David, Amnon, Tamar and Absalom – narcissism and its family consequences

Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone

The murder of Amnon at the Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone (17th century Flemish artist)

According to the book of Samuel, David’s family life was a mess! The biblical records don’t hide the facts that David was an adulterer, a murderer, a terrible father, a lousy husband and not much of a king either. On the positive side, it seems he was a pretty good musician and song-writer, but not much else is said in his favour. In this post I want to comment on a major incident which devastated David’s family, and relate it to my personal knowledge of what it’s like being in the family of a narcissist.  I should emphasise that as far as I’m aware there are no narcissists in my immediate family, and my understanding of what may have been going on in David’s life is based on my experience as the friend of a narcissist, and my knowledge of how he interacted with his family. I’d love to co-operate with a psychologist/psychiatrist to explore this further, so if you’re reading this and have professional qualifications dealing with NPD I’d like to hear from you.

Amnon, David’s eldest son and heir, has been described as “a chip off the old block” [1]. He was one of six sons born at Hebron to six different wives. Most of what we know about Amnon comes from one incident, but the story provides several important details which indicate that he was very similar to his father. Amnon was in love (or infatuated with) his half-sister Tamar and connived with a cousin (Jonadab) to get Tamar, with David’s knowledge and consent, to visit him while he was “sick” in bed. When Tamar visited Amnon in his bedroom Amnon raped her, but then his “love” – or lust – turned immediately to disgust and hate and he sent her away. We learn that when David heard about this he was incensed, but did nothing. Interestingly, two ancient versions of the story – the Septuagint and a scroll from Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) – adds a note to the story that David did nothing because he didn’t want to upset Amnon whom he loved. With or without this note, David is portrayed as weak and this sets the stage for Tamar’s full-brother Absalom (David’s third son and Amnon’s half-brother) to conspire to murder Amnon two years later in an act of vengeance for his sister. (The full story is in 2 Samuel 13 and has been described as a “masterpiece of drama, suspense, and irony … The literary and dramatic climax … is approached with a drawn-out, suspense-building account of the scene and the dialogue in Amnon’s bedroom.” [2])

The parallels between this story and the earlier account of how David lured Bathsheba to his bed, and then murdered her husband Uriah, are striking. Both father and son were driven by lust, both crossed legal and moral boundaries, and both stories end in murder. It’s not unusual, apparently, for a narcissistic parent to have a narcissistic child (although the opposite can also be the case – having a narcissistic parent can drive a child to the other end of the spectrum – and it can also happen that one child of a narcissist also turns out to be a narcissist while their sibling is the opposite). One of the major characteristics of a narcissist is their belief that the rules don’t apply to them, and both David and Amnon ignored the rules about adultery and incest. Probably related to this is the fact that narcissists are generally impetuous and reckless (and it’s not unusual for them to die as the result of committing a crime). Their recklessness and attitude to rules is particularly the case with respect to sex and they are often known to be promiscuous. It seems that Amnon was very much a chip off the old block. Perhaps this is why the record in Samuel hints that David had an idea of what Amnon was planning, but ignored it.

The second part of the story – which is contrasted with the suspenseful and dramatic account of the rape by being markedly matter-of-fact – describes Absalom’s plot to murder Amnon at a banquet to which all his brothers were invited. Significantly, David was also invited to the banquet but declined. In an interesting article about ancient near eastern customs of hospitality, Anne Gudme notes that it was polite to first decline an invitation to a meal, but then to accept the invitation when pressed. [3] Declining the invitation on David’s part was therefore not unexpected, but then continuing to decline would have been insulting. If he had attended we could speculate about how things might have been different and if Amnon would still have been murdered in the presence of the king. However, perhaps Absalom expected David to decline. Anyone who knows a narcissist would also know that if it isn’t their idea they will either avoid it, or try to change the plan. In my own experience, it was almost humorous but I came to expect my narcissistic friend to change the arrangements for meeting up even when I was well on my way there. If I suggested eating Thai, he would say he’d prefer Italian. If I suggested Italian he’d want Indian. I remember once, soon after my birthday, he said he wanted to take me out for dinner and because it was my birthday I could choose to go anywhere. On our way to the venue of my choice (a place with a lot of good food options that suited my preferences), he changed the plan and we went somewhere that had nothing I could eat! David’s response to Absalom’s invitation therefore doesn’t surprise me. It wasn’t his idea, so he wasn’t going! His excuse was that it would be a “burden” on Absalom to have him and his entourage attend, but then the story is careful to point out that Absalom prepared a feast, as the Septuagint puts it, “fit for a king” (v. 27). It clearly wasn’t a burden at all; David simply didn’t want to go because it wasn’t his party.

