Sunday, November 23, 2008

2 Chronicles 33-36: The Fall of Judah, Again


In 2 Kings 21:1-18, we learn that Manasseh about as bad as it gets in terms of religious orthodoxy. It doesn't look like there is any diety that he didn't worship, and he builds altars to just about anybody with a cult right inside the Temple. Manasseh leads the people of Judah so far astray, we are told, that they become worse than the peoples that God had wiped out to make space for the Israelites.

We are given the same story in 2 Chronicles 33:1-20, but the story continues on in an interesting arc. In the Chronicles account, God punishes the lapsed Israelites by having them defeated by the Assyrians, and Manasseh is led on an unpleasant trip to Babylon in shackles and with a hook in his nose. Perhaps not surprisingly, this experience makes him feel pretty repentent, and in his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. God is sympathetic, and somehow he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. A reformed Manasseh becomes a more effective king, and has all the altars he had built early in his reign torn down again.


A young man who serves only two years before he is assassinated, Amon gets the last four verses of 2 Kings 21 and the last six of 2 Chronicles 33.


Josiah is the king of Judah during whose reign Moses' Book of the Law is found in the Temple. The account in Chronicles 34-35 is pretty much the same as that in 2 Kings 22-23. Realizing that the Israelites have strayed far from the Law of Moses, Josiah does his best to restore religious practice.

In the Kings version, God appreciates Josiah's efforts but subsequently allows Judah to be destroyed anyway because he's still so angry about Manasseh. This doesn't work in Chronicles, where Manasseh has managed to rehabilitate himself. In this version, God informs Josiah -- through a female prophet named Huldah -- that he will destroy Judah out of a more general anger for the generations of religious neglect. Since God promises not to start until Josiah is dead, the people must be especially horrified to see him attack, for no good reason I can divine, an Egyptian army on its way to war with someone else. He is killed by archers, and it's all over but the shouting for the last independant Israelite kingdom.

The Shouting

Johoahaz, Johoiakim, Johoiachin, and Zedekiah are covered in 2 Kings 23:31 - 24:7 and 2 Chronicles 36:1-14. None of them is able to do anything but preside over the erosion of Judah by the rising powers of Egypt and Assyria. Both books end with an account of the fall of Jerusalem, the corruption and destruction of the population of Judah, and the enslavement of everyone who remained in Babylon.

Both books, however, end on a positive note. 2 Kings ended with the release of Jehoiachin, the penultimate king of Judah, and his humane treatment under King Evil-Merodach of Assyria. Here in 2 Chronicles, if I'm reading it right, an Assyrian king apparently undergoes a religious conversion after the Israelites have been in exile for seventy years. Here's how it ends:

22 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:

23 "This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: " 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has
given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you—may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.' "
Well, THAT certainly seems like a lucky break for the Israelites. Perhaps we'll read all about it next time.

But first!

It's time for the annual MRtB Winter Sabbatical. In fact, it's a little past time, but I wanted to finish up Chronicles before taking the break. I'll start up again sometime in January with the Book of Ezra. It's kind of exciting to me that I'm getting into some of those really short chapters of the Old Testament that I've always wondered about. What's in those chapters, anyway? Guess we'll find out!

Got Stats?

I've finished 14 of the Bible's 66 books now, which puts me 21.2% of the way in. In chapters, though, I've finished 403 of 1189, a little more than a third of the way through (33.9%). My favorite measure is verses, though; having completed a whopping 12017 verses, I'm 38.6% of the way through the 31102 verse Bible.

I stayed on task pretty well in 2008, covering 7124 verses (compared to 4687 in 2007 and 206 in 2006). At the current pace, I would wrap up in Summer 2011, at which point I guess I'll have to find a new hobby.

Thanks to anybody who's reading. See ya sometime in January!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

2 Chronicles 26-32: Four More Kings!

2 Chronicles continues to parallel the time span covered in 2 Kings, focusing on the lives of the kings of Judah. I'm kind of fascinated by this parallel narrative, so I'm going to continue to compare and contrast.

Uzziah. Or, um, Azariah.

King Uzziah is covered in 2 Chronicles 26. You won't find him if you look back to my coverage of 2 Kings, because he is called "Azariah" back there. We don't hear much about him, only 7 verses, and even that little bit is ambivalent. We're told that he is a good kind who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord (15:3), but also that because he didn't destroy the altars in the "high places" (which are altars to God, but unauthorized -- there's only supposed to be the one alter in Jerusalem) God afflicted him with leprosy and he had to abdicate in favor of his son.

Here in Chronicles, you get a very positive picture of an able administrator who expanded agricultural production and defense and built fortifications and artilliary pieces, the big-budget military expenditures of the ancient world. After that, though, he has a confrontation with the high priest, whose name is... wait for it... "Azariah." God then afflicts him with leprosy during the argument, and he has to move out of the palace and abdicate his rule.

It's entirely possible that Azariah was an incredibly common name, and that both the civil and religious leaders could have both had that name or one much like it. But, it's hard not to wonder if this confusion of names is static in the historical record.


Jotham is dealt with in six verses of 2 Kings 15. He gets his own chapter in 2 Chronicles 27, but it's one of the shortest chapters we've seen so far. You get a brief portrait of another king who expanded Judah's influence, build towns and public works, and enjoyed military success.


Ahaz is covered in 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28, and they tell stories with very different spins. In the Kings version, Ahaz is attacked by both Aram and Israel, and seeks help from the king of Assyria, who stomps on Aram and provides Judah some relief. Ahaz, impressed by Assyria's success, builds a new Assyrian-style temple in Jerusalem and conducts sacrifices there, an obvious no-no.

The Chronicles story casts Ahaz as a pathetic figure. Here, Judah is completely at Israel's mercy, but God makes the army of Israel play nice and give up their prisoners and plunder. When Ahaz turns to Assyria for help he gets no assistance, but is set upon by a new enemy to whom he has advertised his weakness. And instead of just borrowing Assyrian temple architecture, he actually turns to worshiping the Assyrian gods. The two Ahazes of Kings and Chronicles are not impossible to reconcile as two different takes on the same guy -- but it takes some real effort.


Of Hezekiah, too, we get very different depictions, but in this case they are not hard to reconcile. The 2 Kings 18-20 version focuses on his foreign policy, his successful resistance to Babylonian encroachment. In 2 Chronicles 29-32, you hear a little of this, but a lot more about his restoration of the Temple and of religious orthodoxy. Note that he gets six chapters all to himself. Hezekiah is a big shot!

His restoration of the Temple is kind of interesting. Ever since Moses -- hell, ever since Adam -- we've seen a regular rhythm of ebb and flow, where people fall away from God and then return to him, fall away and return, fall away and return, over and over and over. Hezekiah's religious revival could just be the 300th iteration of this pattern. But, you get the impression in Chronicles that the population as a whole has completely abandoned the practices of Moses, and that when the new king restores the Temple and the Levite priests, everything has to be reestablished from scratch. They aren't even able to celebrate Passover the first year, because no one remembers how and because there aren't enough priests. They end up having an ad hoc celebration several months later, and Hezekiah has to intercede with God because none of the people understand ritual purity and they are all practicing the sacrifices and ceremonies while they are completely unclean.

Hezekiah lives at the same time with, and interacts with, the prophet Isaiah. This makes sense: you've got a active, famous figure of religious revival coinciding with a big push to reform and reestablish the state religion. But the depth from which the religion needs to be salvaged really makes you wonder what was going on before them. Both Uzziah and Jotham are described as kings who "walk in the way of the Lord," and only the 16 year reign of bad King Ahaz is between them and Hezekiah. I'm unsure whether we're supposed to infer that worship had been on the skids for generations, despite the good behavior of many of the kings, or whether Ahaz was just so irreligious that worship according to the laws of Moses nearly disappeared under his watch.

Next Time: Only seven more kings! Only three more chapters!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

2 Chronicles 21-26: More Kingly Cross-Reference

In 2 Chronicles, we continue our cross-referencing of the kings of Judah, all of whom were discussed earlier in 2 Kings.


In 2 Kings 7:16-24, we learned that Jehoram did evil in the eyes of the Lord and that he was too much like a king of Israel rather than a king of Judah, probably because he was related to Israel's royal house. In 2 Chron 21, we get more specifics. For instance, he put all his brothers to the sword along with some of the princes of Israel when he came to the throne, which I think we can all agree is no sort of way to behave. In his later reign, he has some military success, but builds alters that are either to other gods or to God, but not to God's specifications. For this offense, he gets the kind of letter from Elijah that you really hate to see in your mailbox:

"This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: 'You have not walked in the ways of your father Jehoshaphat or of Asa king of Judah. 13 But you have walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and you have led Judah and the people of Jerusalem to prostitute themselves, just as the house of Ahab did. You have also murdered your own brothers, members of your father's house, men who were better than you. 14 So now the LORD is about to strike your people, your sons, your wives and everything that is yours, with a heavy blow. 15 You yourself will be very ill with a lingering disease of the bowels, until the disease causes your bowels to come out.' "
Subsequently, this prophecy comes unpleasantly true.


This is the guy that in 2 Kings 8:25 - 9:29 pays a visit to the king in Israel, Joram, and they both end up getting assassinated by the rebel Jehu. The interesting thing here is that they die quite differently in Kings and Chronicles.

