Christians take it for granted that Jesus is divine for many reasons, such as the miracles he performed. Yet reading the Bible, the miracles of Jesus don’t seem too out of the ordinary. In fact long before Jesus, there was Elijah who performed many miracles and even raised the dead before ascending into heaven. So who was this Elijah?
So the 2nd book of Kings begins when King of Israel, Ahaziah, is ill and asks God for help. He sends 50 soldiers to Elijah (it’s not clear whether they are just summon him or to arrest him) but Elijah summons fire down from heaven and kills them all. So the king sends another 50 men and Elijah kills them too and then a third group is sent. The king really didn’t learn his lesson and it’s pretty stupid to keep doing the exact same thing that fails every time. If you really have to send soldiers, why not send archers? The third group begs not to be killed (after all, they’re just doing their job) so Elijah goes with them and tells the king that he will die because he also prayed to Baal for help. This is pretty anti-climactic and makes the deaths of 100 men seem completely pointless.
Elijah is walking with his follower Elisha and makes water split like it did for Moses. Is there anything Elijah can’t do? He seems to be all the prophets rolled into one, yet we get surprisingly little details about him. He just seems to have appeared one day and he gets surprisingly little mention in the Bible. While they are talking, chariots of fire and horses of fire come and “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” This is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because any section of the Bible that isn’t just listing family trees or property titles is interesting. Why is Elijah the only person in the Old Testament who doesn’t die? Where did he go, seeing as Jews don’t believe in Heaven? Where do Christians put him in the hierarchy of heaven? What are chariots of fire and why did the Bible wait until now to introduce them?
Elisha follows in the footsteps of Elijah and performs a lot of the same miracles, to the point that it seems that some of the stories were probably copied. He too can make water part for him and cures a poisoned well. Like Elijah and Jesus, Elisha knows the recipe for everlasting food and gives a bottomless jar of olive oil to a widow (it’s always a widow). He meets another kind old widow and repays her kindness by blessing her with a child. However, when the child (who is strangely never named) is grown, he gets sick and dies. Elisha then brings him back from the dead, which raises all sorts of theological questions.
Doesn’t only God (and Jesus) have power over life and death? If he can bring people back from the dead, how does he pick a deserving case? Why does he only revive one person? Why did they die in the first place? Was this supposed to reveal something and if so, what?
However, there is another side to Elisha. While traveling, some boys start laughing at him for being bald. Does he respond with kindness as you would expect from a man of God? Does he silence them or chase them off? No, he summons two bears who come and kill 42 boys. This event occurs without any comment in the Bible. That’s right, children too young to know right from wrong are massacred for the slightest reason and no one has any problem with it. God occasionally claims to promote justice and show love, but random acts of cruelty and violence like this are much more common. Even by his own words, God seems more like a murderous gangster than a loving father.
Moab is supposed to deliver 100,000 lambs and wool from 100,000 rams (which of course is an impossible amount) but rebels instead. Israel and Judah unite to exterminate Moab (God really seems to love wars of extermination). All the cities are destroyed and the Israelites cover the land with stones so that nothing could grow. They block the springs and cut down all the trees. In the last city, the King of Moab sacrifices his eldest son and heir which causes a “great wrath against Israel” which forces them to withdraw.
This is very odd. Does this mean that the Moabite God is more powerful than the Israelites God? Does child sacrifice actually have power that can help win wars? That’s a disturbing thought.
When a Syrian army comes to attack, an army of chariots of fire appear . . . and do nothing. What potentially could be the most amazing scene in the Bible is wasted. Instead of a battle of fire, the chariots don’t actually do anything, which makes me wonder why they were summoned. Instead God strikes the Syrians blind and then Elisha leads them away into an ambush. The Syrians surrendered when they realise they are surrounded and to my surprise a massacre doesn’t follow. Instead the Syrians are given a massive feast and sent home unharmed. Why couldn’t more battles end this way? I mean it seems like this is a more appropriate response for a loving and forgiving God than the countless massacres we’ve had so far in the Bible.
