Achaz's Monarchy in Jerusalem

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #17: Achaz's Monarchy in Jerusalem

 

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

 

            Thus far we have dealt at length with the monarchies of David and Shelomo which laid the groundwork for the kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem. In the framework of this series, we cannot deal with every king who reigned in Jerusalem from the days of Shelomo until the destruction of the First Temple. We wish to move now to the period of Chizkiyahu, an important period in the history of the Kingdom of Yehuda in general, and in the history of Jerusalem in particular. In order to properly understand the significance of the days of Chizkiyahu, however, we must first devote a shiur to the kingdom of his father, Achaz. The primary sources available to us are the books of Melakhim, Divrei Ha-yamim and Yishayahu, which includes prophecies that are explicitly directed to Achaz.

 

I.          THE MILITARY AND POLITICAL SITUATION

 

During the days of Achaz, the Kingdom of Yehuda found itself in one of its most difficult periods – surrounded on all sides. To the north, a siege was set by the kingdoms of Aram and Israel:

 

Then Retzin King of Aram and Pekach son of Remalyahu King of Israel came up to Jerusalem to war; and they besieged Achaz, but could not overcome him. (II Melakhim 16:5)

 

Achaz was twenty years old when he began to reign… So that the Lord his God delivered him into the hand of the king of Aram; and they smote him, and carried away a great multitude of them captives, and brought them to Damesek. And he was also delivered into the hand of the king of Israel, who smote him with a great slaughter. For Pekach the son of Remalyahu slew in Yehuda a hundred and twenty thousand in one day, who were all valiant men; because they had forsaken the Lord God of their fathers. And Zikhri, a mighty man of Ephraim, slew Ma'aseyahu the king's son, and Azikam the governor of the house, and Elkana who was next to the king. And the children of Israel carried away captive of their brethren two hundred thousand, women, sons, and daughters, and took also away much spoil from them, and brought the spoil to Shomron. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 28:2-8)[1]

 

            Retzin and Pekach's goal was to remove Achaz from the throne and crown the son of Tave'el in his place as king of Yehuda (Yishayahu 7:6), as part of an alliance against Assyria. In other words, there were elements in Yehuda that were ready to rebel against Assyria – the world power in those days. At the same time, the Kingdom of Yehuda was attacked from the south:

 

At that time Retzin King of Aram recovered Eilat to Aram, and drove the men of Yehuda from Eilat: and the Adomim came to Eilat, and dwelt there to this day. (II Melakhim 16:6)

 

            Neither is the western border quiet:

 

And the Philistines had invaded the cities of the coastal plain, and of the south of Yehuda, and had taken Bet-Shemesh, and Ayyalon, and Gederot, and Sokho with its hamlets, and Timna and its hamlets, and Gimzo and its hamlets; and they dwelt there. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 28:18)

 

            Thus we see that the Kingdom of Yehuda was surrounded by enemies on all sides: from the north – Aram and Israel; from the south – Edom, and from the west – Philistine.

 

For He brought Yehuda low because of Achaz King of Israel; for he caused disorder in Yehuda, and transgressed greatly against the Lord. (Ibid. v. 19)

 

II.        THE POSITION OF THE PROPHET YESHAYAHU

 

And it came to pass in the days of Achaz the son of Yotam, the son of Uziyahu, King of Yehuda, that Retzin the King of Aram, and Pekach the son of Remalyahu, King of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the House of David, saying, Aram is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the forest are moved with the wind.