After Amnon’s murder Absalom fled to Geshur (his maternal grandfather was king of Geshur) where he stayed for three years to avoid any consequences. But David’s response was passive and he is portrayed as detached. Absalom was later persuaded by David’s general to return from exile, althoug even then David refused to see him for two years (a typical narcissistic “punishment”). Thereafter Absalom became a popular leader and obtained a great deal of support when he attempted a coup against his father David. Absalom was killed during the attempted coup and on hearing the news of his death the story includes a poignant lament by David: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). I have no doubts that David’s grief was genuine. The poignancy of these words, however, highlights for me how inadequate he was as a father, and how he could be detached and uninvolved in the lives of his children except to punish them (ironically by being even more detached!), yet yearned for a relationship with them. Again, this is typical of narcissists. They expect their children to love them, while being detached except to punish them. It’s sad, and difficult for a friend to watch them saboutage their relationships. In a later post I may write about David’s friend Joab, and how he tried to “fix” the mess that David created around him, but failed, and how even this loyal friendship eventually ended.

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[1] For example, by Gray, Mark. “Amnon: a Chip Off the Old Block? Rhetorical Strategy in 2 Samuel 13.7-15 the Rape of Tamar and the Humiliation of the Poor.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 23, no. 77 (1998): 39-54. Gray cited an earlier use of the expression by J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (Assen:Van Gorcum, 1981), p. 99.

[2] Howard, David M. “Amnon” in Freedman, David Noel ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992, volume 1, 196.

[3] Gudme, Anne Katrine de Hemmer. “Invitation to Murder: Hospitality and Violence in the Hebrew Bible.” Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology  (2019): 1-20. 

Theodicy and literature of catastrophe (2)

Francesco_Conti_-_Death_of_King_Josiah

The Death of King Josiah by Francesco Conti

Theodicy deals with whether, or how, one can defend or justify God in allowing his people to suffer overwhelming catastrophe. For example, one could argue that all suffering is the consequence of sin, and God is therefore “justified” in allowing people who sin to suffer. The suffering may be the direct consequence of a person’s sinful behaviour – a criminal being sentenced to prison for example – or it could be the cumulative effect of society’s actions – such as the whole community bearing the burden of wasteful, polluting or unethical behaviour. Often these consequences can be directly attributed to the individual or community’s actions, but in the case of natural disasters (which used to be called “acts of God”) the calamity may be attributed to God’s punishment. The problem with attributing natural disasters to God is that the innocent suffer alongside the guilty and it is more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship; so one could ask whose sin caused this disaster, or why did the innocent have to suffer for the sins of the guilty?

There is good evidence that these questions were being asked, and discussed, in the biblical literature. In the Gospels, for example, there is a story of a man who was blind from birth and, based on the notion that all suffering is the consequence of sin, Jesus’ disciples him “who sinned? This man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). In another incident, Jesus referred the death of some people when a building collapsed and raised the question of whether they were more or less guilty than anyone else in the city: “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4). These are questions of theodicy: where is the justice in the suffering of apparently innocent people?

Arguably, the whole of the Bible deals with the issue of theodicy. Some books, however, tackle it as their main concern. Job is generally regarded as a theodicy. Job is an innocent man who suffers tremendous loss in the deaths of his children and the loss of his livelihood, and then being afflicted with a terrible disease. Throughout the whole book Job protests that he is innocent and does not deserve such torment. God too agrees that Job is innocent, and the book takes the form of a “debate” about justice and suffering. Ironically, the reader knows from the beginning that the only reason Job is suffering is because of a wager between God and Satan about whether Job will lose his faith in the face of calamity. His suffering is undeniably unfair, and the question is not resolved in the book. Consequently, some have described it as “antitheodicy” – that is to say, it deals with the issues of theodicy but is unable or unwilling to defend any role of God in human suffering. In my PhD thesis I argued that the book of Jonah falls into a similar category, but that’s another story.

