If you came here looking for the Jeff Foxworthy Bible Challenge game show, you are ABSOLUTELY IN THE RIGHT PLACE. We’ll get to the wacky trivia and cash prizes in a moment. In the meantime, welcome to BOOK…
Hello, and this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. This is the show where we look at the actual content of the bible through the lenses of HISTORY and LITERATURE, and then I talk about it and stuff. We move now to the long and sordid history of Israel’s national period, the time of the kings. The primary literature from this period are two scrolls, Kings and Chronicles, which recount the days and deeds of Israel’s rulers. They are each superficially divided into two parts, but they both constitute complete works, and they both cover this same period of history.
Now, this could easily devolve into the most boring podcast ever if we simply listed all the kings of Israel and their accomplishments (or failures, as the case may be). We’re more interested in the historical CONTEXT of these books than the historical CONTENT, and we’re primarily concerned with the literary presentation. Why is this history collected and recounted in this way? Who is collecting and recounting it? What is the argument they are making? We don’t often think about the bible disagreeing with itself, unless we’re accusing it of misinformation or contradiction. But by allowing it to be heard for what it is – a collection of ancient human literary witnesses to history and culture – we find ourselves eavesdropping on some very interesting conversations indeed.
Kings and Chronicles, often regarded as little more than bloated and boring ancient record books, are actually a terrific example of a biblical disagreement. They provide a rare opportunity to look back at a single period of ancient history from two very different viewpoints. This is why we’ll look at Kings and Chronicles together in a compare and contrast type deal. Both scrolls narrate the time from the death of David until the exile – the next major cataclysm in biblical history (much more on that anon). There is a great deal of material that appears in both scrolls, often in the same or similar form. However, it’s the differences and omissions which put the two works at odds. Kings and Chronicles are using the same data to tell two different stories. Both are concerned with the political and religious “performance” of the kings, but they employ different criteria and arrive at different conclusions. And when Assyria and Babylon come along and pull the rug out, they both face some harsh new realities with their own spin.
We’ll take a brief tour of each scroll, then we’ll compare and contrast.
The first half of Kings is primarily concerned with the reign of David’s son Solomon. We could do a whole podcast about Solomon, but in the interest of time and big picture, we’ll give him the old Greatest Hits treatment. The truth is, the portrayal of Solomon in 1 Kings gives us the rubric by which all of Israel’s subsequent kings will be judged. In that vein, here are the major events in the account of Solomon and their significance to the overall literary agenda:
- Solomon has to fight his older brother Adonijah for aging David’s throne. The prophet Nathan and Solomon’s mother Bathsheba are instrumental in making sure he gets it.
- David dies, and Solomon’s first week as king is a busy one, what with the three murders he orders. He kills three men: his brother Adonijah, and two of his father’s enemies, Joab and Shimei.
- Solomon makes a marriage treaty with Egypt’s Pharaoh. This is the last sort of treaty you’d expect an Israelite king to make, given the history between the two nations.
- Solomon makes sacrifices to God at a “high place.” That sounds properly religious, but it’s actually a negative thing in a nationalistic text like this. “High places” are threshing floors, like the one we visited in Ruth, which have been set up as local places of worship – over against the official center of worship, the tabernacle in Jerusalem.
- These are all surely meant to be red flags, but there are some good things too. Solomon is gifted by God with great wisdom, and he builds God a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple, like the tabernacle tent which prefigured it, is adorned with creation imagery and features several concentric “courts” which surround a holy central zone where the ark of the covenant – and thus God himself – dwells.
- In chapter 9 Solomon has his own covenant re-establishing encounter with God, who restates the promise and warning he gave to David: keep the covenant law and I will establish your throne forever; forsake it and it’s all over. The rest of the scroll is the sad enactment of this curse.
- Solomon amasses an enormous army with tens of thousands of soldiers, horses and chariots. Meanwhile, he employs slave labor to build himself an elaborate palace. Essentially, he turns into a Pharaoh. Which is very un-dude for a king of Israel.
- Eventually, Solomon completely abandons the covenant and becomes an international playboy, marrying a thousand foreign wives who introduce him to a thousand foreign gods.
- Many enemies foreign and domestic raise against Solomon, per God’s warning to David that an unfaithful son would be “punished by the rod of men.”
- Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam takes the throne. However, a challenger named Jeroboam takes control of the northern territory, leading to a split in the kingdom and a new civil war between the North (called Israel) and the South (called Judah).
