Wibble Wednesday: And Then There Was One (2 Kings 18–19)

Let a few too many Wednesdays go by. Oops.

Short snarky summary: Judah no longer has Israel around to look good in comparison to. Fortunately, there’s life in the old Kingdom yet, and it’ll totter but not fall before Assyrian onslaught.

Previously on Wibble Wednesday, the Kingdom of Israel had been taken over by the Assyrians, their people exiled, and the land resettled with what the text obliquely claimed would become the Samaritans. This means we’re down to one kingdom in the narrative, since Israel and its monarchy have, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist, and our story is now focused on Judah. No longer do we have two kings with the exact same name hanging around to confuse us!

Anyways, the most recent king of Judah, Ahaz, was, oddly enough, a contemptable idolworshipper. The “oddly enough” part there isn’t sarcasm. It would be if I were talking about a king of the late Israel, who were at their best mildly idolatrous, but this is Judah, and the line of David, on whom our author has a big sticky mancrush. So Ahaz was horrible, which is actually atypical, and he’s succeeded by his son Hezekiah. Hezekiah is one of the Important Kings, possibly the most favorably portrayed since Solomon at least, and there’s a ton of exegetical fables about his general awesomeness. Hezekiah has two things going for him. First, he’s incredibly pious, not only rolling back his father’s reformations to the state religions, but finally crushing the practice of shrine-worship, whose tolerance was criticised in all his ancestors (side note: the “shrine worship”, reading for context, is likely not actual idolatry, which was criticized far less ambiguously, but is the worship of the God of Israel and Judah in a non-Temple setting. This was not a foreign heresy but it was anti-centralist, and the Deuteronomists were big fans of a strong central Temple). He also destroyed the bronze serpent of Moses, an artifact whose identity is actually pretty obscure: there’s a one-off episode back in Numbers 21 where the Israelites wandering in he desert are plagued by snakes and Moses, working on God’s instructions, constructs a bronze serpent that cures snakebite. The serpent is unmentioned between that episode and this one and until this point there is basically no reason to believe the damn thing is still around. Anyways, Hezekiah destroys it in his iconoclastic zeal (exegesis claims the serpent became an object of idolworship in the intervening centuries).

Hezekiah’s other major virtue, beyond his religious fervor, is his martial prowess. Ahaz was successful in statecraft pretty much only by allying himself with the fearsome Assyrian Empire. By Hezekiah’s reign the wheels have come off that treaty and Assyria offers Judah the choice to become a vassal state. Judah rebels and, in a fairly extraordinary turn of events, seems to get away with it, biting off a huge chunk of Philistine territory for good measure.

Naturally, the rebellion of a plucky little stat on the western edge of Assyria’s range of ambition can’t last forever, and the Assyrians retake the field in force, basically overrunning Judah until Hezekiah pays a heavy tribute, which apparently includes all the recent improvements to the Temple. Sometimes it seems like half the kings are adding bits to the Temple, and the other half are chopping them off for tribute.

Incidentally, this event has external archaeological evidence. A lot of what we know about the late Assyrian Empire came from a large cuneiform record of King Sennacharib’s rule, written in triplicate. The raid on Judah and the tribute from Hezekiah are actually mentioned therein, although episode following is not. For the remainder of Chapter 18 and all of 19, we veer back into mythology, because Sennacharib and Hezekiah are not quite done with each other yet, and they begin with a siege of Jerusalem, kicked off with a meeting conducted through the proxies of the courtiers of each kingdom. Assyria’s courtiers accuse Judah of pride and foolish arrogance in allying with Egypt against Assyria. In an efficient turn of phrase, they describe Egypt as “a splintered reed of a staff, which stabs the hand of those who lean on it”, which prettily encapsulates the notions both of treachery and weakness. The big shocker Assyria has to bear, though, is that the eradication of the shrine worship has weakened Judah’s faith, and the God of the Israelites now supports Assyria and has delivered it into their hands. Judah’s courtier, fearing rumor, begs the Assyrian to speak in Aramaic instead of Judean so that eavesdroppers won’t hear, but the Assyrian envoy makes it clear that he mitends his words to be heard by the people, and then directly addresses the listening Judeans, telling them that if they surrender they can have peace, and that Hezekiah’s promised deliverance won’t come, any more than the gods of other nations saved them from the Assyrians. Judah as a whole apparently remains strong in the face of this provocation, but it is clear to the royal court that Assyrian aggression is not over.

