Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 9

In this chapter, Ezra discovers that the people are intermarrying with other peoples and prays to confess his guilt before the LORD.

We are nearing the conclusion of the book of Ezra.  In fact, this particular story arc (relating to intermarriage with foreigners) constitutes the subject of both this chapter and the next chapter, which is the last chapter in the book.

As with every book in the bible, I think it is helpful for us to understand the author’s bias and intentions when reading it.  For many books (like Kings and Chronicles) we do not know who is the author, but with Ezra we do, and I think that can help guide our interpretation.  As I previously discussed, Ezra is a scribe with a special focus on guiding Judah to do “the right thing”, i.e. living in obedience to the Law of Moses and the commands of David.

The majority of this book is Ezra’s descriptions of what happened during the restoration before he personally returned to Jerusalem.  We see Ezra place a special focus on the reconstruction of the temple and the Passover.  Now that Ezra has arrived in Jerusalem, we see him continue in the same pattern where I believe he is still focused on ensuring that Judah obeys the Law, but now he’s in a position to influence events.  Intermarriage with foreigners might seem like a much more mundane detail than the rest of the book, but I think it’s included for two reasons.  First, while it may be subtle, I think intermarriage with foreigners is an existential threat to Judah.  Second, I think it’s included because it is a meaningful example of Ezra’s responsibilities in the nascent community.  Ezra does not have a firm conclusion at the end of the book, which suggests that it may not have been intended to end here.  It’s possible that Ezra planned to continue appending to his journal but for whatever reason he was unable to do so.  Either way, I think the book of Ezra is still an excellent (if short) account of the early transitional period when Judah was returning to the promised land and some of the challenges they faced during that time.

There are a few questions I want to ask, and then subsequently answer.

First, why did the elders approach Ezra to tell him about this?  I think from this passage we can infer that Ezra was considered an authority figure in the community.  Besides having a letter from the king himself, he is also leading an expedition of nearly 1,000 men to Jerusalem.  It would appear that Ezra is one of the elders of the community.

Second, why is it such an important issue for Judeans to be intermarrying with foreigners, that it is the first thing brought up to Ezra when he settles in the land?  Previously I described this as an existential threat, which is pretty strong language but I think it’s deserved in this case.  In essence, if they intermarry with non-Judeans, it threatens to undermine the cohesion and culture of the Jewish community.  Since they are outnumbered, they risk being absorbed into the larger Middle eastern society in which they exist.  I think this is a real threat.  We have already seen the almost gravitational pull of idolatry from the surrounding peoples luring both Israel and Judah into sin, and intermarriage with foreigners is a simple continuation of that same threat.

It’s a strange thing, because in modern society intermarriage can often be positioned as a good thing.  Interracial marriage, inter-cultural marriage, are considered positive values by many people.  Nobody dies, nobody is hurt, in fact these are voluntary marriages so nobody is being forced into it.  I think it’s a subtle thing; if you want to keep people alive, then sure, intermarriage is completely fine.  However, if you want to keep a culture alive, then there are real reasons why you would seek to keep your culture as isolated as possible from the surrounding forces, especially when your culture is a minority in the region, which is the case here.  Since we can see that Ezra’s driving purpose is to maintain the purity of Judah’s faith and devotion to the LORD, his abhorrence of intermarriage with foreigners is a natural result of that attitude.

Lastly, Ezra’s prayer constitutes the majority of this chapter, and I don’t have too much to say about it.  I think the language is striking, particularly Ezra’s focus on Judah’s sin and God’s mercy to them through the restoration.  In fact, it’s not even a prayer as many people regard prayers, because Ezra does not ask the LORD for anything, it is simply a confession of God’s great mercy and their guilt and sin both before and after that mercy.  I think Ezra’s prayer is a concise statement of what he personally thinks about this entire period of their history.  After passing through the great trauma of the exile, Judah is now entering a period of tremendous hope; to them, the blessing and favor of God is evident through the kind treatment they are receiving from their Persian rulers.  Ezra does not see this as variance in Judah’s relationship with the Persians, he clearly sees events in their history as a reflection of Judah’s relationship with the LORD, and it is the ups and downs of their relationship with the LORD that governs the political reality faced by Judah.  Ezra sees great hope in the restoration, and he is legitimately afraid that Judah is going to mess it up by continuing to sin against the LORD.

In the next chapter, we see Ezra’s response to this great sin.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 8

In this chapter, Ezra describes the men who traveled with him to Jerusalem and the temple offering they brought.

This chapter reveals Ezra to be the proper scribe that he is, with a long list of names and numbers.  Jewish scribes have a well-earned reputation for being precise and detail-oriented, and Ezra is no exception.

I would also like my readers to note how Ezra shifts from third person to first person.  In fact he begins speaking in the first person after finishing the king’s letter (see. Ezra 7:28), but before that he wrote his own introduction in the third person.  I think the first person section strongly indicates that this book was indeed written by a historical Ezra, and at the same time it shows that sometimes authors in the OT write about themselves in the third person, which may be relevant when assigning authorship to the later prophetic books.

In verses 2-14, Ezra lists first the clan (or family) and then the family patriarch and number of men from that family who were returning.  The number of men adds up to just about 1,000 (including women and children, we could expect the total to be around 2500-3000).  On the one hand, to my modern mind, this sounds like a large group.  I’ve gone on roadtrips with 3-4 people before so the thought of traveling with over 2,000 people seems like a lot to me.  On the other hand, this is a very different kind of world they lived in.  Remember that the journey took four months and they were traveling through a much more dangerous world than you usually find today. Sadly, it would probably be about as dangerous for 3,000 Jews to travel (on foot) through Iran and Iraq as it was for Ezra and his compatriots 2,500 years ago.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lastly, I would also like to point out that the size of the group returning with Ezra is much smaller than the number of returning exiles documented in Ezra 2.  In that case the number totaled around 50,000 (Ezra 2:64-65).  It appears that all of the most willing and capable men left with the first group and the other, following groups are smaller.

Verse 15 is a fascinating observation.  Ignoring demographic questions for now, one obvious implication is that the Levites are somehow much less motivated to return to the promised land than “the people and the priests”.  My NIV bible notes suggested that the Levites may have had some advantageous economic situation in Babylon and that returning to Jerusalem would have reduced their standard of living.  It’s certainly interesting that out of 1,000 returning men, Ezra was only able to find 38 Levites (v. 18-19).

The other side of this verse is that Ezra finds the Levites essential and basically refuses to leave without them.  Why is Ezra so determined to bring Levites with him?  It is because Ezra, as a scribe, is trying to get things “right”.  I am guessing that Ezra has some kind of vision for what temple ministry done correctly looks like, and he is trying to make sure that this vision is fulfilled.  1 Chronicles 23-26 lays out a structure for how temple ministry should be carried out, and the role of the Levites in particular is given in 1 Chron 23.  I believe that Ezra was familiar with the text of Chronicles and was intending to follow those regulations as his organizing principle behind temple ministry.

Remember the role of the scribe is to study, practice and teach the Law.  While the Law of Moses takes supremacy in the heart of every religious Jew, anything commanded by David would have also been regarded as authoritative.  Since David created an exclusive role for the Levites in temple ministry, obeying the commands of David would require Ezra to have Levites with him for temple services*.

Verses 21-23 show more directly the dangerous nature of Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem.  This is one of the most important reasons why Ezra (and the other Jews) traveled in such large groups, because it was simply safer to go in larger groups than smaller ones.  Even with a group of around 1,000 men Ezra is still concerned about their safety and they fast and pray for a safe journey.

Verses 24 and onwards focuses on the offering of gold and silver that was given by the king, the royalty and the people of Judah in exile.  The emphasis in this chapter was on the responsibility of the men administrating the offering.  The money is weighed while they are in exile and then weighed again when they reach Jerusalem.  Therefore any loss or theft would be noticeable and the priests and Levites who carried the offering would have been held accountable.

While Ezra documents all of his precautions for their safe travel and the offering, apparently everything goes smoothly.  Everyone arrives safely in Jerusalem and the offering is also fully accounted upon arrival.  Once again I would say that Ezra appears to be detail-oriented and a responsible steward towards everything under his care, and he is successful because of it.

In the next chapter, Ezra faces his first challenge in Jerusalem, when he discovers that the people had been intermarrying with foreigners.

*One counterpoint here is that Levites had most likely gone with Jerubbabel and Jeshua as part of the first group of returning exiles.  This means that Ezra bringing Levites with him was not strictly necessary, but I still feel like Ezra’s primary motivation was adherence to David’s ordinances.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 7

In this chapter, Ezra returns to Jerusalem from exile.

This chapter has two main sections.  The first section is Ezra’s autobiography and the second section is King Artaxerxes’s letter of authorization for Ezra.  I will discuss these two sections in turn.

Beginning with Ezra’s biography, from his genealogy (v. 1-5) we see that Ezra is a priest, a descendant of Aaron and perhaps more interestingly, a descendant of Zadok.  In the book of Chronicles, Zadok showed up several times as a prominent figure in the story, and I suggested at the time that it was because the descendants of Zadok may have been increasingly important in the post-exilic era when Chronicles was written.  What we see here is that Ezra, one of the authors of the post-exilic histories, is himself a descendant of Zadok.  According to Jewish tradition, Chronicles was also written by Ezra which if it were true, would help to explain the bias in Chronicles towards the priestly line of Zadok, though that bias could also be explained by other factors so I don’t think it necessarily indicates Ezra’s authorship.

We also see that Ezra is a scribe, which is something I mentioned in the introduction.  I am very interested in learning about the scribal class, because the Jewish scribes are the secret hands behind the OT.  Think about it: how many books have we read where we do not know the author?  Basically all of them?  Especially for the histories like Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, many books in the OT do not have a specific author and it may not even be possible that they had a single author when the book spans over more than a hundred years of time.  Behind every book in the OT there is a lineage of scholars who wrote, guarded and transmitted the book down from generation to generation until it reached the present day.

As in the case of Ezra, many of these scholars would have been passionate individuals who dedicated their lives to study the Law, practice it and teach it to others.  While many of them lived and died without recognition in modern times, they did not live without making a difference.  In fact, I would suspect that many of the scholars who curated the biblical books did not have realized how their diligence to preserve the history of God’s interactions with Israel would change the world.  Without men such as Ezra, who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD”, we might not have the Law with us today and simply put, our knowledge of God and his salvation plan would have been diminished.

