Jehu and Jehoram

15 Aug 2019

Important paper ar AOSIS (ISSN: 2072-8050 or go to ... from the department of Old Testament Studies, faculty of theology and religion, University of Pretoria in South Africa. Authors given are Lerato Mokoena and Esias Meyer.

It begins by outlining the violence inherent in the Old Testament account of the usurpation of the throne by Jehu in which the Deuteronomist author seems to take a delight, deposing one of his bad set of kings, the Omrides (which include Ahab and Jehoram). The dynasty and all its descendants, as well as leading figures no doubt, were brually wiped out if we are to believe the literal narrative as passed down into modern Bibles. They begin by outlining various interpretations by theologians and historians over the years with the add-on that most of them gloss over the violence. I've always thought the killings may have been provoked by events in the natural world rather than a simple political rebellion. After all, the life of Elijah is full of unusual events - and he was gushed up into the sky by wheels within wheels (somewhat akin to a meteor rotating) etc. There is also another oddity about the event - number symbolism. The 70 sons of Jehoram for example and the 42 relatives of Amaziah (6 x 7). On the Mesha stele we are told of a 'great tribnulation' (possibly a major earthquake) occurring prior to the Moabites regaining independence from the northern kingdom and its king, Jehoram. Although the coup mounted by Jehu was politically successful as he established a new dynasty of kings, his reign was hardly successful as it was blighted by drought and famine. In addition, Hazael of Damascus, who was also a usurper, made great inroads into the northern kingdom down to the borders of Judah (if not into Judah itself). Although the Deuteronomist author clearly favoured Jehu (as he removed the Baal cult from Samaria) one can hardly say he deserved praise - and one might suspect foreign gods were being blamed for misfortune that had befallen Israel. Therefore we have a bit of a rag bag of possibilities but the authors steer through the melee slickly and with comparative ease, sticking safely to the mainstream script in which catastrophism is absent. Jehu is said to have killed the 70 sons of Jehoram, the 42 descendants of Amaziah of Judah, as well as the worshippers of Baal. The violence is clearly related to a fundamentalist mind set. In the case of the Deuteronomist it is also nationalistic as well, as the god of the Israelites defined them as a people. It is thought the Deuteronomist was contemporary with a later king, Josiah (when a series of fundamentalist reforms were imposed). In that scenario the Deuteronomist is thought to have re-written the history prior to the 7th century BC - including the story of Jehu. The study says that even after that date the Biblical narrative was subject to change and editorial additions and deletions. What they might have been is left rather hazy but some peculiar theories have developed over the last couple of hundred years, on Biblical authorship and its alignment with other recorded historical events (mainly known from clay tablets and inscriptions on stone, such as stele). In that context we have the Mesha stele (from Moab) and the Black Obelisk (of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III). We also have the stone inscription from Tel Dan - and the authors turn to this in order to try and ascertain what actually might have happened.

Having outlined a series of arguments made by a succession of authors they turn to the Tel Dan inscription and what it is supposed to say - which apparently is not as clear cut as one might think. In fact, we only have a section of the original inscription, and a quite small section come to that, it would seem. It appears to contradict the Deuteronomist description of events - which is perhaps not surprising. The language of the script is early Aramaic with the letters clearly engraved. The gist of what is preserved is that the territory of the king of Damascus was invaded by the Omrides and transferred to Samaria. Presumably this is a reference to the disputed land of Gilead in the Transjordan that historically was settled by one of the 12 tribes. We are told this in the Bible account. Later, Hadad, the god of Damascus, gave permission for the usurpation by Hazael of the throne of Damascus. Presumably some kind of unknown event led to the usurpation, or the need to usurp, and one might think in terms of something similar to Jehu in the northern kingdom (an event blamed on foreign gods). In other words, not only did Yahweh come back to prominence as the sole god of the Israelites but in Damascus the god Hadad was restored also to prominence. Later, the author of the inscription (generally thought to be Hazael) claims he went on to kill Jehoram and Ahaziah (overwhelming their reputed military might as outlined in the reign of Ahab). The author went on to visit destruction on the territories of his opponents and installed a new king (presumably a reference to Jehu). Some kind of seige also took place. Most scholars seem to be in favour of identifying the author with Hazael who is decribed as a usurper in 2 Kings 8 - at the instigation of Elisha the prophet (presumably in opposition to the Omrides). In other words, as Elisha was involved in both usurpations there is the possibility Jehu and Hazael acted in concert, as allies. We have what appears to be a muddled web of events as we also know that Shalmaneser went on to defeat the northern kingdom late in his reign and records the tribute of Jehu (although Peter James did think it might have referred to Jehoram). Why should Elisha interfere in the politics of Damascus we may wonder as the two countries were in perpetual dispute over terrirtory in the Transjordan. One might suspect other things were going on. The problem, as far as the authors are concerned, is that Hazael claims to have killed the two kings but in the Bible it is Jehu that is hailed as the perpetrator. Because of this scholars have developed sharply divided views on the Tel Dan inscription.

