Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 1

In this chapter, we find the genealogy from Adam to Abraham's descendants through Esau.

This chapter opens the longest genealogy in the bible at the very beginning: with the creation of Adam.  Right away we can deduce that the author of Chronicles was familiar with the book of Genesis.  While it might seem self-evident (since Genesis is so widely available today), I actually think this is not something we should take for granted.  Especially when you consider how later chapters in this genealogy will refer to figures from Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Samuel and Kings, it's clear that not only was the author of Chronicles familiar with all of these books, but even more importantly these books already formed a recognized scriptural basis for the post-exilic Jews at the time Chronicles was written (c. 500 BCE).

Chronicles begins with Adam for various possible reasons, but the most important reason is that it establishes Chronicles as a "comprehensive" book.  It echoes the creation story from Genesis to show that Chronicles is going to tell the whole story from beginning to end.  It's not exactly true, per se, but it definitely sets the tone for the book of Chronicles.  For example, the book of Samuel begins with the story of Hannah and the birth of Samuel, and Samuel concludes when David has secured the kingship over Israel.  The book of Kings begins where Samuel leaves off, with David in his old age about to pass on the kingdom to his son Solomon.  Neither of these stories start at "the beginning"; in fact, they start approximately where the last book left off.  Even Samuel starts at a point logically connected to Ruth and Judges, showing us the transition between the Judges period and the kingdom period.  Judges is the natural follow-up to Joshua, which follows Deuteronomy and Numbers, which follows Exodus and Genesis.

All of these books form a more or less contiguous history of Israel from the creation of Adam through the destruction of Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile.  In fact, bible scholars have a name for this contiguous history: it is commonly referred to as the "deuteronomistic history".  The deuteronomistic history has two fundamental ideas.  The first idea is that Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are interrelated and possibly come from a single author or period of authorship, forming a logically continuous work.  The second idea is that Deuteronomy establishes the moral framework and assumptions underlying the historical work.  In broad terms, this includes things like the dichotomy between blessings and curses depending on Israel's obedience to God (Deut 28).  Therefore we can imagine the deuteronomistic history as the history of Israel modeled in terms of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience towards God.  I think both of these ideas are credible and supported by the text.  More nuanced details of the deuteronomistic history are beyond the scope of my commentary, but I think these broad ideas are quite helpful to understand when reading the text.

Chronicles shows us in this first chapter that rather than picking up where Kings left off, it's actually going to start all over again from the very beginning, and it's going to tell us the history of Israel all over again, from the beginning of creation through the Babylonian exile.  Indeed, Chronicles ends exactly where the book of Kings concludes, but it starts at the beginning of creation rather than where Samuel leaves off.  When you contrast this with the deuteronomistic history mentioned above, you can quickly see that while Joshua through Kings are roughly sequential, Chronicles is more of a parallel history, covering many of the same events but doing so in a different historical context and with different motivations.  The key to understanding Chronicles is to dissect those motivations and understand what the Chronicler was trying to accomplish with this book.  Some of these motivations are discussed in the introduction to Chronicles (just before this chapter), and we will continue to focus on this topic for the rest of the book.

With all that said, there are a few other things I want to say about the genealogy.  First, while it does not discuss the stories from Genesis, by referring to the names of the people involved it calls our attention to those stories.  The Chronicler is undoubtedly familiar with Genesis, and it's likely that he would have expected his audience to have at least general familiarity with the stories and themes of Genesis.  For instance, by telling us the genealogy of Adam, Noah, "Abram, that is Abraham", his readers would remember the first sin, the fall from grace, the flood and Noah's salvation, and Abram's promise from God whereby his name is changed to Abraham, and so on.  That's why I think of this genealogy as almost like an abbreviated history, because as long as you know the stories related to these names, you will think of all these events when reading the names.

Second, the genealogy in this chapter contains a section modeled after the genealogy in Genesis 10 and 11 which lists the descendants of Noah and then the ancestors of Abraham.  Once again this shows that the author of Chronicles has a deep familiarity with Genesis.  However, this genealogy is actually much more extensive than the one in Genesis, which suggests that the Chronicler may have had access to more thorough genealogical records or historical traditions that have since been lost.  This is a common theme across the genealogy because many times the Chronicler will copy genealogies from previous books, but include sections or names that we do not have recorded anywhere else.

Third, this genealogy is meant to show Israel's place in God's created order.  We see all these different people and nations and kings, and then we see Abraham, Isaac and his son Jacob (referred to by his other name, Israel).

Fourth, this genealogy has a peculiar structure.  What it seems to do is list the "preferred" or chosen son last.  For instance, v. 5-16 tell us the descendants of Japheth and Ham before we get to the children of Shem in v. 17.  Verse 28 begins with the genealogy of Ishmael before discussing the children of Isaac.  Similarly, v. 34-35 gives us the descendants of Esau before the children of Jacob.  This is counterintuitive given that many genealogies do the exact opposite, listing the favored son first in the place of honor.  I don't think we need to read any implications out of this.  In my opinion, the genealogy is structured in this way to set up proper transitions from one generation to the next.  To explain what I mean, my readers should remember that there are essentially two different kinds of genealogies.  There are "broad" genealogies that expand out horizontally, listing all of a persons brothers, their sons, and their sons after that, etc.  Basically just going through an entire family tree from one layer to another.  The second kind of genealogy is "narrow" or "vertical", just listing father and son going down some chain of descent for a person of interest.  The genealogy here in Chronicles is a mixture of both techniques.

The Chronicler clearly has a chain of descent he is interested in: he is interested in the tribes of Israel, Judah, the Levites and priests, and the kings of Judah.  This justifies the "vertical" genealogy, which we see in e.g. v. 1-3, v. 24-27 and elsewhere.  However, for various reasons the Chronicler also expands out horizontally at other places (e.g. v. 5-10).  Therefore I see the genealogy in Chronicles as a series of "horizontal" genealogies connected together by these vertical genealogies, sometimes expanding outwards but always refocusing on the people of interest to the author.  The Chronicler lists the favored son last in order to draw our attention back to the next section of the genealogy, which focuses on the descendants of the chosen son, concluding the previous section and opening the next section, with the chosen son given as a transition between these two sections.

Fifth, the genealogy of the Edomites is surprisingly long, possibly because the Edomites were politically significant in the time that Chronicles was written.

Sixth and lastly, as with every other biblical genealogy, this genealogy is overwhelmingly focused on male descent, even though some women are mentioned by name.  Unfortunately, I don't have time to discuss this topic in the depth it deserves, since this post is already quite long.  Hopefully I will have more time in the future to discuss gender relations in the bible.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles Introduction

I'm really excited to start Chronicles.  Excited and a little nervous, I suppose.  I'm excited because it's always fun to read a new book, and nervous because Chronicles is almost the exact same book as Kings in nearly every way.  I remember the first time I read Chronicles I would think to myself, "wait, do I really have to read all these stories again?"  The worst part is when you get to the list of kings, and it's just a long sequence of names that you don't really recognize, understand or remember.  It might not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that we just went through a long sequence of names that we don't recognize or remember, and now we have to read another list... of the very same kings.  I remember skimming through this book aggressively and filing it away in my brain as "kinda like Kings except with a lengthy genealogy in the beginning".

But fear not, trusty readers: there are many fascinating details and stories in this book, and with patience we should be able to gain genuine insights into the historical period in which this book was written and what it can speak to us in the present about God's heart and God's ways amongst his people.

I think the best way to look at Chronicles is that it's like Samuel and Kings rebooted.  People do this all the time with popular movies, writing and producing the exact same movie except that it's "modern", like different actors and new special effects and stuff like that.    With Chronicles, it's like the history of Israel taken from the Pentateuch, Samuel and Kings except it's been updated and contextualized for the "modern" generation.  At least, it was modern back in 500 BCE.  It doesn't seem modern or hip or fresh to us now, but it was probably a significant shift at the time.

The similarities between Kings and Chronicles are fairly broad.  Like Kings, Chronicles was originally written as a single work and only split into a 1st and 2nd book hundreds of years later, likely when it was translated by the authors of the Septuagint (Greek OT).  And like Kings, Chronicles was written in a similar timeframe, somewhat after the Jews had started returning to the promised land after they were exiled to Babylon, while Kings was written during the exile or only briefly after.  Lastly, Chronicles has a very similar writing style to Kings, with a thematic structure revolving around the progression of kings, emphasizing the changes in Israel's spiritual climate under one king versus another.  Under the good kings, we see a renewal in Israel's relationship with God, and under bad kings we see its degradation.

Much as I am emphasizing the similarity to the book of Kings (similar writing style, time frame and themes), there are quite a few differences as well.  Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the book of Chronicles focuses almost exclusively on the kings and history of Judah (the southern kingdom), while the book of Kings arguably spends more time on the history of Israel (the northern kingdom) than Judah.  In the book of Kings, we spent multiple chapters reading about Elijah and Elisha.  In the book of Kings, Elijah is mentioned 63 times; in the book of Chronicles, he is mentioned once.  In the book of Kings, Elisha is mentioned roughly 52 times; in the book of Chronicles, he is mentioned exactly zero times.  Both Elijah and Elisha were predominantly sent to Israel, hence when the history of Israel is omitted, these prophets also disappear from Chronicles.

Even when describing the kings of Judah, Chronicles adds quite a bit to some stories, filling in a lot of the gaps and omissions in the book of Kings.  In other parts, many stories are left out, especially as it relates to David and Solomon.  The author of Chronicles leaves out nearly everything about David and Solomon that paint them in a negative light.  For instance, he does not describe: David's sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, the succession crisis when Adonijah tried to steal the kingship, Absalom's rebellion, and Solomon's later idolatry when he marries foreign women.  Since this establishes a clear pattern of trying to make David and Solomon look good (perhaps, look better than they actually were), one would naturally ask why would Chronicles leave these stories out?

