Many of the neighboring populations that hear about the reconstruction of Jerusalem get upset, and they join together to go to war against Jerusalem. Thinking about the Middle East, it’s clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Luckily in this case, the eventual war doesn’t actually manifest, but the Jews take a defensive stance regardless. “And we prayed to our God, and we stationed a watch over them day and night because of them (Nehemia 4:3).” Earlier this week, I taught a class on Israeli history and politics, and like much of history, that story is often told through wars. These various successful military campaigns are the way we construct the saga of the ongoing creation of Israel, as is the case in much of the world. And while it’s easy to list the armies that aligned themselves against the country, and the key battle sites and stats, what I like about the verse that I chose is that it seems to go beyond those bare-bones details. True defense is the constant awareness and vigilance that is expressed in this verse. It’s an ongoing watch, carried out with the hope that it’ll never come to anything. The people who watch the borders aren’t in it for glory. They’re just hoping for another quiet night, and to be able to go home. As we go into the Pesach holiday, I’m hoping that this year, freedom will be experienced in many ways, most of all by all of those who work for the defense of others around the world.
Now, God is focusing on the Philistines. “So said the Lord: Behold water is coming up from the north, and it shall become a flooding stream and will inundate a land and the fullness thereof, a city and those who dwell therein, and the people shall cry out, and all the inhabitants of the land shall wail (Jeremiah 47:2).” Another war, another people. All of this destruction keeps happening. The places listed – Egypt, Gaza – are still war torn and crazy sometimes. It’s like the cycle of drama in this region has never ended. Will it ever?
“The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:1).” Isaiah begins talking about the end of days, when all peoples will come toards God and the Temple in Jerusalem. Here is where we have one of the verses that we read every Shabbat: בי מציון תצא תורה ודבר יהוה מירושלים. For out of Zion will the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. The sentiment here is lovely, but what really connects me to this quote is the countless times that I’ve sung those words in synagogue, together with the rest of the congregation, every week. It’s part of the Torah service, and it’s very cool to come up to a part that I’m actually familiar with after all these chapters.
Anyway, we learn that God will judge all the nations at the end of days, and then we have another iconic line: Nation shall not lift up the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. It’s clear that this isn’t a reality (yet) in the world, but what’s the most meaningful to me here is that it says people won’t learn war. So much of the hate in the world today is inherited and taught, informally in homes and formally at school. If we stopped teaching war, maybe the next generation would stop carrying it out. And at that point, the people also aren’t ready for it, because they’re busy being idolators and destroying the land. Isaiah reiterates that eventually, the people will be humbled, and will bow before God. But this is a far-off prophecy that has yet to be met.
I can already tell that these lyrical books are going to require focusing on fewer verses and more reflection, rather than following along with a narrative.
“And it was when King Hezekiah heard that he rent his garments, and covered himself with sackcloth, and came to the house of the Lord (Kings II 19:1).” He’s devastated, so he sends for Isaiah, the prophet. He sends his most trusted servants as emissaries, begging for advice from the prophet. “And Isaiah said to them, ‘So shall you say to your master, So has the Lord said, ‘Have no fear of the words that you have heard, that the servants of the king of Assyria blasphemed Me (Kings II 19:6).'” He prophecies that the Assyrian king will fall in battle. When the servants return, they find that the king is fighting a war against Libnah.
Meanwhile, Hezekiah goes and prays to God. “And now, O Lord our God, please deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God alone (Kings II 19:19).” Isaiah sends messages to the king, letting him know of God’s anger and disappointment. But we also find out that the Assyrian king will not be able to enter Jerusalem, and that God will protect His city.
The chapter has a dramatic end. First, an angel of God kills 185,000 Assyrians. Then, the king retreats and goes home to Nineveh. And finally, as he is praying in one of his temples, his sons kill him. Quite the series of events! The angel killing the Assyrians is a particularly confounding, abstract concept. I’ve been thinking about what my next Jewish studies project will be, and this is one of the portions of Tanakh that makes me want to reread it all again, with commentaries. It goes to show why this kind of studying takes a lifetime of pursuit, and is never truly over. There’s still plenty of time to go with this project, and so many other things I want to do all at the same time!
“In the twenty-third year of Joash the son of Ahaziah the king of Judah, Jehoahaz the son of Jehu reigned over Israel in Samaria seventeen years (Kings II 13:1).” Once again we have an evil king, and the people turn to sin yet again. God becomes angry with the Israelites, so He allows Hazael of Aram to conquer them. But when Jehoahaz prays to God, He listens to him, and remembers the plight of the Israelites. “And the Lord gave Israel a savior and they went free from under Aram’s hands, and the children of Israel dwelt in their dwelling places as yesterday and the day before (Kings II 13:5).” This sounds almost like a flashback to when Moses was appointed as the leader of Israel back in Exodus. But this time, the hero isn’t named. He’s simply a tool used to save the people in the latest iteration of an ongoing saga.
