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.

Blasphemy Laws Ancient and Modern

Sometimes Old Testament narratives can provide striking parallels to social realities in modern traditional societies.

Reading 1 Kings 21, I find that the way Naboth can be removed as an obstacle to land acquisition by Ahab and Jezebel in ancient Israel is by means of a trumped-up blasphemy charge.  Upon the accusation of two witnesses-for-hire, “Naboth has blasphemed God and the king,” Naboth is taken outside the city and stoned to death (1 Kings 21:13).

You might remember hearing a story in the news where something similar has been done recently in a couple of traditional societies, in one case using bricks.  I recently heard a thoroughly researched presentation describing how blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been utilized at an exponentially increasing rate in the last two decades, and at the same time, hardened so that a life sentence has been ruled out as the lenient option.  On conviction, it is death alone.

Aside from the ethics of prosecuting blasphemy with death, which I would propose is already an ugly side of a theocratic society, this sort of law leaves itself open to this kind of vindictive abuse – a way to get even with or get rid of an enemy, or someone refusing to co-operate with one’s own evil plan.  Another fact that came out in the abovementioned presentation was that since the witness cannot repeat the blasphemy without incurring guilt himself or herself, all that is needed is the accusation, without further evidence.

Upright and evenhanded law is a prized possession in any society.  Let none of us take it lightly.

And where righteous law is unenforced, endangered or lost, there is comfort in this passage: “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours” (1 Kings 21:19).  Only notice that this is not achieved by vengeance killing by Naboth’s family.  That way lies neverending conflict.  “”Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” (Heb. 10:30, from Deut. 32:35).  If we choose to live by the sword, we will die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).  The way of Christ is the way of the yielded sword.


A Note on the Name of God from 1 Kings 11:33

I have a long term interest in the meaning and use of the names and titles of God in the Old Testament (OT).  One thing that has puzzled me is how the plural Elohim can be used (very often!) for Israel’s one God.  Scholars offer several explanations for this, such as that it is an instance of the ‘majestic plural’, an honorific use of the plural for a singular referent.  Explanations such as this have never fully clarified the issue for me.

That Elohim can be used both ways is clear from a word play found in the OT.  Compare these verses:

This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshiped other gods…
(2 Kings 17:7 NRSV)

2 Kings 17.7

So the king [Jeroboam I] took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28 NRSV)

1 Kings 12.28

Exodus 32:4, 8 contain virtually identical statements to Jeroboam’s in the mouth of Aaron, brother of Moses.  In fact, the Ten Commandments open with nearly identical words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exod 20:2 NRSV).

The interesting thing is that the form of “your/their God” and “your gods” in these references is practically identical.  It is only the pronouns used in the context that determines whether the one God or many ‘gods’ are being referred to.  So there is in references like 1 Kings 12:28 and Exod 32 a word play going on, one that almost hints at how close syncretistic (blended) versions of true faith can look to the real thing.

But what has really interested me most recently, on reading 1 Kings 12, is the way elohim appears in 1 Kings 11:33:

This is because he has forsaken me, worshiped Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not walked in my ways… (1 Kings 11:33 NRSV)

1 Kings 11.33

The word ‘god’ here, used three times of non-Israelite (i.e. false) gods and goddess, is again elohim, that is, the plural form of the term.  I had never noticed this use before – the plural form describing not just Israel’s one God, but singular deities of other nations!  It only confirms how comfortably what looks like a plural word can be used of a singular being.

As for the use of Elohim v. Yahweh for Israel’s God, there’s more than a post in that, but more to come, I trust, on this fascinating topic.

A Chicken and Egg Problem in Ancient Israelite History: The Law Book and Josiah’s Reform

This thought stemming from my reading of the long and classy introduction to the book of Jeremiah by Jack Lundbom in his vast commentary that makes up 3 vols. of the Anchor Bible series… see his Jeremiah 1-20, 105-106.

