2 Kings 8: The Expedient

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We return to the narrative of the Shunammite woman, here identified instead by her relationship to The Boy Who Lived. Elisha is again showing her some special favour by warning her of a coming famine that would last seven years. Following his advice, she packs up her family and moves to Philistia to wait out the disaster.

At the end of the seven years, the family returns and the woman appeals to the king of Israel (still unnamed) for the restoration of her house and lands. As luck would have it (or perhaps it was orchestrated by Elisha), she happens to arrive just as Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, is telling the king of Israel all about her son’s miraculous resurrection. She is able to confirm the story and, awed, the king not only restores all her stuff, he even backdates it to the time she left Israel.

Gehazi’s leprosy (acquired in 2 Kgs 5:27) isn’t mentioned here. Commentaries mostly seem to explain this by assuming that the stories are presented out of order, and that the healing of Naaman has not yet occurred. It could also be a simple omission on the narrator’s part, or it could be that the two stories come from separate traditions (one of which does not include a leprous Gehazi).

However, I noticed that the description of Gehazi’s skin as being “white as snow” sounded familiar and, sure enough, it is the same description used of Miriam’s leprosy in Numbers 12:10. In Miriam’s case, her condition only seems to have lasted for seven days (or less). It’s possible, then, that the disease referred to was a short-lived one (perhaps infection, so that Gehazi caught it from Naaman), and that Gehazi’s skin condition had cleared up prior to this chapter. This would, however, appear to conflict with Elisha’s curse that the condition would affect Gehazi’s descendants as well, unless he simply means that they would all contract a bout of it at some point.

That said, given the possibility of different traditions or the stories simply being out of order, it’s unnecessary to look quite so far for an explanation.

Another thing I noticed about this story is that the property is described as belonging to the Shunammite woman, and the king of Israel restores it to her. In fact, her husband is not mentioned at all in this chapter. It’s possible that she is a widow by this time (her husband is described as old in 2 Kgs 4:14), though she’s never referred to as such.

Benhadad’s Illness

In 2 Kgs 1:2-4, Ahaziah, the king of Israel, was ill. Wanting to know if he would recover, he sent messengers out to Ekron to ask the god Baalzebub after his fate. Here, we get something of a reversal. It is Benhadad, the king of Syria, who is ill, and he sends out a messenger to ask YHWH if he will recover.

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Taking advantage of the fact that Elisha is in Damascus, Benhadad sends out Hazael with gifts. Elisha predicts that Benhadad will recover from his illness, but he is still fated to die. There is a difficult passage in here where it seems that Elisha stares at Hazael until Hazael is ashamed, or perhaps Elisha and Hazael stare at each other until Elisha is ashamed, or Hazael stares at Elisha until Elisha is ashamed, or… you get the point. It’s a nice bout of the pronoun game that unnecessarily complicates the passage. At the end, Elisha begins to weep.

Hazael asks why Elisha is weeping, and the latter responds that Hazael will do some really awful things to Israel. Hazael seems confused, and asks how someone of his status could possibly manage to do that. Elisha then reveals that Hazael will become king of Syria. When Hazael returns to his king, he relates only that Benhadad will recover from his illness. The next day, however, he suffocates Benhadad in his bed and declares himself king.

There’s some question here about what’s going on: Was Hazael going to kill Benhadad all along (which would make sense of the earlier passage, if Elisha sees the future and stares at Hazael, who feels some shame at what he’d been planning), or did Elisha plant the idea in Hazael’s mind (and therefore was himself ashamed at what he was about to do)? Some commentaries argue that God wanted to punish Israel and had decided to use Hazael for that purpose (which would fit with 1 Kgs 19:14-18), yet needed Elisha to nudge Hazael to make it happen.

We also see some more of the odd conflation of Elijah and Elisha. In 1 Kgs 19:15, God commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael king of Syria – which he never did (at least not that was narrated). Yet it seems that Elisha is, if not anointing, at least announcing Hazael’s social ascent.

Interestingly, it seems that King Shalmaneser III of Assyria wrote about Hazael’s usupring of the Syrian crown, describing him as the “son of a nobody” (meaning someone outside of the dynastic line). No mention is made of the method, though.

Dynastic Details

We return to the dynastic records with Jehoram, who took the crown of Judah in the fifth year of Israel’s Joram (Joram being a variation of Jehoram, clearly employed to make this confusing chronology slightly less so). The record here seems to agree with 2 Kgs 3:1, though not with 2 Kgs 1:17 (unless, as I’ve mentioned previously, we write in a co-reign). He was 32 years and ruled for 8 years (a figure that apparently varies quite a bit between versions, like as beleaguered scribes tried to make all the dates match).

Our author has a dim view of Jehoram, largely, it seems, because of his marriage to Ahab’s daughter. Still, he stayed his hand against Judah for David’s sake.

While Jehoram’s greatest fault seems to be his marriage, it was also during his reign that Judah lost control over Edom and Libnah. It seems that King Joram of Israel tried to take advantage of the situation by going after Edom for himself (or perhaps he was trying to help Judah put down the rebellion). Unfortunately for him, he was overwhelmed by the Edomite forces. He managed to fight his way free, but by then his army had already routed.