Solomon’s reign marked a sea change for the nation of Israel. David stumbled, but Solomon fell and so did unified Israel. After Solomon, kings didn’t receive personalized covenant promises from the mouth of God, they faced off with angry prophets who condemned them. The rest of Kings is a list of these kings and the prophets who annoyed them. Reading these chapters is a bit repetitive and depressing, and you have to keep track of two lines of kings: northern Israelites and southern Judahites. I’ve made a PDF chart of all the kings that I’ll attach to the post for this podcast at the website. Here’s an abbreviated run-down:
- Down south, Rehoboam gathers his armies to march northward and recover the northern kingdom, but a prophet named Shemaiah tells him not to go.
- Meanwhile, in the north, Jeroboam sets up an ersatz temple and several golden calves for his people to worship, a sort of Exodus retro blasphemy fad. An unnamed prophet from Judah confronts Jeroboam with a warning from God to cut the crap. An unnamed prophet from the north makes a desperate attempt to bribe the first prophet into changing his story, and is swiftly killed by a lion.
- Still in the north, a prophet named Ahijah tells Jeroboam that his days are numbered, which becomes quite poignant when the king dies.
- Meanwhile in the south, Rehoboam builds more “high places,” leading the people deeper into idolatry and sin, and Shishak King of Egypt invades Jerusalem and steals his treasure. Rehoboam dies.
- A Judahite named Abijam becomes king of the southern kingdom, but he only gets one paragraph before he dies.
- After Abijam comes the rule of Asa, one of the few “good” kings, which – according to the text – means “he walked in the ways of his predecessor David.”
- Meanwhile in the north, Jeroboam is succeeded by his son Nadab, who was very naughty indeed but it didn’t matter because he was almost immediately murdered and supplanted by a rival named Baasha.
- A prophet named Jehu predicts the fall of Baasha, which then happens. He is succeeded by the similarly short and naughty reigns of Elah, Zimri, and Omri.
- Omri’s son Ahab takes the throne, and he is a particularly “wicked” ruler, setting up altars to the Canaanite god Baal and the goddess Asherah.
- A prophet named Elijah appears to oppose King Ahab and call him to change his ways or face the consequences. Elijah gets a lot of biblical screentime, in which he brings a widow’s son back from the brink of death and faces off against 450 prophets of Baal. Spoiler: he wins.
- Ahab’s wicked and manipulative wife Jezebel declares war on Elijah who must flee for his life. On his journey he has a personal encounter with God, something the kings of Israel and Judah are all denied in this period. God tells him to seek out another prophet named Elisha, who becomes his sidekick.
- For a short time Ahab chooses to listen to the prophets instead of his wife, and the northern kingdom is briefly peaceful and prosperous. Eventually, however, Ahab’s treachery catches up with him and he is killed on the battlefield.
- Meanwhile, in the south, Asa’s son Jehoshaphat becomes king of Judah. He is an OK ruler, and he makes peace with Israel, but he doesn’t last long.
- Up in the north, Ahab’s son Ahaziah rules Israel, and he’s a chip off the old block. A dead chip off the old dead block.
- Around this time, Elisha is promoted to Israel’s chief prophet when Elijah is taken up into the sky by some chariots made of fire. A good day for everyone involved.
- After Ahaziah’s death, another son of Ahab named Joram assumes the throne of Israel.
- At this point Elisha has his own series of adventures, as he performs miraculous signs and wonders in and around the kingdom of Israel.
- Meanwhile, in the south, Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat reigns in Judah, and ends the brief streak of royal righteousness. The text says he “walked in the way of the kings of Israel,” which is about the worst insult this book has to offer. He quickly dies, as does the next king, his son Ahaziah (not to be confused with Israel’s King Ahaziah).
- Back up north, Elisha anoints a young man named Jehu, who cleans house in the kingdom of Israel by hunting down all of Ahab’s descendents, executing Jezebel, and wiping out the remaining prophets of Baal, which is fine and good, except that he rebuilds the golden calves and leads Israel astray, et cetera, and he dies.
- Meanwhile, in the south, Judah is briefly ruled over by its first and only queen, as Athalia the mother of the recently dead Ahaziah seizes power. She attempts to secure her own claim by wiping out the rest of the royal family, but a son of Ahaziah named Joash manages to survive and becomes king when his grandmother is killed. Awkward Passover that year.
