Friday, August 10

Second Kings 9: A great deal of blood is shed in this chapter. It needed to be done.

Jehoram of Judah (848-841) is succeeded by his son Ahaziah, whose mother was Athaliah, sister to Jehoram of Israel (852-841). When war breaks out between Israel and Syria, this new king of Judah joins his uncle, Jehoram, in combat with the new Syrian king, Hazael. When Uncle Jehoram is wounded, he is taken to recover at the royal court at Jezreel, where Nephew Ahaziah comes to visit him (8:25-29). This is the setting for Elisha’s next intervention.

The prophet, in the interests of secrecy, dispatches one of his assistants to the battle camp of the Israelites with a flask of oil and instructions to anoint one of the generals—a particularly energetic chariot-driver, as it turns out—to be the new king of Israel (verses 1-10). The Lord has determined that the dynasty of Omri, particularly the legacy of Ahab and Jezebel, must come to an end.

Since King Jehoram is at Jezreel recovering from his wounds, Jehu has no trouble uniting the troops in his seizure of power (verses 11-13). Jehu next comes to Jezreel to finish off Jehoram and his mother Jezebel (14-20). As Jehu rides in—according to the inherited biblical text—it is said that “he drives furiously.”

Apparently this description of Jehu’s driving habits bothered some earlier readers of Holy Scripture, for reasons not entirely clear to the present writer. Thus, an early Aramaic version (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan) changes the expression to “with gentleness,” and Josephus (Antiquities 9.6.3) declares that Jehu drove his chariot “slowly and in good order.”

Uncle Jehoram and Nephew Ahaziah, who apprehensively ride out to meet Jehu, come to the famous vineyard stolen from Naboth by Ahab and Jezebel. It is a fitting place for the dynasty of Omri to meet its fate. Jehu had accompanied Ahab in that long distant hour when Elijah prophesied this day of reckoning (verse 21-26). Nephew Ahaziah, the young and energetic King of Judah, attempts to flee, but he makes it only four miles to the south when he is struck by an arrow. He finally dies at a site five and a half miles northwest of where he was wounded.

Finally, there is the pathetic scene in which Jezebel gets all dolled up to meet Jehu, who orders her to be thrown from an upper storey of the palace. Dogs devour her body before Jehu remembers that she is entitled to a royal burial.

Saturday, August 11

Second Samuel 10: This chapter begins with Jehu’s slaughter of all the remaining offspring of the house of Omri. Not only in his driving habits is Jehu something other than a man of moderation. While he is at it, he determines to kill everyone associated with Ahab and Jezebel, including the Baalist priests (verses 1-11). Meeting some relatives of Ahaziah of Judah, he has them put to death, as well (verses 12-14), after which he proceeds further north to make sure that no kinsmen of Ahab remain (verses 15-17). After this, Jehu uses deception to gather a large crowd of Baal devotees, whom he also puts to death (verses 18-27). It is likely that all this slaying was done within a few days of Jehu’s accession. It is significant that Holy Scripture does not direct one word of criticism at Jehu for all this slaughter. It is clearly in continuity with Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal.

One would think that Jehu, with all this killing, managed to root Baalism completely from the Northern Kingdom. However, a cursory reading of the Prophet Hosea, in the following century, indicates that this is far from true. Israel’s continued commercial and cultural ties to Phoenicia made Baalism an ongoing problem.

During the somewhat lengthy reign of Jehu (841-814), Assyria arose more forcefully in the east, and Israel’s new king was certainly a vassal of it. Indeed, there is extant from that period a black obelisk commissioned by the Assyrian Emperor, Shalmaneser III (859-824). Pictured on this obelisk is King Jehu, kneeling before the emperor. This is the only example of a contemporary portrait of a Hebrew king. The accompanying text identifies Jehu as a “son of Omri.” This description of Jehu indicates that the Assyrians were a bit shaky about relevant genealogies in the western part of the Empire!

One suspects that Jehu’s submission to Assyria may have been necessary for his very survival in the face of new threats from Damascus. Israel lost, to Syria, control of all territories east of the Jordan (verses 32-33). Jehu had successfully insured his reign against internal challenge, but his kingdom never attained the geopolitical prominence it had had during the dynasty of Omri.

Because of his early efforts to expunge Baalism from Israel, Jehu was given prophetic assurance that his own dynasty would last four generations (verse 30), but he himself, we are told, “was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord the God of Israel with all his heart.”

