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Melakhim Bet Chapter 25
In the eleventh year of Tzidqiyahu’s reign, Nebukhadnezzar initiates his final, ultimately devastating siege of Jerusalem. The city is taken and King Tzidqiyahu flees, only to be captured and brought in chains before the King of Babylonia. Tzidqiyahu’s sons are slaughtered in front of him and he is then blinded and cast into prison in Babylonia.
In the meantime, Nevuzaradan, the captain of Nebukhadnezzar’s army, oversees the absolute destruction of Jerusalem. The Temple and all of the prominent houses are burnt to the ground. The text describes in great detail how the ornate vessels and expensive decorative components of the Temple, originally designed and fashioned in Shelomo’s time, are smashed, and their shattered material carried off to Babylonia. The troops capture a small group of elite individuals who had remained behind to administer the city; they are dragged before the King of Babylonia and executed.
Nebukhadnezzar appoints a governor, Gedaliah ben Ahiqam, to lead the remaining population of Yehuda. Gedalyah’s policy was to respect and cooperate with the Babylonian authorities, not to flee from them or challenge them. At first it appears that he wins the support and endorsement of the community. However, a small band of rebels, led by Yishmael ben Netanya (a descendant of the Davidic royal line), assassinate Gedalyah and all those who were with him. This upheaval attracts the ire of the Babylonian government, and leads to the escape of the rest of the Jews to Egypt for refuge.
Thirty-seven years after the first wave of exile, the perspective of the King of Babylonia (now Nebukhadnezzar’s son and successor, Evil-Merodakh) changes, and he adopts a more compassionate and considerate attitude toward the deposed and imprisoned Yehoyakhin. The King of Babylonia frees Yehoyakhin from prison and elevates his throne above those of the other kings whom he had conquered or subdued. For the rest of his life, Yehoyakhin eats at the table of the king of Babylonia, his dignity (and the dignity of Yehuda) restored.
The Book of Melakhim concludes with the same essential themes that have characterized it throughout – Jewish earthly sovereignty as represented by the monarchy, Jewish religious dedication as represented by the Bet Hamiqdash, and the relationship between them. As the Davidic kingdom is dismantled and stripped of its riches, so is the Temple. As the palace is emptied of its attendants and officers, so is the Temple. And as the glorious houses of the king and of the nobles are set aflame and burned to the ground, so is the Temple.
The parallelism between the destruction of both edifices is a symbolic representation of the parallels in their function and their interconnectedness, a subject that really occupies the entire Book of Melakhim from start to finish. The rise of the monarchy and its stabilization is initially presented as a precursor to the establishment of the presence of the True King of Israel – Hashem – in the midst of the nation through the construction of the Temple.
The Jewish people knew that strong and competent human governance was necessary on a societal level to prevent a descent into chaos and, on a religious level, to provide the kind of environment that would allow for spiritual growth and sanctification of God’s name. When preserving the monarchy became an end in itself, however, the sovereignty of Israel stood in the way of the holy mission of the Jewish people rather than facilitating it.
When the material and political aspirations of the regime trumped its sense of transcendent purpose and covenantal responsibility, when the struggle for power and domination replaced the search for knowledge of and closeness to the Almighty – simply stated, when the Bet Hamiqdash was no longer the focus of the Bet Hamelekh (House of the King) – then the entire infrastructure was condemned to collapse. Only through losing the political independence that was now a liability and experiencing exile once again would the nation be able to repent, refocus and return to autonomous existence in the Holy Land.
Tzidiyahu is treated particularly harshly by Nebukhadnezzar, who “takes him to task” and deliberately tortures him both psychologically and physically. The accounts in Sefer Melakhim and Sefer Divre HaYamim agree that Tzidqiyahu violated his oath of loyalty to Nebukhadnezzar by rebelling against him, thereby incurring the Babylonian King’s wrath. Sefer Divre HaYamim emphasizes that Tziqiyahu was, in fact, punished by Hashem for swearing falsely to Nebukhadnezzar and desecrating His name.
The Talmud recounts a fascinating anecdote in which Tzidqiyahu witnesses Nebukhadnezzar engaging in a grotesque act, consuming a live rabbit. Nebukhadnezzar makes Tzidqiyahu swear in the name of Hashem never to divulge his secret, which he fears might lead to his disgrace in the eyes of others. Years later, at a juncture when Babylonia seems more vulnerable, Tzidqiyahu seeks release from his vow from the Sanhedrin and is therefore able to spread gossip about Nebukhadnezzar, apparently hoping it will weaken his reputation and inspire others to side with him in his rebellion against the depraved emperor.
Nebukhadnezzar confronts Tzidqiyahu on his treachery and eventually approaches the Sanhedrin, who defend their right to absolve petitioners of their vows. Nebukhadnezzar replies that while they may have the right to cancel vows that are purely between man and God, they have no right to cancel a vow made to another person behind that person’s back. The elders of the Sanhedrin are speechless and sit on the ground in mourning, and the final phase of the destruction of Jerusalem ensues.
The message of the story is profound and poignant. Because Tzidqiyahu had sworn allegiance to Nebukhadnezzar in the name of Hashem, his subsequent disregard for that oath was nothing less than a desecration of Hashem’s name. Sure, Tzidqiyahu could rationalize his change of heart and try to justify his decision to violate his word – whether that meant, as in the text, declaring independence from Babylonia, or, per the Midrash, revealing hidden truths about Nebukhadnezzar to the public. And he may have been able to win over the rabbis and scholars and persuade them to endorse his choice. However, the legality of his strategy notwithstanding, the result is a hillul Hashem, a negative reflection upon the Almighty.
In the eyes of Nebukhadnezzar, Tzidqiyahu has openly demonstrated that invoking the name of his God was a mere political ruse that meant nothing to him in reality. This undoubtedly constitutes a desecration of the name of the Almighty. Moreover, in utilizing technical loopholes to free himself from his promise behind Nevukhadnezzar’s back, Tzidqiyahu shows little or no respect for the Babylonian King who is the victim of his treachery and who is probably now even more resentful toward the people, religion and God of Israel. This adds another dimension to the Hillul Hashem involved.
This failure of Tzidqiyahu was not an isolated act; it reflected a lack of concern with the ultimate mission of the Jewish people and the ultimate goal of the Miqdash – sanctification of Hashem’s name across the globe, before the eyes of both Jews and gentiles, and even before the eyes of the tyrannical Nevukhadnezzar. Tzidqiyahu’s indifference to this sacred cause revealed that he considered the political objectives he hoped to achieve with his rebellious behavior more desirable and important than the mandate to faithfully represent Hashem’s truth, wisdom and compassion in the world.
In this sense, Tzidqiyahu’s behavior was not the manifestation of a personal defect as much as it was a clear exemplification of the fundamental failure of the monarchies of Israel and Yehuda as a whole – namely, their abandonment of the Divine purpose for which they had been created in favor of the pursuit of military conquest, independent sovereignty and material success for their own sake.
For us, the lesson to be derived from Tzidqiyahu is, first and foremost, the importance of exhibiting reverence for Hashem’s name and behaving in ways that reflect positively on Him and on His Torah. This means conducting ourselves honestly and truthfully in our dealings with all of God’s creatures and not allowing ourselves to rationalize or justify immoral or unethical activity, no matter how compelling the pretext may seem.
Of course, the book concludes with a clear signal that the story of Jewish nationhood is far from over. A representative of the Davidic dynasty, Yehoyakhin, still lives in Babylonia, favor has shone upon him and his dignity has been restored. Even at the darkest moments in our history, a sliver of hope remains, and we are reminded that the light of our glorious destiny has not yet been extinguished – with Hashem’s help, against all odds, we will rise again.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 24
The pendulum of power in the region shifts drastically once again, and Babylonia becomes the dominant force in the region. Egypt is isolated and no longer influential. For three years, Yehoyaqim submits to the authority of Nebukhadnezzar, king of Babylonia. However, he eventually rebels, generating much turmoil for the Kingdom of Yehuda.
These difficulties are exacerbated by constant raids and incursions into Jewish territory by neighboring peoples, including Chaldeans, Arameans, Moabites, etc., mainly orchestrated or encouraged by Babylonia. Of course, all of this was ultimately part of Hashem’s plan, finalized in the wake of the wicked reign of Menashe, that the nation of Israel would be exiled from their land. After a rocky period of leadership, Yehoyaqim dies, and his son, Yehoyakhin, rules in his stead.
Three months into his tenure, the young King Yehoyakhin is besieged by Nebuchadnezzar and, seemingly, surrenders to his forces. The Babylonians leave with all of the treasures of the Bet Hamiqdash and the palace, and the royal family is exiled, together with all of the officers, skilled workers, craftsmen, and soldiers in Jerusalem. Only the “working class” Jews remain in the land, under the governance of Yehoyakhin’s uncle, Matanya, who is renamed Tzidqiyahu. Although placed upon the throne as a regent of Babylonia, Tzidqiyahu eventually rebels against them as well.
In the wake of Yoshiyahu’s untimely death, we are witness to a path of apparently irreversible national disintegration. Two foreign powers – first Egypt, then Babylonia – arise in the region and exert overwhelming influence upon Israel. Twice, we find a King of Yehuda deposed after only three months of rule because of his presumably antiestablishment leanings, only to be replaced by a king selected by the “superpower” (first Egypt, then Babylonia) who reigns for eleven years before deciding to rebel. The monarchs of Israel continually seek to exploit the vulnerabilities of their adversaries and to take advantage of the instability and shifting balances of power, but their efforts are tragically unsuccessful and consistently counterproductive.
There is an element of irony, of course, in the slow downfall of the Kingdom of Yehuda at the hands of Egypt and Babylonia. Avraham began his fateful journey to the Promised Land and inaugurated his monotheistic movement when Hashem commanded him to depart from Ur Kasdim – Babylonia – and all that it represented. Generations later, his descendants, the Jewish people, became an independent nation with its own unique destiny when Hashem delivered them from Egyptian bondage.
Sadly, the clock has moved in reverse, first back to Egyptian domination and then to total destruction under the weight of Babylonian tyranny. The process of growth and development that began with Avraham, proceeded through Egypt and achieved its culmination in the establishment of the monarchy and Bet Hamiqdash in the land of Israel had been dealt an epic blow, crushing it back to its very foundation.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 22
At the tender age of eight years, Yoshiyahu becomes the king of Yehuda. He initiates a project to make an accounting of the revenues of the Temple and, using the available funds, he commissions the renovation of the Bet Hamiqdash. During the construction, Hilqiyahu the Kohen discovers a Sefer Torah somewhere inside the building (many commentaries indicate that this was the original Torah Scroll written by the hand of Moshe Rabbenu, which had been hidden inside the Temple) and delivers it to Shafan the scribe.
Shafan approaches the king to update him on the progress of the building project, informing him that the funds have been disbursed as had been commanded. He then shares with him the discovery of Hilqiyahu, and reads to the king from the Torah text. Upon hearing the words of the Torah, Yoshiyahu tears his garment in mourning. He realizes that the Jewish people have failed to uphold their covenant with Hashem and are therefore condemned to destruction.
Yoshiyahu sends a delegation to meet with Hulda the Prophetess and inquire as to the future of their nation. Hulda tells the visitors that Hashem has indeed decreed destruction upon the Kingdom of Yehuda, and that it would be destroyed, and its population exiled, in the near future. However, since Yoshiyahu humbled himself and sincerely repented upon hearing the words of Torah, showing genuine remorse for the failure of the nation and their ancestors to adhere to the laws of Hashem, the king will not have to witness the terrible devastation that is to come. Yoshiyahu will die in peace before calamity is visited upon Yehuda. The delegation returns to Yoshiyahu and conveys Hulda’s message to him.
