Wibble Wednesday: There Will Be Blood (2 Kings 9–11)

Back on track!

Short snarky summary: after spending chapters on end standing on the sidelines clucking and shaking his head disapprovingly, Elisha finally bothers to take action agains the house of Ahab.

I honestly have found the whole Elisha-Jehoram relationship completely incomprehensible. Ol’ Eli has, time and again, pulled Jehoram’s fat out of the fire on military misfortunes. Back in Chapter 3 he insulted Jehoram copiously but still guided him to victory over the Moabites (as a favor to king Jehoshaphat of Judah, however); in Chapter 5 he defused a potentially incendiary diplomatic situation with Aram by curing an Aramean general of leprosy; in Chapter 6 he deluded an Aramean raiding force into surrendering to the king; in Chapter 7 he prophesied the flight of an Aramean siege party. Maybe he just hates Arameans more than he hates Jehoram, but Elisha’s actions are not those of someone who is willing to let the monarchy meet its own well-deserved demise.

But for no apparent reason at all, he decides to finally, in Chapter 9, take the action which has been brewing against the Israelite monarchs since at least 1 Kings 18, when Elijah triumphed over Ahab’s chosen priests. He didn’t kill Ahab then, and the Elijah-Elisha team let countless opportunities to compass the death of Ahab and his heirs slip by since, but finally now Elisha takes action, sending a subprophet off to anoint the military commander Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat (confusingly not the Judahite king of that name — Jehu’s grandfather is Nimshi, while Jehshphat the king was the son as As) as the king of Israel. Now, Israel already has a king, namely, Jehoram of the house of Ahab, but the prophet anointing Jehu charges him first off with the destruction of the house of Ahab, making it like all the other aborted dynasties of Lsrael and leving Jezebel’s corpse to be eaten by dogs.

Notably, this whole prophesy is delivered to Jehu while he’s out on maneuvers with the rest of the military, and when the rest of the officers ask Jehu what the “madman” wanted, Jehu lies really badly and ends up having to come clean to them, with the (presumably unexpected) result that they all declare for him and join his cause, so that Jehu’s mission and charge rather suddenly becomes a full-fledged military coup. In conference the leaders decide on a stealth attack, so they return to Jezreel,, where Jehoram is convalescing (from a wound in the last chapter) and King Ahaziah of Judah is visiting him. A footnote, here: the last two kings of Judah, Joram and Ahaziah, have both been themselves tied to the house of Ahab and are thus, in the eyes of the narrative, tainted. Ahaziah is not to be confused with the Israelite king of the same name, who was Jehoram’s elder brother and preceded him; it’s all very confusing. Anyways, this Ahaziah is Ahab’s nephew by way of his mother Athaliah, although he’s descended patrilineally from the Davidic dynasty. For Jehoram and Ahaziah, this return of the army is nothing particular to worry about, so they send messengers to inquire how things are going and carry on, but Jehu keeps not sending the messengers back. Finally, not having gotten news, Jehoram and Ahaziah themselves ride out to meet Jehu, and in response to Jehoram’s polite inquiry into affairs, Jehu launches into this extraordinary rant, calling Jehoram’s mother Jezebel a whore and a witch among other colorful insults. Jehoram realizes this is not the behavior of a faithful subordinate and flees, trying to warn Ahaziah, but both Jehoram and Ahaziah are overtaken and slain with arrows.

A prophecy callback occurs here: Jehu orders Jehoram’s corpse thrown into he field of Naboth the Jezreelite, as vengeance for Naboth. Remember Naboth? Back in 1 Kings 21 Ahab desired a plot of land for a garden, and offered to buy it off of Naboth, who refused to sell, so Jezebel engineered a trumped-up charge of treason against him, had him executed, and them seized his land. Elijah promised that the dogs would lick Ahab’s blood in the fields for this miscarriage of justice (which Ahab himself hadn’t actually perpetrated; that was his wife, with the complicity of corrupt local officials), but apparently only now does the curse get fulfilled, by Ahab’s kin. Ahaziah, by contrast, is shipped back home to sleep with his fathers: he may be a shit, but he’s a shit of the Davidic dynasty, and they get treated with dignity.

