2 Kings 9: Coup

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Jezreel

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

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

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

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

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

The Fall of Jezebel

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

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

Jezebel eaten by dogs by Léon Comerre

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

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

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

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

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

2 Kings 1: The Fires of Heaven

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This is a strange chapter that seems to have been cobbled together from multiple sources. It begins by telling us that war broke out between Israel and Moab after Ahab’s death. Moab isn’t mentioned again in the chapter, so it seems our chapter separator with shoddy aim strikes again.

The chapter begins for real when Ahaziah falls out of a window. Bedridden, he sends messengers to ask Baalzebub, the god of Ekron, if he will recover from his injuries. It’s clear from his use of the name “Baalzebub” that the story has been the subjected to at least a little fictionalizing (“Baalzebub” meaning “Lord of the Flies” – a nickname that is clearly meant to poke at the rival god). The proper name was Baal-zebul, which, according to my study Bible, means something like “lord of the divine abode” or “Baal the prince” – far more fitting designations.

2 Kings 1We know from 1 Kings 18 that there was a tradition of Baal prophets in Israel, even if the individuals in that chapter would have needed replacing (and with Jezebel in court, it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have been). So why send all the way to Ekron? It seems that there was a particularly noted sanctuary to Baal there, and perhaps it’s a testament to the severity of Ahaziah’s injuries that he sent out for prophecy (there’s a sense in which the act of prophecy is both a foretelling and a curse/blessing that alters the future, as we saw in 1 Kings 22, when Ahab neglected to ask for Micaiah’s prophecy because Micaiah never prophesied anything good – so there may have been a sense that going to a more powerful source would be more likely to bring about a desired outcome).

Unfortunately for Ahaziah, his messengers are intercepted by our old friend Elijah, who asks them why they would be sent all the way to Ekron rather than a “God in Israel” (2 Kings 1:3)? The criticism here is two-fold: Firstly that Ahaziah would seek his prophecy outside of Israel, which I suppose would acknowledge the primacy of an external shrine. Secondly, it hints at Yahweh as the “God in Israel,” reducing Baal – despite a clear local presence – to a foreign interloper.

Also, adds Elijah, there’s no need to go so far. Ahaziah is definitely going to die.

The messengers are convinced to turn around, and report the incident to Ahaziah. Once they describe the prophet as wearing a haircloth garment (presumably fur clothes, rather than a cilice popularized later on) with a leather belt, Ahaziah recognizes Elijah.

A captain and his fifty

Ahaziah sends a captain with fifty soldiers back to deal with Elijah, whom they call “man of God” and order him to come out from his hiding spot. To this, Elijah replies that if he truly is a man of God, may fire come down from heaven. Predictably, it does, killing the soldiers.

So Ahaziah sends another captain with another fifty, and the same thing happens.

When Ahaziah sends a third group, it becomes rather clear that he’s a slow learner. Not so the soldiers, though, who try a different approach. Rather than ordering Elijah down, the captain falls on his knees and begs for their lives. Elijah responds to this new approach and comes down. He repeats his earlier prophecy that Ahaziah will die, but this time he says that Ahaziah’s injuries will kill him because he sought to consult with Baalzebub.

As predicted, Ahaziah does die, and he is succeeded by Jehoram – his brother, since he had no sons. Jehoram is not to be confused with King Jehoram of Judah, in whose second reigning year Jehoram of Israel ascended the throne.

1 Kings 21: A vineyard to die for

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

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

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

The Stoning of Naboth, by Caspar Luiken, 1712

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Kings 17:Precipitative Impotence

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ravens

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

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

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

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

The Widow

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

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

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

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

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

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

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

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

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

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

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