It's possible the author of Chronicles is trying to create, or is himself clouded by, a perception of a more idealistic past that the Jews could seek to rebuild.  Since Chronicles is pretty clearly post-exilic, the people of Judah are now returning to their homeland for the first time in a generation and trying to rebuild their nation.  The book of Chronicles is perhaps trying to cast a vision for what the nation should aspire to: a united people serving God under a righteous king.  It's hard to say for sure, though.

Another big difference between this book and Kings is the aforementioned genealogy.  I believe this is the longest and most thorough genealogy in the bible.  While I'm going to discuss the details of this genealogy in the coming chapters, what I want to say now is that Chronicles spends a lot of time and energy trying to establish the continuity of their "present day" at the time it was written and the history of David, Solomon and even the earlier patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The genealogy does this directly by showing the lines of inheritance between these respective historical figures into the present day, and Chronicle's deep focus on the temple in Jerusalem and God's covenant with Israel establishes continuity in a more spiritual way.  Through these two topics, Chronicles places the post-exilic Judah as both the biological and spiritual inheritors of the promised land, through natural descent and God's promise.  The temple becomes a rallying point that they can gather around both as an artifact of their previous dominion over the land, as well as a symbol of God's enduring promise that they would possess the land forever.

In a manner of speaking, the book of Chronicles is appealing to the past as a way to bolster their legitimacy and claims on the land into the future.  This is particularly relevant in the post-exilic period because the people may not feel like the land of Judah is "their place" without understanding their historical presence in the area.

In summary, Chronicles is a book written primarily for the people of Judah, focusing on the history of Judah, it describes David and Solomon in idealistic terms to establish a historical "golden age" that they could aspire to rebuild when returning from exile, and it seeks to establish a continuity with the past to both justify and inspire Judah's reoccupation of the promised land and Jerusalem.  In all of these aspects, Chronicles is really a product of its time.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 25

In this chapter, Jerusalem is burnt to the ground and nearly all the people are killed or exiled.

To speak honestly, this chapter simply reeks of hopelessness and despair.  Jerusalem: destroyed.  The king: blinded and imprisoned, with his sons put to death.  The people: cast out from the land of promise.  This is all of their worst fears come to life, all of the things threatened in Deuteronomy if the people rebelled, all of the things threatened by the prophets, all of the consequences of sin and idolatry.  There was a time when Moses said, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live."  (Deut 30:19)  What we can see here with stark clarity is that Judah (as well as the northern kingdom Israel/Samaria) chose death.  They chose to rebel against God (like Adam) and like Adam, they are now confronted with God's curse as a result of their actions.

If my readers remember, God originally established the covenant with Israel in order to draw them back into a proper relationship with him.  Man was supposed to live in community with God; that community was broken when Adam sinned.  God sought to restore it by establishing a covenant first with the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and then later with the entire nation of Israel (the story in Ex 19-24).  I think it is important for my readers to understand that the fundamental deal God offered to Israel is very similar to the situation that Adam was placed in.  God basically told Adam, "hey Adam, I am going to bless you, here is a great wife, you can possess the whole earth and multiply and do all these fun things, just don't sin by eating from a particular tree or else you will die."  Adam goes and does exactly the thing God told him not to, and so he dies and the world is thrown into chaos.  God says to himself, "that did not go the way I wanted it to."  And so God sets off and he finds Israel, and he says to Israel, "hey, so things didn't work out between me and Adam.  But you look pretty cool, how about you guys come back to your own personal garden of Eden in the promised land, I will bless you with anything you could ever hope or dream to have, and you guys follow me.  The only law is that you should not sin and put me before all other gods, or else you will die."  What we've learned over the last few books (well, basically everything between here and Exodus 32, inclusive) is that Israel delves right back into sin, following Adam's footsteps into darkness and similarly following Adam into the promised death.

Now, there are some differences; the sin is different, the way death happens to them is different, and a lot of the superficial circumstances are different.  But I think these two stories are fundamentally very similar.  In both cases God was bringing people into relationship with himself, in both cases there was a choice between life and death, in both cases the people involved chose death, and in both cases they were cast out of their homeland (Eden in one case, the promised land in the other) to a dark and uncertain future.

I could imagine someone asking, "if God saw how things worked out with Adam, why would he try again with Israel?"  There are numerous answers to this question, but for the sake of time I will only offer one: God is trying to establish through the Old Testament (OT) the human need for a savior.  Basically, the way I read it is this: if we had only seen Adam sin, then perhaps people would say, "well Adam sinned, but I will not repeat his mistake!  God is condemning all of mankind for the actions of a single individual, and he is unjust to do so.  I will act righteously."  When we look at Israel, God blessed them in many ways, he provided for them, he delivered them from slavery in Egypt (which is symbolic of death, similar to how Adam was cast out of the garden) and he brought them into the promised land, to the "new Eden" for them to inhabit, cultivate, to be fruitful and multiply.  And even after all the blessing, Israel sins again and again, harming one another and forsaking God in exchange for worthless idols.  Moses interceded for the people many times, forestalling God's wrath, but never averting it entirely and now that wrath has come.

What Israel shows us is that sin is not some kind of accident like Adam was walking along and he suddenly tripped and his mouth landed on the forbidden fruit, and it all happened so fast and he couldn't help it, and he's really very sorry and he promises it would never happen again!  To Adam, sin was a deliberate choice, perhaps a regretted choice but one he made nonetheless, and in the thousands of years since it was a choice repeated by every generation.  That is the message of the OT.  God could keep forgiving, keep restraining himself, and mankind would just keep sinning.  There is no amount of second or third of fourth chances that would ever be enough for us to "figure it out" and stop sinning, and sin is not the result of harsh or burdensome circumstances.  We do not sin because of our bad childhood or poverty or any circumstantial factor.  God blessed Adam and he blessed Israel to show us that sin is not the result of hostile conditions, it's due to the innate tendencies of our own hearts.  As the book of Judges puts it, everyone "doing what was right in his own eyes", choosing his own path and making his own decisions about what is good or bad instead of following God's standards for good and bad.

The OT establishes the need for a savior, someone who can come unadulterated by our sinful tendencies and help bring us back into proper relationship with God.  Someone like the high priest who goes into the temple and makes atonement for the people, like on the day of atonement (Hebrew, "Yom Kippur".  Lev 23:26-32)

Kings is not the end of the OT (in fact, we're barely halfway done), but in many ways I think the Babylonian exile is the thematic heart because of all these patterns that I just discussed.

The destruction of Jerusalem itself follows many of the same patterns as in the previous chapter, except more extreme.  This time, rather than simply pillage Jerusalem, they steal everything and burn the city to the ground.  The temple, palace and every good house is destroyed with fire.  The people are again exiled, but instead of 7,000 leading men, the king of Babylon takes away the majority of the people.  Now only a handful are left in the land.  The chief officials (who led the rebellion) are put to death rather than exiled, and Judah is not given a new king.  Gedaliah is appointed as a governor under king Nebuchadnezzar's authority.  Judah no longer possesses even nominal independence, as punishment for their second revolt.

Some men go and assassinate Gedaliah and it's not entirely clear to me why.  The bible doesn't really say, but there are two motivations that suggest themselves: first, it's possible that Ishmael killed Gedaliah because Gedaliah was collaborating with the Babylonians.  Second, it's possible that Ishmael killed him in order to steal money and (as we will later discover in the book of Jeremiah) to take slaves.  Because Ishmael is a brigand, essentially.  Between these two, the first explanation makes a bit more sense to me personally (since Ishmael is a member of the royal household in v. 25 and probably loyal to Zedekiah), but it's hard to say for sure.

The last paragraph in the book ends on a slightly more hopeful note, telling us that 37 years into his exile, the king of Babylon (Evil-Merodach, a successor to Nebuchadnezzar) honors Jehoiachin with a favorable position and royal food.  Jehoiachin is the king who was exiled before Zedekiah (in the previous chapter: 2 Kings 24:15); there is no evidence that Zedekiah was ever freed from prison, and he probably died in disgrace.

And with this, the book of Kings concludes.  We are left in hopeful expectation for a salvation to come from God, both to free Israel from their captivity in Babylon as well as to free all men from the captivity of sin and death.  The book of Kings (and the OT in general) leave us with a firm knowledge of the problem: sin.  Now we must wait for God's answer; how will God bring about this great salvation?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 24

In this chapter, Jerusalem is sacked and all of the leaders of the city are exiled to Babylon.

There are several broad patterns we can draw out of this chapter.  The central point is that Judah is getting systematically torn to pieces, but since we have to read a whole chapter about it, I'm going to write in more detail.

The first pattern is: foreign kings renaming the rulers of Judah.  This first happened in the previous chapter when Pharaoh took Eliakim, made him king, and renamed him Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34).  The second time it happens is in this chapter in v. 17 when Nebuchadnezzar changed Mattaniah to Zedekiah and made king.  It might not be immediately obvious why Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar would do this, but this is an expression of domination.  What is a more thorough way to change someone's personal identity than to change their name?  God changes the name of several people in history (for instance, Abram renamed to Abraham and Jacob renamed to Israel).  In those cases, God would rename people as an expression of his promises for them and their destiny and future.  In this case, Nebuchadnezzar is renaming the king of Judah in order to show that the destiny of Judah and Judah's rulers is in the hands of Babylon.  If Babylon can change Mattaniah's name, what could they not change?

