This week, taking a closer look at 2 chronicles 28:8-15 – an obscure story, that occurs here and nowhere else in the Bible (although there are echoes of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan in this story …) There is almost no commentary on this passage. Rashi says nothing, really; study Bibles leave it all alone. And it’s such an amazing story!
The Northern Kingdom has raided Judah, won a decisive victory over wicked King Ahaz – his wickedness is almost certainly why they have won this decisive victory, in the way of thinking of the Chronicler – and returns to Samaria with 200,000 old men, women, and children, and “great” spoil. Later the people involved will acknowledge that their sin is “great” before God.
The prophet Oded speaks against the action, as do three named head-men from Ephraim. The problem seems to be that the fighters from Samaria have enslaved their “kin.” According to Japhet, the issue is that the two kingdoms are always part of a single whole, in an ideal sense, in the eyes of the Chronicler. Here’s Japhet on the episode:
The description interrupts the flow of the account of Ahaz’ reign, and its insertion at this particular point must be deliberate. The episode’s content distinguishes it from its context, and its positive assessment of Israel’s inhabitants is unparalleled. Nowhere else in the Bible do we find a community of men, motivated by purely humanitarian and religious causes, acting in perfect unity in order to help their captives. No order comes from above; by common consensus, the people undertake a major, organized project of assistance.1
Here are the echoes with Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan: the helpers are from the north, Samaria; the victims are from the south, Jerusalem and Judah; they are anointed with oil and given something to drink (wine?), they are transported on donkeys if they are “feeble”, and they are brought to Jericho. A little more of a stretch, in a sense they have “fallen among thieves” (if we think of their captors as having stolen them). From that standpoint, this could be the original tale of the Good Samaritans.
Two expressions repeat: rav, “great,” – the spoil is “great” in v. 8 and the sins and transgressions of the people of the north are “great” in v. 13; charon af, “fierce wrath” in v. 11 and in v. 13.
In v. 15 there’s a striking series of parallel expressions that is almost poetic, with the repetition of a single verb form for “clothed,” “shod,” “fed,” “gave drink,” “anointed,” “carried” so that the text strongly emphasizes the sense of the captives as the intense object of concern, and of action, and of a cumulative effect of numerous actions on their behalf.
Also in v. 15, Jericho is “the city of palm trees,” – Jericho is called “the city of palm trees” also in Deuteronomy 34:3 – when Moses looks out over the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo, Jericho the city of palm trees is in view; in Judges 1:16 as the city of “Hobab the Kenite, Moses’ father in law” (which itself is a little curious), from whence people leave to go into the wilderness of Judah – presumably because they’ve been displaced by the influx of Hebrews; in Judges 3:13, Eglon of Moab takes possession of the “city of palms;” much later, in John 12:13, people take branches of palm trees when Jesus enters Jerusalem, and in Luke he has explicitly come through Jericho, so there might be a remote association there, too. The inter-textuality between v. 15 and Dtr. 34:3 is the closest; that resonance might signify something like the original promise of the fruitfulness, prosperity and promise of the land … which seems closer, too, to the overall project of the Chronicler, who according to is sketching the “utopian alternative history” or providing glimpses of it in the overall account of Israel’s history.2
There’s a repeated and intensified sequence of actions in v. 9 and v. 12; the prophet Oded is named; goes out, and speaks – his speech is recorded; then in v. 12 the heads of Ephraim are named, stand up, speak, their speech is recorded. The prophet Oded issues an instruction to send back the captives; the men of Ephraim go further, saying “you shall not bring them in here” – the intent seems to be something like “over our dead bodies.”
The numbers are insane: 200,000 captives. So how large are we supposed to think the fighting force was? Opposed by a prophet and three stand-up guys. And how many backing them up? So the scene as described is dramatic, but after I did a little research on crowd counting, I suspect “200,000” might be a convenient large number or have some other significance, rather than being a precise head count. (Here’s why: an article in the WSJ on crowd size estimation, with pictures from the Washington mall, and an article from Social Science in the Caucuses on crowd size, with pictures from Freedom Square in Georgia.)
1 Sara Japhet, The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and Its Place in Biblical Thought (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 246-247.
2 Steven Schweitzer, Reading Utopia in Chronicles (New York: T&T Clark, 2007).