Verse 7 also tells us that Ezra went up with priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and “temple servants”.  This is another similarity between the book of Ezra and Chronicles, because Chronicles spent a great deal of space discussing the various components of the temple ministry (see e.g. 1 Chron 9, 26).  Since all of these groups of people were involved with the temple ministry, it is another way of showing Ezra’s focus on the temple ministry as his central mission for traveling to Jerusalem.

That said, I would also like to point out that Ezra returns to Jerusalem after the temple has been finished.  The main people involved with building the temple were Jerubbabel, Jeshua, Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2).  Ezra is coming in a second wave of refugees, and while he writes about the construction of the temple (likely having interviewed sources who were there), he was not himself involved with its construction.

So what was Ezra’s purpose?  Why did he spend four, dangerous months hiking through modern day Iran and Iraq (v. 9)?  Ezra’s immediate purpose is given in the letter from Artaxerxes.  Ezra is being sent on behalf of the king for several reasons: to “inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 14), to bring the king’s offering for the temple (v. 15) and to appoint judges for the Trans-Euphrates province to enforce Jewish religious law on their people.  As such, it appears that Ezra is being placed in a role of local authority, being given power to enforce not only their own Law, but also the laws of the king (v. 26).

While these are the reasons the king sent Ezra, I’m not sure that they are the reasons Ezra went.  I think Ezra went to Jerusalem because firstly, like most other religious Jews, he wanted to return to the land of the covenant with God.  Second, I think Ezra wanted to fulfill his role as a scribe: to instruct the people in Jerusalem and ensure that they are properly obeying the Law of the LORD.

The terms of the letter to Ezra are highly favorable, giving him liberty to collect money as needed from the royal treasury, an offering for the temple, freedom from taxes, and authority to enforce the religious and royal laws.  It’s no wonder that Ezra repeatedly thanks God for his favorable treatment (v. 6, 27, 28).

Ultimately, Ezra is going to Jerusalem to see if the people are properly following the Law.  In the next chapter, we will learn more about Ezra’s companions and journey.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 6

In this chapter, the temple is completed and the exiles celebrate the Passover again.

As we might have expected from the previous chapter, the king once again issues a directive to search the royal archives from the former king Cyrus’s order to rebuild the temple and when he finds it, king Darius orders that Cyrus’s order be fulfilled and he gives further donations for the dedication of the temple and sacrifices on behalf of the king.  Although Cyrus’s exact motivation can be somewhat hard to discern, I think it’s possible that Darius wants to enforce his predecessor’s order because it projects an aura of royal infallibility if different kings never contradict each other.  For instance, in the books of Daniel and Esther there are several times it says that the order of a king may not be repealed.  If a king claims, or even implies, that he made a mistake, then it undermines the notion that the king has a divine mandate to rule.

Once the order is found, it’s very unlikely that Darius will contradict it, but he actually goes further by also commanding for royal support.  The entire cost of the temple is paid out of taxes from the Trans-Euphrates region and additional animal sacrifices as the priests require are also given so long as they pray for the king’s life and reign (v. 10).

On one hand, we can see this as a joyful victory for the Judean exiles.  They have finished the temple and can now offer sacrifices to the LORD.  On the other hand, I think what stands out to me here is how the fate of the Judeans is determined largely by the decisions of their foreign rulers.  While under the authority of a hostile king, the temple is halted, and while under the authority of a friendly king the temple is constructed.  If another king rises up who is hostile to Judah, there is nothing they can do to fight back and control their own destiny.  To be sure, the LORD reigns over the earth and can lead even these foreign kings wherever he wishes, but I think it’s notable how powerless the Jews appear through this story.

The chapter concludes with another Passover service, the first one that we have seen since the Babylonian exile over 70 years ago.

Tangent: It’s possible that this really was the first Passover in a generation, because the statutes generally require Jews to perform all animal sacrifices at the temple.  With the temple destroyed, the Jews may not have sacrificed any animals during the Babylonian exile.  Certainly one of the biggest issues that the rabbis of the Babylonian exile had to resolve was the proper way to follow the Law when the Law itself commands that all sacrifices be performed at the temple.  It’s possible that they could have chosen to build a new tabernacle and offered sacrifices there, but there is no historical evidence that they ever did so.

In modern times Jews do not sacrifice animals on the Passover precisely because there is no modern Jewish temple.  Without a temple, modern orthodox Jewish interpretation of the Law forbids any animal sacrifice for any reason.  A fuller explanation of modern Jewish law is beyond the scope of this post, but I’m just mentioning it because it’s possible the reconstruction of the temple coincides with the restoration of the Jewish festivals and sacrificial offerings.  End tangent.

We have evidence from the bible that the Passover may have been especially significant to the returning exiles in Jerusalem.  The reason we know this is that Kings and Chronicles are two books covering roughly the same time period and they were written before and after the exile respectively.  Therefore we can contrast the structure and focus of these two books to figure out some of the details of how their religious views changed over time.  As a basic first principle, whatever events or topics received greater attention in Chronicles compared to Kings were likely more important to the returning exiles than to the pre-exilic Israelites.

Bringing us back to the topic at hand, the Passovers celebrated during the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah were barely discussed at all in the book of Kings but received extensive coverage in the book of Chronicles (2 Chron 30, 35).  While we certainly have strong evidence that the Passover was celebrated before the exile (since the book of Exodus is clearly pre-exilic), it appears to have taken on a renewed importance during the restoration era.

I can only speculate as to the reasons why, so that is exactly what I am going to do.  My guess is that the post-exilic Jews placed a renewed emphasis on the Passover precisely because it could serve as a connection point to their pre-exilic religious traditions.  Securely placed as the first and most important religious festival in the book of Exodus, it is a logical starting point for rebuilding the temple worship system.

In that sense, Chronicles’ particular focus on the Passover celebrations under Hezekiah and Josiah serves a dual purpose.  The first, obvious purpose is to highlight the historical role of the Passover celebration in Judah’s history in order to affirm the continuing sanctity and relevance of the Passover in the “modern” times of the restoration era when this book was written.  The second, less obvious purpose is that both Hezekiah and Josiah themselves were trying to restore the temple worship system in their own lifetimes, even before the exile.  In that sense, it is actually something that both Hezekiah and Josiah have in common with the returning exiles of the restoration era.

To make my point more directly, what are the three things that the returning exiles have done first?  They built the temple, they initiate the daily sacrificial offerings (v. 9) and they celebrated the Passover.  What were the first three things that Hezekiah did when he became king (2 Chron 29-30)?  He cleansed the temple, began daily sacrifices, and celebrated the Passover.  What were the first three things that Josiah did (2 Chron 34-35)?  He destroyed the altars of Baal, repaired the temple and celebrated the Passover.

It’s almost as if the author of Chronicles was trying to put together a how-to guide for national revival and then the book of Ezra is documenting the Jews of his own time walking through that same process, building the temple and then using the temple as the basis for their sacrificial system and national festivals.

To reiterate my previous point, I believe this same system of temple offerings and national festivals existed before the exile as well, though in many respects it was less centralized (we have considerable evidence that the Israelites worshiped at many different high places, e.g. Gibeon in 1 Kings 3:4).  We also know that when the kingdom was divided between north and south, Jeroboam constructed two idols in the northern kingdom specifically to keep the people from going down to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Therefore in the pre-exilic period, the temple worship system never had the same unifying power as what it attained in the post-exilic period.  I think it was always meant to be a unifying force across all twelve tribes, but for political reasons it simply never happened until after the exile and the complete destruction of the northern kingdom, when, for all intents and purposes, “Israel” simply became “Judah”.  Political unity came through the destruction of the non-Judean tribes, essentially.

I’m writing all this because I really want to give my readers, to the best that we can discern, a sense of what life was like for Ezra and his contemporaries: their struggles, their victories, their hopes and dreams and their self-perception.

The central issue reflected in Chronicles and Ezra is “restoration”.  They are still under the power of the Persians, but they have been granted a certain measure of favor with their masters to go and rebuild their society.  A particular emphasis is placed on rebuilding their religious system in the same way that Hezekiah and Josiah did, following the pattern established by David.  David stands above all others, not only as an embodiment of devotion to the LORD to be emulated, but as a foreshadow to the expected messiah, who would come to free the Judeans from their oppressors and bring about a great deliverance.

Make no mistake about it: the Jews expected that their religious devotion to the LORD would produce an eventual political deliverance from their enemies.  The binary language in Deuteronomy and elsewhere leaves little room for misinterpretation.  It says that if Israel is faithful to obey the LORD’s commands, then they will be set above all other nations, blessed and victorious in every sphere of life (Deut 28:1-14).  In the same way, the LORD threatens to destroy Israel and cast them out of the promised land if they fail to obey the covenant and serve other gods.  The Jews have seen the fulfillment of this second half of the Law when they were taken to Babylon in the exile, and now that they are restoring the temple worship system, there can be no doubt that they are waiting for God to fulfill the first half, blessing them and making them the greatest nation on earth.

Their hope is to be free, to be an independent and great kingdom again.  They hope to have a godly and righteous king to lead them into glory, like David.  They are rebuilding the temple and offering sacrifices to follow the pattern established by David because they want to return to God and be faithful to follow the covenant, which is inextricably tied to their foregoing desire for freedom and blessing.

How do they view themselves?  Obviously, there is a lot of humility and self-deprecation.  They have suffered greatly and blame themselves for bringing it upon themselves by their idolatry.  However, they also see themselves as part of this great tradition, descending from David and Solomon and the other great figures of their past.  Theirs is a humility at their present circumstances but an aspiration for greatness and a belief that they are still a great people.  In a word, the Jews believe they are still “connected”.  They believe that even after everything, they are still connected to their past and through it and through the covenant, they are still connected to God.

Their desire to be free and powerful, their desire for a king like David to come back and lead them to glory; these things do not happen during Ezra’s lifetime.  Instead, Ezra celebrates smaller victories like the “encouragement” of the king of Assyria (i.e. Persia) in v. 22.  For now, many of these greater hopes will be deferred.

I’ve written perhaps longer than I should have, but I think this is important.  I hope my readers understand that these same hopes, dreams and struggles continue until the lifetime of Jesus with only minor adjustments, and that these same expectations powerfully shape the Jews’ reaction to Jesus’s ministry.

