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1 & 2 Kings
Like the other numbered books of the Old Testament, 1 and 2 Kings were originally one book. Kings continues Samuel’s narrative, relating events from the death of David and the division of his kingdom into the separate nations of Judah and Israel to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Kings might more fittingly be entitled “The Decline and Fall of Ancient Israel” as that is basically what is described with one king after another, with a few exceptions, condemned as unfaithful to Yahve who finally decided to turn his disobedient people over to their enemies for punishment. According to Kings the reigns of David and Solomon were forty years each, which would mean that Israel as a united nation lasted only eighty years. Although forty years perhaps shouldn’t be taken literally as that number is often used in the Bible to simply signify a relatively long period of time.
It is generally accepted that there are two primary compositional threads from different periods running through Kings. The earlier account was probably written during or shortly after the reign of Josiah in Judah as it seems to have no awareness of the Babylonian conquest. The later part was composed during the Babylonian exile or shortly thereafter as indicated by references to exile and promises of return. Apparent archival records are repeatedly cited as sources for more information about specific kings: The Book of The Acts of Solomon, The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, and The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (which are not the biblical books of Chronicles). For the first time events reported in the biblical account can be reliably verified by non-biblical sources. Accounts of the military exploits of kings from surrounding nations collaborate some of the accounts in Kings, establishing specific dates as well as the names of kings in Israel and Judah. Ruins of ancient Syrian temples match the description of Solomon’s temple. Accounts of the construction and dedication of the temple have parallels in the literature of ancient Mesopotamia and Ugarit.
1 Kings opens with the last days of David, who had become old and feeble, unable to stay warm. A beautiful young woman was found to chastely lie with him to provide warmth and nurse him. The prophet Nathan, who had reproved David for his relationship with Bathsheba, conspired with Bathsheba to persuade David to name her son, Solomon, heir to the throne rather than David’s eldest surviving son. David proclaimed Solomon as king shortly before he died. After some drama and the killing of several people, including the older half brother, who represented threats to his rule, “the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon” (1 Kings 2:49).
After several chapters detailing the building and dedication of the Jerusalem temple, the construction of Solomon’s palace, the visit of the Queen of Sheba (whose kingdom was probably located not in modern Ethiopia but Yemen), and verses boasting of his wealth and wisdom, Solomon’s reign is for the most part quickly passed over. He started out well, for “Solomon loved Yahve, walking in the statutes of David his father” (3:3). But as time went on problems emerged which Kings blames on the fact that he “loved many foreign women” (11:1), although his many wives probably had more to do with politics than love. It seems likely that his marriages were related to alliances made with other nations/tribes. Eventually he acquired a claimed “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (11:3) (it’s hard to believe that he could have had personal/sexual relationships with that many women!) who brought their gods and worship customs with them and “when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (11:4). His massive building projects required increased taxation and slave labor, creating resentment. Long standing tensions between Judah, the tribe of David, and the other tribes of Israel increased, bringing disaster after his death.
Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials, encountered a prophet who told him that because of Solomon’s worship of other gods ten of the twelve tribes would be taken away with Jeroboam ruling over the seceding tribes. However the kingdom of David would not be split until after the death of Solomon. This prophetic passing along of punishment for the sins of a king to his son which is repeated throughout Kings would seem to be an editorial explanation couched as prophetic utterance for why some wicked kings had lengthy reigns. The fate of the tribe of Benjamin is unclear; some verses indicate that it was with Judah, others mention only ten northern tribes of Israel and the single tribe of Judah. Some scholars think it was either split between the northern and southern kingdoms or at some point absorbed into Judah.
After the death of Solomon there was a protest against the burdens that he had placed on his subjects. Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, foolishly disregarded the advice of his elders to lighten the load on people, instead listening to “the young men who had grown up with him” who told him to “add to the yoke” imposed by his father: “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (12:11). This was “a turn of affairs brought about by Yahve that he might fulfill his word spoken” by the prophet to Jeroboam (12:15) whom the ten rebellious tribes of Israel proclaimed as their king. Rehoboam made preparations for war against the now separate nation of Israel but was told by a prophet that “this thing is from me (Yahve)” (12:24) and called it off.
Jeroboam quickly established what in Kings is the standard measure for the wickedness of the kings of Israel. He sought to keep his subjects from going to the ritual center of Jerusalem by creating rival sacrificial sites to the temple, setting up golden calves in the northern shrine cities of Bethel and Dan.