After Jehoram came Ahaziah, ascending in the twelfth year of Joram of Israel. He was twenty-two years old, and reigned for only one year. His mother was Athaliah, listed here as the granddaughter of Omri, presumably the daughter of Ahab who married Jehoram. Our narrator wasn’t a fan of Ahaziah either, and for the same reason that he disliked his father – his close relationship with the kings of Israel (in this case by parentage rather than marriage).

The only note we get here about Ahaziah’s single year as king is that he fought against King Hazael of Syria alongside King Joram of Israel. During the conflict, Joram was injured at Ramoth-gilead, and Ahaziah went to visit him while he was recovering in Jezreel.

2 Kings 6-7: Elisha versus the Syrians

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

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

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

A Tricky Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Siege of Samaria

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Lepers

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

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

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

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

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

2 Kings 5: A Tale of Two Lepers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging the powerful is the best use of mythology!

Elijah’s Apprentice

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

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

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

1 Kings 22: Tricking the Prophets

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Though ostensibly about Ahab, the majority of this story does not mention Ahab by name (he is mentioned only once, in 1 Kings 22:19, before the the chronicle of the kings portion that comes right at the end). Rather, the story talks about “the king of Israel.” According to J.R. Porter, this could be an indication that this story “was not originally about Ahab at all” (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.90). Particularly since, as Porter points out, the phrase used in the chronicle section – that Ahab “slept with his ancestors” – tends to indicate a peaceful death.

The peace we saw forged in 1 Kings 20 between Syria and Israel lasted for only three years. According to my study Bible, during this time, Syria and Israel formed a military alliance to defend against the Assyrians (culminating in a battle at Qarqar in 853 B.C.E.). Though the text doesn’t explain why, suddenly, Israel was willing to break the alliance, the historical events suggest that Israel may no longer have considered it necessary with the Assyrians defeated.

1 Kings 22In the text, we just have King Jehoshaphat of Judah coming to visit, and Ahab proposing on a lark that they go conquer Ramoth-gilead together (apparently it was one city that the Syrians did not return, as per Benhadad’s promise in 1 Kings 20:34).

Jehoshaphat is game with bells on, saying: “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses” (1 Kings 22:4). This response seems a little subservient to me, as does Jehoshaphat’s agreement to go along with Ahab’s plan later on, and I’m not sure what to make of that.

Jehoshaphat’s only reservation is that prophets ought to be consulted first, before they get into a messy military conflict. According to Collins, “Most prophets were not isolated individuals but were members of a guild. One of the functions of prophets seems to have been to whip up enthusiasm at the beginning of a campaign. Here the prophets hold a virtual pep rally for the king” (A Short History of the Hebrew Bible, p.141).

And that’s precisely what they do. Four hundred prophets are summoned, and they are unanimous: Yes! Fight! You’ll be victorious! It’ll be great! One prophet, Zedekiah, is so excited that he even makes a pair of iron horns and declares that Ahab will use them to vanquish Syria (the imagery is quite similar to Deut. 33:17).

But Jehoshaphat isn’t convinced, and wants to get a 401st opinion. It could be that he is meant to see through the political purpose of the prophets Ahab has chosen and wants to hear what a real prophet has to say. However, as we later find out, the 400 prophets aren’t just Yes Men, they are relaying what they believe to be God’s message to Ahab (and, in fact, that’s precisely what it is). So the charge that they are just sycophants is misplaced. What, then, does that say about Jehoshaphat’s mistrust? It seems like a small thing, but it becomes quite a complicated knot, and makes for difficult theology.

Enter Micaiah

There is one other prophet, admits Ahab, but he’s a total jerk. Micaiah, son of Imlah, never prophecies anything good. But Jehoshaphat insists and, surprising everyone, Micaiah actually agrees with the other prophets. Ahab is rightly suspicious.

Only then does Micaiah admit that, it’s true, his real prophecy is that the Israelites will soon be scattered and masterless. That’s more like it, says Ahab.

Micaiah continues to describe his vision, in which God sat on his throne, surrounded by host of heaven. God asked his entourage to come up with a way to mess with Ahab and entice him to his death at Ramoth-Gilead. Several spirits make suggestions, but the winner is the one who suggests that he be a “lying spirit” (1 Kings 22:22) and plant a false prophecy. Again, we see the prioritizing of God’s strength and power over his goodness. Lying may be forbidden, but it is perfectly acceptable to view God as the originator/director of the lie so long as it demonstrates that nothing happens outside of his direct control.

None of this makes Zedekiah “Iron Horns” ben Chenaanah very happy, so he punches Micaiah in the face. “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?” (1 Kings 22:24), he asks. According to my New Bible Commentary, he is asking “by what authority does Micaiah give a prophecy different from that of the other prophets?” (p.348). However, I read it as an acknowledgement of Micaiah’s superior prophecy, and a resentment that God had chosen to give Zedekiah only the trick version.

To this, Micaiah tells Zedekiah that he will see once he goes into hiding. I think. It’s a little unclear, but I think the point he’s making is that Micaiah has proven himself willing to challenge Ahab (and therefore has perhaps needed to go into hiding to dodge the repercussions on a few occasions), and that this is why he was chosen to receive the true prophecy. Since Zedekiah was acting more the cheerleader, he was given the false prophecy instead.