In the next chapter, Ezra himself travels to Jerusalem.

Bible Commentary - Ezra 5

In this chapter, the Judeans begin building the temple again and the local officials ask the king a second time if the temple should be permitted.

Having been commanded by the authorities in the previous chapter to not build the temple, the Jews decide in verse 2 that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, so they simply start rebuilding the temple until someone comes again to tell them to stop.  The prophets play a key role as well, encouraging the leaders.  Both Haggai and Zechariah have their own prophetic books amongst the minor prophets, so my readers may wish to read those books while going through Ezra and Nehemiah for the additional perspectives.

There are many parallels between this chapter and the previous one.  In both chapters, the Judeans begin rebuilding the temple.  In both chapters, Persian officials write a letter to the king asking if the Judeans should be permitted to rebuild the city.  The next chapter has the Persian king again searching through the royal archives to find past records about Judah.

In both cases I would also say the king is relatively neutral and detached from the situation in Judah.  Even in the previous chapter I would not say that Artaxerxes showed any real malice towards the Judeans.  Instead, king Artaxerxes’s response was shaped by the tone of the letter that he received and the (real) historical basis in Judah’s rebellions against the Babylonians.

The real difference between these two letters is the reaction of the local Persian authorities.  In the previous chapter, the local authorities were Samaritan men hostile to Judah.  In this chapter, the local Persian governor and other officials seem much more neutral.  Their letter to the king is largely shaped by the response of the Judean elders, who highlight king Cyrus’s (real) order permitting the reconstruction of the temple.  I think the key difference is in verse 5: “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews”.  By the grace of God, the Jews had favor with their local Persian officials and they were able to control the narrative sent to king Darius.  I also think it’s interesting how both letters are able to cite real events in support of opposite conclusions.  Asking the king to confirm Jerusalem’s rebellious history, the enemies of Judah stopped the temple, but now asking the king to confirm Cyrus’s order to rebuild the temple, Judah is on the path to success.

I think it’s peculiar how the enemies of Judah disappear entirely from this chapter.  What happened to them?  Zerubbabel is still the chief leader of the Judeans so it’s not like some huge amount of time has passed, and yet the overt resistance to the Judeans has vanished.  We are not given an explanation for this.  To the Judeans, it is a windfall; they are permitting to renew construction of the temple under the leadership of the prophets and their efforts go unimpeded.

In the next chapter, the king affirms the Judean efforts and the temple is completed.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 4

In this chapter, the enemies of Judah come to obstruct the construction of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.

Before going through the content of this chapter, I want to begin by discussing the nature of these enemies.  Verse 9-10 gives us a broad description of Judah’s enemies.  It appears that their enemies were largely the officials and leaders of the foreign nations that had been exiled into Samaria.  I will give a brief backstory.

During the Assyrian exile, the northern kingdom was destroyed and deported.  As part of that process, the Assyrians also imported a bunch of foreign peoples INTO Samaria to populate the land.  They did this for the same reason that they deported the Israelites: to divide and destabilize the conquered peoples and make it harder for them to rebel and fight back against the Assyrians.  Even though the deportation occurred under the Assyrians, the Babylonians inherited the Assyrian possessions in Samaria when the Assyrians themselves were conquered by the Babylonians, and the Persians took over when they, in turn, conquered the Babylonians.  At the time of this chapter, both the Judeans and the Samaritans are under Persian dominion.  These imported peoples (as verse 9 tells us, they are men from Erech, Babylonians and Elamites) are just as much enemies to the Judeans as the former Israelites had been, though with less of the complex history.

We have to use a bit of inference to guess at the Samaritans’ motivations.  In this case, when the Judeans had been exiled, it had depopulated and opened up this large land to the south that the new Samaritan inhabitants could have gradually expanded into and dominated.  With the return of the exiles, it is possible that a resurgent Judah could have resisted or encroached on the Samaritans interests or territory.  Therefore the conflict in this chapter should be largely understood as a local conflict between these two groups, the Judeans and the Samaritans.

However, the Samaritans realize that they cannot tell this directly to the Persian authorities, because the Persians are largely disinterested between the local interests of their vassal states.  Neither can the Samaritans physically attack the Judeans because they are both vassals of the Persian authorities, who would most likely stomp out the Samaritans if they were fighting against another province of the Persian empire, so military action is largely out of the question for the Samaritans.  Instead, they attack Judah indirectly by claiming that Jerusalem is a rebellious city and insisting that the Persians need to keep the Judeans from rebuilding.  It’s worth mentioning that the “rebellious city” claims are completely true.  Jerusalem rebelled against the Babylonians several times towards the end of the pre-exilic period (see 2 Kings 24:1, 20).  However, I think it’s also clear that this is just a pretext; the Samaritan officials don’t care even slightly that Jerusalem is a “rebellious city”, they are enemies of Judah who are trying to restrain the Judeans to protect their own economic and political interests.  However, this conflict is entirely waged through political maneuvering with the Persian authorities.

Now that my readers understand the nature and intent of Judah’s enemies, I will move on to discuss the rest of the chapter.

In the context of Ezra, while the political conflict between the Samaritans and the Judeans is the backstory and would have been implicitly understood by Ezra’s readers, it is not the immediate purpose for why this story in included in Ezra’s history.  Instead, Ezra is not concerned about the identity of Judah’s adversaries but rather what they represent: in my opinion, the Samaritans stand in for the amorphous “enemies of God” that are fighting to prevent Judah from fulfilling her destiny, similar in function to the hostile tribes that fought against Israel when Joshua led the people into the promised land the first time around.  The Samaritans are an obstacle to be overcome in Judah’s struggle to rebuild the temple and by extension, recover their place in the promised land.

With all that said, the chapter starts off in a strange way with the enemies of Judah offering to help build the temple and the Judeans refusing (v. 2-3).  It’s funny because going from verse 1 to 2, you see these “enemies” offering to help Judah and by verse 4, they are “discouraging” the people from building.  My guess is that the offer to help Judah was some kind of Trojan horse, where the enemies of Judah would perhaps sabotage the temple or use it as a way to get into the land and kill the Judeans in their sleep or something.  I’m not sure exactly what the Samaritans had in mind because the Judeans refused this likely duplicitous offer and we never hear about it again.

Instead, things quickly shift to discouragement and the writing of letters to the Persian authorities.

Here’s another funny thing about this chapter.  In verse 1, the principle listed concern is the construction of the temple.  This is what the enemies of Judah are trying to prevent.  In verses 12-13, the same enemies of Judah warn the king that the people are rebuilding the wall and the foundations of the city.  I.e. they are warning the king about a military threat, that the Judeans are building defensive fortifications as preparation for rebelling against the king again, and telling the king to search the records to see that it is indeed a rebellious city and likely to revolt again.  Note how the temple is not mentioned at all in the letter to the king, yet the wall and city foundations are not mentioned at all in the Samaritans’ earlier concerns.

Going on to verses 23-24, the city walls and foundations vanish again and the Samaritans are specifically stopping the Judeans from rebuilding the temple.  It’s possible that the Judeans were also rebuilding the city wall (and the later book of Nehemiah will give us some evidence about that), and it’s possible that the Samaritans prevented construction of both the wall and the temple, but Ezra focuses entirely on the temple here.

There are two ways to read this discrepancy.  The first is that the Samaritans actually only cared about preventing the construction of the temple, and used Judah’s past rebellions as an excuse to stop it from being rebuilt.  From this perspective, we could say that “rebuilding the city” (v. 13) is framed in a deliberately vague way to include any possible construction in Jerusalem and not limit their complaint to the obviously military purpose of the city wall.  When king Artaxerxes reads the letter, the focus is on “they are building defenses to rebel again”, but when the Samaritans get the king’s response, they can stop any construction they want and immediately go to disrupt the temple.  This interpretation is supported by the Samaritans' earlier statement, "Hey, let us come help build the temple with you."  They would not have been trying to undermine the construction of the temple through that Trojan horse proposal if they did not care about the temple.  This suggests that the Samaritans had a real objective in preventing the temple's completion, though it's political value is unclear to me.

The second way to read this discrepancy is that the Samaritans wanted to stop any construction in the city, that the Judeans actually were building walls and other defensive structures, but that Ezra himself is biased in his focus on the temple rather than the other things that may have been higher priority to the Samaritans.  It would certainly be more rational for the Samaritans to care about the city walls and other things than the temple because the temple does not serve any military function and apart from the symbolic value (more significant to the Judeans than to their enemies), there isn’t any obvious reason why the Samaritans would care about the temple.

In either case, the Samaritans are successful at this time stopping the temple by force.  The Judeans are forced to wait for another time, and in the next chapter we see it is only a change in the ruling king that permits the Judeans to begin construction again.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 3

In this chapter, the community leaders institute the prescribed sacrifices and begin construction of the temple.

When reading this chapter, the overall sense I get from it is that their priorities are very similar to the pattern we see in the lives of Hezekiah and Josiah, who were revivalists during the kingdom era.  For instance, in verses 2-6 we see that the people focus on beginning the regular sacrifices that were given in the Law of Moses.  They are offering these sacrifices on an altar, probably in the temple compound, even before the temple was built.  Afterwards, they gather the materials and begin construction of the temple itself starting in v. 10.

In 2 Chronicles 29, we see Hezekiah institute religious reforms in Judah.  He begins by cleansing the temple and then his first religious act is to offer sacrifices.  2 Chron 31:2-3 confirms that Hezekiah continued with the regular offerings.

We also see emphasis placed on the worship ministry in both Chronicles and in this chapter.  In this chapter, v. 10-11 describe the Levites praised with music and song when the foundation of the temple is laid.  In 2 Chron 29, we see music and singing accompanying the sacrificial offering (2 Chron 29:27-30).

Lastly, this chapter emphasizes the importance of the temple.  In the revival of Hezekiah, the temple is purified of all uncleanness.  In the revival of Josiah, the temple is repaired.  In the time of Ezra, the temple is being entirely rebuilt from the ground up.  In these three cases, we can see the temple declining to a worse condition each time, and each time the community leaders are focusing on the temple as the centerpiece of their revival.

