Amos 5-6: Lamentations

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

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

The Day of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Despise Your Feasts

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

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

Amos, by John Sargent

Amos, by John Sargent

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

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

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

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

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

I Abhor Your Pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Celestial Deity

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

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

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

Amos 1-2: Finger Pointing

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Amos opens with a thesis statement in the third person: “The words of Amos […] which he saw concerning Israel” (Amos 1:1).

This statement is mixed in with some biographical information, telling us that Amos was among the shepherds of Tekoa, and that he saw the words when Uzziah was king in Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash was king in Israel, two years before an earthquake.

With regards to his profession as a shepherd, the particular word used is only used in one other place: 2 Kgs 3:4, in reference to the king of Moab. The king of Moab, of course, would hardly be some lowly peasant. Given that Amos was apparently literate, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to see him as the same category of shepherd – the owner of a large flock that was tended by employees.

Claude Mariottini discusses Amos’s occupation in more detail in a blog post.

God Roared

The section proper begins with a verse that reads almost like an incantation:

The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers.

If the verse is original to Amos, the fact that the geographical markers are all from the southern kingdom seems rather odd. There’s something just so Deuteronomistic about Jerusalem as the place from which God is roaring. According to Collins, that’s one reason why this verse is considered by many to be an addition from after the Babylonian exile (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.159).

The use of the term “Zion” is interesting as well, since it’s not a word that’s come up a whole lot in our readings so far. We saw it a fair bit in Lamentations, which is dated to the Babylonian exile. Other than that, we’ve only seen it used a sprinkling of times in Kings and Chronicles, and once in 2 Sam. 5:7, which Wikipedia gives as the earliest use of the word. This seems to be fairly compelling evidence in support of Collins’s assertion.

The Condemnations

The condemnations themselves follow a pattern:

  1. It begins with the phrase: “Thus says the Lord.” According to Claude Mariottini, this phrase is frequently found in prophetic books, and would have been used by royal messengers speaking on behalf of a king to a designated individual (as in the case with Rabshakeh, envoy from King Sennacherib of Assyria to King Hezekiah of Judah in 2 Kgs 18:19).
  2. “For three transgressions of [transgressor], and for four, I will not revoke punishment.” The phrase likely means something along the lines of “three transgressions would have been bad enough, but you’ve gone and had four of them!” (Except, of course, with the specific numbers being literally figurative.)
  3. This is followed by a surprisingly brief explanation of their crimes…
  4. And a surprisingly brief explanation of the punishment that awaits them. This largely involves a fire that will consume their walls and strongholds (except in the case of Israel).
  5. Closing each condemnation (except for those of Tyre and Edom), Amos concludes with: “says the Lord God.”

Amos 1:3-5
Target: Damascus, Syria
Transgressions: They threshed Gilead, which we read about in 2 Kgs 10:32-33.
Punishment: God will send fire down on the house of Hazael, and it will devour the strongholds of Benhadad (both Hazael and Behadad were kings of Syria). The people of Syria will be forced into exile to Kir. This will indeed happen when the Assyrians take Damascus in 2 Kgs 16:9. Also of interest is that Amos himself seems to believe that the Syrians originated from Kir (Amos 9:7).

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Amos 1:6-8
Target: Gaza, Philistia
Transgressions: For carrying a whole people into exile, and for selling them to Edom.
Punishment: God will send fire onto the wall of Gaza, destroying her strongholds. The inhabitants will be cut off from Ashdod and the one who holds the scepter of Ashkelon. God will turn his hand against Ekron and the last of the Philistines will die. This all happened when Assyria took over in a series of campaigns (Gaza fell to Tiglath-Pileser in 734BCE, Ashdod to Sargon in 711BCE, and Ashkelon and Ekron to Sennacherib in 701BCE).

Amos 1:9-10
Target: Tyre
Transgressions: For selling people to Edom, and for forgetting the covenant of brotherhood (this latter likely a reference to the close relationship between Tyre and Israel during the reigns of David and Solomon, as per 2 Sam. 5:11 and 1 Kgs 5:1).
Punishment: God will set fire to the wall of Tyre and devour its strongholds. This prophecy also came true, this time when Tyre became a tributary to Assyria and then fell to Nebuchadnezzar 585BCE, after a lengthy siege. It was then destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332BCE.

Amos 1:11-12
Target: Edom
Transgressions: For having pursued his brother with the sword, without pity. Edom was perpetually torn by anger and wrath.
Punishment: God will send fire down on Teman, and it will devour the strongholds of Bozrah. This prophecy also came true, as Edom was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE.

Amos 1:13-15
Target: The Ammonites
Transgressions: For having ripped up pregnant women in Gilead to enlarge their borders. This war against Gilead doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere else.
Punishment: God will send fire down to the wall of Rabbah, devouring its strongholds. This will happen with great shouting in the day of battle, and with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind. The Ammonite king and princes will be taken into exile.

Amos 2:1-3
Target: Moab
Transgressions: For having burned to lime the bones of the Edomite king. This is an interesting complaint. While the crimes of the other foreign nations can be read as offenses against Israel (the big Israel, the one that includes Judah), this is a crime against another foreign nation. As Collins puts it, “this is a crime of one Gentile against another and can only be viewed as a crime against humanity. Amos operates with a concept of universal justice, such as we often find in the wisdom literature” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).
Punishment: Fire will rain down upon Moab (though not, at least, it’s walls) and devour the strongholds of Kerioth. Moab will die amid uproar, shouting, and the sound of the trumpet. Its ruler and its princes will be slain.

Amos 2:4-5
Target: Judah
Transgressions: For rejecting the law of God and failing to keep his statutes. For having been led astray by their lies, in the way their fathers walked. This passage is sometimes considered to have been added by a later editor, in large part because of how closely the writing resembles that of the Deuteronomical books.
Punishment: God will bring fire down on Judah devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Of course, this came to pass in 2 Kgs 24-25.

Turning to Israel

While the authenticity of certain passages is in question, the rhetorical flow works quite well. First, Amos lures his readers/listeners in by raging at the other guy. Then he moves a little closer with the next batch, raging at nations considered ‘cousins’: Edom is mythically descended from Jacob’s brother (Gen. 25:19-34), while the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot (Gen. 19:36-38). Circling ever closer, Amos turns to Judah.

And then Amos pounces, throwing the sins of Israel into their faces.

