Friday, November 22
2 Chronicles 31: The Chronicler gives us to understand that those many Israelites reunited through the efforts of Hezekiah, doubtless inspired by the restoration of their common worship in the Temple, went without delay to other cities in the Holy Land to initiate its spiritual reform and renewal (verse 1).
It is impossible to say whether Hezekiah was conscious ahead of time that his ecumenical appeal to the north would also bring important economic and geopolitical benefits to his kingdom, but it is certain that such benefits did come about as a result of his appeal.
A first benefit was economic. After all, the northern sections of the Holy Land were and have always been its more prosperous parts. Thus, the arrival of these northern visitors to Jerusalem automatically brought enhanced revenue to the city (verse 5–6), being doubtless the first of many beneficial commercial contacts. The economy of the region improved.
This economic development should also be related to the teaching of the social prophets who had been so active in Judah during recent years, Micah and Isaiah. It is reasonable to think that the king, prompted by the preaching of these men, undertook the sorts of social reform that would lead to the prosperity we see here in Chronicles.
A second benefit was sociological, because the prosperity of Hezekiah’s reign led to the considerable growth of Jerusalem during that period. Indeed, archeologists estimate that the size of the city doubled or even tripled while Hezekiah was king; the city’s western wall was extended to include a second hill.
This growth can be explained in two ways, both of them plausible and both of them traceable to the greater economic prosperity. First, the greater prosperity brought about a higher birth rate and longer life span.
Second, Jerusalem became home to many refugees fleeing from the north.
The next chapter of Chronicles will describe a third benefit, also derivative of Judah’s financial prosperity—namely, a growing sense of political autonomy from the Assyrian overlord. Hezekiah could not seriously contemplate resistance to Assyria without the financial resources to make it stick. Now, from Judah’s increased wealth, made available by the king’s new friendship with the north, Hezekiah was able to construct fortifications and take other steps to enhance the kingdom’s military strength.
For example, Hezekiah was now able to dig the underground aqueduct that would enable the capital to withstand a lengthy siege. While the city’s besiegers would be obliged to endure the heat and thirst otherwise prevalent in the Judean desert, its besieged citizens would have plenty of water (32:30).
Saturday, November 23
2 Chronicles 32: We have been reading about the reforms of Hezekiah, his renewal of the temple worship, and his endeavor to restore the ancient unity of “all Israel.” Now, all of a sudden, we encounter somebody named Sennacherib, coming out of nowhere, invading Judah and threatening the kingdom of Hezekiah. How did all this come to pass?
Six years or so before Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah, Sargon II became the Emperor of Assyria (721–705). As so often was the case when a new emperor came to power, various disgruntled elements in the empire, sensing that the political transition was their chance for rebellion and a new political order, chose that moment to foment insurgencies. This was a common pattern, and when a new emperor had to deal with more than one insurrection at a time, he could have his hands full for several years. This is exactly what transpired when Sargon took the throne in 721.
There was a rebellion of the Babylonians, led by their king, Merodach-baladan, who will appear in the next chapter of Chronicles. Then, on the northwest corner of the empire, King Midas of Phrygia stirred an insurrection among the Syrians in 717. Meanwhile, a barbarous Indo-Aryan group called the Cimmerians was moving south from the Caucasus and threatening several northern sections of the Assyrian Empire. Finally, on the empire’s southwestern border, the one closest to the Holy Land, the Ethiopians were effectively taking charge of Egypt and would, in 710, create Egypt’s Twenty-fifth Dynasty.
With so many problems facing the new emperor, some of the smaller nations within the empire were prompted to contemplate a little rebelliousness of their own. As the Phrygians had encouraged an uprising among the Syrians, so the Egyptians fostered an impulse toward rebellion in the Holy Land.
The first to act on this impulse were the Philistines, who began to revolt in 714, at the very time when Hezekiah was initiating his reforms in Judah. Because Egypt promised military aid to whoever would join in that uprising, the temptation was strong for Edom, Moab, and Judah to throw in their lot with the Philistines. Both 2 Kings and Isaiah testify to the extraordinary geopolitical pressure brought to bear on the smaller kingdoms of Palestine during this period.
Isaiah himself strongly opposed this rebellion against Assyria. Not only did he distrust Egypt’s intentions in the region; he perceived that Egyptian and Philistine foreign policy was something quite distinct from the will of God. He urged Hezekiah and Judah not to take part in the rebellion inspired by the political machinations of Ethiopia and Egypt (Isaiah 18—19). Early in 712 Isaiah pleaded with Hezekiah not to become involved.