The actual meaning of Zedekiah and Jehoiakim is godly ("the LORD is righteousness" and "the LORD raised him up" respectively), but the point is that this is not something that was done by God for their good; it was done by a foreign king to break their identity as a means of control.

The second pattern is the removal of leaders and authorities.  This is described in verses 10-16 and it's done for two main reasons I can think of.  First (and perhaps most importantly) it undermines the possibility of any resistance by removing the people most capable of organizing resistance.  The leading men, the "mighty men".  Why would Nebuchadnezzar take away all the best soldiers?  It could be he wants to place them in his own army, but I think it's more likely because he doesn't want these commanders organizing the army of Judah to fight against him if the people decide to rebel (as they literally did earlier in this chapter, as described in v. 1).  The second reason why Nebuchadnezzar would take all the best people, particularly the craftsmen and smiths, is to enslave them for his own profit.  These are the people with the most skills and knowledge and the most earning potential.  Nebuchadnezzar probably hauled them off to his own workshops to make things for his treasury or whatever other projects he had going on.

Lastly, Nebuchadnezzar removes the material wealth from the country.  He's certainly not the first king to pillage Jerusalem's temple and royal palace (for one earlier example, 1 Kings 14:26), but combined with the other actions described in this chapter, it further drives Judah into a state of helplessness and paralysis.  Without gold or silver in the royal treasury, the new king of Judah will have less financial resources to 1) raise an army and 2) pay for foreign mercenaries.  Besides enriching Nebuchadnezzar, this will also make it more difficult for Judah to resist him in the future.

In conclusion, Judah is basically screwed.  Also, there are bands of Moabite, Ammonite and other raiders traversing the land pillaging and murdering people.  So that's also happening.

Why does this happen?  The author takes yet another opportunity to remind us of the sins of Manasseh; interestingly, it's not the idolatry that seems to drive retribution against Judah, it is the innocent blood shed by Manasseh that has sealed their fate to destruction.

As another brief aside, I should also mention that even though the book of Kings does not describe the battle of Carchemish, we can see the results of it in this chapter where "the king of Egypt did not come out of his land again" (v. 7).  The Egyptians, along with the Assyrians, were soundly defeated by the Babylonians.  In the previous chapter, Josiah was killed in battle with the Egyptians when the Egyptians were rushing out to get to that battle and Judah resisted them.  Now the Egyptians have been defeated and ironically it is the Babylonians that are now oppressing Judah.

Judah started off this chapter in a more dignified kind of servitude to the Babylonians, but there are not many nations that are happy with "dignified servitude", so they resist and are crushed.  At the end of this chapter, we learn that Zedekiah now also rebels against the Babylonians and in the next chapter we will learn if he fares better than Jehoiakim.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 23

In this chapter, Josiah leads Judah into the last great revival of the pre-exilic era.

This chapter is a fascinating journey through the complex world of Judah and Israel's religious observance.  The single longest passage in this chapter tells us all of the things that Josiah is destroying or tearing down, and by reading the list of things he's destroying, we can get a good sense of what their religious world looks like.  This chapter concludes with the beginning of the political turmoil that heralds the end of Judah's independence.

This chapter begins with Josiah taking the initiative to gather all the people to the temple and in their presence, renew the covenant with the LORD.  I think this section (verses 1-3) shows us the power of a king to change and shape the religious landscape of his kingdom.  In this case, the king simply decided that his nation would worship another god besides Baal, and that edict is passed down to all the people for them to obey.

However, even though Josiah is sincere in his devotion, I think it's unlikely that most of the people share his passion.  We see Josiah driving many of the changes in this chapter.  If you read verses 4-24, look at how many times the author talks about what "he" (Josiah) did.  Josiah is the one going around destroying altars, removing mediums and spiritists, smashing sacred stones and many other things.  Of course, we know that technically it is the men under Josiah's command who are doing all these things.  But the point is that it is Josiah's willpower and authority that is enforcing all these decisions and if it were not for Josiah, they would not be happening.  By extension, when Josiah dies then the people will rebuild all their altars unless the next king follows in Josiah's footsteps.  We know as a matter of fact that the next king does not follow Josiah (v. 32), so unfortunately Josiah's revival dies with him.

God honors Josiah because Josiah is sincere, but in this case the king is remarkably impotent to effect lasting cultural change.  This is contrary to the narrative I established elsewhere, particularly with respect to Manasseh, but in this case it's pretty clear that Josiah is a solitary figure trying to push back against the momentum of his society and he fails to make a lasting difference.

Out of all the various things Josiah did, there are a few I want to pick out.  First I want to point out how many of the idolatrous practices are centered around the temple.  Amongst other things, Josiah removes an Asherah pole from the temple, destroys the rooms of the male prostitutes and the rooms of the "women weaving for Asherah".  This shows a considerable amount of syncretism in their religious practice, where at a minimum, Baal and Asherah worship is commingled with worship for the LORD.  In practice, it's possible that Baal and Asherah worship was progressively replacing worship for the LORD, which we can see in the way that altars for Baal are built in more and more prominent locations in the temple complex.

From this passage (v. 4-7) we can also get a sense of what their religious worship looked like.  Prostitution (including, but not limited to, homosexual prostitution) was part of their religious experience.  There are wooden poles symbolizing fertility.  The women "weaving for Asherah" is likely connected to divination.  For reference, look at Greek and Roman mythology that associates "the fates" with weaving.  In that case, weaving was a metaphor for the connected destinies of individual people (each strand) and weaving they could discern and perhaps even control the fate of men and women.  Although it's hard to say anything with certainty, I think it's likely that this obscure reference implies similar religious doctrine in ancient Canaanite polytheism.

In a similar vein, Josiah also removes the "horses ... dedicated to the sun" and the "chariots dedicated to the sun".  This also reflects or imitates common mythological understanding with the ancient Greeks who similarly described Helios (the god of the sun) as like a man riding a chariot across the sky.  It may not be derived from Greek theology directly, but it does seem to indicate some sort of common Mediterranean culture.

I also think this chapter is cool how it shows Josiah sweeping through the temple and Jerusalem, then expanding outwards to Judah and lastly going up to Bethel and Samaria and destroying the altars and high places there.  I think it gives the chapter a sense of progression as Josiah moves outward from his base of power (in Jerusalem) to the increasingly distant parts of his own land and then even into Samaria which is not under his dominion (since it had been captured by the Assyrians).

As a brief note, I would also like to point out all of the things Josiah burns in the valley of Ben Hinnom.  By the New Testamental period, Ben Hinnom (or equivalently, Gehenna) attains a sort of folklorish significance as a kind of fiery hell that cursed souls are sent to after death.  Jesus himself uses the word Gehenna to indicate the kind of dark fate that faces evil men.  The story that I had heard was that the valley of Ben Hinnom was used as a sort of municipal dump for Jerusalem, though according to Wikipedia that etiology only emerged in the 12th century AD, well after the events described in 2nd Kings.

Lastly, the story in verses 15-20 is directly referencing a passage much earlier in 1 Kings 13.  In that chapter, an unnamed prophet directly references Josiah himself and says that Josiah would destroy Jeroboam's altar, which is fulfilled here at almost the very end of the book, right before Judah is destroyed as an independent nation.

After that, they celebrate the Passover for the first time in what... a hundred years?  Maybe more, maybe less.  It's hard to say for sure.  What we do know is that this is the first and only reference to the Passover in the entire book of Kings; there are no references to the Passover at all in the entire books of Samuel or Judges.  It is referenced once in the book of Joshua.  Although we have to read between the lines a bit, it seems unlikely that the Israelites were celebrating the Passover more than once in a given generation; perhaps less.

Verse 26 tells us that no matter how much good Josiah sought to do, it was not enough to overcome the great evil that Manasseh performed.

After that, Josiah gets into a war with the Egyptians and dies.  After Josiah's defeat, Israel is subjugated by the Egyptians who impose tribute upon them.  The kings return to doing evil and with that, Josiah's revival is over.  I could talk more about the political situation between Egypt, Assyria and the emerging Babylonians, but this commentary is already pretty long so I'll keep it brief.  Egypt is in decline, but they still have power and are trying to hold onto their vassals in Canaan and Sinai.  Assyria is also in decline, and in fact has been defeated by the Babylonians several times (not recorded in the biblical account).  Judah is allied with the Babylonians as we earlier saw.  Neco is actually allied with the Assyrians and is not going up to fight the Assyrians, he is going up to join them to try to hold back the Babylonians.  Josiah fights against the Egyptians because he is helping his ally Babylon, but he is killed in battle and the Egyptians are not held back from their destination, Carchemish.  The Egyptians and Assyrians enter into battle against the Babylonians at Carchemish, and the Babylonians promptly slaughter everyone.  This battle (which is not directly mentioned in Kings) results in the demise of the Assyrian empire and is a considerable blow to the Egyptian empire.  After this (beginning in the very first verse of 2 Kings 24), it is suddenly the Babylonians who are the powerful foreign adversary marching around conquering nations like Judah.

In the next chapter, we will learn more about Jehoiakim's reign and how he responds to the Babylonian threat.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 22

In this chapter, Josiah starts to repair the temple and discovers the book of the law.

Depending on how you count, this is perhaps the third big revival in Judah in the book of Kings.  The previous revivals (by my reckoning) would be the kingship of Joash and more recently, Hezekiah.  Josiah leads the last and possibly greatest revival in Judah before the Babylonian exile.

As with so many other biblical figures, I am fascinated by Josiah's personal history and development.  In the previous chapter, I went on at length talking about the malign impact of having an evil king who reigns for more one generation (which was true of Manasseh, Josiah's grandfather) and how it can set up a cultural trend towards idolatry.  This makes Josiah's righteousness all the more striking.  Josiah is not alone, however.

