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.

No comments: