Monday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 17:5-8, 13-15, 18

We continue today with the tragic tale of the Kings and the punishments they and their people experienced for their serious violation of the Lord’s will for them. We see in today’s reading the fall in 721 BC of the Northern Kingdom (variously called Israel, Samaria or the Ten Tribes, as opposed to the Southern Kingdom known also as Judah).

This all happened in the reign of King Hoshea, who reigned for nine years altogether. However, “he did evil in the sight of the Lord” although his behaviour was not as bad as some of his predecessors. He fell victim to an Assyrian invasion and became a vassal of the Assyrian King Shalmeneser. However, after violating the terms of his vassalage by sending envoys to the king of Egypt and failing to pay tribute to the Assyrians, he was arrested and thrown into prison.

The whole of Samaria was then invaded and the city of Samaria was captured. The well-defended city took three years to overcome. Shalmaneser died just before the capture – possibly by assassination – and the actual capture was effected by his son, Sargon II. In his annals Sargon laid claim to the capture of Samaria at the beginning of his reign, but it was hardly more than a mopping-up operation.

This spelt the end of Hoshea’s reign and it saw a major deportation of the Israelites to exile in Assyria. In his annals Sargon II claims to have deported 27,290 Israelites. They were brought to Halah, whose location is uncertain, but it was near the Habor, a river not far from Haran in the extreme north of Mesopotamia. (The name ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘between rivers’ because it lies between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and corresponds more or less to Iraq today). Gozan was an Assyrian provincial capital located on a tributary of the Euprhates. The “cities of the Medes” lay east of Mesopotamia (in Persia or Iran). They were towns located in the area south of the Caspian Sea and northeast of the Tigris River. The Israelite settlements there would form the background for the story of Tobit (which we read at another time in the liturgical cycle).

And so the second part of the reading is a commentary on why all of this happened. The events described in today’s readings are clearly attributed to the sins of Israelites against their God, the God who had brought them up out of the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. In the Old Testament, things seldom happen by chance nor are purely human agencies involved. Good things indicate God’s blessings and bad things his displeasure.

It was due to the Samarians’ continual worship of the idols worshipped by their conquerors. (It seems that it was this kind of situation that Jesus was referring to when he told the Samaritan woman that she had had five “husbands”. Each time it was conquered by an invading force, Samaria had adopted the religion of its new masters.)

The accusations do not seem to come from one source but are a compilation of several. For the principal author of the book the grievous fault of Israel is the religious pluralism, an ‘original sin’ of which every king of Israel is accused. The language is rich in reminiscences of Deuteronomy and the prophets (especially Jeremiah) as it denounces religious compromise and the setting up of local and idolatrous shrines.

Israel repeatedly spurned the Lord’s graciousness to it and refused to heed the prophets’ warnings of impending judgement and had failed to keep her covenant obligations. The result was the implementation of the covenant curse precisely as it had been presented to the Israelites by Moses in his final words to the Israelites before they entered Canaan (Deut 28:49-68) and in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1-47).

Israel not only violated the requirements of the Sinai covenant, but she also spurned the words of prophets the Lord had graciously sent to call his people back to the covenant as well as the ministries of Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. Instead they showed themselves “stiff-necked”, like a stubborn ox being placed under the yoke. (A phrase used by Jesus also when speaking of the Pharisees.)

Ultimately they experienced defeat and exile as “the Lord put them away out his sight”. All that was left was Judah, the Southern Kingdom which included the city of Jerusalem and elements of the tribes of Simeon and Benjamin. Its behaviour was not much better and it would not escape either. Further on, but not in our reading, a second addition extends the condemnation to Judah, the Southern Kingdom.

We need to be careful about attributing painful experiences in our own lives or in the lives of others to God’s anger or vindictiveness. One hears some still believe that the scourge of serious disease or misfortune is God’s punishment. It is unthinkable that God punishes this way.

Nevertheless, sinful acts consistently indulged in are undoubtedly destructive of individuals and communities. But the effects arise out of the disordered nature of the acts themselves rather than as an act of God. And they are warnings to us that we have strayed from the paths of truth, love and integrity. We cannot blame anyone but ourselves.

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