron. 25:7). Amaziah doesn’t seem to contest this line of reasoning, but is worried about all the money he’s spent on the mercenaries going to waste. the prophet reassures him, saying that God is capable of giving him far more wealth than that.

Since Amaziah is still in the loyal portion of his reign, he listens to the prophet and sends the Israelite mercenaries back.

We finally come to the events of 2 Kgs 14:7, where Amaziah leads his army out to the Valley of Salt and kills 10,000 men of Seir. The Chronicler doesn’t mention Seir’s capture or renaming to Joktheel, but adds that Amaziah also took 10,000 Edomites captive (though he promptly tossed them off a cliff).

While this is going on, the spurned Israelites double back and attack Judah while it’s defenceless. They kill 3,000 Judahites, but this appears to be a fairly straightforward raid and they head back to Israel with their spoils. The Chronicler never tries to explain this loss, despite Amaziah doing as he was told.

In this story, the Chronicler never tells us why Amaziah killed the Edomite captives. The most likely explanation is that this was a show of force, a decimation to prevent future resistance. I also tried to think of it in light of the Israelite flanking attack: Perhaps Amaziah’s intention was to bring the captives (or at least a portion of them) back to Judah as slaves. But when he heard of the Israelite attack, he had to rush back and couldn’t afford the time to bring the slaves along. Or perhaps he feared their number, worrying that leaving too many Edomites alive could mean getting caught between two armies. Better to decimate the Edomites while his military power is concentrated in Edom, then return to deal with the Israelites without having to fear for his back.

Whatever the explanation, Amaziah doesn’t seem to have been in too much of a hurry to bring Edomite idols back to Judah, setting them up for worship. This detail is absent in the Kings account, but may be hinted at in 2 Kgs 14:3, where Amaziah is described as “follow[ing] the example of his father Joash” (Joash having turned to idolatry in his later life).

The Chronicler doesn’t give us any information about Amaziah’s motivations, but there are some possibilities:

  • It could have been another act to demoralize the Edomites and, perhaps, bring them back into the vassalage after they seceded in 2 Chron. 21. The point would be to, effectively, take their gods as hostages. As for setting up their worship in Judah, it could just be the Chronicler’s failure to imagine the possession of idols without their worship. Or perhaps Amaziah, a monolatrist, wasn’t comfortable with the possibility of angering the Edomite gods by cutting them off from worship.
  • One possibility that seems to be favoured by religious commentaries is that, having won such a great victory, Amaziah believed that the Edomite gods had changed sides.

In any case, God isn’t happy, and he sends another anonymous prophet to harangue Amaziah. This time, his argument is actually fairly compelling: Why would you worship the Edomite gods when they couldn’t even protect the Edomites?

The Thistle of Lebanon

Listening to the advice of his councillors, Amaziah sends an invitation to battle to King Joash of Israel. In response, Joash tells him a parable about a thistle who asks the cedar to give his daughter to marry the thistle’s son, but then a wild beast passes by and tramples the thistle. Just in case Amaziah doesn’t get it, Joash explains: Amaziah is full of boasting about his defeat of Edom, but that will only provoke trouble.

In 2 Kgs 14, Joash’s response makes a little more sense. Amaziah, full of his victory, decides to go after another neighbour. Here, however, it’s hard not to read Amaziah’s invitation as retaliation for the Israelite raid – but then Joash’s parable doesn’t fit quite so nicely.

In any case, Amaziah doesn’t listen (according to the Chronicler, God prevents him from listening so that he can use the ensuing war to punish him) and the two armies face each other at Bethshemesh. Israel wins and Amaziah is captured.

Joash then goes after Jerusalem, knocking down many of its walls, taking captives (including Obededom, who is not mentioned in the 2 Kgs account), and taking spoils from both Temple and palace.

We never learn of how Amaziah came to be freed, only that he outlived Joash by 15 years. Back in Jerusalem, a conspiracy grew against him and he was eventually forced to flee to Lachish. He was followed, though, and slain there, and the conspirators brought his corpse back to Jerusalem for burial.

In summary, the Chronicler tells us that Amaziah ruled for 29 years and that his mother’s name was Jehoaddan of Jerusalem. For more information, we are referred to the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.