It is interesting to wonder what prompted Yoshiyahu to renovate the Temple at this juncture in history. After all, from what we can gather, he had no real idea what Judaism was or what it meant. Most likely, he assumed that the pagan practices and idolatry that were rampant in Israel were “Jewish” in one way or another. We may speculate that Yoshiyahu’s initial interest in repairing the Temple was nationalistically motivated; he may have seen its restoration as a source of pride for the people since it was their national place of worship and was a glorious monument to the history of the country and of the monarchy.
From the outset, this focus on revisiting and promoting the “heritage” of the people and generating some nationalistic pride differentiated Yoshiyahu from his grandfather Menashe, who was more interested in reshaping the kingdom in the mold of its neighbors. Again, this is only speculation, but he may have interpreted the assassination of his father, Amon, as a plea for change, and felt that he needed to bolster the credibility and Divine endorsement of his position by recalling the “glorious era” of King Solomon and his Temple; alternatively, he may have seen a general reticence, complacency or dissatisfaction among the people, and sought an exciting project that could unite and energize them, lifting them out of stagnation.
A careful reading of the words of Hulda the Prophetess is instructive. She provides two messages to the delegation from Yoshiyahu – one a confirmation of impending doom for the community as whole, and the other a more positive and optimistic reassurance for Yoshiyahu personally. Hulda prefaces her initial, negative message with the phrase “say this to the man who sent you to me.” However, when she shifts her tone to send the message of promise, she opens with these words “and to the King of Yehuda who sent you to me to seek Hashem, so shall you say to him.” Calling the king “the man who sent you to me” seems unnecessarily caustic, especially in view of the fact that Yoshiyahu was a good man. What is the purpose of these two introductory phrases?
I would like to offer two possible explanations: one based on the text itself, and one based on a comment of our Sages. On a purely textual level, we may suggest that Hulda is addressing Yoshiyahu in two frameworks. On one hand, he is the descendant of the wicked kings Menashe and Amon; as the heir to their corrupt legacy and representative of their royal lineage, he is dismissively referred to as “the man who sent you” and is apprised of the terrible destruction that will soon visit his people.
On the other hand, judged purely as an individual, Yoshiyahu is righteous and sincere, seeking Hashem wholeheartedly; from this point of view, taken out of the context of his father and grandfather, he can be granted the title “King of Yehuda”, praised for his desire to connect to the Almighty, and promised a charitable outcome for himself and his immediate family.
Another possible interpretation of the “dual introduction” of Hulda is based on an observation of some of our Sages. They point out that Yoshiyahu lived during the period of Yeshayahu, the greatest prophet of that generation, and really should have consulted with him. One explanation offered by our Rabbis for the choice of Hulda is that, since she was a woman, the king hoped she would have a kinder and more compassionate response to his query than the male Yeshayahu.
With this in mind, I would suggest that perhaps this is why, in delivering her harshest words, she calls Yoshiyahu “the MAN who sent you to ME” – in other words, he sent you to me because I am a woman, expecting me to provide a sweeter, more palatable message because of my gender, but he is sorely mistaken! As a prophetess, Hulda conveys only the words that Hashem authorizes her to communicate; her femininity or lack thereof has no effect on the content of her predictions.
According to this interpretation, Hulda offers Yoshiyahu a subtle rebuke for his pagan-style assumption that a prophet’s personality or character influences his or her transmission of the word of God, and that somehow consulting with a more amenable prophet would lead to a more pleasant outcome. On the contrary, prophecy is delivered in a pure, unadulterated form, and represents Truth that Hashem’s messenger is commanded to proclaim but has no authority or ability to tamper with.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 21
Menashe ascends to the throne of Yehuda following the death of his father, Hizqiyahu. Menashe is, undoubtedly, the most evil and corrupt monarch that Yehuda has ever seen. He reestablishes all of the private altars that had been eliminated by Hizqiyahu, and actively promotes idolatry throughout his realm, constructing altars for the worship of the Baal and the host of heaven.
Menashe even goes so far as to place idolatrous shrines and an Ashera tree in the Holy Temple itself, desecrating it and disconnecting it from its sacred purpose of proclaiming God’s Unity. He enthusiastically participates in every popular form of occult ritual that was commonplace at the time, including passing his son through the fire of Molekh, and sponsors the practices of soothsaying and divination as well. A true despot, Menashe is responsible for the spilling of an unprecedented amount of innocent blood in the kingdom. In light of Menashe’s wickedness, Hashem decrees that the kingdom of Yehuda will be destroyed and that the population will be exiled from their land in a dramatic and horrific manner.
The text reiterates the divinely orchestrated process of development of the Jewish people from the Exodus until the present, emphasizing that Jewish possession of the land of Israel was conditional on their faithfulness to the covenant and their observance of Torah and mitzvot. Their repeated failure to adhere to the dictates of Torah had disqualified them from any further “chances” and their fate was now sealed.
Menashe dies and is succeeded by his son, Amon, who continues in the wicked and idolatrous path of his father. Two years later, officers of Amon conspire against him and kill him, and his son Yoshiyahu reigns in his stead.
Many readers are troubled by the shockingly stark contrast between the exemplary conduct of Hizqiyahu who passionately served Hashem and implemented His laws in Israel and the absolute rejection of the Torah and embrace of idolatry and paganism by his son and grandson. How could this happen? In order to develop a cogent answer to this question, we must dig a bit deeper and grapple with an even more incisive problem: how could the Jewish people, led to Torah and educated by Hizqiyahu so thoroughly, possibly have succumbed to the influence of an evil personality like Menashe? Why didn’t they protest, object, rebel or resist?
I would like to suggest what I believe is an inescapable conclusion from this radical reversal – the Jewish people had never bought into Hizqiyahu’s program to the extent that he believed they had. As we saw in the previous chapter, Hizqiyahu was sincerely religious, but his implementation of reforms in the land had much to do with his own feeling of responsibility and need to demonstrate his righteousness, and had less to do with genuine concern for the long term future of the Jewish people. Consciously or not, Hizqiyahu may have overestimated just how devoted and committed his subjects were to Torah, and he may have underestimated how much of the veneer of Torah living was a product of his own imposition of will over the population.
If we follow this approach, then the events unfolding in this chapter make more sense. The nation, as a whole, still harbored a connection to the popular and attractive trappings of paganism popularized by King Ahaz and perhaps also a hankering for the individual altars that had been tolerated in the kingdom for generations. With the death of Hizqiyahu, a zealous champion for Judaism, these feelings of disenfranchisement and nostalgia may have reemerged and Menashe, seeking to build up his base of popular support, capitalized on them.
Like his father, Hizqiyahu, Menashe placed a high premium on his standing on the international scene as well as his image as a powerful and effective leader. Unlike his father, however, he opted to seek the recognition and position of influence that he desired through conventional, idolatrous means. Like King Ahaz before him, Menashe promoted forms of worship that were popular and “mainstream” in the Ancient Near East, bringing the Kingdom of Yehuda into step with other communities in the region for whom the pure monotheism of the Torah may have been off-putting. In a manner reminiscent of the period of Izevel, Menashe had no compunction about shedding blood and stifled political and ideological opposition aggressively and violently.
With this in mind, we can understand why the reign of Menashe was the last straw from Hashem’s perspective. Previous monarchs had failed to live up to God’s expectations in various ways, but none managed to totally uproot the Jewish character of Yehuda and to replace it with a non-Jewish political, cultural and religious identity. Even King Ahaz, whose actions may be seen as a precursor to those of Menashe, still intended for his “modernized” Jewish kingdom to retain its Jewishness on some level; after all, even his Assyrian altar was the site of the worship of God, not another deity.
Menashe, on the other hand, succeeded in refashioning the entire kingdom of Yehuda into a conventional, tyrannical and pagan regime, in which even the signature institution of Israel – the Bet Hamiqdash that was designed to represent the One God’s presence in the world and to inspire the Jewish people to sanctify His name – was hijacked and transformed into a house of idolatry.
Of course, we cannot absolve the people of responsibility for the corrupt initiatives of their king; tragically, the nation allowed him to implement his radical policies and then let them remain the status quo for fifty five years. The last vestiges of Torah and Judaism fully erased from the landscape of Israel, the kingdom of Yehuda was now totally disconnected from the whole purpose of its existence and had lost any right to claim possession of the Holy Land or entitlement to the Holy Temple.
According to Sefer Divre Hayamim, Menashe repented at the end of his life and reversed many of his evil policies, but it was “too little, too late” – the damage had already been done. The objective of Sefer Melakhim is to chart the downfall of the Kingdom and explain, from the prophetic standpoint, why the Temple was destroyed. Therefore, it does not address Menashe’s personal life and later transformation, since this change had no discernible effect on the decree of destruction that had already been passed against the Kingdom of Yehuda.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 20
Hizqiyahu is ill and is visited by Yeshayahu the Prophet, who informs him that he should put his affairs in order because he will soon die. Once the prophet has left, Hizqiyahu prays to Hashem, asking that in the merit of all of his righteous deeds he should be spared. Before Yeshayahu has exited the city, he receives a message from Hashem ordering him to return to Hizqiyahu and inform the king that his prayer has been answered.
In three days, Hizqiyahu will be well enough to visit the Temple of Hashem and he will enjoy another fifteen years of life. During this time, Hashem pledges to continue to protect the Jewish people from the threat of Assyria. Yeshayahu instructs the king’s attendants to bring him a cake of figs, which is placed on the rash of Hizqiyahu, healing it, apparently to demonstrate that he will recover soon.
Hizqiyahu requests a sign from the prophet to validate his message. Yeshayahu offers the king two options: either the shadow on the sundial can move forward by ten degrees or it can recede ten degrees. Hizqiyahu chooses the latter, and witnesses a miraculous confirmation of the prophet’s words.
The King of Babylonia has heard of the illness and subsequent recovery of Hizqiyahu and sends a delegation to visit him and bring him gifts. Hizqiyahu welcomes the Babylonian representatives and provides them with a grand tour, displaying to them his treasuries, precious metals, spices, weaponry and other evidence of his success and accomplishment.
Shortly after, Yeshayahu again visits Hizqiyahu and inquires about the origin of the delegation and its purpose. Hizqiyahu explains that the men came from Babylonia and that he showed them his house and all he possessed. Yeshayahu informs Hizqiyahu that Hashem has decreed that, in the future, the Babylonians will conquer Jerusalem and carry all the wealth that they have seen back to their homeland. Hizqiyahu accepts and affirms the word of God and consoles himself with the knowledge that these developments will not occur in his lifetime. Hizqiyahu dies and is succeeded by his son, Menashe.
In sharp contrast with the bright and hopeful tone of the early years of his reign, the career of Hizqiyahu ends on a relatively negative note. Interestingly, the Sages comment that he was stricken with illness because he never expressed gratitude to the Almighty for the miraculous salvation his people were granted from Assyria. This suggests that the Rabbis perceived in Hizqiyahu a specific character flaw – a sense of pride and entitlement he developed on account of his religious reforms and devotion to Hashem.
We can catch subtle hints of this attitude even in the text of the otherwise sincere and heartfelt prayer of Hizqiyahu. He asks Hashem to heal him and allow him to live in the merit of his own righteousness and religiosity. However, when Hashem promises Hizqiyahu an extension of fifteen years of life as well as protection from the threat of Ashur, He declares that these blessings will be granted for the sake of His name and for the sake of King David, NOT because Hizqiyahu deserves them.
