What factors do the books of Kings see as determining the history of Israel and Judah, and is that view tenable from a modern Christian viewpoint?
This essay will briefly examine 1 and 2 Kings in their structure and composition. It will then turn to explore aspects of the narrative which seem to be determining the history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah as they are described in the books. The second part of this paper will try to argue whether or not this view of history is acceptable in the light of modern Christian thought.
Forewords about 1 and 2 Kings
The books of Kings narrate the history of Israel and Judah from the end of King David’s reign to the time of the Babylonian exile. Here is found the continuation of the biblical history of the chosen people exposed in the preceding books – e.g. 1 and 2 Samuel. A great number of the events recorded in the books find parallels in other scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Latter Prophets. There have been doubts on the part of many modern scholars on whether to define the writings of 1 and 2 Kings as historical, wisdom or prophetic. However, most academics seemed to agree in recognising the two books as forming a single textual unit in which the author(s) produced a theological history rather than a socio-political account per se (Jerome T. Walsh, 2007 p.161). It has proved to be a scarcely tenable option for modern scholarship to consider 1 and 2 Kings as ‘historic books’ in the proper sense of the term. Consequently, different theories have been formulated in the recent past about the authorship and sources of the books. These hypotheses offer overall interpretations of 1 and 2 Kings which might seem more or less ‘tuned’ to a modern Christian perspective according to which analysis one feels to give credit. There will be an opportunity to examine some of the hypothesis later in this paper.
Factors that determined Israel and Judah’s history in 1 and 2 Kings
In 1943 Martin Noth proposed the theory of Deuteronomistic History as a plausible explanation of the reasons, timing and authorship behind the composition of the books of Kings and the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel as well as 1 and 2 Kings) (Walter Brueggemann, 2003 p.104). Noth’s work has been revised by other scholars in the following decades; however it still offers the view that the Former Prophets were written as a single literary work. A single ‘historian’ – or a ‘school’ of authors – recounted the history of Israel from the perspective of the exile using the Mosaic Law as a term of comparison. He offered a reflection on the destruction of Israel and Judah as the result of unfaithfulness to YHWH. Thus, the author is not principally a ‘historian’; he is also a ‘theologian’ who offers to the remnants of Judah an explanation for the destruction of the two Kingdoms (Walter Brueggemann, 2003 p.104).
· Disobedience to the Mosaic Law
The books of Kings narrate a long succession of events in which the Monarchs commit various sorts of sins and attract the wrath of YHWH against themselves and the people. David is portrayed as the archetypal good and faithful Sovereign whilst Jeroboam I is the paradigm of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Jerome T. Walsh, 2007 p161). 1 and 2 Kings express unsympathetic judgments on the Monarchs with only a few exceptions. ‘He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord’ (e.g. 1 Kings 15:25) is the recurring formula used in the books of Kings to give an overview of many rulers.
Primarily the sins which will cause the destruction of Israel, the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of Judah are broadly concerned with cultic purity (Walter Brueggemann, 2003 p.104). The kings were held chiefly responsible as they led the subjects astray and provoked YHWH to anger. Here are some examples which illustrate this:
a) Solomon failed to trust in YHWH and worship him alone. Even though he built the Temple in Jerusalem, he ‘loved many foreign women’; he followed other gods and he ‘built a high place [...] for all his foreign wives’ (1 Kings 11:7-8). Because of his sins the Lord raised adversaries to Solomon and divided the Kingdom under the reign of his successor. Solomon turned to religious heterodoxy and for this reason the Davidic dynasty lost all but two of the tribes of Jacob.
b) Jeroboam I discouraged the Israelites from travelling to Jerusalem to worship for fear that they could turn against him and rejoin Judah (cf. 1 Kings 12:27). To do so he built two shrines with one golden calf each. In the case of the Northern Kingdom two prophecies announce ruin. The first predicts the advent of Josiah (cf. 1 Kings 13:3) and the destruction of the high places at Bethel and Dan whilst the second prophecy predicts the fall and deportation of Israel because of their unfaithfulness to YHWH. Israel will be ‘like a reed is shaken in the waters’ and they will be scattered ‘beyond the Euphrates’ (1 Kings 14:15).
c) Ahab sinned against the Lord through religious heterodoxy and he also soiled his hands with innocent blood. His offences prompted the Word of the Lord to come to Elijah and to proclaim YHWH’s imminent punishment. The prophet pronounces a hard sentence on the King and everyone in his House (1 Kings 21:24). The Houses of Omri and Jehu witness a similar fate as they are also annihilated as a repercussion for their sins.
d) After the fall of the Northern Kingdom, Manasseh and Amon persevere in the corrupt way of their ancestors. The fit punishment for this conduct is expressed in the words of the prophets where YHWH predicts the fall of Judah (2 Kings 21:15).
· The Davidic Promise and Repentance
If Noth is only able to portray a pessimistic view of the books of Kings the interpretation proposed by Gerhard von Rad appears more balanced and it advocates a second, convincing factor: the Davidic Promise (Walter Brueggemann, 2003 p.149). Von Rad envisages a balance between the oracles of judgement examined earlier and the promise made by YHWH through Nathan in 2 Samuel 7. For him the covenant between David and the Lord is the only factor which guarantees the survival of the Davidic line. As the Kings where held responsible for their nations’ disgraces so in the same way the survival of the Davidic dynasty could in itself ensure the endurance of Israel and Judah. Here are some examples to illustrate this concept:
I. Although Solomon is sentenced for his infidelity, the punishment is delayed for a generation. The Lord defers his actions which tear apart the Kingdom ‘for the sake of [his] servant David’ (1Kings 11:12-13).