The people, of course, don’t appreciate this, and sin yet again. Jehoahaz dies, and his son Jehoash takes the throne. So now we have a Joash and a Jehoash at the same time. Nothing like unique names to keep things interesting. Jehoash is evil also, and Joash dies at the same time, leaving Jeroboam on his throne. As these kings live and die, Elisha has been the constant, but now he is ill too. “And Elisha died and they buried him, and Moabite bands would invade the land at the beginning of the year (Kings II 13:20).” Elisha’s death marks the end of yet another era, and seems much more consequential than most of the kings who we hear about for a few verses and then lose. Hazael of Aram also dies, and his son takes the throne. There are ongoing battles with the Israelites, and no real conclusions are reached at the end of this chapter.
We’re back to hearing about the various kings. “And Jehoram the son of Ahab reigned over Israel in Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned twelve years (Kings II 3:1).” Jehoram, like most of the kings, turns against God eventually. But at the same time, although he’s evil in some way, which we don’t hear much about right now, he does take down the idols to Baal that his parents erected, so that’s a good thing.
So there’s this guy Mesha, who is the king of Moab, and a shepherd. Way to multitask! He pays an annual tribute to the king of Israel, but one Ahab dies, Mesha rebels against Jehoram as his successor. As happens far too often, we don’t know what causes this rebellion or much about what it looks like. The story moves right along, with Jehoram commissioning another census of the people. He then calls Jehoshaphat and asks him to come as an ally in a war against Moab. The two factions of Israelites are working together against a common enemy, which is good for the people, but probably not good for Moab.
On their way to attack Moab, the kings want some reassurance about their quest, so they decide to check with Elisha. “And Elisha said to the king of Israel, ‘What do I have [to do] with you? Go to your father’s prophets and to your mother’s prophets!’ And the king of Israel said to him, ‘Don’t [say that], for the Lord has summoned these three kings to deliver them into the hands of Moab (Kings II 3:13).'” Elisha says that Moab will be delivered into the hands of the kings. It’ll be a total defeat, and a victory on the part of the Israelites. “And they demolished the cities, and each one threw his stone on every fertile field and filled it up, and they stopped up every water spring and they felled every good tree until they left over its stones only in Kir Hareshseth; and the catapultists surrounded and struck it (Kings II 3:25).” Moab is destroyed in this campaign, so at least for now, it seems like the alliance is working.
So, war is back. “And Ben-Haddad the king of Aram gathered all his army and thirty-two kings with him and horses and chariots, and he went up and besieged Samaria and waged war with it (Kings I 20:1).” He sends messengers to Ahab, saying that all of his silver and gold and his wives and children are his. Ahab agrees, but the messengers bring back a false reply. “And the king of Israel summoned all the elders of the land and said, ‘Please realize and see that this is looking to cause harm, for he has sent to me for my wives, my sons, my silver and gold, and I have not denied him (Kings I 20:7).'” Ahab agreed to totally humble himself, but the people encourage him to stand up and say no to Ben-Haddad.
Ahab prepares to do battle with Ben-Haddad. “And they went out at noon and Ben-Haddad was drinking himself drunk in the pavilions, he and the kings – the thirty-two kings who aided him (Kings I 20:16).” The Israelites defeat his troops, but the king escapes on horseback with some of his companions. Eventually, Ben-Haddad fulfills a prophecy, by returning to once again do battle against the Israelites and loses again. The Israelites slaughter the Arameans, but he escapes again. This goes against most of the codes of bravery that the Israelites subscribe to, where the leader of people would lead the troops into battle, rather than repeatedly abandoning his people.
The Israel/Judah division continues. A man named Sheba, from the tribe of Benjamin, declared that Israel should go to the tents, rather than follow David. “And all the men of Israel went up from after David, following Sheba the son of Bichri, but the men of Judah cleaved to their king from the Jordan until Jerusalem (Samuel II 20:2).” David returns to Jerusalem, in spite of the divide amongst the people. He reunites with the wome that he left behind, his concubines. And then he calls for the men of Judah to rally to him. “And Amasa went to call together the men of Judah, but he tarried past the set time which he had appointed him (Samuel II 20:5).” David wanted the men quickly, but Amasa didn’t deliver. So David goes to Abishai, because he’s worried. He thinks that Sheba is more dangerous than Absalom was, so he sends Abishai to pursue him.
