Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Chronicles 31 to 2 Chronicles 36
This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Chapters 31 through 36 are the final chapters of 2 Chronicles, as well as the final chapters of the combined First/Second Chronicles. Finally. Like I've written the past couple weeks, I was starting to get pretty bored with this book. While it does have a bit of extra information that wasn't included in Samuel and Kings, and there are differences in the stories, for the most part, Chronicles was very repetitious of the previous books. However, that caveat doesn't completely apply to these last few chapters. While there was some repetition, there were several significant differences that made these chapters rather interesting, particularly following along in the footnotes with the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB). Plus, these chapters contained one of my favorite scenes from the Bible.
Chapter 31 continued on with Hezekiah's reforms. First it was tearing down all the pillars and sacred poles devoted to other gods, along with the high places and altars (since worship was supposed to be centered around the temple). Then it was reorganizing the priests and Levites, then stockpiling stores in the house of the Lord. There was also quite a bit of information about which specific people had which specific jobs.
The first part of this chapter dealt with the attack of Jerusalem by King Sennarcherib. But it was a bit different than the telling in 2 Kings 18 & 19. Other than just being shorter, Chronicles left out certain details, such as Sennacherib attacking other cities, and Hezekiah trying to appease him with gifts, before the attack on the capital city. As the NOAB notes, the attack on Jerusalem in Chronicles was "a complete shock". Further, the NOAB noted that "some parallel texts from the source text have been conflated to create a smoother depiction of the events."
After Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah prayed to God for deliverance, the Lord took direct action. He "sent an angel who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria." No working in mysterious ways here. Sennarcherib "returned in disgrace to his own land", and was killed by his sons once he got back.
The next few verses in the chapter went through a series of events in very rapid succession - Jerusalem was at peace and seemed to be doing well; Hezekiah became sick, prayed, and got a sign from God that he would become better; Hezekiah didn't respond like he should have and became proud; as punishment "wrath came upon him and upon Judah and Jerusalem" (again with the collective guilt); and finally Hezekiah repented and so God turned aside his wrath.
Next came a description of Hezekiah's riches, and some of the public works he accomplished, before he "slept with his ancestors".
There were two verses in this chapter that caught my eye in particular, and they actually happened to be back to back. The first was verse 18, "They shouted it with a loud voice in the language of Judah..." The NOAB pointed out that the 'language of Judah' was what would later become known as Hebrew, but apparently it wasn't called as such, yet. The second verse was 19, "They spoke of the God of Jerusalem as if he were like the gods of the peoples of the earth, which are the work of human hands." It was a unique bit of editorializing on the part of the Chronicler.
Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, was the next to take the throne, and he was not a good king. He basically undid all the reforms his father had instituted, added on additional sins, and even put a carved idol in the temple. As punishment, God had the Assyrians attack Judah, and Manasseh was taken captive and delivered to Babylon in manacles and fetters. Manasseh prayed to God while there, and was delivered. Thus, he "knew that the Lord indeed was God," and he undid almost all the damage he had done previously. This whole story is completely at odds with 2 Kings. In that previous book, not only was there no attack and capture of Manasseh by the Assyrians, but Manasseh never repented for his sins, and it was these sins that were responsible for the eventual fall of Judah to Babylon and the Babylonian exile. Here in Chronicles, Manasseh doesn't seem so bad after his change of heart. The NOAB notes that this may be to make Manasseh "a model for Judean deportees living in other lands." It also presented a more hopeful message to the Judeans in the wake of the Babylonian exile - that they could be forgiven by God and start over. When Judah finally does fall in this book, it's due to Zedekiah's sins.
The NOAB did make a note that Manasseh's imprisonment in Babylon was possible, "because the Assyrians maintained a major presence in Babylon at this time," but also noted that the historical record indicated that Manasseh had been a loyal vassal to the Assyrians - i.e. that there would have been no reason for the Assyrians to act that way.
The chapter closed with a brief description of Amon's evil reign and subsequent assassination.
Josiah succeeded Amon, and as in Kings, he was a good ruler. In the eight year of his reign, he began seeking God, and in the twelfth year, he began reforming the nation and purging the non-Yahweh religious paraphernalia. This included a mention of burning the bones of the false priests. Once he'd cleaned up the nation, he began renovations on the temple. This led to one of my favorite stories - while the priests were cleaning the temple, they found "the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses". They brought it and read it to Josiah, who was horrified at the punishments it detailed for all the sins Judah had committed. So, on top of all his other reformations, he had the Judeans pledge themselves to the covenant laid out in the book. Unfortunately, one generation's worth or repentance wasn't enough to save the nation, "my wrath will be poured out on this place and will not be quenched." But, for Josiah's sake, because he had been so penitent and humble, the punishment would be saved until after his death.
I guess the reason I like this story so much is because of the absurdity of it. I mean, here's the book of the law, supposedly one of the most sacred artifacts in Judah, written by Moses under the divine influence of the Lord, and it's mustering away in some forgotten corner of the temple covered in dust. It seems like it could be the plot of an Indiana Jones movie. The NOAB gives a more sober account of what the book might have actually been - most scholars think it was Deuteronomy, but it may have been "the entire Pentateuch (or an earlier version of it)."