The sins of Israel are many:

  • They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. This is likely a reference to bribery in the justice system, rather than a real buyer’s market in the slave trade.
  • They trampled the heads of the poor into the dust. This seemed fairly self-evident to me, but the New Bible Commentary made it all about real estate, saying that they were begrudging the poor even the small amount of dust that they put on their heads when mourning (p.731). This could be a translation issue, or perhaps I’m just not getting it, but it’s certainly a powerful image.
  • A man and his father have sex with the same woman, thus profaning God’s holy name. This is generally prohibited in Lev. 20:11, but it seems that many commentaries read this as a condemnation of cultic prostitution (which would explain the reference to God’s holy name). The man and the father would therefore not necessarily be literal, but an indication that the whole of the community is involved in this sin. Of course, once interpretation does not exclude the other, and a double meaning may have been intended.
  • They lay down beside every altar (clearly, Israel wasn’t quite monotheistic enough), upon garments taken in pledge (likely a reference to the same string of laws that gave us Deut. 24:17, prohibiting the taking of a widow’s clothing in pledge).
  • They drink the wine of those who have been fined in the house of their God. The idea that enforcement agencies might profit from greater fines for smaller infractions is certainly still a problem.

Amos breaks the pattern by reminding his audience that God destroyed the Amorites for them – even though the Amorites were as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks. God brought them out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness, then gave them the Amorite lands to call their own. He raised prophets and Nazirites (a person who voluntarily makes a vow, as discussed in Num. 6) from among them, and yet… And yet they have made the Nazirites drink wine and commanded the prophets not to prophecy (a sore point for Amos, I’m sure).

Apparently, the authenticity of this passage about prophets and Nazirites (Amos 2:11-12) is in question, and it’s not hard to see why. It does break the pattern of the condemnations.

In punishment for all of this, God will press them down. Flight will perish from the swift, strength will vanish from the strong, even the mightiest won’t be able to save themselves from the coming punishment. It will be so bad that even the stout of heart will flee naked. Harsh times, indeed.

So, did Amos’s prophecies come true? Well, yes, but given a large enough time frame, foreseeing the doom of just about any nation is a sure bet. One possibility I’m seeing is that of a late authorship – if the book was written during the Deuteronomic reforms or into the exile, the events Amos is predicting would already have been known, and perhaps setting them in the mouth of Amos, or setting Amos in the time of Jeroboam, served a different purpose. Sifting through the arguments for either side is well above my pay grade, but the commentaries I tend to trust the most seem unanimous in the idea that Amos is largely authentic with some possible late additions.

Lamentations 5: Remember, O Lord

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I found the fifth ode to be an easier read than the others, less challenging. It’s certainly the shortest, as the crow counts words, but I also found it to have the most easily-grasped structure. Bob MacDonald has some interesting notes on the poetry of the ode, but I’ll just stick to content.

More so than the other four odes, it can be fairly well summarized by its opening verse: “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; behold, and see our disgrace!” (Lam. 5:1)

What follows is a lengthy description of said disgrace, with most verses containing an inversion of the desired/previous (assumed) social order. I say “assumed” because I suspect that there may be an element of romanticising of the before-days. I find it difficult to believe that women were not raped before the coming of Babylon (Lam. 5:11), or that much of the population was not hard driven (Lam. 5:5) or forced to stagger under heavy loads (Lam. 5:13). Perhaps these things became more common, or perhaps they started to affect the literate classes as well as the poor, but I find it unlikely that a substantial portion of the Israelite population was not forced to labour under unfair conditions while under solid Israelite rule.

Nebuzaradan burns down the temple, from Petrus Comestor's "Bible Historiale", 1372

Nebuzaradan burns down the temple, from Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

The complaints are fairly standard for what we’ve seen so far. There are several mentions of starvation and hard labour, and there’s the rape I mentioned above. Other than that, there are several complaints of the high having been brought low: The idea that Israel’s crown has fallen (Lam. 5:16), and that even princes now find themselves hung by their hands (Lam. 5:12).

But a few of the complaints stood out, for various reasons:

The first (in order) is the complaint that the Israelites now have to pay for the water and wood they use (Lam. 5:4), which is certainly timely given the water crisis in Michigan (both Flint more recently, and the shut offs in Detroit not too long ago). This idea that having to pay others for basic necessities of life as a sign of exile and things gone shockingly wrong strikes me especially in light of the Christian Right’s often libertarian leanings. But it’s also, I think, another commentary on the “high brought low,” as the Israelites are cut off from the means of self-sufficiency.

The narrator complains that it is their fathers who did the sinning, but they are dead and it is the present generation who must suffer as punishment (Lam. 5:7). It feels like there’s almost a sense of injustice at such a moral system, though of course the narrator never goes so far as to directly question God.

Lam. 5:8 complains that the Israelites are ruled by slaves. This struck me as rather strange, and I wondered if it might be an imperialistic assumption – that foreigners are meant to be slaves, and yet here they are as rulers. My Study Bible, however, notes that: “Important posts were sometimes given to slaves of the king.” In other words, the verse may well be literal – in that the Israelites are working under overseers who are, in fact, slaves.

The narrator tells us that Mount Zion has become desolate, and that it is prowled by jackals. Jackals, who have powerful stomachs that can even digest (and derive nutrition from) bones, are often associated with graveyards and the dead in ancient mythologies (having, in times of desperation, dug up corpses to supplement their diet). The Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, is frequently associated with jackals, though apparently that’s been complicated by recent research. In any case, the point seems to be clear: The holy centre of Israel is now as desolate as a graveyard.

God’s Reign

The final four verses of the ode work well as a conclusion. God’s power is established, and the narrator makes a plea for Israel to be restored. And yet, the very final verse, Lam. 5:22, wonders if perhaps God is just too angry, and Israel is utterly rejected.

Lamentations 4: Tarnished Gold and Strewn Jewels

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As with Lamentations 2, the fourth ode begins with an impersonal third person narrator, then shifts into more personal language. Though, instead of the first person of the second singular of the second ode, this one talks about “our eyes” (Lam. 4:17) and “our end” (Lam. 4:18).

The ode opens with an image of greatness brought low: Dimmed gold and holy jewels scattered. The image is a dual one, as it can be taken mostly literally (the holy jewels likely referring to the Temple riches that are now profaned and scattered), and as a reference to the city – and its people – itself. This second interpretation is spelled out for us when the “sons of Zion” are compared to gold in Lam. 4:2.