So, back to the book of Kings. It seems pretty clear that at least one of the contributors to the book thought that the suffering of Israel and Judah was the result of the sins of their kings, with the exile of Judah being directly blamed on one king in particular: Manasseh. However, from Ezekiel and Jeremiah we learn that there was a discussion at the time about the justice or injustice in punishing the people for the sins of an earlier generation, and this also seems to be reflected in some of the later prophetic writings. A major problem with the theodicy in Kings that argued that the exiles could be blamed on certain kings, was that there were also some very good kings, as well as some which were evidently bad. For example, Hezekiah and Josiah stand out as particularly good kings of Judah. In fact, they are the only kings of Judah who are commended as meeting the benchmark set by David: Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:1). The Chronicler also says Hezekiah “did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20). Of Josiah it was also said “He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2). Between these two kings came Manasseh. Surely these two good kings would outweigh the evil of one. In fact, the book of Kings appears to be careful in detailing how Josiah undid all the sins of his father Manasseh and brought about religious reforms in Judah (2 Kings 23:1-27). The record goes so far as to say “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). If Judah was to be punished for Manasseh’s sins, surely they would be forgiven because of Josiah’s undoing of them. The sin-retribution theodicy consequently failed because it was unable to satisfactorily explain how Judah, under Josiah, could repent of the sins of Manasseh yet still be destroyed. If the exile was a punishment for Manasseh’s sins, the subsequent reformation and then the death of Josiah and the Babylonian exile posed significant problems of theodicy for the exilic and post-exilic generations. As one scholar put it, the death of Josiah in a battle with Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt was “an occurrence completely at variance with the principle followed elsewhere in the book of Kings that those who did what was good in the sight of God were appropriately rewarded.” He regards Josiah’s death as “not only unjust but was a personal and national tragedy that hastened the demise of the kingdom of Judah.” [1]

The death of the righteous king Josiah was experienced as a national trauma in Judah (Jeremiah 22:10-12) and mourning songs were still being sung for him in the time of the Chronicler in the Persian period (2 Chronicles 35:24-25). His death would have presented considerable theological difficulties for the proponents of the retributive view that suffering is always the consequence of sin, as Josiah was credited with being a hero of religious reformation. This paradox of the retributive theodicy – a righteous king suffering a catastrophic death – was somewhat resolved by the Deuteronomistic Jeremiah who claimed that in spite of the fact that Josiah was a righteous king the people did not turn to God wholeheartedly (Jeremiah 25:3; 36:2-3) and that it was their sins that brought about the catastrophe of the exile. A difficulty with this theodicy is that Josiah and Judah were punished because of the sins of Manasseh (or Josiah was punished for the sins of Judah) yet the notion that one person can be punished for the sins of another presents difficulties for any reasonable concept of justice.

To be continued …

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[1] R.N. Whybray, “Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Just?,” in Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Right? Studies on the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw (eds. David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt; Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2000), 12.

A digression: theodicy and the literature of catastrophe (1)

flightoftheprisonersbytissot

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners, 1896–1902

I digress (although only slightly) from writing about the book of Kings to explore the subject of theodicy and the literature of catastrophe. It will become evident shortly why this is only a slight digression. Literature of catastrophe refers to texts written soon after a calamity of some kind. In terms of biblical literature, the greatest catastrophes of the time were the destruction and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BCE) and the destruction and exile of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians (597 BCE). There is a fair degree of scholarly consensus that much of the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) was written either in exile in Babylon or soon after when the captives began returning to Judah (which by then was known as the Persian province of Yehud). Some texts are easy to date to this period because they refer specifically to the exile or the return. Others are less easy to date, but they may include exilic themes or language which lead scholars to speculate that they were probably written against a background of exile.