2 Chronicles 22: The very brief reign of Ahaziah

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In the last chapter, we learned that all but one of Jehoram’s sons were either kidnapped or killed by the Philistines and Arabs, leaving him with only his youngest – Jehoahaz.

In this chapter, we take up the story of Jehoahaz, now called Ahaziah, after his father’s death. This new name is an odd nut, as the Chronicler doesn’t refer to him as Jehoahaz at all after 2 Chron. 21. My suspicion is that the Chronicler was working with two different sources, each of which used a different name for the king. The fact that the passage in which his name is Jehoahaz (when we learn that his brothers were all eliminated from the running by the Philistines and Arabs) has no corollary in Kings is evidence that the discrepancy comes from using multiple sources.

It doesn’t appear to be a contradiction, though. My New Bible Commentary indicates that the two names are actually the same, given differently: Jehoahaz is Yah + ahaz, while Ahaziah is ahaz + Yah. “Both mean ‘Yahweh has grasped'” (p.389).

I mentioned above that Kings doesn’t mention the elimination of Ahaziah’s older brothers, nor does it in any way indicate his position in birth order (2 Kgs 8:24). Another difference that caught my eye is that, in 2 Chron. 22:1, it is “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” who make Ahaziah king after his father’s death.

The idea that he was made king by “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” seems like it must be significant, since it deviates from the normal formula in which sons simply reign in the stead of their fathers (as Ahaziah is said to do in 2 Kgs 8:24).

It seems that the phrase must refer to the fact that Ahaziah was Jehoram’s youngest son, so his coronation would violate primogeniture. When primogeniture has been violated in the past, we are told that the king ordered it so, so the phrase might be an indication that Jehoram did not make arrangements, leaving it up to the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do so.

But if his brothers had been killed, Ahaziah would have become the eldest (living) son of Jehoram, so the inhabitants of Jerusalem wouldn’t have needed to make any decision. This gives us the possibility that that at least some of his brothers weren’t killed, perhaps they were still living, but held captive in foreign lands. Perhaps this is why a public decision was needed to bypass the normal line of succession.

A second possibility is that the Chronicler simply made a mistake. In Kings, there is another Jehoahaz, the son of King Josiah of Judah. In 2 Kgs 23:30, we learn that Jehoahaz, though not the oldest surviving son of Josiah, was selected to rule by “the people of the land.” The similarity is uncanny, and I can’t help but wonder if the Chronicler simply confused the two Jehoahazes.

I mean, we certainly know that the Chronicler wasn’t above the odd error. For example, we learn in 2 Chron. 22:2 that Ahaziah was 42 years old when he began his reign. In 2 Chron. 21:20, Jehoram was 32 when he began his reign and he reigned for 8 years, making him 40 when he died. This would make Ahaziah two years older than his father. I can file a good deal of implausibility away as miracles, but that just seems silly. Ahaziah’s age in 2 Kgs 8:26, 22, is more plausible. It’s still a bit weird if Ahaziah is to be Jehoram’s youngest son, but not impossible.

Ahaziah’s mother was Athaliah, Ahab’s daughter and the granddaughter of Omri. We learn that she gave Ahaziah bad advice, which led him into the same kind of evil as Ahab (likely meaning that she wasn’t a strict Yahwehist, or at least not in the same way that the Chronicler would like).

Jehu’s Coup

Only a year into his reign, Ahaziah joined King Jehoram of Israel in fighting King Hazael of Syria. During the fight, Jehoram (or Joram – the Chronicler uses both versions) is injured and returns to Jezreel to recuperate, and Ahaziah joins him there with a bouquet and a Get Well Soon card.

Joash is saved, by Michel Martin Drolling

Joash is saved, by Michel Martin Drolling

This gives God the perfect opportunity to get him. See, God has set up a man named Jehu son of Nimshi to destroy Ahab’s dynasty, so putting Ahaziah and Jehoram in the same location allows God to get rid of both at a single swoop.

Ahaziah and Jehoram are forced to go out meet Jehu, presumably in battle. During this, while Jehu is “executing judgement upon the house of Ahab” (2 Chron. 22:8), Jehu kills Ahaziah’s nephews (who had been attending him).

