[Note: This is a very long post. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I would encourage you to read the introduction and then to scroll to the “Putting it together” section.]
Part of the practice of lectio divina involves taking a passage as it is, without thinking of what comes before or after in the story. This makes sense, since it is a sacred practice that guides us to experience the Scriptures more than to study them. But as I said the other day, there are times when it feels like malpractice to ignore the rest of the story. One such story for me is 2 Kings 9.1-16, which was assigned in morning prayer a couple weeks ago.
In this text, the prophet Elisha sends one of his servants with a word from YHWH to anoint Jehu as king over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. With only laughably little convincing (and absolutely no chill), Jehu enacts a conspiracy to carry out the coup d’état.
Fair enough. But what you wouldn’t know from this portion is that it sets off one of the bloodiest, ‘war-crimes’iest episodes in the Hebrew Bible, as Jehu and his forces kill not only King Jehoram, but his entire extended family (including children, whose heads are put on public display), the Queen Mother Jezebel (who is pushed from a tower to be trampled by horses and eaten by dogs), and all of the country’s Baal-worshippers (whom Jehu has gathered together under a false pretense of friendship). In the process, Jehu uses all of the despot’s tools: violation of trust, rejection of peace offerings, plausible deniability, a messianic mandate, and outright lies.
And yet, if we believe the text, all of this is done with YHWH’s blessing. (ish). It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes people of good faith, ancient and modern alike, wonder how to reconcile the God in this story, who applauds and rewards Jehu, with the God revealed in Jesus, who commands us to love our enemies. To add a further of complication, while 2 Kings applauds these actions, it offsets its praise with a more ambivalent assessment, and the prophet Hosea takes a rather different view of them, using Jezreel — the location of the first phase of Jehu’s rebellion — as a byword for Israel’s disloyalty to YHWH (Hos 1.4-5).
Are the events of Jehu’s reign “good” or not? What might we make of this apparent disunity in the prophetic witness? How might we integrate this story into our faith in a way that is faithful both to the text and to the overall message of our Scriptures? These are complicated questions and so, I thought it might be helpful to explore this story a bit more using my integral hermeneutical framework to guide:
My experience of the story was very uncomfortable. I’m rooted enough in the traditions of the Church to know that the traditional solution to the problems presented by the story would be to accept the story without thinking too much about it while spiritualizing it to be about sin: In the 9th century BCE, God wanted to excise foreign religious influences over Israel and sent Jehu to do the deed; and the story comes to us as Scripture to inspire us to root out the sin and idolatry in our own hearts. This is attractive in that it gives the text the benefit of the doubt and also gives us something tangible to take away for our own lives. But, while there is truth here, I don’t think it serves us to simply ignore or allegorize away historical and ethical concerns raised by biblical stories. The text puts words in God’s mouth, words that had very bloody consequences, and, in a world where many Christians accept the entire Bible as the word of God without differentiation or nuance, they could still have bloody consequences today. As much as I love traditional approaches to reading Scripture, I’m also modern enough to believe in universal human rights and therefore want to call out war crimes when I see them, and postmodern enough to default to defending the victimized, oppressed and silenced.
And so I left this stage with a way out, but not satisfied with it, and wanting better answers.
The second step looks at who it is we encounter in the text. The first thing that became apparent in a close reading of the text is the huge role prophecy plays in it. The dominant prophetic figure in 2 Kings is Elisha. But curiously, at this critical point in the story, he fades almost completely from view. Anointing a king was an important part of the prophetic role, and here he shirks it, sending an unnamed servant in his place. In fact, this is his last mention in until his death midway through chapter 13. Considering the closeness Elisha showed to Israel’s military life in chapters 6-7 of 2 Kings, it’s remarkable that he disappears now, when God’s own anointed king — a true messianic figure in the Old Testament sense — has come to cleanse the country of its sinfulness! While it’s very dangerous to read too much into silence, Elisha’s hands-off approach to Jehu’s anointing and his subsequent disappearance don’t say much in favour of what’s about to happen; it’s as though he removes himself from the action and its consequences. This leaves a gaping prophetic hole in the story, leaving both the unnamed servant Elisha sends to anoint Jehu, and, perhaps most notably, Jehu himself to be the interpreters of YHWH’s will and voice.