- Joash makes some repairs to the Temple but accomplishes little else. He is succeeded by his son Amaziah, who is succeeded by HIS son Jotham.
- Back in the north, Jehu’s son Jehoahaz becomes king of Israel, as did HIS son Joash (not to be confused with Judah’s King Joash).
- Speak of the devil, back down south, Amaziah the son of Judah’s King Joash becomes King. He’s an OK but forgettable monarch, as is his son Azariah who inherits his throne. He is sometimes referred to as Uzziah, because this all isn’t convoluted enough.
- In Israel, in the north, Jeroboam II takes the throne, and his reign is characterized by great naughtiness. The same can be said for his son Zechariah, the next king, and for that matter, for the next five kings of Israel: Shallum, Menahem, Pekaniah, Pekah, and Hoshea. All naughty, all the time.
- [Hang in there, we’re coming down to the home stretch]
- Meanwhile, in Judah, a notoriously wicked king named Ahaz comes to power, and some cataclysmic changes are about to devastate the twin kingdoms of Israel.
- Around this time, the nation of Assyria (to Israel’s North) became one of the ancient world’s first superpowers, an empire with a view to domination over the whole Near Eastern world. Israel and Judah, while often bullied by Assyria, don’t consider invasion a real possibility or concern. Judah’s King Ahaz is more worried about King Pekah of Israel and his allies, and so he makes a cowardly deal with Assyria’s king, bribing him with Jerusalem’s gold and converting the Temple to an Assyrian holy site. All of this incurs condemnation from a prophet named Isaiah, who will get his own episode some other day.
- Not long after (around 740 BCE), Israel’s own tribute to Assyria is rejected, and the northern kingdom is utterly destroyed by the empire’s armies, and thousands of Israelites are killed or dragged off into exile. That’s it – no more kings in Israel. For all practical purposes, no more Israel.
- Meanwhile, back in Judah, Hezekiah son of Ahaz is king. He is a good king by the standard of the prophets, and while fears the Assyrians, he listens to the prophet Isaiah. As a result, Assyria is unable to capture Jerusalem, and the empire begins to crumble from within.
- The fall of Assyria is good news indeed, but the void left by one empire is quickly filled by another. Babylon rises to power, and within Hezekiah’s life they become a nuisance.
- After Hezekiah Judah is ruled by the remarkably idolatrous Manasseh and his similar son Amon.
- After Manasseh and Amon comes Josiah, a good king in the mold of David who enacts many reforms which prove to be too-little, too-late.
- After Josiah’s death, Judah is briefly ruled by his son Jehoahaz, who is swiftly kidnapped by Egypt’s Pharaoh, who replaces him with another son of Josiah named Eliakim, who is Egypt’s stooge. Pharaoh changes his name to Jehoiakim.
- Jehoiakim eventually becomes a stooge of Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar, as does his son Jehoiachin.
- Now, we come to the end. The end of Judah, and the end of Kings. During the reign of Jehoiachin (around 597 BCE), the armies of Babylon march on Jerusalem and conquer it. Unlike Assyria, which doled out fire and destruction, Babylon has a smarter plan: they carry away Judah’s best and brightest to Babylon, leaving the general population in the homeland under the rule of a puppet king named Zedekiah.
That’s the data. Those are the kings of Israel and Judah, and those are the events which tragically and suddenly ended the national period and the monarchy. Nothing can be the same after this. Kings doesn’t end with a postgame analysis or some explicit commentary on what we’ve just read, but a few things are apparent from the presentation. For one thing, there really are no “good” kings, just kings who were more or less wicked than the others. After Solomon, God wouldn’t even speak directly to the monarchs. He spoke through the prophets, the only “good guys” in these accounts. And we can conclude with some certainty that the author (or editors) of Kings, most likely the prophets themselves, viewed the fall of Israel and the Babylonian exile as the DIRECT RESULTS of the sinful activity of the kings.
Kings is much more than a simple history book. It is a scathing expose of the culprits responsible for plunging Israel into apostasy and exile, namely the kings themselves, who – despite their anointing as representatives of the people, chose to ignore the prophets and seek their own agenda.
Next, and finally, we turn to Chronicles. Now, don’t fear – we don’t need to do a play by play rundown of the entire scroll of Chronicles, since it’s basically a truncated presentation of the same material we just saw in Kings. This has led many to disregard or dismiss Chronicles as a repetitive and unnecessary book. However, it’s what’s missing from Chronicles that gives it its unique value. Here is a brief comparison.
