|Kings, First and Second, Theology of |
Since the books of 1 and 2 Kings possess an inner unity and ideology, it is appropriate to view them as a single work; both the Talmud and Josephus saw them as one book. In fact, the division of the two is completely artificial. Furthermore, Kings shares a thematic unity and overlap in subject matter with the books of Samuel, and these two major works were apparently part of an even greater work that included Joshua and Judges.
Theological Emphasis The structure of Kings is somewhat similar to that of Judges in that it discusses the cyclical rise and fall of states and leaders (from the accession of Solomon to the exile). It was probably written in the mid-sixth century b.c., since there is no evidence of the rebuilding of the temple or Persian occupation. The text is usually silent about the political significance of the rulers, but is more interested in their religious import; thus the author relays only those events that are pertinent to his message. These themes often dictate the length of and the detail in which certain elements are treated (e.g., details in Josiah's reign are discussed only after the discovery of the Book of the Law). Important contemporary events in the ancient Near East are mentioned only when relevant to the interests of the author. Thus, this work is not an exhaustive history of the divided kingdom. Although the author does not write a complete history of Israel, he does provide a theological commentary on Israel's history. Even social and humanitarian concerns found in concurrent prophetic writings are not found here. Often, leaders who had relatively little political importance are featured as main characters (e.g., Ahaziah, Athaliah), while a struggle that did not effectively alter the international scene (e.g., Moab versus Israel, 1 Kings 3) is featured as of great importance. Judgments abound in standard statements, signifying that the author sees a pattern in the events, but not that he manufactures the events discussed in his work.
The Judgment of God One of the immediate purposes of Kings is to explain how the exile came about and to express the idea that God had compelling reasons for judgment. With the destruction of Jerusalem, dissolution of the monarchy, and subsequent deportation, it appeared that God had proved incapable of dealing with the nations surrounding Israel. However, using a lawsuit motif following the breach of covenant law (see 2 Kings 17:20-23), the writer of Kings presents an explanation of history that shows that their tragedy was a product of God's judgment, not his weakness. God's intentions can be deduced from the course of events (e.g., 1 Kings 9:6-9). This is an apparently unique explanation for a national tragedy, at least in comparison with that of the surrounding nations, which normally concluded that their god(s) had abandoned them in times of national crisis.
The Davidic Succession. The Book of Kings opens with the account of David's last days and the succession of his son Solomon by the agency of the prophet Nathan and the priest Zadok. The dynastic succession was a crucial issue for the nation, since most apparently still held to the tradition of the popularly acclaimed charismatic leadership of an individual chosen by a prophet in God's name. Thus, the first two chapters are in effect a theological justification of the accession of Solomon, which was authenticated by his dream at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4-15).
In the Solomonic succession account, the writer emphasizes human agents. Actions are not strictly determined by a deus ex machina through the medium of miracles or charismatic leaders as before, but by human designs. Although there is less emphasis on direct divine intervention, the author still shows a deep faith in providence. In fact, one of the great theological contributions of Kings is to emphasize the working of God in the Solomonic succession, not through direct divine intervention, miracles, prophets, or sacred institutions, but through ordinary personalities and individuals working in the secular sphere.
The Temple and Jerusalem. One of the dominant themes in the early chapters of Kings is the preparation for the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 5-8), a theme treated with relatively disproportionate length in the work. Other matters in Solomon's reign are dealt with sporadically and comparatively briefly. For example, Solomon's relations with Hiram of Tyre are important only because of the mention of the construction of the temple. The author of Kings is also concerned about recording the occasions when the temple treasury was appropriated for war indemnity, whether by foreigners (Shiskak, 1 Kings 14:25-28; and Nebuchadnezzar 2 Kings 24:13; 25:13-17) or Judeans (Asa, 1 Kings 15:18; Jehoash 2 Kings 12:18; 14:14; and Hezekiah, 2 Kings 18:16). Some have postulated that the writer was basing his sources on a nonextant temple history.