The instructions Elisha gives to the servant are presented in the story as very succinct, basically just “Go, anoint Jehu king, and leave without letting anyone see you.” What the servant does when he meets Jehu is quite a bit more involved. He weds together two prophecies of Elijah: the general prophecy of judgment against Israel from 1 Kings 19 that includes the anointings of Hazael as king of Aram, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as Elijah’s successor, and a more specific and personal prophecy against King Ahab and Jezebel in 1 Kings 21. In joining the two prophecies, the servant sets Jehu up not simply as king but also as divine avenger. This means that this nameless character, about whom we know nothing, may actually be the most responsible for setting up the bloodbath that follows.
For his part, Jehu takes little convincing to enact his coup d’etat and once he’s committed to his avenging role, he does it with merciless relish. He is willing to do anything and use any means he can to achieve his goals. He is an accomplished warrior, but is also a liar and a schemer. Everything he does involves some kind of lie, plausible deniability, or going far beyond what was required to get the job done. This is clearly a man with a strong sense of his own messianic vocation. He always has a prophecy at the ready to justify his actions, no matter how extreme. I’m not alone in my discomfort with Jehu being his own prophetic hypeman. Robert Cohn for example, notes that “he too conveniently has a divine oracle and hand whenever he needs one” and that “his repeated elaborations of Elijah’s oracle get no confirmation … raising further questions about his integrity.” Richard D. Nelson similarly notes that Jehu’s reliance on his own self-interpretation of prophecy “seems a bit too convenient, flavored strongly with pretext and self-justification.”
Aside from his rampage against anyone and anything associated with Ahaz and Jezebel, we know very little about Jehu. As a descendant of King Omri, he is a member of the aristocracy. He is powerful enough to make a reasonable claim to the throne but far enough away from the royal family to have some distance from their religious beliefs.
Jehu’s actions are framed as a zeal for the purity of YHWH-worship in Israel, however — as is always the case with questions of purity — we have to ask whose definition of purity is in play here. While 2 Kings praises Jehu for ridding the country of Baal-worship, it also criticizes him for not ridding it of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan. While we might say that Jehu stands for YHWHistic religious orthodoxy, the orthodoxy he stands for is a Northern orthodoxy, which includes the worship of idols at the North’s own temples — practices that were anathema to Judah’s religious orthodoxy, which is the one that we recognize as being canonical. So while Jehu is applauded as a reformer, his reforms are not enough: He is a Northern man through and through, and so is still fundamentally a heretic and a schismatic as far as the text is concerned.
This is no small detail because, as it happens, King Jehu’s reign is geopolitically disastrous: under King Hazael, Aram conquers vast swaths of Israelite territory. As we will see in the next section, by the literary laws of the Old Testament, this means that he is not a faithful ruler. This explains the text’s ambivalence towards Jehu. The text calls him a man who has done all that was in YHWH’s heart and he is rewarded with a dynasty, but it is a short dynasty (four generations) over a diminished and still idolatrous land. And when Hosea was looking for a symbol of Israel’s falling away from God’s ways, Jehu’s actions against the house of Ahab are what came to mind.
This section has provided a lot of food for thought, but has raised far more questions than it has answered. I want more information. Who is telling the story? What is prophecy about? What does it mean to be anointed by God? What if anything does history tell us about this story? And, what other questions have been discussed in the scholarship that I haven’t thought to raise?