Chronicles is divided into two parts just like Kings, but the first part consists of genealogies, lists of officers, and a retelling of David’s reign. It is worth a read, particularly for the expanded view it provides of David, but for the sake of time and trajectory we’ll focus on the second part, which covers the same material as both halves of Kings: from Solomon to the exile.
The account of King Solomon in Chronicles gives us our first inkling of the book’s distinct point of view. All of the same elements are here: Solomon’s wisdom, his wealth, the building of the Temple… What’s missing is anything bad or unflattering. According to Chronicles, Solomon was a great and prosperous king, and then he died. Things like assassinations, the thousand foreign wives, and slave labor are omitted or glossed over. In this account, Solomon’s reign was an extension of the glorious reign of David, and God’s favor shone on both kings equally.
Then after Solomon’s death, the kingdom split during the reign of Rehoboam is described as Israel’s “rebellion,” and the northern kingdom is never recognized as a legitimate entity. In fact – and this is perhaps the major distinction of Chronicles versus Kings – the kings of Israel are not listed alongside the kings of Judah, and are only referenced as foils and nuisances to the true Judahite kings. That tells us one thing for certain: Chronicles is a product of Judah, of the house of David.
The rest of Chronicles is a list of the kings of Judah, the same southern rulers we met in Kings. But you’d hardly know it from the way they’re portrayed here. The apostasy of Judah’s kings is not whitewashed but is significantly played down, and more attention is given to how well these kings staved off the threat of the northern rebels. And conspicuously absent from all of the material is the steady stream of prophets who challenged and confronted these kings so boldly in the scroll of Kings. To the royally sympathetic authors of Chronicles, the prophets are barely on the radar. They just pop up here and there to deliver a message or oversee an event, they certainly don’t get their own biographies and adventure stories like Elijah and Elisha did in Kings. Also, while the stories of apostasy and failure are muted and truncated in Chronicles, the reforms of kings like Hezekiah and Josiah are expanded and celebrated.
The end of Chronicles is the Babylonian capture of Judah, the fall of Israel not warranting a full exposition. These verses from 2 Chronicles chapter 36 explore the reason for the defeat:
 All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the LORD that he had made holy in Jerusalem.
 The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.  But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy.
The sense here is that all the people of Judah were equally guilty of the sin which led to the exile. The kings played their part, but it was ultimately “the people,” the citizens, officials and priests, who ignored God’s message and incurred his wrath. The blame is evenly spread around. You get the feeling reading Chronicles that you’re reading the official government version of what went down. It’s like reading a White House briefing on a presidential scandal. The central facts cannot be avoided, but the spin is heavy.
Here’s the bottom line of our analysis: Kings appears to have been written or compiled by Israel’s prophets, while Chronicles appears to have been put together by the kings themselves, or their descendants and sympathizers. In our last couple of podcasts, we examined the fascinating relationship between prophets and kings in the ancient biblical world. We observed that prophets existed primarily in this period to function as a foil for kings – challenging their power and keeping them in check. This dynamic is on full display in Kings, while it is suspiciously absent in Chronicles. Kings is a log of failures and punishments, wicked kings ignoring the warnings of prophets and plunging Israel into apostasy and an almost inevitable exile. Chronicles is about the great kings of Israel, who did their best to keep an unruly and ungrateful nation in order until things just got out of hand.
The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles represented a fatal disruption of Israel’s national life, and even worse: they shattered the covenant which had defined Israel’s very identity. Remember what we said about the covenant law: it is specifically designed for this people living in this land. When the people are scattered and the land is on fire, what hope is there for the covenant? What we have in these two books are two desperate attempts to deal with horrific new reality. The prophets are like young, idealistic hippies: if the old guys in charge of Israel had done what was right, this would never have happened. And you know what? The Torah scroll called Deuteronomy – a literary influence on the text of Kings – supports this view strongly. On the other hand we have the Chronicles, which are content to spread the blame around and protect the reputations of Judah’s kings.
Once again we discover that if we allow the bible to be a living human witness to history, rather than some relic or magic instruction book, we will encounter nothing less than a living and breathing testimony to the experience of ancient people who wanted nothing more than to tell their side of some pretty remarkable stories. And for Israel, this is just the beginning of a remarkable new story – the story of if and how they might survive violent deportation and captivity in foreign, pagan lands. From here on, the literature takes some outrageous turns. I hope you’ll join me.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.