Lundbom Jeremiah 1-20

Critical scholarship for a long time believed and often still believes that the law book that was found in the temple in the 18th year of the reign of king Josiah (i.e. about 622 BC) according to 2 Kings 22:3-10 consisted of a large middle portion of what we know now as the book of Deuteronomy.  This is seen to be the catalyst for Josiah’s ensuing reformation of religion in the Judah of his day, which particularly sought to purify worship of Yahweh by eliminating religious ritual in outlying sanctuaries and restricting it to the temple in Jerusalem.  The narrative in 2 Kings 23 in fact focuses on the destruction of pagan altars outside of Jerusalem, but texts like 1 Kings 3:2 imply that a more thorough program of centralization of worship was undertaken.  This interpretation of the cause-and-effect relationship, that the law book inspired Josiah’s reformation, is clearly supported by the order of events in the Kings narrative.

Lundbom, however, says, “More recently, however, the Chronicler’s account has been given preference,” referring to 2 Chronicles 34, where the reason the law book is found in the temple is that Josiah has already, from 628 BC, undertaken religious reforms of the kind that led to the temple’s renovation.  This sequence has a certain credible logic to it.  Without such reform, no renovation might be expected.  Chronicles has usually been regarded as an inferior historical source to Kings, partly by virtue of being clearly composed later and being somewhat derivative in relation to Kings.  But every history has agendas or axes to grind, and the editor of Kings may in fact want to show that the Law of Moses in textual acts as an effective catalyst for religious renewal.  As an instance of Chronicles’ stricter historical accuracy, I think of its faithful relaying of the names of Saul’s sons despite their being compounded on the name of the rival god Baal (1 Chron. 8:33-34).  In any case, it is interesting to consider the alternative possibility that the discovery of the law book might have been the culmination for Josiah’s reforms rather than their initial catalyst.

As a footnote to this, Lundbom adds another unique suggestion – that the law book discovered in the temple was not the body of Deuteronomy at all, but the poem, some (esp. from the Albright school) would say ancient, known as the Song of Moses and found in Deuteronomy 32.  Often when I have sought to trace archaic or potentially archaic language through the Old Testament, it has appeared in this unique poem along with other well-known texts such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.  I am not yet in a position to evaluate Lundbom’s suggestion, but it shows an ability to stand outside of the mainstream consensus and find new answers to old questions, which is always good for keeping our thinking flexible!

Articles of the Temple part II

Right, back and fed.  Well, the temple articles are mentioned in the texts that talk about the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, along with its earlier sacking by the same (2 Kings 24:13; 25:14, 15; 2 Chron. 36:7, 10, 18-19).  Then in the accounts of the return from exile they feature very prominently as well (Ezra 1:7-11; 5:13-15).  To the Babylonians this stuff was war booty, but to the Jews of the return they were sacred things, essential for worship.  It was scandalous and shameful in their minds that they had fallen into pagan hands.  It was a key part of the restoration of worship to return them to service.  It was a setback when, near the end of Nehemiah, the temple rooms intended for the storage of such sacred articles ended up storing Tobiah the Ammonite’s personal gear (the same Hebrew word in each case, ‘kĕlî‘, Neh. 13:5, 8-9).

But the role the temple articles play in Daniel is also interesting.  Their seizure by King Neb is mentioned in Dan. 1:2, and then they come back with a vengeance when in chapter 5, Belshazzar decides to use the temple cups and saucers (now the Aramaic term, ‘māʾn‘) to have a party in honour of the local gods – a double sacrilege.  It’s clear that this double offence is the key to the sentence written on the wall plaster by the disembodied hand (5:23-24).  Like precious articles, Belshazzar himself has been weighed on the scales (5:27), but hasn’t come up to scratch, and the Giver of Kingdoms decides that his has had its day.

So like the Ark, the articles of God are successfully confiscated by the conquering foreign king, but, like the forbidden fruit, to his own hurt, until the deliverer Cyrus (to call the book of Ezra back here) returns them to their rightful place.

Well, I thought it was interesting, anyway.  Hadn’t noticed this before now in all those years of Bible reading.