The Complete Book of 2 Kings
Chapter 6 and Chapter 7
Elisha shows off in front of his disciples by making a metal ax float on water. This prompts a question: Why can the prophets do so few tricks? They multiply food, they raise the dead, they purify foul or poisoned liquids, they manipulate water (walk on it, part it, have something float on it). That's it. And all of them seem to have roughly the same abilities. Why aren't the prophets more like the Justice League or the X-Men, with a diversity of God-given talents? It would be more exciting if one prophet could stop time, another fly like a bird, another turn men into stone, another shoot fire out of his eyes, etc.
(Before you complain, let me clarify something. I am talking about the prophet's own skills. When prophets pray to God, the Lord can do anything—slaughter an army, feed manna to the nation, and so on. In those cases, the Lord is doing the work, with the prophet as intermediary. The kind of miracles I am talking about are those the prophet can perform without any prayer or divine intervention—his own base-line abilities. And these are limited.)
Elisha continues to bedevil the Aramaeans. He uses his supernatural powers to discover the location of the Aramaean army, then passes on the coordinates to the Israelite king. (Aramaean kings are the Washington Generals to Elisha's Harlem Globetrotters.) The Aramaean monarch sends his men to arrest Elisha, surrounding the city with chariots. Elisha one-ups the enemy, encircling the Aramaean army with a heavenly force of chariots of fire. (More chariots of fire!) Then, Elisha has the Aramaeans struck blind and humiliated, but the war continues. Pretty soon the Aramaean king besieges Samaria, starving the Israelites. The famine is so bad that they eat "dove's dung"! Eventually the Israelites resort to cannibalism, even eating their own children.
Elisha, as usual, comes to the rescue. He conjures an imaginary army that scares the bejesus—or should that be, "scares the berimmon"?—out of the Aramaeans, who flee in a panic. The Israelites plunder the Aramaean provisions.
Aramaean King Ben-Hadad falls ill, and Elisha travels to Damascus to help him. (Can someone explain why the Lord's prophet would assist this rampaging, starvation-causing, heretic king?) Elisha conferences with Hazael, the Aramaean heir apparent. Elisha weeps during the meeting, because—as he tells the Aramaean—he knows that Hazael will be an even worse king than Ben-Hadad, inflicting horrific agonies on the Israelites—"dash[ing] in pieces their little ones, and rip[ing] up their pregnant women." This prophecy cheers up Hazael, who promptly returns to the palace, suffocates Ben-Hadad, and takes the throne.
Chapter 9 and Chapter 10
Now come a bunch of fiendishly complicated, soap-operatic chapters detailing the shenanigans of various Israelite and Judahite kings. One high point: the return of Jezebel! Aspiring King Jehu, already anointed by Elisha, marches on current King Joram, Jezebel's son. They meet in the vineyard of Naboth. (Remember how Joram's father, Ahab, had seized this vineyard back in 1 Kings 21, prompting the Lord to curse Ahab and his sons?) When Joram sees Jehu, he asks, timidly but eloquently, "Is it peace, Jehu?" Jehu shouts back, "What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?"
That's a your-mama insult that no loyal son would countenance, but cowardly Joram flees. Jehu shoots an arrow in his back, then chucks the corpse on Naboth's property. For good measure, Jehu also murders visiting King Ahaziah of Judah, making it a two-regicide day! And he's not even finished. He marches to Jezebel's castle. Jezebel, hearing of his approach, slathers on her makeup. (Jezebel is the first Bible character who wears makeup, and her makeup is implicitly linked to her evil. This must be one key reason why some American Christians, particularly in the early 20th century, associated makeup with wickedness and harlotry.) Jehu stands beneath Jezebel's window and yells, "Who is on my side? Who?" Jezebel's eunuchs hear him and toss her out the window, where her corpse is trampled by horses, then eaten by dogs.
For good measure, Jehu also murders all 70 of Ahab's sons and 42 of Ahaziah's relatives as well. (Jehu is the Green River Killer of the Israelite Kings!) Finally, in a sublime act of cunning—one our wit-loving God must have appreciated—Jehu announces that he's going to worship Baal instead of the Lord. Jehu invites all Baal's followers to a grand temple consecration. Once they're assembled in the hall, Jehu orders his 80 guards waiting outside to murder them. It's a creepy kind of mass killing, genocidal in purpose and in technique. Then, Jehu's men topple the temple and turn it into a latrine.
