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.

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 …

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.

Hanukkah’s Christian connections

Today is the fifth day of the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה‬ “dedication”) – a festival which commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the revolt against the Seleucid empire by the Maccabees (Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, and their supporters). The Maccabees were revolting against occupation by the Seleucid Empire in general, but more particularly against the desecration of the Temple (which begain in 167 BCE when Antiochus IV ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected in the Temple, banned circumcision, and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple). The revolt began soon after and the Temple was liberated in 165 BCE.  Judah Maccabee ordered the Temple to be cleansed and a new altar to be built. The Temple was re-dedicated and this re-dedication has been commemorated ever since in the festival of Dedication (Hanukkah). The custom of lighting candles every night during the eight days and nights of the festival originated in a story told in the Talmud that for the re-dedication it was necessary to find undefiled pure olive oil for the candelabrum, or menorah, in the Temple. The story goes that only one flask was found and with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it miraculously burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle. Since then Hanukkah is commemorated by lighting one candle on the first day, two on the second, etc, until eight candles are lit on the eighth and final night of the festival.

The story of the revolt, the liberation of the Temple, and its re-dedication is told in the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees. The first book of Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, but this Hebrew original has been lost and it has been preserved in a Greek translation in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible which was popular with early Greek-speaking Jews and Christians. The second book of Maccabees was written in koine Greek, the “street Greek” which was also the language of the New Testament. (The books known as 3 & 4 Maccabees which are found in some Orthodox Christian Bibles have nothing to do with the story of the Maccabees and deal with entirely different events).

Interestingly, the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees which tell the story of Hanukkah are not included in the canonical Hebrew Bible as these books are in Greek, not Hebrew. They are, however, included in many Christian Bibles including the canons of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and those Protestant churches which include the Apocrypha in their Bible. It’s interesting that these books which tell the story of the origins of this important Jewish festival are found in many Christian Bibles, but not in the Jewish canon, although Christians have never commemorated Hanukkah as a Christian festival (although some other Jewish festivals are celebrated by Christians under different names, such as Passover=Easter and the Festival of Weeks  [Shavuot]=Pentecost/Whitsunday).

There is also one more Christian connection to Hanukkah which I find interesting. The Hebrew Bible never mentions Hanukkah (as the Hebrew canon was probably completed by the time 1 & 2 Maccabees were written), but the New Testament does mention it. In the Gospel of John a casual reference is made to Jesus being in the Temple in winter during “the festival of the Dedication” (John 10:22) which is a clear reference to Hanukkah.

To all my Jewish friends חַג חֲנֻכָּה‬ שָׂמֵחַ – Happy Hanukkah!

The Sign of Jonah

jonah-and-the-whale.jpgThe New Testament doesn’t say much about the prophet Jonah, although the little it does say has made him an important figure in Christianity, his time spent inside the fish prefiguring the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The only references to Jonah in the New Testament are in a saying by Jesus recorded in both Matthew and Luke. The two accounts are similar although different so I put them both below with the words they have in common highlighted in red.

MATTHEW 14:39-41; 16:4

But he [Jesus] answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

… 16:4  An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

LUKE 11:29-32

When the crowds were increasing, he [Jesus] began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation…32The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

It can be seen that the words in red are common to both Matthew and Luke, but in both accounts they are ‘split’ with different words in between. So which of the two accounts records the actual saying of Jesus? The most likely explanation in my view is that the words in red are the ‘actual’ saying of Jesus and that both Matthew and Luke have copied them from a source which they both accessed. There is a widely held view amongst New Testament scholars (known as the “two source hypothesis”) that when Matthew and Luke were written the writers had two written sources in front of them: one was the gospel of Mark, as large parts of Mark appear word-for-word in both Matthew and Luke; the other was an unknown source which scholars often call ‘Q’ which is an abbreviation of the German word Quelle, or ‘source’. If we compare Matthew and Luke in their entirety we discover that much of these two gospels are identical. If we extract those sections which are identical to Mark the remainder is what scholars call Q. An interesting thing about Q is that it consists primarily of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative. It appears that at some stage, before Matthew and Luke were written (although possibly after Mark) a document was written which listed many of the sayings of Jesus, and this is what we now call Q. It doesn’t exist any more, or at least it hasn’t been found anywhere. But who knows, maybe it will turn up some day in a monastic library (like some of the best manuscripts available of the New Testament) or in a Judean cave (like the Dead Sea Scrolls). It appears that another very early Christian text called the Didache, or teachings of the apostles, may also have used Q as a source, but that is another discussion to be had.