Ramoth-Gilead

Ahab is furious about Micaiah’s prophecy and has him arrested. Yet he does still seem to believe him – or has at least decided to hedge his bets. While he still goes after Ramoth-Gilead, he disguises himself, while Jehoshaphat is to wear his normal royal getup.

This initially seems to work, as the king of Syria (here unnamed) orders his men to focus fire on the king. They see Jehoshaphat wearing royal garb and head for him, but realize that he isn’t Ahab once they get close and they break off. As they are moving away from Jehoshaphat, however, they loose an arrow that just happens to Ahab by chance. This “you can’t escape your fate” motif is a very common in mythology.

So Ahab is indeed brought down at Ramoth-Gilead, and his body ends up bleeding out in the floor of his chariot while his men scatter, masterless. Finally, his chariot is brought back to Samaria and washed out by a pool, from which the dogs drink (1 Kings 21:19) and harlots bathe. Even though this takes place in Samaria and not in Jezreel (where Naboth died, though 1 Kings 21:19 is quite specific that Ahab’s blood will be licked by dogs in the same place as Naboth’s), and even though the referenced passage doesn’t mention anything about harlots, my study Bible suggests that the treatment of Ahab’s body and the fate of his blood may have been an editorial insert, intended to make his death harmonize with the earlier prediction.

Chronology

After the Ahab-themed narrative interlude, we return to the princely chronology. Once Ahab was safely tucked in with his fathers, it was his son Ahaziah’s turn at the throne, in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat. He only reigned two years, and was a total baddie.

According to Porter, there’s some evidence that Ahab was actually a fairly accomplished ruler, who oversaw a surprisingly stable government given the external pressures:

He built cities and secured his state by renewing the Israelite alliance with the Phoenicians of Tyre. He dominated the southern kingdom of Judah through marriage of his daughter, Athaliah, to Jehoram, the son of the Judean king Jehoshaphat (873-849 BCE). Ahab’s importance is strikingly shown in an inscription of Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria (ca. 859-824 BCE), the first Assyrian monument to include an Israelite king’s name. Ahab allied with Israel’s old foe, Damascus, against Shalmaneser, and the allies met the Assyrians at Qarqar in the Orontes Valley in 853 BCE. Although Shalmaneser claimed victory, his advance was checked. His inscription records that Ahab had two thousand chariots and then thousand infantry. (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 90)

Back over in Judah, Jehoshaphat came to the throne in Ahab’s fourth year, when he was 35 years old. He then reigned for a further 25 years from Jerusalem. His parents were Asa and Azubah, the daughter of Shilhi. According to the author, he was one cool dude, and a chip off the ol’ block. His only downside was that he did not take away the high places, though he did get rid of male cultic prostitution. He managed to oversee a period of peace, at last, between Judah and Israel.

He seems to have had control over Edom, appointing a deputy to rule it on his behalf. While he lost merchant ships at Eziongeber, Ahaziah still wanted to partner in on subsequent trade excursions, which Jehoshaphat refused.

When he died, he was succeeded by Jehoram.

1 Kings 20: A Wild Lion Appears!

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Elijah disappears from our narrative for a while, leaving us with a chapter that is surprisingly favourable toward Ahab – at least at first. We find Ahab as King Benhadad of Syria decides that he will invade Samaria. When the Syrians arrive, Benhadad demands that Ahab give him all his gold, silver, and fairest wives and children (or, perhaps, fairest wives, and children). Ahab immediately acquiesces. Perhaps realizing that Israel is being led by a pushover, Benhadad figures he can get away with more: the next day, he will send in some servants to just take whatever they want.

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

Ahab king of Israel, by Guillaume Rouille

This goes too far, and Ahab balks. With the backing of his elders, he sends word that he is still willing to comply with the first demand, but he does not consent to the second. Benhadad, of course, is enraged and declares that his followers will not be going home with nothing but handfuls of dust. To this, Ahab replies: “Let not him that girds on his armor boast himself as he that puts it off” (1 Kings 20:11) – in other words, this ain’t over.

I was trying to figure out why Ahab so readily conceded to the first request, but stood firm on the second. After all, if the Syrians are already going to make off with all the gold, silver, wives, and children, what is Ahab worried about them getting? My first thought was that the difference might lie in who is robbed – in the first, it is Ahab’s household that will be plundered (Ahab’s gold, Ahab’s wives, Ahab’s children). In the second request, Benhadad is saying that he will loot “your house and the houses of your servants” (1 Kings 20:6). So one possibility is that Ahab was willing to give away his own possessions, but unwilling to allow the whole city to be looted.

Tim Bulkeley proposes an alternative – that the whole interaction is a misunderstanding between Benhadad, who is just here to plunder, and Ahab, who believes that Israel is being made a vassal state. In other words, when Ahab answers that “I am yours, and all that I have” (1 King 20:4), what he meant was that he would agree to being placed under Benhadad’s control, not that all that he has would literally be carried away. In this interpretation, Benhadad’s second message is not adding to his original demand, but clarifying it.

Israel Fights Back

With Benhadad unwilling to compromise and Ahab unwilling to let Samaria be looted bare, war is inevitable. What’s really interesting about this chapter in context is that the prophets, and God, are on Ahab’s side (at least for now). The two obvious explanations for this are: a) the story is presented out of chronological order, and actually occurs before Ahab started slaughtering all the prophets, or b) the story’s source was generally more sympathetic toward Ahab, excluding the final few verses that we’ll come to later.

