Avraham ben Yaakov
II KINGS CHAPTER 17
Hoshe'a ben Elah, the last king of Israel , had, like his predecessors, come to power through a violent coup (II Kings 15:25), but "he was not like the kings of Israel that were before him" (our chapter v 2). This was because for the first time since the days of Jeraboam ben Nevat, Hoshe'a ben Elah removed the armed guards that had been posted on all the borders to prevent the Ten Tribes from going up to the Temple in Jerusalem . (According to tradition, this happened on 15 th of Av, a day of salvation and holiness, see commentary on Judges ch 21; Ta'anis 30b.) However, now that there was no impediment to their going up to Jerusalem, the Israelites could no longer hang the blame for their not doing so on their kings. Despite the removal of the guards they still did not go up to Jerusalem - and this was what finally sealed the decree of exile against the Ten Tribes in the days of Hoshe'a ben Elah (Gittin 88a; Rashi and RaDaK on v 2).
The exile of the Ten Tribes took place in three stages (see Rashi on v 1). The first was when Pilesser king of Ashur sent the inhabitants of the Galilee (Naftali) to Ashur (ch 15 v 29). The second came eight years later, when he exiled the tribes of Reuven and Gad. This prompted Hoshe'a ben Elah to plot with Sou king of Egypt in the hope of changing the map of the entire Middle East by overthrowing Ashur, to whom he ceased paying tribute. This brought Shalmanesser king of Ashur to arrest and imprison him (v 4) eight years after the exile of Reuven and Gad, but the remaining leadership of Shomron continued their resistance against the Assyrians, leading Shalmanesser to lay siege to the city for three years (v 5). After the fall of Shomron, the inhabitants were sent into exile by Sargon II of Ashur. The date of the final exile of the Ten Tribes (according to the dating system of Midrash Seder Olam) was in the year 3205 (-555 B.C.E.): this was 133 years before the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to Babylon .
The Ten Tribes were exiled to a variety of locations, some in Mesopotamia and others east of the River Tigris in the mountainous areas of Medea (located in the great mountain chain of western Iran between Hamadan and Shiraz ). What happened to them afterwards and where, if anywhere, they wandered are mysteries to which no conclusive solution has been found until today.
The major part of our present chapter is in effect the "indictment" against Israel, expressing the essential "moral" of the entire history contained in the Nevi'im (Prophetic writings): Israel's possession of the Land of Israel is conditional on their observance of the commandments of God's Torah, and it was their sins - in particular their lapse into idolatry - that caused their exile from the Land.
"And the Children of Israel fabricated things that were not right against HaShem their God" (v 9). Metzudas David (ad loc.) explains that "in secrecy they said things about HaShem that are not fit to repeat, for they denied His knowledge of what goes on in the world and His providential government". "For they said, HaShem does not see us, for HaShem has abandoned the earth" (Ezekiel 8:12).
RaDaK in a lengthy comment on v 27 explains that the Israelites did indeed continue to believe in HaShem even though they made the golden calves. They made them only to serve as an intermediary between themselves and HaShem. Thus we see that even the most wicked of the Israelites also sought out HaShem, such as when Jeraboam begged the prophets to intercede on account of his paralyzed arm and sick baby (I Kings 13:6; 14:2), or when Ahab agreed with Elijah about the prophets of Baal (cf. also I Kings 20:42; 21:27), or when his son Jehoram saw the hand of HaShem behind the danger hanging over his mission with the kings of Judah and Edom against Moab (II Kings 3:10). It was not that they did not believe in HaShem. Their flaw was to serve intermediaries.
"And the king of Ashur brought [people] from Babylon and from Kutah. and settled them in the cities of Shomron instead of the Children of Israel ." (v 24). This was part of the Assyrian policy of population exchange. However the new inhabitants of these areas of the Holy Land did not yet know the "Law of the God of the Land" (v 26), which is God's Torah, and indeed, having seen the Israelite population expelled from their land, they apparently thought that He had been unable to protect them against the Assyrians - until they found themselves being terrorized by lions, and the King of Ashur was compelled to send an Israelite priest back from exile in order to teach them Torah. This priest allowed them to continue worshiping the gods they had brought with them from their old homelands, while instructing them in the most serious prohibitions of the Torah, such as those against incest (see RaDaK on v 27).
