From triumph to disaster: 1 & 2 Kings

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

As with the books of Samuel, there are rather more excerpts from Kings in the continuous ecumenical lectionary, than there are in the related set of Old Testament readings. This additional set brings a semi-continuous reading of the stories of Elijah and Elisha, two prophets fabled for their interventions in politics and the miracles they worked as proofs that God favoured them.1

The books of Kings take the story of Israel’s monarchy from the death of David to the deportations to Babylon that marked the end of the kingdom of Judah, and the beginning of the Exile.2 A significant amount of time is devoted to David’s son, Solomon, and particularly his building of the temple. The writer enjoys offering lavish and detailed descriptions of its construction, and he will end his story with its dismantling and the despoiling of its sanctuary.

(At the start of the books of Kings3 the kingdom of Israel is portrayed as at its greatest extent (one still longed for by settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews seeking to redraw the map of the Middle East). At the end of them, it is brought to ruin. They start with the high point of the monarchy, they finish with the end of the monarchy.)

Rubens’ picture of the Judgement of Solomon – this story is told as an example of Solomon’s wisdom in 1 Kings 3:16-28. Although the preceding story, Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, appears in the lectionary in Year A as Proper 12, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, this story showing the prayer was answered, does not. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

It is probably because of the temple that the writer, with his descriptions of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom, lets him off rather lightly compared to other kings. He sounds almost regretful when he mentions Solomon’s many hundreds of wives and concubines, allowed to practice their own pagan religions, and eventually swaying Solomon to join them in the worship of other gods and goddesses.

Solomon’s departure from an obedient faith in YHWH alone, the faith of his father David, leads to the break-up of his kingdom after his death. In this division of the land, the northern kingdom becomes known as Israel, with its capital city in Samaria. The much smaller southern kingdom of Judah remains focussed on Jerusalem. From this point on the writer of Kings will tell the story of both kingdoms as they intertwine, until he comes to Ahab, king of Israel.

With Ahab, he interrupts a barebones narrative of succession to tell a significant series of stories about Elijah, Ahab’s nemesis. Ahab represents a pragmatic and polytheistic politics emphasising the common Canaanite religion. Elijah stands for an uncompromising allegiance to the worship of YHWH alone. The conflict between the two characters and their viewpoints takes up the last third of the first book of Kings.

The second book begins with an ascension narrative for Elijah, a legendary finale for a legendary character, in which his power passes to his disciple Elisha. Elijah passes into heaven and Jewish mythology. He will become in due time a figure who is expected as the forerunner of a Messiah, the harbinger of a golden age. This hope appears in some of the gospel dialogues about John the Baptist and Jesus, and to this day in orthodox Jewish tradition many believe Elijah visits every circumcision ceremony and every Passover meal.

The early chapters of second Kings tell various stories about Elisha and his engagement with the politics of Israel, the northern kingdom, following his master Elijah. Generally these are less confrontational than the Elijah stories and Elisha rather fades out of the story as the narrator returns to describing the reign of various kings of both northern and southern kingdoms, and the eventual fall of Samaria (in 721 BC) and Jerusalem (in 597 BC). None of these later stories appear in the lectionary, despite the overlap with the lectionary’s most popular prophet, Isaiah.4

Isaiah is active in the southern kingdom at the time the north falls. A key story where God preserves Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah when the northern kingdom of Israel falls to Assyria, is found in both 2 Kings and Isaiah.5 It is also one of those rare occasions when there is a reference to the same event in a secular source. The Assyrian record mentions the siege of Jerusalem, but it is not listed as one of the cities captured by their army.6

From the fall of the north, to the end of the book, 2 Kings continues the story of the southern kingdom of Judah, and its kings. The high point for the storyteller / editor is the reign of King Josiah. Josiah is associated with reforms of Israelite religion which look awfully like the ideals promoted in the book of Deuteronomy: one God, no idols, one central sanctuary under the king’s eye, no local syncretism in the rural hinterlands.

Josiah’s program of YHWH alone leaves the marks of its success on the archeological record. Yet he was able to achieve it because the Assyrian empire was failing and he had political room to manoeuvre. The growing rise of Babylonian power soon put an end to that, and his successors turned away from his reforms to the politics of compromise and pragmatism accompanied to some degree by the return of other cults and gods. It was to no avail: the kingdom fell to Babylon, the leadership was deported to Babylon, and the Exile away from YHWH’s land began.

The faith, however, which had been renewed under Josiah, stirred by the prophets, and treasured in the holy book club of Deuteronomy fans, found a new and fertile soil in Babylon, from which it would emerge with a new appreciation that the God of Israel was not tied to one land, but was with his people still: YHWH was the creator, the God of all the earth.


Notes

  1. The readings of the Elijah-Elisha cycle are part of Propers 4-9 in Year C’s continuous lectionary.
  2. The Exile is explained in this post.
  3. Remember that in Jewish tradition, 1 & 2 Kings are treated as a single scroll or book, one of the four Former Prophets (see the link in note 2).
  4. Isaiah was clearly an important book in Jesus’ day. Multiple copies of it were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it is quoted very frequently in the New Testament – more than any other Old Testament book except the Psalms. It is unsurprising that it is also used more in the lectionary than any other Old Testament book apart from Psalms.
  5. 2 Kings 18:13 – 20:19 is for the most part identical to Isaiah 36:1 – 39:8
  6. If you want to know more about the details from Sennacherib’s (the Assyrian king’s) records, then this Wikipedia article is a good starting point.

One thought on “From triumph to disaster: 1 & 2 Kings

  1. Pingback: Waiting for the return of the King: at the end of the First Testament – Liturgica

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