Friday, August 10

Second Kings 6: The saga of Elisha continues. After the miracle of the floating ax head (replicated later on in the life of Saint Benedict, according to Saint Gregory’s biography of him), there follows an account of Syrian military activity against Israel and the victory of Elisha over Israel’s enemies (verses 8-23).

The story of the ax head must not be separated from its context, which is the building project of “the sons of the prophets.” These men, who lived hidden in caves during the time of Ahab and Jezebel, are now out in the open; they no longer fear for their lives. This simple fact indicates the recent popular ascendancy of the prophets, along with the diminished power of the throne. We observe that the kings now consult with the authentic prophets, something Ahab and Jezebel never did when Elijah was still around.

Indeed, in the story that follows—of war between Syria and Israel—the prophetic ministry is so dominant that the author neglects even to mention the names of the respective kings. We must piece together other information to discern that they are Jehoram of Israel and Benhadad of Damascus.

Because this is a story of the prophetic ministry, there is considerable attention paid to sight. Thus, Benhadad instructs his men to “see where [Elisha] is” (verse 13). Elisha prays that his opponents will be struck blind (verse 18), and two times prays that someone will see (verses 17, 20). That is to say, the prophet finds his advantage through the medium of light. When he wishes, Elisha’s enemies are submerged in darkness, like the men of Sodom and Egypt. As for the prophet himself, he seems always aware of the invisible world that surrounds him and his contemporaries; he is especially conscious of the presence of angels, who have charge over the Lord’s loyal servants. Indeed, it appears that the angels in this story are charged to serve and guard the prophetic mission of Elisha.

This angelic guardianship leads to the great reversal, in which the Syrian forces, dispatched to capture Elisha, become his prisoners! There ensues the ironical scene in which King Jehoram of Israel seeks to take advantage of the captured Syrians, whom his own army had been unable to defeat. Elisha, however, will not permit it. He it was—not the king—who took these men captive. He will treat them with the respect due a prisoner-of-war after the fighting is over. He feeds the prisoners and sends them home (verse 23). Israel’s king has nothing to say about it. Clearly, the prophets are now more powerful than the kings.

Saturday, August 11

Second Kings 7: Notwithstanding the firm assertion, “the Syrians came no more on raids into the land of Israel” (6:23), we are immediately informed that “Benhadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria” (6:24). There follows a long story of this siege, with particular attention to the activity of Elisha (6:24—7:20).

This new story of a Syrian attack is the twin of the story that immediately precedes it. Each narrative starts with a nervous king facing a serious problem; both kings lay the blame on Elisha, and both kings try to capture him. In each case, Elisha returns good for evil, providing food for the Syrians in the first story and providing plunder for the Israelites in the second.

In this second story, the Syrian siege produces famine in the city of Samaria, a famine so severe that the head of an ass—an unclean animal—becomes something of a delicacy, and the people are reduced to consuming pigeon’s dung. This is the context in which the king of Israel is approached by the woman who presents her personal problem with respect to cannibalism. Her request—which may put the reader in mind of another question a mother once posed to Solomon—distresses the king. Utterly frustrated, he irrationally lays the blame on Elisha. In response to the king’s threat, the prophet foretells a coming abundance that will relieve the famine.

There follows a story of a divinely induced panic among the Syrian forces, causing them to flee and leave behind sufficient spoils to relieve the famine in Samaria. This account contains the ironical incident of the four lepers, who mount their own “attack” on the Syrians. After feasting sufficiently on the booty of the camp, the lepers return to the city and announce the miraculous deliverance. Although not permitted to enter the city, the lepers become its “deliverers.”

Thus, by reason of God’s subtle activity—as Elisha foretells—a condition of siege and famine is transformed into a scene of abundance. At the story’s beginning, the people have nothing. At the end—with no discernible change in the general economy—they have more than enough. This account is a living illustration of the biblical declaration, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. / He has put down the mighty from their thrones,? / And exalted the lowly. / He has filled the hungry with good things,? / And the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

Sunday, August 12

Second Kings 8: This chapter includes several components: the later life of Elisha’s Shunammite friend (verses 1-6), Elisha’s involvement in the overthrow of Benhadad and his prophecy of coming troubles from the new Syrian leadership (verses 7-15), and his anointing of Jehoram and of Ahaziah of Judah (verses 16-24).

In First Kings 18 Elijah was instructed to anoint Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Samaria, and Elisha as a prophet to succeed himself. While there is no biblical testimony that he personally did any of these things, Elijah’s choice of Elisha to succeed him did lead, in fact, to the ascendancies of Hazael and Jehu over their respective kingdoms. Both these future kings are approached by Elisha.

Elisha, even as he confronts the death of Benhadad, however, and foretells the rise of Hazael, is tormented in mind by the terrible things the future Syrian kings will do to Israel. The prophet is so distressed that his gaze becomes fixed, as though in trance. He begins to weep, foreseeing the social and geopolitical tragedies associated with the new dynasty in Syria. These are later described by Amos:

For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four,? / I will not turn away its punishment,? / Because they have threshed Gilead with implements of iron. / But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael,? / Which shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad. / I will also break the gate bar of Damascus, / ?And cut off the inhabitant from the Valley of Aven,? / And the one who holds the scepter from Beth Eden.? / The people of Syria shall go captive to Kir (Amos 1:3-5)

There are two men named Jehoram in verse 16. One is the son of Jehoshaphat in Judah, the other is the son of Ahab in Israel. “Joram” is an alternative spelling in both cases.

If this is confusing to Bible readers today, this may also have been the case for the contemporaries of these two men, because their families became mixed. Jehoram of Judah married the Princess Athaliah, the sister of Jehoram of Israel. That is to say, the two Jehorams were brothers-in-law. Put another way—Jehoram of Judah was a son-in-law of Jezebel, while Jehoram of Israel was a son of Jezebel. Anyway, the Bible has nothing good to say about either. Indeed, the wedding arrangements of the two families simply enhanced the moral decadence of each. The simultaneous insurrections in Edom and Libnah testify that the two families are about to unravel.

Monday, August 13

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.

Tuesday, August 4

Second Kings 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 enjoyed 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.”

Wednesday, August 15

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.

Thursday, August 16

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.

Friday, August 17

Second Kings 13: This chapter, which takes up the reign of the “other” 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 avton—Ezekiel 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).