1. Narrator / editorial voice:
2 Kings is the final installment of the four books of the Kings, which chronicle the history of Israel (including, after the break up of the united kingdom, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) from the end of the time of the Judges to the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. They are part of the Deuteronomistic history, which interprets Israel’s history through the lens of Deuteronomy’s ethic of blessings and curses as a way of understanding how Israel came to lose the land God had promised them as their eternal inheritance. Common themes of this history include: the importance of Torah-observance, the legitimacy of the Davidic line, singular devotion to YHWH, and the focus of the Jerusalem Temple as the only legitimate place of YHWH-worship.
This editorial information provides a broader motivation for why and how our story is being told, and what the text considers to be good and bad. A Southern origin for 2 Kings might help explain the differences between its assessment of Jehu’s revolution and Hosea’s. Hosea is written both long before 2 Kings took its present form and from a Northern perspective. This proximity of time and place likely made Hosea less prone to ignore the actual human toll of the events of the story. And, more importantly, he was prophesying to try to change the hearts of Israelite political leadership in real time, not trying to explain the national disaster after the fact.
While we may consider these books ‘history’, in the Jewish tradition they have always been first and foremost books of prophecy. As Walter Brueggemann points out, the Former Prophets, as these books are known, provide the counterpoint to the Torah’s point: The Torah promises the gift of the land, witnesses Israel freed from captivity, and culminates with Israel crossing the Jordan River into the Land of Promise; the Former Prophets witness the gradual loss of the Land and culminate with Judah led into captivity and exiled from the Land altogether.
This perspective is helpful for understanding the ambivalent ending to the Jehu story. By the definitions of the Former Prophets, there is no way a ruler who lost land could be remembered positively, no matter how zealous he may have been. He is squarely within the category of God’s judgment, not God’s blessing. This fulfills Elijah’s prophecy in 1 Kings 19, where Jehu is seen as part of the work of judgment against Ahab and all Israel enacted in Hazael’s conquests.
2. The Prophets
What do we mean, though, when we consider the books of Kings as prophecy? Since the prophetic word instigates, justifies, and sanctions (but also condemns) the action of our story, the idea of prophecy needs some further interrogation.
Biblical prophecy might best be defined as the bold public interpretation in word or deed of the nation’s circumstances as divine action. The prophets, whether working alone or traveling in roving ecstatic bands, were known for wild public displays and making their lives object lessons. While the prophets treat their words as God’s own, their audiences don’t feel the need to listen. Moreover, if we take all of the prophetic witness of the Bible together, we see that prophecy does not eradicate the individual personalities and agendas of the prophets: they have different focuses, bents, and political agendas — even in the same political crisis prophets have differences of opinion about just what “the word of the LORD” is. And so, even the “Thus says the LORD” of the prophets is somehow mediated through their own voices, experiences, beliefs, and stages of development. With this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that the word of YHWH around Jehu is understood quite differently by Hosea and the editors of 2 Kings.
The story begins with Elisha’s servant anointing Jehu as king over Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, anointing was an act by which prophets and kings were set apart for divine action. Does this mean then that Jehu’s actions are automatically understood to be right? I think we need to answer this with a yes and a no. There’s no question from the text that Jehu is set apart by God for this job. But, critically for our reading of the story, Hazael — the foreign King who invades and occupies large parts of Israel — is ‘God’s anointed’ just as much as Elisha and Jehu are. There are three messianic figures in the story, at least one of whom is set apart to punish and not bless Israel. This is reminiscent of how the prophets understand Nebuchadnezzar, the ultimate Big Bad of the Hebrew Bible, to be YHWH’s servant. Being a part of God’s plan in these stories and prophecies doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ‘good’ or, as folk would say today, ‘on the right side of history’.
4. Ancient Near Eastern History
How might the cultural and geopolitical history of the 9th century BCE inform our text? The biggest thing that I discovered here is that Israel’s foreign policy took a significant turn under Jehu. Jezebel’s public and grisly death would have immediately put an end to Israel’s alliance with Phoenicia, thus leaving the kingdom politically isolated. With Aram becoming an increasing threat under Hazael, Jehu would have been left with few options. In light of this, it’s not surprising that there is evidence of a shift towards a cozy relationship with Assyria during this period. A mid ninth-century BCE stele known as the Black Obelisk depicts Jehu as a vassal offering silver to King Shalmaneser III. (Incidentally, this is the oldest extant depiction of an Israelite.)
