November 10 – November 17, 2017

Friday, November 10

2 Chronicles 21: The reign of Jehoram (849-841) was what one might expect from a son-in-law of Ahab and Jezebel (verses 1-6). Inasmuch, however, as this reign will lead to the hour of greatest danger for the house of David, the Chronicler once more explicitly reminds his readers of the divine promise that guaranteed the stability of that dynasty (verse 7).

To Judah’s southwest the Edomites, subdued by Jehoshaphat in the previous chapter, rose again in rebellion, this time successfully (verses 8-10). Things are looking bad.

The letter sent to Jehoram from the prophet Elijah (verses 11-15) is our first example of “literary prophecy,” a full century before the writings of Amos and Isaiah. As it happens, an historical problem connected with this letter raises an intriguing question. Since 2 Kings (chapters 1—3) seems to imply that Elijah disappeared in his fiery chariot before the death of Jehoshaphat, how do we now find him writing a letter to Jehoshaphat’s successor?

Ah, this is the sort of problem that invites imagination. Did Elijah actually write the letter to Jehoshaphat but it only arrived after Jehoshaphat’s death? An interesting suggestion this, if only for what it indicates of mail delivery in the ancient Holy Land.

Or did Elijah write the letter to Jehoram ahead a time, knowing by prophecy the sort of king Jehoram would be? This suggestion, accepted by some of the ancient rabbis, has the merit of honoring Elijah’s knowledge of the future.

Or is it the case that Elijah, having gone up to heaven in his fiery chariot, returned to the earth for a short while to take care of his unfinished correspondence? Now there’s a thought.

And, if so, might not this same earthly solicitude of the prophet’s part argue that Elijah has in mind to make other return trips in the future? In fact, we know that the prophet Malachi (4:5) believed this to be the case, nor was he the last (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13). Indeed, the angel Gabriel, who by the time in question had shared the heavenly company of Elijah for nearly a thousand years, dropped a remark on this subject when speaking to our Blessed Lady (Luke 1:17).

Whatever, then, the circumstances of Elijah’s letter to Jehoram, the present writer suspects that this incident, like most things touching that famous Tishbite, is not open to ordinary analysis. When we are dealing with Elijah, anything may happen.

Finally, then, came the Philistines and their friends, leaving the royal progeny at a single prince (verses 16-17). In the following chapter that prince too will perish and all his sons except one. Judah is about to enter a very, very dark hour.

Saturday, November 11

2 Chronicles 22: This chapter records one of the bloodiest, most distressing stories in the Bible. Athaliah, the gebirah or queen mother of the slain King Ahaziah, seizes the throne of Judah in 841 B.C. and promptly orders the murder of her own grandchildren in order to guarantee her hold on that throne (verse 10). Holy Scripture simply narrates the event, without accounting for Athaliah’s motive in this singular atrocity.

Although such savagery from a daughter of Jezebel might not be surprising, Athaliah’s action was puzzling from a political perspective, nonetheless, and this in two respects. First, as the story’s final outcome would prove, her dreadful deed rendered Athaliah extremely unpopular in the realm, and her possession of the crown, therefore, more precarious. Second, had she preserved the lives of her grandchildren, instead of killing them, Athaliah’s real power in the kingdom would likely have been enhanced in due course, not lessened. As the gebirah, she might have remained the de facto ruler of Judah unto ripe old age. Just what, then, did this cruel woman have in mind?

The question proved to be understandably fascinating to literary speculation. The historian Josephus, the first to ponder the matter, ascribed Athaliah’s action to an inherited hatred of the Davidic house. It was her wish, said he, “that none of the house of David should be left alive, but that the entire family should be exterminated, that no king might arise from it later” (Antiquities 9.7.1). This explanation seems perfectly plausible. It would also explain why 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, both sources devoted to the study of David’s house, found the story so intriguing and pertinent to their themes.

