The Complete Book of 2 Kings
These last few chapters of 2 Kings are like reading a history of Germany in the 1930s or watching the movie United 93. A terrible ending waits just around the corner, and you hope that it's somehow going to be averted, that God will somehow redeem. But He doesn't. The yellow stars appear. The plane crashes. And, here in Chapter 17, the Assyrians vanquish King Hoshea of Israel and deport all the Israelites to Assyria. This, I believe, marks the destruction of 10 of the tribes of Israel. Am I right in thinking that those Israelites exiled to Assyria are lost to history and that it is only the people of Judah who survive to become the Jews of today? Judah and its capital Jerusalem remain free—for the moment.
This ruination fulfills the predictions Moses made back in Deuteronomy. As the chapter pointedly details, the Israelites have worshipped idols, built pagan shrines, followed alien customs, and—my favorite phrase—"committed wicked acts to vex the Lord." Over and over, God offered them the chance to repent and follow His laws, but instead, like incorrigible drug addicts, they "stiffened their necks" and kept on sinning. That's why, dear friends, God expelled them from his Holy Land and sent them as slaves to a cruel foreign king. They can't say they weren't warned. The lesson, I suppose, is that we can't say that we weren't warned, either.
A curious episode follows. The Assyrian invaders settle in Israel and continue worshipping their idols. This irks the Lord, who sends lions to attack them. The Assyrians, a pragmatic people, recognize their mistake and import Israelite priests to teach them about the Lord. The priests, sent back from Assyria—instruct their conquerors, who adopt some Israelite practices, though they continue to worship their own gods, too. Back in Numbers or Deuteronomy—drat, I can't find the passage—God explained to the Israelites that He was giving them the Promised Land because the previous inhabitants had despoiled it with their pagan practices. God chose the Israelites as His people, but it is more important that He chose Israel as His land. He's a real-estate God. Given the choice between His people and His land, he always chooses His land. It must remain holy, even if that means the Israelites have to leave it. The Assyrian conquest shows that real-estate philosophy in action: He doesn't begrudge the Assyrians their victory, but He does insist that they not excessively contaminate His land. When they're 100 percent pagan, he plagues them with lions. Once they show a little respect to God—not a huge amount, but token props—He leaves them be.
Chapter 18 and Chapter 19
Meanwhile, back in Judah, things are improving slightly. King Hezekiah finally wipes out pagan shrines and demolishes the bronze serpent that saved the Israelites from a snake infestation way back in Numbers. Too many Judahites were worshipping the serpent itself rather than recognizing it as a tool of the Lord, so Hezekiah ditched it. Hezekiah's a big hero because "He trusted only in the Lord." And a fat lot of good it does him! The Assyrians march on Judah, and Hezekiah can buy peace only with a huge ransom.
The Assyrians dispatch a delegation to intimidate the Judahites and demand more subservience. This is a chilling display of power politics. While speaking Hebrew, the Assyrians threaten and mock the Judahites for their weakness. In a truly pathetic reply, the Judahite spokesman begs the Assyrians to stop speaking Hebrew and to speak Aramaic instead. When Assyrians speak Hebrew, the Judahite whimpers, the regular Judahite citizens nearby can hear the threats, and that undermines the negotiations. The Assyrians laugh at this pathetic request: They say that those regular Judahites are exactly the people who should hear the threats, because they're the ones who will be forced "to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine" if Hezekiah fails to capitulate to the mightier Assyrians. The Assyrian negotiator continues speaking to the crowd in Hebrew in an even louder voice, telling them that surrender is their only chance to save themselves, their land, and their crops. "Don't listen to Hezekiah, who misleads you by saying, 'The Lord will save us.' Did any of the gods of other nations save his land from the king of Assyria?" It's a brilliant, ruthless, and terribly effective diplomatic ploy. It scares the Judahites to death, sets everyday Judahite citizens against their leaders, and, thanks to the Judahites' quivering complaints about language, reveals the profound weakness of the Judahite top brass.
In a world run by Henry Kissinger, the Assyrian power play would succeed masterfully, and Judah would sue for peace. But it backfires. The Assyrian bullying offends the Lord. He heeds the prayers of His beloved Hezekiah and His prophet Isaiah. Isaiah recites a poem in which God tells the Assyrians to bugger off. "Because you have raged against Me. ... I will place My hook in your nose and My bit between your jaws." Then the Lord's angel kills 185,000 Assyrian soldiers with a plague, the marauding army retreats, and the Assyrians aren't heard from again. Unfortunately, that is the last good day in the Promised Land.
King Hezekiah's about to die, but he weepingly begs the Lord to grant him a reprieve. The Lord listens and sends Isaiah to heal him. Hezekiah has a terrible rash. Isaiah prescribes figs, of course. A fig paste heals the king right away. Is there any medical foundation for this figgery? Does fig contain some powerful medicine, some kind of figgy steroid? I doubt it, though I must admit the Fig Newton is a divinely good cookie.
