I find the order of the next few lessons a bit odd. Today we cover about 100+ years of major history (c. 750BC- 609BC), which happens to be the same time period and historical background for Amos (760bc), Micah and Isaiah (735-700), Nahum (between 663 and 612), Jeremiah (627-??), Lehi, Urijah (Jer 26:20-23) and we’ve probably skipped Joel (uncertain), Obadiah (uncertain), Habbakuk (uncertain), and Jonah (set sometime before 612). (All dates are approximate.)
We cover this history in one lesson, then Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Lesson 31), Job (Lesson 32), and THEN we go back in time and start doing these prophets in order.
I’d prefer to study all of these in historical context (i.e. reading Isaiah chapters AND Kings/Chronicles chapters in the same lesson, to contextualize).
So, let’s do the history. Below is a list of s. kings of Judah with the dates of their reigns
- Ahaz 742-727 (powerful but “bad”)
- Hezekiah 727/715-698 (instituted reforms which failed; “good”)
- Manasseh 698-643 (reigned 55 years,undid all the reforms; REALLY “bad”)
- Amon 643-640 (not great, but short at least)
- Josiah 640-609 (Becomes king at age 8, really really “good” king; “discovers” Book of Deuteronomy, institutes successful reforms… but then the Babylonians come.)
These last four are not in this lesson. Note the short regnal length.
- Jehoahaz 609
- Jehoiakim 609-598
- Jehoiakin 598-597 (reigns three months, 2 ki 24:8)
- Mattaniah/Zedekiah 597-586
Note that for all of these, we are reading Chronicles, not Kings. Remember, Chronicles was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon. It often takes a very different perspective than Kings does, and the historical data it provides is inconsistent with Kings. Chronicles is likely the source doing the historical revising, but I’m not going to focus on any differences.
The history in a nutshell is this. Like his father Ahaz, Hezekiah must reckon directly with the encroaching Assyrian empire as well as regulate internal religious matters. He tries to institute reforms, which do not take, largely because his son Manasseh undoes them during his 55-yr reign. Manasseh’s son Amon follows in his footsteps, and is assassinated by his courtiers after only 2-3 years. Manasseh’s 8-yr old son Josiah is crowned. Josiah is the golden boy, who does everything right, “discovers” the Book of Deuteronomy in the temple, and institutes religious reforms. During Josiah’s reign, Judah is probably under Egyptian control, with Egypt supporting Assyria. Assyria, however, is declining and Babylon rising. Although Kings portrays Israelite history as culminating in a golden age to be ushered in by Josiah, he is devastatingly killed by the Egyptians in 609 as they march north to support Assyria against Babylon. Egypt and Assyria lose, and from 605 until 586, Babylon runs Judah and Jerusalem directly, ultimately destroying the city, temple, and people (via Exile) in 586.
We begin with Hezekiah, a young king. At the age of 25, he replaces his father Ahaz, who had not been very good by the Deuteronomistic editor’s standards or probably our own. Hezekiah repairs and cleanses the temple, and essentially does a rededication. This constitutes most of chapter 29. In 30, Hezekiah proclaims a Passover. Verse 3 adds that they were keeping the Passover at an unusual time (which had happened before, Num 9:6-13) because a) there hadn’t been enough ritually pure priests at the right time and b) the people had not gathered to the temple in Jerusalem.
Three festivals required gathering to Jerusalem (see Exodus 23:15-17): Sukkot “booths” or KJV “tabernacles” and Shavuot or “Weeks”. The third came to be Pesach or Passover. Why “came to be”? Passover, including the sacrifice of the lamb, was originally celebrated locally, in families. It still required an altar to slaughter the sacrifice, and these were found locally. However, one of Hezekiah’s failed reforms that Josiah later instituted successfully was to destroy all altars and places of sacrifice outside Jerusalem and declare that it must all take place at the central temple. This had the practical effect of turning Passover into a pilgrimage feast that had to be held in Jerusalem. It also had the effect of making many legitimate priests and Levites “homeless,” in a sense. The tribe of Levi was allotted no tribal land on which to graze animals or grow food. Rather, the Levites lived off the food that was sacrificed at all these altars.
Deuteronomy 12 is the text that focuses on centralization of ritual sacrifice and the desacralization of killing oxen sheep, and goats for food. Previously, this would have been done at the local altar, and certain organs and blood dealt with ritually before the rest was taken home for food. Since the local altars were now destroyed, and you couldn’t haul your ox several days journey to slaughter it, then bring the meat several days back home. Consequently, sacrifice for the purpose of food had to be desacralized, or able to be slaughtered away from an altar or holy place.