The playwright Racine developed this motive in his Athalie, where the evil queen exclaims, “David I abhor, and the sons of this king, though born of my blood, are strangers to me” (2.7.729-730). Following Racine, this interpretation was taken up in Felix Mendelssohn’s opera Athaliah, which asserts that the vicious woman acted in order that “no hand could reach out for her crown, nor king henceforth from David’s line preserve again the service of Jehovah” (First Declamation).

Racine also ascribed to Athaliah a second motive, namely her sense of duty to protect the realm from the various enemies that surrounded it. Indeed, she boasts that her success in this effort was evidence of heaven’s blessing on it (op. cit. 2.5.465-484). However, since it is unclear how the slaughter of her grandchildren contributed to the regional peace that Athaliah claimed as the fruit of her wisdom, this explanation is not so plausible as the first.

The third motive ascribed by Racine seems more reasonable and is certainly more interesting—namely, that Athaliah acted out of vengeance for the recent killing of her mother and the rest of her own family. Deranged by wrath and loathing, she imagined that the slaughter of her posterity avenged the slaughter of her predecessors: “Yes, my just wrath, of which I am proud, has avenged my parents on my offspring” (2.7.709-710). This explanation, which I believe to be correct, makes no rational sense, however, except on the supposition that Athaliah blamed Israel’s God for what befell her own family. In attacking David’s house, she thought to attack David’s God, whom she accuses of “implacable vengeance” (2.7.727). Since the Chronicler does not record the death of Jezebel and the rest of the family, however, this motive is a better explanation of the account in 1 Kings rather than 2 Chronicles.

Nonetheless, the third motive of Racine’s Athaliah is the goal of the first. That is to say, the hateful queen seeks to destroy David’s house in order to render void God’s promises given through the prophets, especially the promise of the Messiah that would come from David’s line, “that King promised to the nations, that Child of David, your hope, your expectation.” The queen’s vengeance, which later appears in Handel’s oratorio Athalia, correctly indicates the Christian meaning, the sensus plenior, of the Old Testament story. Waging war on great David’s greater Son, Athaliah foreshadowed yet another usurper of the Davidic throne, hateful King Herod, who likewise ordered a large massacre of little boys in a vain effort to retain the crown that did not belong to him.

Sunday, November 12

2 Chronicles 23: Although the story of the rescue of Joash, along with his enthronement and the downfall of Athaliah, is certainly historical, there is value in comparing its motif with a subject found rather widespread in ancient mythology—namely, the theme of the rightful young prince who, having been rescued from the evil usurper, returns later to settle the score and be restored to his rightful inheritance. Literary history provides us with several parallels.

There was, for example, the very primitive solar myth concerning the powers of darkness, which appeared to triumph over the sun and to reign over the time of night, defying the promised sun. This darkness, which usurped the reign of the sun, as it were, attempted to devour the sun in its very birth; to kill the sun, that is to say, as it emerges from its mother’s womb. In at least two versions of this ancient myth, in fact, the darkness is portrayed as a dragon-like snake reminiscent of a similar account in Revelation 12.

Thus, Egypt had its myth of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in her womb. His plan was to devour Horus at his birth. It is further curious that Isis, like the Woman in Revelation 12 (verse 14), is portrayed in Egyptian art (an elaborate door in the King Tut collection, for instance) with wings, so that she could flee from Set. Similarly, Greek mythology described the dragon-snake Python as pursuing the goddess Leto, who was pregnant with the sun god Apollo.

In both cases, the little child escaped and later returned to destroy the usurping serpent. The similarities of both of these myths to the vision of the pregnant woman and her child in Revelation 12 is striking. Both ancient myths also developed the subject of the illegitimate “usurper,” a theme that Matthew uses in his story of Herod seeking to destroy the true King, Jesus, at His very birth. As I suggested earlier in these remarks on Chronicles, the story of Joash and Athaliah serves as a veritable type for the story of Herod and Jesus in Matthew 2.

This story, found also in 1 Kings, provided an extra reason for the Chronicler to love it—namely, it was the priest-hero that rescued the infant king. In some sense Jehoiada thus became one of the Chronicler’s major champions, the son of Levi who faces extreme danger to save the son of Judah and to keep intact the throne of David.