One detects a slight rebuke in this message – Hashem is telling Hizqiyahu not to bank so much on his own merits, not to romanticize what he has achieved and assume that God is compelled to reward him for it. Indeed, our Rabbis also point out that when Moshe Rabbenu prayed to Hashem, he never invoked his own merit – he always made requests based upon the merit of the Patriarchs. Hizqiyahu, on the other hand, took the unprecedented and inappropriate step of asking for God’s grace by virtue of his own righteousness.
Hizqiyahu’s self-aggrandizement is reflected in the manner in which he greets and interacts with the delegation from Babylonia. In an apparent attempt to impress them, he flaunts his great wealth and power, not once mentioning Hashem nor taking them on a visit to the Bet Hamiqdash. We can and should contrast this behavior with that of Shelomo Hamelekh, who used the visit of the Queen of Sheba as an opportunity to glorify the name of Hashem, emphasizing the role of the Temple and the wisdom of Torah in the success and prosperity of Israel. The Queen of Sheba and her attendants recognized the opulence and power of Shelomo’s kingdom as a function of Hashem’s providence and not as a manifestation of human majesty or might.
After his recovery from illness and his recognition (as expressed in his prayer) that his accomplishments were gifts from the Almighty, Hizqiyahu should have learned his lesson and seen the visit of the Babylonian delegation as a golden opportunity to sanctify Hashem’s name – to share his insight, inspire them, and teach them about the Torah and the service of Hashem. Recall that, in predicting Hizqiyahu’s recovery, Yeshayahu makes explicit reference to the king’s upcoming VISIT TO THE TEMPLE in three days, reminding him of the whole purpose for which he is granted a new lease on life – to serve Hashem and glorify His name in the world! Yet instead of rising to the occasion, Hizqiyahu fell back into his self-centered perspective, basking in the glory and honor that Babylonia bestowed upon him, and wishing to meet or exceed their expectations by showing off his wealth and power (even his response to Yeshayahu, when asked about the delegation, sounds like bravado of a sort).
This failure was Hiziqiyahu’s last and most decisive mistake. Had he played his cards right and responded to this situation properly, he would have set a direction and a tone for the monarchy that could have been learned and perpetuated by his successor. In this way, as our Sages comment, he could have ushered in the Messianic Era.
However, Hizqiyahu tragically traded the idyllic vision of the monarchy serving as a vehicle of the sanctification of God’s name for the fleeting, momentary enjoyment of being honored as an important leader of the region. His choice would have a domino effect on the future trajectory of the kingdom, ultimately eventuating in its destruction. Unfortunately, true to form, Hizqiyahu is unconcerned with the long term prognosis of the nation, preferring to focus on the fact that he will be able to reach the end of his own career peacefully and respectably.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 19
Upon hearing the news of the blasphemous threats of Ravshaqeh, Hizqiyahu tears his clothes, dons sackcloth and enters the Bet Hamiqdash to pray. He sends his officers to consult with the prophet Yeshayahu regarding the crisis with Ashur. Yeshayahu directs them to tell Hizqiyahu not to worry – the forces of Assyria would soon withdraw, and no harm would come to Jerusalem. This prediction is confirmed, as the King of Ashur becomes embroiled in another regional conflict and must send his troops there.
Nevertheless, this is only a temporary reprieve, because Ravshaqeh soon follows up with written messages to Hizqiyahu. Ravshaqeh cautions Hizqiyahu against trusting in the promises of His God and declares that Assyria will conquer Jerusalem and defeat its God just as it has vanquished the kings and gods of all the other nations with which it has battled.
Hizqiyahu is distressed by these communications. He enters the Temple once again and spreads the letters from Ashur out upon the ground. Hizqiyahu prays to Hashem, acknowledging that Assyria has, indeed, been victorious against its opponents and cast their gods into the flames; however, this is because their gods are mere idols, figments of human imagination. Hizqiyahu asks that Hashem save Jerusalem from Assyria, thereby proving that He is the true Creator and Master of heavens and earth who cannot be challenged by mortal man.
Yeshayahu the Prophet sends Hizqiyahu a message from Hashem: his prayers have been heard and will be answered. The King of Assyria has indeed been successful on the battlefield, subjugating nations and armies that are weaker than his own. However, he fails to realize that his achievements are all the result of a Divine plan and not merely a function of his ambition, military prowess or sheer strength.
Sanheriv’s arrogance has reached the level of delusion and he has dared to challenge Hashem Himself. Therefore, Hashem will exert His absolute domination over the King of Assyria and will disrupt his plans. Sanheriv will be prevented from staging any attack against Jerusalem; he will be sent back home before firing a single arrow and will perish in his own land. Jerusalem will survive and thrive and will be restored to a state of prosperity once again.
That night, a plague strikes the Assyrian camp that had stationed itself around Jerusalem; one hundred and eighty five thousand soldiers suddenly die, and the handful of survivors retreat to Ashur. The chapter concludes by noting that Sanheriv was once prostrating himself at the shrine of one of his gods when two of his sons enter and assassinate him. The murderers flee and Sanheriv is succeeded by his son, Esarhadon.
The period of Hizqiyahu is characterized by a puzzling irony. On one hand, the remnant of the Kingdom of Judah appears weak and militarily inferior to Assyria; as far as Hizqiyahu is concerned, confronting the enemy on the battlefield is not even an option. At the same time, Hizqiyahu has ushered in an era of unprecedented devotion to Hashem, going so far as to rid the land of illegal places of worship as well as idolatry and returning the nation to the path of Torah (even more information about his efforts is provided in Sefer Divre Hayamim).
Because the people of Israel and their king genuinely represent Hashem, their defeat at the hands of Sanheriv would be a desecration of His name and therefore is miraculously prevented. This suggests that the Jews are adhering to the dictates of the Torah at this time. Why, then, have they not received the blessings promised in the Torah – material wealth, independent sovereignty, and political stability and security? If the Jews are living in accordance with the laws and expectations of Hashem, why aren’t they witnessing the fulfillment of the Torah’s predictions that they will be prosperous and successful in their land?
We see from this that Hizqiyahu’s reforms were only the beginning of a long and drawn out process of reestablishing the country on its proper foundations. Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Jerusalem. Hizqiyahu presided over Israel at a time when its resources had already been depleted as a result of its abandonment of the Torah for generations; therefore, he is not yet in a position to recapture the glorious days of his ancestor and role model, Shelomo Hamelekh. In the meantime, the merit of his dedication to Hashem and his striving to perfect the Jewish people earned him the protection and assistance of the Almighty.
In the story of Hizqiyahu we observe one of the fundamental principles of Judaism and of Jewish prayer in particular: Hashem judges and relates to us not only in terms of where we stand at the moment, but in terms of where we yearn to stand. What we have accomplished is significant in His eyes, but so is what we HOPE to accomplish and what we aspire to achieve. This is the meaning of the oft-repeated concept that Hashem saves us “lemaan shemo”, for the sake of His name. Our actual attainments may fall short of His expectations but the fact that we acknowledge the proper values and dedicate ourselves to pursuing them has value in its own right.
We are the people and the nation that we STRIVE to be – our priorities, the role models whom we emulate, and the objectives toward which we direct our energies reflect on us and reveal our true character. The fact that the Jewish people dedicate themselves to sanctifying God’s name and therefore represent Him in the world makes a difference, even if we have been derelict in our duties and failed in myriad ways. Sometimes, this necessitates a compromise. Hashem may grant us leeway and offer us support in key areas while simultaneously ensuring that the “heat” is still on us. Despite earning some respite from our suffering, we may continue to face challenges, obstacles and difficulties that keep us cognizant of our imperfections and aware that we have not yet arrived at our spiritual destination.
The generation of Hizqiyahu had inherited many problems from their ancestors – spiritually, politically and culturally – and they were suffering the consequences of the errors of the generations that preceded them, and had just begun to rehabilitate themselves from the influence of those deeply entrenched mistakes. Their movement back toward Torah and their newfound devotion to the mission of serving Hashem and proclaiming His Oneness made them deserving of the miraculous deliverance from Ashur, a reprieve that provided them with the opportunity to complete the religious revolution that was already underway. They may not have been fully transformed into spiritual superstars just yet; they remained “beginners”, and much work was left to be done.
This explains why the circumstances the Jews of Hizqiyahu’s era experienced were still less than ideal – the tension, strain and struggles served as a reminder that the nation had not quite reached the pinnacle of spiritual development they were summoned to attain. At the same time, the changes they had implemented and the direction they had embraced were sufficient to warrant Hashem’s attention, intervention and support – albeit with some “reservations” – in the meantime.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 18
Hizqiyahu, son of Ahaz, rules the Kingdom of Yehuda, and surpasses any of his predecessors or successors in his singular devotion to Hashem. Not only does he trust Hashem and observe the Torah, ridding the land of all idolatry, he takes the remarkable step of dismantling and eliminating the illegal private altars and sanctuaries, or Bamot, that had been allowed to proliferate in the kingdom for generations.
Hizqiyah destroys what he derisively refers to as “Nehushtan”, the copper snake that Moshe Rabbenu had fashioned as part of a miraculous cure for snake bites in the wilderness, because it had become a fetish object, venerated and worshiped by many of his subjects. Hizqiyah succeeds in all his endeavors, subjugating the Pelishtim and, unlike his father, refusing to subordinate himself to Assyria.
Eight years after the exile of the Northern Kingdom, Sanheriv (Sennacherib in English), the King of Assyria, lays siege to the fortified cities of Yehuda, conquering and decimating them. Hizqiyahu apologizes for his defiance and expresses his willingness to pay a large tribute in order to persuade the Assyrian King to halt his siege and leave Jerusalem in peace. Sanheriv demands an exorbitant sum from Hizqiyahu, forcing him to empty his own treasury and that of the Temple, as well as to remove the gold with which he himself had overlaid the doors of the Bet Hamiqdash.
Nevertheless, Sanheriv soon sends an enormous army to Jerusalem, led by three of his officers, Tartan, Rav-Saris and Ravshaqeh. In front of all the citizens assembled by the wall of the city, as well as Hizqiyahu’s three representatives Elyaqim, Shevna and Yoah, Ravshaqeh proceeds to “dress down” Hizqiyahu, demanding that he submit to the “great king” of Assyria.
Ravshaqeh criticizes the Jewish king for his reliance on the support of the weak and ineffective king of Egypt. Moreover, he mocks Hizqiyahu’s trust in Hashem, pointing out to the people that Hizqiyahu himself dismantled all of the individual altars devoted to Him and surely could not expect Him to be of assistance now!
Fearing that the Jews will be terrified by his message, the officers of Hizqiyahu ask Ravshaqeh to speak in Aramaic rather than Hebrew; however, he brazenly insists on continuing in Hebrew precisely so that the people will understand his words and be demoralized and intimidated by them. Ravshaqeh addresses himself directly to the subjects of Hizqiyahu, urging them to submit to the great king of Assyria who will relocate them to a bountiful land like their own and will provide them with a peaceful and prosperous existence.
Ravshaqeh warns the Jews against trusting in Hashem, their God, reminding them that none of the gods of the nations were able to protect their devotees from the mighty Assyrian king. In accordance with Hizqiyahu’s orders, no one responded to the speech of Ravshaqeh. The officers of Hizqiyahu tear their garments in mourning over the blasphemous words they have heard, and report them to their king. The chapter leaves us in suspense, as the crisis has not yet been resolved.