Sunday, August 12

Second Kings 11: One of the bloodiest, most distressing stories in the Bible records how Athaliah, the gebirah or queen mother of the slain King Ahaziah, seized the throne of Judah in 841 B.C. and promptly ordered the murder of her own grandchildren in order to guarantee her hold on that throne (2 Kings 11; 2 Chronicles 22). Holy Scripture simply records the event, without accounting for Athaliah’s motive in this singular atrocity.

Although such savagery from a daughter of Jezebel might not be surprising, Athaliah’s action was puzzling from a political perspective, nonetheless, and this in two respects: First, as the story’s final outcome would prove, her dreadful deed rendered Athaliah extremely unpopular in the realm and her possession of the crown, therefore, more precarious. Second, had she preserved the lives of her grandchildren, instead of killing them, Athaliah’s real power in the kingdom would likely have been enhanced in due course, not lessened. As the gebirah, or queen mother, she might have remained the de facto ruler of Judah unto ripe old age. Just what, then, did the lady have in mind?

The historian Josephus, the first to speculate on this question, ascribed Athaliah’s action to an inherited hatred of the Davidic house. It was her wish, said he, “that none of the house of David should be left alive, but that the entire family should be exterminated, that no king might arise from it later” (Antiquities 9.7.1).

The playwright Racine developed this very plausible explanation in his Athalie, where the evil queen exclaims, David m’est en horreur, et les fils de ce Roi / Quoique nés de mon sang, sont étrangers pour moi—“David I abhor, and the sons of this king, though born of my blood, are strangers to me” (2.7.729-730).

Following Racine, this interpretation was taken up in Felix Mendelssohn’s opera Athaliah, which asserts that the vicious woman acted in order that keine Hand ihr nach der Krone greifen, / Kein König aus dem Stamme Davids fürder / Den Dienst Jehovas wieder schützen könne—“that no hand could reach out for her crown, nor king henceforth from David’s line preserve again the service of Jehovah” (First Declamation).

Racine also ascribed to Athaliah a second motive, namely her sense of duty (j’ai cru le devoir faire) to protect the realm from the various enemies that surrounded it. Indeed, she boasts that her success in this effort was evidence of heaven’s blessing on it (2.5.465-484). However, since it is unclear how the slaughter of her grandchildren contributed to the regional peace that Athaliah claimed as the fruit of her wisdom (Je jouissais en paix du fruit de ma sagesse), this explanation is not so plausible as the first.

The third motive ascribed by Racine seems more reasonable and is certainly more interesting—namely, that Athaliah acted out of vengeance for the recent killing of her mother and the rest of her own family. Deranged by wrath and loathing, she imagined that the slaughter of her posterity avenged the slaughter of her predecessors: Oui, ma juste fureur, et j’en fais vanité, / A vengé mes Parents sur ma posterité—“Yes, my just wrath, of which I am proud, has avenged my parents on my offspring” (2.7.709-710).

This explanation, which I believe to be correct, makes no rational sense, however, except on the supposition that Athaliah blamed Israel’s God for what befell her own family. In attacking David’s house, she thought to attack David’s God, whom she accuses of l’implacable vengeance (2.7.727).

In this respect, the third motive of Racine’s Athaliah is the goal of the first. That is to say, the hateful queen seeks to destroy David’s house in order to render void God’s promises given through the prophets, especially the promise of the Messiah that would come from David’s line, ce Roi promis aux Nations, / Cet Enfant de David, votre espoir, votre attente—“that King promised to the nations, that Child of David, your hope, your expectation.”

The queen’s vengeance, which later appears in Handel’s oratorio Athalia, correctly indicates the Christian meaning, the sensus plenior, of the Old Testament story. Waging war on great David’s greater Son, Athaliah foreshadows yet another usurper of the Davidic throne, hateful King Herod, who likewise ordered a large massacre of little boys in a vain effort to retain a crown that was not his.

Monday, August 13

Second Kings 12: When Jehoash of Judah took the throne at age 7, it was the fifth year of the new king of Israel, Jehu (841-814). That is to say, the year was 835. Jehoash himself reigned in Jerusalem from 835 to 796.

Since Jehoash was a mere child when the throne was given to him after the violent deposition of his grandmother, Athaliah, we may be sure the government in those early years fell largely to the strong, influential figures who had been responsible for that overthrow. Chief among these was the priest Jehoiada. In fact, the importance of Jehoiada’s hand in the restoration of a Davidic king to the throne at Jerusalem can hardly be overestimated. Indeed, it was Jehoiada who chose the king’s first wives (Second Chronicles 24:2).