And where does the restoration take place? In the Temple, naturally, which David’s son had built for the Lord, in order that the priestly tribe could minister to Him under the protection of David.

Monday, November 13

2 Chronicles 24: Joash was a mere child when the throne was given to him after the violent deposition of his grandmother, Athaliah, and we may be sure that the government in those early years fell largely to the strong, influential figures who had been responsible for that overthrow. Chief among these was the priest Jehoiada (verse 2).

In fact, Jehoiada’s major hand in the restoration of a Davidic king to the throne at Jerusalem touches a strong motif of the Chronicler himself—namely, the reliance of the Davidic monarchy of Judah on the priestly house of Levi. In the present case, moreover, it is the priest who chooses the wives for the king (verse 3).

Young Joash, raised in the Temple from infancy until he was seven years old, felt a special veneration for the place, a veneration that inspired his desire to see it refurbished and kept in good repair. For this work he sought the cooperation of the Levites (verses 4-5). After some difficulties and negotiations on the matter, a collection box was placed in the Temple itself to receive the necessary resources (verses 6-11), and the required repairs were made (verses 12-14; Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 9.8.2)

After the death of Jehoiada (verses 15-16; Josephus 9.8.3), however, the moral tone of the nation declined, including the wisdom and character of the king. An invasion of Syrians (verses 23-24; 2 Kings 12:17-21), after an initial battle in which Joash was severely wounded, constrained Judah to pay the Dane-Geld.

Prior to narrating this story, however, the Chronicler concentrates on the spiritual decline that preceded that military and political defeat (verses 17-19). Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, prophesied against the national apostasy, apparently including the king’s part in it (verse 20). This Zechariah, we should recall, was of royal blood, for his mother was an aunt to King Joash (22:11). Thus he was a first cousin to the king himself, the very king who conspired in his murder (verse 21).

Furthermore, in the description of this murder we observe a striking irony: Joash had Zechariah stoned to death within the Temple precincts, whereas Zechariah’s own father, Jehoiada, would not permit Joash’s grandmother, Athaliah, to be killed in the Temple.

This Zechariah seems to be the one referenced in Luke 11:51, called “the son of Barachiah in Matthew 23:35, perhaps under the influence of Isaiah 8:2).

King Joash, wounded in the battle with the Syrians, was then slain by two of his own citizens, themselves angered over the murder of Zechariah (verses 25-26). Again, there is a notable irony in the story: King Joash was not buried among the kings of Judah, whereas the priest Jehoiada was buried among the kings. Josephus (9.8.3) explains that this latter honor was conferred on him because of Jehoiada’s restoration of the Davidic throne.

The Chronicler ends the chapter by referring to special sources that he has used. This reference explains why his account differs in several particulars from the corresponding story in 2 Kings 12.

Tuesday, November 14

2 Chronicles 25: After the early, abrupt, and violent end to the life of Joash, we now come to the reign of his son, Amaziah (794-767). The Chronicler repeats the affirmation of 2 Kings 14:3 that this king “did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” but he also includes some very things Amaziah did that 2 Kings does not mention. The sole qualification that the Chronicler makes at the beginning of the chapter is that Amaziah’s heart was not pure, a point that he goes on to illustrate with examples.

Both 2 Kings (14:5-6) and the Chronicler (verses 3-4) speak of Amaziah’s conformity to Deuteronomy 24:16 by not visiting revenge on the families of his father’s murders. This judicial policy, in which each person is held responsible only for his own offenses, not for those of his parents, a policy already enshrined in the Mosaic Law, will in due course inspire the prophets to deeper reflection on the nature of conscience (cf. Jeremiah 31:30; Ezekiel 18:20).

The Chronicler elaborates at some length Amaziah’s invasion of Edom, a story that takes only one verse in 2 Kings (14:7). Only the Chronicler tells of Amaziah’s hiring of mercenaries and the prophetic reprimand that he receives for this (verses 6-12).