A recurring theme in literature written after a catastrophe is to question why the calamity happened, was there something someone did which triggered it, can anything be learned from it to avoid a future repetition? Related questions include, where was God during this disaster, and why did he allow it to happen? We can see signs of this questioning in the biblical literature, and in other texts written around the same time. These non-biblical  texts are generally categorised as “apocrypha” (although the apocrypha is included as canonical in the bibles of most Christian denominations) or pseudepigrapha. I will refer specifically to two of these texts shortly: 4 Ezra (apocryphal) and 2 Baruch (pseudepigraphal). Because these are Jewish texts which were written in the same period as biblical texts which are accepted as canonical, they can give us insights into the kinds of issues which were important at the time.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the exiles on the national psyche. According to one biblical scholar,  Daniel Smith-Christopher, the archaeological evidence of destruction together with population estimates draws “a picture of horrific events that not surprisingly becomes permanently etched into the historical lore of the Hebrew Bible.”[1]  He argues that the impact of the Babylonian exile on both those who remained in the land as well as the exiles would have been traumatic and that this continued well into the Persian and Hellenistic eras and that any discussion of post-exilic theology “must first contend with the enormity of the physical, social and psychological trauma of this experience in the life of Ancient Israel, and only then proceed to an assessment of theological themes that are part of the recovery process of a frankly heroic survival of domination in the ancient Near East.” [2] In fact, after every major catastrophe in Jewish history we find philosophers, theologians, scholars and writers exploring the kinds of questions I mentioned above. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 CE was thought by some at the time to be so strikingly similar to the Babylonian captivity that subsequent texts such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch used the events of 587 BCE as the setting for narratives to frame apocalypses dealing with the events of 70 CE. The commemoration in Jewish tradition of Tisha B’Av – the traditional date of the destruction of both the first and second temples, the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, and the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492, and other events – almost certainly reflects the view that these calamities share more in common than a date.  Jewish literature written after the Holocaust, or the Shoah, also reflects similar concerns and I’ll refer later to works such as “The trial of God” and “God at Auschwitz”.

There is evidence of discussion in the affected communities regarding the questions of theodicy and divine justice in allowing these calamities to happen. The Babylonian exile and its aftermath produced a considerable body of biblical literature which addressed these issues in various ways. Job is regarded by some scholars as post-exilic theodicy (I will discuss this further in a later post). Similarly, theodicy is a major theme in Jewish texts after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, including 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. It could also be argued that the expulsions from Spain and Portugal gave birth to movements in Judaism such as Lurianic Kabbalah as a means of interpreting and overcoming the disaster.

But first, let me explain what I mean by theodicy.  The term “theodicy” literally means “justifying God” and derives from the Greek words Θεός and δίκη and was coined by Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 [3].  In a nutshell, it deals with whether, or how, one can defend or justify God in allowing his people to suffer overwhelming catastrophe. The same questions were undoubtedly raised after each catastrophe – including the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, the European pogroms and expulsions, and the Nazi mass murders – and similar discussions must have taken place each time as the survivors and succeeding generations endeavoured to come to terms with their anguish and the theological implications of theodicies which offered little comfort. Each of these crises had their own unique circumstances, and the theological responses therefore varied. It can be inferred on the one hand from the Hebrew Bible that some people were satisfied with the explanation of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles as due to sins such as idolatry. On the other hand, the problem in 4 Ezra was that the Jewish people before the Roman destruction of 70 CE did not easily fit the model of idolatrous Israel. The solution proposed by 4 Ezra combined a radical view of the near impossibility of keeping the Law and an “eschatological theodicy” which deferred justice to an afterlife or ‘the age to come’. However, between the retributive view that suffering is the consequence of sin, and the eschatological theodicies of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch where justice is deferred and meted out in the future, I argue that some biblical texts represent a stage or stages in the dialogue where there was dissatisfaction with the retributive view but before ideas of resurrection and future rewards were fully developed.

To be continued …

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[1]Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, “Reassessing the Historical and Sociological Impact of the Babylonian Exile,” in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian Conceptions(ed. James M. Scott; JSJSup 56; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 17-18.

[2] Smith-Christopher, “Historical and Sociological Impact of the Babylonian Exile,” 36.

[3] In French: Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal. English translation: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (trans. E.M. Huggard: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).

Biblical kings (6): the problem of transgenerational punishment

Prophets-smallerIn my previous post I mentioned the possibility that someone in the Babylonian exile may have made a connection between their predicament and the attributes of God in Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 – especially the one that he “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” In this post I’d like to explore some evidence that the notion of transgenerational punishment was also discussed by other biblical writers at the time.

From our modern perspective it may seem unfair or unjust for one generation to suffer punishment for the sins of a previous generation. There is good evidence that some of the biblical writers had similar issues with the apparent injustice of transgenerational punishment. For example, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah refer to a proverb which said “the parents have eaten sour grapes and the childrens’ teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2; Jeremiah 31:29). Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah are set in the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. The fact that they both discuss this proverb suggests  that it was probably an issue that was being discussed at the time, perhaps by the populace in general. Ezekiel argues against the idea that an individual or generation can be justly punished for the sins of another: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel … it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:3-4). He emphasises that the people who went into exile were being punished for their own sins. Yet the problem remains that the book of Kings, and indeed Jeremiah, also claim that to a large extent the nation was being punished for the sins of Manasseh, four generations earlier. When Jeremiah refers to this proverb he makes the important distinction that “the days are surely coming” when “they shall no longer” say this proverb (31:27, 29). In other words, according to Ezekiel, the proverb remained true for his own time, but at some point in the future it will no longer be the case that one generation suffers for the sins of another. It seems that Ezekiel and Jeremiah had different ideas about the justice, or injustice, of transgenerational punishment, with Jeremiah being in agreement with the book of Kings (or, alternately, Kings being in agreement with Jeremiah) and Ezekiel (and Chronicles, which was written, or completed, after the return from exile [1]) taking a different position.