This theme continues in Lam. 4:7-8 where Jerusalem’s princes, who had been pure and white, now find themselves in the streets, their faces blackened with soot. In Lam. 4:5, those who had once feasted on dainties now die in the streets (presumably of starvation, given the context), and those who had been brought up in purple now lie in ash heaps (purple being significant because of the price the dye – only the wealthiest families could afford to bring their children up in purple).

Jerusalem had once been so strong that “the kings of the earth did not believe […] that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem” (Lam. 4:12).

Starvation & Cruelty

Along with the fall of Jerusalem came starvation, a detail we know from 2 Kgs 25:3. This period is so terrible that the narrator says it would have been better to simply fall by the sword in the early days of the Babylonian attack rather than waste away in the famine that followed (Lam. 4:9). Even the theme of otherwise “compassionate women” who eat their own children returns (Lam. 2:20, Lam. 4:10) – a reality of sieges we had already heard of from 2 Kgs 6:26-29.

Despite the mention of “compassionate women,” the narrator seems to see a cruelty in how the children are treated. They call out in hunger, but no one feeds them (Lam. 4:4), and while even jackals suckle their young, the “daughter of my people” has become as cruel as an ostrich (Lam. 4:3). An odd statement, since there’s nothing especially cruel about ostriches’ treatment of their young. Quite the opposite, in fact, as ostriches care for their young collectively, and will even adopt chicks from other families (well, it involves stealing, but they’ll still care for young that are not genetically related to themselves). Had the “daughter of my people” truly become like an ostrich, it seems that the children who called out in hunger might well have been fed – by someone, if not their own parents.

Punishment

As in the other Laments, our narrator makes it clear that the suffering is a punishment, and it is entirely God’s doing: “The Lord has given full vent to his wrath” (Lam. 4:11). Interestingly, the occasion of the punishment was the sinning of Jerusalem’s priests and prophets, who “shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” (Lam. 4:13). This must be a reference to their less-than-stellar behaviour under the reigns of Manasseh and Amon (with the mention of spilled blood perhaps referring to being complicit in Manasseh’s slaughter of the innocents in 2 Kgs 21:16).

Nebuchadnezzar's Camp, from Petrus Comestor's "Bible Historiale", 1372

Nebuchadnezzar’s Camp, from Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

As punishment, these higher ups are now defiled and forced to wander the streets (Lam. 4:14). They are cast off by Israelite and foreigner alike, forced to become fugitives and wanderers (Lam. 4:15). God himself scattered them, and gave no special treatment to either elder or priest (Lam. 4:16) – to which they surely must have felt entitled. Even King Zedekiah himself, “the Lord’s anointed,” was exiled (Lam. 4:20).

There are more references to being chased by pursuers (Lam. 4:18-19) in their wandering though, interestingly, this is where the narrator switches to the inclusive “we/our.”

In Lam. 4:6, the narrator tells us that the punishment was so terrible that it was greater even than the punishment of Sodom (likely because at least Sodom was destroyed instantaneously, and without the humiliation of God using human attackers to do it). Except that some translations give it as the sin of Jerusalem was so much greater than the sin of Sodom. And while that seems like a really important difference – or perhaps a very theologically salient pun – I can’t find a commentary that mentions it.

There is an idea that the Israelites looked to salvation from human means in Lam. 4:17, though, of course, it never came. This could be a reference to an alliance, perhaps something like Hezekiah’s alliance with Egypt in 2 Chron. 32.

Unfortunately, the narrator ruins it all at the end. Rather than a call to repent, or a hope in God’s mercy, or anything like that, he instead puts a finger at Edom and says, “Don’t you gloat, ’cause you’re next!” (Lam. 4:21-22). So if there’s a lesson to be learned about mercy or compassion or empathy from the exile, the Israelites who write the Lamentations clearly haven’t gotten it.

Lamentations 2: The Daughter of Zion

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The second ode continues the use of feminine imagery when talking about Jerusalem. While we have encountered the phrase “daughter of Zion” before (Lam. 1:6), the designation really takes over here. I don’t recall the phrase appearing before Lamentations in our readings, and a BibleGateway search confirms that. It seems to appear quite a bit in Isaiah and Micah, as well as Zechariah,  Psalms, and the Son of Solomon.

In fact, the term “Zion” itself doesn’t come up very much in our earlier readings at all. It’s used a handful of times in Kings and Chronicles, and once in 2 Sam. 5:7 (which Wikipedia gives as the earliest use of the word). There seems to have been an inflation in the geographical area that the term refers to – from a single mountain on which a fortress had been build, to the district of Jerusalem where the fortress had stood, to the whole city.

But that phrase, “daughter of Zion”, is an interesting one, and the fact that it doesn’t come up until later writings seems important. The New Bible Commentary agrees, pointing to extant cuneiform inscriptions that refer to “the daughter of …” who is bidden to lament her lot. “The technique may thus have been learnt by the Jews in exile” (p.659). So this phrase, which would go on to be so popular (particularly with Isaiah) seems to have been a borrowing of a Babylonian poetic construction.

God Is The Enemy

In this ode, the focus on God as active agent in bringing punishment down on the Israelites is front and center. The very verse begins: “How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!” (Lam. 2:1).

Compare this to the first ode, which begins, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” (Lam. 1:1). Even though the first ode makes it clear that the punishment was God’s doing, the focus was on the experience of the punishment. Here, however, God as active agent is much more emphasized, as in Lam. 2:5 (“The Lord has become like an enemy”).

The first also mentions Israel’s foes, as in Lam. 1:5 (“Her foes have become the head, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions”). Here, however, we get verses like Lam. 2:8:

The Lord determined to lay in ruins
the wall of daughter Zion;
he stretched the line;
He did not withhold his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
they languished together.

Even as pawns, the Babylonians are erased from the narrative.

This is a complete tangent and absolute conjecture, but it made me think of the way Pontius Pilate will be treated in the New Testament. While the agent of Jesus’s death, his role is minimized, and his agency almost taken from him (as in Matt 27:24). A plausible reason for this action is that the Christians (or proto-Christians, or however we want to see the early community of Jesus followers) were in the power of the Romans (or, perhaps, were Romans, at least in some number). They may have had very real pressure not to get too finger-pointy.