Before the existence of the temple, Yahweh was worshiped wherever he appeared. The biblical writers spoke of the revelatory presence of God without compromising his transcendence. However, Solomon adopted the idea of the temple as God's divine residence. Thus, the writer of Kings condemns heathen shrines (1 Kings 11:7-8), high places (1 Kings 3:3-4; 12:28-33), and cult objects in Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-32) from an ideological standpoint. Fearing that the multiplicity of shrines would ultimately lead to polytheism, he insists on the sole legitimacy of the Jerusalem temple as opposed to any local high place (2 Kings 23 cf. Deut 12:10-14). He presents Jerusalem as the holy place of God's choice (1 Kings 11:13,32,36).
Prophecy and Fulfillment. The ministry of prophecy attained a prominent position during the period of the kings. The spoken word of the prophets was considered equal in authority to the Torah (2 Kings 22:13-20), to which the prophets continually alluded. There are numerous cases of prophecy being fulfilled according to the word of Yahweh ( 8:20; 12:15; 2 Kings 23:16-18). The course of Israelite history had an integral connection with and was shaped and led to a fulfillment by the prophetic word of judgment, which was often delayed (2 Kings 2:19-22; 13:14-19; 20:8-11). The writer of Kings clearly identifies his interpretation of Israel's history with that of the prophets. God is not to be blamed for the failure of the nation since he had sent numerous prophets. Of significance is the lack of any mention of Jeremiah, who figured so prominently at the end of Judah's political history.
The lengthy treatment of Jeroboam I shows an interest in the fulfillment of prophecy (1 Kings 11:29-40; 12:1-20). Great prominence is also given to the defection to the Baal cult. Jehu's revolt is sanctioned by the prophets Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 9:7-10,26,30-37). The prophet Isaiah is the most important character behind the scenes in the tense struggle with the Assyrians during Hezekiah's reign. When Hezekiah falters in the face of crisis, it is Isaiah who stands firm (2 Kings 19).
Criteria for Monarchical Judgment. The loyalty of the monarchy (an institution accepted without discussion in Kings) to the God of Israel as worshiped in Jerusalem determined the course of the nation's history. The king was a representative of the people before God. The writer of Kings uses a somewhat mechanical norm of cultic purity found in Deuteronomy (chaps. 27-28) as a criterion to evaluate the rulers of Israel and Judah. In turn, this becomes one of the theological themes for the author's philosophy of history (i.e., opposition to any continuing Canaanite high places). The author occasionally refers to the Book of the Law, or Book of the Law of Moses (e.g., 2 Kings 14:6; 22:8, 11; 23:2), showing that he is not a theological innovator but a faithful representative of a cultic perspective found in Deuteronomy. The writer elevates the opposition to the Canaanite cults to a central position in the Yahwistic faith. In fact, he pursues history writing from the standpoint of obedience or lack thereof to this issue, either pronouncing a curse or a blessing. Furthermore, the writer emphasizes the long-suffering mercy of God who continued to postpone the execution of judgment that disobedience to the covenant rightly entailed.
Virtually all of the kings of Israel are criticized for "walking in the ways of Jeroboam" (the first king of divided Israel). The "sin" of Jeroboam (ordaining priests for high places outside of Jerusalem, 1 Kings 13:34) was the crucial event in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam's sin and his consecration of non-Levitical clergy sealed the doom of his royal house (1 Kings 12:28-31; 13:33; 14:9). His misdeeds became the prototype for the entire nation's history. Jeroboam and Ahab sinfully influenced Israel so that the people copied attributes of supplanted peoples (2 Kings 17:8,11), served other gods (2 Kings 17:12), and seduced surrounding peoples (2 Kings 17:15). However, even Jehu, who had cleansed the nation of Baal, failed to eradicate the high places (2 Kings 10:31).