For some people the idea that one part of the Bible is in conflict with another presents a problem. Many readers of the Bible expect to see a consistent message which they understand to be a revelation of the divine purpose. This is really a theological issue and, in my view, is the result of approaching the Bible with a predetermined expectation that all parts of it will be in agreement with every other part. However, it seems to me that the Bible is better understood as an ongoing conversation. The writers come from different perspectives as they tackle complex issues and sometimes arrive at different conclusions. There is evidence of revision and editing as later writers or editors refined the texts to reflect new perspectives, perhaps in the light of new circumstances and experiences. Sometimes older writings were reinterpreted and applied in new ways to new situations. In this way, we can read the Bible as a dynamic collection of writings which preserves the development of ideas about issues such as divine justice.

Returning to the book of Kings, I can understand how those in exile who interpreted Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 to mean that their defeat during the reign of Jehoiachin was the consequence of sins committed four generations earlier, might revise and edit the record of the kings to reflect this new understanding. We don’t know whether these records existed solely in the form of the Annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah, or whether these Annals had already been used as sources for an early edition of the book of Kings. Either way, the book of Kings may have been written in the exile, or edited to include additional material which highlighted the sins of Manasseh in particular and of the kings in general. This would explain the repetitive use of the phrase “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” which is used almost like a rubber stamp added to the end of each king’s reign. It also explains why this formulaic conclusion is often at odds with the positive material which preceded it.

Over time, this notion may have been debated and challenged, and by the time the book of Chronicles was written after the return from the exile it needed to be modified. This is reflected in the different emphasis of the Chronicler. Other exilic or post-exilic books appear to deal with the same concerns about divine justice. Although it is difficult to date biblical texts a good case can be made for also dating Job to the time of the exile or later. A major concern of Job is why good people suffer for no apparent reason and may have been prompted by a discussion about why innocent people in Israel and Judah went into captivity. Job certainly contains some of the language of exile. If Job was indeed responding to issues arising from the exile, it demonstrates how other biblical writers were also wrestling with the questions of  divine justice in the suffering of the covenant people. It also demonstrates how the Bible preserves more than one point of view in the conversation.

To be continued …

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[1] Chronicles ends with the decree of the Persian king Cyrus allowing the captives to return to their homeland, which dates the book to that time or soon after (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

 

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 …

 

Biblical kings (4): the writer

babylon_jehoiachin_pergamonmuseum.575x0-is-pid22150

Akkadian cuneiform tablet in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, naming Jehoiachin, king of Judah.

I’ve mentioned “the writer” of the book of Kings a few times as well as the scholarly consensus that it went through a process of revision, addition, editing and redaction. I want to explore that a little further before returning to the problem of why we have conflicting messages about some of the kings. We first need to look at the evidence in the book itself for a possible date for when it was written. The earliest date for the final form (I’ll come back to what “final form” means later) has to be the latest event recorded in the book. In other words, while some parts of the book may have written earlier, and the writer may have drawn on older sources for his information, the finished product could only have been completed after the latest event in the book, which we can date with considerable accuracy. That event forms the concluding lines of the book of Kings and was specifically described as being in the thirty-seventh year of the Babylonian exile:

In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, King Evil-merodach of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, released King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes. Every day of his life he dined regularly in the king’s presence. For his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, a portion every day, as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:27-30)