And so we may be witnessing the same effect here. The exile community, being very much under the power of the Babylonians and likely wishing to stay in their good graces to some extent, would have had an understandable reason to de-emphasize, or even erase, the Babylonian agency in the destruction of Jerusalem.

There may also be a sense of reclamation. Elsewhere in our reading, when the Israelite army defeats an enemy, it is a show of theistic superiority: Israel won because Israel’s God was stronger. Emphasizing the defeat of Israel as God’s work allows the authors to preserve God’s honour.

The Destruction of the Temple

The loss of the Temple was mentioned only briefly in Lam. 1:4, where the roads leading to Zion mourn as no one uses them to attend the feasts (a vague reference, to be sure).

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts, 1850

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts, 1850

In the second ode, the destruction of the Temple is a dominant theme. It begins in Lam. 2:1, where God is said to have forgotten his footstool (a reference to the mercy-seat, as in 1 Chron. 28:2).

This comes back again in Lam. 2:6, where God “has broken down his booth like that of a garden, laid in ruins the place of his appointed feasts”, and in Lam. 2:7, where God “has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary.”

There is also one direct reference to the exile itself, where the narrator tells us that the daughter of Zion’s “king and princes are among the nations” (Lam. 2:9). But the focus of the ode is clearly on Jerusalem itself, and was done to it, rather than on the status of its people.

The Lamentation

As in the first ode, the second half switches to a first person lament. It begins with a description of the narrator’s own grief – “My eyes are spent with weeping” (Lam. 2:11). It then moves into a description of the how the people have been affected, describing them as starving, dying in the streets, and calling out for their mothers.

In Lam. 2:13-19, the narrator addresses the daughter of Jerusalem directly. He blames her prophets for having given her “false and deceptive visions,” for neglecting to “expos[e] your iniquity” (Lam. 2:14).

The narrator tells Jerusalem that she has been disgraced, and that others jeer at her (Lam. 2:15). And in the final portion of the narrator’s address to Jerusalem, he urges her to “cry aloud,” to cry without cease, and to do so for the sake of her children (Lam. 2:18-19).

Closing off the ode, the narrator addresses God, bemoaning the suffering God has brought to the people. He begins by asking if women should eat their offspring, “the children of their tender care”, and if priests and prophets should be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord (Lam. 2:20). We saw the reality of people eating their children in times of extreme starvation in 2 Kgs 6:28-29, in the context of a siege.

God’s anger, the narrator charges, is causing both young and old to lie in dusty streets and be killed by swords (Lam. 2:21). In Lam. 2:22, the narrator says that God invited terrors, as if to a feast – which is beautiful imagery even as the subject is rather horrific.

The ode closes with a particularly evocative line, highlighting the horror of the Israelites seeing their children killed: “Those whom I dandled and reared my enemy destroyed” (Lam. 2:22).

Israel So Named

The ode brings up an alternative way of referencing Israel, as opposed to Jerusalem itself, that I found worth mentioning.Twice, the narrator talks about ‘Jacob’ (Lam. 2:2, Lam. 2:3) – Israel’s original name before he was given a new one in Genesis 32.

I also found it interesting that Israel is mentioned at all, while the focus of both the first and second odes has been on Jerusalem, with the first only talking about Judah when looking beyond the city.

The narrator also talks about “the daughter of my people” (Lam. 2:11) in a way that suggests this refers to the nation. So where elsewhere the daughter is of the place, we see a shift to her being the daughter of the people themselves, though I’m not sure what that means.

Lamentations 1: The Lonely Widow

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I noticed that there seems to be two distinct parts to this chapter. In the first half, the narrator speaks in the third person, and the main character is Jerusalem personified as a woman. In the second half, beginning with Lam. 1:12, a first person voice takes over. Here, the main character appears to be all of Jerusalem/Judah’s people, personified by a singular “I”.

The New Bible Commentary sees a different division, this time into three parts. The first is Lam. 1:1-7, which it titles “The desolation of Jerusalem.” The second, Lam. 1:8-11, is titled “Sin brings suffering.” The third, “A cry for compassion”, is found in Lam. 12:22. Of course, this division doesn’t contradict mine; it merely focuses on theme rather than narration.

In the opening line of the first ode, we get to see an example of the Myth of an Empty Land, which I discussed in my post on 2 Chronicles 36. Here, Jerusalem is described as having once been full of people, but being now lonely. We know, of course, that this not the case, but the imagery of an empty Jerusalem (or, more broadly, an empty Israel) lying fallow in wait for the exile’s to be returned and replanted does seem to have – if you’ll pardon extending the metaphor a little further – taken root among the exile community.

Jerusalem Herself

The description of Jerusalem-as-a-woman seems to go back and forth between pity and disgust. She is a friendless widow whose children have been taken from her in Lam. 1:1, but by Lam. 1:2, she is abandoned by her lovers. Read with modern eyes, she still struck me as the object of pity, but I can see the implicit accusation of infidelity, in no small part thanks to the Chronicler’s clear feelings against political alliances.

"Judaea Capta" coin depicting a captive Jewish man and a Jewish woman in mourning, struck 71 CE

“Judaea Capta” coin depicting a captive Jewish man and a Jewish woman in mourning, struck 71 CE

In that sense, Jerusalem is seen as a promiscuous woman who had had “improper dealings” with other nations, and now finds herself abandoned by these alliances. The argument is therefore made both against Jerusalem herself for her actions, and against the worthiness of the lovers – in other words, the author of Lamentations seems to agree with the Chronicler’s dim view of political alliances.

These lovers have, in fact, become her enemies, and they prosper by her downfall (Lam. 1:5, Lam 1:10), and they mock her (Lam. 1:7).

The sexual/vaginal imagery continues, and I found that aspect of it rather interesting. On the one hand, Jerusalem’s uncleanness “was in her skirts” (Lam. 1:9) and came about when she allowed her nakedness to be seen (Lam. 1:8). Therefore, we can see that her punishment is seen as a result of her promiscuity with other nations. And so there’s a sort of contagion from without, which we see again when forbidden foreigners are said to have entered her sanctuary (Lam. 1:10 – imagery that I knew must have a sexual double meaning when my inner twelve year old started giggling).

But on the other hand, Jerusalem is also seen as a menstruating woman (Lam. 1:17 – the KJV’s translation appears to be literal, while other translations, such as my RSV, give us “filthy thing” instead). Seen this way, Jerusalem’s uncleanness comes from within, but is also temporary. Every period ends, and so I saw almost a hope toward the end of the ode that there would be a time of cleanness to follow.

