Thursday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 24:8-17

The fate of the southern kingdom, including Jerusalem, was to be no better than that of the north. Today’s passage describes the first deportation of the Hebrews from Jerusalem into Babylon. However, the conquerors now are not the Assyrians but the new ‘world power’ of the day, the Babylonian empire under King Nebuchadnezzar. We meet him again in the Book of Daniel where we read the famous stories of the hand writing on the wall and the dream of the statue with the feet of clay, the story of Daniel in the den of lions and the three young men in the fiery furnace. Like all the emperors before and after him, his empire was doomed to fall. But here, he is seen as an instrument of God in bringing punishment on the sinful and idol-worshipping people of Judah.

King Jehoiakim of Judah had unwisely rebelled against the Babylonians after being subjected to them for three years. This brought a wave of invasions and destruction from neighbouring peoples on sinful Judah (2 Kings 24:1-7).

Now his son, Jehoiachin, a mere 18 years old, had only been on the throne for three months. The young king, like his predecessors, did not follow the ways of the Lord, which means that he led a life of immorality and idolatry. It is just then that Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian forces. Less than 25 years had passed since the events of yesterday’s reading when Jehoiachin’s father, Josiah, had tried to turn the people of Judah back to God and observance of the covenant law.

During the siege, Nebuchadnezzar himself arrived. According to Babylonian records the king “encamped against the city of Judah, [that is, Jerusalem] and on the second day of the month of Addaru [i.e. March 16, 597 BC] he seized the city and captured the king”, Jehoiachin. It was the eighth year, by Jewish reckoning, of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. The city does not seem to have put up much of a fight, even though, built on a hill with steep sides, it was a formidable challenge to attacking forces, as Sennacherib found to his cost.

Jehoiachin, however, together with his mother and all his court, surrendered and were taken captive by the Babylonian king. Jehoiachin was to remain under his rule for 37 years, until the death of Nebuchadnezzar, under relatively comfortable circumstances. This fulfilled a prophecy of Jeremiah:

As I live, says the Lord, even if King Coniah [short for ‘Jeconiah’] son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those whom you fear, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. But they shall not return to the land to which they long to return. (Jer 22:24-27)

What was in a way even more shameful and sacrilegious, the treasures of the Temple and the royal palace were all carried away. Some of these included gold vessels which had been put in place by King Solomon when he built the Temple. It was in one way a terrible sacrilege but, with sacrifices no longer possible, there is even an implication that Yahweh is no longer present among his people.

Finally, practically the whole population of Jerusalem was carried off. This included the whole of the army, as well as craftsmen and artisans. All of these could be used by Nebuchadnezzar for his own building projects. Only the poorest of the poor were left behind. Altogether some 10,000 were reportedly taken away. There is likely to have been an overlap between soldiers and skilled craftsman, just as in Israel today all young men have to serve in the armed forces.

In Jehoiachin’s place, his uncle Mattaniah was installed as king and given the name Zedekiah. Mattaniah was a son of King Josiah, whom we saw in yesterday’s reading and the brother of Jehoiachin’s father, Jehoiakim. Mattaniah means ‘gift of Yahweh’ while Zedekiah means ‘Yahweh is my justice’. It has been suggested that Nebuchadnezzar wanted to imply that his actions against Jerusalem and Jehoiachin were just. There is even a hint that the king is simply an instrument of God’s justice in what took place. In any case, the name change signified subjection to Nebuchadnezzar.

Once again, we see God’s people pay for their infidelities in keeping the law of the Lord. And yet, it is likely that many of those who were carried off adjusted to their new circumstances, made the best of them, may even have done very well and came to regard their place of exile as home for them and their children. In our own times, we see Jewish communities in exile thriving not to mention the millions of other peoples who have contributed to the ‘melting pot’ that is the United States, Australia and the European Union.

There was not much benefit in sitting and moping about one’s past and longing for old days, old ways and old places, although some did do that (as in the Psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon…”). Nothing that happens to us is the end of possibilities. Every experience is a challenge to find God in a new situation, a new environment. Wherever life brings us, God is there close by. He is always to be found where we happen to be now, not where we would like to be.

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