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.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 12

In this chapter, Joash repairs the temple.

Continuing with what I said in the previous chapter, verse 2 tells us that Joash does what is right for as long as Jehoiada the priest was alive to instruct him.  In my opinion, Joash is a nominal power and Jehoiada is the real power, since Joash obeys Jehoiada.

Even though Joash is a righteous king and Jehoiada instructs him, v. 3 tells us that the high places are not taken away.  It's not entirely clear if these high places are used to worship the LORD or worship other gods of the land, but regardless of that, the people were commanded in the Law of Moses to only offer sacrifices at the temple, so the high places are a violation of that command.  Even in times of revival, like during the reign of Joash, there is still this persistent sin that almost never goes away: for nearly all of Israel and Judah's history, their obedience to the Law is never complete and total.

Beginning in verse 4, we learn that Joash wishes to repair the damage to the temple.  To me, this comes as a bit of a surprise.  In the simplest terms, what it means is that the temple has been damaged and has fallen into disrepair.  How is this possible?  The very fact that the temple needs to be repaired means that the people of Jerusalem have not been maintaining it, which by itself indicates the dire condition of their faith.

We know that Athaliah was a worshiper of Baal, so it's possible this is her fault as she reigned for six years, but I think it's likely that the temple was beginning to fall into disrepair at least in Ahaziah's reign, since Ahaziah was heavily influenced by Athaliah and his alliance with Joram.

Regardless of when it began, the decay that has beset the temple of God merely imitates the decay in the faith of Israel: if they had loved God and sought to keep his commands, it is only natural that they would have protected and preserved the temple.  Like it says in 2 Samuel 7:2, David desired to build a temple for God, because he wanted to honor God and secure God's house in the middle of their nation.  In this chapter, we see the opposite when the people neglect the temple of God because they neglect and ignore the God who lives in that temple.

Nevertheless, Joash attempts to turn that around by repairing the temple and he commissions the priests to collect offerings to repair the temple.  What we discover in verse 6 is that the priests had been very effective at collecting money (isn't everyone?) but not effective at spending it on repairing the temple.  It's more likely that the priests were spending the money on their own livelihood, and that's why king Joash commands them to stop collecting money.  Instead, the money is placed in a box where it can be counted and tracked by the "king's scribe", i.e. a royal official not associated with the priesthood.  What had happened to date was the priests collecting money but then spending it on their own personal needs, i.e. theft.  At this point, the king is demanding to have one of his own officials oversee the repairs so that they actually happen.

If it's a bad thing that the temple drifted into disrepair, it's even worse when the priests who are supposed to be collecting money to repair the temple take that money and spend it on themselves, rather than fulfill their duty.  In the short term this isn't a problem because when a righteous king like Joash is in charge, he can take over the project and make sure it happens.  But in the long term, having a priesthood more dedicated to their own personal comfort and wealth than the temple that they ostensibly serve is a grim omen for Judah's future with God.  If the priests cannot keep their faith, what hope is there for the laity to stay true to God?

Verse 16 is not a problem, it simply tells us that the money from sin and guilt offerings goes to the priests, which is okay because that money is dedicated to them as their assigned portion in the Law of Moses.  Rashi tells us that the priests would spend that excess money to purchase burnt offerings, so even this money the priests would not take for themselves.

The problem was that verse 4 is talking about several other kinds of religious collections, including the "assessment" (Exodus 30:13), a small annual tax, and freewill offerings (voluntary offerings that could be made at any time).  These offerings were given to the priests so that they could in turn spend the money on repairing the temple, but they did not.

After Joash takes over the temple repairs, it sounds like they go off well and everything works out.  Verse 17 jumps to a different story, long after the temple repairs, and tells us that when Hazael (whom Elisha anointed to be king of Aram) comes to attack Jerusalem, Joash bribes him to leave by giving him all the gold and "sacred things" from God's temple.  The author of Kings does not include any moral commentary on this passage, but it should set off immediate red flags in our minds because Joash is literally emptying out the temple in order to pay off someone who was attacking him.  This is an act of profound faithlessness.  Why does Joash not trust God to protect him and destroy his enemies?  This is a remarkable and distressing change of character from what we had seen of Joash so far.  Joash, who reigned so well "all his days in which Jehoiada the priest instructed him", appears to have fallen apart tragically after Jehoiada died.  What this shows is that not only was Jehoiada a major power behind Joash's throne, he was also Joash's moral and religious backbone.  As soon as Jehoiada died, Joash appeared to have lost his faith in God.  Joash goes from repairing the temple to pillaging it.

In verse 20, things go from bad to worse.  Joash tries emptying out the temple to buy safety, but ultimately finds that safety apart from faith in God cannot buy what he seeks.  While he can buy off a foreign king, he cannot buy off his own men, who assassinate him.  A tragic end to a king who did well in his earlier years.