Then said the Lord to Yishayahu, Go out now to meet Achaz, you, and She'ar-Yashuv your son, at the end of the aqueduct of the upper pool in the highway of the washers' field; and say to him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted on account of the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Retzin and Aram, and of the son of Remalyahu. Because Aram, Ephraim, and the son of Remalyahu, have taken evil counsel against you, saying, Let us go up against Yehuda, and harass it, and let us make a breach in it for us, and set a king in the midst of it, namely the son of Tave'al. Thus says the Lord God, It shall not stand; neither shall it come to pass. For the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Retzin; and within sixty five years Ephraim shall be broken in pieces, and no more a people. And the head of Ephraim is Shomron, and the head of Shomron is the son of Remalyahu. If you have no faith you shall not be established. (Yishayahu 7:1-9)

 

            The prophet informs Achaz that the fall of Aram and Ephraim before the king of Assyria (the birth of Immanu'el; ibid. v. 15) is near, and that the destruction of Damascus and Shomron, capitals of Aram and Israel, is close (Ibid. 8:1 and on). The prophet's spiritual-political position is clear: "Take heed, and be quiet": it is wrong to fear and submit to this enemy, whose end is quickly approaching.

 

            Achaz, however, is not at all interested in heeding the words of the prophet:

 

Moreover the Lord spoke again to Achaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above. But Achaz said, I will not ask, neither will I try the Lord. (Ibid. vv. 10-12)

 

            Rashi explains (ad loc.):

 

Neither will I try the Lord – I do not want that God's name be sanctified through me.

 

            There is a prophet in Israel who speaks the word of God, but the king is not interested in his opinion or in acting in accord with what he says![2] Instead of turning to the prophet and correcting his deeds and those of his kingdom, Achaz looks to the king of Assyria for salvation:

 

So Achaz sent messengers to Tiglat-Peleser, King of Assyria, saying, I am your servant and your son: come up, and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram, and out of the hand of the king of Israel, who have risen against me. And Achaz took the silver and gold that was in the house of the Lord, and in the treasures of the king's house, and sent it for a present to the king of Assyria.[3] And the king of Ashur hearkened to him: for the king of Assyria went up against Damascus, and took it, and carried the people of it captive to Kir, and slew Retzin. (II Melakhim 16:7-9)

 

            In the wake of the pact with Assyria, Yishayahu delivered a very severe prophecy about the king and Yehuda:

 

The Lord shall bring upon you, and upon your people, and upon your father's house, days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Yehuda; namely the king of Assyria… Now therefore, behold, the Lord brings up upon them the waters of the river, strong and abundant, namely the king of Assyria, and all his glory. And he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks. And he shall sweep through Yehuda. He shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck, and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of your land, O Immanu'el. (Yishayahu 7:17; 8:7-8)

 

            This prophecy was fulfilled almost in its entirety in the generation of Chizkiyahu:[4] to the exclusion of Jerusalem, the king of Assyria conquered all of Yehuda. "And the daughter of Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, like a besieged city" (Yishayahu 1:8).

 

            Achaz was faced with three possibilities:

 

*           Rebellion against Assyria. This in essence was what Pekach and Retzin wanted to impose upon Yehuda by setting the son of Tave'el on the throne.

*           Standing on the side while strengthening his kingdom from within, as was suggested by Yishayahu, who said that Aram and Israel – the visible enemies on the outskirts of Jerusalem – were not dangerous and that they were about to fall.

*           Surrender to Assyria. Achaz chooses this possibility, and he does so by totally surrendering – both militarily and spiritually – to Assyria.

 

Why does Achaz (the son of the righteous Yotam) turn away from the word of God as spoken by his prophet, and choose to subjugate himself and his kingdom to the superpower Assyria, and even hand over to its king the gold and silver treasures found in the house of God?

 

When we try to answer this question, we must take two factors into account. First, we have already noted the difficult military-political circumstances that Achaz faced; and second, we must remember that already in the days of Achaz's grandfather, Uziyahu, the Shekhina began to depart from the Mikdash (Yishayahu 6). The combination of these two factors might have brought Achaz to total despair regarding the possibility of Divine intervention, and perhaps even to the feeling that God had abandoned the country. Thus, he chose for himself the pragmatic interim solution of his and his kingdom's total subjugation to the superpower Assyria.

 

And indeed, Assyria freed Achaz from the yoke of Pekach and Retzin.

 

III.       THE SPIRITUAL AND RELIGIOUS SITUATION

 

We have already alluded that the low spiritual state served as the background and cause of the exceedingly difficult political situation that Yehuda faced at that time. Achaz's response to this difficult situation – total subjugation to Assyria – was also not restricted to the military-political realm, and found expression also in the closing of the house of God, the cutting in pieces of its vessels, and the worship of the gods of Damascus in the Mikdash itself (see below).