Jehu next goes after Ahaziah, finding him hiding in Samaria. Ahaziah is caught and brought before Jehu, who has him put to death. This account is different from the one found in 2 Kgs 9:27-28, where Ahaziah was simply caught while in the process of fleeing.

Ahaziah’s body is recovered and buried as Jehoshaphat’s grandson, likely meaning that he was given the kingly honours that his father was not. Ahaziah’s death, coming only a year into his reign, left no one in David’s dynasty capable of ruling.

Athaliah’s Coup

Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, took the opportunity to claim the crown for herself. To secure her position, she tried to have every surviving member of her husband’s family murdered. Unfortunately for her, she missed on – her grandson, Ahaziah’s infant son, Joash.

Ahaziah’s sister, Jehoshabeath, fetched Joash and hid him away with his nurse in a bed-chamber. She was then somehow able to sneak him over to the Temple, where he lived with her and her husband, Jehoiada the priest (who is curiously absent from the priestly line in 1 Chron. 6) for six years while Athaliah held wore the crown.

2 Chronicles 17-18: The Old Switcheroo

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Jehoshaphat’s narrative, as Asa’s, is considerably bloated. While he takes up only a single chapter in Kings (1 Kgs 22) – which he must share with King Ahab of Israel – the Chronicler gives him four chapters.

Cultic Concerns

2 Chron. 17 kicks us off on a fairly positive note, and is largely unique to Chronicles.

We learn that Jehoshaphat was a faithful king, that he “walked in the earlier ways of his father” (2 Chron. 17:3 – as opposed to Asa’s later days in which he forgot to turn to God in his moments of need). He sought God to the exclusion of other gods, so God established his rule and built up his wealth.

Contradicting 1 Kgs 22:43, we learn that Jehoshaphat succeeded where his father had fallen short, and he removed all the high places and Asherim from Judah. (We can play the same games we played with Asa and say that he did fail to remove the YHWH shrines, but that he managed to oust the shrines to other gods that had cropped up since Asa’s purges. If we want to.)

In the third year of his reign, he sent his princes throughout Judah, in the company of Levites and priests, to teach the law to the people. The princes he sent were: Benhail, Obadiah, Nethanel, and Micaiah. The Levites who went along were: Shemaiah, Nethaniah, Zebadiah, Asahel, Shemiramoth, Jehonathan, Adonijah, Tobijah, and Tobadonijah. The priests were: Elishama and Jehoram.

There are two questions that might be raised by this passage. The first is raised by the New Bible Commentary, which claims that it would have been prohibitively expensive to equip all these priests and princes with scrolls (p.388 – it also brings up the claim of widespread illiteracy, but easily smacks it down. Princes and priests would be just the sorts of people to have had access to education, at least so far as reading is concerned).

I find the claim difficult to swallow. Would scrolls have been expensive? Sure! But prohibitively so? Especially since we don’t actually know what they were carrying along with them. Was it the whole Pentateuch? Or merely a short-ish list of laws that, later, became the basis for parts of it? If we allow that it might have been a shorter text, and that it was only needed in 16 copies (assuming that each prince and priest carried his own), it seems well within the range of what a sufficiently-motivated monarch could manage.

Let’s not forget how many texts are mentioned as sources and references throughout Chronicles alone, written by court chroniclers and prophets (where there’s a difference). If the seer Iddo could get his hands on paper, couldn’t the king?

The second question, raised by James Bradford Pate, is why princes were sent along with the priests. One possibility he gives is that the princes were there to teach the secular law, while the priests taught the religious laws. I suspect, however, that such a dichotomy is rather anachronistic. Certainly, having now read through the Pentateuch, there’s little indication that its authors would have understood the difference.

Another possibility Pate raises is that the princes were there to give the priests backing, to make it clear that they taught with the king’s authority. A third is that they were there to serve the Chronicler’s own ends, to provide a precedent for members of the laity teaching cultic law, as he says was happening in synagogues in the Chronicler’s own time.