Abraham was raised in an idolatrous family; in fact, during Abraham's life he was very likely the only follower of the LORD in the whole earth.  Somehow, Abraham emerged from that culture and from his family and became a hero of faith.  Similarly, Moses was raised in Egypt by Pharaoh's daughter.  Egypt had a complex polytheistic religion and Moses would certainly have been raised in the Egyptian faith to worship their gods.  Yet somehow, Moses was able to get past his upbringing and become another hero of the faith, perhaps through the teaching of his mother (Ex 2:9) and perhaps through his time in the wilderness (Ex 2:15).

But how did Josiah become a righteous man?  How did he develop such a strong faith in the LORD in spite of the idolatry all around him?  Even the temple of the LORD is populated with the idols and altars of Manasseh, yet somehow Josiah sincerely repents when confronted with the threatened judgment.  Unfortunately I don't really have the answer here.

Anyway, for whatever reason Josiah takes an interest in the affairs of the temple: he sees the temple is not being maintained, and he sends one of his officials to ensure that some of the temple revenue (probably some kind of tax) is directed to repairing the structure.  By chance, the high priest finds a copy of the law of Moses and he sends it to be read to the king.  In the text it is referred to as the "book of the law", but this is just another name for the book of Moses, i.e. the Pentateuch, which is the first five books in the Old Testament.  We have already read this (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).  I can imagine all sorts of things about the book of the law that would make the king rend his garments when it is read to him, perhaps most dramatically the curses that are threatened over Israel in Deuteronomy 28.

Something that surprises me about this story is how few copies of the Law there are.  In retrospect, it makes sense because in this time period books are very expensive and most people are illiterate.  There are a handful of professional scribes (such as the scribe in this chapter) who would spend their entire lives recording and copying books.  Ancient Israel and Judah would maintain their history and culture through oral traditions passed down from one generation to another.  In light of this, there may have been only a handful copies of the Law in existence across the entire nation at this time frame.  Especially given that most people are worshiping other gods, knowledge of the Law would have been limited to a handful of scribes and priests in the temple complex.

I guess this surprised me because through so much of the history of Judah we have these prophets running around proclaiming the LORD and rebuking the people, and yet now it seems like the Law itself is scarcely known.  Perhaps this again shows a distinction between the stories of Israel's history (like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and the details of religious observance commanded in the Law.  It's hard for me to say for sure.

What we do know is that Josiah was equally surprised and shocked when he learned of the destruction the LORD was threatening for his nation.  Josiah seems legitimately distressed, in a way that I would not expect if he had known about the Law before.  His first reaction is to try to figure out, can we fix this?  Can our nation repent enough and turn that this evil might be averted?  Unfortunately, at this point it appears the answer is no, but Josiah himself is spared because of his own tenderness before the LORD.

I want to contrast Josiah's response here with Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20.  When Isaiah told Hezekiah that he would die, Hezekiah cried out to the LORD and the LORD showed him mercy and healed him.  When the Isaiah told Hezekiah that his nation would be destroyed by the Babylonians, he was okay with it.  Now Josiah is learning that his nation will be destroyed, and he repents; but it's too late.  It is too late for Josiah or any other man to change the course of events.

Josiah learns that the disaster coming is now unavoidable; in the next chapter, we will discover how Josiah's responds.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 21

In this chapter, Manasseh leads Jerusalem into idolatry.

The very first thing I should say is that this is not, of course, the same Manasseh that we read about in Genesis.  There is a "tribe of Manasseh", who are one of the twelve tribes, descendants of Manasseh the son of Joseph (see e.g. Gen 41:51).  This is another Manasseh, a worse Manasseh, if you will.  Not to say that the first Manasseh was much of a saint (if the other sons of Jacob are anything to go by), but this one is clearly worse. This is a Manasseh who is steeped in idolatry and murderous tendencies, and both the author of Kings and the unnamed prophets in v. 10 rebuke him in strong terms.

The second thing I want to point out is how early Manasseh became king and how long he reigned.  He was king from age 12 through 67, which is 55 years.  By comparison, Hezekiah was king for 29 years and even David (the most famous king of Israel) reigned for only 40 years.  It's hard to overstate the significance of this, because when a single person is king for more than about 30 or 40 years, it means that an entire generation is raised up that does not know life before their current king.

Regents like this have the capability of shaping an entire generation from their youth to adulthood, and it means that their personality and character can be stamped onto a culture in a way that does not happen when a king reigns for less time.  I already mentioned how much power ancient kings would have to shape the society under them (and that is certainly true), but the difference is that when they reign for long enough to shape one generation, they can institute cultural patterns that generation will pass down to their children and descendants beyond that.  It means that a king can extend influence beyond his own lifetime.

In the case that a king is righteous (like David), this is good.  But in the case that a king does evil, it magnifies the depth and durability of that evil.  Unfortunately, Manasseh is the second kind, and most of this chapter is dedicated to telling us about all the evil things that Manasseh did.  Principally, that is Manasseh's idolatry and shedding innocent blood.

Verse 13 uses a peculiar expression, where the LORD (through his prophets) says that he would judge Jerusalem with the "line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab".  This is basically using an analogy from how people would construct houses.  When building a house in biblical times (and still to this day, actually) people would use a plumb line, which is just a line of cord with a weight attached at the bottom.  The reason why is that you can use this line to determine a straight up and down direction, so when building a wall it lets you build a wall that is exactly parallel to gravity, which makes the wall stronger and less likely to fall over.

In this chapter (and elsewhere in the OT), the plumb line is used as a metaphor for God's judgment because God is essentially saying, "your wall is crooked and I am going to use this plumb line to show how you are defective."  It shows the people what they are supposed to be like, but they are not.  The plumb line means that Judah has "built itself incorrectly", in a moral sense, and God is going to judge them because they have not done what is right.  In this particular verse, I think the prophets call it the "line of Samaria" because Judah is sinning the same way that Samaria sinned, and as a result Judah is going to suffer the same judgment that God inflicted on Samaria.

Amon reigns after Manasseh, but Amon is a much less consequential figure because he is assassinated shortly into his reign.  We are not given the reason why Amon is assassinated, but just the fact that it happened seems to indicate that there is growing instability in Judah.  As we see more violence in Judah and the kings are more and more consistently seeking evil and serving Baal, it is clear that we are approaching the very end of Judah's independent kingdom.  The Babylonians invasion that was foretold in the previous chapter is swiftly approaching.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 20

In this chapter, Hezekiah recovers from a terminal illness and shows all his treasures to the Babylonians.

I want to start off by reminding my readers that Hezekiah is a "righteous king", he is the guy who literally tore down the altars of Baal and by all regards, it appears that he legitimately sought to follow the LORD and bring Israel back into their proper covenant relationship with God.  With that context, I think Hezekiah's tears and prayer in verses 2-3 are sincere.  As much as any other sinful person, Hezekiah really did seek the LORD.

With that context, Hezekiah is faced not just with a physical illness, but with a prophecy from Isaiah that he was going to die and not live.  Hezekiah seems to strive against the impossible, petitioning the LORD in spite of a message from God that he was going to die.  It says that Isaiah had barely left the royal palace when the LORD spoke to him and said that Hezekiah would indeed be healed and would live out another 15 years.

I think this is really important to understand, because this is something that many people misunderstand about the bible and more broadly, misunderstand about prophecy in general: a prophecy is not a guarantee.  Many prophecies are conditional, and God doesn't always state those conditions clearly.  Oftentimes, this is true about what I would call "positive prophecies", where God prophesies something good.  In most cases, the prophecy is something that we are supposed to take hold of, to work towards.  There are some exceptions, but in a lot of cases prophecies are supposed to set our direction and vision; they are not intended to be a statement of what will happen in the future regardless of our response.  Guiding our response is one of the most important aspects of a prophecy: if a prophecy were a guarantee about the future regardless of our response, why would God bother telling us?  He could simply do what he wants in our life and just "make it happen".  There would be no point in telling us about it in advance except perhaps as a demonstration of his power over the world.  But there are plenty of other ways God could do that through miracles of many kinds.

However, a lot of people take prophecies as a guarantee and then do nothing to work towards that vision.  They get promises about good things in the future, assume they will happen regardless of anything else, and in so many cases are disappointed and confused when it doesn't happen.  If there were one thing I would encourage people to do it's that if you have a prophecy, pray into it.  If you see an opportunity to step into a prophecy, take it.  Prophecies from God should encourage boldness and faith; they should be taken as an encouragement from God that if we move in a certain direction, he will move with us.  We should engage with prophecies actively through our words and actions, not passively waiting for them to happen.

In this case, Hezekiah gets a negative prophecy (declaring something bad would happen to him) and this also is not guaranteed.  In the case of positive prophecies, we should respond by embracing what God says, and in the case of negative prophecies we should respond by seeking to avert what God says.  In both cases, we are not supposed to respond with human effort, wisdom or power.  We are supposed to respond by drawing closer to God and, in faith, trusting that God will bless us as we pursue his will in our lives.  This is exactly what Hezekiah does when he responds in prayer, and that is why God reversed the illness and death that Isaiah had prophesied.  Of course, Hezekiah has an entire lifetime of devotion to God before this, so there is no hypocrisy in Hezekiah's prayer.

In verses 8-11 when Isaiah gives Hezekiah a sign of his healing, my readers should understand that the "stairway of Ahaz" refers to an early sundial built by Ahaz.  When Hezekiah says it's easy for the shadow to go forward ten steps and hard to go back ten steps, that's because "going forward" refers to the natural progression of time.  For it to go backwards means that the shadow reverses the direction it normally goes (i.e. the earth's rotation was reversed).  Hence why it is hard for the shadow to go backwards.  This is similar to the miracle when the sun stopped in Joshua 10:12-14.  We can also regard the shadow traveling backwards as a metaphor for the reversal of the "shadow" of death on Hezekiah's life.