The criterion the author uses in evaluating the southern kingdom is slightly different. Although the nation of Judah was expected to learn from its northern neighbor's disaster, the high places, Asherim, and male prostitutes continued to exist (1 Kings 14:22-24), and Hezekiah had to replace them (2 Kings 18:22). The fate of each king was conditioned on his behavior. For example, Solomon was rewarded with the continuation of his dynasty and a lengthy reign (1 Kings 3:14). However, he sowed the seeds of schism with his religious infidelity stemming from foreign influences, which would accelerate the nation's destruction. His son Rehoboam was thus deprived of the undivided throne of Israel (1 Kings 12:15). The kingdom of Judah would be spared only for David's sake (1 Kings 11:13). The writer of Kings provides a theological explanation for the division of the kingdom, which does not contradict the secular reasons for the division.
In Judah, only five kings are approved as righteous, based upon their behavior in relation to David (two others are unqualified). The datum point of Judah's history was the great reform of Josiah, while the great villain was Manasseh, who was considered to be immediately responsible for the downfall of the kingdom. Manasseh's cultic deviations are discussed in great detail (2 Kings 21:2-9). However, the writer does not mention Manasseh's involvement in Assyrian politics, which is not relevant to his theme. On the other hand, Solomon's international relations are often discussed because of his own cultic violations (1 Kings 11:14-40). The writer of Kings recognizes that God's justice does not always work out in every way the same; Manasseh lived a long time (2 Kings 21; 24:3-4), while Josiah died in battle, a fateful omen for the nation (2 Kings 23:29). Much space, however, is given to Josiah's reform, which, although being an immediate failure, set the stage for the restoration (2 Kings 23:29-30).
The Davidic Promise. The writer of Kings not only condemns the sins of the rulers of Israel and Judah, but is concerned about giving a word of hope and promise to the house of David and its continuation in spite of the destruction of the Judean kingdom. Judah ultimately would not suffer the same fate as Israel because of the righteousness of David, who kept the statutes of Yahweh (1 Kings 11:33,38). Thus, the writer infers that the well-being of the people was tied to the king's behavior. Yahweh's election and covenant with Israel were bound with David, although the continuation of the Davidic dynasty was conditioned upon the proper cultic observances and the acceptance of the Mosaic covenant. The belief in the Davidic covenant was a guarantee of stability and a perseverance of hope that his line would continue (2 Kings 25:27-30). The release of the Davidide Jehoiachin at the end of Kings serves as a subtle reminder that the covenant was still in effect; the people could be assured of their continuing election by God. Moreover, the theme of repentance is essential to the author, forming a design of faith for later Israel. Thus, the Book of Kings is an important link in the religious change that led to the postexilic restoration of Israel.
A Theology of History. One may get the superficial impression that the author had primary interests in cultic purity, the centralization of the cult, and the mechanical judging of each monarch. But the theology of history in Kings is much deeper. The author is not writing a history of Israel, but primarily a theological and somewhat didactic interpretation of Israel's history, with the religious struggle of Israel and Canaan as a central focus. He discerns his work in the context of Israel's salvation history, presented as a continuing history of the confederate tribes, who realized their covenant relationship with Yahweh. His goal is to see the operation of the word of God in history. In fact, it is not the actors on the historical stage who command the primary attention, but God's manipulation of the events. The sufferings of Israel and Judah are seen as operations of the curse upon a broken agreement. The desire to employ local shrines was only a symptom of the problem.
Kings is a purposeful and positive work at the nadir of Israel's fortunes. Not only does it mirror God's judgment; it also reflects the theme of forgiveness and grace, which fosters the hope of revival. Israel's distress was not accidental or haphazard, but evidence of God's character consistent with his self-revelation in the covenant. The key is his renewed grace. The past sins created the consequence of an immediate future without monarchy, government, or structured religious center. However, the nation would now be identified by their fidelity to the Mosaic religion and the demands of the covenant.
Mark W. Chavalas
See also Israel
Bibliography. P. Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration: A Survey of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century b.c.; B. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture; M. Coogan and H. Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary; F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic; S. De Vries, I Kings; J. Gray, I-II Kings; B. Halpern, The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History; T. R. Hobbes, II Kings; J. Montgomery and H. Gehman, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Kings; G. von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy, pp. 74-79; J. van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History.