instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, December 21, 2007

Think you're embarrassed by your relatives this time of year?

Looking for something new to bring to the conversation on Advent, I wandered more or less at random into the Old Testament and arrived at the sordid tale of King Jehosaphat's immediate descendants (2 Chron 21-23).

Jehosaphat, as you recall, "followed the path of his father Asa unswervingly, doing what was right in the LORD'S sight."

When his son "Jehoram had come into his father's kingdom and had consolidated his power," however, "he put to the sword all his brothers and also some of the princes of Israel." For the next eight years, "[h]e conducted himself like the kings of Israel of the line of Ahab, because one of Ahab's daughters" -- a real charmer named Athaliah -- "was his wife."

Jehoram did not have a happy death. Per Elijah's prophecy, "his bowels issues forth... and he died in great pain... He departed unloved and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings." (So not only does he die in great pain, he's also disrespected after death, and the Chronicler writes it all down, so that three thousand years later the whole world still knows what a bum he was.)

So then Ahaziah, the only surviving grandson of Jehosaphat, becomes king. A bad king, in fact, "because his mother [Athaliah] counseled him to act sinfully."

Ahaziah teamed up with his uncle, King Jehoram of Israel, to attack the Kingdom of Aram. The attack didn't go well, and as if that weren't bad enough, the prophet Elisha had meanwhile arranged for Jehu, son of Nimshi, to be anointed King of Israel, and Jehu had both Jehoram and Ahaziah killed.

Then Athaliah, queen mother of Judah, "proceeded to kill off all the royal offspring of the house of Judah" -- which is to say, her grandchildren -- so that she could rule the country. One of Ahaziah's children survived, however: Joash, whose aunt hid with him in the Temple for six years.

Then a conspiracy arose between the priests and certain captains in Judah to have young Joash crowned king in the Temple. Athaliah was killed, as was her protege Mattan the priest of Baal, and the new king was seated upon the royal throne.

2 Chronicles 23 ends with the verse, "All the people of the land rejoiced and the city was quiet, now that Athaliah had been put to death by the sword." Not so much a story with a happy ending as a story that ends at a moment when most of the people are happy. (Let us not now ask how the reign of King Joash turned out.)

In its bare form, this story isn't striking for its seasonal appropriateness. It does hit the "yes, we do need a Savior" chord, certainly, but then, almost any story about any three consecutive rulers of any kingdom hits that chord. The only real preparing going on involves handing out spears to the Levites who are involved in the Temple coup. I'd bet the cost of postage that you can't find Christmas cards featuring a painting of Athaliah's summary execution at the Horse Gate (though you might be able to find some with altars to Baal).

But, as the Gospel According to St. Matthew makes clear, these are not just any kings (and a queen!) of just any kingdom....