thoroughly edited 3/18/14 and 3/12/18.]
I made the generalization that I Kings might be viewed as history, prophecy, as a series of tragedies, or as one great tragedy, the Tragedy of Israel and Judah.
Last time, we looked at Solomon, certainly a tragic figure
one. A character of sufficient magnitude? You bet. A
tragic flaw? Very much so. Any catharsis to his
Well, perhaps if one assumes that Ecclesiastes is by Solomon (or
reflects Solomon's thinking) and shows his repentance.
And probably we are supposed to take that into account. I Kings
cites the deeds and wisdom of Solomon written down in the Acts of
and I think there is a kind of catharsis in knowing that the wealth and
human glory we might aspire to are ultimately all vanity--and that, in
the end, all that matters is whether or not we have followed the Lord.
Now the story switches gears...and becomes very
We go back
and forth between Israel and Judah–and it's not at all easy to follow
the story. Focusing on the overall picture, though, does help a
Shortly after Solomon’s death around 922 BC, Israel splits into two separate kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in south. As the story continues into II Kings, we’ll follow Israel until it is destroyed by Assyria in 722 BC, and Judah until it is destroyed by Chaldaeans (Babylonians) a little more than a century later, e.g. around 612 BC.
Potential tragic figures in this period include not just the kings, but also the men of God/prophets. One of the great themes here is one partly explored also by the Greek tragic playwrights–the unheeded prophet. The Greeks tragic writer frequently give us figures like Cassandra and Tiresias in their plays. Here we get Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah, and Isaiah who often play similar roles. The tragedy for Israel and Judah is that the don't listen to the lprophets. The tragedy of the prophets themselves involves coping with nations and individuals that reject their message. Another important tragic theme involves the division of Israel and Judah, nations that should be brothers, and to a certain extent Moab and Edom, nations that should be, well, cousins. "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity," says the Psalmist. Behold how terrible it is when brothers are at each other’s throats. A third theme prominent in these books: the attempt to get a religion beneficial to state–with the irony that true religion would work, but the kings keep trying religions of their own invention.
All three themes themes introduced with Rehoboam son of
Rehoboam has inherited a strong kingdom from his father--but lots of
problems as well. Taxes are too high. The people resent the
burdens imposed on them. They'll accept Rehoboam as king, but
only if he'll make their burdents lighter. How to respond?
Rehoboam gets conflicting advice: should he give his people a soft
answer or a hard one?
He mishandles the situation, and Israel (with its the ten tribes) goes
its separate way under Jeroboam.
Now this isn’t necessarily horrible: a man of God named Shemaiah warns Rehoboam not to fight with Jeroboam, and conflict is temporarily averted. But soon there is war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Also, Rehoboam lets Judah drift entirely away from God. He sets up "high places," images and groves for the worship of other gods. The result: moral breakdown: Sodomites fill the land along with all the other bad things the nations before Israel did. There's also physical breakdown: Shishak of Egypt invades and strips Jerusalem of its wealth. Note that Solomon’s temple is stripped: a recurring theme in I and II Kings, by the way. Again and again, there's a lot of emphasis on the stripping/rebuilding of the temple. All this is, to a certain extent, a follow up on the tragedy of Solomon: Solomon had sown seeds of division–and chosen as one of his wives Rehoboam’s mother Naamah an Ammonitess. No wonder he worships other gods!
Meanwhile, in the north, things aren’t going so well
could be expected to listen to prophets. The prophet Ahijah had
kingship in very unlikely circumstances. But, afraid that if
Jerusalem remained the center of worship, Jeroboam
sets up his own religion: setting up golden calves at Bethel and Dan,
telling the people it's too hard to
go up to Jerusalem. He makes priests of whoever he wants, sets up
days for festival, and even makes himself a priest. Now this is
*not* Canaanite polytheism. Like Aaron's golden calf, this is
allegedly the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
A "Man of God" comes up to cry out against him. Jeroboam threatens him only to have has hand wither. The Man of God heals him, and Jeroboam now wants to give him a reward. The Man of God says he supposed to go home. But an old prophet meets the Man of God and says God told him to invite him home. The Man of God disobeys, the Holy Spirit falls on the old prophet--who now proclaims God’s punishment to the disobedient Man of God! Sure enough, he doesn’t make it home. The old prophet takes up the body and asks his sons to bury him with the man of God.