There are two ways that we might interpret this pattern.  First, it represents a pattern in Judah’s religious traditions.  It shows that over time, the shape of religious revivals is quite similar even over hundreds of years.  Second, since Chronicles was written during the lifetime of Ezra, it is possible that the Chronicler was shaping his narrative to reflect the culture and priorities of the post-exilic community.  We can confirm with certainty that the temple and regular prescribed sacrifices were incredibly important to the community leaders of the returning exiles.  It’s harder to be sure that they were so important to the pre-exilic revivalists because of the implicit bias of the Chronicler.

That said, I do believe that regardless of the Chronicler’s bias, the narrative in Chronicles is detailing a real religious tradition that survived through the exile into the early post-exilic community.  It’s difficult for us to independently assess the accuracy of Chronicle’s representation because we simply don’t have a good independent text to cross-verify.  Even thoug the book of Kings is a pre-exilic source about Hezekiah, it almost entirely omits Hezekiah’s religious reforms (see 2 Kings 18:1-6), so it doesn’t help us to assess the pre-exilic religious tradition.

Both Chronicles and Ezra are designed to highlight the continuity between the post-exilic community with their pre-exilic ancenstors and traditions.  It’s unlikely that the post-exilic community would find these arguments credible if they were not based on a real pre-exilic tradition.

Lastly, I want to discuss verses 12-13.  This is at the very end of the chapter, after the foundation of the temple is laid, we see the people react in two different ways.  The young people shouted for joy, but the older men who had seen the first temple “wept with a loud voice”, and in the confusion of sound nobody could tell the difference between the shouts of joy and the cries of weeping and sorrow.  This is perhaps confusing when you read it the first time.

The way I understand this passage is that the new temple is much smaller than the older one.  The older men who had seen the previous temple are weeping because they see their national decline in the temple.  They used to have a large and prosperous nation, and now they are small and poor.  They used to have a large, rich temple, and now they are building a much smaller temple.  The young people rejoice because they see the greatness of what they are building, but the old people weep because they see how much less it is than what they used to have and be.  This topic is specifically addressed in the book of Haggai, which we have not yet read, but that’s basically what is happening here.

Beyond that explanation, I find this passage striking.  Could you imagine being in a situation where two groups of people are seeing the same thing, that they both support, and one group is rejoicing while the other group is weeping?  I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot recently.  The only difference between these two groups is their perspective.  The older groups knows their past in a tangible way, while the younger group only knows their past by description.  There are so many things we are building in the church today, both my local church as well as the global church, and we rejoice over many of these things.  I wonder how often I would weep rather than rejoice if I had been alive to see the church in the past.  Even the revivals of the past like the great awakening or the protestant reformation; if I had been alive for those revivals, would I find the modern church to be stronger or weaker than the church of the past?  Have we grown to be less than our ancestors?

It’s a troubling thought because the younger people were living side by side with their elders, and yet they were unable to understand their elders’ perspective.  In the space of just one generation, much that had been known was lost, even when they were yet living together.

I wonder when the LORD saw the temple foundation being laid, did he rejoice or did he weep?  Which of these two reactions is closer to the truth?  Or perhaps they were both true in different ways.  In the end I guess both reactions are true in the sense that they represented a reaction to a particular understanding of the temple.  The temple is smaller and looks like nothing compared to the prior temple, and yet it is building built.  It’s small, but it’s happening.  The restored community is small and weak, yet they are being restored.  I think in the restored community, there is reason for joy as well as tears.

This chapter concludes by saying that their shout was heard from a great distance away.  In the next chapter, we will see that the enemies of Judah (metaphorically) heard the shout, and begin plotting to disrupt their restoration efforts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 2

In this chapter, Ezra gives us a categorization of the returning exiles.

The list is broken down into several segments.  First, in verse 2, Ezra lists the leaders of the returning community.  Second, in verses 3-39, Ezra lists the people who were returning to various towns in Judah and Benjamin.  Third, in verses 40-58, Ezra lists returning Levites and several categories of servants.  In verses 59-63, Ezra lists the returning men who could not prove their lineage.  Lastly, verses 64-70 provides a summary of all the returning people and their possessions.

There are three main categories of returning exiles that are represented in this chapter: the Judeans, the Benjamites and the Levites (including priests).  These groups show up over and over in the chapter, in both the returning leadership and amongst the people.  Even though Chronicles tried to emphasize the unity of all twelve tribes, there were almost no survivors from the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom.  Only the southerners survived through the Babylonian invasion, which meant Judah, Benjamin and the Levites living in those territories.

Verse 2 lists some of the community leaders that are returning from the exile.  Of these figures, several of them show up elsewhere in the bible.

Zerubbabel is a direct descendant of the kings of Judah through Zedekiah, who was the very last king before the exile.  He is sometimes called the “prince of Judah”.  Politically, we should understand that Judah does not ever have a king again after the Babylonian exile.  Judah remained as a province in Babylon that was administered by a governor, and after the Babylonians were destroyed, Judah was handed down as a possession from one empire to another until the Romans, at which point Jerusalem was destroyed a second time, almost finally.  While Judah did not have a true king, the royal family still held a great deal of influence and Zerubbabel is basically the chief representative of the royal family.  Zerubbabel appears elsewhere in the bible, perhaps most prominently in Haggai and Zechariah (neither of which we have read yet).  Zerubbabel is also one of the ancestors of Jesus that is given in Jesus’s genealogy in the new testament.

Jeshua is the high priest.  He is the chief representative of the priests, Levites and the religious authorities.  Like Zerubbabel, Jeshua shows up as one of the central figures in Haggai and Zechariah.

Nehemiah is the eponymous author of the book of Nehemiah, which is the next book in the bible.  We will see his story in greater detail when we read that book.  Nehemiah was also one of the political figures in the Babylonian administration, as we will read in the book of Nehemiah.

I’m not sure who is Seraiah.  There are several men named Seraiah during the lifetime of Ezra.  For instance, Ezra’s father was named Seraiah (Ezra 7:1).  The more likely identity is that Seraiah is one of the senior priests under Jeshua (Nehemiah 12:1).

The last person I want to mention specifically is Mordecai.  We can’t be sure it’s the same man, but there was a man named Mordecai in the book of Esther who is Esther’s uncle.  We haven’t read Esther yet but in that story Mordecai emerges as one of the senior leaders of the community through his own personal merit as well as his relationship with Esther.  As far as I know, none of the other community leaders play any substantial role in the bible.

In verses 3-39, it gives us a long list of groups of people.  When I first read through this, I thought the these were family names and that they represented returning exiles from different families.  The vast majority of the names are unknown to us outside of this one chapter.  However, other names are actually cities we have previously read about.  For instance, Bethlehem (in Judah, v. 21), Anathoth (in Benjamin, v. 23), Ramah and Geba (a town in Benjamin, v. 26), Bethel and Ai (in Benjamin) v. 28) and Jericho (in Benjamin, v. 34) are all towns in Judah and Benjamin.  This means that the names we have not seen before are most likely also towns in Judah and Benjamin with returning exiles.

What makes this confusing is that the names of the towns are very similar to Hebrew personal names.  For instance, I’m pretty sure there is a person named Adonikam.  It’s even more ambiguous because the later section in verses 40-58 actually does list family names when describing the returning servants.

In any case, regardless of whether these are names of people or towns, what I said before holds true: these are nearly all obscure names that do not show up anywhere else in the bible.  It’s not very important to know or recognize the names, but I do want my readers to get a sense of what Ezra is trying to communicate.  Like the genealogies, this chapter is showing us the importance of identity and continuity to the Jewish community.

We see this most clearly in verses 59-63, when Ezra says that a group of returning exiles “were not found” in the genealogical records and excluded from the priesthood.  What this means by implication is that everyone else in the returning community was found in the genealogical records.  This is astonishing when you consider that they were somehow able to keep their genealogical records through the Babylonian exile.  So many people died and so much of their society was destroyed; the temple was destroyed, yet these records were preserved (along with the religious text of the Torah).

This was not cheap or easy for the exiles.  With so much death and destruction, I really want my readers to feel the human cost of preserving these records.  I think the best analogy I can give is that it’s as if the Jewish community woke up in the middle of the night with their house burning down.  What do you grab when your entire house is burning down and you only get to grab the most important thing?  Maybe you wake up your kids, a photo of your dead grandparents?  What do you take with you when you get to choose one thing from all your possessions to keep, leaving everything else to be destroyed?  The Judeans chose to keep their genealogical records.  This is not a lighthearted or easy decision, this is a somber and grim decision, and MANY things were lost to them forever.  They chose to keep what was most important, which was the genealogical records.  This was how they established their identity and connection to the past.

This historical identity was so important that people who could not be found in the records were excluded from the priesthood.  These people most likely were real priests, but they simply couldn’t prove it.  Verse 63 gives the backup strategy, which is Urim and Thummim.  In essence, this was a kind of religiously permitted divination.  Similar to casting lots, it was a method to query the LORD.  We mostly saw this applied in the book of Samuel; the Urim and Thummim do not show up anywhere else in the bible after this passage (and the parallel passage in the book of Nehemiah).  In this case, what it means is that they wanted to use the Urim and Thummim to confirm if these men (without proper genealogical records) were indeed qualified to serve as priests.

The Urim and Thummim were most likely taken by the Babylonians, and it seems like Ezra is anticipating them being restored to the exiles but they have not yet been restored.  Eventually they were both lost to history, perhaps stolen or destroyed in one of the various destructions of Jerusalem that followed the restoration era.

In any case, the people have successfully returned to the land.  The numbers are tiny compared to how many people had previously lived here.  The entire community is now barely more than 40,000 people when in the past, each of the individual tribes would have been greater than that.

Nonetheless, the community has survived and in the next chapter, they begin the process of rebuilding the temple.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 1

In this chapter, Cyrus authorizes the remnant of Judah in exile to return to Jerusalem.

Ezra 1:1-3 are very interesting verses from a textual analysis point of view.  To a casual reader, it might not be apparent why.  The simple answer is that it is an almost direct copy of 2 Chron 36:22-23, which raises all kinds of questions about the authorship and source material for these two books.  At first glance, someone might think that they are simply copying Cyrus’s declaration, but it must be more than that because they both also share the same preamble referring to Jeremiah’s prophecy and “the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia”, which is also copied word for word between the two books.

