The Workings of Hebrew Narrative in the Hezekiah Stories in 2 Kings

My kids have just come home from school with the fact that the world’s best-selling book is the Bible and not any part of the Harry Potter series, or even Lord of the Rings.

It isn’t surprising when we look closely at the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (to say nothing of the all-important Final Quarter).  I’m constantly amazed at the artistry and profundity of both poetic and narrative texts of the OT.  And some of it escapes us until we read the Hebrew.

Having reached the end of 2 Kings 20 this morning, let me mention a couple of great little nuggets from 2 Kings 18-20, those riveting and sometimes perplexing stories about Hezekiah.  (Pretty well all of these things will apply also to Isaiah 36-39, but I am not taking the time to check each detail there right now.)

  • There is a fundamental tension within the story of the Assyrian crisis when Sennacherib invades.  Here it comes out in Christopher J. H. Wright’s brief historical survey in The Message of Jeremiah, Bible Speaks Today Series (2014), p. 18:

“When Sennacherib marched west to put down the rebellion in 701 BC, he invaded and ravaged Judah fiercely and then besieged Jerusalem itself.  Panic once again in Jerusalem.  This time Isaiah’s counsel prevailed, Hezekiah sought the Lord, and the city was spared with a miraculous deliverance (though Hezekiah did in fact submit to heavy tribute).”

That is a clear tension in the story, and the submission is narrated first, before the story of miraculous deliverance!  There’s no concealment or gilding the lily at this point.  But even the silence about conquest evident in the Sennacherib Prism might suggest that the failure to actually take Jerusalem is the elephant in Sennacherib’s room: “(Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”

  • There is a good example of ‘repetition with variation’ in Hebrew narrative.  The first message from Sennacherib’s chronies in 2 Kings 18:19-25 is seemingly careful not to incite the enmity of Yahweh, instead (disingenuously) claiming that Hezekiah’s centralization of worship to Jerusalem makes him less faithful to Yahweh than Sennacherib himself is, who has come to invade Judah, he says, on Yahweh’s instructions!  In v. 29 he adds, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand.”  But notice the word of the second backup threat to Hezekiah in 19:10: “”Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the kind of Assyria.’  …Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them…?  Much of the wording is identical, but in place of ‘Hezekiah’, now it is Yahweh’s competence being questioned.  Perhaps that is why the second prophetic denunciation through Isaiah is so much the stronger than the first!  Can I emphasize that this is a principle for understanding all OT narrative?  Pay attention to the little variations within the repetition!  They make the big points!  (This is also what makes good music good!)
  • Isaiah’s first, much briefer message in 19:6-7 uses a great word that I hadn’t noticed before:

6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard– those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
7 Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword. ‘” (2Ki 19:6-7 NIV)

The word rendered ‘underlings’ is one Hebrew word for children or teenagers, and can by derivation mean ‘servants..  It’s effectively labeling Sennacherib’s highest officials as his ‘boys’, trivial figures who just say and do what they’re told.  It’s a Churchillian one-word put-down.

By the way, Isaiah’s first message, as brief as it is, is links to the final judgment on Sennacherib, his eventual assassination (2 Kings 19:37).  Enclosed within this prophecy and fulfilment is another, the larger oracle/s of Isaiah (19:21-34) and their fulfilment in the plague that drives the Assyrians from the walls of Jerusalem (19:35-36).

Here are some of the things that feature twice in the narrative in 2 Kings 18-20; see if you can locate the two aspects of each feature:

Inclusios or Doublets in 2 Kings 18-20

  • And to illustrate just one brief example of the many deliberate doublets in this narrative: the account of Hezekiah’s career finishes where the Assyrian crisis began in 2 Kings 18:17 – at the aqueduct of the upper pool…a piece of infrastructure that 2 Kings 20:20 finally tells us was a key achievement of Hezekiah.  And, characteristically for Hebrew narrative, the two Hebrew terms for this structure are mentioned in reverse in the Hebrew text!  The book of Isaiah does even more with this particular narrative setting, but that’s another story.
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