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!