“And Joab’s men went after him with the archers and the slingers and all the warriors; and they went out of Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri (Samuel II 20:7).” Joab runs into Amasa while chasing Sheba, and greets him warmly. But Amasa doesn’t notice Joab’s sword, and ends up getting stabbed. Amasa bleeds, and Joab continues to pursue Sheba. This is all told with remarkably little emotion, even for this level of drama. Joab tracks Sheba to a city. A wise woman from within the city calls to him. “I am of that are peaceful and faithful to Israel; Do you seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel? Why should you swallow up the inheritance of the Lord (Samuel II 20:19)?” Joab explains that he’s not there to destroy the city, he only wants Sheba. So the women of the city band together to behead Sheba and throw his head over the wall so that Joab will leave the city alone. Again, this is told matter of factly, when it’s an insane story. The people just behead him? How is this a thing? Sometimes Tanakh stories are truly bizarre, especially the ones that tended to get passed over when I was in school. I don’t know what to make of them. Why were they important enough to get canonized, but not to be explained or regularly taught?
David’s camp is a large one at this point, and he’s still on the run from Absalom. “And David sent forth the people, a third in the hands of Joab, a third in the hands of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and a third under the hands of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the people, ‘I too will go forth with you (Samuel II 18:2).'” The people love David, though, and they tell David to stay behind so that no one will notice them and attack. So David stayed in the city while his people split up. Even though his son had declared rebellion against him, David still loved Absalom. “And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai saying, ‘Deal gently for me with the youth, with Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king commanded all the captains regarding Absalom (samuel II 18:5).”
A battle finally takes place, with thousands dying in the civil war. Absalom is riding on a mule, and his long hair gets caught in the branches of a tree. “And a man saw it and told Joab. And he said, ‘Behold I saw Absalom hanging in a terebinth (Samuel II 18:10).'” Joab asks the man why he didn’t kill Absalom, in spite of David asking that they deal gently with his son. The man reminds him of this, but Joab doesn’t listen. He personally kills Absalom while he’s trapped in the tree, totally ignoring David’s orders. Joab and the people bury Absalom, and then the Israelites disperse.
It’s only left for David to find out about the death of his son. This is terrible news for any father to receive, even a father who had recently been warring with his child. David is left in the city, and sees a messenger coming with the news, which he hopes will be news of peace. But that’s not the news that he receives, and the chapter ends with David learning of the death of Absalom.
The battle with Ammon continues. David sends Joab and the army out to fight, but he stays in Jerusalem. And that’s where the real trouble starts. “And it came to pass, at the time of evening, that David arose from his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house, and he saw a woman bathing, from the roof; and the woman was very beautiful (Samuel II 11:2).” Spoiler alert: the woman is Bathsheba, and things are about to get pretty dramatic for David. David, from the beginning, knows exactly who she is, and that she’s married to Uriah. This, of course, doesn’t stop him from having sex with her. We know that she comes to him willingly, and then she goes home. She’s not trying to leave her marriage at this point, but then she discovers a major complication: she’s pregnant.
“And David sent to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David (Samuel II 11:6).” Uriah is immediately identified as a foreigner, which means that his wife was probably not very socially accepted within Jerusalem society. So it makes sense that she was flattered and went along with it when the king wanted her. But now David has broken the law by having relations with the wife of another man. He needs to make things right, so he brings Uriah home from the battle to give him the opportunity to also sleep with Bathsheba and take ownership of the new baby. But Uriah doesn’t rise to the challenge. He sleeps at the king’s house while he’s in Jerusalem, rather than in his own home.
“And Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are encamped in the open field; and shall I come to my house to eat and drink and to live with my wife? By your life and by the life of my soul, if I will do this thing (Samuel II 11:11).'” Uriah is clearly a man of honor and integrity, because he’s thinking so much about the community, and it’s not even his community. He’s marked as an outsider, but he feels deeply committed to his brothers in arms. David doesn’t anticipate this, but the plan goes awry. Uriah is sent back to the front with a note for Joab, which turns out to be his own death sentence.
“And he wrote in the letter saying, ‘Place Uriah at the forefront of the fiercest battle, and go away from him, so that he will be hit and will die (Samuel II 11:15).” This is as harsh and explicit as it gets. Uriah is killed in battle at David’s order. Bathsheba mourns her husband, so we know that she did care about him, in spite of her actions with David. But as soon as the mourning period ends, she is brought to David’s house where she becomes one of his wives. But the baby was conceived in sin as an act of adultery, and this can’t go unpunished.