27 When Ahaziah king of Judah saw what had happened, he fled up the road to Beth Haggan. Jehu chased him, shouting, "Kill him too!" They wounded him in his
chariot on the way up to Gur near Ibleam, but he escaped to Megiddo and died there. (9:27)

9 [Jehu] then went in search of Ahaziah, and his men captured him while he was hiding in Samaria. He was brought to Jehu and put to death. (22:9)
This is not a hugely important point, but the contradiction is pretty blatant. For those of you who like the idea of contradictions in the Bible, here is a total smoking gun for you. Those of you who don't think contradiction within the Bible is possible have a problem on your hands here. However, it's worth remembering that, whatever your perspective, the exact way that Jehu killed Ahaziah is not exactly a point critical to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.


Athaliah, the matriarch who kills off most of her family to consolidate power, is discussed in 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 23 with only minor divergences of detail and wording.


Joash, in 2 Kings 12 and 2 Chronicles 24, is the king who is brought up in secret in the Temple and then takes the throne when the high priest engineers a coup against Athaliah. More details about his major Temple repair project show up in Chronicles, in an account that hints at a running power struggle between the religious and civic leadership. Moreover, we learn that Joash had Zechariah, the son of the high priest who put him in power, killed for criticising him. This sheds some light on why Joash himself is assassinated a while later.


In both accounts -- 2 Kings 14 and 2 Chronicles 25 -- Amaziah is most noteworthy for provoking Israel and then getting stomped by Israel; Jerusalem is sacked, and many of its walls torn down. In Chronicles, we also learn that he adopts the gods of the Edomites after conquering them, clearly a no-no. There is also an interesting passage in which, obeying a prophet of God, Amaziah dismisses an army of Israelite mercinaries he had hired, and they proceed to raid, plunder, and kill all up and down Judea. This is the only passage in which I remember seeing such explicitly negative consequences for obeying God's instructions. There is also this little detail, neutral in the Bible but likely to color a modern reader's impression of Amaziah:

The army of Judah also captured ten thousand men alive, took them to the top
of a cliff and threw them down so that all were dashed to pieces.
These kind of passages are, in a way, just gratuitous gore and just signs of the ancient times. But they are still worth meditating on, I think, when you hear someone talking about how the ethical code of the Old Testament is the foundation stone of all morality.

Next Week: Finishing up with Chronicles.

Monday, November 03, 2008

2 Chronicles 10-20: Reheboam, Asa, Jehoshaphat, and ol' whatshisname.

Last time, we took a quick look at 2 Chronicles 1-9, a biography of Solomon that covered pretty much the same terrain as 1 Kings 1-11. The next 11 chapters of 2 Chronicles continue to run more or less parallel to 1 Kings, covering the lives of the first four kings of Judah. The accounts differ in that there is considerably more detail on these guys here in Chronicles, and in that unlike 1 Kings, 2 Chronicles does not cover the Kings of post-Solomonic (a word I just made up, but which sounds very scholarly!) Israel. Also, in one case the accounts are just... different.

Here's how the material lines up in the two books:

Solomon: 1 Kings 1 - 11; 2 Chronicles 1 - 9
Reheboam: 1 Kings 12 & 14; 2 Chronicles 10 - 12
Abijah/Abijam: 1 Kings 15: 1-8; 2 Chronicles 13
Asa: 1 Kings 15: 9 - 24; 2 Chronicles 14 - 16
Jehoshaphat: 1 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 17 - 20

Reheboam is still the same headstrong jerk (remember, he's the "chastise you with scorpians!" dude) who provokes the schism in the Israelite kingdom. In Chronicles, however, we're given a suggestion that he eventually grew into the job and was eventually a halfway decent administrator. We're given a lot more detail on Asa and Jehoshaphat, but they still come off as good, successful kings who follow God's laws and stay mostly in God's favor. The additional material is mostly military history, plus oddments such as that Asa contracts a disease of the feet late in life.


But what about this Abijah/Abijam situation? Well, in both books there is a son of Rehoboam, the father of Asa, who ascends the throne in the 18th year of King Jeroboam of Israel and rules Judah for three years. But in Kings he's named Abijam, and in Chronicles he's named Abijah. It's especially confusing because theres another Abijah back in Kings; that Abijah is the son of Jeroboam, not Rehoboam, and he dies before reaching the throne. With me so far?

Well, a typo is not quite a contradiction. But the Abijam of 1 Kings is quickly dismissed as one of the unrighteous kings who turns his back on God.

3 He committed all the sins his father had done before him; his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been. 4 Nevertheless, for David's sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem by raising up a son to succeed him and by making Jerusalem strong.
The Abijah of 2 Chronicles, on the other hand, leads his army into a battle in which it is greatly outnumbered and outmaneuvered, but then prevails but calling on and trusting God to defeat his unrighteous enemies. So, while neither account makes a statement of fact that the other explicitly indicates is untrue, they certainly present radically different accounts of King Whatshisname.

The Library of Fragments

It is always interesting to see the Biblical texts talking to each other, though. The writer of 1 Kings, after covering Jehoshaphat, asks:
45 As for the other events of Jehoshaphat's reign, the things he achieved and his military exploits, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?
Why yes, yes they are -- and here we are reading about them, in the annals of the kings of Judah. Meanwhile, in Chronicles we are told that:

34 The other events of Jehoshaphat's reign, from beginning to end, are written in the annals of Jehu son of Hanani, which are recorded in the book of the kings of Israel.
Which, like so many of the books casually mentioned in the Old Testament, is presumably lost to us forever. Bummer.

Next time: Wrapping up the Bible-readin' year.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

2 Chronicles 1 - 9: Solomon Redux

That Déjà vu Feeling, Again

1 Chronicles outlined the history of the Biblical chronology from Creation to (mostly) the reign of King David, with lots of specific individual names and genealogies thrown in. So, I expected that 2 Chronicles would start with an outline of Solomon's reign, with lots of supplementary data about the individuals in his civil, military, and religious administration. But as usual, the Bible defeated my expectations.

What we get instead in the first nine chapters of 2 Chronicles is just a very slightly altered retelling of the material on Solomon in 1 Kings 3 - 10. There are a few differences -- the famous baby-splitting story is not in 2 Chronicles, nor (in contrast to the expected pattern) is a long list of court and local officials that's in 1 Kings -- but for the most part it is a nearly word-for-word retelling. The speech that Solomon gives to dedicate the Temple -- the one I argued established a whole new religion -- is also here, with only a few differences in phrasing. The description of the building of the Temple is repeated, as is the account of the Ark being moved into the new temple.

I Ain't No Queen of Sheba, Baby, Whatever THAT Means....

The visit from the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12) is virtually identical in both books, too, which was kind of disappointing to me. "Queen of Sheba" is one of those phrases you hear all the time, and I had hoped that I would come out of this knowing why she was significant, and what people mean when they toss her around as a metaphor. No such luck.

The Queen is a nearby ruler who hears that Solomon is very wise. She comes to Jerusalem and chews the fat with him; "Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for [the king/him] to explain to her." (10:3 or 9:2, take your pick). She's said to be very impressed with the Israelite court, and remarks that the Israelite God must be very praiseworthy to have put Solomon in charge and made hims so prosperous. Then she gives lavish gifts (which are enumerated), recieves even more lavish gifts (which are not), and leaves.

So, why is the Queen of Sheba important? Beats me. Sounds like an state visit from a wealthy neighbor, is all. Anybody know more about the significance of this passage?

As with the visit from Sheba, so with Solomon's life as a whole: there is so little of substance in the Bible about someone who is one of the biggest of the Biblical Big Names. I was hoping we'd get more details here in 2 Chron, but it didn't happen. On the other hand, now that the text is not running in a straight chronology, maybe there will be more information in coming chapters about the man. The Song of Solomon, for instance, seems like it might be relevant....

Next Time: More Retellings!

Monday, October 20, 2008

1 Chronicles 10 - 29: The Return of 1 Samuel

More Grist for the Biblical Genealogist

I don't usually cover this much Biblical real estate at one go, but as with the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles, the remainder of the book is also primary genealogical. And hey, I love my Bible project, but I'm not so far gone that I'm going to start filling notebooks with family trees, just because I can. Others have done so, and good for them.

This section is kind of like the class yearbook for 1 Samuel. There are brief summaries of some of the events in Saul's and David's reigns, all of which we have read about before, but this time they are accompanied by long lists of the various leaders, musicians, warriors, and what-not involved. You can imagine excited Israelites picking out great-great-great-great-grandpa Jahath, son of Sholomoth, from the line-up of "other Levites." For the modern reader, however, they are a bit impenetrable, and when people suggest turning to the Bible for guidance, inspiration, or enlightenment, it seems a safe bet that this is not really the part of the Bible they are thinking about.

Dynastic Wrangling Revisited

The only difference in the Samuel narrative and the Chronicles narrative that jumps out at me is the difference in the way the succession of kingship is handled. As I mentioned in the section on 2 Samuel 1-6 the original story of David's succession from Saul was highly dodgy indeed. This is all glossed over in Chronicles, where we are just told that all Israel come together to David at Hebron (11, 1) and asked him to take charge, and he did.