It is worth noting that Amaziah’s obedience to the prophet on that occasion actually made things worse, because the dismissed mercenaries, in anger and vengeance, ravaged some of the towns of Judah (verse 13). It is possible that this misfortune is what prompted Amaziah to become less willing to listen to prophecy. We shall now consider an example of this.

After defeating the Edomites, Amaziah takes their gods for his own (verse 14), thus introducing another narrative that is missing in 2 Kings 14.

There was no obvious logic to this devout assumption of Edomite gods. After all, since these gods had been no help to the Edomites themselves, it should have occurred to Amaziah that they would not be much help to him either. A prophet is sent to point out this obvious fact to the king (verse 15).

Amaziah, however, thinks that he has already listened to more than enough prophecy for one day, so he rudely dismisses the prophet (verse 16). This dismissal may indicate what the Chronicler had in mind when he said that Amaziah did not have a “pure heart” (verse 2). In any case, the prophet warns him solemnly that worse things lie ahead.

Although we readers take as obvious the prophet’s point that a victor does not reasonably adopt defeated gods, in fact those who profess to serve God often do this sort of thing. They catch hold on every discredited idea and unsuccessful practice and press it to their bosoms. Even when the discrediting of these ideas and the failure of these practices yet abide in the memories of living men, they are seized upon with fervor and hope. It is irrational, and those who do such things should take seriously the words of the prophet sent to Amaziah.

If we compare the Bible’s two accounts of Amaziah’s challenge to the King of Israel (verses 17-24; 2 Kings 14:8-14), we observe that the Chronicler’s version of the story bears particular features of interpretation.

First, he introduces the story differently by mentioning that Amaziah “sought counsel” (yiwa‘ats) before making his challenge to Joash of Israel (verse 17). This verb, ya‘ats, is a cognate of the noun </>‘etsah, which was the last word in the preceding sentence (verse 16). Thus, the “counsel” that Amaziah now seeks, counsel apparently sought from within his court, is contrasted with the “counsel” that he has just refused to accept from the prophet who was sent to warn him. That is to say, Amaziah receives both bad and good counsel, but he walks “in the counsel of the ungodly” (ba‘atsath resha‘im–Psalms 1:1). Accordingly, he meets the biblical definition of a fool. Only the Chronicler mentions either of these counsels given to Amaziah, just as only the Chronicler speaks of prophets being sent to him (cf. verses 7-10).

Second, only the Chronicler explicitly tells of the Lord’s intervention in bringing low the throne of Amaziah. This intention was also related directly to the king’s refusal to hear prophetic counsel (verse 20). This interpretation of the events is related directly to the prophecy that followed that matter of the gods of Edom (verse 16).

Amaziah, released from arrest after his disastrous war with Joash of Israel, reigned fifteen more years (782-767), but like his father he was assassinated in a conspiracy.

The Chronicler omits the only positive accomplishment of Amaziah’s reign, his restoration of Judah’s control over the important southern port of Elath (2 Kings 14:22), a restoration made possible by his defeat of the Edomites.

In the Second Book of Chronicles, then, Amaziah embodies the worst and most characteristic sin of Israel, the senseless adoption of gods already defeated. After his conquest of Edom, he embraced the Edomite gods, not pausing to inquire whether gods that had already proved themselves useless to the Edomites were likely to be of any use to him!

Not only did Amaziah fail to ask that question, but he also refused to listen to the counsel of someone sent to ask it for him. Such is the spiritual deafness associated with idolatry. The hardening of the heart (verse 2) leads to the hardening of the ears.

Wednesday, November 15

2 Chronicles 26: We come now to the era of Uzziah. According to the custom of counting both the first and last years of his time on the throne (793-742), Uzziah was Judah’s longest reigning monarch, fifty-two years (verse 3). During his final years, however, he shared the throne with his son, Jotham (verse 21). In spite of this lengthy reign, Uzziah is treated in Second Kings (15:1-7) in a mere seven verses.