Meanwhile, Jeroboam’s son is sick. Jeroboam sends his wife in disguise to inquire of the now nearly-blind Ahijah. How frustrating for Ahijah! Jeroboam and his wife realize he speaks with God’s voice, and yet they still don’t obey!!! So, Jeroboam and his house end up destroyed. A great lesson for next king? No. Baasha wipes out house of Jeroboam--and does the same things as his predecessor, fighting against Judah and worshiping as Jeroboam had. And then Zimri comes. He catches Elah (Baasha's son) drinking himself drunk, and wipes out house of Baasha. And then Zimri follows the same pattern in his very brief reign until he's beaten by Omri.
(The writer of I Kings tells us that half the people followed Omri and half Tibni. The Omri side prevailed, so Tibni died and Omri reigned. There's some profound truth in that verse!)
Omri ushers in a new policy. I Kings is concerned
issues, and doesn’t
make it clear as it might that Omri is in a certain sense very
successful. He's wealthy, and involved with trade–especially with
Phoenician cities Tyre
and Sidon. This meant a changed religious policy. Not only
do the people of Israel worship Jeroboam’s calves, but they now start
worshipping the the gods of their new allies including
Baal. Omri chooses for his son a Baal-worshipping wife, Jezebel.
Jezebel is extraordinarily zealous for her god, and the Israelites
*quickly* return to Baal worship.
Why is this? What is the attraction of Baal? What’s going on here is choice worthy of tragedy. The God of Moses is the god of truth, mercy, justice, and love. Baal and Ashteroth stand for sensuality, pleasure, and worldly success and wealth.. Ahab would *like* both (who wouldn't?) but Jezebel isn’t satisfied. She persecutes the prophets of God and tears down their altars. Why? She sees, I think more clearly than her husband that Mosaic pursuit of truth and justice is incompatible with the pursuit of sensuality and worldly pleasures.
Now we’ve seen this pattern before in the book of Judges, and anyone with any wisdom knows likely result of religious apostasy for Israel. But, in this case, we don't get a judge as deliver, i.e., and indivual who is both a political and religious leader like Samuel. Instead, we get a prophet: Elijah.
Elijah comes to Ahab with a message: there will be no rain on the Land except when I command it. And then he disappears for quite some time. Israel goes through a terrible time of famine, and then Elijah appears again: time for a contest! Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel: who is really Lord? Is it Baal or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Whichever answers by fire, that's the real God. Elijah wins the contest--he alone triumphs over the 450 prophets of Baal. "The Lord he is the god!" the people shout. And, at Eljah's instruction, the destroy the prophets of Baal. And at last the rain comes..
Ahab goes to Jezebel...and she threatens Elijah. And
despairs, "I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away."
There's an earthquake and a whirlwind. God not in either: he
speaks to Elijah instead in a still, small voice--and that is enough.
Meanwhile, another prophet goes to Ahab with promise of victory over the Syrians...and twice it happens! But Ahab spares Benhadad, and the prophet tells him he is in trouble. And Ahab shows no moral character. He wants Naboth’s vinyard, but Naboth won't seel it. Jezebel has Naboth accused of blasphemy so he can be killed and vinyard acquired...and Elijah shows up with a message of judgement. And Ahab repents!!!
Well, we get one one more Ahab encounter with a prophet, the prophet Micaiah. Ahab and Jehosaphat (king of Judah) make an alliance before yet another war with Syria. The prophets all tell them they’ll prosper. "Is there not a prophet of the Lord here?" asks Jehosaphat. Well, there's Micaiah, says Ahab, but he hates me and always has something bad to say. Micaiah appears to Ahab and Jehosaphat and tells Ahab to "Go and prosper." But Ahab must recognize a mocking tone. "How often do I have to tell you to tell me nothing but the truth?" says Ahab. Ironic! And Micaiah now tells Ahab what is going to happen—and Ahab persists anyway, figuring that, if he disguises himself, he’ll cheat the prophecy.
Well, he dies–I Kings 22:39–points to a great irony. It talks of all the cities he built and of his ivory palace...but notes that the dogs lick up his blood. And his son? A follower of Baal–and guess why!!!