The high moral tone of the first part of Jehoash’s reign is ascribed to this priestly influence in the royal court: “Jehoash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest” (Second Chronicles 24:2).

Young Jehoash, raised in the temple from infancy, felt a special veneration for the place, a veneration that inspired his desire to see it refurbished and kept in good repair. These efforts were surely inspired, as well, by Jehoiada, the priest who had hidden the young prince in the Temple during those early years. After some difficulties and negotiations on the matter, a collection box was placed in the Temple itself to receive the necessary resources, and the required repairs were made.

After the death of Jehoiada, the king succumbed to other and less fortunate impulses: “Now after the death of Jehoiada the leaders of Judah came and bowed down to the king. And the king listened to them. Therefore they left the house of the Lord God of their fathers, and served wooden images and idols” (24:17-18). This is the reason Baalism survived in Judah for a century or more after the death of Athaliah.

When Hazael of Damascus threatened Jerusalem, Jehoash used the treasures of the Temple to buy him off (verses 17-18). That is to say, the apostasy of Jehoash, when it came, proved to be complete. It was the son of Jehoiada, the priest Zechariah, who prophesied against the national apostasy, including the king’s part in it (Second Chronicles 24:20). This Zechariah was of royal blood, for his mother was an aunt to King Jehoash (Second Chronicles 22:11). Thus he was a first cousin to the king himself, the very king who conspired in his murder (22:21).

In sum, the reign of Jehoash represented an ongoing moral decline. Saved and restored by a priest, he later conspired to kill the son of that priest. Preserved in the Temple in his most tender years, he later despoiled that Temple to satisfy the rapacity of the invading Syrian.

There is a further irony, as well: King Jehoash was not buried among the kings of Judah, whereas the priest Jehoiada was buried among the kings. Josephus (Antiquities 9.8.3) explains that this latter honor was conferred on him because of Jehoiada’s restoration of the Davidic throne.

Tuesday, August 14

Second Kings 13: This chapter, which takes up the reign of Jehoahaz in the Northern Kingdom, also relates the death of Elisha. The career of this thaumaturge did not end with his death; even his corpse was able to give life to another dead person, because “even after his death he still had divine power” (Josephus, Antiquities 9.8.6).

This incident, more-or-less appended to the biblical account of Elisha, sparked the imagination of later writers. One of the earliest interpreters of the scene, Sirach (2nd century before Christ), interpreted the incident not only as a miracle (terata . . . thavmasia ta erga—Sirach 48:14), but also as a prophecy. Indeed, Elisha’s “body prophesied” (eprophetevsen to soma—48:13). Such a prophecy, which Sirach mentioned immediately before Israel’s destruction by Assyria in 722 BC (48:15), was important to him, because it pointed to the Lord’s coming restoration of the Chosen People.

Indeed, the description of the phenomenon here in Kings is worthy of closer attention. The Greek translation known to Sirach says that the dead man “lived and rose on his feet” (my rendering of the Greek text of verse 21: ezesen kai aneste epi tous podas avtou). In fact, this is almost verbatim how the prophet Ezekiel narrated his vision of the dry bones—those famous bones which “lived and stood on their feet” ezesan kai estesan epi ton podon avtonEzekiel 37:10).

In the original context of Ezekiel’s vision the resurrection of Israel’s dry bones was a prophecy of the people’s restoration after the Babylonian Captivity. In its larger canonical context—the Holy Scriptures taken as a whole—it also prophesied God’s victory over death in the Resurrection of Christ, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Sirach, apparently reading the story of the risen dead man here in Kings through the prophecy of Ezekiel, regarded that miracle as a foretelling of what lay ahead for the people of God. In his following chapter, in fact, where Sirach treats of Ezekiel (49:9), the reference is followed immediately by the prayer that the bones of the twelve minor prophets should be revivified.

This interpretation of Sirach is consistent with his earlier mention of the future life of those who fall asleep in love (48:11). It is also consonant with his treatment of Isaiah near the end of chapter 48, where he speaks of “what was to come to the end of time” (48:25). That is to say, Sirach placed this incident here in Second Kings 13 within the much larger perspective of biblical prophecy.

The final part of Second Kings 13 tells how the Northern Kingdom, after the death of Hazael of Damascus, reclaimed Israelite cities that earlier had been seized by Syria (verse 25). In context, it appears that the author of this story regarded this repossession as a fulfillment of Elisha’s final prophecy (verse 17).

