Saturday, July 12, 2008

The End of the Kingdom of Israel: 2 Kings 14 - 17:23

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Now that Elisha's gone, the story of the kings starts getting even more depressing than Judges, which at least blanketed evil in a comforting layer of inexplicable superpowers.

After good king Joash of Judah comes Amaziah, who kills all the conspirators who murdered his own father, then defeats the Edomites in glorious battle, and then, excited by his military success, provokes a pointless civil war with Israel. Even the sinful king Jehoash of Israel seems to realize this is worthless and tries to avoid battle, but eventually their armies meet. Jehoash wins and captures Amaziah as a prisoner of war, then goes to Jerusalem, breaksdown the Jerusalem wall, and raids the temple of the Lord for gold and silver. (This seems to happen pretty much once every generation, so in a way it's kind of surprising there's any gold left in that temple.)

Jehoash's son, Jeroboam II, actually leads a successful military campaign against foreigners, restoring Israel's original boundaries. However, the author of 2 Kings actually reverses the traditional logic that God's approval is known through success in battle, instead arguing that in this case God doesn't give a damn about Jeroboam - he's only letting Jeroboam win in battle because he cares about the people of Israel, who are suffering greatly under various oppressive rulers.

Once Jeroboam dies, it's time for another revolution in Israel. His son Zechariah is assassinated by Shallum of Jabesh, who proclaims himself king. In a rather gruesome aside, the Bible tells us that his capital city was sacked by Menahem of Gadi, who in the process "ripped open all the pregnant women." His rebellion successful, Menahem proclaims himself king. Later he has to amass a huge silver payment to the Assyrians to prevent an invasion. Menahem is supposed to be evil, but at least it's worth noting - for me, anyways - that he collects these silver by taxing only the "wealthy men." Progressive taxes!

Israel thereafter considers its downward spiral. Menahem's son Pekahiah becomes king, but is assassinated by the military under Pekah of Remaliah. Pekah becomes king but can't prevent a series of successful invasions by the Assyrians - nor can he prevent a conspiracy by Hoshea of Elah, who assassinates him.

It's under Pekah that Israel as a people finally starts to dwindle. During the Assyrian invasion, all the people of the Naphtali were rounded up and "deported" into Assyria to become slaves. I don't know if we'll ever see them again - I know they become a "lost tribe" at some point.

Back in Judah, Azariah has become king, and continues to be both personally righteous but openly tolerant of other faiths. (This is becoming a trend in Judah, which despite having loyal kings and the Jewish Temple seems to be the most tolerant kingdom.) For this sin, God punishes the king with leprosy, and he's forced to give day-to-day control of the kingdom to his son Jotham (yet another J) even while he's still alive. Joram, which the Bible later incorrectly says is the son of "Uzziah" rather than Azariah, leads a pretty uneventful reign.

By this time, however, the Assyrians are invading the Kingdom of Israel, and Jotham's son Ahaz decides something will have to be done. Trouble is, he's become as evil as his pagan cousins to the north, and converts to foreign religions. He's caught off guard when Israel, which really ought to be worrying about the Assyrians, instead signs a treaty with the Arameans, who attack Judah with Israelite assistance. Ahaz decides to call in the Assyrians himself, formally completing the separation of the two kingdoms, who have fought "civil" wars against one another before but, at least until now, haven't allied with foreign states against one another.

The Assyrians obligingly invade and sack Damascus, then kill the Aramean king Rezin. Ahaz goes to Damascus for a peace conference with Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser (cool name), and while there sees a pagan altar he really likes. He takes sketches and sends tem to his chief priest, Uriah, to build a replica in Jerusalem. Later Ahaz takes the Jewish Temple's bronze altar and places it alongside the new pagan one. Ahaz proposes a novel new idea: he will offer his sacrifices on the pagan altar, but he will ask for the guidance of the Lord on the Jewish one. I think this mix of Jewish and pagan religious practices is supposed to mirror the mix of Jewish and pagan state politics that has occurred under the disastrous reigns of kings Ahaz and Pekah.

Finally, God's had enough and decides to wash his hands of the troublesome Kingdom of Israel. Hoshea, who replaced Pekah, makes a treaty with the Assyrians, but secretly approaches the Egyptians, who are apparently better hegemons than the Assyrians. Every time the Israelites turn to the Egyptians, it's always a bad omen. This time, the Assyrians find out about the secret talks and invade, imprisoning king Ahaz and marching around Israel capturing Israelites and deporting them into slavery. The author of 2 Kings finally can't hold back and engages in a long rant about the sins of the Israelites, delivering a lengthy verdict and ultimately concluding that the destruction of the kingdom is clearly the sentence delivered by God in punishment for their many sins.

The role of God here is intriguing. He doesn't really seem angry that his own people are out of the land - if he was, you'd think he'd have attacked the Assyrians immediately. Instead, he only sends in the lions when they ignore his laws and worship pagan gods. Later, they mix in some Jewish religious practices with their own, and God is content to leave the Assyrians alone.