Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2 Kings 21: The Jews' Judas

There is no question that the greatest tragedy in Hebrew Biblical history occurs in 586 B.C.E. In this year, Babylonian forces led by King Nebuchadnezzar mount a successful siege of the city of Jerusalem, rout the Judahite army, and ship most of the survivors off to Babylon.

Jerusalem, by this point in time, is the vital center of the last of the Israelite nation-state. Even though it is ruled by a weak king (Zedekiah), it remains the beating heart of ancient Judaism and a brick-and-mortar symbol of the continuing relationship between God and his chosen people. Its destruction throws into question the strength of that relationship.

Further, in the aftermath of the defeat a military detachment led by Nebuzaradan razes the Temple, disassembling the House of God and eviscerating the core of early Jewish religious practice.

How did this tragedy come upon us? How could God seemingly forget his people, throwing them to the Babylonian wolves? And whose fault is it? Can we lay blame? Can we assign specific guilt?

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is yes. The book of 2 Kings identifies one man who is guiltier than all the rest--though many are blameful--and that man's name is Manasseh. He's early Judaism's Judas, the one who messes it all up for the rest of us.

Now, on a grand scale, the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile are the people's fault. Anyone who has ever read the Bible's early histories knows that the Israelites--despite their reputation--are not particularly adept followers of God. They complain incessantly in the wilderness after the Exodus. They erect altars to other gods, no matter how many times Yahweh demonstrates his monstrous, miraculous power. And they forget the covenant--the breathing contract that connects people to deity. So they basically get a D+ in God-following.

And when they do so, God punishes them. Sometimes he does so in small ways, raining fire or sending famine or starting war. (And yes, these are the "small" ways.) But sometimes he punishes them in big ways, like when he takes down the Northern Kingdom of Israel earlier in 2 Kings: "The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria [...] because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed its covenant [...] they neither listened nor obeyed" (18:11-12).

The fall of Jerusalem, then, can be chalked up to similar disobedience; the people are bad, so God takes away their toys, er, nation-state.

However, having laid universal blame on the people of Israel for Judah's destruction, the authors of 2 Kings also point a finger at one person--a really nasty king named Manasseh. He makes his brief appearance in chapter 21.

"Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign" (21:1), reads the text, and we wonder why the Judahites allowed prepubescents to manage affairs of state. "He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord [...] he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done" (21:3). A sacred pole, Manasseh? I have only one thing to say ... when's the party?

Kidding ... a "sacred pole" is simply another pagan worship item, another way we know that Manasseh is lusting after other gods. Now we've seen this lusting before from other bad monarchs; the books of Kings are filled with it. But Manasseh really breaks the bank in verse 7: "The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord said to David and to his son Solomon, 'In this house [...] I will put my name forever." Translation? Manasseh puts a pagan shrine right smack dab in the middle of the Temple, the holiest building in all of Israel and the place where God resides. Bad move.

God lowers the boom in verse 13: "I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down." Now first, I note what a conscientious dish-washer God is--no pooling on his porcelain! I wonder if He's looking for a roommate.

But God continues, "I will cast off the remnant of my heritage, and give them into the hand of their enemies [...] because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger" (21:14). And that's it--the writing is one the wall and apocalypse is upon us.

Well, not quite upon us, because there's a gap between Manasseh's sin and Israel's punishment. The Babylonians will not arrive for another 60 years or so. But the damage is done--so done that when Manasseh's grandson Josiah takes over the throne as a real reformer, his good deeds are not good enough. Despite Josiah's efforts, "Still the Lord did not turn away from the fierceness of his wrath [...] because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him" (23:26).

So there you have it. You've been losing sleep wondering who caused the Babylonian Exile? It was Manasseh. And now you can doze soundly.


  1. When the temple was gone....the center of the Jewish nation and faith....what replaced it during the years of the exile? What allowed the Jews to be reconstituted as a nation and a people?

    The Pious Pastor

  2. Do you think the Jewish state of Israel today has a claim to the land of Israel through the covenant? Or, have they broken faith with God in their acts of violence toward the Palestinians...the stranger living in the land?

    The Pious Pastor

  3. Well, "Pious"--and I'm waiting for your next blog post!--the answer I always give my students to your first question is ... the Tanakh. Many Biblical scholars now believe that the compilation of the Hebrew Bible only began in earnest after 586, when the first temple was destroyed. In the absence of the physical, brick-and-mortar core of Judaism, Jews move the religious tradition to the interpretation of text.

    As for your second question, I just don't know ... of course the institution of the state of Israel in 1948 has never been understood as a patently religious move--when the British partitioned Palestine, they weren't thinking of the covenant. As for my own views on claims to the land, I will remain silent ... and politic. :)


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