Biblical kings, good and bad (1)

Jeroboam sacrificing to his idol, oil on canvas by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert, 1641

Jeroboam sacrificing to his idol, Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert, 1641

A consistent theme of the biblical books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings (which was probably originally written as one book but was divided into four because it wouldn’t all fit on one scroll – in the Septuagint and other ancient versions it is one book in four parts known as 1-4 Kings) is that almost all the kings do evil. Measured against king David as the benchmark very few are up to standard. The overall impression one gets from reading the book of Kings is that both Israel and Judah had a succession of bad kings, with only a handful of exceptions. In the case of the northern kingdom of Israel it seems that they all get a bad report. If there were any good kings it appears that they could only be found in Judah, and then rarely.

In this series of posts I plan to explore whether or not all the kings of Israel and most of the kings of Judah were thoroughly bad, why almost all of them are judged as doing evil in the eyes of God, where the writer got his information, and how the book of Kings came to be in the form we have it today.

I’ll start with the phrase which recurs frequently (more than 30 times) throughout Kings: he “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” which is sometimes followed by “and did not completely follow the LORD, as his father David had done,” or words to that effect. In the records of the northern kings (Israel) this description typically follows the form “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin,” while the southern kings (Judah) are sometimes measured against the standard of David, such as Solomon:

For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not completely follow the LORD, as his father David had done (1 Kings 11:4-6).

Sometimes this condemnation is combined with a description of the particular evil that he committed, such as  “They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger” (2 Kings 17:17), but more often than not we aren’t given any details about they did that was particularly evil.

First, we need to look at the book of Kings in its literary context. Scholars often refer to the book as being part of the “Deuteronomistic History.” This terminology began with a German biblical scholar, Martin Noth, who proposed that Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings form a single literary presentation of the history of Israel. [1] Since Noth’s groundbreaking work scholars have come up with several theories about who wrote the Deuteronomistic History (hereafter DtrH), whether it was an individual or group of people, if it was written over a lengthy period or at one time, if it went through a process of revision, addition, editing and redaction, if so, by whom, and when the process was finished. Scholars are a long way from reaching a consensus about this. In this series I will touch on some of these issues. The reason Noth, and others, have given the name “Deuteronomistic” to this group of biblical books is that they seem to share ideas, terminology and themes with the book of Deuteronomy. For example, the phrase about kings doing evil in the sight of God  is traditionally identified as a significant marker of Deuteronomism since similar phrasing is found in Deuteronomy 4:25; 9:18; 17:2; 31:29.[2] Because it shares similar language and themes with the DtrH, Jeremiah is also often classed as being “Deuteronomistic” and so some scholars have argued that the writer of Jeremiah may have played a significant role in producing the DtrH. I will also explore this connection later in this series.

I should state from the outset that I’m not intending to write a commentary on Kings, or to go through every king in Israel and Judah’s history! My particular interest is in the Jehu dynasty – a succession of five kings in the northern kingdom – and this interest was sparked primarily because my PhD thesis is on the book of Jonah, and the prophet Jonah is mentioned in Kings in connection with Jeroboam II, a king in the Jehu dynasty. It seems like an odd place to begin, but I will start with Jeroboam II because it was this king which aroused my interest in the kings in the first place. While looking at the mention of Jonah in 2 Kings 14, I noticed that the book of Kings generally treats the Jehu dynasty favourably (including its account of the reign of Jeroboam II with its naming of Jonah), although it assesses all of the kings in this dynasty with the standard formulaic “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin” (e.g. 2 Kings 13:2). I wondered why the record on the one hand seemed to treat them positively, but then on the other hand each king was condemned for doing evil. What evil?

2 Kings 14:25 says that Jeroboam II “restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). Jonah’s message in 2 Kings was one of comfort and hope for Israel “for the LORD saw that the distress of Israel was very bitter; there was no one left, bond or free, and no one to help Israel” (2 Kings 14:26). The historical narrative continues with an odd negative expression: but the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven (v.27). It’s odd precisely because it is in the negative: “but the LORD had not said …” and it’s unusual to see things expressed this way in the Hebrew Bible. It implies that someone – although we’re not told who – was saying just that, namely that God would blot out the name of Israel, and that this message through Jonah specifically refuted this. We’re not told who was saying this, but we do get a clue later in the Bible (I’ll return to this).

To be continued …

[1] Martin Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien: Die sammelnden und bearbeitenden Geschichtswerke im Alten Testament (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1957); English translation: Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981).

[2] Kurt Noll, however, has pointed out that the actual phrase occurs only in Deut 17:2 and argues that it begs the case for Deuteronomism in Kings. Kurt L. Noll, “Is the Book of Kings Deuteronomistic? And Is It a History?,”  Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 21, no. 1 (2007): 68.

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