Interestingly, tablets excavated by archaeologists near the Ishtar Gate in Babylon (pictured) mention food rations for Jehoiachin (also known as Jeconiah and Coniah) and his five sons. From Babylonian records we know the date when Evil-merodach (or Amel-Marduk in Akkadian) ascended the throne of Babylon, so we can confidently date this as the year 562 BCE. It is therefore likely that the book of Kings was written or completed in 562 BCE or soon after, and presumably before the death of Jehoiachin as no mention it made of it, unlike the deaths of other kings in the book. As it makes no mention of other events in the exile, or the return, we can also be certain it was written before the return from exile, and was therefore probably written in Babylon. This is not to say that it couldn’t have gone through some process of editing at a later date, and there are, in fact, some good arguments that it did. There is some evidence that more than one version or edition of the book of Kings was known to later biblical writers. For example, if we compare the parallel traditions of Zedekiah’s reign recorded in 2 Kings 24:18-25:12, Jeremiah 52:1-16 and the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of Jeremiah 52 we can detect signs of different ‘editions.’ It can be seen in the table below which compares the first three verses from each account that the Septuagint does not contain the standard condemnation of Zedekiah which is in the Masoretic Text and the parallel account in Kings.

2 Kings 24:18-20 Jeremiah 52:1-3 LXX Jeremiah 52:1-3
18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Hamutal daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.

19 He did what was displeasing to the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done.

20 Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah were a cause of anger for the LORD, so that He cast them out of His presence. Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.

 

1 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for eleven years. His mother’s name was Hamutal, daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.

2 He did what was displeasing to the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done.

3 Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah were a cause of anger for the LORD, so that He cast them out of His presence. Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.

 

1 It being Sedekias’ twenty–first year when he began to reign—and he reigned eleven years in Ierousalem, and his mother’s name was Hamital daughter of Ieremias from Lobena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You will notice that the material in Jeremiah 52 is so similar to the text of Kings that it’s arguable that the writer of one either had the other in front of him or that they both copied from a third source. However, the ancient Greek translation of Jeremiah has a shorter version than the Hebrew. There are a couple possible explanations for this: (a) the Greek translator deliberately left some material out of his translation, although it’s uncertain why he would do this; or (b) the Hebrew manuscript he was translating from was a shorter version than the one we now have. This second possibility could be the case if there were two (or more) editions of Jeremiah, and that the final Hebrew edition of Jeremiah which we know as the Masoretic Text (MT) is a later, and longer, edition than the earlier edition from which the Septuagint was translated. In my opinion, a good case can be made for this option. Because the longer MT version of Jeremiah is so similar to the Kings record, if an addition was made to Jeremiah which was not available to the Greek translator this would imply that a similar addition was made to Kings, probably around the same time. I mentioned in the first post in this series that Jeremiah shares similar language and themes with the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH), which includes the book of Kings, and so is often classed as being “Deuteronomistic.” Some scholars have argued that the writer of Jeremiah may have played a significant role in producing the DtrH. It would not be surprising then that an editor of Jeremiah also edited the book of Kings and made changes or additions to both books at the same time. The Greek version of Jeremiah is evidence of an earlier edition before these changes were made.

You may have noticed that the shorter version of Jeremiah 52 does not contain the formulaic evaluation that King Zedekiah “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” In my view this suggests that the condemnation of Zechariah was added by the editor who worked on the later editions of both Jeremiah and Kings, and if this was added to the record about Zechariah it’s also possible that the same words which appear at the end of the record of every other northern king was also added at the same time by the same editor. This raises the possibility that the earlier edition of Kings provided a more positive appraisal of the reigns of the kings, and that the later edition was edited in such a way as to condemn them, even though the rest of the record was more approving of their performances. This would explain the disparity between the positive material (which may have come from the official Annals which I mentioned previously) and the negative evaluation of the kings which follows somewhat jarringly after the favourable report of the good they had done. 

The next questions to be answered then is who added this material to the later edition of the book of Kings, and why?

To be continued …

Biblical kings (3): the Jehu dynasty

 

Jezebel

The Death of Jezebel, engraving by Gustave Doré

In line with God’s promise that Jehu would establish a dynasty and be succeeded  by four generations, Jehu’s reign by followed by four of his descendants. Remarkably, the book of Kings records positive things about three of them. First, Jehoahaz (817-800 BCE) was the  only northern king recorded as having a prayer answered when God sent a saviour to deliver Israel from the Arameans.

“The anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, so that he gave them repeatedly into the hand of King Hazael of Aram, then into the hand of Ben-hadad son of Hazael. But Jehoahaz entreated the LORD, and the LORD heeded him; for he saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Aram oppressed them. Therefore the LORD gave Israel a saviour, so that they escaped from the hand of the Arameans; and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly.” (2 Kings 13:3-5)

It is axiomatic that in the Hebrew Bible individuals who pray are regarded as being more righteous than those who don’t, and righteous individuals have their prayers answered. The fact that Jehoahaz is the only northern king to have this said of him is significant.