In the final part of the chapter, we learn for the first time about the emerging Babylonian empire.  In the last few chapters, the Assyrians have been the prime antagonist, destroying Israel and besieging Jerusalem.  Even in this chapter, v. 6 tells us that God would protect Hezekiah from the Assyrians.  From the story, we can tell that the Babylonians are allied with Judah; this is why Merodach-Baladan sends an envoy and a gift to Hezekiah after Hezekiah recovers from his illness.  Politically, we can understand the alliance between Babylon and Judah is primarily because they are both resisting the dominant Assyrians.  The Babylonians are by no means the most powerful empire right now, which makes Isaiah's prophecy in verses 16-18 all the more surprising.  Not only is Babylon going to emerge as the next superpower, they are going to betray and destroy their erstwhile ally.  Just as the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, the Babylonians will bring the end for the southern kingdom of Judah.

The destruction of Jerusalem will come to be known as the Babylonian exile.  This is one of the pivotal moments in biblical history for many reasons.  Besides the various political consequences, it also has significant religious and theological consequences.  The Babylonians destroy the temple and exile most of the people of Judah to Babylon.  This disrupts the temple sacrifices, which means that the priests and rabbis needed to figure out how to follow the Law when they were living in a nation where many ordinances were no longer possible to obey.  Indeed, this is a similar situation to modern Judaism where temple sacrifices are no longer performed and Passover lambs are no longer slaughtered.  This is a tremendous shift, and I'll discuss it in more detail in later chapters.

For now, what I want to focus on is Hezekiah's response.  Hezekiah says to himself that because these disasters will occur in a later generation and not in his own time, that he is glad with Isaiah's prophecy.  This is a tragic counterpoint to the earlier prophecy we had in this very same chapter.  In verse 1, Isaiah prophesies that Hezekiah would die.  Hezekiah prays and God changes his mind and heals Hezekiah.  There is a negative prophecy, Hezekiah engages with it and God relents.  In verses 16-19, there is another negative prophecy directed at Hezekiah's children.  His wealth would be taken by the Babylonians and his descendants would be taken as slaves, but observe Hezekiah's response.  Hezekiah accepts the prophecy.  We can imagine God saying, "is the destruction of your nation okay with you?  Very well, it shall be done according to your will".  Hezekiah did not challenge or pray against the destruction he is warned about.  He does not repent, he does not turn to the LORD to get this prophecy reversed.  Even though Hezekiah was a godly man in many respects, here he shows a damning selfishness when he prays for his own life but does not pray for the lives of his heirs and his people.  In both cases, the prophecies are stated unconditionally, and in my opinion Hezekiah's prayers could have reversed both prophecies.  In the end, he only prays against one so he gets to live another 15 years, but the second prophecy comes true and his nation is destroyed.

How much better would things have been for Israel if Hezekiah had prayed against the destruction of his people and allowed himself to die from that illness!  Hezekiah's shortsightedness is painful.  Indeed, Hezekiah's own son Manasseh is one of the most evil, violent and idolatrous kings in Judah's history.  While I think this is very surprising for such a godly man to have such an evil son, on the other hand verse 19 clearly tells us that Hezekiah is only concerned about his own generation and his own life.  If Hezekiah will not pray for his descendants, then why should his son be a godly man?  Hezekiah shows that in his heart, he is not investing in the next generation.  In that vacuum, it actually makes sense that godless evil should take its place in Manasseh's heart.

In the next chapter, we will learn more about Manasseh's reign.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 19

In this chapter, God rescues Jerusalem from the Assyrians.

In the context of the previous chapter, this chapter is straightforward to read and understand.  It begins with Hezekiah in distress.  He knows that his nation has no strength to resist the Assyrians, so he is counting on the LORD to destroy his enemies.  In particular, in 2 Kings 18:32-35, the envoy of Assyria basically says that the LORD is like all the gods of all the other nations that had been destroyed, so the LORD would have no power to resist the Assyrians.  Hezekiah hopes that when the LORD hears how he is being slandered, that he would resist the Assyrians.  It becomes a question of whether God has the power to defend his name and his reputation against the strength of the Assyrians.  The chapter ends with the answer to this question, which is yes (v. 35-37).  That's basically the short version of what happens.

This chapter has the first reference to the prophet Isaiah.  We have seen many prophets before, but Isaiah is different because he is also a biblical author, the writer of the book of Isaiah.  Isaiah is the first "major prophet", which is a term that applies to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.  They are called major prophets because they wrote longer books, not because they are considered more important than the other prophets (mainly the so-called "minor prophets").  I'm going to talk about Isaiah a LOT more when we get to his book, for now I'm just pointing out Isaiah to my readers because is going to reemerge as one of the most significant authors in the bible and he issues a lot of major prophecies about the coming Messiah.  Most of the other prophets throughout the histories (the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles) are figures who were important in their time but do not have much significance in later biblical history.  In fact, the book of Isaiah itself contains a copy of this story (of Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem), which is substantially identical to the story in this chapter.

In this chapter, Isaiah is operating very similarly to the other prophets we have seen.  He is serving as a representative of the LORD, bearing messages from the LORD to the king in response to the king's prayers and humility.  The LORD's response is exactly what we should expect: he is going to drive away the king of Assyria because he wants to demonstrate his supremacy over merely human forces, especially those that would mock him or belittle him.  While Hezekiah certainly demonstrates humility here, it is perhaps even more so the pride of the Assyrians that causes God to overthrow them.

Verses 9-13 are interesting because it is after Sennacherib hears a report that the Egyptians are marching out to attack him (Assyria and Egypt clashed frequently) that he sends a second time to the men of Jerusalem threatening them and demanding their surrender.

This time, rather than sending his officials to the prophet, Hezekiah gets even more desperate and goes himself to the temple.  This is a great example of why God would choose to honor Hezekiah: in the midst of dire circumstances, his response is to go to the temple in prayer.  I'm reminded of 1 Samuel 13:5-9, when Saul was tested.  When the enemy gathered at Michmash and his own men were scattering, and the prophet was late, Saul had to decide where his allegiance was going to rest.  Was he going to depend on human strength and wisdom or on God?  Saul chose human strength and wisdom, and so he perished.  In 1 Samuel 30:6, David found himself similarly tested when his wives and children were stolen by Amalekite raiders, his own men were contemplating stoning him, and he had nowhere to turn.  Would he depend on his own strength or upon God?  David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.

Hezekiah now finds himself in a similar place.  The Assyrians are gathering around his walls, Sennacherib is threatening him, and Hezekiah has nowhere to flee, so instead of running away, he goes up: he ascends the temple mount and goes to the LORD for deliverance in his time of need.  We saw Ahaz construct an altar to a foreign god when he was in distress (2 Kings 16:10), so Ahaz turned to other gods.  Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, turns to the living God for deliverance and boy does he get saved.  This time, Isaiah sends a response to Hezekiah even when Hezekiah did not send to Isaiah, and this time the response is in poetic form.  Isaiah's response (implicitly referring to Sennacherib) criticizes Sennacherib's pride, when the great king of Assyria sees himself rising above the mountains and drinking the water of foreign lands.  Verse 25 tells us that God actually planned for Sennacherib to arise: Sennacherib is a tool in the LORD's hands, and yet in his pride he thinks of himself as the great king and power, greater than the God who made him, and because of that pride he must be brought low.

After Isaiah's prophecy concludes, God promptly answers by killing the Assyrians and later Sennacherib is assassinated by his own sons.  As a brief historical sidenote, there are independent historical sources that confirm Sennacherib was, in fact, assassinated by one of his sons, though these sources differ on exactly which son did it.  So the majority of this chapter (as it relates to Sennacherib's campaign against Judah and his later death) are historical facts that can be independently verified.  Of course, none of the non-biblical sources mention the LORD or the Hebrew God in any way, but I still think it's really cool to have parts of the biblical text so closely mirrored by Assyrian and Babylonian records.

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 18

In this chapter, Hezekiah reigns over Judah and faces the threat of the Assyrians.

This chapter begins with some of the best news we have seen since Solomon built the temple.  Verse 3 tells us that Hezekiah is a king just like David and he follows the LORD without reservation.  This is remarkable.  Every king since Solomon had something against them, some area where they did not fully submit to the LORD's leadership.  Even Joash, the last revival king we saw in 2 Kings 12, "did not remove the high places" (2 Kings 12:3).  The kings of Israel are consistently worse, but even the kings of Judah never quite fully extricate themselves from the idolatry that permeates their society, which is physically symbolized by the "high places", the hilltops where pagan priests would lead the people of Israel and Judah into worshiping other gods like Baal and the local deities of the area.  Remarkably, Hezekiah breaks free from this influence, tears down the high places, and forces the entire nation to worship the LORD.

What makes this even more remarkable is that Hezekiah is the son of Ahaz, who in 2 Kings 16 brought Judah into some of the greatest spiritual darkness that they have ever seen.  Ahaz built an altar to another god and placed it in the temple courtyard and instituted Baal worship throughout the nation.  It's shocking to see such a remarkably evil, idolatrous father produce such a remarkably faithful, devoted son, where the father served Baal and the son served the LORD.  Once again I find myself asking, "where did Hezekiah's faith come from?"  Was he not raised by his father into the worship of Baal?  Was he not corrupted by the pagan influences in Judah's society and culture to follow these other gods?  How did Hezekiah persevere through the formative years of his childhood and become such a man after God's heart?  As a sign of the corruption in Judah, even the bronze serpent that the LORD made to deliver Israel from the "fiery serpents" (Num 21:6-9) itself became an idol and had to be destroyed.  Isn't it amazing how God's previous acts of deliverance could become the idols of a future generation?  They worshiped God's tools, his creation, rather than the creator; they worshiped the act of salvation rather than the savior.  I think this is a grim warning to our hearts, that we keep our minds and emotions fixed on the one who saves.  We need to remember the things that God has done, and God ordains many memorials of his past salvation; but we need to stay focused on the God who performed those things rather than honoring the memorials themselves.  It is God who makes them sacred.