Hezekiah demands proof from the Lord that he has really cheated death and that he'll actually live another 15 years, as promised by Isaiah. The Lord, who must surely be irked by these requests that he show his cards, responds by temporarily shrinking shadows. This is a miracle at once piddling and poetic. It contains just enough mystery to convince Hezekiah it's the Lord's work, but not enough that the Lord actually has to strain Himself.
Hezekiah shows off his city and palace to a delegation from Babylon. This is the first we have heard of this kingdom, which is a kind of sister kingdom of Assyria in present-day Iraq. This Babylonian house tour turns out to be a huge mistake, sort of like introducing your hot girlfriend to George Clooney. Your chance of keeping her immediately drops to zero. The Babylonians see the goods, covet them, and start making plans to take them.
Dreadful king Manasseh undoes all of Hezekiah's Lord-loving deeds, rebuilding altars to Baal, practicing soothsaying, etc. Now is as good a time as any to ask the obvious question about all these idol-worshipping Israelites: If God is so powerful and good, why does king after king abandon him? Why are the Israelites so incredibly faithless? According to the Bible, the Lord is constantly proving Himself, intervening in human affairs, demonstrating his potency and the impotence of rival gods. So why do the Chosen People so readily abandon Him? One answer must be that Baal and other idols were somehow more appealing than the Lord. Perhaps Baal was a more forgiving God. Or his laws were less rigorous. Or maybe he encouraged heavy drinking and no-strings-attached sex. Otherwise the abandonment of God makes no sense. In the marketplace of religion, God does not win, or at least not in the short run. (Obviously, He has done better in the long run, since there are a couple billion Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and exactly zero Baalists.) Who has a persuasive answer about why the Israelites wouldn't stick to their glorious God?
Manasseh's crimes infuriate the Lord, who now throws in the towel on Judah, too. He decides to give up entirely on His chosen people. He says, "I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish." I can't imagine that God has done too many dishes in His time—I would have thought that He and Mrs. God have angels who handle stuff like that—but it's still a vivid image.
Kings is sad to read in a way that the preceding Bible books are not. Earlier books are bloodier, more immoral, and more disturbing. Kings is simply melancholy, as the terrible end of the Israelites draws closer, closer, closer.
Chapter 22 and Chapter 23
The Israelites make one last, desperate chance to save themselves. Josiah becomes king of Judah, and his priests suddenly discover "the scroll of the Teaching" in the Temple. I cheated a little bit and checked the commentary on this, and everyone agrees that this scroll is almost certainly the book of Deuteronomy. (Some believe Josiah had Deuteronomy written and then claimed to discover it, while others believe it was actually rediscovered.) Josiah reads Deuteronomy, and it hits him like a ton of bricks. He realizes his people are doomed unless they mend their ways. They are breaking every law in the book (or, on the scroll). No wonder the Lord is so furious at them! Josiah rends his clothes in sorrow. But it's too late. A lady prophet, Huldah, says the Lord has already doomed Judah—the land will become "a desolation and a curse."
Still, an optimistic Josiah tries to change God's mind. He reads the whole scroll out loud to the Israelites, then topples all the idols, knocks down the temples of the male prostitutes, destroys the pagan monuments built by Solomon, unearths pagan cemeteries, and incinerates human bones on the heretic altars. He even restores Passover. Josiah is like no king before or after—he's almost a second coming of Moses—but it's not enough. "The Lord did not turn away from His awesome wrath."
This seems very unfair of God. Josiah does everything possible to restore his people into God's good graces. He follows all of God's orders. By the time of Josiah's death, the Judahites are as holy as they have ever been, yet He doesn't forgive! It seems oddly merciless. If He won't save the faithful, what's the point of believing at all?
Chapter 24 and Chapter 25
The end is here. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invades and makes quick work of Judah. Judah's new king Jehoiakim becomes a vassal, then rebels. Neb crushes the rebellion, takes the king prisoner, deports all the able men to Babylon, and loots Jerusalem.
The Babylonians install a puppet king, who also rebels. That rebellion is crushed, as well. A Babylonian commander sacks the temple and executes the priests. Jerusalem is turned into a ghost town, with only its poorest inhabitants left to till the fields.
This marks the end of the glory days of the Israelites. The hope and opportunity of the Torah have been squandered. It's hard to see what hope, or faith, could remain after such tragedy. Yet there's enough that the Israelites wrote down these books and preserved their memory of God's love through a brutal exile.
The book of Kings ends with an incredible, heartbreaking vignette. After the conquest of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar releases deposed king Jehoiakim from prison and keeps him as a court retainer. Neb lets the former king eat at his table every day and gives him a daily allowance. The last king of Judah is a pet, a domesticated animal, an obedient monkey serving a pagan master. This is the fate of God's chosen people, and their king.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.