Wibble Wednesday: Gloom and doom (2 Kings 20–22)

Travel and eager/dread-filled convention-watchinghave kept me a bit out of the loop, but now I’m back. This week’s convention is a far more pleasant watch but with less trainwrecky unmissable quality, so I’ll take some time for my own special brand of exegesis.

Short snarky summary: Judah has a couple of good kings who receive bad news. It is suggested that their misfortunes are their own fault.

So the Assyrian invasion ended in mysterious, widespread death of the attacker, and King Hezekiah (a good guy, by the Bible’s lights, for those keeping score at home) is the man of the hour. Alas, Chapter 20 is all about him getting boned by fate in spite of his good features. It starts with Isaiah dropping by while Hezekiah is very ill, and prophesying his imminent death. Hezekiah, who has trouble believing that bad things happen to good people, delivers a weepy prayer enumerating his good points and asking why he has to die. God has good answers for this sort of thig by the time we reach the book of Job, but he doesn’t yet, so he sends Isaiah back to promise not only healing but also safety and security for Judah and for Jerusalem from the upcoming Assyrian takeover of pretty much everywhere. Isaiah also prescribes a poultice of figs for Hezekiah’s rash, because, hey, why not. It’s not like we know the nature of his illness, or even (until this point) that it was associated with a rash, so who’s to say direct application of figs isn’t a sensible treatment? Anyways, it works.

And then, Hezekiah demands some sort of sign that he will get better, which seems a bit strange to me, because (a) he’s already gotten better, and (b) everybody’s always demanding signs and it’s hard to square that with the notion that these are people of tremendous faith and obedience. I mean, think about, say, Moses, or Gideon. The Lord of Hosts is speaking to them, and giving them instruction to, say, liberate the Israelites from bondage or smash the town’s idols. And instead of realizing that, y’know, this is God speaking directly to them and they should maybe do what he says, they go into these weird, demanding fits of skepticism, insisting that their interlocutor perform some-or-other miracle (Gideon manages to waste two days demanding signs and portents). Hezekiah at least has the defense that his prophesy is mediated through Isaiah instead of delivered directly from God, but even so I would think miracles would be a bit beside the point here. But, anyways, Isaiah, on command, makes a shadow on some local landmark recede, which I guess is not what established astronomy said would happen. It’s all frankly a bit silly and seems completely unnecessary since we already had the requisite miracle this chapter what with Hezekiah being healed.

The chapter continues with a goodwill embassy from Babylon coming to congratulate Hezekiah on his recovery. Hezekiah, out of either pride or naïvite or a complete lack of comprehension of how intelligence operations and security work, shows the envoys every single valuable object in his possession (which is presumably indistinguishable from the national treasury of Judah, ’cause that’s how absolute monarchy works). After Isaiah interrogates him as to what he has done, he prophesies that some day all of the treasures will be seized by Babylon, and the king’s own sons taken away as slaves (“eunuchs”, actually, but the text is pretty dire no matter how you read it).

Hezekiah’s reaction to this prediction of doom is so very extraordinary that I’m starting to think he may actually be simpleminded, or sociopathic, or something. He explicitly calls it “good”, reasoning that if it’s only his sons who are to be taken away, it means Judah is secure during his own lifetime. That’s a pretty low damn bar you set for good news there, Ziggy. I wouldn’t take “your kingdom will crumble sometime between 20 and 80 years from now” as a really good prophesy.

As always, dreary details of Hezekiah’s life are apparently consigned to a different lost book, and the summation of his life only hints at his civic achievements, which apparently include construction of a reservoir and an aqueduct (this gets played up a bit in Snow Crash, which asserts as part of its Mesopotamian backstory that sanitation in the city and lack thereof outside the city explains that mysterious illness back during the Assyrian siege). Hezekiah is then succeeded by his son Manasseh.