Wednesday, August 15

Second Kings 14: The cozy arrangement between Israel and Judah, at the time of Ahab, is now very much in the past, and the present chapter tells of new strife between them as we move into the eighth century before Christ. The relevant kings are Jehoash of Israel (802-786) and Amaziah of Judah (800-783).

Amaziah, taking a firm grip on Judah, promptly avenges the murder of his father, but without seeking retaliation against the descendents of the murderers (cf. Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18 passim). Thus, he secured his throne with a humane gesture that proved to be popular. Then, he goes against the Edomites in order to regain for Judah a southern port at Aqaba, or Elath (verse 22).

Next, Amaziah challenges his fraternal neighbor to the north. This effort was not successful; Jehoash captures Amaziah, takes copious spoils, and then goes home, leaving the kingdom of Judah in shambles (verses 8-14). Later reflection on this tragedy concluded that Amaziah was punished for worshipping Edomite gods, a deed evidently related to his recent defeat of the Edomites (cf. Second Chronicles 25). The summary here in Kings (verses 14-22) is relatively non-committal, though the author does admit that Amaziah, as a king, fell short of David (verse 3).

Amaziah, assassinated in a conspiracy in 783, was succeeded by Uzziah (also called Azariah), who would have a long and—from a political perspective—successful reign all the way to 742, the year that Isaiah received his calling (cf. Isaiah 6:1).

In 786, however, three years before Uzziah came to the throne in Judah, there emerged in the north the longest reigning monarch of Israel, Jeroboam II (786-746). Although Jeroboam’s rule was a great political success, the biblical writers take an invariably negative view of it; here in Kings it receives a mere seven verses, nor is it so much as mentioned by the Chronicler.

The reason for this negative assessment of Jeroboam II is not difficult to discover. The pages of two contemporary prophets, Amos and Hosea, are filled with complaints of the apostasy and the social and economic injustices that received political support from Jeroboam II.

That is to say, we now move into the period of the literary prophets, the four great voices of the eighth century: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. In some respects we learn more about the period from the prophetic oracles of these books than we do from Kings and Chronicles, books which were composed later. Indeed, beginning in the eighth century, we now have more immediate literary sources for information on the period. This will continue to be the case for the rest of Hebrew history, until well after the
Babylonian Captivity.

Thursday, August 16

Second Kings 15: In this chapter rather little attention is paid to the reign of Jotham (verses 32-38). We know that his father, Uzziah, being struck with leprosy as a punishment for his sins, was obliged to take Jotham as a coregent in the latter part of his life (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). This period seems to have lasted from about 750 to Uzziah’s death in 742 (Isaiah 6:1). Jotham then reigned in his own name from 742 to 735. His sixteen years on the throne (2 Kings 15:33; 2 Chronicles 27:1), then, must include both of these periods. This chronological complexity would explain why Josephus (Antiquities 9.11.2 and 9.12.1) leaves out all time references for Jotham.

Both Kings and Chronicles attest of Jotham that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” each also admitting the king’s inability to exercise much influence over an unfaithful nation. From Isaiah and Micah, both books partly composed during his reign (Isaiah 1:1; Micah 1:1), we gain some sense of the national infidelity that Jotham was obliged to face.

While Second Kings (15:35) mentions Jotham’s construction of the “upper gate of the house of the Lord,” the Chronicler (27:4-6) goes into much more extensive detail about the king’s building projects and especially his conquest and treatment of the Ammonites.

Jotham is praised for not pursuing his father’s example of usurping rights over the Temple (27:2). Also unlike his father Uzziah, who acted exactly as he pleased, Jotham “ordered his ways before the Lord his God” (27:6). This is an expression of praise we do not often find in the description of biblical kings!

This expression also hints at a potential problem. It is possible that both Kings and Chronicles were puzzled by the reign of Jotham, particularly his inability to get the citizens of Judah to follow his lead. He is faulted in neither source, though they do not tell much about him. Jotham did not enjoy the longevity and success that the Book of Proverbs promises to a wise and virtuous man.

Jotham thus becomes a sort of tragic figure, even though the Bible does not stop to reflect on the nature and dynamics of the tragedy, as it does in the case of Job. One is especially struck by Jotham’s resemblance to Job in one particular—namely, the almost “individual” nature of his righteousness, in the sense that nobody would pay his example much attention. In the case of Job this moral insouciance is found in his wife and children. In the case of Jotham we see it in the citizens of Judah, but especially in his unfaithful son, Ahaz.