A prophet from Judah came to Bethel to denounce Jeroboam as he was offering a sacrifice. The prophet had been told not to eat or drink until he was out of Judah. But another prophet lied to him, saying that Yahve had told him to tell his fellow prophet that he should eat with him. The Judean prophet believed him, but during the meal “the word of Yahve” came to the prophet who had invited him to dinner, denouncing his guest for having disobeying a divine directive. His body would not “come to the tomb of your fathers.” On this way home the Judean was killed by a lion. The lying prophet found the body and buried it in Israel (13:1-32). It is difficult to understand just what the point of this strange story might be other than demonstrating the fate of those who failed to obey Yahve’s directives, even when mislead by a prophet.
1 Kings 14 begins a pattern of interweaving accounts of the kings of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel with added comments as to whether they were good or wicked. All of the kings of Israel are described as bad, with the repeated phrase, "__________ did what was evil in the sight of Yahve; he did not depart all his days from the sins of Jeroboam, which he made Israel to sin.” Most of Judah’s kings were also wicked in permitting the worship of other deities, sometimes even in the Jerusalem temple, but some did follow the “ways of Yahve.” But most of the good Judean kings still failed to destroy the high places of sacrifice which competed with the temple.
In the southern kingdom Solomon’s son “did what was evil in the sight of Yahve.” Shishak, the “king of Egypt” raided Jerusalem, looting the temple and the royal palace, the first of several times that the treasure of the temple would be carried off or given away as tribute to keep other kings from invading Judah. (Fragments of a stela erected by Shishak, who also invaded Israel, have been found at Megiddo). Objects that Solomon had made of gold were replaced by copies made of bronze (14:25-28). This was one of several instances in which temple treasure was either given away as tribute or looted by an enemy (once by Israel when they sacked Jerusalem - 2 Kings 14:11-14). I wonder just how much was left for the Babylonians to eventually carry away?
In Israel the death of Jeroboam was followed by a series of assassinations of kings and heirs to the throne in which whole families were wiped out. Kings goes through several listings with brief descriptions of the kings of both kingdoms, sometimes with similar or even identical names which make it difficult to keep them all straight. Only particularly wicked or good kings get fuller accounts. In the northern kingdom Ahab who married a Phoenician, the infamous Jezebel who brought her gods along with her to Israel, gets several chapters as one of the most wicked of Israel’s generally bad rulers. In Judah Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and especially the reformer Josiah stand out as good kings who “did what was right in the eyes of Yahve.”
Prophets, some named, others anonymous, appeared to advise and reprove as directed by Yahve the kings of both kingdoms. There are references to the somewhat mysterious “sons of the prophets” who appear to be, not the offspring of prophets, but individuals belonging to some sort of organization or collective of prophets, or perhaps disciples of more elder prophets. Of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha in Israel (1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 10) along with Isaiah in Judah get the most attention.
Stories involving the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha, are the part of Kings that I remember best from my childhood. Elijah is introduced as an opponent of Ahab and Jezebel. Several miracles, including raising from the dead and multiplication of food, were performed by Elijah. In the most dramatic Elijah episode he challenged four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal along with four hundred of Asherah, Baal’s consort, to a contest to see whose god would send down fire to consume a sacrifice. Of course Yahve won, upon which Elijah slaughtered all the prophets of the other gods (some commentators have suggested this was a human sacrifice to Yahve; in any case it is difficult to understand how he could have killed them all himself). A long drought brought on as punishment for neglect of Yahve ended and Elijah ran in front of Ahab’s chariot many miles through driving rain to escort him back to the entrance of the city. Then, in fear of Jezebel, Elijah fled to Mt. Horeb, into a cave where Yahve confronted him with wondrous demonstrations of his power followed by a “still small voice” (Rabbi Sandmel says that a better translation would be “out of the still, a voice” (17-18).
Elijah denounced Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of a man whose vineyard Ahab coveted, foretelling their deaths in which Ahab’s blood would be licked by dogs and Jezebel eaten by the same animals. After Yahve put a “lying spirit in the mouths” of Ahab’s prophets predicting success in an alliance with the king of Judah against Syria, Ahab died in battle and dogs licked up blood that drained from his chariot. Jezebel was thrown out a window and her body devoured by dogs who left behind only her skull, feet, and hands (1 Kings 21; 22:38; 2 Kings 9:30-37).
