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OT Undesigned Coincidence: The High Places

This new undesigned coincidence is one I ran into myself while reading, in Isaiah 36, a passage that is the same almost word-for-word in 2 Kings--a circumstance for which we don't know the precise explanation. My own guess is that Isaiah came first and that the chronicler of Kings used it.

In any event, virtually all of the material for this coincidence is found in I and 2 Kings, which were originally just one book. Nobody knows for sure who wrote it (one theory is that it was Jeremiah), but since it covers hundreds of years of history, obviously the final compiler was using a lot of earlier material and didn't witness it all himself. The indications I will use to resolve a question are subtle and widespread; hardly the sort of thing even a single compiler or author would make up and spread around to make his narrative look more plausible.

The coincidence begins with a slightly surprising aspect of the taunts leveled by the Assyrian envoy Rabshakeh against the people of Jerusalem in I Kings 18. This is pretty much classic ANE trash talking. Sennacherib has already conquered several other towns of Judah, is building an empire, and the envoys are trying to create dissension within the besieged city. When those sent out to negotiate with them ask them to pipe down (to speak in a language they understand but the people on the walls don't), the Assyrians yell even louder to the people on the walls, in Hebrew, which they know they will understand.

The first part of the taunt from the Assyrians actually alleges that Yahweh himself is in favor of the Assyrian conquest of Judah, and gives a surprising reason:

But if you say to me, "We trust in the Lord our God," is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and has said to Judah and to Jerusalem, "You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem"? Now therefore, come, make a bargain with my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse one official of the least of my master’s servants, and rely on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? Have I now come up without the Lord’s approval against this place to destroy it? The Lord said to me, "Go up against this land and destroy it." (2 Kings 18:22-25)

This is very strange. Sure, it's a trash-talking Assyrian envoy. He could easily be telling lies. But why would he think the people would be susceptible to the claim that Hezekiah has angered Yahweh by taking away the high places and requiring them to worship in Jerusalem?

Hezekiah did indeed undertake this religious reform, and here is the account, earlier in the chapter:

He did right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him. For he clung to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:3-6)

The high places are mentioned in the same sentence with the Asherah poles. One might easily conclude, and not only from this passage, that the high places were only places of pagan worship. The people might not have been happy about Hezekiah's breaking them up, but they would not be likely to believe that Yahweh would be upset about it--Yahweh who had commanded again and again against idolatry. Why would the envoy even try such a claim?

To answer that question we need to go back into the long and rather convoluted history of the high places in the history of Israel. This is a helpful archaeological article. Generically, a high place was a place of sacrifice, with an altar, to some Ancient Near Eastern deity. The were usually constructed on a literal high place--a hill, for example--but not necessarily.

Back in I Samuel, more than 200 years before the siege recounted in 2 Kings 18, the worship of Yahweh was much more diffused, and the prophet Samuel himself worshiped and sacrificed to Yahweh at a high place. It was there that he met Saul and anointed him king. (I Samuel 9) There was a famous high place to Yahweh at Gibeon during the time of Samuel and King David, and the tabernacle and altar were there (I Chronicles 21:29-30). This was considered to be the main place of worship to Yahweh, and even when David moved the Ark of the Covenant from the Gibeonite city of Kirjath-Jearim to his new capital city of Jerusalem, he was careful to continue to "staff" the tabernacle at the high place at Gibeon (I Chronicles 16:37-40).

When telling about the reign of Solomon, the narrator of Kings makes an important comment:

The people were still sacrificing on the high places, because there was no house built for the name of the Lord until those days. (I Kings 3:2)

This implies that there were multiple Yahweh-worship high places in the time of Solomon and that the people had no choice but to worship at them (or at least at Gibeon) until Solomon finished the Temple. But there is more than a hint here that, once the Temple was finished, the scattered worship of Yahweh was to cease.

The narrator even tries to import into his evaluation of Solomon a phrase that will be a formula throughout Kings for basically-good-but-not-perfect rulers:

Now Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except he sacrificed and burned incense on the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place; Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. (I Kings 3:3-4)

The implication being that it was somewhat of an imperfection to sacrifice on the high places, though this is a bit anachronistic of the narrator, since by his own admission a high place was the only place for Solomon to sacrifice at that time. Notice that this is definitely Yahweh worship. Later when Solomon goes astray from God in his old age, he builds a pagan high place, but that is at a different time (I Kings 11:7).

God is pleased with Solomon's lavish sacrifice at the great high place at Gibeon, for it is there (I Kings 3:5) that he appears to Solomon in a dream and asks what he wishes for.

After the Temple is built, however, the narrative of Kings implies quite distinctly that all high places are o-u-t out. The interesting thing, though, is that from then on the narrator doesn't bother to tell us which high places a king is being (somewhat) blamed for failing to obliterate. We find a king like the reforming Asa, clearly anti-idolatry, who is unable to get rid of the high places.

Asa did what was right in the sight of the Lord, like David his father. He also put away the male cult prostitutes from the land and removed all the idols which his fathers had made. He also removed Maacah his mother from being queen mother, because she had made a horrid image as an Asherah; and Asa cut down her horrid image and burned it at the brook Kidron. But the high places were not taken away; nevertheless the heart of Asa was wholly devoted to the Lord all his days. (I Kings 15:11-14)

He seems to have gotten rid of some high places or other, giving rise to a claim of Bible contradiction, for II Chronicles 14 says,

Asa did good and right in the sight of the Lord his God, for he removed the foreign altars and high places, tore down the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherim, and commanded Judah to seek the Lord God of their fathers and to observe the law and the commandment. He also removed the high places and the incense altars from all the cities of Judah. And the kingdom was undisturbed under him.

