16 September 2013

Biblical characters as neither fully good or bad

One of the things that continutes to fascinate me about many of the Old Testament narratives is how often something unexpected happens (at least, as unexpected as things can be if you've read the Bible numerous times). 2 Chronicles 22-24, the story of king Joash, is one such example. 

The story begins with Ahaziah, son of Jehoram, becoming king of Judah. He was an evil king, listening to bad counselors, including his mother Athaliah. After only reigning a year, his downfall was ordained. He was killed by Jehu since he was of house of Ahaz. Ahaziah was buried on account of his being "the grandson of Jehoshaphat, who sought the Lord with all his heart.” (22:9) There was no obvious successor to the throne and so Athaliah, Ahaziah's mother, took over. She subsequently attempted to kill her son's entire family: she "set about to destroy all the royal family of the house of Judah." (22:10). However, Jehoshabeath, the king’s sister, managed to rescue her nephew Joash. She and her husband - priest Jehoiada - hid him while Athaliah reigned over the land. Seven years later, Jehoiada "took courage" (23:1) and helped organize a revolt of which the Levites played a significant role. Joash was crowned king and anointed. Athaliah was ruthlessly put to death. Jehoiada then "made a covenant between himself and all the people and the king that they should be the Lord’s people."(23:16). The house of Baal was desecrate, and its priests killed. Because of this, "all the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was quiet after Athaliah had been killed with the sword." (23:23). Furthermore, "Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of the priest Jehoiada." (24:2). 
Up to this point, the story seems like a classical variation on the themes of God punishing evil and bringing good to those whom he loves (i.e., his followers, including the house of David). Except for the excessive blood and guts part, it seems to be an ideal 'Sunday School' story. After all, it is full of morals - and both Joash and the priest Jehoiada - seem like ideal examples. Except that this is not the end of the story, and both the king and the priest hardly remain examples to follow. Jehoiada is the first to disappoint us. 

Joash decided early on his reign to restore the house of LORD, and commanded the priests and Levites to go "out to the cities of Judah and gather money from all Israel to repair the house of your God, year by year; and see that you act quickly.” (24:5). However, nothing quick happened (2 Kings 12 reports that nothing had happened by the 23rd year of Joash's reign). So Joash reprimanded Jehoiada for not getting the Levites to act quickly. Joash himself then gave the command that everyone should "bring in for the Lord the tax that Moses the servant of God laid on Israel in the wilderness." (24:9). 

The response to that command indicates the seriousness of what Jehoiada had allowed to happen. Money came in abundance. In fact, "All the leaders and all the people rejoiced and brought their tax and dropped it into the chest until it was full." (24:10). And so the temple was repaired. Yet, even as much as Jehoiada had been neglectful in following the LORD, his sins were nothing compared to those of Joash. 

"They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles and the idols." (24:19). The LORD sent prophets, but they would not listen - not even to Zechariah son of Jehoiada. In fact, "by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord." (24:21) Thus Joash killed his cousin, the son of those who had shown kindness to him by rescuing him from certain death and placing him on the throne. Joash eventually suffered defeat at the hands of a much smaller army because God acted on behalf or the Aramties. Having been left severely wounded by the battle, Joash's servants then killed him on his bed (because of the death of Jehoiada's son). They buried him in Jerusalem but not in the tombs of the kings.

It is a sad story, and one that I find a bit unnerving. It seems disconcerting that this child saved from certain death would turn against the LORD who had saved him and with whom he made a covenant - and then also against the family of his protectors and saviours. It is a story that seems unfit for Sunday School lessons. At the same time, it is the story of our ancestors in faith and rejecting God is hardly something that only Joash has chosen to do.

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