The Chronicler, whose more detailed account gives a better idea of Uzziah’s importance, distinguishes this king in five respects.

First, he mentions the tutelage provided for Uzziah by the priest Zechariah (verse 5), whom he sees as a parallel to the ancient Jehoiada, the spiritual father of King Joash (24:2).

Second, only the Chronicler spells out all the details of Uzziah’s military interests and exploits (verses 6-9,11-15). Archeology has uncovered several of the military installations mentioned in these verses.

Third, only the Chronicler speaks of Uzziah’s pronounced enthusiasm for agriculture and animal husbandry (verse 10).

Fourth, only the Chronicler gives the reason for Uzziah’s leprosy (2 Kings 15:5), regarding it as a punishment for his proud usurpation of the priestly ministry (verses 16-21). In this respect Uzziah’s rejection by God corresponds to the earlier rejection of King Saul (1 Samuel 13:8-14). The Chronicler’s inclusion of this detail expresses his sustained interest in the ministry and privileges of the authentic priesthood.

Fifth, only the Chronicler relates King Uzziah to the rise of literary prophecy: “Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz wrote” (verse 22). Because Isaiah himself, in the sixth chapter of his book describes a mystical vision in the Temple “in the year that King Uzziah died,” it is possible that this verse in Chronicles refers to the first five chapters of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:1). Both Amos and Hosea also prophesied during the time of Uzziah, albeit in the Northern Kingdom (Amos 1:1; Hosea 1:1).

The Bible’s final word on Uzziah is not encouraging, for he is accused of pride and anger (verses 16-19). The prophet Isaiah, who was probably was not even born when Uzziah came to the throne, seems to intend a contrast between Judah’s longest reigning king and the Lord, Judah’s true king: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up.”

Thursday, November 16

2 Chronicles 27: In 2 Kings (15:32-38) scant attention is paid to the reign of Jotham. We know that he was coregent with his father, Uzziah, from roughly 750 to Uzziah’s death in 742; he then reigned on his own from 742 to 735. The sixteen years of his reign (verse 1; 2 Kings 15:33) include both of these periods. This chronological complexity would explain why Josephus (Antiquities 9.112; 9.12.1) leaves out all time references for Jotham.

Both biblical historians attest of Jotham that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” each also confesses the king’s inability to exercise much influence over an unfaithful nation. We gain some sense of this national infidelity from the Books of Isaiah and Micah.

While 2 Kings mentions Jotham’s construction of the “upper gate of the house of the Lord,” the Chronicler goes into much more extensive detail about Jotham’s building projects and his conquest of the Ammonites (verses 4-6).

Jotham is at least praised for not pursuing his father’s example of usurping rights over the Temple (verse 2). Also unlike his father, Jotham “ordered his ways before the Lord his God” (verse 6). This is an expression that we do not often find describing the biblical kings.

It is possible that both Kings and Chronicles were puzzled by the reign of Jotham, particularly his inability to get the citizens of Judah to follow his lead. He is faulted in neither source, though they do not tell much about him. Jotham did not enjoy the longevity and success that the Book of Proverbs promises to a wise and virtuous man.

Jotham thus becomes a sort of tragic figure, even though the Bible does not stop to reflect on the nature and dynamics of the tragedy, as it does in the case of Job and Qoheleth. Jotham is treated, rather, the way Abner is treated—as a just man who did not, in fact, receive all that a just man can be expected to receive. In these two historical books, Second Kings and Second Chronicles, the Bible does not pause to reflect on this, no more than it does in the case of Abner or, even earlier, righteous Abel.

This chapter on Jotham is, in fact, the shortest chapter written by the Chronicler, and he limits himself to his precise task—to chronicle, to record the story. He advances no thesis with respect to the story. He does suggest, in even the faintest way, how we should view the problem of theodicy implicitly posed by the story. He not only does not answer the question contained in this story. He does not even mention that the story has a question. On all this he remains silent.