There are basically three possible explanations: Either Chronicles copied the passage from Ezra, Ezra copied the passage from Chronicles, or both books copied the passage from some other (non-extant) source.  It is difficult to figure out the real answer from this passage alone since the exact date of composition for these two books is not firmly known.  That said, traditional scholarship and writers in antiquities (i.e. ancient bible scholars) have typically assigned Ezra as the author of Chronicles, as well as his eponymous book.  As the author of both books he could have simply written the same passage twice.

From a literary perspective, the repetition of these verses at the end of the last book and beginning of this book makes for a very smooth transition.  Chronicles concluded with the return from the Babylonian exile, and that is exactly the context in which Ezra lives and begins his book.

Now, there are a few other points I would like to address regarding the content of this chapter.

First of all, why does Cyrus (who would have been a pagan) call the LORD the God of heaven?  There can be no question that Cyrus was not himself a worshiper of the LORD.  There are two ways to look at this.  The less likely is that Ezra is overwriting Cyrus’s original declaration with pious-sounding language to make it seem more favorable to his Jewish audience.

I think the more likely explanation is that Cyrus himself is couching his declaration in language that would appease the Jews and engender favor with them.  Cyrus is by no means beholden to the Jews or their demands, but he also does not have any reason to antagonize them and I think he is probably just being a good politician here, not expressing any true devotion to the LORD nor do I think this is a misrepresentation of Cyrus’s original message.

Second, we see that Judah, Benjamin, Levites and the priests constitute the four primary groups that return from the exile (v. 5).  This is yet another similarity between Ezra and Chronicles where those four groups figured prominently in e.g. the genealogy at the beginning of 1 Chronicles, as well as other places.  Even though the other tribes have token representation in Ezra and other post-exilic sources, it’s pretty clear that the dominant surviving groups are the four mentioned above, which is a clear and direct byproduct of the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdom, and the destruction of those two kingdoms in two separate events.  In this case, the surviving Israelites are from the southern kingdom only; the northern tribes do not have a “return” event in the same way as Judah and its constituent groups.

Third, we see two forms of encouragement for the returning exiles.  On the one hand, we see the people gathering up their wealth and giving it to the pilgrims both to fund their expedition and to fund the temple construction.  On the other hand, we see king Cyrus returning all of the temple furnishings to the returning exiles.  Like the proper scribe that he is, Ezra carefully documents the number and type of each item returned to the Jews by the king.

This presents us with a picture of unified support between the people of Judah and the Persian administration that rules over them.  At least for the beginning of their return home, this is an auspicious beginning.

In the next chapter, Ezra documents the number of returning exiles from each family.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra Introduction

And so we begin the book of Ezra.  :)

There are two broad historical narratives in the OT.  The first spans from Genesis through 2nd Kings.  The second is from 1 Chronicles through Esther.  The critical difference between these two narratives is that the first one is written before and during the Babylonian exile, the second narrative was written strictly after the Babylonian exile.  For the sake of convenience, I will refer to these two narratives as the pre-exilic narrative and post-exilic narrative respectively.  Those terms are not completely accurate because at least some of the pre-exilic narrative was written during the exile, but I think it's close enough to the truth that my readers will (hopefully) not be misled.

We have finished reading through the pre-exilic narrative and are now in the middle of the post-exilic narrative.  The best way to understand both of these narratives is to think about what effects the exile might have had on Judean society, how their society reacted to this massive disruption in their way of life, and how the authors of the OT are attempting to construct a religious narrative to intertwine with and explain the historical events that occurred to their nation.  I emphasized this point over and over when going through the book of Chronicles, and I’m going to continue harping on it as I go through the book of Ezra.

In this context, we learned that Chronicles was written as a retrospective history, and it was structured with several goals in mind.  Chronicles was written to provide a vision of an idealized past for the Judeans to strive to rebuild, to provide a historical justification for their possession of the promised land, and to justify the centralized temple worship system in Jerusalem.  The temple figured prominently in Chronicles as a central element of Judean identity as well as Israel’s relationship with God.

On the other hand, while Chronicles was written retrospectively, Ezra is much more of a present-day narrative, giving us a first-hand look at the events immediately surrounding the return from the exile and the reconstruction of Jerusalem.  Ezra himself was a participant in these events as one of the returning Jews.  Ezra was a scribe (Ezra 7:6) and one of the Levitical priests.  Ezra 7:10 explains some of Ezra’s responsibilities as a scribe.  He was part of a professional class whose central focus was studying, teaching and copying the Torah (the Law of Moses).

Similar to Chronicles, Ezra also places a tremendous focus on the temple.  In the case of Chronicles, it was focused on the historical importance of the temple to Israel and Judah.  In the case of Ezra, it’s the importance of rebuilding the temple for the newly resurgent Judah.  I actually think Ezra gives us some of the context for why Chronicles focuses so much on the temple.  It was a point I made several times in my commentary, but Chronicles was written as a not-so-subtle prod to encourage the people to help build and maintain the temple worship system.  Ezra shows us some of the actual history of those events as the temple worship system is being reconstructed.

More generally, I think the broad theme of Ezra is “restoration”.  A lot of that "restoration" is restoring the temple, but not all of it.  Ezra and the people are trying to restore and rebuild Judah.  They do this by returning to the land, rebuilding the temple, and restoring the biblical prohibition against intermarrying with the non-Israelite tribes.  We will study all of these in more depth as we go through the book.

Secondly, while I can’t exactly call it a theme, I would also like my readers to note that Judah remains under the dominion of the Persian* empire.  This shows up in the story in various ways almost from beginning to end.  When Judah’s enemies attack them, it’s by attempting political manipulation of their Persian overlords, and when Ezra is shown favor, it’s by those same Persian overlords.  And so forth; this pattern continues through most of the book.

Taken as a whole, we can view Ezra as a story about Judah trying to re-establish their identity, culture and autonomy while under the dominion of a foreign power, and having suffered the destruction of nearly everything they once held dear.  Even in the midst of all these hardships, this story has the same hopeful tenor that we find in many other parts of the OT.  Judah persists, God shows them favor, and they are able to rebuild the temple in spite of opposition.

The book ends inconclusively, which is a little frustrating because I would have liked to see a more definitive ending, but it kind of makes sense when you think about it.  The book of Ezra is not the whole story, it is only one short piece of the larger narrative: it is focused on the life of just one man as a prism through which we can view the greater story of God’s interactions with his chosen people.

* Some of my readers may be surprised that while I refer to the Babylonian exile frequently, Judah is suddenly under the authority of the Persian empire, which was not heretofore mentioned.  The biblical narrative does not directly discuss it, but basically what happened is that the Persians came through and conquered the Babylonians.  By the right of “I kill you and take all your possessions”, the Persians inherited all of Babylons territories which included Judah.  This is similar to the transition between the Assyrian empire and the Babylonian empire that occurred during the lifetime of Josiah, and that transition was only tangentially mentioned in Kings and Chronicles.  Remember that to Ezra, the transition from one empire to the next would have been current events and he would not have seen any reason to explain these background facts to a contemporary audience that would have similarly known all about the Babylonians and Persians.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 36

In this chapter, Judah rotates through several kings in quick succession but is nonetheless destroyed by the Babylonians.

In the previous chapter, I mentioned that the Egyptians were catastrophically defeated at Carchemish.  While that is true, and it drove the Egyptians out of the Mideast, they had still defeated the Judeans and for a time, maintained some influence over Judah.  In verses 3-4, the Egyptians exercise that influence by capturing one king of Judah and appointing another man, Jehoiakim, to be the new king.

Just eleven years later, the Babylonians march in and capture Jerusalem.  This marks the end of Egypt’s control over Judah.  The Babylonians take their turn, imprisoning Jehoiakim and taking him to Babylon, as well as plundering the temple.  As if they did not want to be mere equals to the Egyptians, the Babylonians capture the next king of Judah, plunder the temple a second time, and appoint Zedekiah as the new king.

The overall flow of the historical narrative in this section is very similar between the book of Kings (2 Kings 23:31 through 2 Kings 25) and Chronicles.  The narrative in Kings is somewhat longer and more detailed, but substantially similar.  I personally see three notable differences between these two accounts of Judah’s collapse, which I would like to discuss in turn.

First, the book of Kings blames Manasseh for the collapse of Judah (2 Kings 24:3-4), while Chronicles blames the collective sins and rebellion of the people throughout their history and especially during the reign of Zedekiah (v. 12-16).  I’m not sure I can explain why these two books shift the blame from one king to the other.  When discussing the life of Manasseh in 2 Chronicles 33, I mentioned that Kings would have placed a heavier focus on trying to understand why the catastrophe happened to them and perhaps blamed Manasseh as a result.  While that is true, I’m not sure why Chronicles would want to blame Zedekiah instead.  Chronicles biography of Manasseh emphasizes the redemptive element of his return to the LORD after sinning and being punished by God.  For Zedekiah and the other kings in this chapter, there is no redemptive element: they are taken into exile and there they die.

Part of me wonders if there is some political element to blaming Zedekiah that might have been influenced by the political situation in post-exilic Judah and perhaps by their ongoing relationship with Babylon, but I can’t really prove it.

The second notable difference is Chronicles’ reference to Jeremiah and his prophecy.  This is entirely absent from the book of Kings, which shows that it was either unknown or not regarded as legitimate during the time that Kings was written.  This is mostly interesting from a dating perspective.  And I don’t mean dating in the sense of like, “do you wanna hang out Friday night and go see a movie together”.  Instead, I mean in terms of figuring out when these three books (Kings, Chronicles and Jeremiah) were written relative to each other and to the historical events they describe.  I hope that doesn’t cost me too many readers.  :)

Anyway, my readers should have already known that Chronicles is a post-exilic book and Kings is a mid-exilic book.  We can tell that through a variety of signals, but one of the simplest is because the book of Kings ends with Jehoiachin living in the middle of the exile (2 Kings 25:30) and the book of Chronicles ends with the invitation for the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem (v. 23).  The more interesting question is to figure out when Jeremiah was written and perhaps even more importantly, when it entered the common culture and lexicon of the Judean people.  The crude answer we get here is, “sometime between the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles”.  The book of Jeremiah itself (combined with evidence in Chronicles) suggests that Jeremiah was both living and prophesying before and during the exile, as early as the reign of Josiah (which ended roughly 22 years before the exile).