In 1 Kings, similarly, Solomon's succession from David -- he is designated the heir behind closed doors, at his father's deathbed and by his mother's urging, while the son everybody expects to inherit the throne is holding his own coronation -- smells as fishy as it possibly could. It's a rather different story in 1 Chronicles 21-23 and 28-29, where we are shown David publically announcing Solomon as his heir, commanding the local leaders to accept and support Solomon as his heir, and working together with Solomon to design the Temple. Once is not enough; then they acknowledged Solomon son of David as king a second time, anointing him before the LORD to be ruler. (29:22) All of this, in this version, with David still lucid, upright, and able to preside over large assemblies.

The sequencing of the Bible, with the Samuel & Kings books coming before the Chronicle books, leaves the impression that we get the accurate version the first time around -- basically a coup d'etat engineered by Solomon and his mom against his older brother, with or without the knowledge or consent of the failing King David -- and that this second version is a sanitized gloss intended to shore up the legitimacy of the royal line. The story cleaned up for the yearbook, as it were.

I don't know (and haven't checked) that the two versions were actually written in that sequence, however, and it's not automatic that the Samuel/Kings version was written first, or that it's more accurate. Maybe this second story is the earlier and more accurate version, and the Samuel/Kings version is a smear job? Maybe neither of them are accurate? Maybe they are both semi-accurate, but represent two strands of an oral tradition after a few generations of independent evolution? Hard to say as an amateur reader. This is one of those occasional moments, though, where the Bible is not internally consistent on a simplistic factual level.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

1 Chronicles 1 - 9: Chroniclezzzzzz

The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles trace a geneology from Adam -- remember him? THE Adam, Human #000-00-0001? -- through the descendents of King Saul. It does not mention each and every single human being who was alive during this period, but it sure seems like it does when you are trying to read it. This is a pure, stereotypical kind of Biblical drudgery that I don't believe we've seen since Genesis. Random example:

16 The sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath and Merari.
17 These are the names of the sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei.
18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel.
19 The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi.

These are the clans of the Levites listed according to their fathers:
20 Of Gershon: Libni his son, Jehath his son, Zimmah his son, 21 Joah his son, Iddo his son, Zerah his son and Jeatherai his son.
22 The descendants of Kohath: Amminadab his son, Korah his son, Assir his son, 23 Elkanah his son, Ebiasaph his son, Assir his son....

Had enough? Sure you have.

For the most part, it's just a family tree in a textual format. On occasion, we are given a detail or two about occupation, location, wealth, or accomplishments, but these are definitely footnotes to the main show. Which is: lineages! It's all about the lineages! Well, some people are into geneology, I guess.

Confusion in the Source Material

There are a lot of literal footnotes in this section too. I haven't talked much about this, but throughout the Bible up to this point there have been occasional footnotes that refer to contradictions in the various source manuscripts. Now, I don't know much about the Biblical source material, but footnotes refer to multiple Hebrew, Septuagint, Syriac, and "Vulgate" sources. As with anybody working with pre-modern or early modern texts for which multiple "originals" exist, the editors of the N.I.V. (or any other Bible) have taken their best shot at reconciling the contradictions into a coherent, consistent single narrative.

This poses another modest technical problem for anyone who would approach the Bible as an absolutely literal document. 1 Chronicles 1:42, for instance, lists:
The sons of Ezer:
Bilhan, Zaavan and Akan.
The sons of Dishan:
Uz and Aran.
OK. But when you chase the footnote down, you find that there's disagreement about the sons of Ezer. The sons as listed above are according to "many Hebrew and Septuagint manuscripts." "Most Hebrew manuscripts," however, say that the sons of Ezer are Zaavan and Jaakan. Moreover, it's unclear about whether Dishan is named "Dishan" or maybe "Dishon."

This is a minor problem from a strictly factual standpoint, of course, because nobody gives a damn who Ezer's sons were. Philosophically, however, it is one of the thousands of loose threads that make strict literalism such a tough gig. If you profess to believe the absolute truth of every word of the Bible, and I ask you who Ezer's sons were, you have a crisis on your hands. You've got two contradictory absolute truths.

There are only so many ways you could respond to this paradox, and none of them are very satisfying. Here are the ones I could think of:

1) You could pick one of the original sources and run with it. Problem is, to pick the RIGHT source with any confidence would be the work of many lifetimes. Have fun in your Syriac class!

2) You could say something like "they must BOTH be right! Ezer must have had FOUR sons!" But that's a cheap out; each text clearly implies that it is a complete list of sons.

3) You could assume that the N.I.V. editors must have been inspired by God, and that therefore the current translation must be correct. Except that, if the current Bible in your hand is always correct, things turn quickly into a textual free-for-all. I could take the N.I.V. and, say, rip all of the pages about Solomon, and hand it to you. Neither you nor I would be in any position to say that I hadn't been inspired by God, and that my new Solomon-free Bible didn't represent a new, unexpected revelation.

4) You could learn of the correct answer through personal revelation. Obviously problematic, since personal revelations aren't known for lining up when more than one person is involved.

Or, 5) I suppose you could acknowledge the contradiction and claim it as a mystery beyond human understanding. According to a logic passing human comprehension, you could say, each of the Biblical sources must be Truth, and the apparent contradiction about Ezer's sons progeny is just something we have to live with. I respect this line of thought, actually, but it too has a problem. Saying that the Bible is true but not always open to human understanding is to claim meaning that is beyond the literal meaning of the text. The same reasoning, after all, could be used to suggest that the Biblical creation story describes, in a way that is not open to direct human understanding, a long process of biological evolution in which human beings emerge after various misadventures from primordial proteins. SO, it is not a gambit that's really open to a literalist.

Did I miss any options? Feel free to jump in here, vast army of beloved readers.

Next Week: More Geneology! Now, with anecdotes! Or, the Return of 1 Samuel!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

2 Kings 17-24: The End

The story this far: God created the world, but the humans he put in charge of it kept screwing up. In Genesis 12, God picked one human in particular, the man who would become Abraham, and decided to focus on him and his descendants. In the rest of Genesis, we followed the family's saga through Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, at which point the extended family had become the nation of the Israelites, living in servitude in Pharaonic Egypt.

Under the leadership of Moses and Joshua, the Israelites busted out of Egypt and descended on the Eastern Mediterranean with expansionist fervor. Under the shadowy leadership of the judges, they formed a small empire. Under Saul, the empire became a kingdom; David and Solomon would both reign over the Israelite kingdom until a succession crisis after Solomon (and his son Reheboam's dim-wittedness -- "chastise you with scorpions" indeed) led to civil disorder and a split into the competing kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Since then, a few centuries of war and peace, chaos and order, have come and gone. Last week, though, we saw that the Israelite kingdoms have been increasingly pinched by internal disorder and external pressures.

All of this has happened in a basically unbroken narrative that goes, in my Bible, from page 8 to page 293. Except for a few digressive stories, notably the Book of Ruth, the Bible has up to now been a straightforward chronological history of the Israelites and their leaders. But it looks like we've hit the end of the line. Not only does it look like there is going to be a major disjunction between the end of 2 Kings and our next reading, the beginning of 1 Chronicles, but we're definitely not going to continue with the Israelite kingdom. There's not going to be an Israelite kingdom.


On a procedural note, can I just say: I know I've been sluggish lately, but here we are at the end of summer. My goal was to have finished Ruth by now. And where are we? Wrapping up 2 Kings! 2 Kings!! Check me OUT!


The Big Squeeze

OK, what's happening to the Israelite kingdoms is that they are medium-sized countries caught between two rapidly expanding empires. Egypt, to their southeast, has always been a powerhouse, but the kingdoms of the Euphrates valley over to the east have been fairly weak for a long time. In recent decades, however, the Assyrian empire has been growing. And growing and growing. Last week, we saw several examples of Assyrian military and cultural hegemony over the Israelites.

At the beginning of 2 Kings 17, King Hoshea of Judah takes his throne. He continues his predecessor's practice of paying tribute to Assyria, but after a few years makes overtures to Egypt, offering to be a client state to the other superpower. The Assyrians catch wind of this and throw him into prison. While he languishes, they lay siege to his capital at Samaria for three years, which could not possibly have been any fun for anyone concerned. When the city eventually falls, there are wholesale forced migrations on a Stalinesque scale; the Israelites are resettled elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire, replaced by other displaced people from other Assyrian lands. The Assyrian Empire, mind you, is not remembered for its kindly approach to civil administration.

Why did this happen? 2 Kings 17 speaks to this point at great length. What it boils down to, of course, is that the Israelites are being punished because they persisted in sin. In particular, they persisted in worshipping the other gods of the region despite numerous instructions to the contrary. God had had enough, and the Assyrians act as agents of his anger and frustration.

A side note on Polytheism.

I have mentioned this before, but it is always interesting how much tension there is in the Old Testament between the implied monotheism of, say, the creation story, and the matter of fact polytheism of the main narrative. God isn't chronically angry because the Israelites worship gods that don't exist; he's angry because they worship Baal, Asherah, and so on -- actual gods, his competitors in some sense. During this election season, when the occasional candidate will profess to believe the literal truth of every word of the Bible, I'm always curious as to how they reconcile their conviction of the existence of Asherah with the more traditional monotheistic message of mainstream Christianity. But I digress.