Personally, I suspect that this is just further evidence of theological evolution. In many cultures of the ancient Near East, secular and religious duties were conflated, with the roles of the king and high priest being filled by the same individual. It seems that the same was true in the early monarchy as, in 2 Sam. 8:18, we learn that David’s sons were priests. Why couldn’t Jehoshaphat’s sons also be priests? The Chronicler typically tries to erase these bread crumbs from his sources, but may have left this passage as Jehoshaphat’s devotion – that he would send his own sons out with the priests to, say, lead by example. He almost certainly added Levites to whatever his original source might have said, and perhaps made priests into a distinct category (as opposed to, say, “Jehoshaphat’s sons and other priests”). Perhaps he felt that was enough to fudge over his religion’s history, and bring it in line with his current belief system.

Military Might

We also learn about Jehoshaphat’s military might. We learn that he garrisoned all the fortified cities of Judah, as well as the surrounding land. He also garrisoned the cities of Ephraim that Asa had conquered (perhaps a reference to what might have fallen to him during Syria’s Benhadad’s attack on Israel in 2 Chron. 16).

He surrounded himself with soldiers and mighty men. In Jerusalem, his army commanders from Judah were:

  • Adnah, who oversaw 300,000 men;
  • Jehohanan, who oversaw 280,000 men;
  • and Amasiah, son of Zichri, who was a volunteer for the service of God and oversaw 200,000 men.

The commanders from Benjamin were:

  • Eliada, who was one of the mighty men and oversaw 200,000 archers;
  • and Jehozabad, who oversaw 180,000 men.

These were only the commanders in Jerusalem, and there were plenty more scattered about in the fortified cities.

Jehoshaphat’s power grew, and he built up fortresses and store-cities, not to mention the contents of those stores. All the surrounding nations were so afraid of God that they left Judah alone. In fact, some even made gifts and tributes to Jehoshaphat, including the Philistines and the Arabs. (This verse is used to support the possibility that Zerah, from 2 Chron. 14, had been an Arab king rather than an Ethiopian one, and that this “gift” arrangement was a result of that conflict.)

Consulting Micaiah

2 Chron. 18 is taken almost verbatim from 1 Kgs 22, and is pretty much all that the author of Kings felt worthy of mentioning about Jehoshaphat. The Chronicler doesn’t much bother with the northern kingdom, but makes an exception of Ahab for Jehoshaphat’s presence in the story. Where there are differences, it is usually to trim some of Ahab’s narrative detail, or to enhance Jehoshaphat’s.

While 2 Chron. 17 paints a rather rosy picture of Jehoshaphat, we learn here that he made a marriage alliance with Ahab. In real terms, whatever respite it might have brought in the multi-generational conflicts between the two half-nations seems like it would have been a blessing (to use the term in a secular sense), particularly for border communities. To the theologically motivated Chronicler, however, it was no such thing.

After a few years, Jehoshaphat visits Ahab in the Israelite capital of Samaria. To make Jehoshaphat seem more like a highly honoured guest, the Chronicler adds a detail about Ahab slaughtering a great many sheep and oxen for Jehoshaphat and his retinue.

2 Chronicles 17-18It is during this trip that Ahab asks Jehoshaphat to join him in attacking Ramoth-gilead, which had fallen into Syrian hands. Jehoshaphat agrees, but asks that they consult with God first.

The scene is painted in surprising detail, with the two kings in their full display. They are arranged in their robes, on their thrones, at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and 400 sycophantic prophets were before them, all prophesying that they should go, that God would deliver Ramoth-gilead into their hands.

One prophet in particular, Zedekiah son of Chenaanah, goes above and beyond with the theatrics. He makes himself iron horns, and declares that God will use them to push the Syrians until they are all destroyed. The other 399 prophets agree.

But Jehoshaphat isn’t quire sure, and he asks for a 401st opinion. As it happens, there is one prophet, Micaiah son of Imlah, who had not been invited. Micaiah, you see, is an absolute Debbie Downer. But he is summoned at Jehoshaphat’s insistence.

When the kings’ messenger finds Micaiah, he tells him what the other prophets have said, and warns him to bring his own prophecies in line. But Micaiah, man of integrity, insists that he will say whatever God tells him to say, and not a word contrary.

Despite this pledge, he ends up agreeing with the other prophets when he is before the kings.