We can reasonably infer that Jeremiah was indeed prophesying during this period, but was excluded from the Kings narrative.  If Jeremiah was a known prophet during this time but left out from Kings, it suggests that his prophecies were perhaps not regarded as authoritative or from the LORD.  It’s possible that only their fulfillment during the reign of Cyrus elevated these prophecies to be regarded as the word of the LORD.  It’s hard to be certain, though.

The third and final difference between the Kings narrative and the Chronicles narrative is the declaration by Cyrus that the people of Israel may return from the exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (v. 23).  I’ve already touched on this briefly as it relates to dating the book of Chronicles.  This passage serves two other roles in the narrative.

First, it connects the end of Chronicles with the beginning of Ezra (the next book we will read).  In fact, the next three books (Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther) are all a specific class of post-exilic historical narrative that continues the story from Chronicles into the post-kingdom era.  I will discuss these books in more depth later, but for now I just want to emphasize the tight integration between the post-exilic declaration that ends this book and begins Ezra.  In fact, the first three verses of Ezra are virtually identical to the last two verses of Chronicles, which is almost definitely intentional.  There is a lot of speculation about how Chronicles relates to Ezra, whether they have the same author, the same editor, or simply drew that quotation from a common source.

While I can’t answer that for sure, what we can do is divide up the histories of the OT into two distinct segments.  The first segment is from Genesis through Kings, that forms a continuous history from the creation of the world through the exile, and was written as a pre-exilic work(s).  The second segment is from Chronicles through Esther, and ignoring the genealogy at the beginning of Chronicles, it covers from the death of Saul through the early post-exilic period with the repairs to the wall of Jerusalem and the construction of the second temple (a replacement for the temple of Solomon that was destroyed by the Babylonians).  While Chronicles had much in common with the pre-exilic tradition, Ezra and Nehemiah are entirely post-exilic in origin and do not have any equivalent text in the pre-exilic history.

Second, ending with Cyrus’s declaration of the return to Jerusalem puts a much more hopeful and optimistic spin on Chronicles vis a vis Kings, which I think matches the generally more hopeful and optimistic attitude that predominated during the early pre-exilic era.  The book of Kings has a lesser “hopeful ending”, when it says that Jehoiachin was granted favor by king Evil-Merodach of Babylon and was given a better position than any other imprisoned king.  The way I interpret this passage in Kings is that it is trying to show that the Judeans are given favor by God in how their captors treat them during the exile.  Chronicles ends on the much more powerful note that just as God spoke through Jeremiah, the people are allowed to return to Jerusalem and the promised land.  They are similar in tone, but different in magnitude.

In conclusion, we have covered an awful lot of material with a lot of broad themes when going through Chronicles.  I think if there is one thing I have learned from this study, it’s that Chronicles is just as much a reflection of the time in which it was written, as it is a reflection of the history that it depicts.

In the context of the post-exilic world, it is trying to present ancient Israel (as exemplified by David and Solomon) as both their people’s connection to the promised land and as an idealized society they should seek to emulate.  It presents the temple worship system, the priesthood, and the Passover ceremony as essential components of their national faith.  While it affirms that the exile is a devastating consequence of sin and idolatry, it also presents restoration as a consequence of humility and returning to the LORD.  It shows this in the lives of individual kings (Hezekiah and Manasseh), but also in the collective life of their nation.  To the post-exilic Jews, this serves as both a warning and a promise for them to shun idolatry and follow the LORD in their own time as a means to ensure the safety and prosperity of their people in the promised land.

In the next book, Ezra, we will learn that the return from the exile does not put an end to all of their struggles, but that faith and devotion to the LORD continues to ensure victory over all opposition.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 35

In this chapter, Josiah celebrates the Passover and later dies in battle against the Egyptians.

This chapter has two main sections.  The first, from verses 1-19, describe the Passover service under Josiah, and the second, from verses 20-27, describe Josiah’s battle against Neco and his death.

The Passover service under Josiah is reminiscent of the Passover under Hezekiah.  The biggest difference between these two is that Josiah celebrates the Passover “correctly”, i.e. in the right month and with the people ceremonially purified (as far as we know).  Under Hezekiah, many things were done wrong but God blessed the people because they pursued him with the right heart.  As far as we know, the Passover under Josiah was observed in accordance with the commandments and also with the right heart.

There are several places that emphasize adherence to the Law of Moses.  For instance, v. 6 says “slaughter the Passover animals… according to the word of the LORD by Moses”.  Verse 12 also says “as it is written in the book of Moses”.  Verse 13: “They roasted the Passover animals on the fire according to the ordinance”.  There are several other verses that show the priests and Levites were also following the organization set forth by David.  This has two effects.  As contrasted with the Passover under Hezekiah, we can see that Josiah is meticulous in following every detail of the Law.  Strict adherence to even the smallest details of the Law is one of the cultural values in the OT, and Josiah demonstrates his righteousness through it.

A second, more subtle implication is that the adherence to the “Law of Moses” only shortly follows the discovery of that same book of the Law in the previous chapter.  I think there is definitely a connection between discovering the book of the Law in the previous chapter and Josiah’s obedience to all the statutes and ordinances of the LORD in this chapter.

Although I don’t accept it personally, some scholars suggest that Josiah himself may have ordered the creation of the book of the Law as a way to legitimize his religious reforms.  I interpret it the opposite way.  I think Josiah’s discovery of the book of the Law is what motivates and drives his religious reforms.  Josiah is trying to reclaim the lost religious heritage of his people.  During the time of Moses, Joshua and David, the people would regularly observe the Passover.  At some point, this tradition was lost to the forces of idolatry and religious syncretism, perhaps even during the lifetime of Samuel (v. 18).  After discovering the book of the Law, Josiah wants to return to the religion of his forefathers.

By no coincidence, this is very similar to the Judeans of the post-exilic period when Chronicles was written.  If my readers remember, I stated that one of the central purposes of the book of Chronicles was to help the post-exilic residents of Jerusalem to rediscover their pre-exilic culture and connection to the promised land.  A huge part of that is reconnecting the people to their religious heritage in the temple worship system, the Davidic kingdom, and the Passover.  What is Josiah doing in the revival?  He is repairing the temple, restoring priestly ministry, and celebrating the Passover.  Notice any similarities between that and the activity in the post-exilic period?  I think Chronicles is offering Josiah as a model for the post-exilic Jews to follow in their own restoration of the temple worship system.

The second section begins immediately after the Passover and Josiah “setting the temple in order”.  It’s as if the very moment that Josiah has finished with his religious reforms, the Egyptians coming marching up to attack, but not against the Judeans.  Instead, the Egyptians are marching to attack the Babylonians in the historical battle of Carchemish.  Although this battle is not described anywhere in the bible, it is broadly attested in non-biblical historical sources and is an important battles in world history.  In this battle, the Egyptians (who allied with the crumbling Assyrian empire) are defeated by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar and essentially driven out of the Mideast.  This battle is a hallmark in the ascension of the Babylonian empire.

Verses 21-22 make it clear that Chronicler regarded the Egyptians as directed by God, while Josiah is acting on his own initiative and not listening to “the words… of God” (v. 22).  Even though the Egyptians were still defeated at the battle of Carchemish, they are portrayed here as obeying the command of God while Josiah is not.  Although the language in this chapter is not very critical of Josiah, it does imply that Josiah is making a mistake here, and it costs him his life.  The parallel passage in 2 Kings 23:29-30 mentions Josiah’s death by Neco but does not relay the conversation between them or God’s involvement in driving Neco to fight at Carchemish.

I think this chapter shows that Josiah did well for most of his life, but had a big mistake or sin towards the end of his life.  This is similar to many other kings, like Asa, Joash, Uzziah and Hezekiah.

Even though Josiah dies, his sin is relatively small compared to some of these other kings, so Josiah is still mourned and highly regarded by his people after his death.  As the architect of a major religious revival, Josiah is regarded along with Hezekiah as one of the two best kings of Judah after the death of Solomon.

It says in verse 25 that Jeremiah sung a lament for Josiah and wrote it down in a book.  While my readers may suspect that this is the same as the biblical book of Lamentations, I personally think it’s unlikely because the book of Lamentations does not mention Josiah anywhere and is instead focused entirely on the destruction of Jerusalem in the Babylonian exile.  Instead, I think the most likely story is that Jeremiah wrote a lament for Josiah using a literary form similar to the book of Lamentations, but that the laments for Josiah have been lost to history and no longer exist.

With the death of Josiah, we are past the final, brief hope for the kingdom of Judah.  In the next chapter, we will conclude the book of Chronicles with the destruction of Jerusalem in the Babylonian exile.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 34

In this chapter, Josiah becomes king and initiates the last great revival before the Babylonian exile.

This chapter, and the life of Josiah in general, shares many similarities with Hezekiah's revival from 2 Chronicles 29-31.  My readers may wish to review the life of Hezekiah as a precursor to studying Josiah.

If we compare their lives in detail, we can certainly identify many differences between Hezekiah and Josiah, but I think my readers would be well-served by looking at the material broadly and trying to understand the progression of the two revivals.  The similarities between them may suggest what parts of their religious system were considered the most important.

In the case of Hezekiah, the revival had three distinct components.  First, he cleansed the temple, bringing it back into a state of ceremonial purity.  Second, he reestablished the sacrificial system.  Third, he revives the Passover festival.  The priests and Levites are involved in the entire process, and Hezekiah restores the tithe to finance them.

In the case of Josiah, he first destroys all the altars and idols dedicated to other gods.  Next he repairs the temple, which possibly involved ceremonial cleansing as well.  Lastly, after the interlude about the book of the Law, Josiah also revives the Passover festival (the subject of the next chapter).

Cleansing the temple by Hezekiah closely mirrors Josiah repairing the temple, the Passover ceremonies are nearly identical between the two kings, and 2 Chronicles 31:1 tells us that the people went out and destroyed the altars and idols throughout all of Israel after the Passover, which is very similar to how Josiah himself goes out and destroys all the altars and idols in the early years of his reign (v. 3-7).  Taken in broad terms, we can see this as the removal of the idolatrous worship system, restoration of the temple-centered worship system, and institution of the Passover festival as a symbol of their dedication to the LORD.

So that should set most of the context for this chapter.  In the midst of this revival, there are a couple things I want to focus on.

