Biblical kings, good and bad (2): Jehu

Jehu Obelisk

Possible depiction of Jehu King of Israel giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud (circa 827 BC) in the British Museum (London).

The story of Jeroboam II begins with Jehu, the tenth king of the northern kingdom of Israel (reigning 841–814 BCE or thereabouts). One of the odd things about the accounts of this dynasty in the Book of Kings is that positive things are said of all the kings in the dynasty, although in each case the record ends with the condemnation “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). To understand why, we need to look at the account of the founder of the dynasty: Jehu.

Jehu came to power in a coup which overthrew Jehoram (also called Joram), the last king of the Omri dynasty (hereafter called the Omrides). Reading the various accounts of the kings of Israel and Judah around this time can be rather confusing as Jehoram was the name of a king of Israel as well as a king of Judah, both reigning at the same time. Both Israel and Judah also had kings with the name Ahaziah: Ahaziah of Israel was the brother and predecessor of Jehoram (of Israel), while Ahaziah of Judah was the son of Jehoram (of Judah). In the fifth year of Jehoram king of Israel, a different Jehoram became  king (or co-regent) of Judah. The Jehoram of Judah was also married to the daughter of Ahab of Israel. Due to this intermarriage between the two royal houses, Ahab’s grandson Ahaziah (probably named after his deceased uncle, an earlier king of Israel) became king of Judah, the first monarch to be in both the Omride and Davidic lines. Ahaziah the king of Judah was also the nephew of Jehoram the king of Israel. I warned you that it is confusing! The confusion somewhat ends with Jehu, who slaughtered the Omrides in both Israel and Judah.

In one way Jehoram of Israel is described in positive terms in Kings in that “he removed the pillar of Baal that his father [Ahab] had made” (2 Kings 13:2). He also seems to have had a somewhat friendly relationship with the prophet Elisha. According to the book of Kings, Jehu’s rise to power was determined by God and announced by the prophet Elisha when he anointed Jehu, a commander in Jehoram’s army, to be the next king of Israel:

Thus says the LORD the God of Israel: I anoint you [Jehu] king over the people of the LORD, over Israel. You shall strike down the house of your master Ahab [Jehoram’s father], so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish; I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. (2 Kings 9:6-8)

It appears that this announcement that Jehu would wipe out the line of Ahab had more to do with the sins of Ahab than the sins of his son Jehoram. The book of Kings goes on to tell how Jehu killed Jehoram king of Israel, Ahaziah king of Judah, Jezebel the Israelite Queen Mother, seventy descendants of Ahab, all Ahab’s friends and officials, and the priests of Baal. “So Jehu killed all who were left of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his leaders, close friends, and priests, until he left him no survivor” (2 Kings 9:11). He also wiped out all traces of Baal worship in Israel. Jehu became king and went on to reign over Israel for 28 years, and his dynasty lasted more than 100 years, longer than the Omrides. The book of Chronicles describes him in approving terms: “Jehu son of Nimshi, whom the LORD had anointed to destroy the house of Ahab” (2 Chronicles 22:7). In all this Jehu acted out of zeal. In his own words “see my zeal for the LORD” (2 Kings 10:16), and the writer of Kings adds the favourable comment that Jehu “killed all who were left to Ahab in Samaria, until he had wiped them out, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke to Elijah” (2 Kings 10:17).

Of all the kings of Israel and Judah, Jehu was in several ways the one most like David:

  • Both David and Jehu were divinely elected (only Saul, David, Solomon, Jeroboam I and Jehu are described as divinely elected to rule).
  • Both David and Jehu were prophetically anointed.
  • Both were given an unconditional promise of a dynasty (only David, Solomon, Jeroboam I and Jehu receive dynastic promises, and only David and Jehu’s promises lack conditional language). “The LORD said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in carrying out what I consider right, and in accordance with all that was in my heart have dealt with the house of Ahab, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel’” (2 Kings 10:30).
  • Both are acknowledged for their heroic military exploits.

The book of Kings provides quite a bit of detail in describing how Jehu ended the Omrides and eradicated Baal worship, in response to God’s calling. Yet, despite doing what God had required him to do in removing all traces of the Omrides, the book of Kings adds the ‘standard’ condemnatory formula to the record of his reign:

Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel. But Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit—the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan … But Jehu was not careful to follow the law of the LORD the God of Israel with all his heart; he did not turn from the sins of Jeroboam, which he caused Israel to commit (2 Kings 10:28-31).

It seems that if even Jehu couldn’t measure up, the king most like David, commended by God for his zeal in carrying out what he was called to do, then who could? On top of it all, a century later the prophet Hosea seems to condemn Jehu for his zeal in carrying out God’s commandment: “And the LORD said to him [Hosea], “Name him [Hosea’s son] Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4). Punished for doing what God commanded him to do? Something seems to be wrong.

To be continued …

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