Ahab is suspicious. Malaise Micaiah would never say something so rousingly positive! And Micaiah confesses his lie, that his vision was actually of all Israel scattered upon the mountain, “as sheep that have no shepherd” (2 Chron. 18:16).

You see, he saw a vision of God on his throne, surrounded by his heavenly court. God announced that he wanted a way to lure Ahab to his doom in Ramoth-gilead. Members of the court made a few suggestions until, finally, one spirit suggested putting lies in the mouths of the prophets, assuring Ahab that he would succeed in his battle against the Syrians.

Zedekiah, a bit of a sore loser, punches Micaiah in the face, and asks him how the Spirit of God went from him into Micaiah. Micaiah responds that he will know on the day that he goes into an inner chamber to hide himself. Whatever that is supposed to mean (perhaps there was a second part of the story, one involving Zedekiah, that we no longer have?).

Ahab, also a sore loser, has Micaiah imprisoned and fed nothing but bread and water until Ahab returns in peace. To which Micaiah replies that he will only return in peace if God has not spoken through him [Micaiah]. Personally, I think something about “guess I’ll die on bread and water, then!” would have had more zing, but I’m not the author here.

Despite his insistence that Micaiah be consulting, Jehoshaphat doesn’t appear to have been particularly moved by what he had to say, and he goes to Ramoth-gilead with Ahab.

James Bradford Pate rightly asks why Jehoshaphat would have gone along with Ahab after Micaiah’s words. It seems very inconsistent. He also asks why Jehoshaphat, if he was so powerful, would have consented to an alliance with Ahab in the first place. Pate answers both by suggesting that the Chronicler may have been a little too generous, and that Jehoshaphat was the weaker party in the alliance. This explains why he might have been obligated to go along with Ahab’s plan despite whatever reservations he may have had.

Personally, I think it’s equally likely that Jehoshaphat’s insistence on a second opinion is the fictional addition (perhaps to make him look good by having him doggedly seek out God’s will, or perhaps to make Micaiah look good by introducing him as a prophet with a reputation for bucking authority).

As for the idea that it had to have been Jehoshaphat seeking the alliance, I’m not sure that we can make that assumption. The two might have been equally matched, or Jehoshaphat might have accepted a royal Israelite wife as a vassal price. For all we know, there was an exchange of brides. It’s also possible that Jehoshaphat was the stronger party in absolute terms, but not strong enough to thoroughly crush Israel. He might then have sought an alliance just to put an end to the border skirmishes that seem to have been going on since his great-grandfather’s day.

The Battle

We have a little more confusion with the battle itself. Before going in to fight, Ahab decides to disguise himself, and has Jehoshaphat wear Ahab’s robes.

If we assume historicity, it seems strange that Jehoshaphat would have agreed to this. One possibility, though, is that they believed Jehoshaphat would be protected by not being Ahab, but that a disguise might protect Ahab by confusing the Evil Eye (or equivalent). We see plenty of similar folk traditions, like not giving a newborn a name (keeping them liminal and therefore safe from curses) until they are past the high risk early days.

As for dressing Jehoshaphat up like Ahab rather than simply putting both kings in disguise, it would have been necessary for the army to see that they had a leader (morale and whatnot), and this was clearly Ahab’s venture. Therefore, Ahab had to be seen to be on the battlefield, even if it wasn’t actually him. And having the substitute still be a monarch might not have violated the honour of the engagement.

Another possibility is simply that the story is a fabrication, following the typical pattern of a “you can’t escape your fate” fable. These stories often have fairly ridiculous set ups, with characters behaving in terribly odd ways in attempts to save themselves, only to bring themselves right into the situation they had been trying to avoid.

As it happens, the king of Syria had commanded his chariot captains to focus on killing Ahab, at the expense of going after his soldiers. As planned, they focus on Ahab (who is actually Jehoshaphat in disguise) and pursue him.

Jehoshaphat is spared when he cries out to God, and God draws away (or “seduces,” apparently) the chariot captains. Still, one of them drew his bow, just on a lark, and shot into the fray. Predictably, it just so happens to strike Ahab, and thus he is delivered his fatal wounds.

