Biblical kings (5): the Deuteronomistic editor(s)

The Scribe, George Cattermole, 1800-1868, The Cooper Gallery, UK

In my previous post I speculated about the existence of an editor who added text to Jeremiah and the book of Kings at some point in time after a shorter edition of Jeremiah was made available to the translator who produced the Greek version we know as the Septuagint. Admittedly, this is speculation, but it does resolve several difficulties with the Hebrew text of Kings as we have it. Although scholars are divided about the details of the editing or redactional processes, including the identity of the editor, or editors, there is a general consensus that the book of Kings must have gone through an editing process of some kind. Some scholars see evidence in Kings of several stages of redaction. Marvin Sweeney summarises what he considers to be the various “editions” of Kings through its stages of redaction thus:

“There is evidence of earlier editions of 1-2 Kings and its role in the Former Prophets. These editions include a final exilic edition of the DtrH from the mid-sixth century B.C.E. that sought to address the problems posed by the Babylonian exile by pointing to the kings of Israel and Judah as a source for divine punishment; a Josianic edition of the DtrH from the late seventh century B.C.E. that sought to identify the sins of the northern kings of Israel as the source for divine punishment and the reigns of the righteous Josiah as the means to address that issue; a Hezekian edition of the DtrH from the late eight century B.C.E. that sought to explain the suffering of northern Israel based on its inability to produce competent and righteous rulers and to point to Hezekiah as an example of the leadership needed; a Jehu edition of Samuel-Kings from the early eighth century B.C.E. that saw the rise of the house of Jehu as the means to ensure the security of the nation and to restore the past glories of the age of Solomon; and finally a Solomonic edition of Samuel-Kings from the late tenth century B.C.E. that sought to present the house of David as the key to the well-being of the united people of Israel and Judah.” (Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 3-4.)

I don’t want to get bogged down discussing these various stages of redaction, but I mention it here to point out that the issues are complex. In attempting to keep it simple I hope I’m not over-simplifying the issues. At this point I’m interested in identifying why this material which condemned the kings of Israel may have been added to the book of Kings. One of the features of what can be called the “literature of catastrophe” is that texts written after a calamity of some kind often tend to seek reasons for the disaster, and sometimes to ask the question “where was God during that catastrophe?” There is considerable evidence that much of the biblical literature was written or edited during the exile or soon after the return from Babylon, and can therefore be placed in the period when reflection on the causes of the exile could be expected. Who or what was to blame? Was it something the people did, or didn’t do, was the leadership to blame, did the problem rest with the institution of monarchy, or was one king in particular the cause of the problem?

The Deuteronomistic literature places the blame for human suffering – and for the exile – on human sin. Whether it was the sin of the people as a whole, or of an individual king, someone must have sinned for God to have abandoned them to destruction or exile. While the leaders in Israel and Judah, including prophets, priests and kings, are criticised in some of the exilic or post-exilic biblical texts, one king of Judah in particular is singled out for blame: Manasseh. The book of Kings (2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:26-27; 24:3-4) largely blames Manasseh for the exile, as does Jeremiah 15:4: “I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what King Manasseh son of Hezekiah of Judah did in Jerusalem.”

However, the biblical texts are not consistent in blaming Manasseh for the exile. While Kings and Jeremiah on the one hand say the the exile came about “because of what Manasseh did” the book of Chronicles, on the other hand, blames the exile on the people and a cumulative process of ignoring the prophets (2 Chronicles 36:15-16). In fact, rather than blaming either Hezekiah or Manasseh for the exile, the Chronicler says of both kings וַיִּכָּנַע he humbled himself, thus avoiding the destruction of their kingdoms (2 Chronicles 32:26; 33:12-13). There is an interesting connection in 2 Chronicles 33:18 between Manasseh and “the book of the Annals of the kings of Israel” which I wrote about earlier: “Now the rest of the acts of Manasseh, his prayer to his God, and the words of the seers who spoke to him in the name of the LORD God of Israel, these are in the Annals of the Kings of Israel.” This positive account of Manasseh’s prayer is contrary to the current version of Kings where Manasseh is portrayed as evil and the cause of Israel’s exile, and the reference to the Annals is further evidence for an earlier version of the tradition that was more positive to the kings who were condemned in Kings.

This raises the question of why an earlier positive account of Manasseh’s reign (in the Annals and preserved to some extent in Chronicles) would be altered by the writer (or a later editor) of Kings to blame him for the exile. Again, we can only speculate, but there may be a clue in a biblical text which is quoted or alluded to several times in later texts. In Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 a description is given of God’s key attributes, including one that he “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” This idea of transgenerational punishment seems to be the basis for several discussions elsewhere in the Bible. Significantly, Judah went into exile four generations after Manasseh, counting a generation as the reign of a king, during the reign of Jehoiachin. Is it possible that Exodus 34:7 influenced someone in exile to count back four generations and therefore blame Manasseh for their predicament?

To be continued …

 

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