The people that the Assyrians resettle in Israel don't know from God, of course, and they certainly don't know to (or how to) worship him. This irritates God, who keeps sending lions to eat them; the King of Assyria eventually sends a priest back out of exile to teach the people what the god of the land requires. (17:27) This helps things somewhat, but proper worship of God never really catches on.

Judah, Alone

With the Kingdom of Israel in exile, Judah hangs on for several more decades. King Hezekiah digs way, way into the royal and Temple vaults to send tribute to the Assyrians, which holds them off for a while. An Assyrian commander offers the population of Jerusalem a choice between assimilation and extinction (it's one of the most dramatic Bible stories I've read yet, 18:17-37), but God intervenes by slaying 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in their sleep, which gives Judah some breathing room.

Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, rules for 55 years, so he couldn't have been terrible at administration. He is a rampant polytheist, though, and God is livid with him. He always liked Judah better than Israel, but now he's had enough even of the smaller, more faithful kingdom:

12 Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. 14 I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and hand them over to their enemies. They will be looted and plundered by all their foes, 15 because they have done evil in my eyes and have provoked me to anger from the day their forefathers came out of Egypt until this day."
Yet it doesn't happen right away. Manasseh's son Amon is a washout, lasting only two years, but his son Josiah turns out to be a religious reformer. He puts money into Temple repair, and during renovations workmen discover the Book of the Law. The Book of the Law! The laws of Moses! Which has apparently been missing all this time, ever since the era of the Judges at least!

Josiah has the Book of the Law read to him, and listens with a real sinking feeling. "Uh oh," he thinks, "we've been screwing up right and left for centuries. God is going to be really, really pissed." He launches a comprehensive program of destroying all idols and all monuments to Asherah, Baal, and anybody else who isn't God. The text goes into extensive detail about where he goes, which altars he knocks down, and how he does it.

"Nevertheless," we are told, "the Lord did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger" (23:26). By human measures, this seems pretty unfair. In punishing Israelites after Josiah's reforms, God will be condemning people for the sins of their ancestors, ancestors who incidentally had lost the relevant instruction manual. Religious philosophers, however, would tell us that you can't reasonably expect to understand the logic employed by God, who is infinite in knowledge and wisdom. You are so outclassed in that matchup that you can't possibly expect to follow his reasoning. I guess that's fair.

The End of the End

There are a few more kings in Judah, but it's pretty much just a couple of decades of death throes. They try to cut a deal with Egypt, but Egypt and Assyria seem to have worked out a power-sharing agreement, so that just causes more trouble. The Assyrians have Judah invaded by some of their other client states, and then start appointing puppet kings themselves. When the people of Jerusalem keep rising up, the city is eventually put to siege. By the time the Assyrian war machine grinds Jerusalem into submission, they have to dig way down into the ranks of the civil service to find leaders worth executing. They tear down the walls and burn all the buildings, and appoint a stooge to preside over the rubble. When the stooge is assassinated, everybody left in Judah can guess what is going to happen next. Anybody who can ride, walk, or crawl heads to the relative safety of field labor in Egypt. The Israelite Kingdoms are no more.

Oh, By the Way

A couple of times in today's reading, there were prophecies by a priest of Hezekiah's time named "Isaiah." That's a famous name, but so far he hasn't done anything that jumped out at me as especially spectacular. I'll keep you posted.

Next Time: 1 Chronicles, baby!

Monday, September 15, 2008

2 Kings 8-16: Kings! Kings! Kings!

OK, it's been a few weeks, but all three of my readers are on-the-ball sorts of people who will remember that last time we were watching the prophet Elisha, who came on the heels of his better-known mentor Elijah and was casting miracles right and left. I rather expected we would be seeing a lot more of him this week, as his narrative star seemed to be on the rise. But I was wrong. Starting about halfway through 2 Kings 8, we return to the king parade that we saw in the mid-section of 1 Kings, except with even less detail about the individuals in charge of the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

Now my first thought was, I need to assemble a timeline! The kings are presented in a kind of screwy order but with a lot of basic data about parentage and time of reign, so it would be very satisfying (to the right kind of dorky person (guilty!)) to put together a year-by-year chart of events and reigns, as well as a family tree. It would, if nothing else, help to sort out a lot of people whose names are teeth-grindingly similar (Think I'm kidding? Fairly typical sentence: Johoash king of Israel captured Amaziah king of Judah, the son of Joash, the son of Ahaziah, at Beth Shemesh. (14:13)

But, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to, as we say, "cut to the chase." Any objections? No? Good.

But What About Elisha?

Good question. In 2 Kings 3-7, he was pretty much controlling events in the two kingdoms with his combination of religious authority and military magic. In Chapter 8, he starts off by advocating for a woman in a real estate dispute, which is nice and all but kind of a come-down.

Then there's an odd story (7-14) in which the King of Aram sends a servant to Elisha to ask if he will recover from an illness. Tell him he will recover, Elisha tells the servant, but actually he's going to die. And by the way, he tells the servant, you are personally going to do a lot of harm to the Israelites. The servant puts two and two together, reassures his king as per instructions, and then sneaks into the royal bedroom the next day, smothers the king, declares himself in charge, and announces an aggressive foreign policy against the Israelites. Elisha, here, is more or less equivalent to the witches in Macbeth, perched somewhere between prognostication and provocation. Which makes for a good story, but I'm not sure it's the ethical terrain you want your major prophets hanging out in.

In Chapter 9, he plays agent provocateur again, sending an underling to instigate a military coup by anointing a general while the sitting king of Israel is recovering from wounds sustained in a battle. The general, Jehu, kills not only the king of Israel but also his buddy, the king of Judah. This is supposed to clean up government by getting rid of the House of Ahab, but actually seems to kick off a period of decline for both states.

Elisha then disappears for a bit, then comes back for his last appearance in Chapter 13. It is an anecdote that captures not one but two qualities of Old Testament life that sit uncomfortably for many of us moderns. First, God and his envoys seem always to act capriciously, or at best according to a strange logic that often seems brutally unfair to the mere mortals on the wrong end of events. Second, it can be difficult to distinguish spirituality and religion from blunt-force magic of a kind that would seem more appropriate in a game of D&D than in your God of Love and Mercy. But you be the judge:

14 Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died. Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him. "My father! My father!" he cried. "The chariots and horsemen of Israel!"
15 Elisha said, "Get a bow and some arrows," and he did so. 16 "Take the bow in your hands," he said to the king of Israel. When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king's hands. 17 "Open the east window," he said, and he opened it. "Shoot!" Elisha said, and he shot. "The LORD's arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!" Elisha declared. "You will completely destroy the Arameans at Aphek."
18 Then he said, "Take the arrows," and the king took them. Elisha told him, "Strike the ground." He struck it three times and stopped. 19 The man of God was angry with him and said, "You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it. But now you will defeat it only three times."
Then Elisha dies, but he comes back for one last miracle that revisits the above two issues:

20 Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. 21 Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.

Aside from the capriciousness of this tale, and its decidedly mediaeval feel -- saints' relics! -- it has a bit of a plausibility gap. Elisha is one of the great miracle workers in the written record, and it's hard to imagine him not getting a special burial plot. Why are they burying this other dude so close to him that they are actually exposing his bones? Show some respect, O Israel!!

The King Parade!

In order of appearance!

  • Jehoram, Judah, reigned 8 years. Bad. Lost control of the land of Edom.
  • Ahaziah, Judah, 1 year. Bad. Killed during coup in Israel.
  • Jehu, Israel, 30 years. Anointed by Elisha, assumes power in coup. Has Jezebel killed by forceful defenestration. Slaughters all descendents of Ahab, and any relatives of Ahaziah he happens to encounter. Invites priests of Baal to a big fiesta, then has them slaughtered. Generally cleans house on religious deviance. Loses extensive lands to the Kingdom of Aram, who are led by the servant whom Elisha predicted would, or provoked to, take power.
  • Athaliah, Judah, 7 years. Ahaziah's mom! A Biblical model for female leadership! What happens is, when Jehu kills her son, she has everybody else in the royal family killed, so she can have the throne herself! Details of her administration, we are not given.
  • Joash, Judah, 40 years. Unfortunately for Athaliah, a stepdaughter manages to conspire with the Temple priest to hide a baby son of Ahaziah by another wife in the Temple compound. After seven years, the priest engineers a coup to put the little boy on the throne. Athaliah is slaughtered in the street. Not surprisingly, the boy king is decidedly pro-Temple, and things go grimly bad for the Baal camp. Joash doesn't seem to be much of a leader, though. His big legacy project is Temple repair, which goes very slowly, and he has to use all of the Temple and royal treasure to buy off the Aramites. He's eventually assassinated by his advisors.
  • Johoahaz, Israel, 17 years. Bad. Usually subject to Aram. Military in steep decline.
  • Jehoash, Israel, 16 years. Bad.
  • Amaziah, Judah, 29 years. Pretty good. Kills his dad's assassins, but spares their families. Wins a war against Edom. Subsequently attacked and routed by Israel under Johoash; Amaziah is said to have provoked this war, but it's not clear exactly what he did wrong. Whatever Temple treasure was left behind by the Aramites goes to Israel now.
  • Jeroboam II, Israel, 41 years. Bad. But, builds on Johoash's military success and is able to restore Israel to its old boundaries. (It's very interesting that there is no apparent correlation between what the Bible says of the various kings' moral character and their administrative or military effectiveness.)
  • Azariah, Judah, 52 years. Good. But, he becomes a leper. Kingdom administered by his son Jotham.
  • Zechariah, Israel, 6 months. Bad. Publically assassinated by Shallum.
  • Shallum, Israel, 1 month. Bad. Assassinated by Menahem.
  • Menahem, Israel, 10 years. Bad. Conspires with invading Assyrians to prop up his regime, and raises taxes to pay the tribute.
  • Pekahiah, Israel, 2 years. Bad. Assassinated by a general, Pekah.
  • Pekah, Israel, 20 years. Bad. Loses many cities and provinces to Assyria. Assassinated by Hoshea.
  • Jotham, Judah, 16 years. Pretty good. Makes some progress in rebuilding Judah, still apparently reeling from its defeat under Amaziah nearly a century ago.
  • Ahaz, Judah, 16 years. Very, very bad. Besieged by Israel and Aram, but holds out. Allies with Assyria to relieve the pressure, which once again costs the Temple dearly as its treasures are once again sent away as tribute. Ahaz is a great admirer of Assyria, and has a new Assyrian-style temple built next door to the main Temple, and moves some Temple fixtures and activities to the new building. This is presented matter-of-factly, but I bet it's pretty bad news.

