As we've seen, 2 Kings 15 doesn't paint a flattering picture of the rulers of Israel and Judah in the 8th century BCE. They were self-absorbed, indulgent, murderous lot whose deeds were barely worthy of a paragraph from the historian. Already, there were signs during the reigns of Menahem and Pekah that the nations of Judah and Israel would be troubled by Assyria's ruler Tiglath-Pileser III (who is also called by the name Pul or Pulu). Tiglath-Pileser III claimed rulership of Assyria during a civil war, and in an effort to seem more authentic, he took his throne name from two previous Assyrian rulers who had come by the throne legitimately. His military reforms and expansionist ideals created an empire that included most of the nations known to the Assyrians at the time. One of his most successful policies in preventing further internal conflict was to force thousands of citizens to relocate to diverse parts of the empire, breaking up subcultural identities based on connections with a particular land.
Into this climate, King Ahaz ascended to the throne of Judah when his father Jotham died. 2 Kings 16 tells one version of his reign, which apparently began early on with participation in the various foreign religious practices that had become popular in Judah. High places, hills, and green trees were chosen as sites for worship and sacrifices because these places were thought to be favored by various gods. Ahaz is also said to have made his son "pass through fire," which is often interpreted as an act of child sacrifice. Based on current archeological evidence, the sacrifice of children was not nearly as prevalent as some biblical passages suggest, although some ancient writers did use the accusation of child sacrifice as propaganda to demonize enemy civilizations during times of war. It is known, however, that some societies committed child sacrifices in times of great duress, as an extraordinary means of appealing to their supernaturals for aid, and Ahaz certainly reigned during a time of great duress in Judah. It's important to understand a little something of Ahaz in order to understand some of the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
During the reign of Ahaz, Judah was attacked by Aram and Israel. The nation of Aram was really a collection of city-states, one of which was Damascus. King Rezin was obviously connected to Damascus, based on 2 Kings. Rezin joined forces with Pekah, the king of Israel to attack Judah; there is no indication as to their motivations, but in the end (according to 2 Kings) Rezin drove the Judeans out of Elath and reclaimed it. (Edom and Aram are probably synonymous in this passage.) In light of this offensive action, Ahaz sought military aid from Tiglath-Pileser III, bribing him with valuables from his own holdings as well as the temple treasury. The Assyrian emperor, seeing the potential for expanding the Assyrian empire, attacked Damascus, killed Rezin, and annexed a portion of Aram.
After seeing the altar in Damascus, Ahaz made some radical changes to the temple in Jerusalem, with the assistance of the priest Uriah. Perhaps he wanted to be more like Tiglath-Pileser III, even though he could not possibly match the Assyrian emperor's military and social ingenuity. The prophet Isaiah was an adviser to Ahaz during this entire crisis, so there will be more to unpack about this ruler. The Chronicler, however, interprets the relationship between Ahaz and Tiglath-Pileser somewhat differently in 2 Chronicles 28. Beginning with the quote from 2 Kings criticizing Ahaz for idolatry and child sacrifice, the Chronicler then goes on to describe just how severely the armies of Aram and Israel defeated Judah. Of course, the Chronicler interprets this defeat as a consequence of the king's idolatry, but we can be confident that there were political motivations for the action against Judah.
According to the Chronicler, there were multiple incursions into Judah by foreign armies who reclaimed and settled cities, whittling away at Judah's borders. When Ahaz turned to Tiglath-Pileser III for assistance in this interpretation of history, the Assyrian leader saw Judah's weakened position and took advantage of the situation, demanding tribute but providing no meaningful aid. Ahaz made what was a logical decision for a person in his time and culture; he started worshiping gods that had seemingly brought success to his enemies. It is a constant danger in cultures where the supernatural is legitimized that people will look ever more frantically for something outside of themselves to make life easier, better, and safer. The answer to making positive changes lies within a person's own behavior, however, and not with some invented god or supernatural force. Change comes when people are willing to take an honest look within themselves and act in a way that leads toward a desirable future.
Which brings us to Oded. This prophet is never mentioned again in the Bible, and perhaps his name (which means "Restorer") is more of a symbolic moniker than anything else. When the Israel army had soundly defeated Judah (with the aid of Rezin's forces), they claimed 200,000 Judeans as spoils of war. They intended to take these people as slaves, even though they shared a common heritage; of all the people in the world, these captives were most like the people of Israel. Oded spoke out in protest. He could not stand by and watch people taking their own kindred as prisoners of war; he understood the immorality of subjugating people who shared a deep bond of culture and history. Once Oded stood up, other leaders began to speak out in agreement. Who knows whether they would have said anything if Oded had remained silent, but once the truth was spoken, their own integrity won out over greed-fear and the thoughtless fervor of military victory. They clothed the captives, fed them, escorted them to a safe place, even using their own pack animals as necessary, and they set them free.
It didn't matter that the Judeans had committed idolatry. It didn't matter that they had been militarily inferior. It didn't matter that they had been on the wrong side of the division of Israelite culture. They were human beings who were more similar to the people of Israel than they were different. They deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, even as conquered people. Oded saw this, and he spoke the truth boldly. The Israelite soldiers could have cut him down and silenced him; it would only have taken one man who didn't like what Oded had to say. This has happened on more than one occasion throughout human history. In this instance, though, for whatever reason, Oded's words had the power to invoke true justice.
Our world has captives. Our world has slaves, figurative and literal. Some people suffer because of war. Some people suffer because of oppressive systems. Some people suffer because of other people's fear. Some people are just stuck in a cycle of poverty or prejudice that they cannot break on their own. There is nothing that makes these people less worthy of respect and dignity than any other person. If we are honest, we must acknowledge that human beings are more alike than different. We like to be tribal; it's comfortable to draw lines of distinction. But we are not that different from one another. People -- all people -- have inherent worth and dignity, Israelite and Judean, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, Muslim and Christian and Buddhist and Hindu and Wiccan and Atheist and ...
There was nothing that credentialed Oded to speak out except that he saw the truth and was willing to speak out on the side of justice, equity, and compassion. His words had nothing to do with what was legally permissible. His words had to do with integrity and human value. Oded would perhaps not have spoken out against claiming other peoples as prisoners of war. He was, after all, a product of his place and time. We have some advantage of perspective over Oded. We can aim higher in our own lives. We, too, can speak out with bold honesty against injustice, oppression, and fear. If we speak so that others can hear, perhaps our words will inspire others to take a stand as well. Moreover, we can take action in our lives to demonstrate what it means to have integrity, to be ethically astute in our treatment of other human beings. There is no reason that a modern day portrait of Oded should not look exactly like us.