Despite this, it is abundantly clear that Jerusalem’s suffering are her own fault. God’s judgement is judged just, and the punishment appropriately deserved by the crime (Lam. 1:5).

And Her People

The second portion of the ode focuses on the suffering of Jerusalem/Judah’s people, as expressed with a singular “I.” Here, we see that when God sent down the metaphorical fires of his punishment, they descended “into my bones” (Lam. 1:13). The punishment was direct and personal, striking the narrator (who stands in for the whole community) to their very core.

In a mirroring of the first part of the poem, we hear that the yoke worn by the speaker was formed by the speaker’s own crimes (Lam. 1:15) and justified by the speaker’s rebellion (Lam. 1:18). We also see the poo-poohing of earthly protections, as the same verse tells us that God flouted the mighty men that the speaker had hoped would protect them.

The speaker, too, called out to lovers for aid, but had been abandoned (Lam. 1:19), and both portions of the poem contain references to starvation (Lam 1:11, Lam. 1:19).

There is some interesting imagery in Lam. 1:15, where we read that the “virgin daughter of Judah” was crushed by God as if she had been in a wine press. Elsewhere, vineyards, wine, and wine presses are used as symbols of success and fertility, and yet here we see that very success and fertility used to crush the symbolic representation of Judah. This reflects the idea in the first part of the poem where we are told that Jerusalem’s riches now belong to her enemies (Lam. 1:10).

I had assumed that the ode would end on a note of hope, perhaps an appeal to God to hear the pain of the speaker and show mercy, something like that. But I see no hint of that. The narrator simply seems to accept their suffering. The only hope shown in the final verses is not that the suffering of the Israelites might end, but rather that it be also inflicted on their enemies. “Let them be as I am” (Lam. 1:21).

2 Chronicles 5-7: Consecrating the Temple

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In these three chapters, we see Solomon bringing the ark of the covenant into the new Temple, then consecrating the building. I apologize in advance because it’s all painfully boring. I had steeled myself for the early chapters of 1 Chronicles, having been warned that it would just be a list of names. However, I actually found myself enjoying them. Comparing the lists to their occurrences in other books of the Old Testament was actually quite fun, like a scavenger hunt. This chapters about the Temple, however, are making my eyes fuzzy.

Bringing Home the Ark

With the construction finished, Solomon’s first order of business is re-homing the ark. The narrative takes up all of 2 Chron. 5, and largely matches up with the same narrative found in 1 Kgs 8:1-11.

The ark isn’t alone. First, Solomon moves in all the knick-knacks and bits-and-bobs he and David had collected for it. Then, in the 7th month, he assembled the elders and leaders of Israel. They formed a procession before the ark, making sacrifices along the way. The Levites (who are called “priests” in 1 Kgs 8:3) carry the ark, as well as the tent of meeting and holy vessels.

When they get to the Temple, the ark is placed in the inner sanctuary, in its spot beneath the cherubim wings. The poles, which remained with the ark, are so long that they can be seen from the inner sanctuary’s antechamber (but, the Chronicler assures us, not from outside!).

The poles, we are told, “are there to this day” (2 Chron. 5:9). Except that they clearly aren’t. I mean, obviously they aren’t to this day, but they weren’t to the Chronicler’s day, either. So why is this sentence here? Did our Chronicler just zone out for a bit while copying from his sources? Is there some broader theological point that I’m missing? To quote Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare In Love, it’s a mystery.

The ark, we learn, contains only Moses’s two tablets, which had been placed there at Horeb. The location of the covenant’s reception is consistent with the Chronicler’s source, 1 Kgs 8:9, as well as Deuteronomy (see Deut. 29:1). It does not, however, match Exodus (see Ex. 31:18 or Ex. 34:4), nor Leviticus (see Lev. 26:46 or Lev. 27:34), where the covenant was received at Sinai.

When I read here that there was nothing else in the ark, I narrowed my eyes and hissed “gotcha!” As, apparently, I also did when I read the same thing in 1 Kings 8. See, I’m very clever to have remembered Aaron’s staff and the pot of manna, but not quite clever enough to remember that neither of these items is ever described as having been placed in the ark, merely in front of (see Ex. 16:33-34 for the manna, and Num. 17:10 for the staff). My sole consolation is that my error is a common one. So common, in fact, that the author of Hebrews 9:3-4 did it as well. So I suppose I can say that I made an error of biblical proportions.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that neither the staff nor the manna is mentioned here, either in the ark or in its accompanying luggage.

After the priests had all been sanctified, they and the musicians (who are mentioned only in the Chronicler’s version of events) were forced to stop their ministrations when the Temple filled with smoke.

As I read this, it occurred to me that the ark could have doubled-up as a large censer. It’s often associated with clouds (see Ex. 24:16, Ex. 40:35, Num. 10:34), so perhaps something was burned inside the ark in order to, literally, create a “smokescreen.” If that’s the case, it might be the basis of the story of Nadab and Abihu, told in Lev. 10:1-3. In that story, the two priests incorrectly load their censers, and both are burned to death as a result. It could be that the story originated as a cautionary tale for priests tending the ark, as whatever they burned there could be quite volatile. (Where as the immediate death in Num. 2:40 seems to be more about protecting the cultic mysteries.) Perhaps the fuel used in the ark was a little unstable, and sometimes it would smoke too much and force the priests out of the Temple. This is all unsubstantiated fancy, of course, but fun to think about.

Dedication and Consecration

2 Chron. 6-7 mostly follow 1 Kgs 8:12-66. I’ll note content changes as we go along, but I’m given to understand (via Dr. Joel Hoffman of God Didn’t Say That) that there are quite a few grammatical differences between the two accounts, suggesting that the Chronicler wasn’t just copying mechanically from his source. To me, this suggests that what is left the same is meaningful, as it was done so with intention.

The ark carried into the temple, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, early 15th cent.

The ark carried into the temple, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, early 15th cent.

Solomon begins with an evocation, in which he states that God has said “he would dwell in thick darkness” (2 Chron. 6:1). It’s impossible to tell, in English, whether God’s statement should be read as an imperative (“God desires to dwell in thick darkness”) or a prediction (“God would one day dwell in thick darkness”). I’d be interested to know if the difference is clearer in the Hebrew. In any case, this and the next verse serve to introduce the Temple.