Next, Jehoash (800-784 BCE) was the subject of a favourable prophecy from Elisha and proceeded to defeat Aram three times (2 Kings 13:14-25) and Amaziah of Judah (14:8- 14). According to Deuteronomy 28:7, those who keep covenant can expect victory in battle, so this positive record about Jehoash portrays him as keeping covenant.

Third, Jeroboam II (789-748 BCE), as I’ve noted earlier, restored Israel’s borders to the boundaries of Solomon’s empire (2 Kings 14:25-8) and received prophetic support. According to both the biblical evidence and archaeological findings the reign of Jeroboam II was a period of great prosperity for Israel. Finally, the last king in the Jehu dynasty was Zechariah (748-747 BCE). It was brief, lasting only six months, and ended in a conspiracy and with Zechariah’s violent end. The Jehu dynasty began and ended with a coup (2 Kings 15:8-10).

However, there seems to be conflicting messages in the book of Kings about the Jehu dynasty, and woven together with the reports which are approving of them and express God’s ongoing concern and compassion for the northern kingdom and his commitment to the covenant, we find the standard condemnation of all northern kings as doing evil and following in the ways of Jeroboam I. These conflicting messages in the book of Kings suggests to several scholars that the writer was drawing on various sources. This shouldn’t be surprising as we could expect an historical writer to use earlier writings from the past for his information. It could explain why there seems to be a disparity between the positive material in Kings about the Jehu dynasty and the fact that Jehu and his successors are assessed more negatively than the evidence presented about them seems to warrant. I’ve noted that there is significant positive information about three kings in this dynasty in particular – Jehoahaz, Jehoash, and Jeroboam II – and David Lamb offers the suggestion that here the writer was drawing on sources which were favourable to these kings, even though he held a different perspective about them, writing from a later time and place.[1] According to Lamb, although the writer of Kings has a different agenda to his sources, the disparity between the earlier positive material and the writer’s own negative evaluation of the kings suggests that he had respect for his sources and retained the positive material despite it being at odds with his own perspective.

Jonathan Robker takes this position further and argues for the probability of “a royal narrative source covering the history of Israel from the time of Jeroboam I to the time of Jeroboam II, having been composed during the reign of Jeroboam II with the intention of supporting his dynasty and establishing the legitimacy of his son and successor in the face of rising criticism.”[2] He speculates that this royal narrative source was taken from Samaria to Jerusalem, presumably at or after the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE and incorporated into the Judean historical records “leading ultimately to the book of Kings in its Deuteronomistic context as we know it today.” (I will write more about this later.)

Several other scholars also argue that the writer of Kings was drawing on an earlier source, or sources, for his historical information about the kings. This is extremely likely as eighteeen times the writer acknowledged one of his sources as the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, a book we no longer have. The phrase is often accompanied by other positive descriptors of the king’s reign, such as: how he fought and reigned (1 Kings 14:19);  what he did, and his power (1 Kings 16:5; 2 Kings 10:34; 13:8); and the might which he showed (1 Kings 16:27); and all that he did, and the ivory house that he built, and all the cities that he built (1 Kings 22:39); and the might with which he fought against King Amaziah of Judah (2 Kings 13:12; 14:15); and his might, with which he fought, and how he recovered for Israel Damascus and Hamath, which had belonged to Judah (2 Kings 14:28); and the league which he made (1 Kings 16:20; 2 Kings 15:15). Overall these records are positive and suggest that the Annals reported favourably about the kings’ reigns. There is convincing evidence that there was a record (or records) of the kings of Israel which appraised some or all of them positively, especially the Jehu dynasty, and that the writer of Kings incorporated some of this material into his book. The scholarly consensus is that the book was composed or reached its final form during the exile. Whether or not there was what we might call a “pre-Deuteronomistic” version of Kings or not is speculation, however the evidence supports a conclusion that a positive appraisal of the kings of Israel was known to the writer(s) of Kings.

To be continued …

[1] David T. Lamb, Righteous Jehu and His Evil Heirs: the Deuteronomist’s Negative Perspective on Dynastic Succession (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] Jonathan Miles Robker, The Jehu Revolution: A Royal Tradition of the Northern Kingdom and Its Ramifications (BZAW 435;  Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 164.