Plundering Temples and Paying Off Nations: The Treasury in Kings

One of the more interesting questions to ask when studying the book of Kings is what genre we read it as. Often times, we’re subtly influenced even by the categories present in our Bibles. For example, most Protestant Christians categorize their Old Testaments according to the taxonomy of Law (Genesis–Deuteronomy), History (Joshua–Esther), Poetry (Job–Song), and Prophecy (Isaiah–Malachi). Thus, when they pick up Kings they read it like they would read a modern history book! This is problematic for any number of reasons, but one is that this is not the way that these books were categorized in antiquity. Instead, Modern and ancient Jews tended to separate the Hebrew Bible into three sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings. Now, we don’t have time today to get into all of the intricacies of this arrangement or all of its implications, but the one that most influences us right now is that the books of Joshua–2 Kings are considered prophets. They are, in fact, the “Former Prophets” and how we read them shouldn’t be according to our modern, valueless, sterile, non-didactic forms of history. Very much the opposite. Ancient historiography was absolutely value-laden and although the Former Prophets rarely give explicit approval or disproval of actions, every action and decision that is made is being portrayed by the author as good or bad. This history is meant to be instructive and the author(s) and editor(s) have selected and portrayed the history that they’ve given in ways that are absolutely meant to guide readers’ perceptions of the actions that are included in the book.
In other words, although we can read Kings for historical reconstructions (and should!) its primary purpose is something far different. We should read the Former Prophets—first and foremost—as literature. Let’s look at a short version of how this works!
One such situation is seen in the actions of J(eh)oash:

At that time Hazael king of Syria went up and fought against Gath and took it. But when Hazael set his face to go up against Jerusalem, Jehoash king of Judah took all the sacred gifts that Jehoshaphat and Jehoram and Ahaziah his fathers, the kings of Judah, had dedicated, and his own sacred gifts, and all the gold that was found in the treasuries of the house of the LORD and of the king’s house, and sent these to Hazael king of Syria. Then Hazael went away from Jerusalem (2 Kgs 12.17–18).

We can and should look at this from a historical-critical perspective! For example, we should note the historical and cultural background to these actions: Temples in the ancient world were economic centers almost as much as they were religious centers and priests were often accountants. This makes sense from a practical perspective: the priests were often some of the few literate and formally educated members of society and a temple’s god (or God!) was viewed as being the defender of those things placed in the temple. This is true in both the ancient Near East as well as the Greco-Roman World. The king is threatened by an enemy and so he plunders the temple in order to pay off the approaching army. This sort of thing happens a lotin the ancient world.
It also happens a lot in the book of Kings. And whenever we see a repeated theme in a book, we should pay attention to it because it becomes a key aspect in interpreting the book of King and figuring out its purpose! So, for example, we see that King Asa does it (1Kgs 15.18); King Ahaz does it (2 Kgs 16.8); and King Hezekiah does it (2 Kgs18.15). So what are we supposed to think about this situation? What clues from the context do we have to help us interpret this situation? Is Joash making a wise decision or a foolish one? Is he acting righteously or sinfully? And how can we know?
One way that we should do this is compare what we see with the other situations I just mentioned. Are they portrayed consistently? The short answer is “Yes.” In all of these cases, the decision to trust in the treasury is the aligned with trusting in treaties and the temptation to trust in armies. The decision to use the temple treasury this way parallels Hezekiah’s decision to trust in it at the end of his reign as well (cf. 2 Kgs 20.13–19). To trust in the treasury to protect Judah from foreign invasion is a lack of trust in God. In fact, if we look closely at the theology of Kings, this is a major issue. After all, in Solomon’s dedication to the temple (one of the most important texts in the book), Solomon prays:

If your people go out to battle against their enemy, by whatever way you shall send them, and they pray to the LORD toward the city that you have chosen and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause (1 Kgs 8.44–45).

This makes the decision explicit. Joash does not pray to God; he does loot the temple. Ahaz does not pray to God; he does loot the temple. And, again, Hezekiah makes this clear: he is destroyed while he trusts in worldly wealth and military preparation and is only saved after he prays toward the temple (2 Kgs 19.14–19).
But it is not just the broader narrative of Kings that teaches this point. It’s present even in Joash’s own life! The book of Kings does not include nearly as much information about Joash as does the book of Chronicles. The book of Kings knows about plenty of additional information about him (2 Kgs 12.19), but chose not to include it. In other words, everything that is included is included for a reason! And what does the book of Kings include to tell us about Joash’s life:
  • That he was saved from certain politically-motivated death thanks to the actions of a godly woman and the High Priest (2 Kgs 11.1–3).
  • That he was raised in the temple (2 Kgs 11.4–8).
  • That he was able to gain control of the kingdom and be restored to his rightful throne because of the temple treasury (2 Kgs 11.9–12).
  • That his one great action was in rebuilding and resupplying the temple (2 Kgs 12.4–16).
  • And that he looted the temple at the first sign of trouble (2 Kgs 12.17–18).
But this mixture of temple and treasury, sanctuary and safety deposit box, could cause problems as kings—especially in the biblical book of Kings—issues if they failed to rightly divide the economic and religious impacts of their actions. The book of Kings plays on this dichotomy: will the kings trust in God or in something else? Joash chose the latter and if we don’t pay attention to the literary and historiographic readings of the book of Kings, we might just miss it.
Joash lives and dies, is coronated and condemned, is blessed and cursed, by his treatment of the temple.
Of course, if you read Chronicles you realize Joash is oh so much worse…

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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