Solomon blesses the assembly, then gives yet another speech about God’s greatness, his fulfilling of promises, and all the other usual blather. It would be nice if these guys could hire a new speech writer every once and a while.

In his speech, Solomon says that God once had no Temple and no king, but that between David and this lovely new Temple, he now has both (2 Chron. 6:4-6). This pretty strongly implies that, as far as the Chronicler is concerned, there was no king before David (and this is new, the passage doesn’t occur in 1 Kgs 8). Yet, we know that the Chronicler knew about Saul, and that he expected his audience to know about Saul (1 Chron. 10 is devoted to the guy). The point is clearly that David is the first true king, but does that mean that the Chronicler does not believe, as the author of 1 Sam. 9 did, that God chose Saul to be Israel’s first king?

In the 1 Kgs 8 version of events, we get a Quantum Solomon who is both standing (1 Kgs 8:22) and kneeling (1 Kgs 8:54-55) during the dedication of the Temple. Here, the Chronicler fixes up the story by having Solomon stand before the altar, his hands spread out. He then kneels, with his hands stretched up to the sky. The only weirdness that remains is the position of Solomon’s hands, where we seem to get some repetition.

The Chronicler adds another detail: Instead of simply being in front of the altar, Solomon is standing on a special bronze platform. According to my study Bible, this could be meant as a sort of ‘safe zone’, so that Solomon can perform the ceremony on this one occasion even though the spot before the altar was exclusively reserved for priests. This could reflect a change in custom, perhaps as Israel sought to differentiate itself from other nearby religions that did not distinguish overmuch between the roles of king and priest (or, heck, between god and priest, if we’re willing to skip over to Egypt). If so, there may be other clues as to widening gap between the secular and the religious roles – in 2 Sam. 8:18, we are told that David’s sons served as priests.

The emphasis of Solomon’s speech is mostly on the idea that the Temple is not meant to contain God, but rather to serve as a focus for God’s attention. So that vows made at the Temple are particularly binding, and apologies for sins made at the Temple are more likely to be heeded (if, for example, the people want to end a punishment, such as drought, plague, or famine). Solomon also mentions that foreigners are welcome to worship God at the Temple, if they want to.

Solomon also includes provisions for people who are unable to come to the Temple. He asks God to listen to the prayers of soldiers, directed toward Jerusalem, when they are out fighting God’s wars. Lastly, he asks (rather poignantly, given the Chronicler’s perspective) that God listen to the prayers of Israelites who have been taken captive abroad.

The 1 Kgs 8 version of the dedication ends with another reference to the Exodus and to Moses. Somewhat surprisingly, given the Chronicler’s penchant for referencing Moses, he omits this. Instead, he replaces it with a bit about David that follows Ps 132:8-10 fairly closely.

Once Solomon is finally done talking, a fire comes down from heaven to consume the burnt offering (though is it still a burnt offering if God himself burns it? At that point, it’s just an offering that will then be burned). Someone apparently messed up the fuelling of the ark again, however, and God’s “glory” filled the Temple, driving out the priests. The Israelite masses saw the fire and worshipped. This whole bit about the fire, including the repetition of the priests being forced out of the Temple, is not found in the 1 Kgs 8 telling.

The Israelites feasted for seven days, then held a solemn assembly on the 8th day. On the 23rd day of the 7th month, the people were finally dismissed and returned to their homes. In 1 Kgs 8:65, the people are merely sent home on the 8th day, and there’s no mention of a solemn assembly.

The Chronicler tells us that the people returned to their homes with gladness in their hearts because of the goodness that God had shown to David and Solomon (2 Chron. 7:10), though the parallel verse (1 Kgs 8:66) mentions only David.

Wrapping things up, God appears personally to Solomon to let him know that he approves of what’s been done and, of course, issue a few threats. This passage is mostly lifted from 1 Kgs 9:1-9, and includes special concern that the Isrealites not go off to worship other gods (if they do, they will be plucked out of Israel and God will make an example of them, lovely).

1 Chronicles 11: David’s uncomplicated rise

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Skipping straight from Saul’s death in the last chapter to David’s ascension as king, the Chronicler leaps right over the succession conflicts of 2 Samuel 2-4. In this narrative, David’s rise was effortless and conflict-less.

Right from the start, we see all of Israel congregating in Hebron to declare David as their new king. Repeating their speech almost verbatim from 2 Sam. 5:1-3, they reinforce David’s claim by saying that he had truly been the one leading them from the start, even while Saul was king in name. They make a covenant with David, and Samuel anoints him.

1 Chronicles 11 - Samuel anointing DavidWith all of Israel on his side, David turned toward Jerusalem. The Jebusites taunt David, saying that he will never enter his city. But then, wooops, he conquers it anyway. Parts of the story are copied word-for-word from 2 Sam. 5:6-10, except that all references to David’s hatred for people with physical disabilities are replaced by his vow to promote the first person to kill Jebusites (or perhaps to rush forward at the Jebusites) to the rank of chief and commander. This seems like a fairly awful way to pick leaders, given that leadership skills aren’t terribly correlated with “rush into battle and kill stuff” skills. I get that the point is to reward bravery, but this seems like the Peter Principle in action. The point is only more clearly made when we find out that it is Joab who goes first, earning his place as chief. And we all know how well that turned out (1 Kgs. 2:5-6).

My New Bible Commentary notes that Joab’s promotion here would seem to conflict with 2 Samuel, where Joab is already functioning as commander prior to the taking of Jerusalem. Yet, “the commander-in-chief of the king of Judah would not automatically have become commander-in-chief of the king of all Israel” (p.375). In other words, it’s possible that Joab was already commander, but had to re-earn his position in the new national government. Assuming historicity for a moment, this doesn’t seem unreasonable.

James Pate notes a problematic difference between this chapter and 2 Sam. 5:6-10: Whereas in 2 Samuel, David seems to have chosen Jerusalem as his capitol because it was centrally located and because it did not belong to any particular tribe (therefore avoiding the argument of favouritism), the Chronicler gives David complete support from all Israel before he turns to Jerusalem, and in fact shows a pan-tribal attacking army. So why, then, would David have needed to take Jerusalem? Pate discusses the issue in his post.

Once David took Jerusalem, it began to be known as the city of David. He and Joab then set to work repairing the city (and presumably building it up), and thus did David become ever greater.