So an unnamed prophet comes to Ahab and tells him that he will win the upcoming battle, and that he must be the one to initiate the fighting. Ahab gathers 7,000 soldiers (an interesting number, as that is the same number of true believers who were set aside to be spared in 1 Kings 19:18, though I have no idea if this is just a coincidence), and marches forth. Benhadad, clearly not expecting the Israelites to show pluck, was busy getting drunk.

When he finds out that the Israelites are advancing, he gives the following order: “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; or if they have come out for war, take them alive” (1 Kings 20:18), which is rather silly and redundant. The Tim Bulkeley podcast I linked to above discusses the various purposes that this verse might have had. In particular, he notices that the word order has been changed from: “If for peace they have come out, seize them alive, and if for war they have come out, alive you shall seize them.” Referencing the 19th century Rabbi Malbim, he wonders if the word order is meant to draw particular attention to the words in bold.

Bulkeley also discusses a theory put forward by the Bible commentator Abrabanel, who suggested that the line is meant to be confusing and absurd, an indication of Benhadad’s inebriation.

Of course, with the Syrians drunk, unprepared, overconfident, and lacking in God’s favour, the Samarians win, though Benhadad himself escapes with his cavalry.

Try, Try Again

Another unnamed prophet, or perhaps the same one, warns Ahab that Benhadad will be back in the spring. Sure enough, Benhadad’s advisors convince him that the Syrians only lost because the Israelite gods are gods of hills, their power at its strongest in the hill country. Therefore, if Benhadad were to engage the Israelite army in the plains, they’ll lose their divine advantage and will lose. They focus their mustering on chariots and cavalry, which are extremely effective in flat country where they can really get up speed and ram through infantry lines.

But they underestimated God! A prophet tells Ahab not to worry. Because Benhadad believes that God’s power is lacking in the plains, the Israelites will win the conflict and thereby prove that God’s genitals are the biggest (for such a powerful deity, he really does go on about how much he has to prove, doesn’t he?).

The two armies set up camp next to each other, but wait seven days before fighting. When they do, as predicted, the Israelites win (slaughtering an impossible number of Syrians in the process), but Benhadad escapes again.

Realizing that the jig is up, Benhadad and his followers wear sackcloth and put ropes on their heads, which apparently signals that they are very very sorry that they ever bothered Samaria. The kings of Israel, they say, have a reputation for being merciful. Sure enough, Ahab decides to spare Benhadad, and the two form a covenant in which all lands that Syria has taken from Israel in the last few generations are to be returned, and Israel gets to set up a bazaar in Damascus.

“Hit Me”

Which is just awful because, as we well know, there are few things that God hates more than mercy. In a story that is reminiscent of 2 Sam. 12:1-7, an unnamed prophet (who is at first referred to as a “certain man of the sons of the prophets” – 1 Kings 20:35 – apparently signifying that he was only a disciple) asks someone to hit him. When that person refuses, he is eaten by a lion. The prophet asks a second person to hit him, and the second person immediately complies. Sadly, there is no twist ending where the second person realizes that the prophet was a figment of his imagination all along.

Bruised and bandaged, the prophet goes to Ahab and tells him a story about having been entrusted to guard a man and letting him escape, tricking Ahab into passing judgement on himself by getting him to judge the prophet. You see, says the prophet as he rips off his disguise, Ahab was entrusted by God to kill Benhadad, but he showed mercy. God hates mercy. Because of his failure, Ahab’s life will have to serve as a substitute for Benhadad’s.

And there it ends. Perhaps God didn’t really mean it after all.

1 Kings 19: Meditation Retreat

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Following from the story in the last chapter, Ahab rushes home to tell Jezebel about the slaughter of the prophets. I think we’re supposed to understand something about the power dynamics at Israel’s royal court.

When Jezebel vows to come after Elijah, he flees the country again, this time going to Beersheba in Judah. He stops just long enough to deposit his servant before walking off into the wilderness, finding a tree to sit under, and ask God to let him die.

The accuracy of this description of depression is quite accurate, right down to the part where Elijah falls asleep and refuses to get up again for what appears to be a rather long time. During that time, an angel wakes him, gets him to eat a bit of miracle food, and Elijah goes back to sleep. A little later, the angel wakes him again to eat, saying that he must make sure to eat or else “the journey will be too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7).

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Elijah in the Wilderness, by Frederic Leighton, 1878

Apparently on those two meals alone, Elijah is able to walk for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness to Horeb. This is a clear reference of the Exodus story, and is perhaps intended to lend some vicarious credibility to Elijah.

Once Elijah finds himself a cave to live in, the same encounter repeats itself, nearly word for word. In both, God asks Elijah what he’s doing there. Elijah responds that he has been very jealous for God because the Israelites have forsaken the covenants, slain the prophets, and thrown down the altars – the latter being rather amusing in light of the Deuteronomist “smash the altars” position.

Similar to Moses’s sighting in Exodus 33:21-23, God tells Elijah to come out and look look at him. Of course, there’s a lengthy pre-show to get through first, complete with great winds, the rocks in God’s path smashing into pieces, an earthquake, and a fire. Lest readers get the wrong theological idea, we’re told explicitly that God is none of these things.