 

We shall spell out part of the difficult spiritual reality in Jerusalem during the days of Achaz.

 

1)         WORSHIP OF MOLEKH[5]

 

Achaz was the first king of Yehuda to worship Molekh (in his wake came Menasheh and Yehoyakim):[6]

 

And he even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations, whom the Lord cast out from before the children of Israel. (II Melakhim 16:3)

 

Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of Ben Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 28:3)

 

            These two formulations – "making his son pass through fire" and "burning his children in fire" – refer to the same thing: worship of Molekh in the valley of Ben Hinnom. It might be that the son who Achaz passed through the fire according to the book of Melakhim was Chizkiyahu, as attested to by the Gemara:

 

So too regarding Chizkiya the king of Yehuda, his father wished to do the same thing to him [Rashi: to burn him in fire], but his mother anointed him with [the blood of] a salamander [Rashi: a small animal which emerges from an oven in which a fire has been burning for seven months, and one who anoints himself with its blood is able to resist fire]. (Sanhedrin 63b)

 

            There is no need to explain the difficult spiritual significance of the personal example that the king provided his subjects in his attempt to burn his son in the fire.

 

2)         OFFERING OF SACRIFICES AND BURNING OF INCENSE IN ALL PLACES – TO IDOL WORSHIP

 

And he sacrificed and burnt incense on the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree. (II Melakhim 16:4)

           

            From here we might understand that we are dealing with the sin of bamot, which was rampant in Yehuda during almost the entire First Temple period, namely, offering sacrifices to God, on the hills and under every green tree, similar to idol worship. The verse in Divrei Ha-yamim, however, leaves no room for doubt:

 

And in every city of Yehuda he made high places to burn incense to other gods, and provoked to anger the Lord God of his fathers. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 28:25)

 

3)         SEALING OF THE TORAH

 

            In a prophecy from the days of Achaz, the prophet Yishayahu declared:

 

Bind up the testimony, seal the Torah among my disciples. (Yishayahu 8:16)

 

            And Chazal explained:

 

Achaz abolished the [Temple] service and sealed the Torah. (Sanhedrin 103b)

 

            Achaz, who refused to obey the prophet, also sealed the Torah and prevented its study; just as he refused to obey God, so too did he prevent the study of His word.

 

4)         ABOLITION OF THE TEMPLE SERVICE

 

            The first half of the aforementioned rabbinic dictum – "Achaz abolished the [Temple] service" – is described in Scripture at length:

 

And King Achaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglat-Pileser King of Assyria, and saw an altar that was at Damascus: and King Achaz sent to Uriya the priest the fashion of the altar, and the pattern of it, according to all its workmanship. And Uriya the priest built an altar according to all that King Achaz had sent from Damascus: so Uriya the priest made it before King Achaz arrived from Damascus. And when the king was come from Damascus, the king saw the altar: and the kind drew near to the altar, and offered on it. And he burnt his burnt offering and his meal offering, and poured his drink offering, and sprinkled the blood of his peace offerings upon the altar. And he brought also the brazen altar, which was before the Lord, from the forefront of the house, from between his altar and the house of the Lord, and put it on the north side of his altar. And King Achaz commanded Uriya the priest, saying, Upon the great altar burn the morning burnt offering, and the evening meal offering, and the king's burnt sacrifice, and his meal offering, with the burnt offering of all the people of the land, and their meal offering, and their drink offerings; and sprinkle upon it all the blood of the burnt offering, and all the blood of the sacrifice: and the brazen altar shall be for me to visit. Thus did Uriya the priest, according to all that King Achaz commanded. (II Melakhim 16:10-16)

 

