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!


Anonymous said...

great work, i have been reading it for weeks (you now have at least 4 readers). I had never noticed the implied fact of polytheism in the old testament. a great observation. i am looking forward to the journey to revelation.

Michael5000 said...

Thanks, anon. It's been a fun trip so far.