Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
II CHRONICLES CHAPTER 26
The sixteen year old King Uzziah (="God is my strength") became king after Jerusalem had been dealt a harsh blow in the reign of his father Amatziahu with the tearing down of a sizeable section of its fortifications by Yo'ash king of Israel .
Uzziah came to the throne during the reign of Yo'ash of Israel's son Yerav'am II, who "restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath (i.e. northern Syria ) to the sea of the Aravah (=the Dead Sea )" (II Kings 14:25). I.e. Yo'ash succeeded in restoring the sovereignty of Israel over all the territories over which David and Solomon had ruled. Likewise, Uzziah restored Judah as a major regional power, beginning his career with the recapture and rebuilding of the Red Sea port of Eilat . Our present account of Uzziah's reign here in Chronicles is considerably more detailed than the parallel account in II Kings 15:1-7.
"And he did what was right in the eyes of HaShem according to all that his father Amatziah had done" (v 4) - "But he did not do according to his wickedness" (Rashi).
"And he set himself to search out God in the days of Zechariahu, who had understanding in the visions of God, and as long as he sought Hashem, God gave him success" (v 5). According to Rashi, Zechariahu was another of the names of Uzziah, who was also called Azariah. He was clearly devout in the extreme - to the point that in later life he thought himself worthy of taking over the role of the Cohen in the Temple (see vv 16ff).
Vv 6-10 describe how Uzziah expanded and strengthened his kingdom, conquering the major Philistine centers in the coastal plain and protecting his southern flank by overcoming the "Arvim" and "Me-unim" (cf. our commentary on II Chron. 20:1), who were Edomite tribes. Thus "his fame reached until the entrance of Egypt " (v 8): he enjoyed international prestige. Uzziah also rebuilt the fortifications of Jerusalem , which had been destroyed in the reign of his father by Yo'ash of Israel (v 9). Not only did Uzziah expand and fortify his kingdom. He also invested heavily in "infrastructure", digging wells for his many cattle and developing agriculture (v 10).
Vv 11-14 describe Uzziah's military command structure and army, while v 15 tells of the ingenious military engines he had positioned on the towers and ramparts of Jerusalem to fight off would-be attackers with showers of arrows and boulders.
Tragically, Uzziah's very success led to his downfall when he decided he was on a level to enter the Temple sanctuary to offer incense, "because he said it is fitting for a king to minister to the King of Glory" (Rashi on v 16). No matter how pious his intentions, what he wanted to do was strictly forbidden by the Torah, which says that "no stranger who is not from the seed of Aaron shall draw close to burn incense before HaShem, so that he shall not be like Korach and his assembly as HaShem spoke by the HAND of Moses" (Numbers 17:5). The wording of this prohibition alludes to the fact that the penalty for its violation is to be struck with leprosy, because Moses' HAND had become leprous at the Burning Bush (Ex. 4:6; see RaDaK on II Kings 15:5).
As soon as Uzziah tried to offer incense in the Temple , leprosy burst forth on his forehead and spread to his whole body, a cataclysmic event that precipitated an "earthquake". The Midrash Avos d'Rabbi Nathan 22a states that "at that hour the Sanctuary was split and the two halves moved twelve miles in each direction."
This day marked the beginning of the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, whose book we will study after we conclude Chronicles. The first chapter of the book of Isaiah was not his first prophecy: this is recorded in Isaiah ch 6: "In the year of the DEATH of King Uzziah I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and exalted." (Is. 6:1; see Rashi ad loc.). Uzziah's "death" alludes to his plague of leprosy.
As a leper for life, Uzziah had to spend the rest of his days isolated from the community (Lev. 13:46) and therefore lived in BEIS HA-CHOPHSHEES, literally the "house of FREEDOM", i.e. the cemetery (cf. Psalms 88:6, "free, CHOPHSHI, among the dead"; see Rashi on v 21 of our present chapter).
Uzziah's son Yotham took over the kingship during his father's lifetime, "and he did what was right in the eyes of HaShem according to all that Uzziah his father did except that he did not come into HaShem's sanctuary" (v 2).
Out of all the kings of Judah , Yotham is the only one about whom not a single hint of anything negative appears in any of our texts. (David sinned by taking Bathsheva; Solomon's wives turned his heart astray; Rehav'am abandoned the Torah; Avi-yah followed all his father's sins; Asa took money from the Temple treasuries to send to the king of Aram, and he imprisoned a prophet; Yehoshaphat allied himself with the wicked Ahab; Yehoram killed his brothers; Ahaziahu followed his mother's evil advice; Yo'ash killed Zechariah the Priest and allowed himself to be worshiped as a god; Amatziah bowed down to the idols of Seir; Uzziah entered the Sanctuary to burn incense; Ahaz went in the ways of the king of Israel and promoted Baal worship; Hezekiah's heart became swelled and the rabbis challenged three of his rulings; Menasheh did evil in the eyes of Hashem; Yosiah did not heed prophecy, and Tzedekiah did evil in God's eyes and did not submit to Jeremiah; see Rashi on 27:2).