Back when Israel was still around to make Judah look like a good monarchy by comparison, pretty much all the kings of Judah got assessed as somewhere between “pretty good” and “great”, but with Israel out of the picture, our narrator has practiced a bit more freedom in condemning Judaic kings. And, indeed, Manasseh is one of the ones judged to be wanting. We get a long list of Manasseh’s abhorrent practices, and, surprise,t hey’re the usual atrocities. Re-establishing the shrine-worship, rebuilding the sundry worship-spaces for Baal and setting up an idol of Asherah in the Temple (I think Asherah hadn’t been previously mentioned, so maybe this suggests shifting cultural practices around this time). He also sacrifices his own children (an atrocity that actually still resonates, practices divination, and, y’know, is generally bad. We even get a few civic crimes: in a bit of ridiculous hyperbole, we’re told Manasseh killed so many people that Jerusalem was positively flooded with blood. It’s in some ways refereshing to see a king whose evils move beyond a lack of religious purity, but the assessments of kings’ morality in this text frankly never actually seemed to assess whether they were good for or to the people, so why would they start now?

As a notable aside, there’s an element of this list of atrocities which reads more monolatrist than monotheistic. There’s an assertion that Manassah built altars for “all the hosts of heaven”, a bit of language which seems to somewhat legitimize if not approving of the objects of Manasseh’s worship. Maybe the translation misses a shade of meaning in the original, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was some sort of pre-Deuteronomist element that slipped in somehow.

Anyways, the consequence of all Manasseh’s evil, as detailed by nameless prophets presumably on Team Isaiah, will be the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitents. We actually got a similar theme back in Deuteronomy ages ago, so laying it all at Manasseh’s feet seems a bit capricious. I mean, that fate had already been spoken centuries ago. ANd it doesn’t even come to pass in Manasseh’s lifetime anyways, so he could be as happy as Hezekiah was about putting it off for another generation to deal with. Manasseh dies peacefully, which seems a kind of peculiar end for a designated villain, but history (which to a certain extent these stories are, inasmuch as archaeology supports the notion that most of these people existed) has no flair for situational justice.

Next up is Manasseh’s son Amon, who is sketched very briefly. He apparently continued his father’s sins, to an extent that he is slain in a palace coup (I’m extapolating by drawing a connection between Amon’s misdeeds and his murder; the text states them each in isolation), and the conspirators themselves are done in by a popular revolt, and the net effect is simply to fast-track Amon off the stage making way for his son Josiah.

With Josiah in Chapter 22, we return to the reign of a Good King. Josiah is a bit of a throwback to his ancestor Joash, who busied himself extensively with managing the Temple treasury and repair funds. He dispatches the high priest and scribe to distribute temple funds to overeers to subcontract laborers with. This is fairly bog-standard repair logisitics, but it’s presumably a setup for the episode that follows, as the high priest and scribe are clearing out various corners of the Temple preparatory to the work.

This tale is set off by the high priest’s discovery of a scroll of the Torah in among the Temple’s chattels. The scribe reads the scroll to the king, and the king performs rituals of grief. His grief is apparently not over the discovery of the scroll (which is presumably a joyous affair), but over concern that God will be wroth with them for loisn and not abiding by the teachings on the scroll in the first place. He sends courtiers to inquire of where they stand in God’s graces to a prophetess (side note: it’s been a while since we say a woman with significance in the Bible. This is probably the first since Chapter 11 when Ahaziah’s dowager went on a murder spree). The prophetess says what we’ve already heard several times in the previous chapters: Jerusalem will be laid waste in vengeance against Judah’s misdeeds, but, since Josiah was so effusively grief-stricken at this lapse, the evil day will be delayed until after his death.

It’s not entirely clear to me what sin is being punished here. It seems possible that the entirety of the Law was lost during the past two reprobate kings, and what Joash has discovered is the entirety of the neglected Torah, and the lapse he speaks of with grief is specifically the reign of his two predecessors. But this kind of doesn’t make sense—Joash had turned to the Godly path before discovering the scroll, so how could th entire notion of Judaic worship be unknown before he found the scroll. But another explanation (and one that squares well with the Deuteronomist agenda) is that the scroll Joash found was simply different from the established and mutated Law of which he had copies, and that the scroll was, somehow, verifiable as older and truer. Taking such a read (i.e. Judah was following a Torah text, but not the right Torah text) is both in line with the Deuteronomical mission to establish a Biblical canon, and a direct dig at specific groups who followed a Torah the Deutoronomists regarded as noncanonical (chiefly the Samaritans).

But anyways, we’ve had a prophesy of doom and 4 kings it’s not happening to. This blow is going to land eventually, right?

Of course it will. But not until our next installment.