Why Stop There?

Oh, come on. You were totally skimming and you know it. But the reason I stopped there, if you must know, is that the next section head is "Hoshea Last King of Israel," so it sounds like Something Big is about to go down. Also, I kept falling asleep in the sun.

Thoughts on the King Parade

In worldly matters, there seems little to distinguish the chosen people of God from any other of the people of God. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel do not represent model countries by any stretch of the imagination. They seem to have about the normal level of national ebbing and waning, strong leadership and miserable leadership, as any other people who did well enough to enter the historical record. They are also right there in the pack morally. Well, they're only human. But, since they have been given oodles of miraculous interventions and whole books of explicit divine instruction over the years, might we have expected them to do better?

The Bible is quick to attribute the fortunes of the Israelite kingdoms, good or bad, to the religious behavior of the kings or their subjects. If a battle is won or lost, there is usually a connection made to somebody's virtue or vice in the matter of religious orthodoxy. The matter of avoiding the worship of Azeroth, and especially Baal, is paramount. However, looked at over a long time scale, like we just did, this doesn't work especially well. The kingdoms prosper under irreligious kings, and falter under virtuous kings. Clearly, if the Israelites were correctly interpreting how divine will affected their national history, God is focused on details of practice that are not obvious to human logic.

Finally, things are in decline. Israel and Judah have begun to war not just with neighbors, but with each other. They are progressively unable to resist ascendant foreign powers, first the Aramites and then the Assyrian Empire. Corruption appears to be widespread in the courts, and both countries have coups and unstable regime change, which is invariably hard on a society. National wealth is chronically sent out to ransom the kingdoms against more powerful neighbors. In the great game of Civilization, the Israelites are losing ground fast. Even if I didn't (vaguely) know what was coming, I'd figure it was going to be pretty bad.

Next Time: Pretty Bad!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

2 Kings 1 - 7: Elisha, Man of Miracles

So, in the decades since the death of Solomon, we’ve had the Israelites split between two countries, the larger Israel and the smaller Judah. Judah has Jerusalem and the temple, and tends to have better – more religiously orthodox – kings. Asa, for instance. Israel, meanwhile, has just suffered through the reign of bad King Ahab.

In the first chapter of 2 Kings, Ahab’s son and heir, Ahaziah, has a nasty fall, and sends off to “Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron” to get a prophesy as to whether he will recover. Elijah intercepts the messenger on the road, though, and sends him back to the king with the message that, for relying on another god for prophecy, his punishment is that he is condemned to death. Twice, Ahaziah sends infantry units of 50 men apiece to try to bring Elijah in to discuss the matter, but both times Elijah invokes fire that comes down “from heaven” and kills off the soldiers. After the captain of a third detachment pleads for his life, Elijah agrees to be taken to the palace. He repeats the message: because Ahaziah tried to consult Baal, he will never get up from his sick bed. Shortly after, sure enough, the king dies.

Take-home lessons: 1) If you are a king, don’t consult Baal’s oracles. 2) If you are an infantryman, try to dodge prophet roundup duty.

Elijah Hands Off the Baton

In MRtB coverage of the end of 1 Kings, I neglected to tell you that Elijah had acquired a sidekick named Elisha. I’d never heard of Elisha, so I didn’t figure he’d turn out to be very important. As 2 Kings gets underway, though, he turns into a major league holy man, churning out miracles great and small like there’s no tomorrow.

As for Elijah, dooming King Ahaziah turns out to be his last big gig. In 2 Kings 2, his earthly career comes to a spectacular close.

...suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated [Elijah
and Elisha], and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. (2:11)
(Notice that here, as with the fire-invoking incident above, we have another mention of “heaven,” only the second or third in the Bible so far. No details or explanation yet, though.)

Elijah’s assumption happens very publicly, and in its aftermath Elisha is assumed to be the new leading holy man. He immediately starts in with the miracles, of which it must be said that some seem more laudable than others. The first two, for instance: Elisha first casts salt into a well that produces bad water. The well is “healed,” and the townspeople have access to clean water from then on. Then, on his way to the next town, some children make fun of him on the road. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” (2:24) So, he summons two bears who attack and maul forty-two of the children.

Take-home lesson: Don’t mock prophets.

Joram v. Moab

Meanwhile, Ahaziah’s brother Joram inherits the Kingdom of Israel, and with it a problem that has been brewing since King Ahab died. The king of Moab has rebelled against Israel, and is refusing to pay his tribute of lambs and wool. Joram puts together an alliance with Judah and the King of Edom, and their combined armies set off across the desert of Edom to attack Moab.

Just because you have three kings doesn’t mean you have three wise men, though, and they fail to pack enough water to make it across the desert. After seven days on the march, they find themselves in serious trouble. Jehosephat, the king of Judah, suggests they consult a prophet of God. It turns out that Elisha is marching with the army (Why? Not explained.), and when he agrees to consult with God about the situation, he is told that the army must dig a bunch of ditches. They do, and the ditches fill with water during the night. So, the expedition is saved, and the Israelites are able to inflict the just punishment on Moab that you would expect for falling behind on your lamb and wool payments:
...the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites. They destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone on every good field until it was covered. They stopped up all the springs and cut down every good tree.... When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him... he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. (3:24-27)
Having shown the Moabites who’s boss, the Israelites go home.


Elisha hasn’t said much of anything yet, but he certainly produces a lot of miracles. In 2 Kings 4, he:
  • Grants a widow a bottomless jar of oil, in order that she can pay off her creditors
  • Grants an older woman a child, and subsequently brings the child back from the dead.
  • Removes the poison from a poorly prepared stew.
In 2 Kings 5, he:

  • Cures the commander of a neighboring kingdom’s army of his leprosy.
  • Punishes a servant who tries to scam payment out of the commander by afflicting him and all of his descendents with leprosy.
And at the beginning of 2 Kings 6, he makes an axehead that has been dropped in the river float to the surface, so it can be retrieved. So, it’s a real range of tricks this guy has up his sleeves.

War and Magic: Israel v. Aram

Israel and the neighboring kingdom of Aram now go to war. King Joram uses Elisha and his miracle-working capabilities as a kind of one-man special operations unit. Elisha knows where the superior Aramite force is and is going to be at all times, so the Israelite army is able to avoid ambush or pitched battle. When the Aramites send a large cavalry and chariot force to kill Elisha, he strikes them blind and leads them to Samaria, Joram’s capital. King Joram is a little puzzled about what to do with all of these prisoners of war, and asks Elisha if he should kill them. No, says Elisha, in an answer wholly uncharacteristic of the Old Testament hitherto:

“Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill men you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.” (6:22)
This act of mercy settles things down for a while, but eventually the Aramites return and lay siege to Samaria. Food runs very short, and the situation is dire. We are shown just how bad the situation is both through commodities prices – the siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels – and through this colorful anecdote:
6:26 As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried to him, "Help me, my lord the king!"
27 The king replied, "If the LORD does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the threshing floor? From the winepress?" 28 Then he asked her, "What's the matter?"
She answered, "This woman said to me, 'Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we'll eat my son.' 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, 'Give up your son so we may eat him,' but she had hidden him."
30 When the king heard the woman's words, he tore his robes. As he went along the wall, the people looked, and there, underneath, he had sackcloth on his body. 31 He said, "May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today!"
The king thinks Elisha of has caused the famine (which seems a little nuts -- the famine is clearly the result of the siege -- but maybe he things Elisha brought on the siege somehow?) but when he confronts the prophet, Elisha responds by predicting a rapid fall in the price of grain:
This is what the Lord says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria. (7:1)
During the night, the Arameans experience an aural illusion of great armies arriving to attack them. They panic and run, abandoning their food stores. In the morning, the Israelites are able to scavenge the Aramean camp, and behold, the spot price for barley plummets.

Wow! This Elisha wields some serious divine power! How come I’ve never heard of him? Will there be another name change, like with “Abram” back in Genesis? Does he turn out to be a flash in the pan who dies in the next chapter, or something? Or am I just ignorant? The latter is always a good bet...