Jotham is treated, rather, in the way the Bible treats Abner—as a decent man who did not, in fact, receive all that we would expect a decent man to receive. In these two historical books, Second Kings and Second Chronicles, the Bible does not pause to reflect on this anomaly, even to reflect that it was an anomaly, any more than it does in the case of Abner or, even earlier, righteous Abel.

The Chronicler’s chapter on Jotham is, in fact, the shortest chapter written by that author, and he limits himself to his precise task—to chronicle, to record the story of Jotham. Without drawing our attention to it, he describes a reign much shorter and less rewarding than the reigns of some of Judah’s other righteous kings, such as Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah. Even as he was dying, Jotham’s enemies prepared to invade his kingdom (2 Kings 15:37-38).

The Chronicler advances no thesis with respect to Jotham’s story. He does not indicate, in even the faintest way, how we should view the problem of theodicy implicitly posed by this story. He not only does not answer the implied question. He does not even mention that the story has a question. On all this he remains silent.

We readers, however, are not limited by the interest and intent of the Chronicler or the author of Kings. Taking into consideration the whole of the inspired literature, we acknowledge and even reverence the quiet dilemma presented by Jotham’s career. We do this, not only because we read the Bible, but also because we read our own hearts. Inasmuch as the Creator has placed in the human conscience the metaphysical sense of justice, we expect God to treat righteous Jotham as a righteous man should be treated, and we are set back on our heels, as it were, at the sight of this righteous man whose righteousness is not acknowledged nor rewarded.

Jotham’s reign, then, becomes for us a sort of foreshadowing of the Cross, where the supremely righteous Man is not treated as we instinctively feel a righteous man should be treated. We know, after all, that “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love” (Hebrews 6:10). The question quietly posed in Jotham is loudly answered in Jesus.

Friday, August 17

Second Kings 16: We come to the reign of Ahaz of Judah (735-715), a period documented, not only in Kings, but also in the Book of Isaiah. During this time, Assyria begins to flex new muscles, with the intent to take charge of the entire Fertile Crescent.

In 752, ten years before Isaiah’s prophetic call, the Assyrian Empire adopts Aramaic, the common language of the Fertile Crescent, as its official language, in addition to the traditional Akkadian. Assyria is about to enlarge its field of influence, and the careers of the kings of Judah and Israel—as well as the prophetic ministry of Isaiah—are set within that geopolitical context.

This was the whole point of the notice at the beginning of the Book of Isaiah: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” These were the years from 742 to 687 before Christ, the absolute high point of Assyrian power. Tiglath Pileser III, who became emperor in 745, just three years before Isaiah’s call, ruled until 727. Other notable emperors of this period were Shalmaneser V (727-722), Sargon II (722-705) and Sennacherib (704-681).

With respect to Assyrian warfare during this second half of the eighth century, the extant art of the period confirms what is described in the Bible; it depicts charioteers breaking through enemy lines that have been decimated by Assyrian archery. Following the chariots comes the infantry, to make certain no one escapes.

An inscription of Sennacherib illustrates this process:

At the command of the god Ashur, the great Lord, I rushed upon the enemy like the approach of a hurricane…I put them to rout and turned them back. I transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows. Humban-undasha, the commander in chief of the king of Elam, together with his nobles…I cut their throats like sheep…My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariot were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage.

The terrain of Mesopotamia largely determined this style of warfare. On the open plain, defensive posturing was not possible. Assyria’s two major cities, Asshur and Nineveh, stood between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which afforded only minimum protection. It was the Assyrian style to “take it to the enemy.” Survival depended on the total destruction of an enemy. We gain some sense of this in Isaiah 5, which gives us a very graphic presentation of the invincible Assyrian might, using a staccato style evocative of a Blitzkrieg:

No one will be weary or stumble among them,

No one will slumber or sleep;

Nor will the belt on their loins be loosed,

Nor the strap of their sandals be broken;

Whose arrows are sharp,

And all their bows bent;

Their horses’ hooves will seem like flint,

And their wheels like a whirlwind.

Their roaring will be like a lion.

In response to this Assyrian threat, Syria and Israel form a military league. Feeling threatened by this coalition, Ahaz of Judah appeals directly to Assyria for help. As the present chapter shows, this appeal simply makes the Kingdom of Judah a mere vassal of Assyria, thus introducing new forms of apostasy and idolatry.