Rather, God is… something. Various translations give it as “a still small voice,” “a gentle whisper,” “a gentle blowing,” “a whistling of a gentle air,” and “a voice of gentle silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah covers his face with his mantle and emerges from the cave, suggesting that perhaps he hadn’t actually seen all the natural disasters that preceded the voice. Since this is where the narrative loops, it seems that two traditions were stitched together, or perhaps this detail of Elijah emerging from the cave migrated a little.

The voice repeats the question: “What are you doing, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13). I think it would be a mistake to take this question literally. It’s more like when you walk into the kitchen and find your preschooler, as well as the entire kitchen, utterly covered in flour. You know what he’s doing, you’re not asking to find out.

After Elijah confesses to his jealousy (again), God sends him to the wilderness of Damascus so that he can anoint Hazael as king of Syria. After that, he’s to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel. Finally, he’s to anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat, as his own successor. The idea is to destroy Israel. Hazael will take the first swing, anyone who misses while fall to Jehu, and Elisha will sweep up the remainder. Only seven thousand Israelites, those who never bowed to Baal, will survive.

Disregarding God’s wishes, Elijah instead heads straight out to where Elisha is ploughing with twelve oxen. I doubt that the number of oxen is a coincidence.

Rather than anoint him (unless we take “anoint” metaphorically), Elijah places his own mantle over Elisha. Elisha then becomes Elijah’s servant, signifying that he will be Elijah’s successor as Joshua served Moses in Exodus 24:13.

But before Elisha leaves, he slaughters his twelve oxen and throws a feast for the people.

1 Kings 15-16: A House Divided

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The following chapters take us into the first few decades after the deaths of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Important dates are given as references to the Xth year of the other half’s king’s reign – an interesting relational dating system that could only work in a divided monarchy. By necessity, this means that we skip around in the chronology a little. The story begins in Judah for Abijam and Asa, then moves up into Israel for Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab.

Abijam

Abijam came to power in the 18th year of Jeroboam’s reign, and ruled a total of three years. His mother was Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom, who seems to be identified by some with Absalom, making Maacah David’s granddaughter.

Of Abijam’s reign, we’re told only that he failed to live up to David’s greatness – though at least here, for once, the narrator admits that David’s greatness was slightly complicated by that whole Uriah business (1 Kgs 15:5). We also learn that hostilities continued between Israel and Judah during his reign, with the rather out-of-place verse: “Now there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life” (1 Kgs 15:6). It may be possible to explain away by seeing Rehoboam as a reference to his family rather than to the individual, but this seems a stretch. Given that the wording is very similar to 1 Kgs 14:30 and that the verse is not found here in the Septuagint, it seems likely that it’s inclusion here was in error.

No information is given about the circumstances of Abijam’s death, but he only ruled for three years.

Asa

Asa gets the best assessment of anyone in these two chapters. He is crowned king in the 20th year of Jeroboam and ruled for a rather impressive forty-one years. Weirdly, though he is described as Abijam’s son, his mother is also Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom. Either this is an extraordinary coincidence, terribly incestuous, or there’s an error somewhere – it could be that Maacah’s name is duplicated, or that Asa and Abijam were brothers.

The narrator’s principal definition of an awesome king is that Asa cracked down a bit on non-approved cultic practices. Namely, he put away the male cultic prostitutes (no word on the female ones), and removed his mother from her position as Queen Mother because she had commissioned an Asherah – which Asa had cut down and burned. He also brought votive gifts to the Temple, both his own and some from his father. His only failing was that he didn’t take down the high places.

During Asa’s reign, the king of Israel – Baasha, whom we’ll learn about shortly – built Ramah, barring the border between the two nations and apparently serving a defensive function. Given its proximity to Jerusalem (about 8km, or 4 miles), this may have been an aggressive structure as well, or at least perceived as such. In response, Asa took all the silver and gold from both Temple and palace treasuries, and brought it to King Benhadad of Syria. It seems that Benhadad had been supporting Baasha, but he was successfully bribed to switch sides – conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelbethmaacah, all of Chinneroth, and all of Naphtali.

Defeated, Baasha stopped building Ramah. It’s also implied that, as a consequence of this defeat, he dwelt in Tirzah – suggesting that perhaps he was building Ramah with the intention of moving Israel’s capitol there and had to retreat back to Tirzah, which we know from 1 Kgs 14:17 was the current capitol. Once Baasha had retreated, Asa ordered all of Judah (“none was exempt” – 1 Kgs 15:22) to carry away the stones and timber of Ramah, using them instead to build Geba in Benjamin and Mizpah. It seems that few lessons were learned regarding the dangers of conscription.

In his old age, Asa suffered from diseased feet, which my New Bible Commentary speculates may have been dropsy (p.340). After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Jehoshaphat.

Israel

Nadab

Back in Israel, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Nadab, in the second year of Asa’s reign. The narrator found him unworthy, and so, apparently, did others. He only managed to rule for two years before Baasha, the son of Ahijah of Issachar, revolted and killed Nadab at Gibbethon. It’s not spelled out, but since we are told that Gibbethon belonged to Philistia, it seems probable that Baasha took advantage of the battle to turn on his king.

Baasha

Baasha was crowned in the third year of Asa’s reign, and his first act as king was to slaughter all the remaining members of Jeroboam’s house – not an uncommon practice when trying to found a new dynasty. He ruled a total of twenty-four years, with Tirzah as his capitol. Of course, our narrator was no fan.