First, we see a general pattern in this chapter that, if I may put it bluntly, the northern kingdom Israel has totally collapsed.  I remember earlier in the book we were reading about Israel fielding massive armies in battle against Judah or against the Arameans.  For a long time, Israel was one of Judah's most dangerous enemies.  In this chapter, we see Josiah simply walking into Israel and tearing down their altars and high places and stuff like that (v. 6-7).  He really just walked into their territory and started smashing stuff and they couldn't do anything to resist him.  Verse 9 is even more remarkable: the Levites are collecting money for the temple repairs from the northern territories.

What could have happened to the northern kingdom that it can no longer stop the Judeans from walking in and doing whatever they want?  The answer is simple: the Assyrians came in and destroyed the northern kingdom during the reign of Hoshea (2 Kings 17).  Ever since that time, Israel was no longer an independent kingdom and is now governed as a province of the Assyrian empire.  Even though the Judeans do not hold any political authority in the northern kingdom, it appears that the Assyrians are not doing anything to keep the Judeans out.

Because Chronicles is singularly devoted to the history of Judah, the collapse of Israel is not described at all in this book, but the results of that collapse are still visible even in the history of Judah.

The second thing I want to talk about is this "lost book" found by Hilkiah and the subsequent prophecy by Huldah.  From context, the "book of the Law... by Moses" is obviously a reference to the Pentateuch (i.e. the bible from Genesis through Deuteronomy).  The text does not say how LONG the book is lost, only that this is the first time Josiah is hearing about it, and that it was largely unknown to the priests as well.  It has been lost for at least one generation, possibly due to Manasseh's long, idolatrous reign.  Depending on how long the book was lost, it suggests that knowledge about the Passover or other elements of the the covenant may have been passed down in Judean society independently from knowledge of the written Law, though we don’t know for sure.  It’s possible that stories about Moses and the LORD may have been passed down as oral tradition, since we know that much of the Pentateuch was derived from oral tradition.  That said, Josiah demonstrates through his response (v. 19) that the Law of the LORD was not well-known during his lifetime, so whatever traditions may have persisted independently of the written Law probably did not include the religious code of behavior that we find in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

On a related note, I wonder if this implies that there is only one copy of the written Law during the lifetime of Josiah.  I mean, if the priest went into the temple and found a copy of this book that apparently nobody else has read or knows about, then does that suggest it is the only copy of the book in existence at the time?  What would have happened if Manasseh (for example) had gone in and destroyed the book?  Would we not have the Pentateuch?  I think this is a striking example of how the faithlessness of one generation nearly destroyed Judah’s religious tradition.

Anyway, after learning about the threatened destruction that is hanging over his kingdom, he immediately sends to a prophetess to find out, in essence, if things are as bad as they appear.  The prophetess responds and says yes, that God is going to destroy Judah and there is nothing the king can do to stop it, except that he can delay the wrath from falling on his own generation.

I find Josiah’s response interesting.  Even though the prophetess told him that Judah would definitely be destroyed (v. 24), Josiah immediately gathers together the people and elders to call them back to enter the covenant of the LORD.  I guess what’s striking to me about this is that Josiah’s actions seem largely futile, yet he is striving with so much force to change his nation’s fate.  What I see in Josiah is such an earnestness, such passion and urgency in his response, and I wonder what is motivating him.  He cannot avert the coming disaster, and yet that is what he seems to be attempting.  It reminds me of when David fasted and prayed before the death of his son, even after Nathan prophesied that the boy would surely die as a result of David’s sin (2 Samuel 12:14-23).  I wonder where this attitude comes from, that they think they can turn aside God’s judgment.

In the case of Josiah, he is fighting against hundreds of years of Israel’s history.  The people have resisted and fought against God since all the way back to Exodus and Numbers, wandering through the wilderness complaining and rebelling against his leadership.  The story of Kings and Chronicles is a long, progressive decline with Israel and Judah becoming weaker and weaker, with the people going deeper and deeper into idolatry.  Josiah is fighting against this history, trying to turn around Judah’s path, and while I don’t think he has any chance at succeeding, I can’t help but admire him for trying.  Josiah aligned his heart with God’s desire for his people.  Even though success was not possible, Josiah shows us that we can and should pursue righteousness even in the midst of a sinful generation.

One last brief note.  Huldah is another prophetess in the Old Testament, alongside other prophetesses such as Deborah (Judges 4:4) and Miriam (Exodus 15:20).  The OT has a clear tradition of female prophets that are also highly respected leaders in the nation.

In the next chapter, Josiah calls for a second major Passover festival in Jerusalem and dies in battle afterwards.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 33

In this chapter, Manasseh becomes king, leads Judah into idolatry but then repents of his mistakes.

This is the second time we get to read the story of Manasseh's life.  Similar to the other kings, Manasseh was previously described in the book of Kings (2 Kings 21, to be particular).  Most kings are described similarly between Kings and Chronicles.  However, in the case of Manasseh, there are substantial differences which I will describe below.

This chapter has three main sections.  The first section is verses 1-9, which describe Manasseh's intent to do evil, leading Judah into idolatry.  This section is substantially equivalent with the passage in 2 Kings.  Besides listing the things that Manasseh was doing wrong, it also compares his actions against God's word, quoting (or sometimes paraphrasing) things the LORD said earlier.  Basically what this is doing is juxtaposing Manasseh's actions against God's standard, and showing all of the ways that the king is falling short.  Both verse 4 and verse 7 emphasize that Manasseh is performing idolatry in the very temple that God said would keep his name forever.  Verse 8 says that Israel (and Judah) would remain planted in the promised land forever, so long as they obey the LORD's commands.  This chapter is documenting their sins and violations of the LORD's commands to establish the context for their eventual removal from the land.

The second section is verses 10-20, which describe God's response to Manasseh's sins.  It begins in verse 10 with a prophet's rebuke, but when the king and the people do not listen to the prophet, God's judgment swiftly follows.

This whole section is almost completely absent from 2 Kings 21, and it constitutes the largest difference between how these two books describe the life of Manasseh.  In fact, the comparable section is 2 Kings 21:10-18, which besides giving us a detailed prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, lists even more sins committed by Manasseh in addition to what he did wrong in the previous section.  It is obvious when reading 2 Kings that the tone used to describe the life of Manasseh is overwhelmingly negative.  In the larger context of Kings, Manasseh is (perhaps surprisingly) the main person blamed for the Babylonian exile (see 2 Kings 24:3-4).

The narrative in Chronicles is much more nuanced.  In Chronicles, Manasseh is not directly blamed for the exile, and when Manasseh is punished by God and taken into exile by the Assyrians, he repents and is restored by God.  The rest of his life is comparatively positive, removing all the idols and bringing the people back to God.  Although Manasseh's initial sins are still firmly condemned by the Chronicler, Chronicles presents his life as much more of an arc, going at first into dark, evil behavior, but finding humility in the midst of God's punishment and being restored into his position as king at the same time that his faith is rebuilt.

The third and final section is verses 21-25, which describes the reign of king Amon.  This section is also very similar to the corresponding passage in 2 Kings.  It describes Amon as an evil man who is killed by his own servants.  The only major difference is that verse 23 in Chronicles contrasts the repentance of Manasseh with the unrepentant evil of Amon.  The comparable passage in Kings is 2 Kings 21:20-21, which basically says that Amon walked in exactly the same evil ways as his father Manasseh.

It's quite a contrast.  If we only had the book of Kings, we would have never suspected that Manasseh might have repented of his sins and tried to lead Judah back to the LORD.  There are two questions I would like to address.  First, why do I think Kings and Chronicles wanted to represent such contrasting stories about the life of Manasseh when (presumably) they both had the same source material describing his reign?  Second, just looking at the book of Chronicles, what lessons can we learn from Manasseh's life story?

To answer the first question, I cannot offer much more than speculation.  We are basically trying to understand the author's motivation, and that can be notoriously difficult under even the best of circumstances.  That said, I will now begin wildly speculating.  :)  I think the largest difference between these books is the context in which they were written and finalized.  Kings was largely finalized as a mid-exilic book.  That is, it was substantially compiled and edited during the Babylonian exile, though much of the source material would have been pre-exilic.  During the exile to Babylon, the Jewish people were faced with many existential questions*, one of the foremost being, "how could this have happened?"  I believe that Kings in general, and 2 Kings 21 in particular, is one attempt at answering that question.  It construes a deeply negative attitude towards Manasseh because it is trying to figure out what could have gone wrong that this terrible judgment from God could have fallen upon Judah.  Kings finds a large part of its answer in the idolatry and sins of Manasseh, though many of the kings who follow him are also regarded as evil, sinful men, and it's all written in the larger context of the Kings moral narrative (which is beyond the scope of my comments here).

On the other hand, Chronicles was edited and finalized as a post-exilic book.  That is, it was substantially compiled after the return from the Babylonian exile, though it too derives much of its content from pre-exilic sources.  After the Babylonian exile, one of the foremost questions asked by Jewish society was, "how do we restore our cultural identity?"  The book of Chronicles attempts to answer that question by focusing an enormous amount of time and energy on the temple worship system and the Davidic dynasty.  Chronicles attempts to draw the people back to a better, idealized time when David and Solomon reigned, to serve as a model for how they should rebuild their society in the "present day" (i.e. ~530 BCE).

"How could this have happened" is no longer a core, existential question because while the Babylonian exile was a deeply traumatic event, it was tempered by the subsequent return to the promised land during the reign of Cyrus.  Although it is hard to draw broad generalizations, I think that Kings is more persistently negative because it was written in the midst of that national trauma, while Chronicles is more generally positive because it was written in the midst of the hopeful restoration period.

Both Kings and Chronicles are looking back, but they are looking back for different reasons.  Kings is looking back to find what went wrong, and Chronicles is looking back to find a vision of society that they should strive for.  Neither of them is unbiased exactly, so I don't think we should look to one or the other to try to find an "objective" account of Manasseh's life.

For the second question (what can we learn from Manasseh's life), I think the description of his life is strongly representative of the sin/judgment/repentence/restoration paradigm that is presented in various places throughout the OT.  I would like to specifically reference 2 Chronicles 7 since that chapter sets the tone for so much of the rest of Chronicles.  Besides foretelling the exile, 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 also establishes the sin/judgment/repentance/restoration pattern, though at a national level rather than an individual level.  Nonetheless, Chronicles makes it clear that even in the midst of judgment, if the people repent then God will bring restoration and healing, and we see that in Manasseh's life.  Therefore I believe that Chronicles is seeking to portray Manasseh as an individual example of the biblical pattern laid out in 2 Chron 7.