Kings gives us some more details of Ahab’s slow and gruesome death, but the Chronicler tells us only that he propped himself up in his chariot, facing the Syrians as he attempted retreat, until evening. He died with the sun.

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.

2 Kings 21: A Wicked Interlude

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Manasseh was twelve years old when he claimed the throne, but ruled for a rather impressive fifty-five years. His mother’s name was Hephzibah, and he was just the absolute liverwurst.

He was pretty much his father’s polar opposite, undoing much of Hezekiah’s work. He rebuilt the high places, built altars for Baal, worshiped the whole host of heaven (which seems to mean that he worshiped celestial bodies), practiced soothsaying, and made friendly with wizards. He installed altars to the host of heaven, as well as Asherah, in the temple, and even burned his own son as an offering.

Mentioned separately, we learn that he also shed a great deal of innocent blood. My study Bible claims that these innocents were proper YHWHists, whom Manasseh persecuted.

2 Kings 21Through prophets, God says (to whom?) that because Manasseh was so terrible – even more terrible than the Amorites!! – God will therefore bring upon Jerusalem and Judah “such evil that the ears of every one who hears of it will tingle” (2 Kings 21:12). (Incidentally, in its notes for 2 Samuel 21:2, my study Bible explains that “the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine are sometimes called Canaanites, sometimes Amorites.”) He will therefore deliver Judah over to its enemies.

The fact that the prophets who receive this message are never named, nor are the recipients named, suggests to me that this passage was an editor’s personal insertion – quite apart from the fact that it describes events which have not yet happened.

When Manasseh died, he was not buried “with his fathers,” as previous kings had been. Instead, we are told that he was buried in his garden, called the garden of Uzza. On this, Victor Matthews writes:

A group of rock-cut tombs have been found on the northern end of the Ophel Hill on Mount Zion, and these may also be royal sepulchers. Perhaps this is the spot where Absalom prepared an elaborate monument tomb for himself “in the King’s Valley,” with a pillar to mark the spot (2 Sam 18:17-18). The mention that Manasseh’s tomb (7th cent. B.C.) was located in the Garden of Uzza (2 Kings 21:18) may suggest that a new site was designated for royal burials after the original area was filled. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.118)

Personally, I wondered if it might have something to do with Manasseh apparently not being a worshiper of YHWH. If, perhaps, he wanted to signal a clean break from the Hebrew monarchy (in the same way that Akhenaten built a whole new city to signal his break from the previous religion of Egypt). Perhaps, for example, the garden of Uzza had some special significance in Manasseh’s religious beliefs.

After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Amon.

Amon was twenty-two years old when his reign began, but lasted a mere two years. His mother’s name was Meshullemeth, the daughter of Haruz of Jotbah. The narrative describes him as being just as bad as Manasseh, though it’s a little hard to see how he might have had time to show this in such a short reign.

In the end, he was murdered by conspirators, and his son – Josiah – was made king in his stead. He, too, was buried in the garden of Uzza.

2 Kings 18-19: God Versus Assyria

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It seems that despite Hoshea’s removal from power and the destruction of Israel as a nation, Hoshea’s son Elah managed to succeed his father. It seems that the political situation in Israel/Samaria is a little more complex than the text has so far indicated.

The narrative turns back toward Judah where, in the third year of Israel’s Elah, Hezekiah came to power. He was 25 years old when he took the crown, and ruled for a total of 29 years. When compared to 2 Kings 16:2 and run a little math, we find that Jezekiah must have been born when his father, Ahaz, was only 11 years old. Hezekiah’s mother was Abi, the daughter of Zechariah.

Hezekiah gets, by far, the best review of all the kings we’ve seen so far (including David since, despite our current author’s nostalgic view, he did not get such a great review while he was the star of the story). God just adored Jezekiah.

What did he do to merit such credit? He finally destroyed those pesky high places, broke pillars, and cut down the Asherah. He also broke Moses’ bronze serpent (made in Numbers 21:6-9) because people had been burning incense to it and calling it Nehushtan.