Elisha was anointed by Elijah as his successor, receiving his mantle when Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11 - following references are to 2 Kings). Forty-two boys who ridiculed Elisha were cursed by him and killed by bears. A number of miracles, some closely resembling those of Elijah, performed by Elisha are related in chapters 4-8. A couple of the miracles involved Syrians. He traveled to Damascus where he foretold the murder of the Syrian king by his successor who had been appointed by Yahve to punish Israel. He was also behind the scenes in events that brought about the extinction of the house of Ahab (8:7-15; 9-10). In death, Elisha performed one last miracle when a burial party frightened by “a marauding band” hurriedly tossed a body into his grave. “As soon as the (dead) man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet” (13:21).
2 Kings relates an incident which seems to indicate that gods other than Yahve had some real power. When a battle with Israel was not going well for him, the king of Moab offered his son as a burnt offering on the wall of his city. “And there came a great wrath upon Israel (apparently from the Moabite god pleased by the human sacrifice); and they withdrew and returned to their own land” (3:27).
The boundaries of Israel shrank as conquered territories revolted and broke away. Eventually it became a vassal of the king of Assyria against whom the Israel king revolved by forming an alliance with Egypt. The king of Assyria responded by invading Israel, capturing the capital of Samaria after a three year siege, “and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria,” scattering them into other parts of the Assyrian empire. Israel no longer existed as a nation, with the ten tribes “lost” to history after the Assyrian conquest in 721 BCE. Of the twelve tribes that had entered the Promised Land, only Judah was left.
Other captive people were settled in what had been Israel. But Yahve “sent lions among them, which killed some of them.” Assyrian officials told the king, “The nations which you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria (as the former Israel was renamed after what had been its capital) do not know the law of the god of the land.” It was decided to send one of the exiled Israelite priests back to “teach them the law of the god of the land.” So a priest came “and taught them how they should fear Yahve.” But while “they feared Yahve (they) also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away” (17). So began the Judean disparagement of the Samaritans which continued into the time of Jesus. However some historians believe that the split between Judaism and the Samaritans occurred at a later time. Whatever their origin, the Samaritans, who still exist in present day Israel, practice a monotheistic religion closely resembling that of ancient Israel with their sole scripture a version of the Pentateuch ().
In Judah there were good and bad kings. One of the worse was Ahaz, who “even burned his son as an offering.” He bribed the Assyrian king, Tiglathpileser, with the temple gold and silver to protect him from Syria and the not yet fallen Israel, necessitating extensive changes to the temple. But his son, Hezekiah (obviously not the son who was sacrificed!), was very different. “He did what was right in the eyes of Yahve. . . He removed the high places, and broke down the pillars, and cut down the Asherah (a wooden pole sacred to the goddess Asherah). And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it. . . There was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him” (18:5). He rebelled against vassalage to Assyria, causing Sennacherib to invade Judah, whereupon Hezekiah apparently tried to bribe him with gold and silver stripped from the temple and royal palace but either then or at another time (whether there were one or two invasions is disputed by scholars) the Assyrian king still laid siege to Jerusalem. 2 Kings 18:13-20:19 duplicates word for word with minor variations Isaiah 36-38’s account of the interactions of Hezekiah with the prophet Isaiah during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem which failed due to divine intervention, Hezekiah’s illness, and the king’s mistake in showing the treasures of Israel to envoys from Babylon. Isaiah prophesied that it along with Hezekiah’s heirs would all be carried away to Babylon after his death.
Hezekiah was succeeded by his son, Manasseh, who undid all the reforms of his father, going so far as to install altars to foreign deities in the “house of Yahve” and offer his son as a burnt offering. “Manasseh seduced (Judah) to do more evil than the nations had done whom Yahve had destroyed” ((21:9). The next king followed a similar path until he was murdered by his servants whereupon his eight year old son, Josiah, was made king.