I asked similar questions about Abraham (who came from an idolatrous society), Moses (who was raised in the Egyptian royal court) and many others.  How did they men come by such great faith?  This is more than a historical question to me: I want to learn how to live like these people, and foremost in my mind is that I want to learn how to become like them so that in turn I can emulate the deeds that they performed.  Unfortunately, the histories of these men's lives do not give us a thorough answer.  As it regards Hezekiah, we know very little about his childhood or life before ascending to the throne, by which time he had already cultivated a significant faith in God.  With all that in mind, what we do get to read is how Hezekiah reacted to the circumstances of his reign, and hopefully we can learn how to follow God to studying Hezekiah's example.

In 2 Kings 16:7, Judah had sworn to serve the Assyrians in exchange for protection from Israel and Aram.  This is the context for verse 7 of this chapter which tells us that Hezekiah revolted against Assyria, most likely meaning that he stopped paying tribute to Assyria and would resist the Assyrians if they moved an army through Judah's territory.  This chapter does not give us any indication if Hezekiah's revolt was at the LORD's command or Hezekiah's own idea.  What we do know is that Hezekiah sought to follow the LORD, so we can reasonably expect that the LORD will protect Hezekiah and deliver him from any challenges to his rule.

After smashing through Israel, destroying Samaria and deporting the Israelites to foreign lands, the king of Assyria next marches upon Judah and captures many of their towns.  Even though Israel and Judah are about the same in terms of military capabilities, the king of Judah is devoted to the LORD and the king of Israel was not.  Israel was destroyed because (as verse 12 tells us) they had not obeyed the covenant.  Hezekiah's obedience to God's covenant will be his salvation even when his army stands no chance against the Assyrians.

Verse 14 tells us that Sennacherib sent a message to Hezekiah from the town of Lachish, which is a major city in Judah.  This is interesting because in the British Museum in London there is an artifact called the Lachish relief, which is a carved stone mural taken from the ancient Assyrian royal palace in Nineveh.  This mural depicts the Assyrian siege of Lachish, the battles, breaking through the city wall and the subsequent deportation into slavery and execution of the survivors.  It was most likely created by Sennacherib as a celebration of his victory over Judah at Lachish.  Of course, since it is basically Assyrian propaganda, it is only natural that the king would laud his own victory at Lachish and omit his subsequent failure to capture Jerusalem (which we will observe in the next chapter), but I nevertheless find the Lachish relief to be remarkably congruent with the biblical text here.

Even though Hezekiah follows the LORD, I see verse 16 as a continuation of the general trend of decline that we see in Judah.  Previous kings had taken away the golden shields and at various times emptied out the temple treasuries.  Now we once again see a king of Judah pilfering the temple to bribe a foreign king.

Between v. 16 and 17 I can only imagine that there must be some gap of time.  In v. 16 Hezekiah is paying off Sennacherib with gold and silver, and in the very next verse the Assyrian army is once again marching upon Jerusalem, which seems contradictory.  I could be wrong in my interpretation here, but I would guess that Sennacherib marched against Lachish, took the bribe from Hezekiah, and then after Hezekiah perhaps revolted a second time, has sent an army back down to assail Jerusalem.

This is a pivotal moment in Judah's history: if Jerusalem had been captured here, Judah would have been most likely destroyed in the same way as Israel and probably also deported.  Given that Israel never returns from the Assyrian exile, this could have been the end for Judah as well, and then we would not have had a nation of Israel in the times of Jesus nor would we have modern-day Jews.  This could have been the end for all twelve tribes of Israel.  But instead, we need to view these events in light of the covenant and God's promise that he would keep a lamp for David (1 Kings 15:4, 2 Kings 8:19), a burning light as a memorial.  God responds to David's faithfulness with his own faithfulness, preserving this city in David's memory, but also as a token of his promise to Abraham and even more significantly, because it was through the people of Israel that God planned to bring salvation to all the people on the earth.

The author of Kings devotes two chapters to this story for good reason: this could have been the end for Judah, were it not for God's present salvation for them and plans for a future salvation for all of us.

Interestingly, most of these chapters is not devoted to fighting or scenes of battle, but actually just a lot of talking.  In this chapter, we see Sennacherib's commander threatening the people of Judah, and in the next chapter we see God's response.  It's not like physical battles didn't happen: we know that the Assyrians captured Lachish for instance.  But the author of Kings decided to focus on these speeches instead, because he's trying to make a point: this conflict is primarily a spiritual conflict, not a military conflict.  The results of the physical battle are simply an outflow of the spiritual battle.

A point I would like to reiterate here is the basic assumption in the text that each nation or ethnic group has its own dedicated god and that the results of a military conflict depend on whose god is stronger.  This is a point I have made at least once before, and in this chapter we can see it very clearly in verses 32-35, where the Assyrian officer phrases previous conflicts as if they were conflicts between the king of Assyria and the gods of all these different nations.

There are little details that we can parse out of the speech as well, for instance the hostility between Assyria and Egypt in v. 21, and how the Assyrians and perhaps even the men of Judah thought that they could worship the LORD on the high places (even though it was contrary to the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy and the high places were predominantly pagan worship sites).  In verse 25, the king of Assyria falsely claims to have the LORD's support for destroying Jerusalem.

On the whole, there is basically a lot of deceit and misinformation in the officer's speech from verses 19-25, because obviously his intention is to demoralize the city's defenders.

Verse 32 is particularly ironic because the Assyrian commander (Rabshakeh) paints exile as "choosing life".  The phrase "choose life and not death" is perhaps a standard covenantal term, because it is almost identical to Deuteronomy 30:19 when Moses said basically the same thing.  It's possible the author of Kings is making a deliberate allusion to Deuteronomy, but I think it's even more likely that it is some sort of standard covenantal/treaty language that would have been in broad use in their society.

Anyway, the reason why I say that's ironic is because the officer is trying to convince the men of Jerusalem, in the most polite and idealistic way possible, to choose to be exiled out of their homeland.  He does this by claiming that they would have independence (eating from one's own tree) and prosperity (a land of olives and honey), much like what God promised Israel when he brought them into the promised land.  This once again positions the Assyrian offer as a covenantal term, basically offering the men of Judah to save their lives by agreeing to move to a foreign land and serve the Assyrians, similar to how the people of Israel moved to the promised land in order to serve God.  This is basically positioning the Assyrian empire to usurp God's place as lord over Israel and I can tell you right now that the Assyrians were not as good of a master as the Lord God.

The chapter ends with mourning, and in the next chapter we will see God's response through a new character, the prophet Isaiah.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 17

In this chapter, Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians.

This is the end for the northern kingdom.  After so many prophecies, so many warnings, so many near disasters and actual disasters, after so much sin and idolatry, this is the end.  It has been a long time coming.  As verse 21 tells us, much of Israel's problems started at the very beginning when its first king led the nation into "great sin" by creating two idols and commanding the nation to worship them.

In verses 1-6, the author tells us the facts of how Israel was destroyed and by whom.  Through the next 17 verses (7-23), the author tells us why.  Israel was not destroyed because of unwise political maneuvering or because of any particular decision by Hoshea, the final king.  Israel was destroyed because of what the LORD promised in Deuteronomy 28:49-64 and elsewhere, that if Israel broke the covenant they would be taken captive by foreign powers and driven into exile.

The LORD has done everything that he promised right from the very beginning when all the tribes of Israel entered the covenant at Mount Sinai.  In Deuteronomy 28, the LORD promised that if Israel obeyed him, followed him and worshiped him alone as lord, he would bless them and cause everything they do to prosper.  But he also promised that if Israel disobeyed him and worshiped other gods, that he would curse them, bring destruction upon them and ultimately cast them out of the promised land.

The promised land signifies God's covenant and Israel's communion with God, and it was highly significant when Israel entered the promised land.  It signified Israel entering into the presence of God in an enduring way.  This was given almost physical form when Solomon constructed the temple in Jerusalem, which was built to be a permanent house for God's presence in the midst of Israel.

In Exodus, Numbers and elsewhere, the promised land was contrasted against "the wandering", when Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness traveling around the desert of Sinai.  The promised land was meant to be a place for Israel to dwell, free from the oppression of their enemies, in perpetual peace and prosperity.  In the same way that the promised land meant having a permanent place to live, the temple meant having a permanent presence of God in their lives.  It was more than just peace and liberty, the promised land was a symbol of their connection with God.

When Israel rejected the covenant with God, God rejected them from the land.  Since the land itself was symbolic of God's covenant and presence, rejecting them from the land is like God is rejecting Israel from himself.

It also meant stripping Israel of their inheritance.  The land was supposed to be handed down from one generation to the next, fathers to sons (or sometimes daughters), and by taking away the land, God was taking away the inheritance as well.  God himself was supposed to be Israel's inheritance from one generation to another, and by breaking the covenant, Israel robbed themselves of everything that matters most.

When the author of this chapter explains Israel's defeat, he describes it in terms of Israel's broken relationship with God for this reason.  The promised land and the promised dwelling with God were very closely related in the author's mind.