While it seems likely that Jehu turned to Assyria as a result of his newfound political isolation after his dramatic rejection of Phoenician influence, some biblical scholars have posited the opposite: that the desire to shift Israel’s foreign policy was in fact the reason for Jehu’s revolt and not a consequence of it. For example, Marvin A. Sweeney suggests that, despite the biblical narrators’ assurances otherwise, “Jehu’s revolt had more to do with Israel’s deteriorating military position against Aram than it did with such issues of theology and justice.” Richard Nelson notes that by exposing the heads of Ahab’s ‘princelings’, Jehu is imitating Assyrian practice, perhaps suggesting he was already under Assyrian influence.
Regardless of which direction Jehu’s motivations went, it is clear that under his leadership, Israel became a client state to Assyria. As it happens, Hosea was strongly opposed to this subservience (see Hosea 5 and 7 for example). This provides a further reason why this prophet may have looked more negatively upon Jehu’s reign than 2 Kings seems to.
5. Other Scholarship
The above discussions have more or less answered my questions about the text, but what other questions have biblical scholars discussed that I didn’t think to ask?
The first thing that came up is the question, “Is it shalom?” which is repeated several times in the story. At first it seems to be an innocent request for an update from the battlefield, but as it is repeated throughout the story, it picks up a narrative tension. “Is it shalom?”
Peter J. Leithart suggests that while the immediate answer is always ‘no’, “ultimately Jehu brings … peace and rest through atoning vengeance.” While Nelson agrees that the motif highlights Jehu’s divine mandate to bring true shalom between Israel and God, rather immediate concerns of war and peace, he is less sanguine about how this works out in practice. He concludes, “Our ethical decisions about violence … are always a matter of compromise, leading at best to partial shaloms, thoroughly leavened by the violence we must employ to achieve them.”
The second interesting thing I hadn’t thought to wonder about is the symbolism of Jezreel. This theme has been raised particularly by scholars of Hosea. Jezreel, they note, means “God sows.” The name is fitting, referring to a city in a beautiful, lush, and strategically important valley. But this beautiful place is the scene of memorable violence: first, Jezebel arranges the execution of Naboth and then appropriates his estate as a royal residence for Ahab. And now in our story it becomes a place of regicide and bloody rampage. By referencing it so memorably in his prophecy, Hosea draws attention not only to the bloody way Jehu’s family — still on the throne in Hosea’s day — came to power, but also draws a parallel between the two royal families of Ahab and Jehu: both have an original sin in Jezreel and both find themselves deeply caught up in foreign influences. The revolutionary is no different than the ancien regime. The name Jezreel can therefore be seen as a reminder that both families have sown bad seed in this place where God sowed beauty, just as Israel has despoiled the Land of Milk and Honey with its apostasy. For both the house of Jehu and Israel as a whole, the time to reap what has been sown is at hand.
Finally, Peter J. Leithart, an American evangelical scholar, offers up an idea that is in equal parts appalling and helpful. He posits that Jehu is a true hero and a prototype for Jesus Christ himself. Leithart insists that bloody vengeance is not bad, but it simply not ours to take: Since Jehu is God’s anointed, he does right in all that he does. As outrageous as this may sound, Leithart has some good reasons to back up his argument — certainly enough to get my attention. Jesus, like Jehu, is God’s anointed. Jesus, like Jehu comes for justice and to restore peace between Israel and God. Jesus, like Jehu, declares that he is the fulfillment of prophecy.