Next time: More Miracles! More Kings! More Killings!

Friday, August 15, 2008

1 Kings 17-22: Enter Elijah

Prior to this week's reading, I knew that there was a famous prophet, Elijah. That was the sum total of my knowledge about him: that he existed, and that he was important. I vaguely expected we would read about him in the Book of Elijah, but it turns out there's no such book. So, I'm ignorant. I guess that's why we're here.

Elijah and the Drought

So, when we left off last time, we had Ahab on the throne in Israel. He was married to that Jezebel, Jezebel, and despised by God for his rampant flirtation with other gods. So now we meet Elijah as he prophesies a major drought.

Upon delivering this curse, he immediately hightails it out of town -- he's not going to be popular with King Ahab -- and lives in the wilderness, where ravens bring him food. After a while, the local stream dries up, so he has to bid farewell to his ravens and lodge with a widow and her son; their little household is kept in food and water by divine favor, while the drought ravages the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Jezebel is having God's prophets persecuted and killed, and is patronizing prophets of Baal and Asherah. Elijah comes out of hiding and confronts Ahab, proposing a miracle duel. He appears at Mt. Carmel with 450 priests of Baal. Each set up wood for a bonfire and lay pieces of a sacrificial bull on top of it; the contest is to make the sacrifice burst spontaneously into flame.

The priests of Baal chant and incant and dance all day, but Baal doesn't come through for them. Then, as afternoon is getting on, Elijah has the people pour twelve large jars of water over his sacrifice -- one for each tribe -- and then asks God to make a fire. Which God does. The people are immediately convinced that they should return to worshiping God, and they spend the rest of the day busily slaughtering the hapless priests of Baal. But Elijah decrees an end to the drought, and climbs to the top of Mt. Carmel. That night, the rains come.

On Miracles

At the risk of stating the obvious, the whole idea of miracles is highly problematic. Here, to convince the Israelites that he does indeed exist, God is thought to have violated the laws of nature. He made the rules, and apparently he can break them. Fair enough. Yet everyone has, at one time or another, asked God for a demo, a little miracle just for them, to prove His existence, and of course He never complies. The only solicited miracles that come to pass are either strictly rhetorical in nature -- the "every time I look in a child's eyes, I see a miracle" sort of pieties -- or very, very, very easily conceivable as non-miracles -- the "I prayed for my son to come home alive from Iraq, and he did" sort of thing.

So, why does Elijah rate, and we don't? Should hearing about Elijah, about this mysterious spontaneous fire of long ago, really strengthen our faith in God? Or, should it weaken our faith in God that we are not able to replicate the experience? Could it be that God won't show me a little miracle because he just doesn't have the stuff anymore?

Too, offering proof through miraculous events puts God over a bit of a conceptual barrel. The reason a miracle is impressive is that it abrogates otherwise absolute laws of nature. Fire doesn't bloom spontaneously out of water-soaked wood; when it does, it's amazing. However, if miracles happened all the time, then laws of nature would no longer be so absolute, would they. A miracle, when repeated, is less and less of a miracle. It gradually degrades into a freak occurrence, then an anomaly, and eventually just one of those unexplained things that happens every once in a while.

And it's not like God could provide everyone with just their one little convincer miracle, either. You know how we are. After a while, we'd begin to wonder if we had remembered the original miracle right. "Did I REALLY see fire burst out of that soaked wood?" we'd ask. "Maybe it was some kind of freak chemical reaction. Maybe that Elijah guy was messing with us." And we'd ask for a confirming miracle. And the cycle of reaffirmation would mean that everybody eventually needed to be reassured a couple times a month, and the natural order would be completely haywire, and the study of physics would slide into deep decline.

And these are just the inherent logical problems of miracles as instruments of faith. We get these even before the moral questions rear their ugly heads. Moral questions, such as "If God can perform miracles at will, is it right for him not to eliminate the AIDS virus, tooth decay, and lite jazz?" The miraculous, as evidence for the divine, is just a big, problematic can of worms. And for this reason, when we saw the miracles of Moses, and now with this miracle of Elijah, I always feel like they do as much to hurt as to help the case for the existence of God.

The Whisper of God

Anyway. Having provoked the slaughter of all of the Queen's priests, Elijah knows that he will have continue to have some trouble with the authorities. He gets the heck bacl out of town. He wanders in the wildness for a while, has conversations with an angel, and finally ends up in a cave, where he has a conversation with God himself. To lift his spirits, God tells him to leave the cave and witness His passing. The description of this manifestation of God (in 1 Kings 19) is quite lovely, I think.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
As alien as it is to my background to consider God manifesting himself in a single location, I do like the concept of that manifestation being not a blazing light, or an earthquake or a fire, but rather just a gentle whisper. That the whisper turns out to be about putting people who have chosen other religions to the sword kind of kills the mood, but it was nice while it lasted.

Ahab Continues to Make God Mad

1 Kings 20 tells of a war between Israel and the powerful neighboring kingdom of Aram. Even though he is not crazy about King Ahab, God says that he will deliver a victory to convince the Israelites of his power. (See what I mean? That spontaneous fire only convinced them for a little while, and already they need convincing again!) Using a strategy suggested by the prophets, Ahab catches the Aram army unprepared in the hills, and sends them packing. The next year, the Arameans try again, and again the Israelites prevail. This time they capture the King of Aram, Ben-Hadad.

Ben-Hadad negotiates with Ahab, offering to return all the Israelite territory that Aram has captured over the years in exchange for his life. Ahab agrees. This angers God, however; apparently, he was expected to kill Ben-Hadad (although we are never told about any specific instructions on this point). Ahab, here, comes off much as old King Saul did; in seeming to embody positive qualities of mercy and skilled diplomacy, he angers God by not conducting a more thorough killing.

In 1 Kings 21, Ahab angers god on the domestic scene. He wants some real estate, but the owner won't sell. So, he lets Jezebel engineer a scheme where the owner is framed for treason and stoned to death. Voila! Free vineyard! For which scheme God is understandably not happy with the person who rules in his name.

Finally, in 1 Kings 22, there's another big battle with Aram, and this time the Israelites lose. Ahab is slain. Leading up to the battle, there is a confusing bit where four hundred prophets predict victory, and one predicts defeat, and of course the one nay-sayer turns out to be right. The point may be that the four hundred yes-men are not prophets of God, but rather of Baal or Asherah, but this isn't specified; without that piece of information, it's a little hard to decode the story.

And finally,

1 Kings ends with brief mention of two more kings. Jehoshaphat -- as in "jumpin' Jehoshaphat," perhaps? -- is Asa's son, taking over the throne of Judah at his father's death, and like Asa he is thought to be a good, righteous, effective king. Ahaziah, son of Ahab, rules Israel for a couple of years after his dad dies, and is considered another bad Baal-worshiping apple. It looks like we'll see more about him next time, as the narrative slides unbroken from 1 Kings into 2 Kings.

Next Time: More about Ahaziah! And other strange doings!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

1 Kings 12 - 16: The Kings of Kings

Or, the Problem With Monarchy is the Dynastic Wrangling, Part II

A few weeks ago, I said that a better name for the Book of 1 Kings might be the Book of Solomon. But with Solomon resting in the cold clay as of the end of Chapter 11, I guess I was wrong. Turns out, there's a lot of kings in the book of kings.

Rehoboam Charms the People

On account of Solomon's willingness to tolerate alternative religious practice, remember, God has told him that his dynasty will not endure. Also, something I didn't mention last time -- all of those grand public works projects that Solomon was always working on involved lots of forced labor. The people enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity, yes, but they are also pretty sick and tired of forever being made to schlep construction materials to the latest new ediface.

Into this situation comes Solomon's son and heir Rehoboam, who frankly comes off as a bit of a dope. He consults with the elders and advisors, who advise him that without Dad's charisma, clout, and experience, it might be good to go easy on the people for a while, to win their love and loyalty by showing concern for their well-being. Then, he checks with his frat buddies, or the equivalent, and they are all like, "Dude! You the man! You the KING! Power feels GOOD, doesn't it!"

So, when the people convene to petition Rehoboam for relief from guvment forced labor, he answers with one of my favorite money lines from the Bible (which I will quote from the ringing King James version rather than the more tepid translation here in the NIV): My father, he tells the agrieved Israelites, chastised you with whips. I will chastise you with scorpians! (12: 14) He is truly one bad-ass king.

The Two Kingdoms

However, he is immediately the bad-ass king of a much smaller kingdom. Except for the area immediately around the fort-city of Jerusalem, the Israelites immediately go into revolt: "To your tents, O Israel!" goes up the cry. The people have heard contempt from their new king, and see no reason to offer him the consent of the governed. The chief minister of forced labor goes out to round up a construction crew, and is stoned to death by a mob. Meanwhile Jeroboam, the man who had been prophesized to be the next king of Israel, returns from Egypt, and is promptly offered the throne. He accepts, with Rehoboam clinging to power only to the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, not much more than the capital and its suburbs.

Civil war seems to be in the offing, but a holy man named Shemaiah has a conversation with God in which he is told that this whole situation is God's doing, and God does not want inter-Israelite war. So everyone goes home, and now we have two separate kingdoms:

The Kingdom of Judah: Actually the surviving rump state of Israel, with the capital, the legal heir (to the extent that there are ever legal heirs in the Bible), and most importantly the Temple. Very small in area. Ruled by King Reheboam (the Dumb and Cruel).