The position of our author seems rather clear: that the object belonged to Moses and was later worshipped as a symbol (or perhaps an actual deity) in itself. This is rather interesting given that the serpent appears to have been one of the symbols of Baal, and likely a part of the pre-Israelite Canaanite religion. So it seems that this pre-Israelite symbol survived the evolution of the YHWH cult, its pagan associations erased as it is given a compatible origin story, up until this point. Suggesting that perhaps its non-Israelite origins were still known at this point in our narrative, despite the co-existing association to Moses.

He also rebelled against Assyria, and killed many Philistines.

Assyria Ascending

There is a brief nod to the events in Israel, mostly repeating 2 Kings 17:5-6. In the fourth year of Hezekiah and the seventh year of Hoshea, Shalmaneser besieged Samaria, taking it three years later. The Israelites were deported because they had failed to obey God.

This seems to have been included to serve as a contrast as we begin the narrative of Assyria’s attack on Judah, juxtaposing the non-god-fearing Israelites to the (now) god-fearing Judahites under Hezekiah’s leadership.

A decade later, in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, Assyria comes after Judah. This time, however, it is led by King Sennacherib. The Assyrians seem to have made quite a bit of headway through Judah, conquering “all fortified cities of Judah” (2 Kgs 18:13) – Jerusalem is not explicitly excluded from this description. Hezekiah tells Sennacherib to withdraw, to which Sennacherib responds with a price: 300 talents of silver and 300 talents of gold.

Despite his big talk, Hezekiah is willing to pay, though it means stripping the gold from the doors and pillars of the temple.

Incidentally, it seems that Sennacherib’s own records confirm this interaction (at least in its broad strokes): “He [Sennacherib] claims to have laid siege to 46 walled cities and many villages, to have taken 200,150 people, and to have shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem ‘as a bird in a cage’. His figure, ‘300 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, plus many other items’, is in close agreement” (New Bible Commentary, p.362).

From here, the narrative dives straight into what appears to be a description of an active siege on Jerusalem (which, spoilers, ends with Assyria’s retreat). Given that the rest of this narrative is unnecessary if Hezekiah successfully met Sennacherib’s demands, it has been argued that there are actually two conflict events being described: One in which Assyria is paid off, and one in which they are forced to abandon their campaign for reasons that we will discuss later on. There doesn’t appear to be any direct evidence for this “two campaign” theory, but the narrative hardly makes sense otherwise.

My personal feeling here is that Hezekiah paid tribute to Assyria after the initial show of force, but perhaps refused to pay a later tribute, much as Hoshea did in 2 Kings 17. As in Israel’s case, this would have led to Assyria’s retaliation.

Proceeding with this assumption, I will discuss the remainder of the narrative as though it refers to a separate incident.

Assyria’s Return

Assyria’s army is encamped at Lachish (as it was in 2 Kings 18:14, during the “first invasion”). They send three representatives to Jerusalem, here identified as the Tartan, the Rabsaris, and the Rabshakeh (according to the New Bible Commentary, these are the Akkadian terms for ‘second in command,’ a high military official, and probably a civil official, respectively, p.363). From this point onward, the titles are used as if they were given names.

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

King Hezekiah, artist unknown, 17th cent, located in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden

The representatives call out for Hezekiah, but Judah’s king sends three representatives of his own instead: Eliakim son of Hilkiah (who is described as being “over the household,” which I took to mean he was the steward), Shebnah (the secretary), and Joah son of Asaph (the recorder).

The Rabshakeh seems to assume that Judah is relying on Egypt to protect them (again, this is very reminiscent of Hoshea’s rebellion in 2 Kings 17:4). He then asks if Judah would rely on their god when Hezekiah himself has been destroying so many of God’s shrines? It’s hard to determine if this is meant to be a joke about Assyria’s lack of understanding of the Hebrew religion, or if it’s further evidence that the local shrines were very much still an important part of the folk religion. Likely a bit of both.

The Rabshakeh ends with a baiting wager: Assyria will give Judah 2,000 horses if they can produce enough riders for them. The intention of this bait is made clear as Rabshakeh asks how Judah expects to fight off Assyria’s captains when they rely on Egypt for their chariots and cavalry?

These interactions certainly indicate that there was far more to Judah and Israel’s relationship with Egypt than we see explained in our text.