Josiah “did what was right in the eyes of Yahve, and walked in the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (22:2). In the eighteenth year of his reign Josiah gave orders for the repairing of the temple. In the course of setting the temple straight “The Book of the Law,” thought to have been an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, was found and brought to Josiah who was horrified to learn how far Judah had strayed from “the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (22:13). The “book of the covenant which had been found in the house of Yahve” was given a public reading after which “the king . . . made a covenant before Yahve . . . to perform the words of the covenant that were written in the book; and all the people joined in the covenant” (23:3). There followed a major reform effort in which all the objects associated with the cults of other gods were destroyed along with the high places and their priests. “Moreover Josiah put away the mediums and the wizards and the teraphim (thought to have been household gods) and the idols and all the abominations” (23:24). Jerusalem was established as the only place of worship and Passover observed for the first in a long time. Although a prophet had declared that the reign of Josiah would be peaceful, “Yahve did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath . . . because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him” (23:26). This seems an obvious, rather unconvincing attempt to explain why such a righteous king and his kingdom had a terrible fate. Because of his grandfather’s misdeeds Josiah was killed in battle against the Egyptian pharaoh and Judah became a vassal state to Egypt.
The son of Josiah who followed him on the throne took more after his grandfather than his father, doing “what was evil in the sight of Yahve.” But he didn’t have much time for evil as the pharaoh who controlled Judah removed him after three months and installed another son of Josiah by a different wife in his place. A few years later he died and was succeeded by his son. By then the Neo-Babylonians/Chaldeans had defeated both Egypt and Assyria to become the dominant power in the Near East. “At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged.” The Judean king quickly surrendered and was carried off along with his family, palace officials, and “all of the treasures of the house of Yahve” to Babylon. “Only the poorest of the people of the land” remained (although there apparently were still some ruling class people remaining to be killed or exiled a few years later when Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Babylonians) .
Nebuchadnezzar put an uncle of the captive former king in his place (24). In the ninth year of his reign, the puppet king rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar who responded with a siege of Jerusalem that lasted two years. With famine decimating the city, the king “with all the men of war” escaped through a breach in the wall. The Babylonians caught up with them at Jericho, scattering what was left of the Judean army and capturing the king. His sons were brought and executed “before his eyes” after which he was blinded and taken in fetters to Babylon. The captain of Nebuchadnezzar’s bodyguard “burned the house of Yahve, and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down” (25:9). The city walls were broken down and remaining officials of the king executed. All but the “poorest of the land” (again!) who were left to tend crops, were taken into exile. A governor was appointed to run what was left of Judah but was killed during a revolt after which the rebels fled to Egypt (25).
That Kings makes no mention of Jeremiah, who according to the book bearing his name was very involved with events before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem, is surprising. Especially given Kings’ duplication of several chapters of Isaiah detailing that prophet’s dealings with Hezekiah during several crises.
Thirty-seven years after going into exile, the king taken captive at the end of the first siege was invited to sit at the royal table in Babylon and given an allowance (25:27-30). So the book of Kings ends with the somewhat hopeful news that the Davidic dynasty had not completely died out. But kingdom of David that was supposed to last forever in fact came to an end about four hundred years after its founding.
This has been a long one! I am probably leaving out some important bits but I’m glad to finally be at the end of these rather dismal two books. Here are some random reflections that come up for me in thinking back over what I’ve read:
Apart from the cycle of stories about Elijah and Elisha which likely came from its own source, there is very little mention of anyone who wasn’t either a king or a prophet. It’s hard to get a sense of what life was like for ordinary people. But then again the title of the book indicates that it isn’t about the common people.
Kings is most concerned with allegiance to Yahve as the only god; following the requirements of the covenant between him and his chosen people is of paramount importance. The worse sin is sacrifice to other gods; there is much less concern about dealings with other people. The story of Ahab and Jezebel’s stolen vineyard is just about the only instance in which a prophet denounces a king for a wrong done to another person. The goodness or evil of the nations of Judah and Israel is more or less equated with the relationship of the ruler to Yahve. Surely not everyone “did what was evil in the sight of Yahve” just because the king did or went along, for instance, with the reforms of Josiah. Yet divine judgement of the entire nation is represented as being dependent on the king’s behavior. Of course this, however unrealistic it might be, is characteristic of many monarchal traditions in which ruler and the country ruled are equated.
It seems clear that the apparently usual practice of royal polygamy could greatly complicate the issue of succession to the throne. Royal brothers with different mothers who may have grown up in separate households were rivals for their father’s blessing, sometimes resulting in royal fratricide.
Actually it is hard to think of the books of Kings as inspiring, motivating one to do good, etc. unless “doing good” is defined as worshipping the right deity in the right way out of fear . That seems to be the primary message in these books, and perhaps the Old Testament as a whole.
© 2021 James Moyers