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2 Kings 18

In 2 Kings 18, in response to a rebellion against Assyrian rule by King Hezekiah of Judah, King Sennacheirib of Assyria destroys the province of Judah and surrounds Jerusalem, its capital, with his army. He sends a delegation of officials to the walls of Jerusalem, where they are met by a delegation dispatched by Hezekiah. The goal of the Assyrian delegation seems to be to convince Jerusalem to surrender. In pursuing this goal, the Assyrians present their siege as a religiously significant event. Below are examples of this:

וְכִֽי־תֹאמְר֣וּן אֵלַ֔י אֶל־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ בָּטָ֑חְנוּ הֲלוֹא־ה֗וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵסִ֤יר חִזְקִיָּ֙הוּ֙ אֶת־בָּמֹתָ֣יו וְאֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתָ֔יו וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לִֽיהוּדָה֙ וְלִיר֣וּשָׁלַ֔͏ִם לִפְנֵי֙ הַמִּזְבֵּ֣חַ הַזֶּ֔ה תִּֽשְׁתַּחֲו֖וּ בִּירֽוּשָׁלָֽ͏ִם׃

And if you tell me that you are relying on the LORD your God, He is the very one whose shrines and altars Hezekiah did away with, telling Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You must worship only at this altar in Jerusalem.’

(2 Kings 18:22, JPS 1985 via Sefaria)

עַתָּה֙ הֲמִבַּלְעֲדֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה עָלִ֛יתִי עַל־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַשְׁחִת֑וֹ יְהֹוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר אֵלַ֔י עֲלֵ֛ה עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַזֹּ֖את וְהַשְׁחִיתָֽהּ׃

And do you think I have marched against this land to destroy it without the LORD? The LORD Himself told me: Go up against that land and destroy it.”

(Verse 25)

הַהַצֵּ֥ל הִצִּ֛ילוּ אֱלֹהֵ֥י הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אַרְצ֑וֹ מִיַּ֖ד מֶ֥לֶךְ אַשּֽׁוּר׃

Did any of the gods of other nations save his land from the king of Assyria?

(Verse 34)

מִ֚י בְּכׇל־אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָאֲרָצ֔וֹת אֲשֶׁר־הִצִּ֥ילוּ אֶת־אַרְצָ֖ם מִיָּדִ֑י כִּֽי־יַצִּ֧יל יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלַ֖͏ִם מִיָּדִֽי׃

Which among all the gods of [those] countries saved their countries from me, that the LORD should save Jerusalem from me?”

(Verse 36)

As I see it, two conflicting religious ethics are expressed in these verses. The first two verses reflect what can be called a Jewish religious ethic. They seem to express a belief that Hashem is supreme and universal, responsible for all historical developments, including Sennacheirib’s invasion of Judah. In verse 25, the Assyrians seem to be chastising the Judeans for believing that events could occur without Hashem’s sanction. Good mussar indeed!

On the other hand, verses 34 and 36 reflect a polytheistic idolatrous worldview. There, the Assyrians seem to conceive of gods as powerful tribal chiefs who fight on behalf of their respective peoples. This conception seems Hashem as, chas v’shalom, not supreme and not universal. The question is: why do the Assyrians employ these two conceptions of Hashem in their speech to the Judean delegation.

To answer this, we must consider the context of the situation. The meeting of the Assyrian and Judean delegations is taking place just outside the walls of Jerusalem, on which, apparently, many people had positioned themselves to observe the proceedings. Below are verses 26 and 27. They occur in the middle of the four verses cited above. For context, Eliakim is a member of the Judean delegation and the Rabshakeh is Assyrian.

אֶל־עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ אֲרָמִ֔ית כִּ֥י שֹׁמְעִ֖ים אֲנָ֑חְנוּ וְאַל־תְּדַבֵּ֤ר עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ יְהוּדִ֔ית בְּאׇזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־הַחֹמָֽה׃

Eliakim son of Hilkiah, Shebna, and Joah replied to the Rabshakeh, “Please, speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; do not speak to us in Judean in the hearing of the people on the wall.”

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם רַבְשָׁקֵ֗ה הַעַ֨ל אֲדֹנֶ֤יךָ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲדֹנִ֔י לְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה הֲלֹ֣א עַל־הָאֲנָשִׁ֗ים הַיֹּֽשְׁבִים֙

עַל־הַ֣חֹמָ֔ה לֶֽאֱכֹ֣ל אֶת־[צוֹאָתָ֗ם] (חריהם) וְלִשְׁתּ֛וֹת אֶת־[מֵימֵ֥י רַגְלֵיהֶ֖ם] (שניהם) עִמָּכֶֽם׃

But the Rabshakeh answered them, “Was it to your master and to you that my master sent me to speak those words? It was precisely to the men who are sitting on the wall—who will have to eat their dung and drink their urine with you.”

