Telling History

And in the thirty and eighth year of Asa king of Judah began Ahab the son of Omri to reign over Israel: and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty and two years. And Ahab the son of Omri did that which was evil in the sight of YHWH above all that were before him (1 Kings 16:29-30).

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem: and his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did that which was right in the eyes of YHWH, according to all that David his father had done (2 Kings 18:1-3).

What is history?

Most people understand history as “what happened in the past.” We all endured history class while in school; we learned about the rise and fall of successive world empires. We therefore ascertained very quickly that history seemed to be the story of those who gained the most power or made new things or developed this or that. The more prominent and successful a culture, defined by its consolidation of power, wealth, and influence, the more likely we would learn about them.

But what happens when we approach the Scriptures? What history does it tell?

We can compare and contrast the stories of two kings, Ahab and Hezekiah, in terms of how they are presented in Scripture and how they would be presented in a standard historical account.

The portrayal of Ahab king of Israel in Scripture is less than pleasant. He was strongly influenced by his wife Jezebel; he elevated service to Baal in Israel; Elijah the prophet strongly opposed him. The Biblical assessment of Ahab is seen sharply in 1 Kings 16:29-30, as children are taught in Bible classes to this day: he was the most wicked of the kings of Israel.

Yet, if seen in a socio-political perspective, things never seem better for Israel than in Ahab’s day. Ahab maintained control over Moab; he made an alliance with Jehoshaphat king of Judah; his marriage is an indication of a strong alliance with the Phoenicians. He seemed to preside over one of the most prosperous and stable periods in the history of the northern Kingdom. From Assyrian chronicles we learn that Ahab along with other allied kings fought against the Assyrian Shalmaneser III in the Battle of Qarqar and seemed to fight him to a draw; who else among the kings of Israel could make such a claim?

Hezekiah king of Judah is portrayed in Scripture starkly different terms. He attempts to reform the worship and service of Judah toward greater faithfulness to YHWH; he is spoken of in terms of his father David, as seen in 2 Kings 18:1-3. After David only Hezekiah and Josiah are spoken of in glowing terms as kings in Judah in the Scriptures.

And yet Hezekiah’s reign, in socio-political terms, was a complete disaster. He rebelled against the Assyrians and faced the full wrath of the Assyrian war machine. All of Hezekiah’s major cities were destroyed save Jerusalem, which itself was besieged and spared only by divine intervention. Judah’s condition was described well by Isaiah in Isaiah 1:2-9: Judah barely escaped total annihilation, and should not glory in its close call.

We should certainly be able to see why so many modern historians view the Scriptures with cynicism and skepticism: they do not exactly tell the story the way the historians have told stories. We who seek to follow God would do well to consider, however, whether the problem is with the Scriptures or with the way the historians would like to tell the story.

The historical narrative of 1 and 2 Kings is often claimed to be a heavily biased source writing during Israel’s exile. Without a doubt the final author is writing during the exile (cf. 2 Kings 25:27-30); he most assuredly uses court or other records more contemporary of the events described. And yes, he is heavily biased; we should expect nothing less. He has a particular message to tell, and a very particular reason for it.

We today tend to speak of 1 and 2 Kings as part of the “historical books.” The Jews considered 1 and 2 Kings part of the Nevi’im, “the Prophets.” Most of the books we consider to be “historical” they believed to have been written by the “former prophets” (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings). To the Israelites the way their story was told was itself inspired, the proper way to tell what happened in past days.

They certainly could have told their story in a way a bit more amenable to the expectations of historians; many in Israel in fact told themselves that story. Israel had its heyday in past days; Assyria and Babylon proved too strong, and so Israel was overrun. What did Israel get for attempting to follow YHWH? Hezekiah reforms the worship and the Assyrians overrun the land; Josiah would do a similar act and his death would precipitate the chain of events leading to Judah’s doom. In fact, probably more Jewish people would have agreed with their fellow exiles in Egypt who were offering to the “Queen of Heaven,” believing that things were better when they committed idolatry, than those who were moved to repentance and followed YHWH exclusively (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-18). In the story of history, after all, empires rise and fall. Israel rose and fell. So be it.