Chapter 19 opens with Hezekiah despairing and grieving , in legitimate fear of the upcoming Assyrian onslaught, and he calls to the prophet Isaiah for advice. This is somewhat useful because pretty much all the prophets have an ostensible historical context, and this one is going to be illuminating later, when we have chapters worth of prophecy attributed to this selfsame Isaiah. So now we at least know the context on that. Isaiah promises that the feared attack won’t come because Sennacharib will go home in response to reports of rebellion on other borders and die there. Said reports apparently do happen, and the text reports that Sennacharib is recalled to put down an uprising in Nubia, but that he doesn’t slacken his assault on Judah even under those circumstances. Sennacharib seems to have a lot invested in the notion of proving other nation’s gods can’t protect them, because he once more addresses Judah in terms iinsisting that no other nation’s gods saved them, and Judah’s, too, will fall.

Isaiah reassures the king with an extensive poetic diatribe against Sennacharib’s haughty claim of superiority. The poem is in roughly two parts: one is a fulsome praise of the power of the God whom Sennacharib thought to defy, claiming great powers distributed widely both over time and space; the second part, which sandwiches this song of power, is a criticism specifically of Sennacharib and of his folly in opposing God. All this talk is very fine but Jerusalem is still besieged. Even that Isaiah claims is no big deal, and that the siege is of such little consequence that the people of the city will get to eat even of that year’s fruits from harvest. Several more poetic fragments follow which are taken both as descriptive of the contemporary situation and more broadly of Judaic indomitability: “For a remnant shall come forth from Judah, survivors from Mount Zion”. This is all going to nd up being part-and-parcel of Isaiah’s much longer messianic pronouncements later, but it’s worth noting that this is delivered in a specific time of crisis. Next he channels Gandalf facing the balrog, speaking of all the things which Sennacharib will be unable to do, ending with “He shall not enter this city”.

And, indeed, in this text, he doesn’t (no such identical incident is recorded in Sennacharib’s own records), for that very night an angel strikes down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (like most numbers in the Bible, this is ridiculously large, and Assyria almost certainly never fielded a force even half that size). Sennacharib withdraws in disgrace and is assassinated by two of his sons. This part actually did happen, or something pretty close to it, althoguh it was twenty years after the Judean campaign.

Chapter 19 is, all in all, a substantial bit of mythohistory. There are parts which are conspicuously true, parts which are conspicuously false, and a fair amount of local color in between which is basically impossible to verify. This ends up being the fundamental flavor which the historical record has from this point forwards: the Assyrians and the Mesopotamian civilizations that followed them were good enough record-keepers that the Biblical account can be synchronized with the historical record pretty closely.

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Sibble Saturday: Diaspora (2 Kings 16–17)

Gah, missed a week (away at ARML!) and now I’m late (went to Shakespeare in the Park instead of writing about the Bible, oops. It’s really very hard to work up enthusiasm for these books; there’s just a certain repetitive tedium to them. Maybe some ferocious invaders will make things more interesting.

Short snarky summary: Attack of the Assyrians! Israel finally gets what’s coming to them, and the author takes a few verses to explain how richly they deserve it. Also: slanders against the Samaritans.

When last seen, we were into C-list and D-list kings. Israel had entered another one of its periods of dynastic overthrow and the most recent usurper is Hoshea; in Judah, King Jotham has been succeeded by his son Ahaz. The Israelite kings are, as always, put forth as naughty, naughty idolworshippers, while the monarchy of Judah, of the Davidic line, are given qualified praise, with the suggestion that maybe they ought to not tolerate the shrine worship but otherwise are basically virtuous sorts.

But then we get into Ahaz’s reign, which moves us slightly backwards on the timeline, since Ahaz actually came into power when Hoshea’s predecessor Pekah was still in power. Ahaz, in what is authentically a deviation from the repetitive history so far, is actually a Bad King, condemned in no uncertain terms as an aberration from the expected behavior of Judahite kings. Of course he’s an idolator, which is basically the only crime the author of this book recognizes, and he also practices child sacrifice (way to bury the lede there). He apparently sacrifices under “every leafy tree”, a bit of hyperbole which fills me with amusement thinking of King Ahaz methodically defiling every single tree in Judah.

Anyways, in the midst of Ahaz being a complete monster, he is besieged by a coalition force from some other nation and Israel (guess the days of Israel and Judah getting along are over for good). They don’t take Jerusalem, but they do “liberate” Elath (modern-day Eilat, at the south tip of Judahite territory). I’m coy about the identity of the other aggressor because it seems to be an error: there’s talk of how both the aggressor and ultimate occupier of Elath is Aram, but them talks about settling Edomites there. Edom makes a lot more sense — Aram is way up in the north, and they don’t share a border with Judah, and it would be awfully strange for them to get involved in Israelite aggressions against Judah.