Later that very year, when Sargon invaded the Holy Land to deal with the Philistines, Hezekiah could be glad that he had hearkened to the prophet’s counsel (Isaiah 20). In the Assyrians’ eyes, of course, Hezekiah was already compromised by his destruction of the Assyrian altars in the Holy Land, but at least he had not joined the open rebellion of the Philistines, and in 712 Judah was spared the destruction inflicted on the latter, thanks to the godly admonition of Isaiah.
Everything changed, however, in 705, when Sargon II was killed in a battle with the Cimmerians that had invaded Asia Minor. The Assyrian Empire was once again agitated by various insurrections, rendered more serious and volatile by the fact that the emperor had perished so far from the center of political power at Nineveh. The new emperor, Sennacherib (704–681), faced trouble on all sides.
Hezekiah, concluding that the time had arrived for Judah’s independence, joined a general revolt that was taking shape on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, largely under the leadership of Phoenicia. This chapter of Chronicles, then, treats the siege of Jerusalem as the occasion when the Lord vindicated Hezekiah’s loyal service to the temple and its worship.
Sunday, November 24
2 Chronicles 33: Manasseh’s reign (687–642, with a co-regency from 697) was an unmitigated failure: First, he rebuilt, or permitted to be rebuilt, all the idolatrous shrines throughout the land, places his father Hezekiah had taken great pains to destroy (verse 3). Second, he defiled the temple itself by the erection of pagan altars within its precincts (verses 4–5). Third, he resorted to human sacrifice in the case of his children. Fourth, he engaged in magic and sorcery (verse 6).
From the parallel narrative in 2 Kings, we are already familiar with these offenses. Chronicles, however, provides additional—and, ultimately, more encouraging—material respecting this king. It begins: “Therefore the Lord brought upon them the captains of the army of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze fetters, and carried him off to Babylon” (verse 11).
Whereas the prophets had failed to convert Manasseh, the Assyrians succeeded:
Now when he was in affliction, he implored the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.
When, at last, he returned to Jerusalem, Manasseh was a changed man (verses 14–17).
The sojourn of Judah’s king in Mesopotamia is also recorded in an Assyrian source called The Prism of Esarhaddon. According to this archival document, the new emperor, Esarhaddon (680–669), compelled the kings in the western part of the Assyrian Empire to come to the capital of Assyria to render their obeisance. The Prism names all these kings, among whom was Me-na-si-i Ia-ú-di, Manasseh of Judah.
According to The Prism of Esarhaddon, these subject kings were brought to Nineveh, which is exactly what we would expect, Nineveh being the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Why, then, does 2 Chronicles say “Babylon”? Surely this does not mean the city of Babylon, which would make no sense in that historical setting. “Babylon” here refers, rather, to the region of Babylon, “Babylonia,” a territory then contained in the Assyrian Empire. In the much later perspective of the Chronicler, Nineveh was a place in “Babylon,” much as it is now a place in Iraq.
We perceive, then, what the Chronicler has done. He has portrayed
Manasseh’s forced journey to Mesopotamia as a kind of small “Babylonian captivity,” prefiguring the great captivity of the Jews a century later. Thus the repentance of Manasseh in exile and his subsequent liturgical reforms at Jerusalem foreshadowed the repentance of the Jews, languishing in Babylon, and their subsequent restoration of worship at Jerusalem. This subtle historical analogy touches a dominant theme of the Chronicler, who regarded the orthodox worship of God as the final goal and the true significance of biblical history.
Monday, November 25
2 Chronicles 34: Reasonably placing the beginning of Josiah’s reign (under a regency, of course) in 640, we surmise he was born in 648, fathered by the 16-year-old Amon (cf. 33:21). Josiah himself became a father at age 16 (cf. 36:2). It was 632, and he had a serious religious conversion that same year (verse 3).
Fathering children and getting serious about God often go together. On reaching age 20 in the year 628, Josiah took the kingdom in hand and initiated a religious reform of the nation (verses 3–7). His reform involved the refurbishing of the temple, and it was there, as preparations were being made for it in 622, that a mysterious scroll was discovered. This scroll is described as containing “the Law of the Lord given by Moses,” and biblical scholars since patristic times have suspected that it was either the Book of Deuteronomy or a significant portion thereof.
On hearing the scroll read and learning its content, Josiah was horrified, realizing how woefully he and the people had failed to observe the Law. Even his extensive reforms, which had been in progress for several years, did not, he saw, measure up. The king had a sense of impending doom by reason of the nation’s accumulated sins over many generations, so he sent his companions to seek prophetic guidance on the matter.
They consulted the prophetess Huldah, who did them the kindness of telling them the worst. The accumulation of evil was already too great, she said, for Judah to evade its inevitable consequences. The scales were already overbalanced to the point of a relentless crashing, and there was no way to stop the forces of history unleashed by so much sin. The nation would soon perish because of its chronic infidelities.