But that story, even though it seemed to make sense of some of the historical facts, only led to assimilation, first with the Babylonians and then later with the Greeks and Romans. Such people were carried away by whoever had power. But those who stubbornly held to the story of Israel as told by the former prophets put the story together persevered, and they persevered because they continued to tell the story the way God intended. Great socio-political standing and influence meant nothing if it were not accompanied by faithfulness to God; a dire socio-political situation could be overcome if the people proved faithful to God. The former prophets showed far less concern about the socio-economic implications of royal decisions than the spiritual ones. The story of Israel was told to highlight the people’s faithlessness to warn future generations to not follow in the same pattern of disobedience (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).

We can learn much from the example of the historical prophets. History is never merely “what happened in the past.” No historian can tell the story of what happened in the past without providing an interpretation and a purpose to those events. They are all understood not only in terms of their believed conclusion but also in terms of the person telling the story. Even when a historical narrative is presented in an entirely factual way, plenty of other facts are left out, not out of denial, but because they do not fit the story being told.

We should not despair; we need not fall into the abyss of full-throated postmodernism, denying our ability to know anything about the past. But we must also be disabused of any notion that history is simply a set of objectively true facts about what people did in the past. History is a great natural resource which we mine in order to tell the story of who we are, from where we have come, and to learn lessons from our ancestors for good or ill. The way we decide to tell that story is as important as the facts which may comprise it.

We have inspired records of the history of Israel and the days of Jesus and the Apostles; we know how God intends for us to understand those stories. We can gain much from that perspective. We may not have an inspired story of the present, but God’s Word remains true: nations will rise and fall, people will acclaim those who gain power, wealth, and influence, but God remains far more concerned with whether people serve the King of kings and Lord of lords or not, and whether people continue to hold firm to the story which He has told in the pages of Scripture. May we tell history in a way that glorifies God and honors His purposes!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Enemy of My Enemy

At that time Berodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present unto Hezekiah; for he had heard that Hezekiah had been sick. And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and showed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and the house of his armor, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah showed them not.
Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, “What said these men? And from whence came they unto thee?”
And Hezekiah said, “They are come from a far country, even from Babylon.”
And he said, “What have they seen in thy house?”
And Hezekiah answered, “All that is in my house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not showed them.”
And Isaiah said unto Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD. Behold, the days come, that all that is in thy house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith Jehovah. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, whom thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
Then said Hezekiah unto Isaiah, “Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken.”
He said moreover, “Is it not so, if peace and truth shall be in my days?” (2 Kings 20:12-19).

“The enemy of my enemy…”

When we think of this quote, we quickly supply the way it often is completed: “…is my friend.” Such has been the prevailing political logic for generations, and yet it led Israel into all sorts of problems!

There is much more going on in 2 Kings 20:12-19 than what appears on the surface. The Kings author honors Hezekiah greatly as loyal to YHWH, attempting to rid the land of idolatry and encouraging the people to honor YHWH as the One True God, the God of Israel (2 Kings 18:1-8). As that all goes, well and good, but as 2 Kings 18:13-20:37 shows, Hezekiah has a major problem: the Assyrians invade Judah, destroy all of the major fortified cities save Jerusalem, and it only survived because of God’s intervention during the siege.

The Assyrians invaded because Hezekiah ceased paying tribute and actively rebelled against Assyrian hegemony by attempting to establish alliances with Egypt and Babylon against the Assyrians. We are not told what political machinations and calculations were involved and why Hezekiah felt so confident in going against Assyria, but the results were evident. The Kingdom of Judah barely escaped complete annihilation, having been functionally abandoned by its erstwhile allies in the face of the Assyrian onslaught.

Why would Hezekiah ally himself with Egypt, the former oppressor of Israel? Why does Hezekiah feel so open in showing everything he has to the Babylonian ambassadors? We are not explicitly told, but Hezekiah’s answer to Isaiah’s declaration provides us with some indications. Isaiah declares how God is going to give over to the Babylonians everything they saw; Hezekiah seems relatively untroubled by the statement since things will be well during his own day (cf. 2 Kings 20:16-19). Hezekiah sees his short-term problem: the kingdom of Assyria is ascendant. The Assyrian Empire is now literally at his border, having conquered the Kingdom of Israel to the north (2 Kings 18:9-12). Judah now has a place of prominence in international affairs, courted by Egypt and Babylon to be a fellow ally against the Assyrian power. Hezekiah was willing to make the enemies of his enemy Assyria his friends.

