Friday, May 29, 2009

2 Chronicles 36: Evil at Eight

In the wake of national, international, or global tragedy, we are prone to Monday-morning quarterback—to try to answer those hardest of questions: Why and how? That’s why Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism after WWII. And why so many of us read the 9/11 Commission Report (a government document that was also the 11th best-selling book of 2004).

I think that the book of Chronicles can be understood, at least partially, as its generation’s 9/11 report. Indeed, one of its main goals is to retell history in such a way as to explain how something so right (a unique covenant with God, the creator of the universe) went so wrong … and ended in cataclysm. Written after the invasion of Israel by the Babylonians and the destruction of the temple, Chronicles is rehistory: an updated rendition of the story of the Israelites from Adam to Exile, designed to describe how we moved from Paradise to wandering in Persia without a home.

As mentioned in a previous post, there are numerous discrepancies between the Chronicler’s version of events and that of previous historians. In exploring these changes, we can discern the author’s motivations for rewriting previous Biblical books. (While once again confirming that even Biblical authors rewrite the Bible.) Today, I want to focus in on another of these alterations: perhaps the funniest—but also one of the most frightening—in the book.

2 Chronicles, much like 2 Kings, recites the occasional triumphs and frequent misdeeds of a long string of Israelite/Judahite monarchs. Though some of these leaders are good—Josiah and Hezekiah stand out—most are terrible. The repeated refrain of Chronicles and Kings goes a little something like this: “[Insert king’s name here] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Not exactly “Do you like pina coladas,” but this little ditty gets its point across: from Solomon on, the monarchy is spiraling out of control like a helicopter with a bum rotor.

The purpose of marking this steep descent? To make a simple point: the leaders of Israel and Judah (the northern and southern parts of land previously known as Canaan) get worse and worse; by the end, they are so bad that they bring on God’s just punishment and the razing of Jerusalem. This is the argument of 2 Kings, but the Chronicler ups the ante by embellishing the evils of the crown.

In 2 Kings, we learn of Jehoiachin, the penultimate leader of Judah before the Babylonian invasion. In brief, Jehoiachin is another worthless despot. He reigns just three months, and during that time, “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his father had done” (24:9). Wickedness, it seems, has become hereditary, passing from parent to child like a genetic mutation.

But in re-telling Jehoiachin’s story, the Chronicler slightly changes the specs on this misruler: “Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign […] He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 36:9). Eight years old. Eight years old? And already doing evil in the Lord’s sight? This is ridiculous. What “evil” can an eight-year old do to invoke the Lord’s wrath? Eat the Temple paste? Write on the walls in the palace lavatory? Hit Susie with the royal scepter?

Granted, in Kings Jehoiachin is just 18 when he takes the throne, but at least we can imagine him having some self-awareness; post-adolescents can sin. But can third graders?

Of course, this is exactly the Chronicler’s slightly inane point. In Judah before the fall, the kingly line has become so corrupt that even primary schoolers can do evil. Real, God-provoking, apocalypse-courting evil. The land is so depraved that the innocence of childhood is replaced by an immorality that should only be possible in maturity. In the words of Isaiah, “babes shall rule over them” (3:4), and these will be nasty little babes.

Like Children of the Corn nasty. I picture the Chronicler’s Jehoiachin throwing his mom of a balcony like Damien in The Omen. Or crawling down the stairs backwards while spewing pea soup and cursing in Latin like Regan in The Exorcist. Or with his twin brother Dylan standing in a bloody 70’s-era hotel hallway like in The Shining. (Okay, so I made “Dylan” up, but you get my point.)

So the Chronicler makes a funny change to the character of Jehoiachin … but it’s also horrifying.

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