Monday, July 16, 2012

King Manasseh of Judah and the Reinterpretation of History

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Sonsino’s blog, “From Istanbul to Boston”

The writing of history is based on interpretation of past events. Depending on who is the interpreter, the record changes considerably. Modern historians often challenge the myths created about ancient times. So, it is not always possible to evaluate the reliability of an historical text, unless you know the perspective of the narrator. A good biblical example of this issue is found in the long reign attributed to King Manasseh of Judah.

There are two parallel and contradictory stories about Manasseh: one in II K 21 and a later one in Chr 33. Each one has a different take on what transpired during his rule. Manasseh, the son of King Hezekiah of Judah, became king in 698/7 BCE at a young age (the Bible says, twelve years old). Like his father, he, too, was a vassal of the Assyrians (cf. ANET, 291). However, unlike his father who was a supporter of YHVH, Manasseh, for reasons that are not clear, became an idolater, and worshiped other gods (II K 21: 2 ff). In fact, the biblical tradition considers him the worst of all the Judean kings in this respect. [In the Talmud, he is also known as the one who had the prophet Isaiah killed; cf. Yev. 49b; Pesikta Rab. 4]. Yet, he reigned a very long time (the Bible says, fifty five years), more than any other king in Judah.

The Book of Kings operated with the belief that if you follow YHVH you are rewarded; if you don’t, you are punished. So, the example of a sinful king reigning a very long time created a dilemma for the biblical narrator. The probability is that Manasseh remained on the throne for more than five decades, because he was a loyal vassal. But that is not the way Kings and Chronicles see it, for their respective author/editors were primarily interested in a religious evaluation of personalities involved in the monarchy. The Book of Kings solves the problem by saying that it was Manasseh’s unfaithfulness that caused Jerusalem unexpected tragedies, an oblique reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians later on in 586 BCE: “Because King Manasseh of Judah has done these abhorrent things…..and because he led Judah to sin with his fetishes…I [God] am going to bring such a disaster on Jerusalem and Judah….”(vv. 11-13). However, this value judgment created an additional theological problem; namely, innocent people who lived after Manasseh were punished for the sins of the king and the presumed participation of his generation. That is not fair, and later biblical texts repudiated this notion by establishing the principle of individual responsibility, as the prophet Ezekiel states, “The person who sins, only he shall die” (18: 4; cf. Jer. 31: 27-30; Deut. 24: 16).

Another answer to the king’s longevity is found in the parallel text of Chr 33. There, according to its author/editor, King Manasseh was allowed to live that long, only because he ultimately repented of his sins, an important detail not found in Kings: “In his distress, he entreated the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers” (II Chr. 33: 12). And, because God is merciful, God accepted his repentance, and returned him to his glory. Interestingly, even though our biblical text does not include any prayer by Manasseh, the Apocrypha, edited during the second temple period (2nd or 1st cent BCE), actually provides such a text (see “The Prayer of Manasseh”). It is not clear where the author/editor of Chronicles got his information about Manasseh’s repentance. It seems that, by including it, he wanted to justify God’s justice, and thought that if Manasseh lived that long is because he must have been rewarded by turning back to Yahwism.

Who is right? Which version is more reliable? It is unlikely that the two texts complement one another. There are too many differences in details. To me, they read like two different interpretations of the same basic events in order to justify the ideology of each narrator.

So, next time you read an historical text, ask yourself, what is the author’s agenda? Much will depend on this answer.

Rifat Sonsino

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