This book could just as well be called Queens, because the royal ladies are even more vivid than their sons and husbands. This chapter, for example, offers us a memorable villainess and a heroine. When Ahaziah's mother, Athaliah, hears of her son's death, she "promptly" murders all the rest of his relatives—the ones Jehu didn't kill—and seizes the crown for herself. But Ahaziah's sister Jehosheba, our heroine, hides Ahaziah's son Joash from the death squads and protects him for six years while Queen Athaliah terrorizes the land. (It's too bad Athaliah is such a monster, because "Athaliah," like "Jezebel," is a beautiful name.) When Joash is 7 years old, the high priest anoints him king and leads a coup against Athaliah. The rebels boot her out of the Temple—because you can't murder in God's house—and execute her in the palace.
I defy you to understand the next few chapters. The little boy Joash seems to have become King Jehoash of Judah, but he is also sometimes called King Joash, too. Meanwhile, the Israelites anoint a new king called Jehoahaz. When Jehoahaz dies, his son Jehoash becomes king. So, there's Joash who is also Jehoash, Jehoahaz, and another Jehoash. (On the other hand, there are four David Plotzes in my family, so I'm one to talk.)
Still, let's not let a few confusing names distract us from the real significance of this chapter, which is that it marks the official invention of fund-raising! Here's the story: The Temple is in disrepair, so Jehoash/Joash orders the priests to earmark certain sacred fees—the required donations for various ceremonies—for Temple repair. (The first building fund!) But, as you'd expect in a world without auditors, none of the repairs actually get done. The priests spend the money elsewhere (on lottery tickets? or vacation homes? or prostitutes, like certain notorious televangelists?). So, Jehoash tries an experiment: He places a box with a hole in its lid by the altar, and the temple guards place all collections in that safe-deposit box. When enough cash accumulates, the high priest counts the money and hires a contractor to do repairs. Look at the pioneering work here. Invented in one short chapter are: the building fund, the in-house auditor, and the collection box—all institutions that are still with us today. When you walk into practically any church, synagogue, or museum, what's the first thing you see? A box with the a in its lid, collecting your cash for the capital campaign.
The Aramaeans conquer Israel. They're only ejected when Elisha, on his deathbed, answers the prayers of Israelite King Jehoash. Then Elisha dies. There's no whirlwind to heaven for him. But later, when another corpse is thrown into his grave, the dead man's body touches Elisha's skeleton and comes back to life.
Chapter 14 through Chapter 16
The beginning of the end of Israel. In Chapter 14, the chief catastrophe—2 Kings is nothing but catastrophes, of varying sizes—is the pointless civil war waged by the king of Judah against Israel. The Israelite king begs the cocky Judahite king not to start a fight, but the Judahite king doesn't listen. His mistake. The Israelites rout the invading Judahites and sack Jerusalem. Still, this is a bad omen for what's to come. These intramural struggles leave Israel vulnerable to conquest from the north.
Before we get to the geopolitics, can I just complain for a moment about this book? I can't take much more it. It's the same story, over and over again. The king does "what was evil in the sight of the Lord." Then, he loses a war and is assassinated. Another king, who's slightly less bad, replaces him and shatters the Baal idols. Then, there's another war. And another bad king …
Let's just use Chapter 15 as an example. One king catches leprosy and dies. Another is assassinated and succeeded by his assassin. A month later, this new king is assassinated and succeeded by his assassin. He dies, and his heir is promptly assassinated and succeeded by his assassin. Then, I kid you not, this king is also assassinated and succeeded by his assassin.
Meanwhile, their nation is careening toward a cliff. As the Israelites busy themselves with regicide, the Assyrians (who live what is now Syria and Iraq) take advantage of the chaos to conquer most of the northern half of the country and deport the inhabitants to Assyria as slaves.
It all gets very World War I. The fading Israelites, facing extinction at the hands of the Assyrians, make an alliance with their old enemies the Aramaeans, who are also being harried by the Assyrians. The kingdom of Judah, in turn, quickly signs a peace treaty with the Assyrians. Ahaz, the king of Judah, swears fealty to the Assyrian king. This arrangement allows Judah and Assyria—the southern and northern territories—to squeeze Aram and Israel in the middle. The Assyrians quickly conquer Aram and sack Damascus.
All the dreadful pieces are in place. Judah and Israel, the Lord's two kingdoms, have become mortal enemies of each other. (What's worse is that they've brought their misfortune on themselves by worshipping idols, abandoning the Lord, and selecting wicked kings.) The mighty Assyrians have already conquered Aram, battered northern Israel, and forced Judah into vassalage. You know what's coming.
Tune in next time for … the final conquest of Israel.
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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.