The sole consolation held out by Huldah was the guarantee that the punishment of the nation would not come to pass during the lifetime of the present godly king. Since Josiah was a relatively young man at the time, perhaps there were those who took comfort in the thought that they too would be spared the vision of the impending punishment. Alas, they did not know how little time Josiah had left in this world. The king would be dead in thirteen years.
Josiah took this prophecy of Huldah in the same spirit of humility he displayed when the Law was first read to him. Resolving that whatever time was left would be spent in the pure service of God, he caused the Book of the Law to be read aloud in the presence of the national leaders and whoever else could join them. He would not spare them the bad news; he would not permit them to walk blindly into the future or put their hopes in a vain sense of security. Their days were numbered, after all, and Josiah thought it a mercy that they should know it. God was still God, and man still owed Him pure service. Josiah would continue to love God “with all his heart and all his soul,” an expression he had recently learned from reading the sacred text of Deuteronomy.
Tuesday, November 26
2 Chronicles 35: It is significant of Josiah’s thinking that he invited the remnants of the northern tribes to Jerusalem for the Feast if the Passover, as Hezekiah had done in the previous century.
The Passover was not just any feast; it was the feast in which Israel was separated from all other peoples of the earth. It was the feast that rendered Israel God’s chosen people. Therefore, it was preeminently the feast of the unity of the people of God.
Being restricted to Jerusalem, Josiah’s celebration of Passover corresponded to the prescription of Deuteronomy, which we believe to have formed, at least in part, the scroll so recently discovered. In that text it was commanded,
You may not sacrifice the Passover within any of your gates which the Lord your God gives you; but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to make his name abide, there you shall sacrifice the Passover” (Deuteronomy 16:5–6).
Perhaps more than any other feast in the liturgical calendar, Passover roots Israel’s worship in the concrete, documented facts of history.
The annual feast itself is part of the historical continuity inaugurated by the events remembered on that holiest of nights. Israel represents, in this respect, a religious adherence profoundly different from that of the religions of India, which involve various efforts to escape from history into some kind of experience transcendent to history. Israel’s worship does not endeavor to escape the flow of history but to place the worshippers into the people’s historical identity established by historical events. Those who keep this feast become one with those who have always kept it, including those who stood to eat the Passover on that first night, protected by the sprinkled blood of the paschal lambs.
The proper celebration of the Passover, however, is more than a “then and now.” The “then and now” represent only the two extremes of the greater continuity. The full continuity is also important, because this feast is essentially an inherited feast, and the inheritance is received, not simply from the distant past, but from the more immediate past of the previous generation of worshippers.
What was true of Israel’s celebration of the paschal feast is, of course, likewise true of that new Pascha celebrated by Christians (in the identical historical continuity, for those Israelites were our own forefathers!).
This is how we should understand the words of the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians at Passover season, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7–8).
Wednesday, November 27
2 Chronicles 36: Josiah’s own motives were surely political when he determined to attack the invading army of Pharaoh Necho. The decline of the Assyrian Empire, a process requiring two decades until its fall, had created something of a political vacuum in the western half of the Fertile Crescent. In Judah itself at least one political faction favored the rise of Babylon, and this faction apparently included Josiah himself. The books of 2 Kings and Jeremiah indicate also the emergence of another party that preferred an alliance with Egypt. One side or the other must prevail, because it was becoming evident to everyone that Judah’s days of political independence were at an end.
The first part of the present chapter (verses 1–10) illustrates the political struggles in which these competing forces worked themselves out. Josiah’s eldest son Jehoiakim did not succeed him at his death, because a popular uprising, apparently motivated by pro-Babylonian sympathies, gave the crown to another son, Jehoahaz/Eliakim (v. 1). Within three months, however, Pharaoh Necho intervened and took this son hostage into Egypt. To replace him on the throne of Judah he chose Josiah’s older son, Jehoiakim, who was perhaps more favorable—and certainly more acceptable—to Egypt. The annual tribute Judah paid to Egypt made manifest Judah’s de facto subjugation.
After eleven years, nonetheless, Babylon decided to make its move on the southwest end of the Fertile Crescent, deposing Jehoiakim and replacing him with his son Jehoiachin (vv. 6–9). (In verse 9 read “eighteen” instead of “eight,” following the Greek manuscripts and 2 Kings 24:8.)
Within three months the Babylonians found the latter choice also unacceptable, so Jehoiachin was likewise deposed and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah, the youngest son of Josiah. (In v. 10 Zedekiah is called Jehoiachin’s “brother,” but this noun is to be understood in the normal biblical sense of “kinsman.” Only rarely does the word “brother” carry in Semitic languages the strict and limited sense it has in English.)