The Rabshakeh continues in verse 29:

וַֽיַּעֲמֹד֙ רַבְשָׁקֵ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֥א בְקוֹל־גָּד֖וֹל יְהוּדִ֑ית וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר וַיֹּ֔אמֶר שִׁמְע֛וּ דְּבַר־הַמֶּ֥לֶךְ הַגָּד֖וֹל מֶ֥לֶךְ אַשּֽׁוּר׃

And the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in Judean: “Hear the words of the Great King, the King of Assyria.

Verse 29

וְאַל־יַבְטַ֨ח אֶתְכֶ֤ם חִזְקִיָּ֙הוּ֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֣ה לֵאמֹ֔ר הַצֵּ֥ל יַצִּילֵ֖נוּ יְהֹוָ֑ה וְלֹ֤א תִנָּתֵן֙ אֶת־הָעִ֣יר הַזֹּ֔את בְּיַ֖ד מֶ֥לֶךְ אַשּֽׁוּר׃

Don’t let Hezekiah make you rely on the LORD, saying: The LORD will surely save us: this city will not fall into the hands of the king of Assyria.

Verse 30

From here, the Assyrian puts forth his assertion that Hashem is not supreme and not universal. We learn from these verses that the Assyrians wanted the Jerusalemites to hear their words and take in the ideas expressed by those words. And remember, the goal of the Assyrians is for Jerusalem to surrender. It seems to me that the Assyrians understand that they will not convince Hezekiah to surrender. Instead, they want to undermine support for Hezekiah’s nonsurrender policy. They want to utilize the people of Jerusalem to put pressure on Hezekiah to surrender from within the city walls, in addition to the Assyrian army putting pressure on him from outside. With that in mind, we can better analyze the decision of the Assyrians to express these conflicting concepts.

The first tactic the Assyrians use is to try to undermine trust that Hashem will protect Jerusalem by highlighting Hashem’s universalism. The Assyrians call out the particularism of the Judeans, which allows them to believe Hezekiah when he says that Hashem will not abandon the city. The Assyrians point out that Hashem is a universal God, not a tribal chieftain. It is in that vein that the Assyrians criticize Hezekiah’s destruction of altars throughout the land. Hezekiah sees Jerusalem as the particular site upon which offerings are to be offered. The Assyrians seem to be pointing out the following: Hashem is a universal God, so how could any one place be more worthy of sacrificing to Him than any other? Thus, Hezekiah’s destruction of the altars reflects the mistaken, particularist worldview that will be the downfall of Jerusalem (according to the Assyrians).

Then comes the Judeans’ request that the Assyrians not speak in such a manner that the Jerusalemites will hear. Why? The Judeans are concerned that the Jerusalemites will be sufficiently unsettled by the Assyrians’ words as to put pressure on the king to surrender. And the Assyrians make very few bones about it; that’s what they want. The Assyrians’ first speech appeals to ideas already present in Judean religion, that of Hashem’s universality, in order to make the Jerusalemites question whether Hezekiah is not mistaken. Then, though, the Assyrians swerve. Their second speech assumes Hashem’s particularity but questions His power. He is portrayed as just another of the national gods which were as numerous as peoples in the ancient Middle East.

These two paradigms make us question. How can Hashem be both universal and all-powerful and particular? And do we identify Hashem by trusting in those who claim to have His particular sanction, or by those who prevail? Hezekiah claims that his kingship and the city of Jerusalem and its Temple have Hashem’s particular sanction, but the fact of the matter is that Judah has been destroyed, and Jerusalem seems beyond hope. The only thing keeping it alive is trust that Hashem is particular to it. But is that trust correct? While Sennacheirib is not ultimately successful, we do know that Nebuchadnezzar was. Thus, the idea that Hashem is completely particular, is solely a Warrior who will defend His people, is a false image. On the other hand, if Hashem is completely non-particular, what is the status of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel? Why does Hashem eventually decimate the Assyrian army via an angel?

There is a tension implicit throughout the Book of Kings between Hashem’s particularism and universalism. The Assyrian arguments raise serious questions for us. We know that Hashem is not ultimately particularist, in that He does allow Jerusalem to be destroyed. But how do we know when accepting defeat turns from lack of trust in Hashem to acceptance that Hashem is all-powerful? Somehow, paradoxically, having altars to Hashem everywhere would be unfaithfulness to Him. I guess because faithfulness is a characteristic of relationships, and relationships determine particularity. To have altars everywhere is to not trust that Hashem’s covenant bind Jerusalem. I don’t know. I’m sputtering here, running out of steam. I hope this has been insightful.

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