The Kingdom of Israel: Most of the Israelite territory, but without the traditional core. A new capital of sorts is set up at Shechem. Fearing that worshiping at the Temple will tempt his citizens back to government by the House of David, King Jeroboam (the Not One to Miss an Opportunity) sets up a couple of golden calves at Bethel and Dan. The calves are supposed to represent God, but are still obviously a no-no, and really the symbolism couldn't have been worse....

A Digression

1 Kings 13 is a long folk tale about a prophet who comes from Judah to tell Jeroboam how unhappy God is about his altars. I'll include the whole text, in case it turns out to be important.
2 He cried out against the altar by the word of the LORD : "O altar, altar! This
is what the LORD says: 'A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David.
On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who now make offerings
here, and human bones will be burned on you.' " 3 That same day the man of God
gave a sign: "This is the sign the LORD has declared: The altar will be split
apart and the ashes on it will be poured out."

After he says this, Jeroboam tries to have the prophet arrested, but God shrivels up his hand until he agrees to be nice to the prophet. Then the prophet, who has been ordered not to eat, drink, or retrace his steps disappears into the sunset. Except, he meets another prophet, who claims to have new, countermanding orders from God and who invites him back to his house for dinner. Prophet #2 is lying, though, and when Prophet #1 heads on his way after dinner, he is killed by a lion. It's an interesting tale. The moral, of course, is that you should always obey God's instructions to the letter. Or perhaps, that you should never trust anyone who says they have instructions from God. Either moral fits the story.

Judah and Israel After Solomon

God is not pleased with either Reheboam or with Jeroboam, both of whom allow the worship of other Gods to take root in their respective kingdoms. Jeroboam ends up with a rather elaborate curse on himself and his whole family, and Reheboam suffers a humiliating sacking and pillaging of Jerusalem by the Egyptians. All that gold stuff in the Temple is replaced with cheap bronze stuff, and even that can only be brought out on special occasions. By the priorities of the time, this is a sure sign that the standard of living is plummeting.

Chapters 15 and 16 go into detail about a long succession of Kings. I will see if I can arrange a timeline of leadership here.

Year 1 -- Solomon dies; Israel splits into Judah and Israel.

Year 18 -- Reheboam dies; Abijah becomes king of Judah. He's not great, but God puts up with him because he's David's great-grandson.

Year 20 -- King Abijah dies, and is succeeded by his son Asa. Asa is very religiously upright, and gets rid of the idols and especially the male temple prostitutes that had started hanging out during Reheboam's reign. He allies with the King of Damascus and goes to war with Israel, conquering quite a bit of territory.

Year 22 -- Nadab succeeds his father Jeroboam as King of Judah.

Year 23 -- A man named Baasha kills Nadab on the road and assumes the throne of Judah. He slaughters everyone vaguely related to Jeroboam, in fulfillment of prophecy and to ensure his own dynastic security. But God doesn't like Baasha any better than he liked Jeroboam, in the end, because a lot of unspecified evil gets done. It is under Baasha that Israel loses territory to King Asa's Judah.

Year 46 -- With Asa still ruling Judah, Elah replaces his father Asa on the throne of Israel. He only lasts a year before....

Year 47 -- Zimri, the Master of Chariots, pulls a coup d'etat in Israel, and does to Baasha's entire family what Baasha had done to Jeroboam's entire family.

Seven Days Later -- However, the military as a whole is not sympathic to Zimri's rise to power. Maybe there's an infantry-calvary split, or something. Whatever the details, a commander named Omri is proclaimed the king and lays siege to the city when Zimri is setting up his administration. Seeing the way things are going, Zimri locks himself in the local palace and sets it on fire. After this, Israel has a civil war between Omri and another guy named Tibni.

Year 51 -- Omri finally prevails over Tibni, and becomes the consensus king of Israel. He expands the territory of the kingdom a bit, but did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him. (16:25)

Year 58 -- With Asa STILL hanging on in Judah -- his father presumably having died young and leaving him the kingdom at a very tender age -- Omri dies and is succeeded by his son Ahab. Ahab! Now, Herman Melville likely knew his Old Testament very well, and probably intended for the name he chose for his mad old sea captain to carry some weight. Is Ahab a good king, or a bad king?
30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. 31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. 32 He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him. (16:30-33)
So, he's bad news. But, he rules for 22 years.

For More About the Kings of Judah and Israel....

Phew! That's a lot of kings! If you want to learn more about them, as the text keeps saying, you can read about them elsewhere. As for the other events of Nadab's reign, for instance, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Israel? (15:31) Maybe they are! Unfortunately for us, the books of the annals of the kings of Israel, and of Judah, have been lost for several millenia. More's the pity.

Next Week: Hey There Elijah!

Friday, July 25, 2008


Michael Reads the Bible is two years old today. "I'm guessing it will take more than a year, all told," I said, and it turns out I was right.

The project has turned out a lot different than I thought it would be. I'm working at a much finer level of detail than I expected, and perhaps not coincidentally getting a lot more out of the process than I expected. Too, I've been surprised by how quiet things have been. When I started the project, I imagined that there would be LOTS of Bible-reading blogs around, and that mine would attract a loud cluster of mostly very negative commenters and detractors. Instead, we've long since settled into an extremely modest and steady nine or ten readers a day, and the few comments have on the whole been very peaceful and respectful.

If a little lonely, though, the process has been continually rewarding. The Bible is, as I say almost every week, full of surprises, and its a rare session when I find in it what I expect. There's a lot of strange logic and a very alien cultural perspective on the world, and yet human behavior is very recognizably on parade, often at its sordid worst. Reading the Bible is like travelling to a faraway country where they think differently, act differently, and have created a different way of living in the world, and yet you recognize your shared humanity through and through.

Current expected completion date: Fall, 2012.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

1 Kings 9 - 11: Solomon's Wisdom in Full Maturity! Wait, What?

The Bible, as I have said so many times over these last few years, is full of surprises. Here we have a Big Famous Biblical Hero, Solomon, who after a possibly shady rise to power has actually put together a strong administration, built the Temple and other major buildings, and may or may not have put through ambitious religious reforms. The man is famous for his wisdom. So, we can reasonably expect to see many great works and progress for the Israelite kingdom as he reaches his prime, right?


As it turns out, no. Solomon turns out to be yet another of our long line of major Biblical characters who have characteristics that don't get talked about in the Big Book of Children's Bible Stories. Since we are generally given a highly sanitized version of these characters, it is constantly surprising to see how often the Bible presents them as, shall we say, refreshingly human. Or, deeply flawed. Take your pick.
Solomon's Downfall

In Solomon's case, it seems that man shares a little problem with his late father. To wit, he's a bit of a horndog:

King Solomon... loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter -- Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites.... (11:1) He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.... (11:3)
This record would stand until Wilt Chamberlain's legendary performance in the late 20th Century. Now, the multicultural harem is not a problem in and of itself. (Although it seems like it would be a distraction to the head of state, but never mind that.) The problem is, all of these foreign wives come with their own religious upbringing. Solomon, besotted by infatuation with his various partners, allows his enthusiasm for ecclesiatical architecture to run away with him. He starts building places for the various Mrs. Solomons to worship.
On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the destable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. (7-8)
This is, of course, profoundly against the rules. And Solomon -- the wisest guy in town! -- ought to have known better. All of Israelite history since Moses has been a cycle of God punishing the people mightily for worshipping other dieties, and then forgiving them after repentance. The only exceptions in this cycle have been the reigns of King Saul, who stayed true to God but just got some details wrong, and King David, who whatever else one might say about his character was able to toe the line religiously.

The Weakening State

So as you would expect, things begin to go downhill for the administration. God lets Solomon know that he'll be allowed to serve out his term in office as a courtesy to his late father, but that Solomon's son will have the throne taken from him. Rebellions begin to break out, and have to be put down.

A few posts back, I mentioned that there seemed to be some loosening of cohesion between the various Israelite tribes. Solomon appeared to have healed that division, but now the coalition seems to be weakening again. Rebels named Hadad the Edomite and Rezon son of Eliada attract entourages of armed men and harass Solomon's forces. One of Solomon's officials, Jeroboam, gets told by Ahijah the Prophet that God is going to rend the kingdom, and that he can be the man to control 10 tribes' worth. Jeroboam flees to Egypt to start some serious plotting.

Will Solomon Be Up to the Challenge?

With rebellions cropping up in the countryside and the unity of the state eroding, what will Solomon do? One imagines that the second half of 1 Kings will be his redemptive and presumably very wise response to events. So it's a bit of a shocker that he up and dies at the end of Chapter 11. And I have to say, with such a major Biblical figure, I certainly expected a life span of more than 11 chapters. (Although, maybe there's more material about him later on. Song of Solomon sounds like it might have something to do with him.)

Next Week: I don't like the looks of this power vaccuum....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

1 Kings 5 - 8: New Temple! New Doctrine?

There are all sorts of ways in which the Bible's frame of reference is different from our own. One of the most obvious is the range of famous people, places, and things that the reader is expected to already know all about. There is a beautiful example of this at the end of last week’s reading at 1 Kings 4:30-31:

30 Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations.