This brings us into II Kings. King Ahaziah is
sends messengers to inquire of Baalzebub
of Ekron. Elijah meets the messengers and interrupts their
journey. He warns Ahaziah he should have
inquired of God and that he isn’t going to recover. Ahaziah sends
out captains to bring Elijah back: perhaps thinking he can avert the
prophecy by forcing Elijah to retract it or by killing Elijah
himslf. Two captains each accompanied by 50 men fail in the
mission, getting destroyed in the process. But three's the charm, and
Elijah agrees to accompany the third captain and appear once more
before Ahaziah with a message.
The fact that Elijah comes out of hiding is a kind of vindication, I guess. But, as far as the story of Elijah goes, there's perhaps a greater comfort, the knowledge a successor would take his place, Elisha. Elijah is taken up to heaven (similar, in a way, to the deus ex machina end of a Greek tragedy or--better--to the transformation of Oedipus at the end of Oedipus at Colonus).
Elisha had asked for a double measure of spirit of Elijah,
it. His story is very like Elijah’s. He has to deal with
son of Ahab, Ahaziah’s brother, Jehoram–a man very like his father,
changing his mind about Elijah. For a time, he’s going to
Elisha’s counsel gives him victory over the Syrians. But, blaming
Israel’s troubles on the prophet, he then decides to kill
then changes his mind again. Elisha finally sends someone to
Jehu, and Jehu destroys house of Ahab.
Jehu also destroys the Baal worshippers, and, just as it
Israel might get on track, Jehu returns to Jeroboam's policies.
Why? Well, Jehu, like Jeroboam wanted a religion he could
control. This is what political rulers usually want: separation
of church and state is potentially bad news if the religious leaders
can challenge the king. And notice how often in history political
opposition *does* center around a religious movement! Jehu thinks
unifying people behind him will be easier if he can count on religious
authority to always back him up.
But unity is ellusive. Israel can't even get a
that lasts more than a generation or two. We get a confusing
array of conspiracies: new kings, new dynasties. And, one
suspects, that there would have been less of this confusion if the
kings had fostered a religion that, though they didn't control it,
taught that the king was God's annointed and preached, within limits,
obedience to the king.
Likewise, Israel would almost certainly have been better off with a religion that helped it maintain a more positive relationship to Judah. Common Israelite/Jewish worship might have avoided the situation where Syria and Israel gang up on Judah. There's tragedy in the fact that Judah has to strip the temple to pay the Assyrians to help them against their northern neighbors!
Under Jeroboam II, Israel seemed to on track to prosperity
political success, but, while the author of II Kings does summarize the
achievements of Jeroboam II, the overall picture remains bleak. A
historian writing about the fall of Israel would probably focus on
bad political choices. Israel can't quite figure out what to do about
Assyria, sometimes paying the required tribute, sometimes not until,
finally, the Assyrians have had enough of the vacilation and destroy
rebellious Israel. The writer of II kings does include this, but
points to a deeper cause: moral decay. At the end of every reign,
we get the same summary, "And he did that which was evil in the
sight of the Lord.”
The whole business in summed up in II Kings 17, a passage
like the choruses of Greek tragedy. The first half of the chapter
reviews the apostasy of Israel and its results. The 2nd
half describes the bastardized hyrbid religion of the mixed-race
people who replace the Israelites in the northern kingdom: the
Samaritans acknowledge the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they
aren't really following Him.
Well, what of Judah? There the trick is a little
Over and over again, kings that start on the right track, but are
to continue despite good council. Part of problem is that the
Kings of Judah marry into house
of Ahab. Jehosaphat was overall a good king, and his policiy of
cooperation with Israel wasn't entirely misguided. But it was a
bad mistake on his part to select for his son Jerhoram an Israelite
wife, Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Athaliah
was every bit as ruthless as Jezebel. She's apparently was the
beind the throne during the reign of her son Ahaziah, and, when Ahaziah
is killed by Jehu, she seizes power and kills all the "seed royal"
(except Joash who is hidden). Athaliah introduces
worship of Baal to Judah, but, when the time is ripe, Jehoida the
priest reveals the hidden true king, Joash. Athaliah is killed and Baal
Baal worship is hard to stomp out totally!