This chapter highlights the quality of Hizqiyahu that enabled him to demonstrate outstanding leadership: namely, his trust in Hashem. Prior kings of Yehuda had exhibited piety and devotion to Hashem and had battled idolatry. Many of them deferred to the guidance of the prophets and invested wholeheartedly in the upkeep and improvement of the Bet Hamiqdash. None, however, is described as trusting in Hashem with all of his heart. The fact that Hizqiyahu found his security in his relationship with the Almighty emboldened him to pursue unpopular courses of action, such as dismantling the private altars that previous monarchs were afraid to openly oppose. It is this very characteristic of trust in Hashem that Ravshaqeh ridicules in his monologue, suggesting that the king was “famous” for this trait.
Indeed, Ravshaqeh attempts to capitalize on the controversial initiatives of Hizqiyahu in order to weaken his base of support, drawing attention to the destruction of the bamot in particular. This substantiates our general assumption that taking down the local and private sanctuaries was a courageous, difficult, and highly unpopular move by the king. Hizqiyahu’s remarkable ability to face resistance and implement this policy stemmed from his reliance on the Almighty and not on the approval of public opinion. However, this confrontation with Ashur would be the ultimate test of Hizqiyahu’s reforms in the eyes of the people.
Until now, the citizens of Yehuda have stood behind their monarch and followed his direction, believing that his unflinching commitment to God will bring them salvation and prosperity. Recent events, especially the devastating military losses to Ashur throughout the kingdom (forty-six highly fortified cities were defeated) and the lengthy siege on Jerusalem, may have caused the community to doubt its resolute support for the radically new approach of their king.
Ravshaqeh throws down the proverbial gauntlet, casting this conflict in theological terms as a confrontation between the King of Assyria and the God of Israel, and the officers of Hizqiyahu recognize that he is right. If Jerusalem should fall to Sanheriv, the consequence will be a colossal desecration of Hashem’s name and the erroneous conclusion that Hizqiyahu’s religious initiatives, far from improving the state of the kingdom, were at best misguided and at worst disastrous.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 17
Hoshea ben Elah rules over the Kingdom of Israel and pledges allegiance to Shalmanesser, King of Assyria. Hoshea follows the wicked precedent of the kings before him, but is not quite as evil as his predecessors. The Rabbis tell us that since the altars in Dan and Bet El had already been dismantled and carried off by the Assyrians anyway, he lifted the ban on visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, nullifying the longstanding policy established by Yarovam. This can be inferred from the fact that Hoshea is the only king of Israel who is not described as following the path of Yarovam and causing Israel to sin.
Hoshea eventually conspires with Egypt to rebel against Assyria. The plot is discovered, and the response of Shalmanesser is swift and decisive. He imprisons Hoshea, lays siege to the kingdom and exiles all of its inhabitants to other lands under Assyrian dominion.
The chapter then provides a “retrospective” on the slow disintegration of the Kingdom of Israel that eventuated in the exile. The text explains that the failure of the kingdom stemmed from their worship of idols, rejection of the laws and statutes of the Torah, immoral behavior, imitation of the superstitious and occult practices of the other nations, and refusal to heed the messages and warnings that were repeatedly conveyed to them by the prophets of Hashem. Only the Kingdom of Yehuda remains, but it, too, had fallen short of the Divine standard set for it.
The practice of the King of Assyria was to relocate conquered populations to new areas in order to exert his dominance over them. When the Jews are removed from their territory, the King of Assyria replaces them with a collection of citizens of other nations whom he had vanquished. These people settle in Israel and become known as the Shomronim, or “Samaritans”, because they now dwell in Samaria. They find themselves regularly attacked by lions and conclude that this must be the result of their neglect of the “God of the land”, that is, the God of Israel.
The Shomronim petition the King of Assyria, who sends them a Kohen – probably one of the appointed “priests” who served in the kingdom of Israel, not an actual descendant of Aharon – who instructed them in the laws of Hashem. Given the background of this “kohen”, it is unclear and probably unlikely that his teachings resembled authentic Judaism in any way. Nevertheless, the lion attacks ceased, and, from that day forward, the Shomronim committed themselves to serving their own native gods as well as the God of Israel. They developed some kind of fusion between their idolatry and occult practices and their acknowledgement of the God of the Jews.
The chapter concludes by once again noting that the Jewish people failed to fear Hashem and observe the laws He had given to them, ignoring the significance of the Exodus from Egypt and the obligation of Divine service it devolved upon them, and refusing to trust in Hashem’s promises of protection and support. The last verse of the chapter closes the narrative of the Shomronim, remarking on their odd combination of fear of Hashem and worship of graven images, which they would perpetuate as a tradition, passed down from generation to generation until the time of the Second Temple.
This chapter integrates the preceding narratives of the Book of Melakhim with its overarching theme. One might see in the destruction and desolation of the land of Israel an indication that Hashem abandoned the Jewish people or reneged on His promises to them. Alternatively, one could interpret the events as a sign that political power and military strength are, in reality, the forces that determine the course of human history.
Our book teaches us that, on the contrary, it was the nation that failed to fulfill its responsibilities, not the Almighty, and our exile from the land was part of His plan, not a function of the agenda of the King of Assyria. As students of Tanakh, we see the downfall of the Kingdom of Israel not as a contradiction to or disproof of the truth of Torah but as a concrete manifestation of its prediction, and the predictions of all the prophets, that our survival in the land of Israel would be dependent not on our wealth, international popularity or military strength but on our commitment to Torah and to Hashem.
The whole purpose of redeeming the Jewish people from Egypt and granting them gift of the Land of Israel was to enable them to establish a nation and a society that sanctified the name of God in the world, furthering the mission that was inaugurated by our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov who settled in Israel and devoted themselves to proclaiming the Oneness of Hashem and the futility of idol worship.
The Jews were to consecrate a sanctuary in the name of Hashem and to put a monarchy in place that would enforce the laws of God, maintain the centrality and sanctity of the Bet Hamiqdash and ensure that the nation remained singularly focused on the ultimate objective of its existence. When this lofty commitment was forgotten, the Jewish king became like any other king and the Jewish people became like any other nation. This led to their loss of the special privilege that had been extended to them.
When the prophet Shemuel addressed the nation about the benefits and drawbacks of establishing a monarchy, he noted that the king would not “save” his people – the psychological satisfaction they desired in having a king to provide them with security and stability was an illusion. In reality, both the citizens of Israel and their leader would be accountable to God Who is the ultimate source of all success. The careful reader will notice that our chapter quotes a phrase directly from the speech of Shemuel when it states “they went after nothingness (hevel) and became nothing [vayehbalu)”. We are only as good as that which we strive for in life. In chasing after empty fantasies, the Jewish people sacrificed the qualities of wisdom, justice, and compassion that had made them special and distinct, and rendered themselves obsolete.
The intertwining of the accounts of the Jewish exile and the Shomronim makes the flow of the text confusing. However, it also serves to highlight the ironic contrast between the two communities. The Jewish people continued to stubbornly disregard the messages being sent to them by Hashem, and their monarchs supported and even shared their resistance to those messages. The Shomronim, however, immediately interpret their crisis as an expression of Divine disapproval, and seek to learn His ways and fulfill His will. The King of Assyria, unlike the Kings of Israel, provides the people with a teacher to instruct them in the ways of God.
Granted, through no fault of their own, their execution of this is incomplete and lacks authenticity, and the lifestyle adopted by the Shomronim is far from a genuinely Jewish one. Nonetheless, it highlights the failure of the Jewish people, who willfully ignored Hashem’s word, neglected to turn to Him in times of crises and to repent, and whose kings and leaders resisted any suggestion that they embrace the Torah as the solution to their problems. The openness of the Shomronim to the will of God, however diluted and distorted, certainly reflects poorly on the Jews who should have known better but did worse.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 16
Ahaz rules the Kingdom of Yehuda and initiates a radical departure from the religious path of his righteous father. Ahaz engages in occult practices, such as passing his children through the fire, a pagan ritual. Not only does he fail to remove the private altars and sanctuaries, he actively supports them, sacrificing and worshiping at them.
During this period, the Kingdom of Yehuda finds itself under siege from both the Kingdom of Israel and Aram, and suffers territorial losses that reversed the gains made a couple of generations previously. Ahaz reaches out to Tiglat-Pilesser, the King of Assyria, with a large bribe, taken from his own treasuries as well as that of the Temple, and requests that he intervene in the ongoing conflict on behalf of the Kingdom of Yehuda. The Assyrian king complies and attacks Aram, defeating them soundly.
Ahaz travels to visit and express his gratitude to Tiglat-Pilesser, to whom he basically pledges to become a vassal. He takes note of the design of the sacrificial altar used in Damascus and sends a sketch of the layout to Uriah the Kohen, instructing him to build a facsimile of the Assyrian altar in Jerusalem. When Ahaz returns, he sacrifices and offers libations on the new, Assyrian-style altar, and commands the Kohen to move the original altar of King Solomon to the side where it will be reserved for temporary use; from now on, the altar commissioned by Ahaz will be the primary site for daily, communal and individual offerings.
Ahaz dismantles several other components of the Bet Hamiqdash, removing the “Sea of Shelomo” from its base of oxen and cutting the washing stations off of their stands, and makes some architectural changes to the building itself. Apparently, the objective of all of these innovations was to make the Bet Hamiqdash less “Jewish”, more cosmopolitan and consistent with the fashions and expectations of the dominant local cultures. Ahaz dies and is succeeded by his son, Hizqiyahu.
At first, the contrast between the devoutly religious father and grandfather, Uzziya and Yotam, and their wayward descendant Ahaz is shocking. However, when we consider the errors that led Uzziya astray at the end of his life, we observe a certain continuity between the behavior of the two kings, and we may surmise that the grandfather exerted some influence upon his progeny.
Uzziya wished to break down the barriers that separated politics and religion, to arrogate to himself the privilege of serving in the Temple as a Kohen. Although he was committed to Hashem and genuinely close to the Almighty, he came to believe that his righteousness entitled him to conquer and direct even the Bet Hamiqdash. In a sense, Ahaz simply follows his grandfather’s minor mistake to its logical conclusion. He agrees that the Temple, like any other national institution, comes under the jurisdiction of the monarch; therefore, he feels justified in completely hijacking its operation and its resources for what he considered legitimate political advantage.
Ahaz pursues what he perceives as most strategically beneficial to his agenda; for example, rather than oppose or ignore the private altars, he worships at them, establishing himself as a “man of the people” who endorses and validates the practices of his citizens. Surely this openness won him much support from those who were attached to the individual sanctuaries and may have felt alienated by the kings of Yehuda who officially disapproved of them (although, in practice, they tolerated them).
We can compare Ahaz to a modern day politician who panders to his constituents by cheerfully embracing “progressive” social innovations and legislation (we need not go into detail, I’ll leave it to your imagination) that were once frowned upon and tolerated by the leadership but were never openly endorsed. Alternatively, consider the common practice of politicians frequenting talk shows like Saturday Night Live; at one time, this would have seemed undignified, but today, failure to visit these “individual altars” would be seen as a reflection of elitism and a refusal to engage the common citizen.
Although there is no indication in our text that Ahaz worshiped other deities, he attempted to refashion the Temple, the altar and the practices of Judaism in a way that made them more compatible with “mainstream” religion and therefore more acceptable to the power brokers in the region. Ahaz promotes a kind of “Reform Judaism” or “Jewish Renewal Movement”, in which Jewish observances and institutions are adapted to include popular and attractive elements of the surrounding culture.