So, that’s how wise Solomon was! Wiser than noted wise guys like Ethan the Ezrahite or Mahol’s sons Heman, Calcol, Darda! Any questions?

The Little Big Temple

Another fairly obvious issue is the matter of scale. Except for the numbers of soldiers in the field, which are always suspiciously impressive, the exact figures for Biblical values, budgets, and volumes are always, predictably, decidedly minor-league by modern standards. Well, it’s not their fault they lived in the Iron Age.

1 Kings 5-8 covers Solomon’s building of a permanent Temple to replace the mobile Tabernacle (built by Moses back in Leviticus) as the seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The Temple was clearly an impressive building, and several pages are devoted to its specs, its décor and equipment, and to the domestic and international labor agreements necessary to drum up the raw materials. All of this to produce a building of 60 cubits by 20 cubits by 30 cubits – somewhat larger than, but at the same general scale as, humble Castle5000. A building less than one-fifth the size of the Belmont Condos development here in the City of Roses. (Inside joke. Go here, if you’re curious, and read the comments.) It would be a decidedly modest church if built today.

But again, it is configured and appointed in such a way as to make it a very impressive structure, and Solomon puts it at the heart of an expanded palace complex, so doubtless it is a highly impressive monument for the burgeoning Israelite capital. At the celebrations of its completion, after the Ark is brought into its new chamber, services are interrupted when God manifests physically within the Temple in a thick cloud of smoke, forcing the priests out of the building.

Solomon Sneaks in Some New Ideas

At this point, Solomon makes a speech which at first glance seems like a standard prayer of dedication, but which quietly introduces some radically new theological concepts for the first time.

After starting with a recitation of some of the historical background, Solomon says:

Chagall, Prayer of Solomon, 1956.
27 "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.

This is, unless I am mistaken, the first statement in the Bible that definitively rules out the notion of a physically finite God. Through the wanderings of Moses, God often (as he has just done at the Temple dedication ceremony) appeared as a cloud of smoke or a pillar of fire, and nowhere did anyone say anything to indicate that this was strictly a local manifestation of an infinite entity. But here, Solomon makes the idea explicit for the first time.

Then, he says this:
30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
Do you see it? It’s the first non-trivial mention of “heaven” in the Bible! There has still, here on page 253 of my printing, been no indication of an afterlife, but the idea of a separate sphere of reality that is the true domicile of God is a significant piece of news.

Then, there’s this bit:

46 "When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near...”
“No one who does not sin!” This, also, is a new and rather radical idea. God’s reactions to violations of the Law hitherto – in the case of Saul, for instance – have implied a zero-tolerance approach to sin. Absolute adherence to every aspect of the Law was demanded, and thus by implication deemed possible. Solomon’s literally parenthetical remark here thus appears to be a major rethinking of the relationship of humanity to the Law.

The Reaction

So, wow! That’s quite a speech! Interestingly, there’s nothing about the text that acknowledges that we really have a whole new religion, or at least a significantly reconfigured one, once Solomon finishes his talk. Presumably, then, he is expressing ideas that were already thought unremarkably true by his listeners and/or the original readers of the account. It seems likely that it’s just a textual fluke that makes the speech seem like such a barn-burner to someone reading the Bible front to back.

In terms of their reaction, the Israelites mostly just seem happy with their nice new building and the massive parties to celebrate its opening, and pleased to have a king who has, by the time the massive building project is complete, already brought them thirteen years of peace and prosperity.

Next time: More about Solomon, presumably!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

1 Kings 1 – 4: Regime Change Begins at Home

Dali, King Solomon, 1971.

So we’ve wrapped up the Books of Samuel. In retrospect, I must say that they are not well named, as Samuel is a fairly minor character who dies midway through the first of his two epinymous books. It clears thing up for me to think of 1 Samuel as the Book of Saul, and 2 Samuel as the Book of David. And from the early going, it looks like 1 Kings is going to be the Book of Solomon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Problem With Monarchy is the Dynastic Wrangling

As 1 Kings open, King David is now old and sick, and is unable to keep warm. They searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl (1:3) – a phrase that seems unkind to the good women of Jerusalem, don’t you think? – and find one, Abishag, who is willing to act as David’s human bed-warmer. But, the king had no intimate relations with her (1:4), which is some kind of first for the high-spirited old monarch. We can reasonably assume he has one foot in the grave.

That’s certainly what everybody in the palace assumes. His eldest surviving son (after Absalom’s one-way trip on the Mule Express), Adonijah, holes up with General Joab, the high priest, and most of his brothers, and makes some ritual sacrifices in preparation for setting up an interim government. Hearing this, David’s wife Bathsheeba – you know, Uriah’s widow – grabs the highest-ranking priest she can find and makes a beeline for the sickbed. “You promised that my son Solomon would be the next king!” she says. “What’s up with Adonijah holding this big powwow?” (I paraphrase.)

David apparently does want Solomon to be his successor (although one notes that there are only a tiny number of people checking in on him and reporting back with his commands at this point) and arranges for his immediate anointment and coronation while Adonijah’s meeting is still going on. Hearing sounds of celebration and excitement, the older son’s supporters figure out what is going on, make some astute political calculations, and suddenly become fervent Solomon supporters. Adonijah sprints to the Tabernacle, and is only coaxed out when Solomon promises he will not come to harm.

King Solomon, mediaeval German StatueDavid dies. On his way out, this troubled, highly ambiguous man redeems himself through a speech to his son Solomon, in which David encourages the boy to violently kill many of the key people who have been his staunchest supporters over the last decades. Wait, did I say “redeems?” Sorry, that’s a typo. It’s just David being David, right to the end.

So, Solomon becomes king. Shortly thereafter, Adonijah asks now-King Solomon if he can marry Abishag. This request seems innocent enough – the man apparently likes a warm bed – but it sets Solomon off, and he has Adonijah executed. He sends the old high priest, who had supported Adonijah, into permanent house arrest, replacing him with his own man. General Joab sees which way the wind is blowing, and seeks sanctuary in the Tabernacle. No dice. Solomon has him cut down right there in the sanctuary, even while he clutches the horns of the altar. Everyone with any possible alternative claim to the throne has been tidily taken care of. Or untidily. (Another minor character is kept under house arrest for three years. When Solomon hears that he broke house arrest to do some business in a neighboring village, he has him killed, too. Out with the old! In with the new!)

Solomon settles in. He marries an Egyptian princess. He stays faithful to his father’s religion, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places, instead of at the Tabernacle. (3:3) Not a biggie, perhaps, until you recall that having done this very thing on a single occasion was the reason that God abandoned hapless King Saul back in 1 Samuel. Instead of forsaking Solomon, however, God comes to him on one of his sacrificing junkets and offers to grant him a wish. Solomon asks for wisdom, which tickles God, and he is granted not just the wisdom but also wealth, prestige, and long life. On the whole, you'd have to say, he gets a better deal than Saul.

Solomon Splits the Difference
Giorgione, The Judgement of Solomon, 1500.Then comes the famous instance of wisdom. You know the one -- with the two women arguing over which one is the real mother of a little baby? Sure you do.
But, there are several details I did not know in this very familiar story. The women are prostitutes, for one thing, and they live in the same brothel. They both had babies at the same time, but one if the babies died shortly thereafter. Woman #1 says “her son died when she rolled over on him in her sleep, so she stole my baby.” Woman #2 says “she’s crazy; I don’t know what happened to her son, but this one is mine.” None of this is especially important, but it adds some coherence to the usual reading of “so these two women are arguing over a baby.”

Solomon, famously, suggests dividing the baby in half, and this provokes a revealing reaction from the women. It’s kind of like what Hamlet and the play within a play, except with the king provoking the reaction instead of being provoked himself. And everyone is quite impressed with Solomon's cleverness.

Larry Gonick, doubtless drawing on some highly authoritative source, argues in his (absolutely brilliant, absolutely masterful) Cartoon History of the Universe (which, if you have never read it, you have never lived, and you should not do ANYTHING more until you have either purchased it or reserved it at your local library. Go! Now!) that the story of Solomon and the women is actually a political parable, and is meant as Solomon’s decree that Israel will under no circumstances be divided among more than one ruler. (First Book, p. 183) It’s a kind of threat, if you will. Interestingly, as the Books of Samuel went on, we saw Israel being referred to increasingly as “Israel and Judah.” There’s an implied internal split there that Solomon might be trying to forestall, but I didn’t catch where and when that split happened, or what’s driving it.
Solomon Sets Up Shop

1 Kings 4 is one of those “paperwork” chapters that were so common in the Pentateuch but have become much less common since. They provide a roster of Solomon’s staff and regional officials, an overview of the palace budget, and a list of some of the new king’s hobbies (speaking proverbs, songwriting, natural history). This material suggest that Solomon, having established by hook and/or crook that he is the guy in charge, is now taking government seriously. He seems to be setting up a strong central administration backed by a local presence throughout the kingdom, maintaining a sizeable standing army, conducting an active and skillful foreign policy, and overall being everything you want from your iron age king. The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore during his reign, we are told. (4:20) They ate, they drank and they were happy. Sounds good.

Next Week: They don’t call it First Temple Judaism for nothin’....