Wibble Wednesday: Into the Great Wide Open (2 Kings 23–25)

Oof. Took some time off there for various family activities/beginning-of-year whatnots/psychological breakdowns and the like. Things are still crazy and there’s tons of other stuff I should be doing, but, eh, this is kind of comforting.

Short snarky summary: Judah finally gets what’s coming to them. Also, Samaritans are WRONG WRONG WRONG because the king says so and so does God.

So, previously we had a premonition of doom, with a prophesy (delivered by one of the few women to occupy a narrative role) that Judah would be laid waste and exiled, but not until after King Josiah’s death. Part of the background for this upcoming disaster is the discovery of a previously unknown Torah scroll with teachings contrary to their established pracices. Chapter 23 continues to draw out this thread. I’m relaitively certain that this whole “new, different Torah scroll” plotline is meant as an anti-Samaritan dig (and perhaps a sideswipe at other sects who followed a non-Deuterocanonical approach to the Law). Remember, the Deuteronomists are basically establishing their own canon, and trying very hard to make it seem divinely mandated. Later mainstream Judaic theology will come up with some convoluted workaround suggesting that the entire Jewish canon is actually in the “Oral Law”, which was also handed down on Sinai and includes the Midrash and the Talmud. Note that these latter two texts themselves refer extensively to the non-Torah portions of the Tanakh, so the long con here is basically to place books like 2 Kings on a par of divine authorship with the Torah.

Historically, this is obvious bunk. We know when the Deuteronomical texts were written, and they’re not mid-Bronze-Age. We know who wrote the Talmud, and it’s not God. The idea that these were just later verbatim recordings of an established text from Sinai is so ridiculous it’s hard to imagine that it forms a mainstream Jewish principle, but so it does. And we may be seeing the primordial version of that principle here, with an ancient hitherto unknown text being brought up as a major modification to the extant Torah.

So Chapter 23 starts with a ceremony of the king sanctifying and confirming the new text before the people; this serves to simultaneously demonstrate Josiah’s goodness (in accepting and confirming the manuscript), and confirm the manuscript’s truth (through the royal mandate). It’s elegantly circular. Next up Josiah orders the destruction of cult objects: the posts of Asherah, the idols of Baal, and the chambers of the male prostitutes (who may have been cult prostitutes; we’ve seen these guys before, and every reference to them has been enigmatic but disapproving). My memory was hazy, and I could have sworn all these things had been done before, and they were, by Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah! But the two intervening generations had re-established the practices, which is why we get the purges all over again. He also destroyed the shrine-worship, another familiar theme: these shrines to Jehovah were not idolatrous, but they were ouside of the established, centralized temple practice, and were thus another sore point for the Deuteronomists, who favored a strong cetralized priesthood. The taxt as a whole engages in mind-numbing detail about exactly which worship-objects Josiah ordered destroyed, and the most significant thing is that apparently a lot of them were part of either the Temple grounds or the royal palace. He also digs up and defiles graves on the hill near Jeroboam’s altar in Bethel, which is a bit confusing, although it allws a callback to an incident in 1 Kings 13 when a prophet came to Bethel, prophesied against Jereboam and specifically predicted the rise of Josiah, and, due to a complicated sin involving acceptance of hospitality, was then slain by a lion and buried by a different prophet (the one who offered him the hospitality; it’s a very weird story). Both prophets in question is apparently among the bones on Bethel, and Josiah, informed by the locals that this grave was of the one who predicted his own rise, leaves both sets of bones undisturbed.

Josiah also murders all the cult priests of Samaria, which is a pretty obvious reference to Samaritanism, and which, confusingly enough, doesn’t seem to be in his territory—Samaria is the old capital of Israel, not Judah, and Israel is an Assyrian vassal state at this point. That part doesn’t make a lot of sense, because Samaria isn’t Josiah’s to do with as he likes. He then celebrates Passover, and the text goes to great pains to specify that in all of Israel and Judah’s monarchical history, the Passover sacrifice had never been properly observed (no, not even by King David!) until that day and that for that Josiah was truly great. But even so, God was still planning to doom Jerusalem, not because anyone there at that time had sinned, but because Josiah’s father and grandfather were so very horrible.