The Syrians attack again and lay siege to Samaria until donkey heads sell for 80 shekals and dove’s dung for 5. Eventually women start eating their own children. The king blames Elisha but he promises food. During the night God sends the sound of chariots which frighten the Syrians away. Thus there is food for everyone except a guard who doubted Elisha, he gets trampled to death as punishment.
As the title suggests, the Book of Kings deals with the Kings that Israel and Judah had over hundreds of years. Unfortunately that’s a lot of time for little space so each king only gets a brief mention. To make things worse, lots of the kings have names beginning with J. There’s Joram who gets killed by Jehu. Jehoahaz, Jehoash (also called Joash and brought to power by a man called Jehoiada) Jehoshaphat and two Jeroboams and after a while they all blur together.
To make things worse, the Bible presents them all in a monotonous and tedious list. They almost all follow the same pattern. “In the year _, X son of Y became king and reigned for _ years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Now the rest of the deeds of _, are they not written in the Book of Chronicles? And _ slept with his fathers and Z reigned in his place.” Repeat two dozen times and you see how repetitive it is.
Without going through all the details (because they are long, confusing and boring) there’s lots of wars and coups. A surprisingly large number of kings of Israel and Judah get murdered and replaced by someone who in turn gets murdered. God is annoyed because people worship other gods and sacrifice at “high places” which is the worst thing ever for some reason. There’s plenty of wars during this time and gradually Israel and Judah lose more and more battles and shrink smaller and smaller until they are finally destroyed.
The strange thing is that these kingdoms were completely normal. Think about, these kingdoms were supposedly guided by the creator of the universe and the source of morality. Surely, they would have been shining beacons of justice and morality? Surely God would make them advanced and prosperous as reward for his chosen people and to show the world his glory? Instead the kingdoms were no different from all the other kingdoms in the region. Their kings were just as ruthless, murderous and petty, and their armies were no more likely to win wars. In fact if it wasn’t for the Bible, there would be nothing remarkable about the kingdom, which is a pretty damning indictment of God’s supposed power and glory.
One of the kings who stand out is Jehu, who kills the king of Israel and then massacres his entire family and all 70 sons of the former king. Then he summoned every Baal priest in the country to a massive festival. They all assemble and Jehu sends in his guards to massacre them all Red Wedding style (I really think “The Good Book” should be renamed “The Bloody Ruthless Book”). They destroyed the temple of Baal and turned it into a public toilet (you have to notice the little insults). God compliments Jehu for “doing what is right in my eyes” for the massacre of the Baal priests and the innocent family of Ahab.
God doesn’t really know what to do during this time, sometimes helping his people, sometimes sending armies to kill them (not quite what I’d call love). Often he does both. At several points he sends an army to punish the Israelites but sends help so that they avoid their punishment. It’s pretty obvious that this explanation was added in centuries afterward to explain the swings from military victory and defeat that they experienced. In one case, God brings the Assyrians to the gates of Jerusalem before sending an angel to kill 185,000 of them in one night.
There are bad kings like Manasseh who built temples to Baal, used mediums, necromancers, fortune tellers and even burnt his own son as a sacrifice. After him comes a good king, Josiah, who “finds” an old book of Moses in the Temple. Scholars believe this is Deuteronomy, though some believe that Josiah and the priests created the book themselves. How did such an important book get so lost? Why did God not try and remind people? Either way, after reading this book, Josiah launches a massive purge with Taliban fervour and destroys every trace of other religions. He destroys a huge number of temples and shrines and even sacrifices priests on their own altar. Which apparently is good, so yey?
But it turns out that all this reform and return to the roots of the religion didn’t make any difference because is going to punish them anyways. The sins of Manasseh were so bad that it didn’t matter what Josiah did, which is a terrible moral lesson. Where’s the morality in punishing people for something they didn’t do? Either way God sends the Babylonians who destroy Jerusalem and send the people into exile. This ends the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and there never again was a king, despite all of God’s promises of protection and prosperity.
And on that final note, the 2nd Book of Kings ends.
For the rest of the series, An Atheist Reads The Bible click here.