We readers, however, taking into consideration the whole of the inspired literature, do acknowledge the question posed by the story of Jotham. We ourselves expect God to treat righteous Jotham as a righteous man should be treated. Jotham’s reign, then, becomes a sort of foreshadowing of the Cross, where the world supremely righteous Man is not treated as we believe a righteous man should be treated.

Friday, November 17

2 Chronicles 28: Having remarked that the Chronicler’s story of a good king is his shortest chapter, we now come to a very bad king, Ahaz (735-715). He is so bad that he is likened to the apostate kings of the north (verse 2).

The first fifteen verses of the present chapter contains two accounts that it is profitable to contrast. The first is cruel, but the second is kind.

The first event is Ahaz’s sacrificing of his son. Even though the Chronicler says “sons” (verse 3), it is possible that this is a rhetorical flourish. Both 2 Kings (16:3) and Josephus (Antiquities 9.12.1) speak of just one son being sacrificed. The time of this crime appears to have been the invasion of the Syro-Ephraemitic League (verses 4-5), early in the reign of Ahaz, when the new king, desperate in the face of this invasion (Isaiah 7:1-2), performed this filial sacrifice in order to win the favor of the Canaanite divinities to which he was devoted (verse 2). In this instance we have to do, not only with the abomination of child sacrifice, but also the king’s endangerment of the royal line. It was on this occasion that the prophet Isaiah went to meet King Ahaz and reassure him of the downfall of Syria and Ephraim (Isaiah 7:3-9). Immediately afterwards Isaiah prophesied God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of God’s promises to the royal family: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (7:10-17, especially 14).

The second event is the kindness shown by the northern citizens toward the prisoners of war from Judah that had been brought to them by Israel’s invading army. Only recently a southern prophet named Amos had been preaching in the Northern Kingdom, and during the course of one of his sermons he had especially mentioned the ill treatment suffered by captives and hostages taken during war. He had criticized the Philistines and the Phoenicians for selling such captives into slavery to the Edomites (Amos 1:6,9). Moreover, another prophet named Obed suddenly appeared on the scene and upbraided Israel’s army for taking such captives on their recent invasion of Judah (verses 9-11). This reprimand became part of a general humane uprising against the retaining of these captives (verses 12-13), and this uprising brought results. All of the captives, after being well treated by the populace, were taken back to the border city of Jericho and released to go home (verses 14-15). This very edifying story, found only in the Chronicler, demonstrates the endurance of kindness and compassion even in that brutal period of the eighth century before Christ.

This story of good people in the north also prepares for Hezekiah’s overtures to the north in the following chapter.

Ahaz, for his part, had a tumultuous reign (verses 17-18) because of his infidelity to God (verse 19). Instead of turning to the Lord in repentance, he sought a political solution for what was certainly a spiritual problem; he appealed to the Assyrians for help against his enemies (verse 16).

Although the Assyrian emperor, Tiglath Pileser III (745-727), provided some relief to Ahaz by defeating his oppressors (2 Kings 15:29; 16:9), the Chronicler believed that this military intervention accomplished more harm than good for Judah (verses 20-21), because it placed Ahaz under the obligation of tribute to a foreign power and involved his throne with new forms of idolatry.

It is a fact, moreover, that the name of Ahaz appears in an Assyrian inscription (where he is called “Ia-u-ha-zi”), which records the kings of Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine from whom the Assyrians received tribute. That is to say, Ahaz is regarded in this inscription (in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, page 282) simply as another defeated king beholden to Tiglath Pileser. Obviously, the perception of the thing in Assyrian differed from the perception in the eyes of Ahaz!

In addition, Ahaz began to worship the gods of Damascus, because these had proved victorious against him (verses 22-23). The king somehow failed to consider that these same gods had been shown to be of no avail against the invading Assyrians. Worshippers of false gods tend not to give sufficient heed to concrete points of evidence.

We know from the longer account of this matter in 2 Kings (16:10-16) that the priest Uriah seconded Ahaz’s fall into idolatry. The Chronicler, for his part, will not honor the memory of this priest by so much as mentioning his name.