During Baasha’s reign, there was a new prophet: Jehu, son of Hanani. He was no fan of Baasha either. He prophesies that God is displeased that Baasha is no better than his predecessors and, as punishment, will see his house utterly destroyed.

Elah

In the 26th year of Asa, Elah inherited the crown of Israel from his father. Unfortunately, his reign was troubled from the start. While he was getting plastered, Zimri – the commander of half of Elah’s chariots – murdered him. It seems significant that Zimri commanded only half of the chariots – I’m not sure if this would have been common practice, or if this is meant to signify that there were already divisions happening.

Either way, Elah was deposed in the 27th year of Asa.

Zimri

While clearly a go-getter, Zimri failed to get all his ducks in a row before taking the crown through murder. After only seven days, during which he just barely had time to murder every male kin and friend of Baasha’s dynasty, he fell.

Elah’s troops had been encamped at Gibbethon, perhaps continuing the conflict that saw Nadab’s death. When they heard of Elah’s murder, they made their commander, Omri, king. Omri brought the army back to Tirzah and besieged the city. Clearly seeing that he wasn’t going to hold on to the power he’d only just taken, Zimri set the citadel of the king’s house on fire, with himself inside.

Just as a point of interest, the term used for the men associated with Baasha’s dynasty in 1 Kgs 16:11 in the King James Bible is “one that pisseth against a wall.” This is, apparently, how men are to be defined by people who clearly never met a woman who does a lot of hiking or camping.

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Omri

Despite having the support of the soldiers under his command, Omri’s transition was not particularly smooth. Half of Israel followed Tibni, son of Ginath. While Omri defeated Tibni, the fact that Zimri’s rise and fall occured in the 27th year of Asa yet Omri’s reign is not said to have begun until the 31st year of Asa, it seems that the conflict between the two men lasted four years.

We’re told that Omri reigned a total of twelve years, six of which were in Tirzah. Yet to make the numbers of work, four of those years would have been the years of civil war, giving him only two solid years in Tirzah. After that, he bought land from a man named Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on it the city of Samaria. Not only was this the new capitol of Israel, Israel itself soon came to be known as Samaria.

Despite the text’s assessment of Omri as evil, he seems to have been quite important. From Micah 6:16, it seems that he was known for instituting some kind of legal reform, though no details are preserved. Omri is also the first Hebrew king for which we have direct non-biblical evidence:

The Moabite Stone, which was discovered in 1868, tells of the conflict between Mesha, king of Moab, and Omri, who humbled Moab for many years but was eventually defeated (ANET, 321). The inscription is remarkable for the similarty it shows between the religion of Moab and that of Israel. Mesha acts at the behest of his god, Chemosh, just as the Israelites act at the behest of YHWH. Most remarkable is that Mesha boasts of having slaughtered every man, woman, and child in Nebo, “for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.” Omri’s son, Ahab, is mentioned in the Monolith Inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser as having contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers to an Aramean coalition that halted an Assyrian advance (ANET, 279). Assyrian records continued to refer to Israel as “the house of Omri” long after Omri’s descendants had ceased to rule. Omri and Ahab were kings to be reckoned with. There is much more evidence outside the Bible for their power and influence than was the case with Solomon. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137,138)

Ahab

In the 38th year of Asa, Omri was succeeded by his son, Ahab. Though described by the text as just the absolute worst, Ahab seems to have been able to maintain a bit of stability in the unstable nation of Israel, ruling for an impressive twenty-two years. He was married to a woman named Jezebel, whose name should be familiar to any cultural Christian. She was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidonia and, through her, Ahab came to serve Baal. Not only does he make an Asherah, he also builds a temple for Baal in Samaria. As in the case of his father, we have an independent attestation of Ahab’s existence.

Somewhat out of place in this narrative, we get a note about a man named Hiel of Bethel who rebuilt Jericho. We’re told that the foundation of the city came at the cost of his first-born son, Abiram, and that the gates were built at the cost of his youngest son, Segub. This is all, says the narrative, a fulfilment of Joshua’s prophecy, given in Joshua 6:29. The most charitable reading has the two boys either having their deaths attributed to the construction (as we saw Bathsheba’s first son’s death attributed to David’s sin in 2 Samuel 12), or perhaps both sons assisted in the construction and died accidentally. There’s no reason to assume that Joshua’s prophecy predicted a future event, as opposed to Joshua’s prophecy, written after the events, describing events that it full well knew would come later when Jericho was rebuilt.

A third possibility, and perhaps the likeliest, was that these were ritual killings, human sacrifices intended to bless the construction. These sorts of sacrifices (both human and animal) have been found in much of the world, and knowledge of them survived in folk mythology even longer (as we see in this German legend). The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying quotes a book by Nigel Davies:

In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981, p. 61)

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.

1 Kings 10: Picking the brain

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1 Kings 3 was something of a pony show for Solomon’s wisdom. We get the same thing here, and once again it is a woman who is used as a prop to bear witness to how awesome Solomon is.