Ahaz’s craving for recognition and assistance from the King of Assyria may seem like pathetic weakness in our eyes, but his ultimate goal was to advance the interests of his kingdom by winning the favor, protection and support of the “global superpower” of his era and by “fitting in” with what was then perceived as cutting edge, progressive and worldly. We can hardly claim that today’s Jewish establishment is much different from Ahaz’s administration in this respect!
To Ahaz, who felt that the King of Yehuda had the authority to command the Kohen and was master even of the Miqdash, “modernizing” and “updating” the Temple of King Solomon in the mold of an Assyrian sanctuary was a great achievement, not a failure or an act of surrender. He saw his activities the same way that countries today consider “Westernization” or “Americanization” an ideal toward which to strive, a gateway to becoming a recognized member of the “international community”.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 15
Azarya (also known as Uzziya) reigns in Yehuda and continues the tradition of his fathers, serving Hashem but not dismantling the private altars. His rule is uneventful; however, at the end of his career, he is stricken with leprosy and his son, Yotam, assumes leadership while his father is still alive.
Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Israel, the dynasty established by Yehu comes to an end after four generations of rule and is followed by a great deal of instability, rebellions and a succession of coups. Zekharya, son of Yarovam II, is assassinated by Shallum ben Yavesh, who is himself killed after only one month of rule by Menahem ben Gadi. Menahem conducts and aggressive and violent campaign against Tifsah and reigns for ten years.During his rule, Pul, King of Assyria, dominates the region; Menahem levies a heavy tax on the population of Israel to pay Assyria a large bribe, essentially “buying” Israel’s independence from Assyrian hegemony.
After the death of Menahem, the throne is inherited by his son, Peqahya. Two years later, Peqahya is assassinated in a coup orchestrated by his own captain, Peqah ben Remalyahu and a group of fifty men. Peqah rules for twenty years until he is killed by Hoshea ben Elah who then occupies the throne.
Two years into the reign of Peqah, Yotam assumes leadership of the Kingdom of Yehuda. He is a righteous king who adheres to the way of Torah, with the notable exception of allowing private altars to continue operating in his kingdom. Yotam does, however, contribute to the beautification of the Temple by building its Upper Gate. There are international tensions at the borders of the kingdom that threaten the security of the country but are, for the most part, held at bay.
The reason for Azarya/Uzziya’s leprosy is not mentioned in the Book of Melakhim. In Sefer Divre HaYamim, we are told that the king became arrogant as a result of his many successes, which he attributed to his close relationship with the Almighty. He therefore attempted to usurp the role of the Kohanim and to offer incense in the Bet HaMiqdash, something strictly forbidden to ordinary Israelites. He was discouraged from pursuing his ill-conceived goal and reminded of its inconsistency with the laws of the Torah, but ignored all the warnings and was only stopped when leprosy erupted on his body.
While the king is expected to protect, support and promote the service of Hashem, it is not for a human ruler to decide who is worthy of serving in the capacity of the priesthood. Like Yarovam, who arrogated to himself the position of “Kohen Gadol” and appointed an array of priests for his illicit altars, Uzziya sought to merge the realms of the political and the religious. By commandeering the Temple Service in this way, Uzziya was neglecting his duty to subordinate his kingship to the Kingdom of Hashem and instead was subordinating the Holy Temple to his own dominion, like a type of conquest.
It is noteworthy that Sefer Melakhim does not offer us these details, instead merely commenting on Uzziya’s early retirement from public life. Apparently, the emphasis in this chapter is not on the particular failings of Uzziya who, in these respects, was not much different from the other “decent” kings of Yehuda. The theme of our chapter is the stark contrast between the Kingdom of Yehuda and that of Israel. In Yehuda, there is an evident stability and continuity in governance, even when a king is put “out of commission” prematurely, as Uzziya was. In Israel, by contrast, even when the kingdom is passed from father to son, the outcome is always tenuous and the balance of power fragile. Once again, with idolatry and assimilation come rampant violence, lust for dominance, and needless bloodshed.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 14
Amatzya, son of Yehoash, reigns in the Kingdom of Yehuda. He follows the path of his father, worshiping Hashem but not eliminating the private altars that continue to operate throughout the land. He executes those who assassinated his father, however, in deference to the laws of the Torah, he refrains from punishing the children or families of the perpetrators. Amatzya wages successful wars against Edom and captures territory from them.
Emboldened by his military successes, Amatzya essentially declares war on the Kingdom of Israel (this is the interpretation of the vast majority of the commentators). King Yehoash of Israel warns Amatzya that he is foolishly overestimating the military prowess of Yehuda and is no match for the forces of Israel; however, Amatzya insists on pressing forward with his plan and is soundly defeated. The army of Israel penetrates as far as Jerusalem, breaching its walls, emptying the treasuries of the Temple and the king, and freeing prisoners who hailed from their kingdom.
Years later, there is a conspiracy against Amatzya in Yehuda; he flees to Lakhish but is pursued and assassinated. His son, Azarya (also known as Uziya) is appointed to rule in his place. He rebuilds the port city of Eilat which is restored to the Kingdom of Yehuda.
Yehoash, King of Israel, dies and is succeeded by his son, Yarovam. Although Yarovam (often called Yarovam II to differentiate him from the original Yarovam) continues in the corrupt religious path of his predecessors, Hashem has mercy on Israel and, despite his significant failings as a Jew and as a leader, enables him to accomplish substantial objectives on the battlefield. Yarovam II fights successfully with Aram and expands the territory of Israel to the original borders specified in the Torah, the first time this has happened in generations.
The story of Amatzya is particularly worthy of comment. In Sefer Divre HaYamim, many details are added to the narrative that fill in gaps in the development of the events but, in some ways, create even more difficulties for the reader, offering a complex and confusing portrait of the king. It is instructive to compare the accounts in Sefer Melakhim and Sefer Divre HaYamim; however, for our purposes, we wish to focus on the story as it presented in our text. Clearly, the prophetic author had good reason to provide only the information he determined was relevant to the message of the book, omitting anything extraneous to those themes.
It appears that Amatzya, inspired by his successes in battle against Edom, is spurred on by his achievements and wishes to seek a “Messianic” dream – the reunification of the kingdom under the Davidic monarchy. Trusting in his vision of a Greater Israel and probably with conviction in the idea that Hashem would support and bless his efforts, he confronts opposition forces much larger and more formidable than the armies at his command. Unfortunately, it seems that Amatzya overestimated his own closeness to Hashem and was therefore quite unrealistic in his hope that he would win the war.
Sefer Melakhim offers us an insight into the failings of Amatzya through its brief description of what he does and does not do. The text is very candid about the fact that, contrary to his self-assessment, Amatzya was NOT an ideal Davidic king; individual altars continue to thrive on his watch, which undermines his claim to being the “right man” to reunify the kingdom. Moreover, we notice a glaring omission from the picture – no consultation with a prophet who would inform the king in the name of God whether he was adopting the correct course of action and whether he would prevail.
In the version of events included in Sefer Melakhim, the story of Amatzya warns us of the danger of a king who overestimates the favor he has earned in the eyes of God. He may trust in Hashem’s help without actually seeking His word or His guidance and then pursue risky courses of action on that basis. A leader who is caught up in apocalyptic political or religious visions and sees himself as fulfilling a Messianic role may throw caution and rationality to the wind while chasing his dream, thereby setting himself and his people up for disaster.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 13
Yehoahaz, son of Yehu, rules over Israel in Shomron. During his reign, the Jews are heavily oppressed by Aram at the hands of Hazael and his son, Ben-Haddad. Yehoahaz prays to Hashem and is granted some measure of deliverance from Aram, but the kingdom remains in a clearly inferior and fragile state, with minimal military infrastructure intact (it has mostly been decimated by the enemy).
Yehoahaz does not improve the religious condition of his people, allowing the sanctuaries of Yarovam to continue functioning and also permitting an Ashera remain standing in the capital. Yehoahaz dies and his son, Yehoash, assumes leadership, essentially following the same path as his father.
Elisha becomes ill and is on his deathbed. He is visited by Yehoash, the King of Israel, who weeps and calls the prophet “my father, chariot of Israel and its horsemen.” Elisha tells Yehoash to take a bow and arrows and to place his hand upon the bow and open the eastern window. The prophet places his hand upon that of the king and instructs him to shoot; this, Elisha says, symbolizes the prediction that Hashem’s “arrow of victory” will smite Aram.
Elisha then directs Yehoash to take the arrows and hit the ground with them; Yehoash strikes the ground three times. The prophet is upset and criticizes the king for not hitting the ground five or six times; now, he declares, Israel will only defeat Aram three times on the battlefield.
Elisha dies and is buried. One day, a group of Jews near the location of Elisha’s grave were interring their own relative, when a raiding band of Moabites approached them. Fearing a conflict, the Jews cast the body of their family member into the cave wherein Elisha was buried and flee. When the corpse touches the bones of Elisha, it is revived, and the formerly dead man stands up and emerges from the cave.
Hazael oppresses the Jewish people harshly all the days of Yehoahaz. Nonetheless, Hashem’s compassion for Israel prevents Aram from destroying them. When Hazael dies, his son Ben-Haddad reigns in his stead. Yehoash, son of Yehoahaz, takes advantage of the relative weakness of Ben-Haddad to conduct several successful military operations against Aram, recapturing many of the cities of Israel that had been taken from his father by Hazael over the course of their many battles.
There is a great deal to comment upon in this chapter. Let us focus, however, on the final episode in the life of Elisha, the remarkable prophet who served Israel for a span of sixty years – the longest prophetic career in our history! King Yehoash refers to Elisha with the same appellation that Elisha himself used for Eliyahu on the occasion of his mysterious departure – “my father, my father, chariot of Israel and its horsemen”.
Hearing Elisha declare this about his mentor, recognizing the role of Eliyahu in providing security and protection to the Jewish people, is not surprising. However, hearing the King of Israel acknowledge Elisha as his teacher and as the source of merit protecting the nation is truly remarkable. Without a doubt, Elisha had earned the respect, admiration and reverence of the political establishment of Israel despite the prophet’s implicit opposition to the values and policies of the regime. He successfully endeared himself to the same government that resisted and even spurned his predecessor.
Elisha conveys two messages to Yehoash before he passes away, and each one is communicated through a symbolic action that involves the king himself. There is much discussion about the nature of the prophetic message here and the role that the physical dramatization is supposed to play in the situation. For example, why does Yehoash’s striking of the ground three times necessarily mean that he will only strike Aram three times?
A closer examination of the interaction between the prophet and the king may help us discover the answer. Yehoash’s visit and his demonstration of deference to Elisha reflect his respect for the prophet but also reveal his insecurity – he fears that, with the loss of Elisha will come the loss of Divine providence in Israel. Elisha’s order for the king to shoot an arrow eastward while he himself places his hands on those of the king is a symbolic message that the merit of the prophet will continue to exercise an influence and assist the king in his battles against Aram.
The fact that Yehoash accepts the superiority of the prophet and embraces his guidance, and will therefore understand his victories as Divinely ordained and not the result of human might, entitles him to succeed against his enemies. The first prophecy, embodied by the arrow flying toward Aram, symbolizes the idea that Hashem will enable Israel to triumph over its persecutors.
