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REFLECTIONS ON KING ASA
For quite a few months now, I’ve been contemplating the story of King Asa, as recounted in 2 Chronicles 14-16.
[I might mention that there was a time period when I was more or less the go-to person for B&H publishers on Chronicles, and I had the opportunity to write the Shepherd’s Notes and the Holman Old Testament Commentary on Chronicles, as well as the notes on 1 and 2 Chronicles in the HCSB Study Bible. (Perhaps I still am. We’ll see what happens with the new CSB translation. It’s been long enough that I wouldn’t mind getting back into Chronicles again—as I’m doing right now, I guess.)]
Asa was the 3rd king of Judah. In the past, there had been three kings over the entire land (Saul, David, and Solomon), and then the kingdom split with the northern “ten tribes” constituting the kingdom of Israel, and the southern “two tribes” forming a unit as the kingdom of Judah.On the northern side, the break-away king was Jeroboam, who was followed by Nadab and Baasha, while the southern kingdom had been headed up by Rehoboam, Abijah, and, now, Asa.
Let there be no question about the fact that Asa was a godly king. Quite early in his reign he found himself in a position where only faith in God would allow him to survive, and he trusted God. This event set the tone for most of his forty-one years on the throne of Judah.
Prior to the conquest of Palestine by the Hebrews, Egypt was in control of the Mediterranean East Coast. However, its army had drowned in the Red Sea under Pharaoh Amenophis II, and the country went broke under the money-wasting policies of Pharaohs Amenophis III and IV (Akhenaton--see my collection on him and his times). Thus, Egypt lost its supremacy over the Levant. From that point on, Egyptian armies would raid Judah and Israel from time to time, but could never again establish a solid foot hold.
The Invasion by Zerah
One of those attempted invasions came up when Asa was yet a young king; it was his fifth year on the throne. As various dynasties replaced each other in Egypt, the opportunity came for one Zerah of Cush (Ethiopia or southern Egypt) to enter the kingdom of Judah with a huge army. There is not enough information to know whether Zerah was a pharaoh or just a military field commander on behalf of the pharaoh. His army consisted of 1 million troops, including 300 chariots. There's a good chance that many of those soldiers were mercenaries, to whom combat was a way of life.
Short stack: What’s the single-most important issue I always bring up when I write about ancient armies? --- Time’s up; you’re right. Thanks for remembering. It’s the fact that they needed food and water: lots of it, every day. Pop!
Zerah and his million soldiers, along with the horses and chariots, would have drained available resources very quickly. I surmise that, to some extent, folks along the way must have cooperated with him. That is probably why, after the battle, Asa took measures against the facilities and the people in that area who had most likely assisted him.
It’s not that Asa did not have a rather jumbo-sized army as well. It consisted of 300,000 (3 lakh for my Indian readers) spear throwers from Judah, and 2.8 lakh (280,000 for my American readers) bowmen from the tribe of Benjamin. All of them, we are told, were also equipped with the right-sized shields for their roles. Thus, they were not just a rag tag band of conscripted farmers. A number of them may have had some experience, dating back to the temporary, but disastrous, invasion by Pharaoh Shishak about 15 years earlier. Also, some of them may have taken part in the ongoing minor border clashes between Reoboam, king of Judah, and Jeroaboam, king of Israel. (2 Chron. 12). Furthermore, about twelve years ago, during the time of Abijah, Jeroboam (with an army of 800,000 men) attempted to conquer Judah, and God gave Abijah (with only 400,000 defenders) a miraculous victory (2 Chron. 13). Therefore, at least some of Asa's soldiers probably had fought enemies before. Zerah’s army was almost twice the size of Asa’s, 580 thousand vs. 1 million, which included the dreaded chariots.
So. Asa and his army went to encounter Zerah’s mighty force “in the Valley of Zephathah at Mareshah,” a location that we cannot pinpoint with accuracy these days. It was somewhere south of Jerusalem in the Judean desert, close to the area still occupied by the Philistines at the time. He set up his troops for battle, but if either he or Zerah had any particular tactic in mind, it’s not known. The one thing that we do know is that young Asa felt overwhelmed by the situation and, believing that he was about to be defeated, turned to God and prayed:
“Lord, there is no one besides you to help the mighty and those without strength. Help us, Lord our God, for we depend on you, …” (2 Chron. 14:11a)
And God responded to that prayer in a miraculous way. There’s a rather telling phrase that the chronicler (Ezra for all that I know) uses several times on occasions such as this one.
"So the Lord routed the Cushites before Asa and before Judah, and the Cushites fled" (2 Chron. 14:12; cf. 13:16).
God fought the enemy in a rather one-sided battle, and Asa and his soldiers followed him. The reaction of fleeing when a battle is clearly lost is a common one, particularly if the troops consist to a large part of mercenaries. If you’re a soldier in a pretty sizable army, and you realize that your comrades right in front of you are being massacred, chances are very low that you’re just going to wait your turn and engage the overpowering enemy forces, just so you can lay down your life for king, brass, or country, let alone the promise of a pay envelope. It’s just human nature. You know you’re going to lose, so you vacate the premises. I understand that it’s very rare that one army or the other ever gets decimated on the actual field of battle. (One exception that comes to mind is Saul’s last stand in 1 Chronicles 10.) The terrible slaughters usually begin when the victorious army catches up with the fleeing enemy.
