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.