Furthermore, we can also see shadows of Judah's history in the life of Manasseh.  Judah herself committed many sins, was taken into exile to Babylon (like Manasseh himself, v. 11), repented and was restored to the promised land.  That mirrors almost exactly the life of Manasseh as it is described in Chronicles.

In conclusion, I think the life of Manasseh is closely aligned with the overall message of Chronicles, emphasizing God's judgment that follows sin and his restorative acts that follow repentance.  The life of Manasseh is a microcosm of Judah's story and complicated relationship with God.

In the next chapter, Josiah becomes king and ushers in the final revival in the book of Chronicles.

*Other questions, such as "how do we sustain our faith in a hostile and idolatrous society?" are the subject matter for other books like e.g. the book of Daniel.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bible Commentary - 2 Chronicles 32

In this chapter, Sennacherib attempts to capture Jerusalem but fails.

This is a fairly long and complicated chapter.  There are many points I want to make, but I'll begin by explaining the narrative function of the story.

This conflict is a moment of testing for Hezekiah.  Hezekiah's reign was largely peaceful, but he is now facing a challenge.  His response in this time of testing will reveal the true nature of his heart and of his faith.

This pattern of peace interrupted by a foreign aggressor also occurred to a series of kings earlier in the book of Chronicles.  We read about other military conflicts during the reigns of Abijah, Asa and Jehoshaphat that also proved to be moments of testing for each of them.  Sometimes they responded well, and other times they responded poorly, but for each of those kings, we studied how they responded to conflict as a measure of their faith.  To paraphrase 1 Samuel 13:11, when your allies abandon you, your enemies are gathering, and the prophet who is supposed to save your ass is running late, that is when the true measure of a man is revealed.

That is the moment when our natural tendency to depend on our own strength and wisdom is put into conflict with our cultivated tendency to depend on the LORD in faith.  Faith must certainly be cultivated, and if our faith has not been sufficiently developed by the time we run into conflict, then we will fall back on our own strength to try to find safety.  That has led to the downfall of many, because the LORD will sometimes engineer situations that are literally impossible to get through by our own strength, and self-reliance will never succeed in those moments.

It's a subtle thing and many people don't realize it, but the decisions that we make in the moment of crisis are not actually made when we are in the crisis.  You might as well say that a baseball player learns how to swing the bat when he steps up to the plate at a World Series game.  A baseball player doesn't hit the ball because of some exceptional effort that he makes in the moment, it's because of the thousands of hours of practice he put in throughout his life, cultivating the proper technique and skills to play baseball.

In the same way, when people are faced with a crisis, we don't actually decide how we will respond at that moment.  We decided how we would respond to the crisis years ago by the way that we cultivated our hearts through thousands of smaller decisions.  In a moment of crisis, we do not have time to make a thoughtful decision.  For the most part, instinct and habit take over.  That is why it reveals one's inner nature, because you can't fake your response.  While instinct and habit may not seem like a choice, they are the product of one's lifestyle which is a choice.  We choose our response to a crisis through the lifestyle that we adopt over the years and possibly decades that precede the moment of decision.  When the crisis comes, it reveals what kind of lives we lived through our response.

Cultivation of a godly lifestyle is a long, slow and almost boring process, but in a certain sense it is even more important than our response in a time of crisis because it is what dictates our response in a time of crisis.

In the case of Hezekiah, we can see that there is no reason he "deserves" to be invaded.  This is not a judgment from God or punishment from God.  Verse 1 reiterates that it's after Hezekiah's faithful deeds that Sennacherib invaded, so we know for sure that God is pleased with Hezekiah before the invasion occurred.  As such, we can only take it for what it is: this is just a harsh event, a bump in the road, a struggle, and it has life-threatening severity.  Hezekiah is placed in a moment of crisis, and now we will see if his devotion to the LORD is strong, and more importantly, if it is real.

Like many other moments of crisis in the bible, this problem does not have a solution through Hezekiah's natural strength or wisdom.  It would be hard for me to exaggerate the Assyrians' military power at this time.  In the larger geopolitical stage, the Assyrians are an ascendant force at this time.  Their principal opponent on the international stage is the Egyptians, who they will defeat handily.  The Assyrians have already gone through and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.  In 2 Chron 30:6 Hezekiah himself makes reference to the king of Assyria plundering the northern kingdom as part of the justification for why Israel should turn back to the LORD.

In verses 13-15, the messenger of Sennacherib boasts about all of the other lands and kingdoms they have already conquered, and while some of that may be an exaggeration, there is clearly a basis in reality because the Assyrians did actually conquer a bunch of kingdoms.  Sennacherib also conquers Lachish (a Judean town) and all of the other outlying towns in Judah.  The conquest of Lachish was significant enough that Sennacherib ordered the production of the Lachish reliefs to celebrate.  Only Jerusalem remains.  It is clear that Judah does not have a military solution to this problem: only the LORD can save them from what is otherwise certain destruction.

Hezekiah turns to prayer, along with Isaiah the prophet, and the downfall of Sennacherib could not have been faster.  His army is destroyed by an angel, he returns to his own country in shame, and while praying in the temple of his false god, his own children come in and murder him.

The rest of Hezekiah's life is abbreviated in this version.  We are told that Hezekiah has some disease, but is healed, and that he has some sort of pride, but he humbles himself, and verse 31 says something or other about envoys from Babylon, and we learn it was some kind of test but it doesn't tell us exactly what kind of test or how Hezekiah did on it.  The "pride and humility" thing is new to Chronicles, but most of the rest of v. 24-33 is an abbreviated version of 2 Kings 20, which gives us more detail about Hezekiah's illness and healing, as well as the Babylonians.  In 2 Kings 20, Isaiah prophesies that Babylon would conquer Judah and take all of the gold and silver and other things that Hezekiah showed to the envoys.  It's possibly implied that Hezekiah sinned by showing everything to the envoys, which might be the "test" that v. 31 is referring to.  It's somewhat elusive but in this case I think Chronicles may be abbreviating these stories to downplay some of Hezekiah's mistakes in his later life.

When Hezekiah dies, his son Manasseh becomes the next king, and that concludes the story elements of this chapter.  Before moving on, I want to jump back a bit and take a look at some of the dialogue in this chapter, especially verses 9-19.

Sennacherib's speech contains two central arguments that justify why the Judeans should give up and surrender, rather than depend on the LORD.  The first is that Hezekiah is actually angering the LORD by destroying the high places and altars (v. 12), and therefore the LORD would not save Hezekiah's people.  The second argument is that none of the gods of any nation have been able to stop Sennacherib, and therefore there is no reason the LORD would be able to stop him either (v. 13-19).

The first argument in verse 12 is quite short and not particularly connected with the rest of the dialogue, but I find it very interesting.  So first of all, the authors of the bible clearly view these altars and high places as being centers for idolatry and paganism.  The high places are routinely condemned in both Kings and Chronicles, and elsewhere the prophets often refer to worship in the high places as adultery.  In verse 12, the king of Assyria appears to believe that these high places were used for worshiping the LORD.  While this clearly contradicts the attitude of the biblical authors, it is not necessarily a lie.  In various places we see hints that the Israelites and Judeans followed a syncretic religion that merged together elements of the native religions of the promised land and their faith in the LORD.

There are many references I could make to demonstrate syncretism in the bible, but for the sake of time I will only give one: Exodus 32:4-6.  In this short passage, Aaron has constructed an idol, and then immediately says that the idol is what delivered them from Egypt and then declares a festival "to the LORD" which is inextricably centered around their idol worship with the golden calf.  This shows that both Aaron and the people are delving into literal idolatry, yet claiming that the calf is the LORD who saved them.

In summary, it is possible that the Israelites who worship in the high places or around the Asherah poles may have claimed that they were worshiping the LORD through those activities.  They may have even believed they were worshiping the LORD.  The bible makes it clear that the LORD did not want to be worshiped in that way, but it could have still been a prevailing practice.  It would certainly explain why Sennacherib thought that Hezekiah was tearing down the altars of the LORD in his religious reforms.

Sennacherib's second claim is that the LORD is no different from any other god, and if the other gods didn't save their respective nations, the LORD would not be able to save Judah.  To understand this, my readers should remember that in this historical period, it was conventional for every nation to have their own patron god (or gods) that they identify with.  Defeating a certain nation is generally considered equivalent to defeating or overpowering their patron deity.  One of the implications of this belief system is that all of the patron gods are roughly equivalent.  Some may be stronger than others, but they are all equal in terms of their qualities.  There is no god of the universe, just localized gods for specific nations or places.  The other implication of this belief system is that the strength of one's god dictates the power of the nation under that god.  Therefore since the Assyrians are stronger than the Judeans, one could deduce that the Assyrians' gods are stronger than the god of Judah.

I definitely think both of these points figure into Sennacherib's attitude.  While some of the letter is just exaggerated posturing to scare the Judeans, Sennacherib wrote the letter this way because to the Mideast culture at the time, these kinds of arguments would have made sense.  Modern readers may not realize how vastly different was the religious landscape at the time this battle occurred, and how the bible presents such a starkly different religious viewpoint compared to the other religions at the time.  In a world with over two billion Christians and one billion Muslims, it may be hard for us to imagine a society where polytheism is the norm and monotheism is the exception, but that's exactly what is happening in this chapter.

The destruction of Sennacherib is just as much a repudiation of his philosophy as it is a repudiation of his assault against Hezekiah.  Verse 17 makes it clear that the Chronicler views these claims as "insults" against the LORD.  The equivalence between all the gods of the world would have been a common belief, and the Chronicler is explicitly bringing it up as part of Sennacherib's attack against Hezekiah.  By linking Sennacherib's message to his later defeat, the Chronicler is attempting to show that these claims are false, thereby establishing the opposite claim: the LORD is God over the whole world.  That is the fundamental theological point of this chapter, and it is embedded directly alongside the narrative point regarding the life of Hezekiah and his moment of crisis.  Hezekiah eventually passes his test, and through Hezekiah's faith, the story demonstrates the supremacy of the LORD over every other force in the world.

In the next chapter, Manasseh becomes king and undoes many of Hezekiah's religious reforms.