Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 23

In this chapter, Joash becomes king and Athaliah dies.

This chapter marks the end of Judah's political alliance with Israel.  Beginning with Jehoshaphat, Judah has been led by a succession of leaders that were either related to, or led by, a northern figure.  This has resulted in a strong shift towards idolatry and away from worshiping the LORD.  It also nearly resulted in the extinction of the Davidic family line when Athaliah nearly murdered all of Ahaziah's children in the previous chapter.

I see the uprising in this chapter as more of a counter-revolution than anything else.  Athaliah came in and upended the existing political and religious order by overthrowing both the Davidic dynasty and temple worship, and now those two forces are coming back to overthrow her in turn.  This revolution is centered around two individuals: the young king Joash and the high priest Jehoiada, who represent the Davidic dynasty and the temple worship system respectively.  Since Joash is still only seven years old, his role in these events is entirely passive and symbolic.  Jehoiada is clearly the mastermind here, and it's also clear that he is acting to preserve his own power and role in society as Judah's religious leader.  We see a fusion of royal and religious symbolism throughout this chapter, perhaps most clearly in verses 10-11 when Joash is taken out of the temple, crowned king, anointed, and given a copy of the law.

On the other side of the revolution are queen Athaliah and Mattan, the high priest of Baal.  These figures also represent a royal and religious force, respectively, with Athaliah representing the northern domination of Judah that began in the time of Jehoshaphat, and Mattan represents the Baal worship system.  Just as Jehoiada intermingles Joash's royal mandate with religious symbolism, we should also view Athaliah and Mattan as two sides of the same coin.  Athaliah definitely came into power with the intention of establishing Baal worship in the land, just as Baal worship is endemic to the northern kingdom Israel, so I think that Athaliah and Mattan are part of the same axis of power.  It should not surprise us, therefore, that Athaliah's downfall swiftly results in Mattan's death as well, since their fates were intertwined.

We can view this conflict as a battle between the traditional order of power (in Jehoiada and Joash) and the new order (of Athaliah and Mattan).  Stuck between these two opposing forces are the people.  In this story, I don't think the people are entirely passive, but almost.  I mean, Athaliah reigned for over six years.  Did the people support Athaliah?  If they didn't, why did they not overthrow her themselves?  If they did support Athaliah, why did they turn so quickly against her when Jehoiada anointed a new king?  I'm really struggling to figure out what the people thought about being ruled by Athaliah.  Obviously the people turned against her in an instant, but it's not clear to me if that's because there was some underlying resentment against Athaliah or if it's just indifference.  I've thought about it a lot and I just don't know.

This episode reminds me of a previous story from 1 Kings 1 when Adonijah tried to make himself king instead of Solomon.  In that case, David did not respond by sending soldiers to attack Adonijah.  Rather, he responded to Adonijah's coronation ceremony by throwing an even bigger coronation ceremony for Solomon.  It was basically a battle of perception: whoever convinced more people that they were the rightful king would become the actual king.

In this story, Jehoiada has a similar strategy.  He doesn't try to attack Athaliah personally, even though he had several hundred men under his command with weapons.  Instead, he first intends to crown Joash as king in order to win the hearts and minds of the people over to his side.  It's only after the people are praising and rejoicing at the new king that Jehoiada turns on Athaliah herself to have her put to death, along with Mattan.

The end result is that Joash becomes the new king at the ripe, young age of seven.  In the next chapter, we will see what kind of king this young man becomes.

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