The moral?  Nobody can get through life depending on the faith of another person to carry you through.  In my opinion, everyone must develop their own faith in God.  It is possible to depend on someone else's faith for a particular time or season, like a crutch, but just like a crutch it has to be temporary.  If you cling to a crutch and use it your whole life, that dependency can actually make you weaker over time.  I think it's pretty clear that Joash was depending on Jehoiada's faith and wisdom to guide him and he never developed his own.  As soon as Jehoiada died, Joash collapsed spectacularly, impoverishing his nation and losing his own life in short order.  We can only hope that his son will do better.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 11

In this chapter, Athaliah claims the throne and is unseated by the legitimate king, Joash.

Verse 1 starts off on a dramatic note.  After Jehu kills Ahaziah, who was the king of Judah, Ahaziah's mother kills all of the other "royal offspring", basically anyone who could inherit the throne.  The first question we have to address is why Athaliah would do this, since we do not have an obvious motive.  Here is my guess at an answer.  Athaliah's husband, Joram, likely had many wives and sons from these other women.  It is probable that Athaliah only had a single son with Joram, Ahaziah, who became king.  When Ahaziah died, it's possible that the throne would have passed to another one of Joram's sons and not a descendant of Athaliah.  We know from verse 2 that Ahaziah had a surviving son, who seems like a logical choice for the next king, but it's possible that it would have gone to Ahaziah's oldest brother instead of his son, in which case Athaliah's dynasty would be over.

However, given that Athaliah appears intent on killing Joash as well, it seems that Athaliah may have simply been interested in taking the throne for herself with no intent to build a dynasty of any kind.

A second thing to note in this chapter is how the rough-and-tumble Israelite (northern kingdom) politics is starting to infiltrate Judah (southern kingdom) now that a king of Judah married a woman from Israel.  In the past book or so, what we saw in Judah was a long sequence of orderly succession with the kingship passing from father to son.  In Israel, there have been numerous coups, often involving the murder of the entire family, relatives and friends of the previous king.  Athaliah has clearly been raised in that kind of culture, and takes Ahaziah's death as an excuse to start murdering children that could potentially oppose her.  Besides the idolatry, this is another reason why Judah's alliance with Israel is such a bad idea.

From verse 2 we can see that Athaliah is not sparing even her own grandchildren.  However, one of Ahaziah's sons is hidden in the temple, which is a safe place from Athaliah both because the temple has regulations against non-Levites from entering it and because Athaliah worships Baal and is unlikely to even want to go to the temple.

In verse 4 we can see the amount of secrecy required because if Athaliah heard that Joash was still alive, not only would she go and kill Joash but probably also kill the priests who have been protecting him.  Nevertheless, Joash is made king, and when Athaliah arrived at the temple she is immediately put to death.  Athaliah was definitely a supporter of Baal worship, and after her death the people follow Jehoiada and destroy the temple of Baal.  Jehoiada is a priest of the LORD, so that's why he is the instigator of many policies in favor of the LORD's temple over Baal.  For instance, in v. 17 it tells us that he first establishes a covenant between the people and the LORD, and then secondly with the king.  It is almost certainly at Jehoiada's urging that the people go and destroy their altars to Baal.

In the very last verse, we learn that Joash is seven years old when he becomes king, which explains why most of the action is directed by Jehoiada.  Indeed, for most of Joash's kingship he is going to operate with considerable guidance and oversight from the older statesmen and priests who surround him.  More than almost any other king, Joash's kingship is defined by the people in power around him, rather than the king himself.  Since it was Jehoiada who made Joash king, Jehoiada will end up being one of the most (if not the most) influential person through all of Joash's reign.  For a similar story, see 2nd Samuel chapters two and three.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 10

In this chapter, Jehu kills all the descendants of Ahab and all the priests and prophets of Baal.

Having killed Joram, Jehu now faced the still-considerable risk of trying to consolidate power in the northern kingdom by establishing the allegiance of all the people, beginning with Samaria. Just like in the previous chapter, Jehu seems to command such a threatening presence that everyone instantly submits to him.  It's remarkable to see the kind of power or charisma that Jehu brings with him.

From what I can tell, Jehu commanded most, if not all, of the army, and even if Samaria had resisted him, he probably would have been victorious if things had turned to open warfare. But civil wars are dangerous to everyone involved because it becomes a question of allegiance rather than sheer military strength, and allegiance can quickly sway. Indeed, the men are now joining Jehu, but things could just as quickly turn against Jehu, and that’s why Jehu is trying to attack quickly and aggressively to take control of the nation before anyone can organize resistance against him. Jehu seems to be going with a shock-and-awe strategy of killing all of his opponents or potential opponents and then threatening and bullying everyone else into submission.