The Chronicler especially blames this Zedekiah, the last of Judah’s kings, for ignoring the sound counsel of Jeremiah, the last of the pre- exilic prophets. Indeed, the entire leadership of the nation is charged here with polluting the temple (v. 14), apparently with various forms of both idolatry and neglect. This indictment, found only in the Chronicler, touches at the center of his theological interest in history.
In addition, the Chronicler speaks of two pre-exilic spoliations of the vessels of the temple by the Babylonians (only one of which is mentioned in 2 Kings 23:13). These sacred vessels of the worship thus suffer, as it were, an early captivity in Babylon. (The Book of Ezra will give much attention to their return.)
Thursday, November 28
Esther 1: Fairly early in Christian history Clement of Rome was impressed by the self-sacrificing spirit of Judith and Esther, who—though they did not perish—did expose themselves to the peril of death for the sake of their kinsmen. Clement wrote:
Blessed Judith, when her city was under siege, sought permission of the elders to go forth into the camp of the strangers; and, exposing herself to danger, she went out for the love which she bore to her country and people then besieged; and the Lord delivered Holofernes into the hands of a woman. Esther also, being perfect in faith, exposed herself to no less danger, in order to deliver the twelve tribes of Israel from impending destruction.
Clement’s high esteem for the selfless, sacrificial spirit of Esther and Judith was adopted widely by Christian readers in both the East (Clement of Alexandria and Origen) and the West (Ambrose of Milan, Isidore of Seville, and Hugh of St. Victor).
Revelation 7:9-17: Beginning with an “amen” by which they respond to the acclamation of the saints in verse 10, the angels now join their voices in the praise of God (verse 11).
In John’s perspective, this vision is simultaneously past, present, and future. Inasmuch as the vision already contains fulfillment, its verbal tense is past. The “great tribulation,” moreover, has already started (for it is simultaneous with the “last times”), and therefore the present verbal tense, the ongoing perspective, is likewise proper. But because there are still events to come (quickly!), John’s view is also directed toward the future.
One of the elders clarifies for the seer the identity of those clad in white robes (6:11; 7:9). They have already passed through the great tribulation, he tells John (verse 14; cf. Daniel 12:1; Mark 13:19), a description suggesting that the great tribulation, at least from their perspective, is already past. Yet, that tribulation itself will not be narrated until 13:7-10.
They are called “martyrs,” but this designation should be interpreted in a broader theological perspective that regards the call to martyrdom as implicit in the very nature of baptism. Indeed, from earliest times the white robe has been associated with baptism, that rite by which believers are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Christians do not receive their white robes in heaven; on the contrary, they will not even be admitted to heaven unless they are already wearing those white robes (22:14). To wear the white robe means to live “in the blood” (Romans 3:25; 5:9; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13; Colossians 1:20; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:2,19; 1 John 1:7).
Friday, November 29
Esther 2: The story told in the Book of Esther is placed during the Persian period, this time understood as the interval between the fall of Babylon to Cyrus in 539 B.C. and Alexander’s defeat of Darius III in several battles, notably at Issus in 333 and Gaugamela in 331. During those two centuries Jews who lived outside the Holy Land were politically free to return if they wished. They did not live in exile, that is to say, but in what in Greek is called Diaspora, “dispersion.” The word indicated some sense that they were living away from home, but it also camouflaged the fact that they had no serious intention of returning home. For whatever reason, they lived abroad deliberately. Some of their descendents are still there to the present day.
Why the Diaspora? Well, during the period of Judah’s Babylonian Captivity (597-538)—exile in the strict sense—most of the deported Jews settled down peaceably in Mesopotamia where their captors had brought them. They did exactly what Jeremiah had counseled them to do:
Build houses and settle in plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And pursue the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
Prospering in the land of exile, most of these Jews were reluctant to take leave of it when, in 538, a decree from Cyrus permitted them to return to the Holy Land. Relatively few of the exiles returned from Babylon—perhaps only fifty thousand—returned during the century after 538, and only a fraction of these–, mainly young, unmarried men-, -came back in the first wave with Zerubbabel.
This means that the greater mass of the Jewish population remained in the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent, where they had managed to make good lives for themselves during the Exile. They, along with those who fled to Egypt when Jerusalem fell in 587, formed the Diaspora. Significantly, as I mentioned, the word is Greek; few Jews could any longer read Hebrew, much less speak it. They adopted Greek as their own international tongue, much as later Jews learned to communicate in a Germanic variant called Yiddish (Juden Deutsch) and a Romance dialect known as Ladino (Latina). Both these alien languages are written in the square script adopted for Hebrew during the Persian period.
From the Persian period forward, and to the present day, the Jews of the Diaspora have always outnumbered the Jewish population of the Holy Land. Even the losses of the Holocaust and the modern formation of the State of Israel have not completely reversed that historical pattern.