And Tiglat-Pileser King of Assyria came to him, and distressed him, but did not strengthen him. For Achaz took away a portion out of the house of the Lord and out of the house of the king, and of the princes, and gave it to the king of Assyria: but he did not help him. And in the time of his distress he trespassed still more against the Lord: this is that King Achaz. For he sacrificed to the gods of Damascus, who smote him: and he said, Because the gods of the kings of Aram help them, I will sacrifice to them, that they may help me. But they were the ruin of him, and of all Israel. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 28:20-23)[7]

 

            This is an additional spiritual-religious expression of the total surrender to the rule of Assyria: replacing the worship of the God of Israel with service of the gods of Damascus in the Temple itself. Achaz, who despaired of inquiring about the word of God and obeying Him, replaces the worship of God with the service of the gods of Aram, thinking, "I will sacrifice to them, that they may help me." He sends Uriya the priest an image and pattern of the altar in Damascus, and when he returns to Jerusalem, he himself sacrifices on it, while pushing Shelomo's brazen altar to the side. For the first time, a king of Yehuda establishes in the Temple itself a substitute – an alien service (avoda zara) – and effectively "closes down" the Mikdash:

 

And Achaz gathered together the vessels of the house of God, and cut in pieces the vessels of the house of God, and shut up the doors of the house of the Lord, and he made himself altars in every corner of Jerusalem. (Ibid. v. 24)

 

            The cutting in pieces of the vessels and the closing of the house of God means abolition of the sacrificial service and of any coming near to the place where the Shekhina rests in the world. The proof is that following the death of Achaz, Chizkiyahu had to rededicate the Mikdash (II Divrei Ha-yamim 29).[8]

 

            The book of Melakhim records additional details regarding Achaz's actions in the Mikdash:

 

And Achaz cut off the borders of the bases, and removed the laver from off them; and took down the sea from off the brazen oxen that were under it, and put it upon a pavement of stones. And the covered passage for the Sabbath that they had built in the house, and the king's outer entry, he turned to the house of the Lord because of the king of Assyria. (II Melakhim 16:17-18)

 

            The mechanisms under the lavers and the oxen under the sea symbolize the extension of the resting of the Shekhina from the Mikdash to the courtyard.[9] Cutting off the borders and the mechanisms, removing the oxen from the sea, and lowering the sea and the laver to a pavement of stones, signify, then, a restriction in the revelation of the Shekhina.

 

            To summarize, Achaz's conduct reflects despair of God's presence, in the wake of which he turns his back to the words of the prophet, closes the Mikdash, abolishes the service, works to restrict the resting of God's Shekhina, seals the Torah, burns his children for the Molekh, and practices idolatry in the Mikdash itself. He was the first king of Yehuda to dare to act in this way toward God, in general, and in the Temple, in particular.

 

IV.       ACHAZ'S END

 

In the book of Melakhim it is stated:

 

And Achaz slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the City of David. (II Melakhim 16:20)

 

            The book of Divrei Ha-yamim, however, emphasizes that Achaz did not merit to be buried in the tombs of the house of David, but rather was buried in a separate plot:

 

And Achaz slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city, in Jerusalem; but they did not bring him into the tombs of the kings of Israel. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 28:27)

 

            In this way, Scripture expresses its reservations about the monarchy and deeds of Achaz.

 

            Chazal say that Chizkiyahu "dragged the bones of his father on a bier of ropes, and [the Sages] agreed with him" (Pesachim 4:9). Rashi explains: "'He dragged his father's bones' – in order to achieve atonement, and he did not provide him with an honorable burial and a beautiful bier, in order to sanctify [God's] name, so that he be disgraced because of his wickedness, and the wicked be reprimanded" (Rashi, Pesachim 56a).

 

V.        ACHAZ IN CONTRAST TO CHIZKIYAHU

 

Besides the fact that the period of Achaz constitutes vital background for understanding the period of Chizkiyahu, our analysis of the period of Achaz shows that his leadership was the total opposite of that of Chizkiyahu in all senses: regarding Assyria and political relations, regarding God and His prophets, and regarding the Mikdash. While the prophet also condemns in the harshest manner some of Chizkiyahu's actions (his alliance with Egypt, his hosting of the Babylonian delegation, the spiritual state of Jerusalem, and others), Chizkiyahu – in absolute contrast to his father – relates to the word of God and obeys it.

