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1 and 2 Kings

In the Hebrew Bible the two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings all make up one book. The division into two stems from the Greek Septuagint, which the Vulgate and later editions followed and which was in fact adopted by the Hebrew Bible from 1517 forward. The Septuagint and the Vulgate called them 3 and 4 Kings (because they called Samuel 1 and 2 Kings). The title of Kings is very appropriate: The text covers the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel from the death of David (c. 970 B.C.) to the Babylonian exile.

The books appear to have been written in various stages. The earliest form offers us an outline of the history of the various kings which the inspired writer took from the “Book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kgs. 11:41), the “Books of the Chronicles of the King of Israel” (l Kgs. 14:19) and the “Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kgs. 14:29), often citing his source. These were public documents accessible to everyone, not private papers in the royal archives.

Moreover, since the kings are assessed here against the yardstick of idolatry in the “high places” (cf. 1 Kgs. 15:14; 22:44), this indicates that these books were written after Josiah’s reform (621) and probably after his death. The text says of him, “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to the law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kgs. 23:25).

This would suggest that the passage just quoted, with the exception of its final words, may very well have marked the end of the work and that the books therefore originate from before the exile to Babylon in 587, when the Temple was still in operation and the Ark of the Covenant was still in position in the Debir or Holy of Holies: “The priests brought the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim” (1 Kgs. 8:6).

However, the first draft must have been followed by a second in the reign of Jehoiachin (609-598), given that the former makes no reference to the prophet Jeremiah. The third and final redaction would date from after 562, during the Babylonian captivity (2 Kgs. 25:22-30).

The books of 1 and 2 Kings follow directly on 1 and 2 Samuel and are perhaps easier to understand if divided into three parts:

1. The story of Solomon (1 Kgs. 1-11). After a short introduction dealing with the last days of David and the succession of his son, the author centers his attention on Solomon, who becomes a king renowned for his wisdom (the neighboring kings acknowledge this), magnificence (witness his building program) and wealth (chapters 3-10). The weaknesses in the king’s character do, however, cast their shadow. Foreign wives influence him to worship their gods, Molech and Ashtoreth (1 Kgs. 11:5). Israel will pay dearly for his infidelity.

Solomon’s initial drive and his undoubted intelligence and valor fade into the background due to his neglect of the worship of Yahweh. As Augustine comments, external worship is not pleasing to God however splendidly and richly it is done, unless it is inspired by the interior worship of faith, hope, and charity and is accompanied by good works, that is, faithfulness to God’s commandments.

2. The kingdom is split in two: Judah and Israel (1 Kgs. 12:22). The differences between the northern and western tribes, latent during David’s reign, lead to a permanent split–religious as well as political–after Solomon’s death (chap. 12-13). From this point onwards parallel histories are given for the two kingdoms (chap. 14-22).

In chapter 17 Elijah the prophet appears out of nowhere to preach a message of strict fidelity to Yahweh and to defend worship of Yahweh against that of Phoenician idols. His name, which means “My God is Yahweh,” describes his whole life program. He is the greatest of the non-writer prophets. In addition to the passage which describes his challenge to the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs. 18:24ff), his experience on Mount Horeb is well worth meditation.

Earlier symbols of God’s presence—the hurricane, earthquake, fire—give way to the “still small voice” of a gentle breeze, which symbolizes that God is pure spirit. His goodness and mercy, which invite man but never force him, are a veiled reference to the God-Child who will be born at Bethlehem, who has no need of noisy show to win man’s attention.

3. The history of Judah and Israel up to the time of the exile (2 Kgs. 1-25). These chapters deal mainly with the wars between the two kingdoms and the attacks on them from outside. The situation became even more critical when the Assyrians invaded, first in the ninth century and more vigorously in the eighth. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, fell in 721, and later Judah became an Assyrian vassal. From this point onwards biblical history centers on Judah and continues to do so up to the fall of Jerusalem in 587.

After the apotheosis of Elijah on Mount Carmel (chap. 2) Elisha the prophet takes over the role of promoting the Covenant.

To understand God’s message in Kings we need to keep in mind the teaching of Deuteronomy. The basic teaching of Deuteronomy had to do with there being only one God and only one valid Temple for his worship. This centralization of priesthood and liturgy is first legislated for in Deuteronomy 12.

The kings are condemned in these books because instead of concentrating on the Temple in Jerusalem they establish rival shrines at Bethel and Dan in the north in opposition to the Temple; furthermore, they are neglectful of their duty to suppress the “high places” all over Palestine where sacrifice is offered to Baal in contravention of the Covenant.

This and none other is the reason for the collapse first of Samaria and later of Judah. Yahweh is not at fault. He kept his word; it is Israel who has been faithless. God’s judgment is accepted submissively because he is justified in his sentence and blameless in his judgment (cf. Ps. 51). Everything recounted in Kings is a canticle in praise of divine justice; any punishment meted out simply means that unfaithfulness to the covenant is being dealt with as promised (cf. Deut. 28:15ff).

In spite of the sadness felt by the survivors of the catastrophe, there is still that ray of hope coming from Nathan’s prophecy of an everlasting Davidic kingdom (2 Sam. 7). This is underlined when after years in prison Jehoiachin, king of Judah, is pardoned by the king of Babylon (2 Kgs. 25:27-30). The people who stay faithful to Yahweh do realize that the keeping of his law “is no trifle, but it is your life” (Deut 32:47), for God always keeps his word (1 Kgs. 2:4; 2Kgs. 10:10).

Kings contains a lot of important theological material but it is also historically very accurate, as recent archaeology shows. For example, the list of cities conquered by Pharaoh Sheshonq (Shishak) I is carried on a wall in a temple in Karnak, and Jerusalem is included (cf. 1 Kgs. 14:25-28); the monolith of Shalmaneser III commemorates that king’s victory at the battle of Qarqar over an alliance of Syrian and Palestinian kings; the black obelisk which shows Jehu or his representative prostrated before Shalmaneser and lists the various objects given as tribute by the son of Omri; the Taylor prism and the bas-reliefs of Sennarcherib’s palace in Nineveh which refer to Sennacherib’s campaigns against Judah (cf. 2 Kgs. 18:13,19:37). Within Palestine itself we have the stele of Mesha, the Siloe inscription, the “obstraca” of Lakish and Samaria, and many other cities which have been excavated and whose findings corroborate what the sacred text says.

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