This time, rather than a prostitute, we have a queen. It’s not stated whether she was queen consort or queen in her own right, though the exchange of gifts with Solomon certainly seems to suggest that this was a diplomatic visit in which the queen had the authority to make and receive gifts.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba, by Edward Poynter, 1890

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba, by Edward Poynter, 1890

It’s unknown where Sheba actually is. The standard assumption is that it was in south-west Arabia, in the area that is now Yemen. It’s also been suggested that it was a colony of Sheba in north Arabia, where my study Bible says that “a number of queens are known to have ruled” (p.431). A less likely explanation is that Sheba was in Ethiopia, and that the queen went home pregnant (founding a Davidic dynasty there).

The flattering cover story for the queen’s visit is that she’s heard of Solomon’s great wisdom and amazing wealth, of his “affairs and of [his] wisdom” (1 Kgs 10:6). So when she arrives, she puts him to the test with “hard questions” (1 Kgs 10:1), likely riddles or questions covering a breadth of knowledge. Solomon, of course, passes with flying colours, as “there was nothing hidden from the king which he could not explain to her” (1 Kgs 10:3). She’s so impressed by his wisdom and fancy court that she gives him a bunch of riches.

Between that and the success of the trade missions to Ophir, it seems that Solomon might just be able to get the country back on track before he has to sell off more pieces of it. He manages to send the queen home with an impressive quantity of gifts.

A listing of Solomon’s riches is made, as well as the various treasures he has made: everything from instruments, to decorative shields, to a great ivory throne, to a bunch of fancy dishes. He was just totally the best in a way that is likely exaggerated by nostalgia. It’s hard not to imagine, though, that Solomon was whom the author of Deut. 17:16-17 had in mind.

Among all the lists of fancy things he has, an unknown animal is listed that is usually translated as either peacocks or baboons. Claude Mariottini has an explanation of why translations differ.

Judges 10-12: Of bastards, bandits, and child sacrifice

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Abimelech is never, as far as I can tell, explicitly called a judge. He is included in the book of Judges, but his narrative could have been intended as a follow-up to Gideon’s story. Here, Judges 10 begins: “After Abimelech there arose to deliver Israel […]” (Judges 10:1). This phrasing is a little ambiguous. Does it mean that the sentence will finish by naming the judge who follows the judge Abimelech, or does it mean that Israel needed saving after Abimelech was through with it?

It’s important because our interpretation informs our idea of what it means to be a judge – is the important point that the individual be a leader appointed by God, or merely a leader?

Following Abimelech, we hear of two judges, called “minor” because they lack the stories of the main judges named in the book:

  1. Tola, son of Puah son of Dodo. Though of Issachar, he lived in Ephraim’s territory. He was judge for 23 years.
  2. Jair of Gilead was judge for 22 years. He had thirty sons who rode thirty asses (*gigglesnort*) and had thirty cities, called Havvothjair.

This isn’t actually our first mention of our friend Jair – in Numbers 32:41, Jair – there listed as a son of Manasseh – attacked and took the villages of Ham, calling them Havvothjair.

Setting the stage

Once again, the people fall into evil, “serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 10:6), as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. As punishment, God sells them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites for 18 years, except they only oppressed the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. But the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. The narrative is a little confused/confusing.

Whatever God did, it was bad and it involved the Ammonites (and maybe the Philistines?). The people repent and beg God for help.

God, clearly claiming the moral high ground, gives an “I told you so” speech and tells them to go cry to the other gods since they seem to love them so much.

Rags to riches

Meanwhile, we learn about Jephthah. His parentage is a little confused – he is the “son of a harlot” (Judges 11:2), but his father appears to be Gilead himself.

As in Judges 1, it seems that the tribe is appearing in a personified form, here capable of having sons. Yet I’m having trouble finding any information on Gilead as a tribal entity. A quick google search is only telling me that it’s a region – not a tribe. Yet in Judges, it seems that it is used instead of Gad. This is clearly something that I will have to look into more.

Father issues aside, Jephthah, as a bastard, is cast out from his home when his ‘natural born’ brothers reach adulthood. Denied a share of his father’s inheritance, he turns to a life of crime – becoming some sort of bandit king in Tob.

Though the Ammonites make war against Israel (Judges 11:4), only Gilead seems particularly affected. Once again, we see what appears to be a local story clumsily edited to appear national.

So the elders of Gilead come to Jephthah, because for some reason he is the only person capable of defeating the Ammonites. Jephthah jumps at the change to gloat now that his brothers have come grovelling.

It’s a little unclear whose idea it is, but somehow everyone agrees that Jephthah will come to fight the Ammonites and, when he wins, he will become the leader of Gilead (Judges 11:8-10).

With that, he ties on his bandanna and moves out.

Confronting the Ammonites

Interestingly, Jephthah doesn’t just charge into battle as other judges have done. Rather, he first tries talking to the Ammonites, to understand why they are being such meanies. It reminds me of Joshua 22, where the altar-builders are asked why they’ve built the altar and given the chance to explain.

The Ammonites claim that the Israelites, on coming out of Egypt, took their land. Their campaign, then, is merely to reclaim the lands that had previously been theirs. They ask that Jephthah hand it over peaceably.

Jephthah denies their complaint, arguing that Israel hasn’t taken land from either the Moabites or the Ammonites (which would be in keeping with Deut. 2:19, 37). Rather, he explains, they asked for passage through Edom and Moab, were denied, so they went around. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, which means that they can’t have touched the Moabites. The Israelites then sent word to King Sihon of the Amorites in Heshbon asking for passage. Rather than simply refusing, the Amorites attacked, Israel won, and they took possession of Amorite lands. It is this land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, that they took – Amorite land, not Ammonite.