However, Aram makes sense as the aggressor for what happens next, which is that Ahaz throws himself on the mercy of the king o Assyria, sending tribute and asking for aid. This makes geographical sense because Assyria is way up north, even past Aram, and in a prime position to roll right down onto Aram’s home turf. Also, we’re reaching the point in history where Assyria becomes the Big Dog in Near East power struggles, and they might well decide to bite off a big chunk of Aram even without King Ahaz asking them nicely. So Assyria steamrolls Aram, executes the king, deports the inhabitants, and basically performs the first in what will be a series of punishing victories (history later ended up regarding the Assyrian military vehicle as a horrible monstrosity even by the barbaric standards of the time).

Anyways, Ahaz might be a horrible Jew but he’s a pretty good politician, because alliance with Assyria is pretty much the only way in this period to avoid being either crushed utterly or reduced to heavily-taxed vassalage. He hangs out with the king of Assyria for awhile and sends home pictures of the altar in Damascus for the Temple architects in Jerusalem to reproduce. He comes home, admires the new altar, and demotes the altar of the Temple to a secondary status, elevating the religion of Assyria to state sanction. This is not explicitly called out as an abomination in the text but presumably that’s how we’re meant to view it. He also plunders the original Temple altar for its metal componnents. I imagine with all the Temple treasury raids of the prior century, Solomon’s great masterwork is not exactly looking like it did in its prime at this point.

Anyways, Ahaz is succeded by his son Hezekiah, and we bounce back to Israel to see what’s going on there. Recall that back in the rein of Pekah (possibly as part of Ahaz’s alliance), Assyriah gobbled up a nice chunk of northern Israel. In Hoshea’s reign, a new king of Assyria comes back to finish the job. Hoshea consents to pay tribute and manages to keep Assyria off his back for a little while, but through back channels he’s apparently trying to form an anti-Assyrian alliance with Egypt (who seem like they’d be too far west to care that much), and whenthe tribute is lat and the King of Assyria hears rumblings of rebellion, he figures that being nice straight up doesn’t pay off, and he goes ahead and does to Israel what he does to all his enemies, squooshing them flat, killing indiscriminately, stealing everything that isn’t nailed down, and exiling the people to resettle his own. This exile is a Big Deal: one of the pillars of later Judaism was this conception of repeated exiles and removal from the holy land which is rightfully theirs (which informs a lot of discussion about the state of Israel even today, of course), and this is the first of what will prove to be many forced relocations. Israel as a state basically ceases to exist at this point, so we only really have one kingdom to keep track of now.

However, for the remainder of Chapter 17, we do not bounce back to Judah to stay, but instead talk through some of the fallout of the conquest and exile of Israel. Several verses can be basically condensed down into “I told you so!”, explaining in aginizing detail how this is a fulfillment of the fate predicted in Deuteronomy, which included a litany of curses delivered to a faithless Israel, and how exile is their ultimate comeuppance. There’s a brief reiteration at this point of every single one of their awful idol-worshipping ways and how much they irritate God, so that Israel was cast out and only Judah remained.

The second long discursion in Chapter 17 deals with the resettlement of Israel by Assyrians. This is a narrative which turns out to be a contentious origin story. See, the Assyrian settlers keep getting mauled by lions, and the governor reports that this is because they don’t know the God of Israel, and that they need some education in the ways of this new land’s God. So the Assyrians recall some Israelite priests from exile, who teach the settlers about God, whereupon the settlers incorporate God into their pre-existing practice and belief structure and, while ostensibly worshipping him, do so in a way the author of the text condemns as abhorrent and improper, and which is said to be a contemporary issue as well. It;s actually pretty straightforward to see what contemporary Jewish population this is a swipe at: the Deuteronomist author of this origin story is basically slandering the Samaritans.

The Samaritans are a kind of obscure group today, and in a weird historical irony the present-day associations with the word are nearly all positive, courtesy of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The whole point of the presence of a Samaritan in that tale, however, is that the Samaritans were widely detested at the time. Their history is murky and they were never a huge group (they still exist, and they’re now an absolutely minuscule community, less than a thousand in number), but they are unmistakably people with a major overlap in faith and tradition with mainstream Judaism but with significant divergences. They have their own variant text of the Torah but reject the other Judaic writings (including the Neviim, Kethuvim, and Talmud).

So when a text written at the time of the Samaritans’ greatest visibility tells a story about people living in Samaria who have been taught the principles of Judaism but are Not Really Jews, it’s not real hard to figure out who they might be talking about. The Samaritans themselves, incidentally, regard this story in 2 Kings as slanderous (and, since it’s in the Neviim, it’s not canonical in their tradition anyways). Samaritan orthodoxy maintains that they are in fact the true Children of Israel, out of one-or-another of the Twelve Tribes, and this “the Samaritans are really lightly-educated Assyrians” bit here is basically a big “fuck you” to the Israelites’ fellow travelers. Obviously, in the end, the Deuteronomists won this culture war, but this particular artifact indicates they were pretty nasty about it.