It would be a reasonable explanation then that the actual saying of Jesus which may have been sourced from Q went like this:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

The problem is, this leaves the reader to guess what this “sign of Jonah” was. Both Matthew and Luke inserted their own explanations into their accounts. This isn’t uncommon as we see this kind of thing happening quite a bit in ancient texts which quoted from earlier ones. In this case, however, Matthew and Luke provide different explanations for Jesus’ saying. Matthew says the sign would be “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Luke on the other hand says “as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” We don’t have a case of the two writers recording Jesus’ saying differently (and hence one or both of them ‘misquoting’ Jesus) but of them both recording the same saying but inserting their own explanations, and these explanations differed.

The modern reader is still left to wonder what the “sign of Jonah” meant as the two explanations are different. Luke’s explanation isn’t that different from the saying of Jesus as it focussed on the people of Nineveh and their reaction to Jonah’s preaching. But Matthew’s explanation steps right away from this and offers an allegorical interpretation of the story of Jonah. It is not surprising that a story as strange as Jonah’s which has a host of unusual features (such as someone surviving inside a fish for three days) would attract an allegorical interpretation, and there is evidence in Rabbinic sources that this method of interpretation was applied from an early time. One interpretation, for example, is that Jonah represents Israel and as he was vomited by the fish so Israel was ‘vomited’ from their land when they went into captivity. Leviticus 18 uses precisely this kind of language to describe the land of Canaan vomiting out its inhabitants (18:25) and threatens the same for Israel if they do not keep the statutes and commandments God has given them: “lest the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (18:28).

Jeremiah 51 portrays Nebuchadnezzar and Bel the god of Babylon as sea monsters that have “swallowed up” Israel: “he has swallowed me like a monster; he has filled his belly with my delicacies, he has spewed me out” (Jeremiah 51:34). Jeremiah use the same word that occurs in Jonah 1:17 for the fish swallowing Jonah (although it uses a different word for vomitting, and “sea monster”), and this may be further evidence that Jonah presents an image of Israel being vomitted out of captivity after being swallowed by the Babylonians. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should interpret Jonah allegorically, although it seems that some of the early Rabbis and Matthew did to some extent. It could be an allusion by the writer of Jonah to both the Leviticus and Jeremiah texts recalling the experiences of Israel being “spewed” from place to place as they go into exile and then being disgorged again by Babylon.

Matthew’s interpretation is similarly somewhat allegorical and adds another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that this was the original intention or meaning of Jonah, as we have clear evidence in the way the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible (and also in the way some of the Dead Sea Scrolls quote the Hebrew Bible) that later writers often re-interpreted earlier texts, giving them ‘new’ meanings which were appropriate to their own circumstances and relevant to their audiences. So Matthew gives a new meaning to the Jonah story for his audience. He saw a connection to Jesus’ resurrection while Luke apparently didn’t make the same connection. It suggests there is no ‘right’ way to read many of the stories in the Bible. For Matthew there was one way, for Luke another. Perhaps we can learn something from this when we try to make an argument from the Bible; that even the writers of the Bible read earlier biblical books in different ways.

