* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

2 Kings 11-14: Pictures of Human Immaturity

The saga of royalty in Israel and Judah continues in 2 Kings 11-14. Elisha's last crotchety advice and his posthumous miracle-working are included in this passage, although there is little to be said about these stories that has not already been pointed out about folklore of the Ancient Near East. While the recounting of Judah's history in 2 Chronicles matches the tale in 2 Kings closely, there are a couple of interesting differences to point out. The Chronicler includes a bit of information about both Joash and Amaziah that the authors of the Book of Kings either did not know or chose to omit.

It seems like a small thing, but these two versions of Joash's reign hold a contradiction that demonstrates that the Bible is written from a multitude of subjective points of view, and thus cannot be taken as completely literally accurate. The context is the story about Joash having the high priest Jehoiada oversee the collection funds to repair the temple. It takes a bit of time and persistence, but the king eventually gets temple repairs under way. 2 Kings 12:13-14 states, "The money brought into the temple was not spent for making silver basins, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, trumpets or any other articles of gold or silver for the temple of the Lord; it was paid to the workers, who used it to repair the temple." It then goes on to articulate how honest the workers were. Compare that to 2 Chronicles 24:14; after all the repairs were diligently completed, "they brought the rest of the money to the king and Jehoiada, and with it were made articles for the Lord’s temple: articles for the service and for the burnt offerings, and also dishes and other objects of gold and silver." According to Chronicles 24:7, this was necessary because Athaliah had misused the items for Baal worship.

It really doesn't matter whether Joash and Jehoiada approved of making some new altar pieces with the money that was collected. The point is that one of these accounts is simply factually wrong. For most readers, that is no problem. One person knew something another person didn't, or perhaps there was some political reason an author had for suggesting that things happened a certain way. It certainly doesn't have any bearing on our understanding of spirituality. However, this passage is one of many that reflects the problem with asserting that there are no contradictions of any kind in the Bible and that it is a completely trustworthy account of history, as some people do.

The Chronicler also includes some details about the remainder of Joash's reign that the version of history in 2 Kings completely omits. Both tell of how Joash handed over temple and palace riches to Hazael, king of Aram, and how this led Joash's officials to assassinate him. In addition to correcting some details about the circumstances of Joash's death and burial, however, the Chronicler reveals that Joash had turned away from worshiping Yahweh after the death of high priest Jehoiada, going so far as to murder Jehoiada's son when the priest Zechariah spoke out against the king. 

Joash's son Amaziah, who succeeded him on the throne, is also a bit more colorfully put on display by the Chronicler, who includes interactions between Amaziah and a couple of unnamed prophets, as well as a reason why folks in Israel might have gotten tired of this king of Judah. Jehoash was king of Israel at the time, and the story tells of him breaking down a wall of Jerusalem and stealing "all the gold and silver articles found in the temple." So, either Joash didn't really give everything away to the king of Aram or Judah had bountiful resources to the extent that they could have things made of gold and silver in the temple again. Or perhaps these articles were plunder from Amaziah's successful military campaigns. In any case, Amaziah's reign ended in assassination as well. It was a tough gig being king of Judah.

Entertainment value of ancient stories aside, a consistent theme through these tales is the wealth and lives that were sacrificed in defending and maintaining a religion. If we take the biblical historians at their word, incredible amounts of a nation's resources were spent on religious paraphernalia that had no practical value to the people, and consistent with the biblical narrative up to this point, thousands of people were killed under the auspices of Yahweh's favor for the Israelites. If a people is favored by a divine being, why couldn't this omnipotent divine being simply protect them from harm and let the "infidels" kill one another off? What can be said about the character of a deity who requires his followers to take up arms and kill those who don't belong to the tribe? The criticism leveled at Islam in the twenty-first century is that this supposed religion of peace promotes violence, and yet, where must Muslims have learned this dichotomy? If the God of Christianity in the twenty-first century is the same Yahweh worshiped by the ancient Israelites, someone somewhere along the way got something very wrong. The divine propensity for violence as a solution to any problem in the Old Testament is incompatible with the message of patient love and compassion conveyed by the New Testament. 

So what can be said about the consistency of the Bible, then? Perhaps it is not a consistent depiction of the nature of a divine being, but rather a trajectory taken by a people on a path of spiritual and emotional maturity. Perhaps in its infancy, humanity's immaturity led it toward violence and clear delineations between Us and Them. Fear was the primary motivator on nearly every level of a people's development, even if they were not conscious of fear as a driving principle. Immature people cannot comprehend concepts like unconditional love and self-sacrificial compassion toward the Other. And yet, love and compassion were necessary at some level for any society to have lasted. The prophets will actually speak into this immaturity before the Old Testament is through. The bottom line is that no human society could never have developed if everyone only did what seemed personally advantageous in the moment. Perhaps the Old Testament, then, is largely about the failure of humanity to thrive in a state of immaturity.

If this is the case, then the New Testament is not about a different deity, but nor is it really about a deity at all. It is about human maturity. The teachings of Jesus become lessons in developing emotional and spiritual maturity so that one is not governed by fear and is thus capable of authentic love, genuine compassion, and unfettered joy. The New Testament is not the story of armies and kings and how many thousands of people God allowed this person or that person to drive off a cliff so their riches could be plundered. The New Testament is about the part in the trajectory toward maturity where individual people learn to live in deep connection with themselves and one another. 

Of course, this message is largely overshadowed by miracle stories and the establishment of doctrinal formulas that reinforce the idea that people are incapable, broken, and weak. What could be developed as a message of hope that people can grow into mature iterations of themselves, and that society can thus grow in maturity, has been used to create the same waste of resources and death tolls as the immature ancient Israelite religion and worse. Perhaps humanity is still not ready for the idea of maturity -- the idea that fear need not have a place in our personal guiding principles. Perhaps humanity is still in its infancy, where violence and fear outweigh our capacity as a species for rational thought, love, and creativity. Perhaps humanity in the twenty-first century is not all that different from humanity as expressed by the bloodthirsty, short-sighted ancient Israelites. 

Whatever humanity's maturity level may be, though, there exist in the world today individuals who are willing to accept their capability to create something better. There are individuals who understand that the welcome conflict of growth is different than senseless fear-driven violence -- who recognize that all people have value and are worthy of respect, even people who don't realize their potential for maturity. There are individuals in the world today who can clearly envision a way of being that radiates trust and hope in the present while still being well-grounded in deep convictions -- individuals who are continually taking time to connect with themselves so that they can connect with others more deeply. There are individuals in the world today who are not governed by fear or judgment, but by a calm sense of purpose, an evocative passion to create rather than destroy. There are individuals in the world today who understand that people who embody personal responsibility and capability can and do influence humanity toward greater maturity. 

Perhaps you are one of them.     

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