Josiah’s story cuts off abruptly with an invasion by Egypt. Josiah himself is killed in battle, and his son Jehoahaz only reigned three months before being imprisoned and deported by Egypt’s Pharaoh, who installs Jehoahaz’s son Eliakim on the throne instead (changing his name to Jehoiakim, for reasons which are obscure) and demanding tribute. This is basically the end of Judah’s existence as an independent state. Jehoiakim is poorly thought of by the authors for two reasons: first, he “does what is displeasing to God”, which is presumably idolatry because the Deuteronomists don’t have a really varied appetite for sin, and second, he taxes the hell out of the people to afford the tremendous tribute burden.

The best way to break free of a big tyrannical state, Jehoiakim reasoned, is to befriend a bigger tyrannical state, and at that period of history that state was Babylon. Jehoiakim swears fealty to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (another act which surely annoyed God, but, hey, if he didn’t want his monarchs subordinating themselves to foreign potentates, maybe he shouldn’t let his nation get conquered all the time). We’re told this is an effective deterrent against the Egyptians, but eventually Jehoiakim chafes against this vassalage of his own choosing and rebels, predictably earning Babylon’s ire and attention.

However, Jehoiakim doesn’t live to see the damaging effects of his rebellion. His son Jehoiachin takes the crown, and holds it for a mere three months before Babylon sweeps down in its might and besieges Jerusalem. Jerusalem surrenders and the Temple and palace are completely looted, while all of the skilled laborers in Judah are exiled to work in Babylon. Jehoiachinhimself is placed under arrest, with his family, and the regency is bestowed upon his uncle, whose name is changed (it must be some sort of near-East tradition, when installing a puppet king, to change their name) to Zedekiah. All of this happens, we are told, on accout of Manasseh’s sin “filling Jerusalem with the blood of the innocent, and God would not forgive”. Given what the toll of war and deportation must have been, there’s a pretty horrific irony and hypocrisy in this justification.

But even crushing the resistence, scattering the skilled worker, and installing a puppet king doesn’t keep Judah at bay, and after nine years, Zedekiah rebels and the Babylons come tramping back to besiege Jerusalem again, blockading the city for over a year while the citizens starve. Before they can all die of famine, the babylonians breach the walls to put them out of their misery. Zedekiah’s family is executed, Zedekiah himself is blinded, and the city, already presumably a bit sparse from the last looting, is burned to the ground. Everything which wasn’t deemed valuable enough to loot on the last go-round is uprooted and carried off, which includes most of the bronze temple implements. The entire royal entourage of priests and attendants is killed, and all but a small number of Judahites are exiled. The few remnants are apparently left under a Judean governor, against whom they rebel and then flee to Egypt.

So at this point, Judah is depopulated, Jerusalem razed, and the people scattered to Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. This is the beginning of the mythohistorical period of exile, when no Judean state exists. This state of affairs will continue (with Judean independence flickering in and out at various points between empries) for the rest of the text. Henceforth the Biblical narrative probably has a more accurate view of Judah’s place in the world: in the previous chapters, Judah (and Israel) came across as significant, major forces in the Near East, which pretty much no archaeological evidence confirms. But from the end of this book forwards, the Israelite people are presented as subjects of large consequential empires, which historically they actually were.

The book closes out with one minor piece of good news. A new Babylonian king, with the false-cognate name of Evil-merodach, sets Jehoiachin (the king imprisoned and replaced with his uncle Zedekiah) free and shows him favor and elevation in court. That’s a happy ending, I guess.Judah finally gets what’s coming to them. Also, Samaritans are WRONG WRONG WRONG because the king says so and so does God.

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

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