Leithart states: “Bloody Jehu fulfills all that is on Yahweh’s ‘heart.’ This gives a new twist to the idea that David is ‘a man after God’s own heart’ and shows that vengeance against the wicked … is very dear to Israel’s God.” He concludes:
“Jesus comes to Jerusalem as an avenger, mad with zeal to defend the honor of his Father against those who defile his Father’s house. Jesus is the greater Jehu, for the Jesus of the Gospel and of Revelation is not Jesus meek and mild … but rather the apocalyptic lamb who burns with perfect holy wrath.”
I’m grateful to Leithart for drawing these connections. I think they’re important, even if I believe we need to flip the script to understand how the connection might work.
This part of the exercise involves engaging the culture clash between my context and the world of the story. It acts as a kind of prosecutor, asking the difficult questions.
A defining part of the postmodern critique of modernity was its suspicion of metanarratives, overarching stories that turn history into an object lesson — projects just like the Deuteronomic history. Fundamentally, the Jehu story presents a history of the Northern Kingdom told from the perspective of the Southern Kingdom. As Sweeney concludes, the Jehu story “functioned as a demonstration of northern Israel’s inability to govern itself without constant revolt and violence and thereby pointed to the need for Hezekiah to reestablish Davidic control over the north.” The postmodern critique would remind us that even as we are dealing with Scripture, we are also dealing with a politically- and religiously-motivated propaganda piece written from the perspective of Israel’s less powerful sibling rival.
We also have to wrestle with the question of whose story isn’t being told here. Ahab and Jezebel are villains: They are liars and schemers and, from the perspective of our Bibles, heretics. But, of course, we could say exactly the same thing about Jehu. A less biased reading might highlight that they leveraged their political marriage to cement an alliance that was useful in protecting both Israel and Phoenicia from foreign aggression, or that Jezebel as Queen Consort and later Queen Mother, provided Israel with a measure of political stability for four decades.
While Jezebel and Ahab might be villainous, many of the Ahabites are presented in the story as good and peaceable folk who are nonetheless massacred at Jehu’s hand. This leads to the question of violence, which has been hanging over this whole exercise. Gina Hens-Piazza frames the question well:
“How do we understand a salvation history that achieves its end with violence? Are religious beliefs merely pretexts for forwarding political or ideological programs? … Are we as readers enlisted or even co-opted to assent to this violence…?”
This is where the concepts of cultural evolution and, in a faith context, unfolding revelation, are helpful. A straight reading of the Deuteronomistic history on its own may indeed legitimize holy wars and crusades, but it’s not — thankfully — the end of the story. A lot has happened since the 7th century BCE. Out of the rubble of the ‘PowerGods,’ tribal henotheism we see in these stories slowly emerged the ethical monotheism of the latter prophets, who emphasized the peaceable kingdom of the one God rather than battles amongst the gods and their priests and prophets. Isaiah 2, for example, imagines the peoples of the world “beat[ing] their swords into plowshares” and dreams of a day when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Similarly, Isaiah 61 raises the bar for the mission of God’s anointed servant: “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” This is what “the day of vengeance of our God” looks like. And, the justice of God’s anointed servant is described in Isaiah 42 not breaking a bruised reed or quenching a dimly burning wick. As the Scriptures move on, we see an emerging consensus that petty battles and retributive violence are not what YHWH is really about. The people of God learned a lot about their God in the experience of Exile and the centuries that followed. We would do well to pay attention to those lessons, so we don’t need to learn them again for ourselves.
Jesus, of course, appropriates the mission from Isaiah 61 as his own, and so it becomes the paradigm for Christian life: If we are similarly anointed (which is the Christian claim), then our lives too must be about proclaiming good news and binding up the brokenhearted. Jesus echoed these themes in the Beatitudes, where he teaches us that divine blessing is about comfort for the grieving, and food — both physical and spiritual — for those who hunger for it. And lastly, we have to mention the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, where the presence of the Holy Spirit is described as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Seen through this light — and as Christians, we had better — Jehu possesses little we can identify as being consistent with the anointing of the Spirit of God. Circling back to Leithart’s argument that Jehu is a prototype for Jesus, I think we have to argue instead that Jehu is actually an antitype for Jesus, an ‘antichrist’ in the sense that he offers an alternative and opposing vision of what being the “Christ” looks like. Vengeance may indeed be close to God’s heart, but we must insist with Isaiah 61 that God’s “vengeance” is defined by undoing the damage of war, oppression, and injustice, not perpetuating it.