From a political standpoint, the reason the king of Assyria casts Israel into a foreign land is to divide and conquer.  When he captures the land, he will take the men of Israel and cast them out into all the different parts of his empire, and then take people from those lands and bring them into Israel.  Because Israel is spread out across such a large area, it is much harder for them to rebel, and because the land of Israel is now filled with numerous foreigners, who do not know each other or share any cultural ties, the men of all these different countries are much less likely to work together and rebel against Shalmaneser.  So even though it seems strange, this is a very clever and effective (if heartless) way to rule an empire.

There are two major consequences of this action.  First, the ten northern tribes of Israel are never reconstituted as a nation for the rest of biblical history, perhaps even through modern history.  They are often called the "ten lost tribes of Israel" because they were dispersed and never found again, though some attempts have been made to find genetic links in some modern ethnicities to the ancient Israelites.  The Hebrew nation will march on, but from this time forth there are never again twelve tribes of Israel in one place and under one leadership.  For the most part, there are never again twelve tribes.  If my readers remember the grief of the Israelites when they nearly lost one tribe in Judges 21, they should understand that the remaining men of Judah would have been devastated when they saw the northern kingdom swept away.

The second major consequence is that the northern kingdom is now populated by these foreigners who, while they are taught to worship the LORD, nevertheless also worship their own gods as well, and they intermarry with the remnants of Israel that had been left in the land.  This produces a nation sometimes called Samaria, and in the New Testament period, the descendants of these foreigners were called Samaritans.  Because the Samaritans worship other gods and are, in fact, from other nations besides Israel, the people of Judah despised the Samaritans and wanted to have nothing to do with them.  This animosity developed almost immediate in the midst of this chapter, but it really forms a significant part of the story in the NT.

Of course, anyone who has been reading the book of Kings along with me should have seen the numerous conflicts between Israel and Judah in their history together, so it's not like this is the first time they fight.  The biggest difference is that in their previous conflict, Israel and Judah shared a lot in common.  They had tribal affiliation, probably the same language, and a lot of common history and culture.  Their differences are tiny compared to the differences between Judah and the Babylonians, Kuthites, Sepharvites and so on.  These aren't even the local enemies that Judah has been fighting for a long time (like the Ammonites or Moabites).  The Babylonians and Kuthites are really distant people groups, who probably spoke different languages, and have nothing in common with Judah besides a mutual hostility for every other group mentioned.  This is, of course, precisely why Shalmaneser brought these other nations here, because he knew they would never work together.

Going forward, (the northern kingdom) Israel is no more.  Judah likely feels intimidated by the rise of the Assyrians, and they should be.  We are entering a time period when large, sweeping empires are going to successively rise and fall in the Mideast, and the diverse collection of tribes, nations and races that previously jostled with one-another are now going to find themselves in a much larger and more threatening world, of which the Assyrians are only the vanguard.  As we should understand, Israel is not the only nation that has been overtaken by the ruthless Assyrians.  Every group of people sent into Israel is being exiled from their own homeland, just as the Israelites are sent to distant places.

Judah is looking more and more like a small fish in a big ocean, and without God's protection they have little chance of surviving the coming turbulence.  Unfortunately, Judah is falling into the same idolatry that plagued their neighbor Israel, and is at a very serious risk of enduring the same fate.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 16

In this chapter, the latent idolatry in Judah comes to a head when Ahaz builds a new altar and worships other gods.

The gradual moral decline of Judah (the southern kingdom) is something I've been harping on for some time now, and in this chapter it accelerates dramatically.  We also see Judah's moral decline happen at the same time as their political decline, as the king falls into idolatry and the nation is struck hard by hostile foreign powers.

To the author, nothing exemplifies their moral decline more than the conduct of Judah's latest king, Ahaz.  Many of the previous kings of Judah had things against them: Solomon married foreign wives, Jotham and Azariah "did not remove the high places", and sinned in various other ways.  But I think Ahaz is the first king of Judah who is described as "not like David".  Even though Judah and Israel are at war, Ahaz "follows the ways of the kings of Israel", which, if you've been reading the book of Kings up until this point, is not a compliment.

Judah's political decline is a natural consequence of idolatry: outside of the LORD's protective influence, Judah stands little chance against the hostile forces arrayed against them.  Israel and Aram appear to have entered into an alliance (we saw evidence of this in the previous chapter, 2 Kings 15:37), and while I would bet the immediate purpose of this alliance is to defend themselves against Assyria, it also gives them an opportunity to assault Judah, which they do.  Verse 6 highlights another progressive defeat as the men of Judah are driven out of Elath and do not recover it by the time the author is writing.

Driven into this corner, Judah turns to Assyria for help.  Ahaz plunders his own temple and palace and sends his nation's wealth to Tiglath-Pileser.  Even though the author doesn't state it directly, this is clearly a massive sin because Ahaz is looking to Assyria for salvation rather than turning to the LORD.  If my readers have been following this commentary since we read the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, they will recall that the book of Deuteronomy is structured using the language of a Hittite lord-vassal treaty (also known as a suzerainty treaty), which implies that the LORD, the God of Israel, was their lord and Israel was God's vassal.  We should recognize that Ahaz declaring himself a vassal of Assyria (v. 7) is profoundly contrary to Israel's covenant with God, because Israel was meant to depend on God.  Depending on a human power for protection while forsaking the LORD and worshiping other gods is about as bad as things can get.

And these points are definitely connected.  The only reason why Ahaz is turning to Assyria now in v. 7 is because he turned away from the LORD in v. 3-4.  Without God's leadership or protection, it is only natural that Ahaz would turn to something else instead, and this is undoubtedly an indictment of his spiritual state.

Verse 8 continues the theme of Israel's economic decline, because while God promised to enrich Israel if they served him, Assyria will only impoverish the nations that serve them.

Ahaz goes to Damascus to meet his new lord and king, and he returns with this new altar.  They build the new altar and replace the existing altar of the LORD and offer sacrifices on this new altar.  This is another way of rejecting God, because God ordained the structure and form of the altars and other furnishings in the temple.  By replacing God's altar with this other altar, the king is essentially rejecting God's command and laws.  This is a grievous sin, and remarkably, the priests obey the king's idolatrous commands without objection.  This should give us a sense of how thorough the corruption is now seeping through Judah.

In verses 17-18, Ahaz continues to strip down the temple, removing the bronze bulls presumably to break them up into pieces and use the bronze as money or for similar purposes.  Basically, I think my readers should see a parallel between the gradual deconstruction of the temple and the gradual destruction of Judah as a whole.  In the past, we saw the golden shields replaced with bronze (1 Kings 14:26-27) and now we are seeing Ahaz take away the basin stands, bronze bulls and various other things from the temple courtyard.

I wish I could say this is the worst it gets for Judah, but sadly that is not the case.  It's going to keep getting worse for Judah before it gets better: we are not yet at the nation's lowest point.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 15

In this chapter, Israel is defeated by the Assyrians several times and several kings are assassinated by their own men.

This chapter continues with Israel traveling down their grim road towards destruction and Judah slowly following.  Through all of Israel's history, it has been plagued by instability with numerous violent coups overthrowing one king or another.  It has had brief moments of continuity, like in the brief dynasty under Ahab and now Jehu, but things really seem to be getting unhinged here towards the end.  Several kings die in quick succession (note how short some of these kings are reigning; Zechariah reigns for six months, Shallum for only one month and Pekahiah for two years).  When Menahem takes power (by killing his predecessor), he goes even further by sacking one of the towns of Israel and killing its pregnant women (we can assume men and children likewise died).  This is remarkable brutality directed towards his own people.

For Israel, we really are getting to the end of their independent sovereignty.  In this chapter, they are crushed not once but twice by the Assyrians, first paying the Assyrians off with 37 tons of silver and then second losing a large swathe of territory along with however many people were killed or deported.

There are a lot of things happening in this chapter that we don't exactly see, but can figure out if we start reading between the lines.  The first I will mention is that Israel appears to form an alliance with Aram.  This is a bit surprising because it was not too long ago that Israel was allied with Judah in their war against Aram, and now they are allied with Aram in their war against Judah.  It's a remarkable turn of events, likely driven by the pressure coming against both Aram and Israel from the Assyrians.  The effects of this alliance are fairly obvious: Judah is now under even more military pressure from this northern alliance as well as the larger threat of the Assyrians.  For Israel, this relieves some of the pressure off of them, but it opens them to a greater risk of falling under God's judgment because they are now allied to an idolatrous nation.

Another thing happening in this chapter is the moral decline of Judah's kings.  Similar to the story about Amaziah (see 2 Kings 14:19), Azariah starts off as a fairly good king, but has a bad ending.  In verse 3, it says that Azariah does good things just like his father, in verse 4 it tells us that he nevertheless committed the same sins as his father, and in verse 5 it tells us that he was afflicted with leprosy until death.  What it doesn't tell us (but we know from the book of Chronicles), is that the leprosy was a punishment from God because Azariah commits a particular sin which we will read about then.  This is very similar to Amaziah who also sins towards the end of his life and is assassinated as a result.  We don't see any negative behavior from Jotham (the last king of Judah in this chapter), but both Amaziah and Azariah fall into sin towards the end of their lives and neither one dies in peace.

I have a few more comments about names in this chapter.  First, we see a "Pul" and "Tiglath-Pileser" in verses 19 and 29 respectively.  In fact, these are two names for the same king of Assyria.  Second, this chapter also refers to "Jotham son of Uzziah" and "Jotham son of Azariah".  This is because Uzziah and Azariah are two names for the same king of Israel.  It's confusing, but that's just how things go in the OT.