It did prove to be a great short-term decision: Hezekiah’s son Manasseh ruled over a politically peaceful and economically prosperous Judah despite his spiritual depravity, and Josiah his great-grandson would be able to exercise authority over all of the historic land of Israel. And yet Hezekiah’s short-term political calculations now began to cost the kingdom greatly. The Assyrian power diminished far quicker than anyone could have ever imagined, and now Babylon was the ascendant power. Judah still maintained an alliance with Babylon; it was because of this alliance that Josiah went out to intercept Pharaoh Neko II as the latter was traveling north to fight against Nebuchadnezzar to determine who was going to be the new authority in the Near East. Josiah would die in that battle (2 Kings 23:28-30), and Neko would lose to Nebuchadnezzar at the Battle of Carchemish. For the next twenty years Judah found itself trapped between its two former allies in a power struggle; the kings of Judah seemed to prefer being allied with near Egypt than faraway Babylon, and ultimately proved Isaiah’s prophecy as true: Nebuchadnezzar sent his forces to Judah, the erstwhile Egyptian ally helped once but no more, and Jerusalem was destroyed, its people and wealth exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21). The enemies of Israel’s enemy may have been “friends” in the short-term, but Israel paid dearly in the long-term.

Did Israel learn a lesson from this? It does not seem like it. During the “intertestamental” period, the Israelites were part of the Seleucid Empire and were fighting for their lives and their identity as Daniel predicted in Daniel 11:1-45 in the middle of the second century BCE. The apocryphal book 1 Maccabees tells us about these events; the book is not inspired of God as Scripture but is generally regarded as reliable witness to history. As the Jews are fighting these Greeks, they seek to make an alliance with a fellow enemy of the Seleucid Empire: Rome (1 Maccabees 8:1-32). It is worth noting the attitude of the author of 1 Maccabees toward the Romans:

It was told [Judah the Maccabee, leader of the insurgency against the Seleucids] besides, how [the Romans] destroyed and brought under their dominion all other kingdoms and isles that at any time resisted them; But with their friends and such as relied upon them they kept amity: and that they had conquered kingdoms both far and nigh, insomuch as all that heard of their name were afraid of them: Also that, whom they would help to a kingdom, those reign; and whom again they would, they displace: finally, that they were greatly exalted: Yet for all this none of them wore a crown or was clothed in purple, to be magnified thereby: Moreover how they had made for themselves a senate house, wherein three hundred and twenty men sat in council daily, consulting alway for the people, to the end they might be well ordered: And that they committed their government to one man every year, who ruled over all their country, and that all were obedient to that one, and that there was neither envy nor emulation among them (1 Maccabees 8:11-16).

We see nothing but praise here for the Romans: their ability in warfare, their honoring of treaties, their republican form of government. The Jews made a treaty with the Romans to assist them in their conflict against the Seleucids.

It was part of a great short-term strategy: the Seleucids had to take the Roman threat seriously. For about a hundred years the Maccabees provided a measure of freedom to Israel not seen since the days of Zedekiah and which would not be seen again until 1947 of our own era. But we know what happens in the long-term. The Romans seemed so far away in 160 BCE; a hundred years later, their republican form of government was transitioning into an imperial mode of government, and Pompey their general was taking over the Seleucid Empire and was welcomed into Jerusalem in the midst of a feud between two Maccabean descendants vying for the throne. The Romans would rule in Jerusalem, raising up the reviled half-breed Herod and his clan over the Jews; when the indignities perpetrated by the Romans could be tolerated no longer, the Jews rose up in revolt against the Romans, and yet again they saw their city and Temple destroyed, the latter to never be built again. Yet again, the enemy of Israel’s enemy might have been a decent short-term “friend,” but proved disastrous in the long-term.

Let us learn from Israel’s experience. There are many times when it seems beneficial to take up a common cause with people under the justification of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the common enemy is vanquished? Will we find that our alliance has now placed us in a most compromising position, and we are in a relative position of weakness and not strength? Could we be overtaken because we have made an alliance choice on the basis of a common enemy rather than a common goal?

What right did Israel have uniting with Babylon, Egypt, and Rome? It seemed to make sense at the time; there were some great short-term results; but the end proved disastrous. The enemy of my enemy may still be my enemy; what interest does the enemy of my enemy have in me, especially once our common enemy is gone? Let us be careful about our choices of whom we ally ourselves, lest we find ourselves compromised like Israel!

Ethan R. Longhenry