It seems like MIDDAH KE-NEGED MIDDAH, "measure for measure", that people who mixed in fear of HaShem together with idolatry came to replace the Israelites of Shomron, who had done the same. The section in vv 24-25 on the practices of the new residents of Shomron - the Samaritans - is important for our understanding of the roots of the deep suspicion with which the rabbis viewed them, so that even though they were GERIM ("proselytes") there were many rabbinic ordinances limiting Jewish interaction with them, until after the discovery of an idol in the image of a dove on Mount Gerizim, after which they were ruled to be AKUM, idolaters, and cast outside the boundaries of AM YISRAEL.
It was at this moment of extreme national crisis - when the link of Israel with their Land and their very survival as a people were hanging in the balance following the exile of the Ten Tribes and their assimilation into the surrounding peoples - that Hezekiah succeeded his father Ahaz as king of Judah .
"In HaShem the God of Israel did he trust, and after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah or among those that were before him" (v 5).
The wicked, idolatrous Ahaz had left his son a kingdom torn apart and largely wasted as a result of the incursions of the neighboring Philistines, Edomites and Arameans etc. Hezekiah dealt a heavy blow to the Philistines (v 8) but in the It was in the fourth year of his reign Shalmanesser king of Ashur laid siege to Shomron, and its capture and the subsequent exile of the Ten Tribes made the looming threat of Ashur against Jerusalem even more palpable and fearsome.
With the courage of a David, Hezekiah made a complete turnabout from the path of his father, going so far as to drag Ahaz's very bones through the streets (56a). For the first time since the reign of Solomon, Hezekiah finally removed the BAMOTH, the "private altars" that had been forbidden ever since the inauguration of the Temple in Jerusalem, and he cut down the Ashera tree-idol and even ground up the bronze serpent made by Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8-9), which by his time had turned into the focus of a healing cult. This, together with his "hiding away the book of remedies" (Pesachim ibid.), shows that he was determined to take away the intermediaries people had relied upon (idols, medicines) and lead them on the path of pure faith in HaShem.
"In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Ashur came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them" (v 14). Tens of thousands of inhabitants of Judah were then exiled to Ashur. With Sennacherib bearing down on him in Lachish to the south of Jerusalem , Hezekiah was in such danger that at first he tried to buy him off (v 14).
But Hezekiah was a rebel, who wanted a free, independent Judah that would serve God. His courage in defying the Assyrian superpower should serve as an example for the true Israelites of today when they see how successive governments of the state of Israel have turned it into little more than a client state of foreign powers whose dictates are followed consistently even when they are clearly against the interest of the Jews and contrary to the purpose and destiny of the Holy Land.
"And the king of Ashur sent Tartan and Rav Saris and Ravshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah with a heavy force to Jerusalem ." (v 17). This was a major act of psychological warfare intended to frighten and demoralize the inhabitants of Jerusalem , who were effectively under siege, and to encourage them to capitulate and agree to "transfer", i.e. exile. According to tradition, Ravshakeh was himself a MESHUMAD, a "lapsed Jew" (see RaDaK on v 17, Rashi on v 22 and Sanhedrin 60a).
Standing at the walls of the city dramatically calling to Hezekiah's chief ministers to capitulate, Ravshakeh intentionally addressed them in the Judaic vernacular so that all the people could hear him as he emphasized the great might of Ashur and mocked the flimsiness of Judah 's remaining army, their trust in Egypt and their very trust in HaShem.
A significant faction in Jerusalem were far from trusting that Hezekiah's courageous stand against Ashur was going to be successful, and one of the three royal ministers who stood on the ramparts of Jerusalem listening to Ravshakeh - Shevna the Scribe - was in fact a fifth-columnist who later tried to open the gates of Jerusalem to the Assyrians (RaDaK on v 18; see Isaiah 22:15ff).
Ravshakeh promised that if the people would give in willingly, the king of Ashur would take them "to a land like your land" (v 32) - he could not say "to a better land" because everybody listening would have known he was lying since there was no better land than Judah - not even the "land of grain and wine" he mentioned, namely N. Africa (Rashi on v 32). However, if the people were stubborn and refused his offer, Ravshakeh threatened the full might of Assyria against them, and we are left at the end of the chapter wondering how King Hezekiah will respond.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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