The evil king Manasseh: Idolatry and politics

As for Hezekiah, he should be praised for his purification of Judah from idol worship but his foreign policy should be recognized for the failure that it was toward the end of his life.

July 11, 2016 21:00
4 minute read.
Israel archeology

The seal impression of King Hezekiah unearthed during the Ophel excavations at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount. (photo credit: COURTESY OF DR. EILAT MAZAR AND OURIA TADMOR)


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Hezekiah was one of the most successful rulers of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. During his reign (c.727-698 BCE) he fortified Jerusalem, constructed the Siloam tunnel to ensure the capital’s water supply, and – this most significant for the Bible – was a reformer who established Jerusalem as the center of sacrifice and made it his mission to rid Judah of pagan altars and idol worship. In the Bible and in Jewish tradition, Hezekiah is remembered as one of the great kings descended from David and was viewed favorably for being influenced by the prophet Isaiah.

But the same Hezekiah almost brought the Kingdom of Judah to ruin. At a time when the Assyrian Empire began to suffer reverses in its mostly successful attempt to dominate the Middle East, King Hezekiah decided to join other states in a rebellion against the Assyrian overlords. This proved disastrous for the Davidic kingdom. Sennacherib and his troops were so strong that the Assyrians were able to capture the mighty fortress at Lachish, an event immortalized in an engraved relief displayed in the royal palace in Nineveh. In 701 BCE, after claiming to have conquered 46 fortified cities and some smaller towns in Judah, Sennacherib focused on conquering Jerusalem. For reasons that are still not wholly known – the Bible describes the spread of a plague that devastated the Assyrian troops besieging the capital – Jerusalem was not conquered, but Judah was left in ruins and only a few years later Hezekiah died. His successor was his 12-year-old son Manasseh. The difference between father and son could not have been more dramatic.

Manasseh ruled Judah for 55 years, from 698-642 BCE, longer than any king of Judah. If we rely on the prophetic portions of the Bible alone, the portrait that is painted is of an evil man – a mass murderer and idol worshiper whose reign was so tainted it would later be the cause of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BCE.

Manasseh promoted idolatry throughout his kingdom, built pagan temples and even sacrificed one of his sons in the fires of Moloch worship. There is an old tradition in Judaism that Manasseh executed the prophet Isaiah. While the later biblical books of Chronicles depict Manasseh as repenting, this does not seem to fit the character of the man described in the Books of Kings. There is less than one chapter devoted to Manasseh’s reign despite the fact that he ruled for more than half a century. The Bible tells us: “He did what was displeasing to the Lord, following the abhorrent practices of the nations that the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites. He rebuilt the shrines that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal and made a sacred post, as King Ahab of Israel had done.” This comparison of Manasseh to the northern king Ahab is a damning indictment of the southern ruler. For their failure to worship in Jerusalem alone – the Northern Kingdom built temples at Dan and Bet El – the northerners were punished with exile. According to the Bible, Manasseh’s heirs would meet the same fate in the future.

While I certainly agree with the biblical texts’ praise of Hezekiah and condemnation of his son Manasseh, I wish more would have been said in the prophetic literature about Hezekiah’s disastrous foreign policy and Manasseh’s successes as a vassal under the Assyrians. Again, Manasseh reigned for 55 years – there must be something more to say about him than all the evil he perpetrated. During Manasseh’s reign, dramatic geo-political developments were taking place, including the beginning of the end of the Assyrian Empire as the region’s mighty military machine. Archeology reveals that under the Assyrians, Judah recovered from the policy of rebellion of Hezekiah and even flourished. We do not know whether Manasseh’s promotion of idol worship was an act demanded by the Assyrian overlords or was simply the free will of Hezekiah’s son to overturn the gains his father made in the religious realm. There is no way to know, but the historical and archeological consensus is that idolatry was not forced upon Judah by the Assyrians.

In the end, Manasseh’s evil acts made him a “prisoner of the text” whose geo-political accomplishments would be erased from the biblical text and would only be a factor in the modern study of Ancient Israel. In the Bible the history of the Israelite loyalty to God’s Covenant between God and his Chosen People dominates the biblical narrative and whatever successes Manasseh accomplished would be expunged from the record as being of no concern to our Scripture. The Bible’s history – whether of Manasseh in Judah or any of the rulers of the Northern Kingdom – is a “theological history.” While the idolatry and the mass murder under Manasseh’s rule should be condemned, one wishes the biblical text could tell us more about his 55-year rule.

As for Hezekiah, he should be praised for his purification of Judah from idol worship but his foreign policy should be recognized for the failure that it was toward the end of his life. There is text but there is also context. Archeologists and historians enable us to paint a more complete picture of the past. At the same time, the Bible should not lose its censure of idol worship and evil. The two points of view can coexist and support each other.

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