Jehu’s plan seems to work. The leaders of Samaria agree to kill all the sons of Ahab and bring their heads to Jezreel. In verse 9, Jehu uses this to draw the leaders of Samaria into his conspiracy. He says that previously, he killed Joram and Ahaziah and everyone else was innocent of those murders. But when the leaders of Samaria agreed to kill the sons of Ahab, they made themselves guilty of bloodshed and accomplices in Jehu’s insurrection. By making these other men guilty of bloodshed, they had in effect tied themselves to Jehu’s fate. If the household of Ahab or men loyal to Ahab retake power, they would almost definitely kill the leaders of Samaria for betraying the descendants of Ahab.

In verse 11, Jehu killed all the men who were associated in any way with Ahab to prevent exactly that kind of retaliation. Even more dramatically, in verse 14 he is willing to kill anyone associated with Ahaziah who were going to visit Jezebel. Jezebel was already dead, but the people in other cities had not heard about it, which gives us an indication of how quickly Jehu is operating in these chapters.

What should we think about Jehu? Is he demonstrating “zeal for the LORD” like he claims in v. 16, or is he acting violently and excessive out of personal ambition? The author of Kings does not criticize him, but later books in the bible (particularly the prophet Hosea) criticize Jehu for the "massacre of Jezreel", referring to one or more of the massacres in this chapter. We know that Jehu was commanded to kill the entire family of Ahab, but he also kills Ahab’s friends and counselors, as well as a large portion of the family of Ahaziah.  In my opinion, this is a logical extension of what God commanded him to do, but also perhaps beyond his proper scope. Killing the prophets and priests of Baal certainly indicates a zeal for the LORD. Because of that, I think that Jehu is indeed zealous for the LORD when we take his entire recorded life into consideration. However, verses 30-31 express both optimism and reservations about Jehu’s actions. God commends him for destroying the house of Ahab, but only giving him the kingdom for four generations.  We also learn that Jehu never removes the golden calf idols that were set up by Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, which is mentioned to show that Jehu's devotion is not complete.

The God of Israel demands purity of worship and devotion. He never has, and never will, be okay with idolatry in any form. However, because the idols have been in Israel for nearly the entire time this nation has existed as a separate polity from the southern kingdom, it’s obvious that, in this historical time period, worshiping the idols is part of the basic religious framework of life in Israel. At least to me, this makes Jehu’s behavior excusable; in my opinion, he simply doesn’t know any better than to worship the golden calves. I think Jehu’s zeal for the LORD is genuine, and I believe Jehu is worshiping the golden calves out of genuine ignorance to God’s commandments. I can’t prove it, but that’s my personal opinion.

In my own life and in modern society, there are all kinds of metaphorical “golden calves”, cultural idols that have persisted from time immemorial and ensnare people into subtle sinful patterns. These are not things that we choose, as much as they are things we are raised in and taught as if no other kind of world were possible. This isn’t really an excuse, but it is an explanation. God does not countenance us serving the idols of our time, but in a certain way I think it is possible (and perhaps, common) for people to have a sincere, passionate devotion for God that can coexist for a time with this almost subconscious idolatry. Now, in the long run idolatry and worship of God will always be conflicted, one warring against the other, just as much as Elijah adjured Israelite society of his day to cease swaying between two opinions and to choose between serving Baal and serving the LORD.  But for a time, it is possible even for people who would (in the long run) choose God and destroy the idols in their lives.

Again, I am not seeking to excuse or justify idolatry, but to draw a distinction that sometimes exists between overt idolatry, when a person chooses idolatry and lives in it actively, and this kind of passive idolatry that can diffuse through society and into the lives of all, even people who are trying to be devoted to the LORD. In my personal opinion, I think Jehu is the latter case, a man who is zealous for the LORD but was ensnared by the enduring culture of idolatry that existed in his nation at that time.  The question for many people in not whether they have idols in their lives, but how they respond when God tries to root those idols out.

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 9

In this chapter, Jehu murders the kings of Israel and Judah.

This chapter is the conclusion of God’s command to Elijah in 1 Kings 19. God commanded Elijah to anoint Elisha (which happened immediately), Hazael (which happened in the previous chapter) and Jehu, which happens in this chapter. Jehu, for his part, wipes out the entire existing leadership of both the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah, severing the political and marital union between the house of Ahab and the descendants of Jehoshaphat.

What we saw in the previous couple chapters (but particularly 2 Kings 8) was the Baal worship spreading from Israel south into Judah. Though we can’t be sure, I am guessing that God chose this time to wipe out the kings of both nations in order to reverse this process and preserve Judah from the idolatrous influence of their northern siblings, at least for some time.

Minor note: the Jehoshaphat in v. 2 is a different man from the Jehoshaphat who was king of Judah. There are many people in the bible who share the same name, just as today when there are many Davids and Johns and so forth. I will try to clarify these cases when I can, since the names certainly can be confusing to first-time bible readers.