King Yotham's exceptional purity helps explain the saying of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Succah 45b): "If only Abraham our father would take on himself to atone for all the sins of the generations until his time, I would take on myself to atone for the sins of all the generations from Abraham until myself. And if YOTHAM son of Uzziah was with me, we would take on ourselves everything from the time of Abraham until the end of all the generations!"
From this we see that merely because our present text devotes only nine verses to Yotham while the parallel text in II Kings 15:32-38 deals with his reign in only eight verses, this in no way detracts from his greatness. From the fact that the king of Ammon - who previously had been under the sway of the kings of Israel - now sent Yotham tribute for three years running (v 5), we may infer that as a result of the latter's diligent efforts to build and consolidate his kingdom, the center of influence was beginning to swing back from the trouble-stricken regime in Shomron to Judah.
The story of the later kings of Judah is one in which, paradoxically, a saintly king fathers a wicked king who then fathers a saintly king and so on. The saintly Yotham's son and successor, Ahaz, went in the idolatrous pathway of the kings of Israel and even practiced Molech-worship at a cult-center in the valley of Ben Hinnom south of Mt Zion, passing his sons through the fire in contravention of the explicit prohibition against Molech worship in Leviticus 18:21. According to Targum on verse 3 in our present chapter, Ahaz also passed his son and successor Hezekaiah through the fire, but God saved Hezekiah from being killed in the furnace of the priests of Molech because he saw that three Tzaddikim were destined to come forth from him who would be willing to sacrifice their very lives to sanctify God's name by being thrown into Nebuchadnezzar's furnace: Hananiyah, Misha'el and Azariah (Daniel ch 3).
Just as the devotion to God shown by Ahaz' predecessors, Uzziah and Yotham, had brought them great success in building the kingdom, so Ahaz' backsliding caused him disaster after disaster. His reign fell at a time when Assyria was developing from being merely an aggressive predatory nation into an expanding world empire that was changing the entire balance of power in the region. Ahaz' policy was not to try to challenge Assyria . However, Isaiah's prophecies dating from the reign of Ahaz (Isaiah ch 7) detail the efforts of the kings of Israel and Aram to coerce Ahaz into joining them in campaigns intended to "contain" Assyria . The attacks on Judah by the king of Aram and by Pekah ben Remaliah king of Israel as described in vv 5ff in our present chapter were part of this policy of coercion.
The attack by Pekah in particular was a colossal blow to Judah in which, according to our text, one hundred and twenty thousand men were killed in one day (v 6). The account of the capture of two hundred thousand Judean women and children by the armies of Israel and their subsequent release at the behest of the prophet Oded on "humanitarian" grounds (which does not appear in the parallel account in I Kings ch 16) gives us a fascinating insight into the psychology of the Ten Tribes, who were to be exiled for their sins only one generation later yet still exhibited a basic fear of God as well as the RAHMONUS, "compassion", that is one of the three distinguishing features of true members of the people of Israel, the other two being bashfulness and kindness (Yevamos 79a). Before Israelite armies went out to war, the priest who addressed the troops would remind them that they should fight with all their strength against their enemies from other nations, because if they fell into their hands they could never expect the same kindness that the tribes of Israel would show to each other even when they made war against one another (Sotah 42a).
The Philistines and Edomites were wresting huge swathes of territory from Judah , yet even as his kingdom was being torn to pieces, Ahaz was not chastened. He thought he could save himself from Israel and the Arameans by bribing the kings of Assyria to help him (vv 16ff). They took his bribes but gave him little help, treating Judah as no more than a subject nation. When Tiglath-Pelessar of Assyria did attack and exile the Arameans, Ahaz went to visit Damascus and was so impressed with the idolatrous altar he found there that he sent detailed plans and diagrams to Uriah the priest in Jerusalem with orders to build a copy in the Temple (see II Kings 16:10ff). Ahaz' policies and pathways brought disaster on Judah , which is why Isaiah in the opening prophecy of his book tells the people: Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, as for your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate as though overthrown by strangers" (Isaiah 1:7). This was the dire state of Judah when Ahaz died and was succeeded by his son Hezekiah, who was fit to be Mashiach.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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