In the second part of the article a book by Romer (publishedin 2015) is discussed - a history of Yahweh that impinges on the figure of Jehu. He claims the Bible, as it is preserved, was largely written by scribes in Judah - and they did not like the northern kingdom. Various other historians have said something similar and as we know there was a large influx of people from the northern kingdom after it was annexed by Assyria one can see that the cult of Yahweh, in a raw form, may have been brought into Judah by these refugees. This is perhaps a reference by Romer to the Deuteronomist author and the reign of Josiah of Judah. Romer appears to take the Deuteronomist as factual rather than in an ideological fashion. Romer claims the Yahweh of the north differed from the Yahweh of Judah - which has some credence. The cult of Yahweh may have undergone change as a result of the influx of refugees (but all this is guesswork by scholars). In the north the Exodus tradition was more important, he argues, as seen in I Kings 12, when Jeroboam initiated the cults of the north (Jeroboam II was a descendant of Jehu, and Yahweh, it seems, was worshipped in both the sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan. He also had a female consort, he alleges, none other than Asherah (as previously hypothesized by Dever). Yahweh was also worshipped in the shape of a bull (as was Baal and Hadad, even Enlil in Sumeria). Romer even suggests there was a conflict beween the various interpretations of Yahweh which leads up to his idea that Omri and Ahab favoured the cult of the Canaanite Baal (here desribed as Phoenician). They would have provided space for a separate cult of Yahweh, he says, as inferred in the encounters of the king with Elijah and Elisha. In contrast to this kind of thinking one might wonder if a natural disaster of some kind led to the revival of the Yahweh cult - which may account for the fundamentalist reaction that subsequently can be seen to have occurred. What this means as far as the Elijah and Eilsha story is open to debate as some scholars already think it was an insertion - by the Jehu apologists. It is in the Elijah and Elisha story that we get a hint of natural disaster - if in fact very vague. It is a story that perhaps has been tidied up by a later editor.

Romer also mentions the Mesha stele inscription where he says the Israelites then living in the Transjordan (at Nebo for example) worshipped Yahweh. According to Romer Yahweh was worshipped as a 'baal' or 'storm' god. Romer also thought the stories of Elijah and Elisha were added later (hence the story of Elijah's struggle against the prophets of Baal which later became a prelude to Jehu's violent overthrow of the Omrides. Romer also claims there was rivalry between Yahweh of Bethel and  Baal in Samaria, which came to an end with the coup by Jehu. Yahweh was then elevated as the national god and the titular deity of subsequent kings. Why Romer thinks Yahweh was not the national god prior to the Omrides is another puzzle but one might imagine the Omrides were subservient to another party (possibly Egypt). This might be inferred by reason that both Ahab and the king of Damascus were allies at the battle of Karkar (which repulsed the advance of Shalmaneser III (in the early part of that king's reign). At that point one might get the idea that the Phoenician alliance, and the scapegoat Jezebel, were only part of the story, confusing not just us but Romer and various other scholars.

On the other hand Frevel (in 2018) presented a darker picture of the coup of Jehu. He suggested Omri introduced the cult of Yahweh into the northern kingdom - and he also engaged with the Mesha stele which firmly associates Yahweh with the northern kingdom. None of the other 'bad' kings (in the eyes of the Deuteronomist) prior to Omri had the element Yahweh in their name (or so he says as Jeroboam I clearly had a Yahweh name). Jehu also had a Yahwist name and yet he opposed the Omrides. It seems Frevel is unable to offer any kind of explanation as to why Jehu conspired to erase the Omride ruling elite. One may ask why the Deuteronomist (and editors of the Biblical narrative at later stages) go to such bother to portray Jehu as righteous. The authors then explore why people such as Biblical commentators and the church go to such lengths to defend the violence of the Jehu usurpation. In the context of the historical Levant it is nothing out of the ordinary. The Bible even has other examples. In this study the authors reach the conclusion the coup came about because i) the Omrides worshipped Baal and ii) as revenge for the unjust death of Naboth and his family. It seems to me there is a lot more to the Biblical portrayal of the Omrides than currently meets the eye and it is useful that the authors of the study have brought this situation to the attention of more people.