The Mighty Men

The rest of the chapter lists the men of David’s elite army. It is nearly identical to the list found in 2 Sam. 23:8-39, though with additional names added to the end. One theory is that the 2 Samuel version ended with Uriah to rhetorically underscore the evil that David had done to him in 2 Sam. 11, whereas the Chronicler may have been working with a more complete list.

We begin with the elite of the elite, known as the Three. The group’s leader was Jachobeam, a Hachmonite, who once killed 300 enemies with his spear at one time (the number is 800 in 2 Sam. 23:8, but the difference could be caused by confusion with another warrior, Abishai, who killed 300 in 2 Sam. 23:18 and 1 Chron. 11:20).

The other two members of the Three are mashed together here, apparently due to a scribal error. In 2 Sam. 23:9-12, we learn of two members of the group: Eleazar son of Dodo the Ahohite and Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. In the 2 Samuel version, Eleazar was with David when they defied the Philistines. The Israelite army was routed, but Eleazar kept fighting until his arm grew weary – long enough to win the battle. When the Israelites returned, it was only to strip the dead. As for Shammah, the Israelite army was again routed, but Shammah stood in a plot of lentils, defending it until the Philistines were defeated.

The Chronicler’s version, however, tells us only of Eleazar, and how he was with David at Pasdammim when the Philistines gathered against them. Even though the Israelites were routed, he stood his ground in a field of barley and defeated the Philistines. It’s rather easy to see how a scribe’s eye might skip in two such similar stories.

Before getting into the Thirty, we learn of three men from the band of Thirty (there’s no indication that they are the Three) who came to David while he was in hiding in the cave of Adullam (his stay is narrated in 1 Sam. 22:1-5) while the Philistines occupied Bethlehem.

David seems to have been feeling rather sorry for himself, and said (with much sighing, I imagine) that he wished he could have some water to drink from one of the wells of Bethlehem. These three members of the Thirty heard him (or perhaps overheard him, depending on the interpretation) and took it upon themselves to go fetch that water for David. So they snuck through the Philistine guards, into Bethlehem, and drew the water.

When they returned, however, David refused to drink it. Instead, he poured it onto the ground, saying: “Shall I drink the lifeblood of these men?” (1 Chron. 11:19). How David looks in this story depends entirely on the reader’s interpretation. If he had asked his men who fetch him the water, then his actions are just awful. But if he was just moping about, feeling sorry for himself, and they happened to overhear him and did something foolish that he hadn’t wanted them to do, then he is some degree of less awful. At least no Beckets were killed this time.

The chief of the Thirty was Abishai, Joab’s brother. Like Jachobeam, he too killed 300 enemies at one go with a spear. The other member of the Thirty whose deeds are worth mentioning is Benaiah son of Jehoiada, of Kabzeel, the captain of David’s bodyguards. He killed two whole ariels of Moab, which I’m sure is very impressive whatever an ariel is. He also killed a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen, the significant of which is lost on me, but I’m sure that too is very impressive. He also duelled a very large Egyptian who wielded a spear like a weaver’s beam. Benaiah lunged in with his staff and, snatching the oversized spear from the Egyptian’s hands, killed him with his own weapon.

The rest of the Thirty are given as a simple list:

  1. Asahel brother of Joab
  2. Elhanan son of Dodo of Bethlehem
  3. Shammoth of Harod
  4. Helez the Pelonite
  5. Ira son of Ikkesh of Tekoa
  6. Abiezer of Anathoth
  7. Sibbecai the Hushathite
  8. Ilai the Ahohite
  9. Maharai of Netophah
  10. Heled son of Baanah of Netophah
  11. Ithai son of Ribai of Gibeah, of the Benjaminites
  12. Benaiah of Pirathon
  13. Hurai of the brooks of Gaash
  14. Abiel the Arbathite
  15. Azmaveth of Baharum
  16. Eliahba of Shaalbon
  17. Hashem the Gizonite
  18. Jonathan son of Shagee the Hararite
  19. Ahiam son of Sachar the Hararite
  20. Eliphal son of Ur
  21. Hepher the Mecherathite
  22. Ahijah the Pelonite
  23. Hezro of Carmel
  24. Naarai the son of Ezbai
  25. Joel the brother of Nathan
  26. Mibhar son of Hagri
  27. Zelek the Ammonite
  28. Naharai of Beeroth, the armor-bearer of Joab and son of Zeruiah
  29. Ira the Ithrite
  30. Gareb the Ithrite
  31. Uriah the Hittite
  32. Zabad son of Ahlai
  33. Adina son of Shiza, the Reubenite, who was a leader among the Reubenites and was accompanied by 30 of his brethren
  34. Hanan son of Maacah
  35. Joshaphat the Mithnite
  36. Uzzia the Ashterathite
  37. Shama son of Hotham the Aroerite
  38. Jeiel, Shama’s brother
  39. Jediael son of Shimri
  40. Joha, brother of Jediael, a Tizite
  41. Eliel the Mahavite
  42. Jeribai son of Elnaam
  43. Joshaviah, also a son of Elnaam
  44. Ithmah the Moabite
  45. Eliel
  46. Obed
  47. Jaasiel the Mezobaite

These are, of course, way more than thirty men. It seems that the name of David’s elite company was chosen for its neat roundedness (or perhaps its accuracy at some earlier date).

2 Kings 18-19: God Versus Assyria

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

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

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

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

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

He also rebelled against Assyria, and killed many Philistines.

Assyria Ascending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assyria’s Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah’s Prophecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Kings 8: Consecration

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According to Collins, it’s a feature of the Deuteronomist that key turning points are marked by speeches (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94). Some of the others we’ve seen have been Joshua’s speech in Joshua 1 to make the beginning of the conquest, and its mirror in Joshua 23 to mark its conclusion. In 1 Samuel 12, Samuel’s speech marked the dawn of the monarchy. Here, Solomon’s speech rings in the first temple era.

He begins by assembling all the elders of Israel, the tribal heads, and the leaders of the “fathers’ houses” (1 Kgs 8:1), a change in the language of “all Israel” that we’ve seen previously. Another change has been the use of “Israel” alone as a designation for the people, rather than Israel and Judah. This could either indicate the work of a different author, or it could be a subtle signal that the schism had largely been quelled by this point.

The gathering occurs in Ethanim, which would put it around September-October. When compared to the completion of the construction in 1 Kgs 6:38, it seems that eleven months had elapsed. According to my study Bible, it could be that the consecration was postponed so that it could coincide with the New Year.

