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.

No comments: