Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Sum of All Fears (II Kings 14-17)

I told you so. That is the tone of the book of Kings’ account of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel:
Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”
There really seems little to say about it. The people are guilty. They repeatedly thumb their noses at their God. They insist on worshipping him on their terms on the high places. They don’t think twice about bringing in foreign idols. Except for one bloody regime under Jehu, they persecute the prophets. King after king after king is described concisely as “doing evil in the sight of the Lord.” They’ve become every bit as wicked as the former inhabitants. What more can He do but hurl them out of the land?

What more indeed. The tragedy and futility is overwhelming. Israel is expelled from the land, like Adam from Eden. The Lord is finally giving up on them – as he nearly did in the flood and threatened to do so many times with Moses. But what of his plan, his promises, and his purposes? As with Job, is not the creator implicated in the failure of his creation? What hope is there that any other people will succeed where Israel failed? Shall not the clay say to the potter, “why did you make me like this”?

When the king of Assyria (not to be confused with Syria) carries off the Israelites, he also moves in many of his own people to colonize the newly conquered land. They quickly learn, through a series of lion attacks, that the local god is a feisty one that demands their respect. And so they keep a few priests around to teach them how to worship the Lord. All in all, the new Samaritans aren’t really any worse than the Israelites – and they at least can plead ignorance.

This is what St. Paul was talking about in the book of Romans. Though they possess the law, it doesn’t really seem to do the Israelites much good. The great story of Exodus from Egypt, the sublime customs and worship outlined in the Torah, and the righteous laws they are given to live by all only serve to condemn them as unworthy of such blessings. In the end, what has God accomplished other than to show them how wretched they are?

All hope rests on Judah – the one tribe that remains standing against the juggernaut of Assyria.