In the second scene, however, Elisha instructs Yehoash to act alone, striking the arrows against the ground. Without Elisha’s hands involved, Yehoash is weaker, more reticent, and more reserved. This is a signal that, after the passing of the prophet, Yehoash will not have internalized the strength, conviction and courage necessary to inflict any lasting damage on Aram; he will succeed, at the most, in delivering his people from the oppression that has been debilitating them. Elisha is disappointed to see that Yehoash is too weak to carry the inspiration of the prophet within his soul; the physical departure of Elisha will rob the king of much of his strength as a leader.
Finally, let us consider the posthumous miracle of Elisha. It is noteworthy that there is a dispute among the commentators whether the man that was revived after his body was cast into Elisha’s tomb actually went on to live a productive life or whether he died again soon after. Either way, the Rabbis comment that Elisha’s revival of a corpse after his own death was a fulfillment of the promise that he would have a double portion of Eliyahu’s spirit; Eliyahu resurrected one person, while Elisha was responsible for two such miracles.
However, we must wonder what function this unusual deed serves – why did Hashem revive a dead man simply because his body came into contact with the bones of Elisha?
Some thinkers have suggested that this miracle was a sign of respect for the prophet and all that he stood for during his lengthy career. All his life, Elisha had done his best to show compassion and support for Israel and to defend the nation against its enemies. The scene of a band of marauding Moabites interfering with the funeral of an innocent Jewish man would have certainly disturbed Elisha had he witnessed it. He would have intervened to ensure that the Jew received a proper interment in his family burial plot rather than being an unwitting victim of the terrorism of Moab and being abandoned in a random cave.
Moreover, we can imagine that the emergence of a “ghost”, a newly risen dead man from the grave, would have scared and intimidated the Moabites who, witnessing this spectacle, were probably hesitant to conduct further border incursions into Israel in the future. So, as defender of Israel and thwarter of those who wished them harm, Elisha was granted one last opportunity to make a difference.
We can suggest an even simpler possibility that is consistent with our comments on the interaction between Elisha and Yehoash; namely, the miracle demonstrated the lingering effects of the prophet’s influence. Even after death, his memory, his teachings and his presence can be felt and can be a source of strength and guidance to the living. Contrary to Yehoash’s impressions, Elisha’s death did not have to mean the end of his role in protecting and assisting the nation of Israel, if only the community would continue to contemplate and revere his message.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 12
Yehoash becomes king at the age of seven years old and is directed by Yehoyada the Kohen. All the years that he benefits from the wise guidance of Yehoyada, he remains true to the path of Torah. The primary focus of Yehoyada’s reign is the renovation of the neglected Temple. He orders the kohanim/priests to collect funds from their friends and family members for the purpose of this project; however, to his chagrin, they do not complete this assignment.
Yehoash relieves the kohanim of this responsibility and instead has a charity box installed in the Temple; money is deposited in the box by visitors to the Bet Hamiqdash, and whenever it is filled to capacity, the money is removed and used to pay for supplies and labor necessary for repairing and improving the building. The men appointed to count and disburse the funds are not supervised by any government authorities, nor are formal records kept, because the operations are conducted in good faith.
Hazael, King of Aram, conquers Gat and then moves to lay siege to Jerusalem. Yehoash empties the Temple treasury of all of the gold that he, his father and his grandfather had consecrated to Hashem, as well as the gold stored in his palace, and delivers it to Hazael to avoid a battle. Two of Yehoash’s servants eventually conspire against him and assassinate him, and his son, Amatzya, rules in his stead.
We can understand Yehoash’s profound devotion to the Bet Hamiqdash and his commitment to restoring it. First of all, he was raised within its hallowed walls, and his entire education was delivered by the Kohanim who ensured that he developed a deep understanding of its critical importance to the life of the Jewish people. Beyond this, Yehoash’s efforts symbolize a return to the tradition of the House of David and his ancestors David and Shelomo, both of whom were supremely dedicated to the objective of creating a House of God that would represent His presence and His eternal covenant with the Jewish people. Yehoash seems like a fitting heir to the legacy of his distinguished forefathers.
However, for reasons never explained in the text, Yehoash ultimately fails as king, surrendering to Hazael, sacrificing the wealth of the Temple and the Kingdom to placate the enemy, and dying a violent death at the hand of treacherous assassins. How can we understand the dramatic reversal in Yehoash’s fortune? Why did this righteous king fall before his enemies in such an ignoble manner?
Sefer Melakhim offers us no clear answer to these questions. In Divre HaYamim, which was composed much later during the period of the Second Temple, we read of the spiritual decline of Yehoash after the death of his teacher, Yehoyada. Succumbing to the flattery of his officers, his enthusiasm for the Temple wanes, and he allows idolatry to resurface in the kingdom. When he is publically rebuked by the prophet Zekharya, son of his mentor and teacher Yehoyada, he encourages the people to kill Zekharya and shows no remorse or regret. According to Divre HaYamim, as a result of these transgressions and Yehoash’s lack of gratitude to his teacher and protector Yehoyada, he is first defeated in battle and is ultimately assassinated.
Our text, however, omits all of these salacious and seemingly important details. Why doesn’t Sefer Melakhim tell us of the downfall of Yehoash and what led to it? Both classic and modern commentaries grapple with this problem, and there is no especially compelling solution to be found. I would like to suggest a possibility – I would argue that Sefer Melakhim, in its own framework, DOES tell us what we need to know about King Yehoash’s failings.
On what basis do I believe that Sefer Melakhim actually says what it apparently doesn’t say? Throughout the entire book, we notice a pattern in its evaluation and assessment of the leaders of the respective kingdoms. The monarchs of Israel are consistently judged with reference to the “sins of Yarovam”; namely, whether or not they removed the illicit altars and golden calves that were installed by Yarovam to prevent his subjects from pining for the Bet Hamiqdash and defecting to the Kingdom of Yehuda.The monarchs of Yehuda, by contrast, are always judged with reference to whether or not they removed the “bamot”, or unauthorized personal altars, that were built by individuals throughout the land.
In other words, the kings described in Sefer Melakhim are ultimately measured based upon one standard – their relationship to the Holy Temple and their attitude towards its centrality. Did they take the unpopular but religiously correct path and eliminate institutions that competed with or diminished the prominence of the Temple, or did they cave to pressure, allow the status quo to remain, and sacrifice, as it were, critical role that the Temple was supposed to play in the life of the nation?
With this in mind, we can now see that the essential flaw of Yehoash is, in fact, made clear from the outset; despite his devotion to the Temple and all he invested in renovating it, he did not have the courage or integrity to stand up against the “special interests” and dismantle the unauthorized personal sites of worship. In a way, for someone who took the Bet Hamiqdash as seriously as Yehoash did, this was an even more tragic failure than it might have been for other kings who were less attuned to its significance. There is poetic justice in the fact that Yehoash had to part with the treasures of the Temple to placate Hazael; symbolically, it demonstrates that all of his labor for the Bet HaMiqdash was futile as long as he did not insist on its exclusivity as the location of Divine worship.
Yehoash did much good but at the end of the day he put popularity ahead of principle and was therefore relieved of his position in a dishonorable manner. Divre HaYamim fleshes out exactly how this limitation of Yehoash expressed itself – first in his capitulating to the desire of the powerful and influential officers to reinstate some pagan worship (just as Shelomo, his role model, capitulated to the pressure from his wives) and then in his willingness to agree to the murder of a prophet whose only sin was confronting and humiliating him in the very Temple he had once cherished.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 11
When Ataliah, mother of Ahazia the King of Yehuda, discovers that her son is dead, she promptly acts to seize power for herself. She has the entire royal line exterminated, ostensibly including many of her own children and grandchildren, and rules as queen. However, one son of Ahaziah, named Yehoash, is saved by his aunt and hidden in the Holy Temple where he is raised and educated by the Kohanim.
When Yehoash nears the age of seven, Yehoyada the Kohen summons key officers and soldiers of the royal guard (assumedly loyal to the House of David and not to Ataliah) and reveals his plan to overthrow Queen Ataliah and replace her with King Yehoash, who should rightfully inherit the throne. A vow of allegiance is sworn to him and security detail is assigned to protect him while the dramatic events unfold. Yehoyada provides the captains of the guard and their troops with weapons and shields that originally belonged to King David and had been stored in the Temple.
A coronation is held inside the Bet HaMiqdash and the sounds of celebration come to Ataliah’s attention. She arrives at the Temple, witnesses the coronation ceremony underway, and correctly concludes that a revolution has been declared and her life is in danger. Ataliah is killed, although care is taken to ensure that she is not executed on Temple grounds.
Yehoyada gathers the people together, has them recommit themselves to their historic calling as the nation of Hashem, and secures their official acceptance of Yehoash as the new king. Then his men enter the House of Baal, destroy it and smash its graven images. The chief priest of the Baal, Matan, is also executed. Officers are appointed to oversee the Bet Hamiqdash, which had been severely neglected. Yehoash moves from the Temple to the royal palace, assumes leadership of the nation and presides over a period of relative peace and tranquility in Jerusalem.
This chapter presents to us a fascinating contrast between the two “houses” built by Shelomo – the house of the king and the House of Hashem. The initial vision of the relationship between these two edifices, as we learned in the beginning of the Book of Melakhim, was for the Bet Hamiqdash to be the focal point of the kingdom and for the monarchy to play a supporting role, promoting the values of Torah and knowledge of Hashem.
Over time, the two institutions grew apart, with the Temple occupying its own “religious” sphere and the king primarily focusing on the practical, political affairs of the kingdom. This explains why no effort was made to put a stop to the unauthorized “bamot” or individual altars – they flourished out of neglect, because the king did not embrace his role as “steward” of the Bet Hamiqdash, responsible for safeguarding its exclusivity as the place of divine worship.
The bifurcation of the two great houses reaches its pinnacle in our chapter, where they are not only separate from one another but divided against each other; finally, the personnel of the Bet Hamiqdash, representing the spirit of the Jewish people and devotion to the Torah, overthrow the wicked, pagan regime of Ataliah (which, itself, evolved out of the evil regime that preceded it) and replace her with a monarch that they themselves have raised, imbuing him with a proper perspective and providing him with a thorough religious education.
The hope, of course, was that this bold political move would save the nation from oblivion and reestablish the Kingdom of Yehuda and the Bet Hamiqdash on a firm foundation of Torah and holiness. Symbolic overtones of this dream are found in the fact that Yehoyada armed the guards and soldiers with the equipment of King David himself, the man who best embodied the proper relationship between secular and sacred, political and prophetic, human power and service of Hashem.
The fact that the revolt is followed immediately by the elimination of idolatry from the land testifies to the religious motives that inspired this rebellion and determined its aim. It is also noteworthy that Yehoyada insisted on receiving the assent and support of the community before tearing down the House of the Baal; the religious revival had to be a reflection of a change in the orientation, attitudes and direction of the nation, not just a change in the structure of leadership.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 10
Ahav still has has seventy sons living in Shomron. Yehu sends word to the elders of Shomron who are responsible for the king’s children and demands that they either defend Ahav’s descendants’ right to the throne or deliver the heads of his seventy sons to Yizreel. Out of fear of the might and ruthlessness of Yehu, the elders kill all seventy sons of Ahav and deposit their heads in two piles in Yizreel. Yehu comments that they are now also complicit in his act of rebellion against the house of Ahav. He further notes that the destruction of Ahav’s royal line is in fulfillment of the prophecy of Eliyahu.
Yehu then proceeds to eliminate any remaining relatives, friends or associates of Ahav in the area. Unaware of what has transpired, forty two kinsmen of Ahazya, King of Yehuda, come to visit their extended family in Yizreel, and Yehu slaughters all of them.