Josiah instituted a Passover celebration, in accordance with the instructions from the newly rediscovered book of the law. This was described in some detail, along with all the requisite animal sacrifice. One interesting aspect is verse 3, "He said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the Lord, 'Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon son of David, king of Israel, built; you need no longer carry it on your shoulders." According to the NOAB, this was the only mention of the ark "in the Judahite monarchy". For as important as the ark was in earlier portions, it's interesting that it's been relegated to such a small role, here.
Another interesting aspect is verse 13. According to the NOAB, the correct translation of this verse is, "They boiled the Passover lamb with fire." The Chronicler chose this wording because Exodus 12:8 states that the lamb should be "roasted over the fire", while Dueteronomy 16:7 states that it should be boiled. (This looks to be another translation issue. The NRSV merely states cook in the Deuteronomy passage, while a few other translations I looked up actually use 'roast', but discussions such as this one indicate the 'boil' is the appropriate translation.) To try to harmonize these two different instructions, the Chronicler used 'boiled... with fire'.
The final portion of the chapter contained the story of Josiah's death. As in Kings, he fell in battle against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt. Unlike Kings, however, when Josiah first confronted Neco's forces, Neco sent emissaries saying that he was on a mission from God. But Josiah "did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God", and so as punishment was killed in battle. As opposed to Kings, this at least gives some justification for his death, since God had previously promised him that "you shall be gathered to your grave in peace". I still find this odd that people in the Bible are just supposed to know who is a false prophet and who's truly speaking for God, even when false prophets like Pharaoh's magicians from Exodus could perform convincing tricks. In this story, there was no indication that Neco gave Josiah that he was being truthful other than his word.
The final kings of Judah were given much less coverage in Chronicles than in Kings. According to the NOAB, this could be because the Chronicler had a shorter version of Kings from which to draw this history, or because, being so close to when it all happened, he didn't feel the need dwell on the details. So, it's a quick succession through Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, who all had rather brief reigns, before spending a little more time on Zedekiah. As in Kings, Zedekiah was an evil king, and Judah was under the rule of Babylon at the time. And also as in Kings, it was Zedekiah's revolt against Babylonian rule that brought about such a harsh punishment from Babylon. But a detail unique to Chronicles was that King Nebuchadnezzar had made Zedekiah swear fealty by God. So, by revolting against Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah was also breaking an oath to the Lord. So, there was a divine justification in this book for the fall of Judah based on Zedekiah's actions rather than Manasseh's.
Chronicles did end on a more hopeful note than Kings. Once Cyrus became king of Persia, he issued an edict:
Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.
The combined books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are somewhat interesting to study, if boring to actually read. The beginning of 1 Chronicles offered a very condensed summary of Israelite history, starting with Adam, and focusing on genealogy. As I wrote in my summary to those chapters, " It may have been valuable for being such a concise summary of genealogies, but it was about as exciting as reading a phone book." From there, it moved on to the stories covered in Samuel and Kings. In many ways, Chronicles was an abbreviated summary of the stories from those older books, but there were significant differences due to the Chronicler's bias/theology. In some cases, it was notable omissions. For example, David and Solomon were rather idealized in Chronicles, with just about every negative aspect of their characters stripped from the story. And the Chronicler wasn't too fond of Israel after the split with Judah, and considered its kings to be illegitimate, and so didn't give them any coverage except where it was relevant to events in Judah. But there were also additions. Some times, this may have been due to drawing from additional source material, but other times it seems that the Chronicler invented details.
As I've written before, there are multiple levels of interpretation when reading these stories. One is as a skeptic, thinking of the people who believe these stories literally, and seeing all the reasons why they couldn't be true. But moving past that and ignoring those problems, I can try to read this as I would other mythology, and try to see it through the eyes of the people who wrote it, and what it says about their mindset. Perhaps what I find the most interesting level, however, is trying to discern the kernels of truth, and how these stories could have developed. There is real evidence for some of these kings and some of these events, so we can be pretty sure that some of this did actually happen. But then there's the Chronicler's interpretive gloss on the whole thing, trying to rationalize why it all happened. And then there's some myth and legend added to it all as well. I can think of an analogy in American history. There's a lot that we know of what actually happened in this country, and multiple sources to draw that information from. And then there's the commentary and political theories on why it all happened. But even in American history, there are myths and legends, from stories like George Washington and the cherry tree, The midnight ride of Paul Revere, and the origins of Thanksgiving. There are even people who seem to be almost deliberately trying to rewrite history, such as claiming America was founded as a Christian nation, or that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery. When all this can happen in the modern day and age with the advantages of the rigor and demand for evidence that exists in modern historical studies, it's easy to imagine similar goings on back in the ancient world. But it's fascinating to learn what parts might have been true to gain some insight into what that ancient world must have been like.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.