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.