Anyway, verses 1-3 convey to me both a sense of haste and secrecy. Elisha sends a young man from the company of the prophets because Elisha himself is an old man by this time and would not have been able to run. Elisha is acting like a man who is about to set off a pack of explosives. He is telling this young man to go and act as secretly as possible, and then instantly flee back to where they are presently stationed (which is not mentioned in this chapter). I’m not sure where Elisha lives. In this book he is described (at various times) being in Gilgal, Dothan and Samaria. He is almost certainly in the northern kingdom somewhere, and wherever that happens to be Elisha is clearly expecting immediate retribution or conflict, so he is trying to protect himself and the other prophets by getting this over as quickly as possible. In retrospect, this seems like a wise decision since Jehu immediately initiates a coup against Joram.

Verses 5 and 11 are pretty funny. In verse 5, the prophet goes and says he has a message for Jehu, and it’s as if Jehu is in such disbelief he asks the man to repeat himself. In verse 11, even after receiving the prophecy Jehu is actually dismissive of the prophecy and tries to keep it secret, except that his men insist he shares it with him, and when he does, they immediately declare their allegiance to him.

Broad question here: why did Jehu’s men so quickly declare that they want Jehu to be king, when Jehu himself is acting like he’s not sure he wants to take the job? The text doesn’t really give us an answer to that question, so the best we can do is guess based on previous coups. One common factor is tribal allegiance. If Jehu is from the same tribe or clan as the troops under his command and Joram is not, then they may side with Jehu over Joram. A second possible factor is the ongoing conflict with Aram. Verses 14-15 tells us that Joram had been defending Ramoth Gilead against Aram, and Jehu and his men were there as part of the conflict with Aram. If the troops feel like Joram is an incompetent commander and risking their lives, they could support a coup against him for that reason. Remember that in this time, kings were as much generals as political figures and were expected to lead their nation’s army in battle. Israel had certainly been suffering in battle; they had survived against the Arameans so far, through God’s intervention, but had certainly been defeated many times and were now besieged once more. Personal charisma is another possible factor (Joram may simply be an unpleasant person). Lastly, coups are often decided by whether people think they will be successful, so maybe the army officers think that Jehu is capable of unseating Joram. Regardless of the specific reasons, what we know is that most (if not all) of the army sides with Jehu.

In verse 17 and following, Joram appears to suspect trouble, since his first response on seeing men coming towards the city is not to ask if the battle went well, but to ask if they come in peace. He sends two separate messengers to ask this question, and then then goes himself to ask Jehu if he comes in peace or war. You don’t ask that question unless you think both of those are possibilities. Joram seems to be frozen by indecision, however, because even though he suspects trouble, it’s not until he is face to face with Jehu that he realizes he is betrayed, and by then it is too late.

Again though, we see two messengers go out to Jehu and when Jehu implied his betrayal of Joram, both messengers “fell in behind him”, joining the coup. Similar to the army officers, we are not told why they are disallusioned towards Joram, but we can see that Jehu has this almost magnetic power drawing all the men of Israel behind him.

Even though Jehu’s main target is Joram and the family of Ahab, he kills Ahaziah as well. Ahaziah is arguably part of the family of Ahab because he is the grandson of Ahab through his mother Athaliah. Besides that, Ahaziah is a political ally of Joram and extending Baal worship into Judah, which also possibly makes him a fair target for Jehu. Perhaps even more than that, Jehu might have anticipated that Ahaziah would have rallied the men of Israel against him if Ahaziah had escaped, so it’s possible that Jehu killed Ahaziah to cut off any possible antagonists against his kingship.

Lastly, Jehu kills Jezebel for the same reasons (she is part of the family of Ahab, a Baal worshiper, and a possible political opponent).

In verse 31, Jezebel is not mistaking Jehu for another person. She is making an allusion to Zimri, who killed Elah and briefly ruled Israel in 1 Kings 16:10.

In verse 32, we see that Jehu’s magnetic power extended even to court officials and the servants of Jezebel, who were willing to throw their mistress to her death.

In both the death of Joram and in the death of Jezebel, Jehu makes references to prophecies concerning them, which shows that even though he did not seem to take the prophet seriously in verse 11, once he got the ball rolling and started killing people, he quickly adopted himself as a weapon of judgment on Ahab, his family and his political allies. Of course, Jehu remembers correctly (Ahab’s son, Joram, was condemned to death in 1 Kings 21:29 and Jezebel was condemned to death in 1 Kings 21:23).

All things considered, Jehu is a bit hard to analyze in this chapter given his tepid initial reaction and “driving like a madman” behavior once he gets going.  This is a remarkable transition.  In addition, he is dismissive of the young prophet at first, but towards the end he is quoting prophecies of the LORD himself, demonstrating what appears to be a zeal for the LORD as he claims. I’m not exactly sure what to think about this.