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.