After the destruction of Israel, things might have been a
better for Judah: no more worry about their "brother" to the
north. But The situation is tricky: one-time ally Assyria might
prove more dangerous than Israel had been. King Hezekiah at first
goes along with Assyria, and, at first he seems to be exactly on the
right track as far as returning Judah to its religous and moral
roots. When Hezekiah stops paying tribute to Assyria,
there's enough strength in Judah that the country can survive the
assault...with, of course, some miraculous help. Hezekiah is one
of those figures one might think of sufficient stature for
tragedy. He is a capable and admirable king in many ways, but he
does seem to have some tragic flaws. Perhaps his inability to
accept death is a flaw. His extra years meant time to do more good--but
those years also saw the birth of Manasseh. And his "showing off"
in front of the Babylonian king's messengers seems a mistake as
Of all the kings of Israel and Juday, Manasseh was perhaps
cruel and corrupt. Baal worship came back in a big way.
Manasseh apparently practiced child sacrifice, and he filled Jerusalem
with innocient blood. Amon his son was also very bad. But it
seemed that there was hope on the horizon--or, perhaps not.
At Amon's death, his son Josiah (640-609) came to the
there was a time of revival. Josiah has the temple repaired, and,
as that's happening, the priests discover a copy of the law that had
been neglected. Bad news: they see what's in store because of the years
of apostasty. The prophetess Huldah advises repentence...but
warns that, while punishment is delayed, it isn't to be avoided.
Still, Josiah does his best. There is a great passover feast.
Idolatry is gone, "And like unto him was there no king before him, that
turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his might,
according to all the law of Moses."
And yet despite all this, the prophetic message was still
destruction is ahead. The wickedness
of Manasseh means the price will be paid.
Now this is perhaps troubling theologically, but from
a political/historical point of view it's obvious truth. The bad
decisions of earlier generations often come back to haunt their
Anway, the end is a dreary one. Again, a historian
on the tricky political situation, the great difficulty of figuring out
how to deal with the declining powers (Egypt and Assyria) and the
rising powers (the Medes and, more important immediately, the
The author of II Kings does take this into account, and we see clearly
the bad moves the last kings of Judah make in the political game.
Josiah himself seems to have thought that Egypt was weak enough for him
to block their expansion north. Perhaps he was right, but wars
are unpredictable, and he died in battle against the Egyptians.
His sons and his grandson can't seem to play the political
The game is complicated here. The last four kings of
include three sons of Josiah and one grandson. All of them have
more than one name, and some of them similar names (Jehoiakim,
Jehoiachin) so its hard not to get confused--as I have done plenty of
times. Here's the brief summary.
Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans (aka Babylonians and
neo-Babylonians) took Nineveh in 612 BC. With Assyria on its last
legs and Egyptian power waning, Nebuchadnezzar is free to push in to
Syria and Judea. Josiah's son Jehoahaz reigns briefly, but Pharaoh
Necho removes him and installs Eliakim (another son of Josiah) as an
Egyptian puppet, changing his name to Jehoiakim. Nebuchadnezzar then
invades, and Joiakim switches his alliance to Nebuchadnezzar.
After a time, he rebels, and Nebuchadnezzar attacks. Jehoiakim
dies, and his son Jehoiachin takes his place. Nebuchadnezzar
beseiges Babylon, takes Jehoiachin and thousands of others captive into
Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar puts Jehoiachin's uncle Mattaniah
(another son of Josiah) on the throne and changes his name to
Zedekiah. Zedekiah rebels, Nebuchadnezzar returns, kills his sons
in front of him, and pokes out his eyes. This time, it's
disaster: Jerusalem is destoyed along with the temple, and there is
another round of deporations.
This time, Nebuchadnezzar leaves in charge Gedaliah, a
treat s the Jews well. But a conspiracy hoping to get a native
ruler back assassinates him, and, when it's clear the Chaldaeans are
going to take revenge, the conspirators flee to Egypt.
A bleak, bleak picture. Any catharsis? Well,
in the end,
the imprisoned king Jehoiachin is
elevated in Babylon somewhat, but doesn’t seem like a catharsis–unless
it’s the catharsis of saying, “I told you so!”
or (perhaps) the hint that the story isn't over yet. God's
promises to David would still be fulfilled.
"And Hezekiah begat Manasseh, and Manasseh begat Amon, and Amon begat Josiah, and Josiah begat Jehoiachin and his brethren about the time they were carried away into Babylon...." says the Gospel of Matthew. And the geneaology doesn't stop there....