Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hezekiah's Reformation

Every once in a while in the Scriptures, you find a detail that opens up a view to how the other side -- the bad guys, the ones on the other side of the prophets and martyrs -- thought. One such statement comes in 2 Kings 18:22. Here's the context: the Assyrians are besieging Jerusalem and the field commander (rabshakeh) of King Sennacherib is calling out to the besieged Hebrews convincing them that their hope is in vain. Egypt won't help, and even God won't help:

But if you say to me, "We trust in the LORD our God," is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, "You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem"?

This appeal probably bothered a lot of people since Hezekiah's officials responded nervously:

Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah [who was over the king's household], and Shebnah [the scribe], and Joah [the recorder], said to the Rabshakeh, "Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall." But the Rabshakeh said to them, "Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?"

How vivid! Suddenly we see, like a landscape lit up by lightening, that Hezekiah's great reform, of smashing the high places and centralizing worship in the temple in Jerusalem was not at all popular. In fact, it was unpopular enough that the Assyrians figured even in Jerusalem (which stood to benefit substantially from the reform) opposition could be nurtured to form a defeatist parties with the walls of Zion.

The opposition were not pagans or Baal worshipers -- they were good Yahwists who simply felt that every city and district in Israel ought to have its own cult of Yahweh. They certainly had tradition on their side: worship at non-Jerusalem cult centers went back centuries. Patriarchs had long sanctified spots in Israel by their activities: Abraham at Shechem, between Bethel and Ai, and at Hebron, Isaac at Beersheba, Jacob at Bethel, and Joshua's camp at Gilgal. Heroes like Gideon built altars (Judges 6), Samuel sacrificed at a high place in Zuph (1 Sam. 9), and Solomon burnt incense at Gibeah (1 Kings 2). Of all the kings before Hezekiah, not one, even the good kings like Asa and Jehoshaphat, had eliminated the worship of Yahweh at the high places. And Hezekiah had the gall to even smash the bronze serpent that Moses had set up, simply because the Israelites had been incense to it! (2 Kings 18:4). Imagine the shock and outrage with which the traditional Yahwists must have greeted this iconoclasm. No wonder they were even willing to hand the land over to the Assyrians!

And what happened to the high places where many Levites had handled the worship? It is hard to believe the royal government didn't grab much of the land. Certainly the Levites found little employment in the temple, creating a whole class of resentful men.

What did Hezekiah had to go on as he bucked all the traditions of his fathers, the precedents of Solomon, Samuel, and Gideon, and even the patriarchs? Only some chapters in the law of Moses:

You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way. But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the LORD your God has blessed you.

"You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the LORD your God is giving you. But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, then to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the LORD. And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, but at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you
(Deuteronomy 12).

Josiah discovered a book of Moses in the Temple -- a book! just a text! found in the temple! how convenient! -- and on that basis, he turned good Yawhist priests into pensioners and semi-employed lackeys:

He brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beersheba. And he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on one's left at the gate of the city. However, the priests of the high places did not come up to the altar of the LORD in Jerusalem, but they ate unleavened bread among their brothers (2 Kings 23:8-9).

I'm sure modern source critics weren't the first people to say that Josiah must have just made his so-called book of Moses up.

This is the model of the Reformation. Whatever was said to Luther, couldn't it have been said to Josiah and Hezekiah? Purify the Asherah poles and Baal cults, fine, but why break up the Yahwistic high places? Have these kings had some second Sinai to justify breaking with the tradition sanctified by all their ancestors? And what about the specter of secular power being used against good Yahwistic priests? How can this be justified?

How indeed except on the authority of the Word of God outside us?

Labels: , ,