One possibility is that Asa removed the pagan high places but was up against a more stubborn will of the people when it came to the remaining ancient high places to Yahweh. Another possibility is that Asa was able to remove the high places only temporarily and that the people built them again.

The high places are notably persistent. Again and again the narrator points out that some king was pretty good but couldn't get the people to stop worshiping at the high places. (e.g., I Kings 22:43, 2 Kings 12:2-3, 14:4, 15:4, 16:4)

Clearly at least some, perhaps many, of the high places were places of worship to pagan gods (see the abominable behavior of Ahaz in 2 Kings 16:1-4).

But it looks like--though this is an inference--some continued to be ostensibly places of worship to the true God, on throughout the years after Solomon's Temple was built and up to the time of Hezekiah.

Now the taunt of Rabshakeh makes more sense. The Assyrians had been conquering the cities of Judah, and presumably they had picked up, perhaps from talking to captives, the fact that some high places ostensibly for Yahweh had been destroyed in the course of Hezekiah's reforms. So the Assyrians decide to make a piece of agitprop out of this fact, implying that Hezekiah's motive is not pure Yahwehist piety but rather a political desire to centralize worship at Jerusalem, his own seat of government.

This satisfying coincidence confirms, inter alia, the accurate transmission of the taunts of the Assyrians against Jerusalem. There are other realistic touches, too. For example, there is the degeneration of the envoy's message, later in the chapter, to dissing Yahweh, plain and simple, and chest-thumping about all the other nations' gods who have not saved them:

But do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you, saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria from my hand? Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their land from my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem from my hand? (2 Kings 18:32-35)

A bully may start out with something more clever, but in the end he's just trying to scare you.

The chapter gives the names of those who were sent out from the city to deal with the Assyrian messenger:

When they called to the king, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the scribe and Joah the son of Asaph the recorder, came out to them.

They are mentioned again in the last verse of the chapter. This careful recording of names leads to one fairly natural hypothesis about how the chronicler came to know the words of the challenger. Maybe one of these three (perhaps Shebnah the scribe or Joah the son of Asaph the recorder) wrote down from memory at least approximately (but accurately) what was said. This would have been all the more worth keeping a record of, long-term, in view of the triumphant sequel (2 Kings 19:35-36).

Brief digression: Occasionally someone will tell you that ancient near eastern people didn't have a sense of accurate history as we do, didn't even have the concept of history, or that their concept of history was wildly different from ours, including what we would call myth and legend and making no sharp distinction. I suggest the next time someone says that, you send him to read the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. In many places they are so detailed and plodding that they are downright boring. Historical in an ordinary, recognizable sense, with an intention of literal truth? Absolutely.

Notice, too, that the chronicler doesn't need to know everything and doesn't pretend to know everything. The vagueness of the references to the high places throughout I and II Kings leads one to surmise that the chronicler may not always have known in which cases the high places that remained were for Yahweh or for pagan gods. He just knew that God didn't want them. The restriction of sacrifice to Jerusalem is sometimes, plausibly enough, taken to be a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 12:4ff, where God foretold that eventually he would choose a specific place to which all Israel must go to sacrifice, in order to distinguish their mode of worship sharply from that of the surrounding nations.

The writer of Kings understands that pure Yahweh sacrifice was to be carried out only at the Temple at Jerusalem once it was built. (A point that the later Jews of the 2nd Temple, in Jesus' day, were fanatical about. See John 4:20.) He associates worship on the high places with paganism even when (as he is forced to admit in the case of Solomon and Gibeon) he realizes that it wasn't always pagan. His own records may well not have stated precisely which high places survived a given reform or attempted reform between the time of Solomon and the Babylonian captivity, simply that the people's practice of worshiping on the high places continued after a certain king's reign. Nor does he pretend to know where the Assyrians got their information. Nor does he spell out why the Assyrians said what they did.

The author of I and 2 Kings records what he has. Its very incompleteness, subtlety, and casualness, when the parts of the story fit together as they do, is the mark of accurate history.

Comments (2)

You did it! That taunt by Rabshakeh has been bothering me for decades, and now you've gone and cleared it up!

Ok, I may have passed over its difficulties the last 4 times I read the passage. But that's because I never really did grasp the details well enough to get sorted out on what was OK and what was not OK with respect to worship (sacrifices) outside the Temple. I was always confused about it. I guess I was in good company, with a sizable portion of Israel. I guess I was carrying my modern baggage around without realizing it.

In any case: good sleuthing.

Thanks, Tony!

The OT coincidences often have a different "feel" from the NT ones because the canvas of the narrative is so much bigger and the hints for the coincidence often spread out over many chapters or whole books. Also, one often just doesn't know who the author was, and it's often obvious that the author was using a lot of earlier sources. This means that one is *very* often doing a coincidence from within the writings of a single (probable) final scribe or compiler. Indeed, the more traditional view is often to attribute large tracts of the OT to a single person (e.g., the five books of Moses). Hence one is less often able to say, "This was from a completely different person."

On the other hand, the very "spread" of the information and the fact that it sometimes concerns large trends that are hinted at (such as the people's continued worship of Yahweh at the high places) makes it more subtle, so that it becomes highly implausible that this was a unified, literarily contrived "work" in which the final compiler would even have had much opportunity to "plant" apparent coincidences.

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