II. At the death of Ahaziah, his mother Athaliah seizes power and ‘set about to destroy all the Royal Family’ (2Kings 11:1). The Royal Houses of Israel and Judah were mixed through marriages therefore their destruction would have posed an end to the Davidic line. However, one of Ahaziah’s children, Joash, survived hidden away in the temple until his grandmother could be overthrown.
III. At the end of 2 Kings, when all seems lost for the remnants of Judah, king Jehoiachin is released from prison, made to sit at the Babylonian Emperor’s table and provided with an allowance (cf. 2Kings 25:27-30). Von Rad interprets this event as ‘a possibility with which Jahveh can resume’ (Walter Brueggemann, 2003 p.157). The book of Kings ends after this paragraph, however it points towards a time when the Royal House – and Judah with it – might be reconstituted.
The positive influence of the Davidic Promise should not be confused with an element of repentance as illustrated by Hans Walter Wolff (Iain W. Provan, 1997 p.89). Repentance is recurring in the books of Kings; however it is only able to stay the wrath of the Lord not to extinguish it. Only the unilateral promise of YHWH to David is able to endure the divine wrath and to ensure a lifeline for the Davidic dynasty. Indeed, YHWH promised to discipline the iniquities of David’s successor but also never to take his steadfast love away from him and his descendants (cf. 2Samuel 7:14-17 and 1Kings 9:5).
· The Jerusalem temple
The Jerusalem temple is an important feature of the books of Kings. Indeed, the chapters narrating the reign of Solomon contain detailed description of the temple’s building and decoration. In them one finds also the warning which YHWH gives to the King regarding the holy place (cf. 1Kings 9:7-9). The temple was meant as a visible sign of the covenant between the Lord and his chosen people as well as a sign of YHWH’s presence in Jerusalem. Most of Solomon’s successors ignored it, misused it, desecrated it and built altars on high places. A culmination of the Monarchs’ blasphemy came under the rule of Manasseh who remodelled the altars and put carved images of Asherah in the temple. Perhaps, according to Noth’s interpretation the author of 1 and 2 Kings tried to ‘justify’ the destruction of the temple as the only fitting punishment for the sacrileges committed against it by the previous rulers of Israel and Judah.
The books of Kings and the modern Christian perspective
Many themes which are present in the books of Kings and the Deuteronomistic History are further developed in the New Testament. Iain Provan (Iain W. Provan, 1997 p.110) gives a good overview of these topics in his work on 1 and 2 Kings even though he appears very critical of the theological interpretations listed earlier. It is possible to interpret the books of Kings in a Christian perspective whilst undermining the principal factors which seem to determine the history of the chosen people. In order to remain faithful to the narrative of Kings and to the New Testament alike Christian theologians through the centuries have struggled with the historical view of the former. On one hand, for the Marcionites the God of the Old Testament was a different God from one revealed by Jesus (Peter J. Leithart, 2006 p.21); the harshness of YHWH’s judgment over his people seemed inconsistent with the idea of a loving, compassionate God. On the other hand, modern theologians like Peter Leithart see the historical interpretation of Kings as completely compatible with the Gospel. Indeed, Leithart sees the books of Kings as ‘evangelical’ rather than historical or prophetic (Peter J. Leithart, 2006 p.17). For him the numerous interventions of the prophets and the enduring love of YHWH for his people is the main factor which determines the history of the two nations. However, Leithart’s interpretation seems to write off almost completely the punitive nature of the oracles of judgment as well as the sufferings of the Israelites. He is right in writing that there is ‘no salvation for Israel within Israel’ (Peter J. Leithart, 2006 p.20) but his overall interpretation appears too summarised.
Christianity has struggled on how to interpret the wrath of God. Even in very recent times theologians like Michael Ramsey reminded the Church of God’s judgment: ‘When men and nations turn away from God’s laws [...] calamitous results follow. God is not absent from the contemporary scene; he is present, present in judgment through the catastrophes which follow human wilfulness’ (Michael Ramsey, 1985 p.21).
A vision of history where God’s actions are the fit recompense for human sinfulness was probably useful in giving to the remnants of Judah and explanation for their disgrace whilst gathering the survivors around the Deuteronomic Law. The same view as upheld by Ramsey or rejected by Leithart appears too simplistic for modern Christian thought. In order to find a viable interpretative solution this essay has to turn again to von Rad’s analysis where one finds a powerful dichotomy between punishment and divine love. In the words spoken by YHWH to David, God promised to love Solomon (and his descendants through him) and to be like a father for him. The books of Kings therefore, foreshadow the fulfilment and unification of the dichotomy. In the fullness of time YHWH’s Wisdom is incarnate, restores the Davidic line, shares his people’s burdens and builds the new temple. Also, through the atonement by the Davidic high priest (cf. Heb 4:14-16) God’s wrath is quenched.
In Common Worship, Eucharistic Prayer G tries to reconcile Deuteronomistic theology with Christian beliefs with these words: ‘How wonderful the work of your hands, O Lord. As a mother tenderly gathers her children, you embraced a people as your own. When they turned away and rebelled, your love remained steadfast. From them you raised up Jesus our Saviour, born of Mary, [...] He offered his life for sinners, and with a love stronger than death he opened wide his arms on the Cross’ (The Archbishops’ Council, 2000 p.201).
The Archbishops’ Council, Common Worship, Church House Publishing (London) 2000
Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy (edit.), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Burns and Oates (London) 2007
Iain W. Provan, 1 & 2 Kings, Sheffield Academic Press (Sheffield) 1997
Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Press (Grand Rapids, MI) 2006
Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today, SPCK (London) 1985
Hershel Shanks (ed.), Ancient Israel, Biblical Archaeology Society (Washington, DC) 1999
Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings (The Old Testament Library), WJK Press (Louisville, KY) 2007
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, WJK Press (Louisville, KY), 2003