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

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