Rabshakeh’s final insult reads more like editorializing, as he declares that it is on behalf of Judah’s own God that they have come – reiterating the punitive nature of Judah’s troubles. It seems unlikely that the Assyrian would have taken this position.

Eliakim, Shebnah, and Joah ask Rabshakeh to speak to them in Aramaic rather than “the language of Judah,” so that the people on the walls – who are apparently within earshot – would not understand. Rabshakeh refuses, saying that his master has sent him to speak to them all, as they are all doomed to eat their own dung and drink their own urine. He does seem like a lovely fellow, no? In any case, this seems like a refusal to acknowledge Hezekiah’s representatives as a special diplomatic class. Rabshakeh is addressing Judah as a whole, he is not there to negotiate.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

There appear to be two separate versions of what happens next:

In the first, Rabshakeh calls out loudly in the language of Judah, telling the Judahites not to be deceived by Hezekiah’s claims that God can save them from Assyria. Assyria has defeated all other gods, and it would be better for the people of Judah to simply surrender now. The words have little effect, however, as the people keep their silence as per Hezekiah’s orders.

Hezekiah rends his clothes and wears sackcloth, and goes into the temple. He also sends Eliakim, Shebna, and the senior priests – all also wearing sackcloth – to seem the prophet Isaiah (yes, that one) to ask him to encourage God to defend his honour after he has been insulted by the Assyrians.

Isaiah reassures Hezekiah’s representatives that they need not fear the Assyrians because God “will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (2 Kings 19:7).

In the second version, we get a strange detail of Rabshekah hearing that his king has left Lachish to fight against Libnah. When the Assyrian king hears about Tirhakah, the king of Ethiopia, he sends messengers to Hezekiah warning him not to think that God will be able to preserve Judah when all other gods have fallen before Assyria. (The threat is clearly the same one Rabshekah gave earlier).

There’s no explanation of why Sennacherib is fighting Libnah, or what any of this has to do with Tirhakah. It’s all made even more confusing by the fact that, according to my study Bible, Tirhakah was not even the king of Egypt yet (though he was apparently a general first, and that this could be a reference to him in that position instead).

Hezekiah brings the letters to the temple and prays that God would pay attention to Judah’s plight: “Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear; open thy eyes, O Lord, and see” (2 Kings 19:16). He acknowledges that the Assyrians have defeated the local gods of every other nation they have conquered, but those, insists Hezekiah, were man-made gods, made of wood and stone. They were not like YHWH.

Enter Isaiah, who confirms that God has heard Hezekiah’s prayer. What follows is a lengthy poem that I found rather inaccessible. However, there is a bit about how current events were long planned as a punishment. God ends by giving a sign: The Judahites will eat only what grows of itself this year and the next, but will resume farming in the third year. Those who survive will then “again take root downward, and bear fruit upward” (2 Kings 19:30). This seems to indicate that perhaps there will not be the security to farm, due to attacks and raids, over the next two years.

However, says God via Isaiah, the King of Assyria will never enter Jerusalem, nor shoot arrows into it, nor lay siege to it. Instead, he will be routed because God protects Jerusalem for David’s sake. According to the New Bible Commentary, this part of the prophecy is in conflict with Sennacherib’s own version of the campaign. In it, he mentions a rampart, which would indicate a siege (p.363).

That night, the angel of the lord killed 185,000 people in the Assyrian camp, so that the rest of the soldiers woke in the morning to find the bodies. Because of this, Sennacherib retreated back to Nineveh. At some point after that (the text implies a connection, though it seems that many years had passed), Sennacherib was worshipping in the temple of Nisroch when two of his sons, Adramelech and Sharezer, murdered him and escaped to Ararat. A third son, Esarhaddon, then took the crown.

Brant Clements notes that the Assyrian records make no mention of the loss of 185,000 soldiers, though of course this isn’t exactly proof that it didn’t happen.

However, it is clear that something caused the Assyrians to turn back from Jerusalem. Some interpreters, trusting in the biblical account of the mysterious deaths, suggest a plague in the Assyrian camp. Others point to Sennacherib’s troubled end, suggesting that civil unrest at home forced him to abandon the campaign. Certain among the faithful credit God – as does the text. These aren’t, of course, mutually exclusive explanations.

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