I don't have much else to add about this chapter.  We see several more kings of Israel get assassinated and replaced by their murderer.  These kings continue to do "evil in the sight of the LORD", and Israel continues to be punished by God for breaking the covenant.  The overall theme of this chapter matches very closely with the themes of Kings as a whole: Israel is in the midst of violent upheaval, pressure from without and idolatry and coups from within, and Judah started off in better condition but is progressively drifting towards the same idolatry that is afflicting Israel and is at risk of the same judgment from God.  Things will need to change soon for both Israel and Judah if they are to avert their fate.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 14

In this chapter, several kinds rise and fall over Judah and Israel.

We are once again in the midst of the royal procession that forms the heart of the book of Kings.  This is an opportunity for us to rise up above the heroic stories of Elijah and Elisha, those prophets who did so much and overcame such adversity, and now we get another chance to look at the broader societal and political trends in the promised land.

In broad terms, I see two major trends here.  First is the reemergence of open warfare between Israel and Judah.  This was something that had started immediately after the kingdom split during the lives of Jeroboam and Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:30), but it had ceased during the reign of Ahab, who forged an alliance with the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat.  This alliance included intermarriage, which is how a king of Judah ended up marrying Athaliah, who then killed all of the royal princes in order to take power for herself (2 Kings 11:1).  It was a disastrous turn of events for Judah as they were sucked into the political violence and idolatry that has been plaguing the northern kingdom since nearly the day it was founded.  Now that Israel and Judah are back at war, in some ways this is ironically an improvement for Judah, because they are now less likely to be impacted by Israel's political instability.

The second major trend I see is gradual decline in the southern kingdom, Judah.  This is something that has been going on for a while (for instance, the rebellion of Edom and Libnah in 2 Kings 8:20-22), and it continues in this chapter.  We see there is continued idolatry (v. 4).  In v. 6, Amaziah seems to be doing the right thing; he is commended by the author of Kings for obeying the Law and not putting the sons of his father's murderers to death.  In v. 7, Judah seems to be improving its situation with a military victory over Edom, but it rapidly deteriorates when they are defeated by Israel (v. 12).  In v. 19 Amaziah is assassinated and when you combine that with his military defeat from v. 12, we can see that Amaziah's reign started off pretty well but ended poorly, following the pattern of many other kings of Judah (such as Joash).  Jerusalem gets sacked again, its wall is torn down and the temple and royal palace are pillaged.

A minor textual note is that we get a second Jeroboam in this chapter.  The first Jeroboam is Jeroboam son of Nabat, the first king of Israel, the new Jeroboam is Jeroboam son of Jehoash.  Throughout the bible, if you ever see it mention a Jeroboam, 99% of the time it's Jeroboam son of Nabat because he is considerably more famous and is used by the biblical author(s) as a personification of the sins of Israel, because he originally set up the golden calves at Dan and Bethel.  Jeroboam son of Jehoash is a fairly inconsequential figure who is mentioned incidentally a few times but not really part of the core narrative in the same way that Jeroboam son of Nabat is.  Still, having two Jeroboams around was certainly enough to confuse me when I read this for the first time.

Lastly, I think verses 24-27 are pretty interesting.  It begins by telling us that Jeroboam son of Jehoash did evil and led Israel into sin, but concludes by telling us that God had mercy on Israel and helped them to restore their borders (i.e. push back the foreign nations that were encroaching upon them).  Verse 25 mentions a prophet by the name of Jonah, and yes, that is the Jonah from the book of Jonah (you can tell because he has the same father as the man in Jonah 1:1).

This is a brief respite, purely from the LORD's mercy.  Unfortunately, since Israel is continuing to sin, the respite will end all too soon and it will be back to oppression and poverty for Israel.  I don't think it's a coincidence that God mentions his mercy for Israel in the same passage that he mentions the prophet Jonah.  The prophets Elijah and Elisha also brought deliverance to Israel on several occasions.  I think in these cases God is bringing mercy through his prophets in order to open the hearts of the king and the people to receive what message the prophets bring.  Sometimes God brings judgment through his prophets in order to break the pride and resistance of his people when they are in idolatry, and sometimes he brings mercy in order to demonstrate his compassion and concern for them.  In both cases the purpose is the same: to draw forth repentance.  As we can see from the progression of evil kings in Israel, the nation simply does not repent.

But I think there is another point here too, which is that human beings have access to partner with God in the fulfillment of God's plans.  In this case, it is the prophet Jonah who is working with God to bring about this deliverance.  Even in the midst of a sinful generation whose hearts are far from God, God draws close everyone who seeks him and he gives us opportunities to work towards his purposes and find meaning for our own lives in that labor.  I think this can be an encouragement for us because Jonah is living in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the midst of an idolatrous and divided society, oppressed by other nations.  But Jonah is able to rise above that and be known as a prophet of the LORD, bringing a message of deliverance to his people and serving God's purpose for his generation.  Jonah's life is a remarkable testimony to God's power in him.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 13

In this chapter, a generation of kings pass away and Elisha prophesies victory over the Arameans.

This chapter is the beginning of a long sequence of kings who will come and go over both Israel and Judah.  This section (approximately the next four chapters) is sometimes confusing because there are a lot of kings who have very similar names.  Even for me it's hard to remember the difference between Joash, Jehoash, Jehoahaz, Josiah and so many others.  These names confuse everyone, I think.

I don't think the jumble of names should make this section harder for my readers to understand the big picture, though.  In my opinion, it is not very important to remember the particular genealogies of these two kingdoms, except to remember a few of the more important kings.  There are more important things happening that are easy to remember and understand: namely, the gradual decline of both Israel and Judah, which I mentioned in my introduction to 2 Kings.

We've already seen the process beginning as Aram pillages Jerusalem and takes territory from the northern kingdom Israel.  Hazael fulfills the prophecy that Elisha made about him, that he would destroy the towns of Israel and slay and imprison their people.  In this chapter, Elisha prophesies relief, that Israel would strike the Arameans and defeat them several times, but like Elisha says in v. 19, this is only going to be a temporary victory for Israel.  They will defeat the Arameans several times, but in later times the Arameans will rise up once more and threaten Israel again.

Another thing I keep in mind when reading these chapters is the parade of "evil" kings.  There are a handful of kings who are called good, but the majority of them do "evil in the sight of the LORD" and worship idols.  This is a critical part of the narrative because we are intended to see the relationship between the moral decline of Israel's kings and their political decline at the hands of the foreign powers around them and natural disasters.  This is critical because it establishes the chief narrative of the book of Kings: as Israel and Judah both delve into idolatry, God punishes them by casting them into poverty and distress and ultimately exile from the nation.  It is the progression of God's curse in Deuteronomy 28 and that is exactly the point of this book.

In this chapter, Jahoahaz does evil, but in v. 4 he appeals to the LORD and is granted relief.  Nevertheless, Israel continues in idolatry through his lifetime and the lifetime of his son Jehoash, and then a second Jeroboam becomes king.  Yes, another king of Israel named Jeroboam, because this story was not yet confusing enough.  From now on, Jeroboam son of Nabat is the "original" Jeroboam, and Jeroboam son of Jehoash is the "second" Jeroboam, or Jeroboam II.

Verse 12 implies to us that the alliance between Judah and Israel is over (at least for the moment) because Jehoash is now fighting wars against Amaziah.  This is probably what God intended when he selected Jehu to become king over Israel, ending Ahab's dynasty.

In verse 14, Joash (the king of Israel mentioned in v. 10, not the King Joash of Judah from 2 Kings 12 - that's right, there are two Joashs), uses the expression "my father, my father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel".  It's not clear to me if Joash is familiar with the biblical narrative (which may have been written down in the annals of the king of Israel), or perhaps this expression is some kind of aphorism that would have been commonly known.  Either way, this expression is a reference to what Elisha said in 2 Kings 2:12 when Elijah is taken up to heaven.  In Elisha's case, he is alluding to Elijah being the "power" of Israel, the way that horses and chariots are the power of an army, while more directly referencing the burning horses and chariots of heaven that are taking Elijah up into heaven.

In this case, there are no burning chariots and Elisha will in fact die on earth.  Joash nonetheless calls Elisha the "horses and chariots" of Israel.  In spite of his own idolatry, Joash knows enough about Elisha to respect him as a prophet and one who has helped Israel.

In this story, Elisha has king Joash perform two prophetic acts (prophetic in the sense that his actions are meant to serve as metaphors for what God would do through him).  The first was to shoot an arrow, the "arrow of victory", and the second was to strike the ground with a bunch of arrows.  When Elisha asks him to do these things, he is asking Joash to act in faith that as he follow Elisha's directions, that God would honor him by fulfilling his need for deliverance.  These prophetic acts are comparable to the time that Elisha threw salt in the spring of water and made it clean (2 Kings 2:21).  It's not salt itself that purifies water, it is the act of obedience to God's spirit and acting in faith towards God that causes God to respond with deliverance.

In this case, Joash obeys by shooting the arrow, but when told to strike the ground he strikes it three times and then seems to get confused or awkward or something and he stops, waiting for Elisha to tell him what to do.  Elisha rebukes Joash because if he had acted with greater faith, he would have received a greater miracle because every time he struck the ground became a victory over Aram.  The extent of Joash's faith became the extent of his victories; since he had faith at all, he received three victories, but if he had greater faith, he would have destroyed Aram entirely.  In verse 25 this promise is fulfilled as Joash has three victories over Aram.

After Elisha dies, he performs his last miracle by having his very bones raise a man from the dead.  In general, human bones are a source of ceremonial uncleanliness according to the law.  What this shows is a reversal of the normal pattern: normally bones make you unclean, but because Elisha was a holy man, the spirit of God still lingering on his body after his death is enough to raise someone from the dead.