 

Indeed, the prophet Yishayahu describes the days of Chizkiyahu as a period of great light following the darkness of the times of Achaz, during which the evil deeds of Achaz would be repaired, and first and foremost, there would be an inner spiritual repair of the kingdom through justice and righteousness:

 

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shone. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given: and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name is called Pele-Yo'etz-El-Gibor-Avi-Ad-Sar-Shalom, for the increase of the realm and for peace without end, upon the throne of David, and upon the kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice, from henceforth for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts performs this. (Yishayahu 9:1-6)[10]

 

***

 

            In next week's shiur we shall survey the chronological framework of the period of Chizkiyahu.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



 

 

 

 

 



[1] In the continuation (Ibid. vv. 9-15), the captives were honorably returned to Yehuda at the instruction of the prophet Oded. In any event, the description of the slaughter and captivity well illustrate the spiritual and practical meaning of the split between Yehuda and Israel, which reached the point that the Kingdom of Israel entered into a pact with a foreign kingdom (Aram) against the Kingdom of Yehuda.

[2] Nevertheless, Chazal attribute to Achaz shame before Yishayahu: "Why was Achaz not counted [among the kings who have no share in the world-to-come]?… Rav Yosef said: Because he demonstrated shame before Yishayahu, as it is stated: 'Then said the Lord to Yishayahu, Go out now to meet Achaz, you, and She'ar-Yashuv your son, at the end of the aqueduct of the upper pool in the highway of the washers' [koves] field.' (Yishayahu 7:3). What is the meaning of 'koves'? There are those who say: He hid his face [in shame] and passed. And some say: He put a launderer's trough on his head [so that he would not be recognized] and passed."

[3] This is one of many examples of a king's use of the Temple treasures as if they were his own. This clearly illustrates the blurring of the boundaries between kingdom of flesh and blood and kingdom of God, as we saw earlier this year in shiur no. 14.

[4] In our lectures on the period of Chizkiyahu, we shall deal with the question why the punishment for the sins of Achaz came only during the days of Chizkiyahu.

[5] We dealt at length last year (shiur no. 13) with the nature of the worship of Molekh, and therefore we shall not expand upon it here.

[6] In their commentaries to Vayikra 18:21, Ibn Ezra and the Ramban discuss the identity of Molekh worship. Ibn Ezra suggests that it is "Molekh, the abomination of the children of Amon" (I Melakhim 11:7). Ramban proposes that it is "Adrammelekh and Anammelekh, god of Sefarvayim" (II Melakhim 7:31). According to the Ramban, there is room to suggest that it was during this period – the era of the superpower of Assyria – that Molekh worship appeared for the first time in Yehuda – in the aftermath of the conquest of the Sefarvayim by Assyria.

[7] Note the difference between the two books on the question why Achaz sacrificed specifically to the gods of Damascus. According to the book of Melakhim, this seems to be part of his recognition of the absolute rule of the king of Assyria who had come to his rescue; whereas, according to Divrei Ha-yamim, this expresses his recognition of the superiority of the gods of Aram, the nation that had smitten him.

[8] This is the way Chizkiyahu describes the abolition of the Temple service during his father's day: "For our fathers trespassed, and did that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord our God, and forsook him, and turned away their faces from the habitation of the Lord, and turned their backs. Also they shut up the doors of the porch, and put out the lamps, and did not burn incense or offer burnt offerings in the holy place to the God of Israel" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 29:6-7).

[9] In this framework, we cannot expand upon this matter, the explanation of which would require a comprehensive analysis of the structure of the Mikdash and the vessels contained therein. Let us suffice with a reference to the study of Dr. Rivka Reviv, who dealt with this issue in "Ma'ase Merkava be-Chatzer Mikdash Shelomo, Shema'atin 159-160, pp. 73-83.

[10] When we come to evaluate the personality of Chizkiyahu, we shall examine which elements of this prophecy were realized, and why was the prophecy not fulfilled in its entirety.