Anyways, most of the principal Ahabites are dead now, but Jehu still has to contend with the dowager Jezebel. Jezebel faces her death with a certain amount of dignity: she dresses formally for the occasion, and addresses jehu boldly by the nme of “Zimri”, which is basically an accusation of treason: Zimri was the officer who fomented a rebellion against his king Baasha back in 1 Kings 16, and who was himself struck down shortly after by Ahab’s father Omri. So the taunt takes a bit of unpacking, but Jezebel is basically accusing Jehu not only of treason, but of treason which contains the seeds of its own undoing. On Jehu’s orders, the palace eunuchs (perhaps fearing a reprisal from the new king) throw Jezebel out the window to be trampled by Jehu’s horses. Eventually Jehu realizes that it’s awfully undignified (not to mention politically inexpedient) to let Jezebel, who is after all actually foreign royalty, rot away in the sun, and orders her body brought in and delivered to her kin, but her body has been utterly destroyed (presumably eaten by dogs, too, although we don’t get an explicit callback to that prophecy).

Meanwhile, having consolidated a power base, Jehu issues a challenge to the guardians of Ahab’s remaining heirs, telling them to raise up a king to the throne and protect him as best they can. Rather than rise to this challenge, the guardians surrender, and at Jehu’s command murder Ahab’s seventy children and send their heads to be piled up at the gate of Jezreel. After executing a few more various intimates of the house of Ahab, Jehu declares the work of extinguishing the Ahabites complete and sets out for the capital of Israel, in Samaria. As luck would have it, on the way he encounters a delegation of Ahaziah’s kin, and when he identifies them, slaughters them too (Ahaziah’s mother was Ahab’s sister, so presumably they’re included in the ban on the house of Ahab). Oddly, none of this seems to cause a political risis, which seems weird: Ahaziah and the visiting delegation, both of whom were killed, were actually not Israelites, but were people of great importance within Judah. It seems there should be war between Judah and Israel after this flagrant violation of the peace existing between the kingdoms, but we get no word of anything of the sort happening.

Also on the trip Jehu recruits a lieutenant, Jehonadab, and promises that together they’ll strike a blow for Godliness. They do this by staging a massive public sacrifice to Baal, bringing in Baalites from all over Israel and putting on a full ritual show, but immediately after the burnt offering, Jehu orders in a contingent of eighty soldiers to massacre the worshippers. Having murdered the hell out of everyone even remotely culturally connected to the old regime, Jehu orders the temple of Baal knocked down and turns the ruins into a public toilet. And yet for all this, the end of the text offers an equivocal view of Jehu: sure, he exacted God’s revenge and eradicated Ba’al-worship, but he didn’t remove the cult objects dating all the way back to Jeroboam’s day, so he wasn’t quite good enough. Anyways, he is succeeded by his son Jehoahaz.

Meanwhile, a very similar coup is playing out in Judah. Judah, like Israel, has had its king slain by Jehoram and power devolves onto the dowager Athaliah (King Ahaziah’s mother and Ahab’s sister). Presumably to cement her power, Athaliah promptly turns around and murders every potential heir, but Ahaziah’s sister secretly smuggles Joash, one of her nephews, out of the palace before the purge, and Joash spends his childhood hidden at the Temple while Athaliah reigns. But just in Judah, a military coup is brewing. Jehoiada (who is introduced with no context but whom we later learn is the high priest) meets with the royal guard and lets them know there is an heir, and successfully coopts the guard. Jehoiada then crowns the young king in sight of the palace guard, and the dowager, summoned by the commotion, realizes she’s been betrayed but is immediately captured, removed from the temple, and executed. Jehoida destroys the Baal cult in Judah just as Jehu did in Israel, and he places Joash on the throne.

The Jehoiada story presumably touches on a point important to and familiar to the Deuteronomists: cooption of the kingship by the priesthood. The Deuteronomists were generally not big fans of the monarchy as an institution, and only really trusted the priesthood and would grant modest allowances to a king actually descended from the line of David. To them, subordinance of the monarchs to the priestly caste was pretty much the best monarchy they could envision. So it’s not surprising they think Joash is a return to the Good Old Days of Judahite glory. Tune in next week, when we see just how Joash implements a religious revival in Judah.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: There Will Be Blood (2 Kings 9–11)

  1. gsanders says:

    Wow, that section is pretty hard core, even by biblical standards.

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