The ark was brought up from where it was being kept in the City of David, along with its tent and accompanying stuff, to the new temple. It seems that the priests and Levites carried the gear while the rest of the people made sacrifices before it. When the ark is placed in the inner sanctuary (under the wings of the cherubim), its carrying poles were visible and were still there “to this day” (1 Kgs 8:8), allowing us to date that particular passage to sometime prior to the destruction of temple.

We’re told that there was nothing inside the ark except the two tables of stone Moses had received at Horeb (1 Kgs 8:9). This struck me as odd as I was sure I could remember other items being mentioned. However, once I looked it up, I realized that the jar of manna (Exodus 16:33-34) and Aaron’s staff (Numbers 17:10) had only been placed in front of the ark, not necessarily inside. It seems that this is not a unique misremembering, as the author of Hebrews seems to have done the same thing (Hebrews 9:3-4). That said, I still find it interesting that neither the jar of manna nor the staff are mentioned here as being among the relics moved into the temple (an omission that may or may not be significant).

Apparently, this whole passage is a fair bit shorter in the LXX – which, as we’ve seen so far for 1 Kings, may indicate that it was originally shorter and only elaborated in the Hebrew after the Septuagint was written. Another possibility is, of course, that the LXX was corrupted and portions of it lost.

1 Kings 8 - ConsecrationFinally, it seems that during the ceremony, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” (1 Kgs 8:10-11). While the imagery is clearly meant to evoke the pillar of cloud from the exodus (Exodus 14:19), yet it reminded me of my stint at a Catholic school. At Christmas, we were packed off to our patron church to sing in the choir. Unfortunately, the one year I participated, whoever was in charge had decided to use far too much incense – well beyond what was reasonable even for Catholics. Rather than sing, the entire choir suffered a prolonged coughing fit and my friend, who was an actual practising Catholic unlike your humble narrator, had to be taken outside because it had made her feel so ill. I could imagine the priests, still new to the whole temple business and unaccustomed to solid, windowless walls, might have accidentally used far too much incense and been forced out of the building on the temple’s inaugural ministering.

The spiel

The first part of Solomon’s speech was, according to the LXX, taken from the Book of Jashar (mentioned as a source in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Sam. 1:18). It is also, according to my study Bible, the work of the first Deuteronomist editor (close to the end of the monarchy, prior to the fall of Jerusalem). In it, Solomon declares that God has fulfilled his promise not to have a temple built by any tribe until now. David had wanted to build a temple, to his credit, yet the task had been saved for Solomon. Now, Solomon has fulfilled his destiny and the temple is built.

The second part of Solomon’s speech is also, apparently, mostly from the first Deuteronomist. In it, he makes liberal use of thees and thous, which seems rather protestant for someone in the tenth century BCE. In it, he goes on with the usual shtick about David’s dynasty lasting forever, though only so long as his descendants are as godly as he was (which, if we remember, was so godly that he was deposed at least once in his lifetime, and possibly twice).

The only thing that really stands out in the chapter is Solomon’s insistence that the building of the temple was proper. It seems that the tradition of the mobile, tent-dwelling god was a strong one, perhaps even right up until the first temple was destroyed (or perhaps the destruction ignited a wave of doubt). Solomon concedes that no temple can contain god, revealing a shift from the discrete God who can possess and enter a temple or icon (or even a God whose power is limited to geographic bounds) toward a god who can be ever-present – a necessity for an exiled religious community.

Solomon argues that his temple does not attempt to contain God, but merely to house his name and to direct his eye so that he can listen to prayers. Which seems contrary to the idea of an omnipresent God, explained only, it seems, by the fact that Solomon wanted to excuse his actions (and the Deuteronomist author likely didn’t want to hand over the argument to those who would worship at alternative shrines).

He then moves on to specific situations in which he would implore God to pay attention:

  • If a man sins against his neighbour and the two are made to swear an oath at the altar, the guilty party is to be condemned by God. Clearly an arrangement that would have put an awful lot of judiciary power into the hands of the priests, and therefore subject to nasty things like bribery. Especially since the method by which the guilty is to be condemned is not specified.
  • When the people are defeated because they’ve been so terribly sinful (the possibility that they might simply be defeated regardless of their purity is never allowed), they should be forgiven if they repent.
  • If a foreigner (it seems a true foreigner is meant here, rather than a sojourner – or non-Israelite resident of Israel) comes to Israel to seek out God, God should listen to them.
  • God should side with the Israelites if they pray toward the temple prior to battle.
  • If the people sin (“for there is no man who does not sin” – 1 Kgs 8:46) and are punished with exile, they should be returned to Israel if they repent.

Obviously, these are all phrased as requests rather than an indication of the order of things – a hope rather than an expectation. Throughout this portion, particularly after the bit about foreigners, the idea that the people might be exiled by an enemy and might hope for a return to Israel is mentioned several times. This would indicate that at least one author or editor was working after the fall of Jerusalem.

My New Bible Commentary, which does not like the multi-authorship idea one bit, argues instead that the mentions of exile are simply realism. The Israelites had not experienced it themselves when 1 Kings was authored, but would be aware of the practice, and would have known that it was likely that at least some portion of their population would find themselves in exile and one point or another. To defend the assertion, the authors argue: “Hammurabi’s law Code, among other documents that are much earlier than Solomon, speaks of redeeming captives and returning them to their own lands” (p.332). In other words, the authors of 1 Kings would have been familiar with both the concept of exile and of return.

In 1 Kgs 8:22, Solomon stands before God. This requires some cultural context, since standing over someone is usually (though not always) seen as an aggressive/dominant act in my culture. My New Bible Commentary helps: “Solomon is described as standing in prayer. Art from the Ancient Near East always indicates the inferior standing and the superior seated. Thus kings are represented as standing before a sitting deity” (p.332). We see the break between the first and second Deuteronomist editors when, in 1 Kgs 8:54, he stands from a kneeling position. This my New Bible Commentary explains away by implying that Solomon was so overwhelmed that he fell to his knees during his speech.

To end the consecration, the people sacrifice 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep, plus other miscellaneous offerings made in the courtyard because the altar was too small for so much at once. Israel then feasted for seven days (or two weeks, according to the Masoretic Text, says Both Saint and Cynic). The chapter closes with Solomon sending everyone packing on the eighth day.

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