Yes, Jesus, like Jehu, is God’s anointed, but it is in Jesus’ humble path, not Jehu’s grasping for power, that we see the fruit of the Spirit.
Yes, Jesus, like Jehu, comes for justice and to restore peace between Israel and God, but where Jehu happily took up the mantle of kingship, Jesus rejected the temptation to earthly power; where Jehu’s zeal led to slaughter, Jesus’ zeal was sated by scattering those who would make money off the temple, not killing them; and where Jehu responded to the question “Is it Shalom?” with the sword, Jesus told those who would defend him in the Garden of Gethsemane to put away their swords.
Yes, Jesus, like Jehu, appropriates old prophecies for himself, but every prophecy he appropriates sets him further on the path to the Cross and away from earthly glory.
Now we put our reading to the test: How does it encourage growth? How does it expand our circle of empathy? What is it bringing into awareness? And, what impact does it have on others?
The reading of the Jehu story I’ve proposed here passes these integral tests. It encourages growth by causing us to question how we deal with the energies of a situation: Both Jehu and Jesus are anointed by God for their missions; both are zealous to bring Israel back into a right relationship with God. But even within those similarities, how they dealt with those energies couldn’t have been more different. Jehu chose violence and, even within the very different moral standards of his time, was remembered with ambivalence. Jesus chose the way of the cross and became the saviour of the world. In big and small ways, we too have to choose how we accomplish the things we want to and are called to do in life. Which way will we choose?
The reading of the text uncovered here expands our circle of empathy by refusing to ignore the victims of Jehu’s actions. It acknowledges that even if as Scripture we need to find ways to apply stories like this to our lives, we have a responsibility to wrestle with the ways they fall short of the Kingdom of God as much as the ways they reveal it.
It brings into awareness a reminder that violence begets violence; that even well-intentioned revolutions can quickly descend into reigns of terror; and that having too high an understanding of one’s own purpose often leads to a tunnel vision that dehumanizes others and justifies almost any action. We have to be wary of anyone who thinks they are the answer.
Finally, this is an ecological reading of the text because it promotes genuine peace and respect by recognizing the limits and compromises that are always involved in the human pursuit of justice and peace.
Putting it together
To bring all these various pieces together, what we have in 2 Kings 9-10 is a very human story. In bringing together his personal agenda with his sense of divine calling, Jehu’s actions went far beyond what was needed or acceptable, to the extent that his most favorable assessment is ambivalent and the location of his insurrection later became a byword for the cycle of injustice that was leading Israel further away from God. God sowed beauty in Jezreel; Jehu, just as much as Ahab and Jezebel, sowed violence there instead. It is now time for both to reap what they’ve sown. The word of YHWH to Elijah was true: Jehu may have rid Israel of Baal-worship, but his anointing as King is part of God’s larger judgment against Israel.
The story of Jehu is, then, a cautionary tale. It’s a warning not to get so consumed in our agendas that we lose sight of the message of God’s peaceable Kingdom. Jehu had a choice and he chose poorly: So many times he was offered another path. So many times, he was asked the question, “Is it Shalom? — Is this what God’s justice, peace, and harmony look like?” Despite the surface similarities between Jehu and Jesus, Jesus rejected Jehu’s way. Even when he loses his temper in righteous indignation, like in the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus is the one demanding of the powers that be, “Is this Shalom?” Both Jehu and Jesus were zealous for YHWH, but only in one do we encounter who YHWH is and see what true peace looks like.
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