This is only one of the many ways in which Hezekiah’s and then Josiah’s reforms made massive changes to the social and religious structures of the Israelites.
Is it possible that Deuteronomy was simply lost for 600 years, and God didn’t tell any of the prophets sacrificing at these other alters that they shouldn’t? Or is this one of the places where Deuteronomy was written to give support to the reforms?
Chapter 32 introduces us to Sennacherib, king of Assyria. Starting around 722BC, the Assyrian empire had started sweeping its way westward, conquering the way down to Egypt. At one point, the kingdoms of Aram and Israel team up against Judah, to force it to fight Assyria with them. (This is the background to Isaiah 7, the “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” chapter.) Both kingdoms eventually fall, and Assyria continues south. The ch, one of the southern walled cities destroyed by the Assyrians, was depicted in many large reliefs at Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, now found in the British Museum.
By 701, Sennacherib has conquered every city in the southern kingdom as well, and begins to siege Jerusalem. Hezekiah had had the foresight to provide an underground water supply, ingeniously dug. Hezekiah’s Tunnel still has water flowing through it today, and you can walk through it, as we did in January. There are no lights in the tunnel, and the water (depending on season) is anywhere from ankle to mid-thigh. Article on Hezekiah’s Tunnel.
An inscription was found in the tunnel, commemorating the day the two sides broke through to each other.
[The day of] the breach.
This is the record of how the tunnel was breached.
While [the excavators were wielding] their pick-axes, each man towards his co-worker,
and while there were yet three cubits for the brea[ch,]
a voice [was hea]rd
each man calling to his co-worker;
because there was a cavity in the rock (extending)
from the south to [the north].
So on the day of the breach,
the excavators struck,
each man to meet his co-worker,
pick-axe against pick-[a]xe.
Then the water flowed from the spring to the pool,
a distance of one thousand and two hundred cubits.
One hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the excavat[ors.]
Hezekiah, then, was prepared. This siege (sieges?) of Sennacherib is given a shortened version here in Chronicles, but is found with more detail in Isaiah 18-19, 2 Kings 36-37… and also in Sennacherib’s own account, written in Assyrian, which we will come to in a minute. Sennacherib sends the Rabshakeh (a high-ranking military official) to threaten and treat with the Jerusalemites in Hebrew. (Think of the Rabshakeh a bit like the Mouth of Sauron.) He tries to convince them to surrender, and makes theological arguments to undermine them (psychological warfare!), that all the other cities and their gods have fallen before Assyria and Ashur, so why should Yahweh and Jerusalem be any different? Moreover, isn’t Yahweh the very god whose altars Hezekiah has been tearing down? (Indeed, they are.) Why should he come to Hezekiah’s aid, then?
The Israelites respond by saying they can speak the lingua franca, Aramaic (v. 26), clearly with the intent of sheltering people from hearing the discussion in Hebrew.
But the Rabshakeh said to them, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?” 28 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah, “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! 29 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. 30 Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the LORD by saying, The LORD will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ (2Ki 18:27-30 NRSV)
Hezekiah confers with Isaiah, who tells him in essence, not to worry. The Hebrew Bible records that the city was miraculously delivered, and Sennacherib left. Note that Sennacherib’s account admits (in between the lines) to not conquering Jerusalem, and doesn’t really explain his retreat.
In my third campaign, I marched against [the west]….As for Hezekiah, the Judean, a I besieged forty-six of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and applying battering rams, infantry attacks by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered (them). I took out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep, without number, and counted them as spoil. He himself, I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage.9 I surrounded him with earthworks, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate.
- The Context of Scripture 2.119b
The point of a siege, of course, is not to trap a king like a bird in a cage, but to break through and conquer the city. Sennacherib recounts the tribute Hezekiah sent him after he left, suggesting perhaps that Hezekiah had surrendered or negotiated.
However it happens, Sennacherib returns to his own land. “When he came into the house of his god, some of his own sons struck him down there with the sword.” (2Ch 32:21 NRS) As it turns out, Sennacherib was indeed assassinated. A short fragmentary letter to his youngest son and successor Esarhaddon (he of the vassal-treaties I’ve mentioned before) records that some of his sons killed him. It’s too fragmentary to print here, but one of the names is quite close to that given here. “As [Sennacherib] was worshiping in the house of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped into the land of Ararat. His son Esar-haddon succeeded him.” (2Ki 19:37 NRSV)
Of Josiah, we shall speak more in a future post.
Further readings about Deuteronomy, centralization, the Assyrian siege. Link.
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