Yehu partners with Yehonadav ben Rekhav to eliminate the worship of Baal from the country. He declares his outstanding and exclusive fealty to the Baal and announces throughout Israel that there will be a mandatory day of worship that must be attended by all believers in the Baal.
The Baal worshipers gather together as commanded by the new king, filling the House of the Baal, and don their special ritual garments. Yehu pauses the proceedings to clarify that no servants of Hashem are present; he emphasizes that only truly devoted Baal followers are permitted to participate in the festivities. Once the sacrifices have been offered and the service is concluded, Yehu orders his men to close off the exits and kill everyone inside. He then demolishes the House of Baal and transforms it into a public restroom. By exterminating its adherents and destroying its institutions, Yehu effectively abolishes the worship of Baal in Israel.
Yehu’s zealous behavior earns him a promise that his line will occupy the throne of Israel for four generations. However, despite his opposition to Baal and devotion to Hashem, he does not remove the altars of Yarovam and their golden calves, allowing them to remain so that his subjects are not tempted to return to Jerusalem to serve God. This failure on his part diminishes the impact of the revolution and spiritual renaissance he had orchestrated in Israel.
During the twenty eight years of Yehu’s reign, Aram continues to whittle away at Israel, conducting raids, killing and pillaging Jews, particularly in the Transjordan. Yehu dies and is succeeded by his son, Yehoahaz.
Yehu’s plot against the Baal worshipers is another instance of his modeling his leadership style after that of Eliyahu HaNavi. Perhaps the most memorable episode in the prophet’s career was his “showdown” with the prophets of the Baal, where he, too, gathered the community together, encouraged the priests of the Baal to engage in worship, and followed up by having them all summarily executed. At least insofar as his passion, enthusiasm and penchant for dramatic flair is concerned, Yehu can be thought of as the “Eliyahu HaNavi” of kings. He understood that the political success of the Kingdom of Israel would depend on their devotion to Hashem and to Torah, and that the deeply entrenched Baal worship had to be uprooted and eliminated to allow Judaism to flourish.
However, like his predecessors, Yehu’s fear of losing the kingdom prevented him from confronting the legacy of Yarovam, which by now was a “given” in the cultural world of the Northern Kingdom and would have been even more difficult to reform. In the minds of the citizens of Israel, the altars and golden calves of Yarovam were expressions of their Jewish identity and connection to Hashem, not of any rebellion against Him or of idolatry; thus, Yehu may also have rationalized that allowing them to remain could be a positive thing, at least temporarily, as they weaned themselves off of the Baal. And like many of the temporary measures we rationalize in life (either individually or communally), over time, it settled in to permanency.
Yehu’s decision to slaughter the forty two visiting relatives of King Ahazia is, at first, shocking; like his killing of King Ahazia itself, these executions do not seem to be part of his prophetic “mandate”, which was directed mainly against the House of Ahav. Apparently, Yehu’s actions were based on his understanding that the Houses of Ahav and of Ahazia were inextricably intertwined as a result of the marriage of the children of King Yehoshaphat and King Ahav.
Our observation of the decline of the Kingdom of Yehuda and the developments in future chapters will substantiate this perception. The covenant between the families, as it were, united them and significantly expanded the range of Yehu’s legitimate targets as he fought to extirpate the legacy of Ahav in all of its incarnations.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 9
Elisha sends one of his students on a secret mission to anoint Yehu ben Nimshi as the new King of Israel. The student arrives at the garrison in Ramot Gilead where Yehu is serving as leader of the Jewish army in their war against Aram. He takes Yehu into a private room, anoints him, and informs him that Hashem has tasked him with the responsibility of killing King Yehoram and wiping out the entire royal line of Ahav.
The student leaves hastily and the troops ask Yehu what transpired behind closed doors. At first he hides the truth; eventually, he reveals the content of his exchange with the young prophet. Apparently already dissatisfied with the current regime of Yehoram, the assembled men are happy to symbolically coronate Yehu as their new king by placing their garments under his feet and blowing a shofar. Yehu gathers an entourage and heads to Yezreel to confront Yehoram as he was commanded. As mentioned in the previous chapter, Yehoram was recovering from wounds he sustained on the battlefield and had been joined by Ahaziah, King of Yehuda, who had come to visit him.
King Yehoram’s watchman spots the approaching group of horsemen and informs the king. Twice, sentries are dispatched to clarify whether Yehu comes in peace; each time, he gruffly orders them to fall in step behind him. At this point, the watchman recognizes that the leader of the company of men is Yehu, who can be identified by his wild and reckless style of riding. The two kings have their horses saddled and go out to intercept Yehu; rejecting their salutations and offers of peace, he condemns the wickedness of Izevel that has corrupted Israel and kills them both in the vineyard of Navot. Yehu notes that his act is in fulfillment of the prophecy of Eliyahu that the blood of Navot would be visited upon the house of Ahav.
Yehu proceeds to the palace where he finds Izevel who has done her hair and makeup and is not surprised by his arrival. She insults Yehu, comparing him to Zimri who murdered his master, Elah. Yehu commands the guards attending to Izevel to cast her out the window onto the ground below, and they speedily comply with his instructions. She dies on impact and is then trampled by a horse.
Yehu sits with the men and has a meal. He then orders them to give Izevel a proper burial, since she was of royal lineage; however, dogs have already consumed most of her corpse, leaving only her skull, hands and feet to be interred. Yehu again notes that this is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Eliyahu who predicted that Izevel’s body would fall like dung in the portion of Yezreel, that dogs would eat her flesh and that she would be unrecognizable as a result.
One question that we can raise here is why Elisha does not anoint Yehu himself, instead appointing a student to carry out the task. It cannot be simply because the selection of Yehu was communicated by God to Eliyahu and not to Elisha directly. After all, Elisha personally anointed Hazael, King of Aram, even though this, too, was a fulfillment of a commandment received by his master, Eliyahu. What prevented him from approaching Yehu himself for the same purpose?
Elisha’s behavior can be explained in at least two possible ways. Perhaps he reasoned that a public figure like himself entering the Israelite garrison in wartime was too unusual and suspicious an act for it to go unnoticed. This would have undermined the elements of secrecy and surprise that proved to be critical to Yehu’s victory. Alternatively, Elisha may have thought that the theme of his prophetic career – demonstrating Hashem’s mercy and compassion rather than His strict justice – was fundamentally incompatible with the bloody and violent mission on which Yehu was being sent, and therefore delegated his anointment to a student.There is no question that the activities of Yehu, while sanctioned by Hashem, have little in common with Elisha’s leadership style and conduct.
Yehu, if anything, is very much a “throwback” to the methodology and attitudes of Eliyahu HaNavi. In fact, in this chapter and the one that follows, Yehu explicitly invokes the name and prophecies of Eliyahu as justification or validation of his deeds several times. Yehu describes himself as a zealot, again casting himself in the mold of Eliyahu, and both Yehu and the young prophet who anoints him are dubbed “crazy” during the narrative, indicating that Yehu had a rare religious charisma and energy about him that distinguished him from his colleagues and made him seem comparable in his aura to a prophet. We will hopefully identify more textual and substantive parallels between Yehu and Eliyahu in future summaries.
Yehu’s “retrogression” to the style and approach of Eliyahu seems, first of all, to suggest that the retired prophet was correct, although his timing may have been premature: the House of Ahav and the Kingdom of Israel were in need of some punishment to adjust their course. Elisha’s kindness and compassion have certainly endeared the prophet to many and have served as a source of tremendous benefit to the people but they have not addressed the root of the dysfunction in Israel – its entrenchment in idolatrous ideas and practices. Yehu emerges like another incarnation of Eliyahu to once again bring divine justice to bear on those who have created distance between the Jewish people and Hashem.
One wonders how, in the midst of rampant idolatry, Yehu happens to be a devoted worshiper of Hashem. Was he feigning religious fervor merely in order to legitimize his claim to the throne and the displacement of the house of Ahav? Did he take up the mantle of destroying idol worship just to avoid being labeled a rebel without a cause? When did this passion for Judaism become so central to Yehu’s life?
I would suggest that Yehu was not faking; he was a sincere Jew who genuinely abhorred idolatry and embraced Torah. True, he worked for King Yehoram and was a pragmatic “company man”; nonetheless, he harbored no illusions and recognized the spiritual and political corruption of the Israelite regime for what it was. From the very fact that Hashem specifically designated Yehu to become the next king of Israel, we must surmise that he was qualified for the position. This means that we must assume that Yehu rejected idol worship and served Hashem alone.
Although, in the final analysis, he too falls short of the expectations Hashem articulated to him, Yehu started out with a fundamental commitment to Hashem and Torah and – as we will see in the next chapter – was able to at least partially reverse the self-destructive national trend towards idolatry and paganism.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 8
Elisha tells the Shunammite woman whose son he resuscitated that she should leave her home and find a new place to live because there will be a famine of seven years in the land. She relocates to the land of the Pelishtim for that period of time; however, when she returns, she finds that her property has been taken from her by squatters. The woman approaches the king to complain about this injustice and asks for it to be corrected.
Fortuitously, the king happens to be in the middle of a conversation with Gehazi, the former attendant of Elisha, whom he had asked to recount to him the wondrous deeds of the prophet. Gehazi is in the midst of telling the king the story of Elisha’s miraculous restoration of the life of the son of the Shunammite woman, when she arrives with her son and corroborates the tale. The king orders that her property be returned to her and that she be compensated for whatever her land had produced from the day she left Israel.
Ben-Haddad, King of Aram, is ill. He sends his general, Hazael, to Elisha to inquire whether he will survive his illness. Elisha instructs Hazael to tell Ben-Haddad that he will live; however, he adds, Hashem has shown him that Ben-Haddad will die. There is a long, awkward pause and Elisha begins to cry, much to the surprise of Hazael. Elisha explains that he knows that Hazael will cause much suffering to the Jewish people, killing young Jewish men, pregnant women and children. Hazael is perplexed by this prophecy until Elisha clarifies that Hazael has been chosen to be the next king of Aram. Hazael returns to Ben-Haddad and notifies him that Elisha said he will live. The next day, under the guise of taking care of his master, Hazael places a wet cloth over the face of Ben-Haddad, killing him.
There is an obvious difficulty here – how can Elisha instruct Hazael to lie to Ben-Haddad? There are a couple of approaches to this question. One is that he did not lie; the prophecy was that Ben-Haddad would recover from his illness, but that he would die nonetheless – by the hand of Hazael! Some interpret this as a mere foretelling of the future and some suggest that Elisha insinuated that Hazael should, in fact, kill his master.
Still other commentators understand this more as a matter of medical ethics; in other words, it is dangerous and counterproductive to inform a terminally ill person of a bad prognosis, even if it is true, because it can demoralize the patient and hasten death. Therefore, Elisha recommended that Ben-Haddad be given a positive, if inaccurate, report.
Yehoram, son of Yehoshaphat, is now king of Yehuda. His father, Yehoshaphat, enjoyed a close and productive friendship with Ahav and therefore Yehoram was married to Atalyah, the daughter of Ahav. This explains why, unlike his righteous predecessors, Yehoram follows the wicked path of the House of Ahav. Yehoram deals with uprisings in Edom and Livnah during his eight year reign and then dies and is succeeded by his son, Ahazya.
Ahazya, who is the son of Atalya, models his kingship after Ahav as well. Ahazya and Yoram, son of Ahav, go to war against Aram, currently led by Hazael. Yoram is wounded in battle and finds refuge in Yizrael where he can recuperate from his injuries. Ahazya arrives to visit the sick Yoram as he slowly recovers.