If Jephthah’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because we saw something similar in Numbers 20-22. But not all of those chapters are quoted. In fact, if we subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, it seems that the authors of Jephthah had access to only one of the sources that went into Numbers 20-22.

Abbie has a discussion of the sources used up on Better Than Esdras (she even has a chart!).

Jephthah continues: The Israelites own the land that they are on because they were taken in battle and because God says so (Judges 11:23). “Will you not posses what Chemosh your god gives you to posses?” (Judges 11:24), he asks. Perhaps the question means “what would you do in our place? Wouldn’t you hold on to land given to you by your god?” Though I have also seen Jephthah’s argument interpreted to mean that they should go inhabit the land that their god is strong enough to give them rather than bothering the Israelites (in other words, make it a battle between gods rather than between people).

Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say because, according to my study Bible, “Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites, whose chief god was called Milcom (or Molech)” (p.310).

Besides, continues Jephthah, do the Ammonites think themselves better than Balak son of Zippor (who, here, is either the king of Moab or the son of a king, though I don’t believe that any mention was made of this in Balak’s story in Numbers 22-24). Balak didn’t go to war against Israel, so why do the Ammorites think that they have the right to?

Jephthah’s final argument is that Israel has now been living in the area for three hundred years, so why have the Ammorites waited so long to lay claim to it? So much time has passed that they can now be considered aggressors, not defenders. I found this argument a little shocking given the relationship between modern Israel and Palestine, and I wonder how this passage is received by those involved in that conflict.

The Ammorites are having nothing of Jephthah’s arguments. So at this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), prompting him to go on the attack.

Predictably, he fights the Ammonites and wins “with a very great slaughter” (Judges 11:33).

Jephthah’s daughter

When he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah vows that if he is successful in his campaign, he will offer up as a sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house to green him when he returns (Judges 11:30-31).

Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

When he returns, the first person he sees is his daughter – an only child – who emerges dancing with a timbrel to greet him. Jephthah, in his grief, rends his clothes. His daughter reassures him, insisting that he must fulfil his vow. Only, she asks for two months in which to wander the mountains with her companions and bewail her virginity.

At the end of the two months, she returns and Jephthah fulfils his vow. It is in her honour that, says the text, “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:40).

In reading about this chapter, I’ve come across the argument that this story was intended to serve as a warning against making rash vows. However, he makes his vow after he is entered by the Spirit of the Lord.

As Collins puts it:

While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wrong either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded with victory) or in fulfilling it. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

It seems to me that the story serves simply to explain the origins of a particular holiday – the four days a year that women in Israel honour Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity (bemoaned because, as a virgin, she has had no children and therefore her death marks the end of Jephthah’s line).

The story also seems to take for granted that human sacrifice is a thing that is done, despite later condemnations of the practice. Abraham and Isaac’s story suggests the same, though in that story the human sacrifice is made unnecessary by replacing the victim with an animal.

That is, of course, if sacrifice is really what is meant here. There are some who argue that the “sacrifice” was that Jephthah’s daughter would be consecrated as a nun, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for virginal/celibate female monastic orders in ancient Palestine. Tim Bulkeley provides an explanation of this argument. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch motivated by a desire to bring this story in line with later theology.

Ephraim at it again

As in Gideon’s story in Judges 8:1, Ephraim is angry that Jephthah fought the Ammonites without them. Unlike Gideon, who had simply attacked, Jephthah claims that he did actually ask for help, but that the Ephraimites had refused to come to Gilead’s aid while they were being harassed. It is because Ephraim hadn’t protected Gilead that Jephthah had had to take care of business himself.

That’s the first we’re hearing of this, of course. Perhaps in the first the Ephraimites are hearing of it too! I suspect that the editor of Jephthah’s story added this detail to justify his later actions.

Because, unlike Gideon who mollified Ephraim, Jephthah just goes ahead and attacks them.

During the attack, the Gileadites guard all the fords on the Jordan, preventing the Ephraimites from escaping. Anyone who attempted to cross the ford would be questioned, asked if they were Ephraimites. If they said no, they were then asked to prove it by saying “Shibboleth” (or “ear of grain”). Since the Ephraimites apparently speak a different dialect, they are unable to pronounce the ‘sh-‘ and instead say “Sibboleth,” betraying their identity. It’s quite a little bit of linguistic detail!

All told, the Gileadites kill 42,000 Ephraimites – or, as Victor Matthews argues, they kill “forty-two eleph of the enemies. Though most translations render this as forty-two “thousand,” an eleph is more likely a designation for a military unit” (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59). Either way, quite a high number.

A few more minor judges

Jephthah rules for six years before he dies. He is followed by three more minor judges:

  1. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who is said to have had thirty sons and thirty daughters, all of whom he married to people outside of his own clan. He was judge for seven years.
  2. Elon the Zebulunite was judge for ten years.
  3. Abdon, the son of Hillel the Pirathonite, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who, altogether, rode on seventy asses. He was judge for 8 years.

I don’t know what the significance is of the asses in the record of Abdon and Jair. Does anyone have any ideas?

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