Day Six of “Through Advent with Isaiah”
The first verse of the Book of Isaiah starts:
The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
It is not just a statement about when he is prophesying (they dated things by rulers in those days), but it is “concerning Judah and Jerusalem”. So Isaiah is a prophet speaking to the people of God about the Kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. It is very political.
We do not have a good handle on when Isaiah was born or died. He must have lived somewhere around 760 BCE to 686 BCE, as he was born sometime in the reign of Uzziah and we last hear of him in the reign of Hezekiah.I t appears he was active for a very long time, perhaps living well into his eighties. We read in Isaiah 6.1 that he received his call in the year Uzziah died, which most scholars set at 740 BCE.
The Israelite kingdoms arose around the turn of the millennium, around 1000 BCE. The only sources we have of the earliest kings are the written ones in the Bible, and most scholars believe that these received their final form no earlier than the 5th century BCE (i.e after 400 BCE), so historians debate the quality of the written evidence. The earliest unquestioned archaeological evidence of a king described in the Tanach is that of a seal discovered with the name of Hezekiah.
If the books of Samuel and Kings are to be believed, the first King of Israel was Saul, followed by David and Solomon. The United Monarchy broke apart after Solomon’s death, ten tribes forming the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining with the House of David the southern Kingdom of Judah. Isaiah, then, flourished some three centuries after Israel had its first kings, and some two hundred after the split between Israel and Judah.
The reason these kingdoms were able to be formed is because of the relative weakness of Egypt and the Assyrians. For two millennia before the United Monarchy armed forces from what is now Iraq and from Egypt fought against each other, and the plains and mountains of the eastern end of the Mediterranean, what we now know as Palestine and Israel, as well as Lebanon and Syria, were where they met in battle. Whoever controlled these lands controlled the gate to the other. In the time prior to Saul, David, and Solomon both Empires to the north and southwest were dealing with internal issues, and so the Israelites established themselves as a power.
Uzziah (Reign: 767–750 BCE)
2 Kings 15.1-7 says this about Uzziah (which it calls Azariah):
1 In the twenty-seventh year of King Jeroboam of Israel King Azariah son of Amaziah of Judah began to reign. 2He was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecoliah of Jerusalem. 3He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done. 4Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. 5The Lord struck the king, so that he was leprous to the day of his death, and lived in a separate house. Jotham the king’s son was in charge of the palace, governing the people of the land. 6Now the rest of the acts of Azariah, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah? 7Azariah slept with his ancestors; they buried him with his ancestors in the city of David; his son Jotham succeeded him. – 2 Kings 15.1-7
“He did what was right” – that is, he was faithful to the worship of Yahweh, and did not introduce the worship of other Gods. However, he allowed for worship of Yahweh (and possibly other gods) on “the high places”. These were the traditional places of sacrifice on hill tops that predated the centralization of worship in Jerusalem, which is a major concern throughout the “Deuteronomic History”. He came down with leprosy, and so his son led the country during his latter years.
Jotham (Reign: 750–735 BCE)
Probably Jotham was already regent by the time Isaiah came of age:
32 In the second year of King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel, King Jotham son of Uzziah of Judah began to reign. 33He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign and he reigned for sixteen years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jerusha daughter of Zadok. 34He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father Uzziah had done. 35Nevertheless, the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. He built the upper gate of the house of the Lord. 36Now the rest of the acts of Jotham, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah? 37In those days the Lord began to send King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah against Judah. 38Jotham slept with his ancestors, and was buried with his ancestors in the city of David, his ancestor; his son Ahaz succeeded him. – 2 Kings 15.32-38
Neither of this passages about Jotham or the one about Uzziah are much more than caricatures. The author refers the reader/listener to “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah”, which was presumably a source, and is now lost. The author of II Kings is not interested in providing a full chronicle or history, but is setting out several theogico-political themes, the main one being: good things happen when good rulers follow the instruction of God and worship him alone in Jerusalem; bad things happen to bad rulers who tolerate corruption, do not defend the weak, and worship other gods.
The passage above does point to rising tensions between Judah and its northern neighbours, Israel and Damascus (Aram).
Ahaz (Reign: 735–716 BCE)
Ahaz is not a good king according to the author of II Kings:
1 In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, King Ahaz son of Jotham of Judah began to reign. 2Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign; he reigned for sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done, 3but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. 4He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 16.1-4
One of the worst thing someone can be accused of is child sacrifice, and the author accuses Ahaz of doing this. This does appear to have been a practice of ancient Phoenicians and their descendants in Carthage, so it is not beyond belief that a King of Judah might do this. Whereas his father and grandfather simply did not remove the high places, the author says that Ahaz actively sacrificed there himself.
Ahaz was challenged by Israel and Damascus. We read:
5 Then King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel came up to wage war on Jerusalem; they besieged Ahaz but could not conquer him. 6At that time the king of Edom recovered Elath for Edom, and drove the Judeans from Elath; and the Edomites came to Elath, where they live to this day. 7Ahaz sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying, ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.’ 8Ahaz also took the silver and gold found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house, and sent a present to the king of Assyria. 9The king of Assyria listened to him; the king of Assyria marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir; then he killed Rezin. – 2 Kings 16.5-9
Judah is in a weakened state, and so it falls on the old practice of entering into alliances with growing powers – in this case, the Assyrian Empire. He becomes a vassal to the Assyrians, and pays the Assyrian King with gold and silver from the treasuries of the Temple (places of worship often functioned like treasuries in those days, as they still do in India). The bid for assistance works, but at a price. Assyria would have expected loyalty. As a sign of this Ahaz remodels the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem after the one in Damascus.
These are the first three kings Isaiah mentions in 1.1. The fourth, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, is the most important one, and will be discussed in tomorrow’s blog.