Making fun of foreign kings (2)

Ninive, Koenigspalast / nach Layard - Nineveh, Assyrian palace / watercolour -

Painting of Nineveh by James Ferguson 1853

Good satire or parody can be hard to detect. The better it is, the more likely it is that someone will take it seriously and won’t get the joke. I well remember when I was a much younger man having a conversation with a good mate about the clichés that were used in church prayers far too often. Between us we came up with an impressive list of all the prayer-clichés we could think of. A few days later my mate’s church had a social function in the church hall and my friend was called on to say grace before dinner. Being young, brash, and a bit of a smart-arse, my friend decided to have some fun while having a pointed poke at what had become a traditional, yet irrelevant style of prayer. He made use of every one of those clichés in a rather lengthy parody of grace before dinner. Later that evening an elderly lady came to him and said “I’ve been a member of this church for forty years, and that was the loveliest prayer I’ve ever heard!” That’s a sign of truly clever parody – people will be divided as to whether it is serious (and in this case pious), or is making a joke at the expense of those who take it seriously.

The royal court scene in Jonah 3 in my view is a case of clever satire (and parody), which commentaries have traditionally interpreted very seriously (while missing the humour, and, therefore, the real point of the story). It must have been the briefest evangelistic campaign in history (Jonah preached for only one day in a city which normally took three days to cross), consisting of just five words (in Hebrew, a few more in English): עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Remarkably, the people responded to this short message by repenting, proclaiming a fast, and putting on sackcloth (Jonah 3:4-5). It’s remarkable for several reasons: Jonah was unheard of in Nineveh, and had only just arrived; being from Israel his message would suggest that the god of tiny Israel was more powerful than all the gods of Nineveh and the mighty Assyrian empire; the five-word message gave no details and no call to repent or opportunity to avert the disaster. News of this reached the king, who immediately responded in much the same way as his people. His response was even more remarkable because he only heard the message second-hand, and was in a much better position to evaluate the likelihood that an unknown preacher from some backwater would know the fate of a great city like Nineveh, soon to be the most powerful city in the world. This is all so astoundingly unlikely the initial readers or listeners of this story would almost certainly have recognised it as humorous.

So the king decided to issue a decree that everyone should fast and put on sackcloth. The problem with this is that everyone had already decided to do just that! His decree would therefore be meaningless, simply ratifying what the masses had already decided. It would confirm that the king wasn’t in control, and that the mob made the rules. Nineveh wasn’t a democracy, and wasn’t about to become one, so the king issued a different decree:

“By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty.” (3:8)

The royal decree affirmed what the masses had already decided, but the king extended it to livestock as well! The animals even had to repent from their evil ways and cry out to God! The writer is having a joke at the king’s expense. He makes him out to be powerless – if he can’t rule his own people at least he can issue decrees to dumb cattle. The writer of Jonah has a final punchline right at the end of the book, where God is discussing with the prophet whether or not he should save Nineveh, because, after all, it was a big city with a lot of (dumb) people (because they couldn’t tell one hand from the other) but with “many cattle” (who were smart enough to cry out to God and to repent!) (4:11).

But there’s a twist in the story. When the king issues his decree he adds “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9). In the words of one biblical scholar, this is “a piece of rather sophisticated theology” [1]. The Ninevite king demonstrated an apparent awareness of Hebrew scripture, or at least the theological issues which gave rise to or came out of those texts, because he uses the specific language of several texts in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Chronicles and frames it as a question in an almost identical way to the book of Joel. Is the writer implying that the Ninevite king was familiar with all these biblical texts? The idea is comical, which may very well be the point of the ridiculousness of the allusions. 

In using these texts in the way he does, the writer simultaneously ridicules the foreigner and makes his question the central issue of the story. The king would certainly have been unaware of one or other of these texts, yet the writer puts words into his mouth with which the reader or listener would have been familiar, implying that he was aware of the theological discussion about these texts. This is a story-telling device which is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Nebuchadnezzar is ridiculed on the one hand, but makes profound statements about God on the other. Naaman, a Syrian military commander, was humiliated by the prophet Elisha, but teaches the king of Israel a valuable lesson at the same time (2 Kings 5). It’s a clever device. It’s easy to ridicule a foreigner, but then to have sophisticated theological truths come from their mouths is akin to saying “See, these stupid idol-worshippers get it, why don’t you?” The audience is first softened by the humour, and in doing so the writer/speaker prepares them to be more receptive to the hard-hitting message that follows. 

[1] Good, Edwin M., Irony in the Old Testament.London: SPCK, 1965, p.50