Ethical Issues in the Historical Books of Tanach;
JOSHUA, JUDGES, SAMUEL, KINGS (Nevi’im Rishonim)
These four books ostensibly are merely the history of Israel from the entry into the Promised Land until the destruction of the Temple and the temporary loss of independent statehood. In fact they are actually, in a specifically Jewish sense, the most deeply religious and spiritual books of the Bible. One does not have to be specifically Jewish to see or feel the religion and spirituality in the revelations of the prophetic writings or in the words of the Tehillim. They speak to all people, as evidenced by the fact that the Bible is still the world's bestseller and there are millions of non-Jews who regularly recite the Psalms. However, it is specifically and intrinsically Jewish to understand that G-d is revealed in the prosaic material, in the political, social and military events in the lives of ordinary men and women, kings and leaders that are described in the Nevim Rishonim. Here are described the ideology and religious thoughts in Judaism, while in Chronicles we have the purely historical.
“He served G-d but not like
his father David” (Melachim Bet 14:3)
While it is easy to understand classifications such as are used regarding the kings of Israel, “and he did evil in the sight of the Lord”, or the idolatry of such kings of Judah as Ahaz or Menashe, it is more difficult to grasp or to apply to ourselves the phrase ‘YASHAR but not wholeheartedly’. Perhaps, used as we are to labeling people according to clearly defined groupings as dati, charedi or secular etc. it is perhaps more difficult to understand just how complicated and frail people’s religiosity really is.
Yoash allowed his courtiers to convince him that he was a deity, since for any mere mortal, entering Kodesh HaKodashim would have been fatal, and Yoash had been hidden there for 7 years. This led to the spread of idolatry in the whole kingdom of Judah. About Amatzyahu we are told: “When he came back from defeating the Edomites, he brought with him their gods as deities and would prostrate himself before them” (2 Chronicles 25:14).
Instead of asking for G-d’s forgiveness, he worshipped the Edomite gods, to compensate them as is were, for his act of cruelty, unprecedented for a Jewish king, in dashing to death the 10,000 prisoners of war. In addition, the text there tells of the needless war that he fought with Israel, thus bringing shame to himself and his kingdom. Of Uzziyahu, we read that he re-conquered Eilat from Edom, to whom it was given by HASHEM (Devarim 2:8), but captured by David and Shlomo. Then: “he entered the Heichal and offered the incense [that was the Avoda of the Kohen Gadol]” (2 Chronicles 26:16) and this was a sin; either he did this out of arrogance as an extension of his role as a king or in misguided piety seeing it fitting that G-d, the King of Kings should be served by a king (Tanchuma).
There is punishment for sin even if done in ignorance, in error and without intent. This applies to all people; the greater the person, the greater the punishment. So all three kings were punished for their sins. Yoash was murdered by two courtiers, in revolt against him personally, but not against the Davidic dynasty. This was one of the few political assassinations in Judah’s history, relative to the Northern Kingdom. The two, it seems, were his sons from gentile wives as may be assumed from the names of their mothers. Amatzya had to flee Yerushalayim to Lachish [a fortified city, south-west of modern Beit Shemesh, near Beit Jubrin] because of a revolt against him, by the notables of Yerushalyim. There he ruled, concurrently with his son, for a further 15 years, until he, like his father, was assassinated or mortally wounded. Azarya - Uzziyahu was smitten with leprosy; usually the punishment for social sins, but here specifically for usurping the kedusha of the priesthood (Rashi, Bamidbar 17:5). He retired to a special house set aside for lepers, who were not allowed to dwell in the ‘camp of Israel’; i.e. Yerushalayim, till his death, while his son Jotam ruled in his stead.
It is evidence of Judaism’s concept of the bearing of public office of any kind, as a shlichut, a sort of slavery, willingly or not, to the burdens of serving the people, rather than as a source of personal power or benefit, that our text speaks of this as a house of freedom. “Uzziyahu became free of the duties of kingship” (Horayot 10a).
The way out of the snare that these three kings, like many people in all history, of sin caused by doing the will of HASHEM but not wholeheartedly, surely lies in the injunction to Avraham, “Conduct yourself before Me and be perfect - TAMIM” (Bereishit 17:1), while Ya’akov Avinu, who fathered the 12 Tribes is an ‘ISH TAM’;the role-model for us, “Who [wish to] shall dwell in Your Holy Mountain? One who walks in perfect innocence” (Tehillim 15:1-2). TAMIM conjures up visions of naïve, simplistic or angelic people, but that is imposed by the limitation of the English translations and is not the real meaning of the word.
“TAMIM - being completed, lacking nothing. This is the difference between Avraham as he was till now and Avraham the Jew after this covenant. In the non-Jewish world, every good deed is covered by the good intention that prompted it. Now something higher is demanded of him, to be TAMIM. Now doing good is a duty imposed by G-d, yet to be obeyed from his own free will. Feeling and urges, which he, like others, followed blindly, are to be kept under control by the free will of human power, all of them in the name of G-d. Always and in every direction, the Jews are to be godly and thereby do they become complete, true human beings, where all their acts of their own free will are under His direction” (Rabbi S.R.Hirsch, Bereishit 17:1).
The Chassidic Masters saw TAMIM as
serving HASHEM with complete sub- servience without any shadow of
self-satisfaction, of either material or spiritual gain or of philosophical
rationalization. “The Torah tells that Aharon did exactly as HASHEM
commanded when lighting the Menora. Surely the most ordinary of people would
have done exactly the same, so what was special about Aharon’s behavior? The
Admor Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said that if he would have had to light
the Menora for the first time in world history, then in his ecstasy he would
have spilt the oil or knocked over the Menora or something similar. However
because Aharon’s AVODA was TAMIM, he was able to overcome his personal
feelings, rationale and spiritual ecstasy, and do exactly as HASHEM wanted”
This is the 54th installment in Dr. Tamari’s series on “Tanach and its messages for our times”