This chapter is comprised of multiple sections and each one deserves a treatment of its own; for the sake of brevity, let us focus on one or two of its intriguing elements. To begin with, the “epilogue” to the story of the Shunammite woman seems out of place. What did the prophetic author seek to gain by sharing this little vignette about her departure and return to the land of Israel, and her struggle to recover her misappropriated property? Moreover, what is Gehazi doing back in the picture, and why has the King of Israel engaged him in conversation?
In light of our analysis of the previous chapter, we may be able to explain several of these unusual aspects of the narrative. The struggle of King Yehoram until now has been his resistance to fully coming to terms with the reality of Elisha’s prophecy and miraculous “accomplishments”. The last story recounted his acceptance of the role of the prophet in Israel and drew our attention to the significant “step forward” that this represented for the king.
It makes perfect sense, in the aftermath of the fulfillment of Elisha’s prediction about the economic turnaround in Shomron, that the king would be inspired to further investigate the wondrous reports of Elisha’s activities. Gehazi comes across like a minor celebrity doing the rounds on the talk show circuit and promoting a “tell all” book about his life in Hollywood among the big stars. He is more than happy to satisfy the king’s curiosity about the prophet, no doubt touting his own close relationship with Elisha and participation in some of the remarkable anecdotes about him.
There is one further point worth noting about Gehazi. Based on numerous compelling hints in the text, the Rabbis say that the four lepers in the previous chapter who discovered the abandoned camp of Aram were, in fact, Gehazi and his three sons. What lesson do the Sages intend to convey to us by “inserting” Gehazi into the story of the four lepers? Apparently, in a fascinating reversal, Gehazi, the arrogant attendant of Elisha who took advantage of any and every opportunity to enrich himself, repented from his evil ways and did exactly the opposite!
This time, he insisted upon informing the king and the populace of his tremendous find and thereby saving them from the crippling famine. In the merit of his change of heart and adjustment of priorities, he was healed from his tzaraat. Not only did he share the material blessings with others, but we now read how he is involved in educating and inspiring the king of Israel with accounts of the miracles of Elisha. Through his interactions with Naaman, he diluted and undermined the sanctification of God’s name the prophet had wrought by healing the Aramean general. Here, Gehazi is seen correcting that failure, putting forth his best effort to sanctify Hashem’s name through his conversation with the king.
The three personalities of note in the story – the woman, Gehazi and the king –are all individuals who have evolved in their relationship and perspective on Elisha and who now respect and revere his status as a man of God. They have all grown from and continue to benefit from his influence in their lives, even when he is not physically present. And this positive engagement with the prophet is bi-directional. Elisha offers instruction and guidance to the Shunammite woman, sparing her from the famine – he has not forgotten her and still feels a sense of responsibility for her welfare and that of her son. In the merit of her abiding by his word, not only does the woman avoid the suffering to which famine would expose her, she is also in the “right place at the right time” to gain the audience with the king necessary for her to lay claim to her legal entitlements.
The fact that the woman is referred to throughout the narrative as “the woman whose son Elisha revived” points to the idea that, ever since his miraculous deed, the prophet has a “vested interest” in her survival and that of her son; he wishes to see his intervention safeguarded and perpetuated and to make sure that she and her son thrive, regardless of circumstances.
The story of Hazael is remarkable on many levels. Elisha here is completing the task initially entrusted to Eliyahu, selecting the King of Aram who he knows will cause tremendous harm to the Jewish people. Consistent with his persona as the man of mercy and agent of Divine Compassion, Elisha weeps when delivering the message to Hazael. We can surmise that these tears were not simply a spontaneous, unscripted emotional reaction; such a lack of composure would be unbecoming of a prophet. Rather, the crying was PART of the dramatic delivery of the content of the prophecy, intended to convey to
Hazael that he was capable of incredible cruelty but should restrain himself and temper his aggression with a sense of morality and sensitivity to others. Elisha thus informed Hazael of his future position as king and his success as military leader but subtly cautioned him that unleashing the full force of his might against Israel would be seen as a tragedy in the eyes of Hashem and, therefore, in the eyes of his prophet. Hazael will retain his freedom of choice and is called upon to adhere to principles of dignity and humanity even as he defeats his enemies.
From the outset, we see that Hazael is a character to be reckoned with; upon learning what destiny holds in store for him, he takes the law into his own hands, quietly murdering his convalescent master so as to speed up the process of his inheritance of the throne. Whether we accept the view of the commentaries that this was implicitly sanctioned by Elisha or the view that adamantly insists that it was not legitimized by the prophet, it is nonetheless a shocking act that reveals the sort of heinous deeds of which the new king of Aram is capable.
Despite Ben-Haddad’s ruthless behavior and corrupt values, he nonetheless reaches out to Elisha for a prognosis of his illness. Apparently, Elisha’s repeated acts of sanctification of Hashem’s name before the people of Aram have been successful; now, even their king acknowledges the legitimacy of his prophecy. This is a far cry from the beginning of Melakhim Bet, when even the king of Israel sought the opinions of foreign gods for advice!
During the era of Kings David and Solomon, the mission of the monarch was to inspire the nations of the world with Hashem’s greatness and wisdom. Now, the Kings of Israel have totally lost sight of this ideal and the prophets, particularly Elisha, rise to the occasion and ensure that the name of Hashem continues to be known and praised by all people, Jew and Gentile alike.
Melakhim Bet Chapter 7
Elisha tells the King that by the next day there will be a radical reversal in the economic situation, with such an enormous surplus of food in Israel that the prices will plummet, providing sustenance for all. One of the captains of the Kings army who is also his attendant scoffs at this prediction, questioning Hashem’s ability to fulfill it. Elisha tells him that it will indeed happen but that he will not live to enjoy it.
Four men with tzaraat (leprosy) have been confined outside the city and are suffering from the famine as well. They decide that they have nothing to lose and might as well approach the Aramean camp in hope of winning their sympathy and receiving some food. When they arrive, they discover that the entire outpost has been abandoned; food, clothing and other provisions are strewn everywhere. Hashem had caused the army of Aram to hear the sounds of a vast array of chariots and troops approaching and, in their panic, they fled, leaving their possessions behind. (No doubt, these mysterious “chariots” are related to the chariots of fire that surrounded Elisha, signifying his role as protector of Israel!)
At first, the men with tzaraat begin to help themselves to the food, clothing gold, silver and other precious items they have found. However, they realize that they are acting selfishly and must inform the King of their discovery for the benefit of the nation. When the king hears their report, he is skeptical at first, assuming it may be a trap set by the Arameans who know they are hungry and will wait for the Jews to forage in the camp and then ambush them.
The King sends a search party out and once the report has been confirmed, the entire populace descends upon the abandoned camp to collect the spoils. There was such a tumult as a result of the excitement generated by this development that the attendant of the king, who had doubted Elisha’s prophecy, is trampled and killed by the gate. He does not have the opportunity to eat of the great bounty that is brought into the city and indeed, as Elisha promised, dramatically reduces the prices of food and other necessities in Israel, providing much needed relief to the community.
What was the reason for the sudden reversal of fortune experienced by the Jewish people in this chapter? The cause for the famine and siege is not specified; however, from our knowledge of Tanakh and the overarching theme of the Book of Melakhim, we understand that such painful experiences afflict the Jewish people when they fail to honor their covenant with Hashem and when they stray after other gods. As far as we can tell, though, this spiritual status quo has not changed – why then does Hashem determine that the decree should be suddenly lifted?
From an examination of the king’s behavior and statements in the narrative, we may be able to arrive at a tentative explanation. Apparently, up till now, he has not approached or consulted with Elisha regarding the current crisis, although he seems to believe that Elisha is, at least to some extent, responsible for it. It seems that he is holding onto the hope that it will simply pass, and only once it becomes intolerable does he seek an audience with the prophet.
In this way, Yehoram can be compared to his father, Ahav, who waited until circumstances were desperate before conducting a manhunt to find Eliyahu. There is, however, a key difference: Eliyahu went into hiding and could not be located until Hashem instructed him to present himself to Ahav and put an end to the drought. Elisha, on the other hand, is readily accessible, and is even sitting and conversing with the elders of Israel!
We can see from here that the king had anticipated that the crisis would resolve itself so that he wouldn’t have to humble himself before Elisha. Elisha had a strong following, even among the elders of Israel, and this may have been disconcerting to the king who perceived it as a threat to his political power. Although Yehoram does not have a problem fasting, donning sackcloth and praying to God, he stops short of acknowledging the authority of the prophet until he is compelled to do so.
In general, we have found that although Yehoram is willing to listen to and even follow the directions of the prophet, he never reaches out to him in the first place; it is always Elisha who sends word to Yehoram, either providing him with information, offering his assistance, or bringing him the troops of Aram. In fact, when Elisha would give the king “inside information” regarding the plans of the king of Aram, Yehoram did not simply accept them without reservation; rather, he would send an investigative team to confirm that Elisha’s predictions were true. His trust in the prophecy of Elisha was, as it were, lukewarm. This is the first instance in which we find the king actually taking the initiative to locate and seek guidance from Elisha.
As we know from the Books of Shemuel and Melakhim, a Jewish king must have a strong relationship with a prophet who serves as teacher and mentor and ensures that his governance is in line with the will of the Almighty. Yehoram’s struggle with this issue – particularly, with the challenge, first encountered by Yarovam, of suppressing his own ego and desire for control in order to subordinate himself to the instructions of the prophet – shows that he has potential as a king but has not yet lived up to it.
This may be the key to understanding the transformation that occurs in this story. The fact that, rather than plotting to kill Elisha, King Yehoram seeks the word of Hashem from prophet, is a major step forward for him. It signifies acceptance of the leadership and authority of Elisha, and in this merit he deserves to have the famine alleviated. On the other hand, the narrative emphasizes that the attendant of the king, who expresses skepticism about Elisha’s prediction, is not permitted to benefit from its fulfillment. This further reinforces the point that the core issue at hand is the authority of the prophetic message – the king, who embraces it, is saved, while the captain, who denies it, loses out.
The role of the four metzoraim, victims of tzaraat, is a noteworthy element of this chapter. Typically, as we saw in the case of Naaman, tzaraat visits a person who is arrogant and selfishly indifferent to others, singularly focused on his own power and accomplishments. Remarkably, these four individuals who were forced to live outside of the city on account of their tzaraat, resist the temptation to keep their discovery of the bounty of the Aramean camp to themselves. On the contrary, they feel morally obligated to share the provisions and material goods they have discovered with all of Shomron; through this, they demonstrate empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice, and are worthy of serving as vehicles of Hashem’s salvation of his people.
Thus, we find that the repentance of two “arrogant” parties arouses Divine mercy and brings an end to the debilitating famine. King Yehoram is able to humble himself sufficiently to seek the word of Hashem from the mouth of Elisha, despite the prophet being a popular and influential political “threat” to the crown. The king’s acceptance of the Divine will and acknowledgement of Elisha’s role in the kingdom was a breakthrough on the side of the recipients of the blessings to follow.
At the same time, the repentance of the lepers who fortuitously discover the abandoned Aramean camp, inspires them to become the means by which Hashem delivers the blessings He intends for His people. Here, as always, Elisha does not involve himself in punishing or even confronting the king for his recalcitrance; instead, he merely reinforces the “positive steps” of growth he sees in the king and in the nation by serving as the agent of Hashem’s compassion and providing them with news of relief, sustenance and success.