So it was here. Asa and his army pursued the hapless Zerah all the way south to the Philistine city of Gerar. I can’t help but think that Zerah’s soldiers weren’t exactly at the top or their physical strength by then. The Judahites plundered the city, got rid of the surrounding nomads who must have been supplying Zerah’s troops, and headed home.
Having returned to Jerusalem, a prophet by the name of Azariah son of Oded paid a visit to Asa. In the name of the Lord, he promised Asa that God was rewarding his faith in him, and that God would bless him and the country as long as they continued to trust him.
These events inspired Asa to undertake a great revival. There had been a lot of idolatry practiced by the inhabitants of Judah, who were supposed to be God’s people, and Asa set things right. He retired Maacah, his own grandmother (wife of Rehoboam), who had been a leader in promoting Canaanite idolatry. He removed the idols from the land. The king and his people made a pact that from now on they would worship Yahweh, the true God, and him alone. Also, Asa and his father, Abijah, had accumulated quite a bit of treasure, which he now donated to the temple.
Baasha's Evil Designs
All was going well from that point on until year 35 or so of Asa’s reign. Around that time, Baasha, king of Israel and a worshiper of idols, started to make hostile moves toward Judah. For one thing, he sought to block the steady trickle of his subjects into the southern kingdom. Furthermore, he set up fortifications near the border so as to have a base from which he could launch attacks into Judah. Then, to make sure that the escapades he was planning would come out successfully, he made a treaty with Ben-hadad, king of Aram, who lived in Damascus. Israel and Aram together would invade and conquer Judah.
Now, I’m going to continue this story from a point of view that makes sense to me, and you will notice that I’m bringing in some embellishments that I believe to be in consonance with the biblical text, but clearly not directly stated. If you are able to find a different perspective that leads to the same bottom line, that's fine.
Once again, things looked bleak for Asa. He needed to defend himself against an invasion of two armies who, in contrast to Zerah, would not have problems maintaining a supply line.
But this time Asa had a plan.
Now, if you ask me, it was a terrible plan, and you may agree. In fact, I think that at other times Judah's people would also have disapproved. But Asa was known as a godly king. He was a man of great faith who had led the people in the defeat of Zerah’s army. He had given much of his wealth to the temple. Under his pious rule the kingdom had flourished, and there had been three decades of peace. In short, Asa must have enjoyed the trust of his people, thanks to the outstanding faith he had displayed, and so we have no record of anyone challenging his decision until afterward. Now, this is my inference: I find it very plausible that, on the whole, people thought that Asa’s plan was not only ingenious, but yet another sign of his great devotion to God.
“Asa’s the man.” – “God continues to do great things through him.” – “We are so fortunate to have a king who is with us, the little people of Judah.” – "Who’s going to complain if he brings this off without any of us shedding a drop of blood?"
Asa made a treaty with Ben-hadad. He sent an official diplomatic note to the King of Aram, in which he alluded to a (quite possibly fictitious) treaty between their fathers, and “reminded” him of their friendship. Furthermore, in order to help Ben-hadad’s memory along, he accompanied the note with a humongous amount of treasure, clearing out his own palace as well as God’s temple.
The rationalizations must have gone on. "Isn’t that what the temple treasury is supposed to be good for, namely, to ensure that there is peace in the land for God’s people? Shouldn’t we see in Asa’s actions exactly how much of a servant of God he is? He had freely placed his treasure into the temple, and now he is relying on those donations to God to bring about a successful diplomatic solution for all people involved. Once again King Asa is demonstrating what a ruler in tune with God and people can do."
I, for one, have no problem imagining that people were thinking and speaking along those lines (except, of course in ancient Hebrew), from the high priest on down to the lowliest peasant in the field.
And Asa came through as only a man of his stature could. I mean, if there was any doubt about his machinations beforehand, the outcome surely must have demonstrated that he had been right in what he did. Ben-hadad gratefully accept the presents and agreed not to go to war against Judah.
I don't think that I''m too far off the mark if I imagine that some of the praise now went to the king of Aram as well. "Look at Ben-hadad. It didn't take much to sway him to the side of God and his people. To be sure, he worships idols on the outside, but inwardly, maybe he actually believes in Yahweh as well."
Now, here’s another thing about ancient warfare. Once you’re out in the field with a strong army, well-supplied and well-equipped, you can’t just tell them, “Sorry, the war is over. It’s time to go home again.” The troops are prepared to fight and expect to enrich themselves with loot after crashing the walls of a few cities. Ben-hadad knew this and immediately sent a message to his field commanders to attack cities of the northern kingdom instead of Judah. They complied. Needless to say, Baasha was very unhappy with this ugly double-cross, and he and his men removed themselves from the border area in order to fix things at home in the wake of the Aramean army’s attack. King Asa and his people proudly marched to the places where Baasha had placed fortifications, and tore them down, using the building materials for their own purposes.
Asa was the man of the moment. He was the king God’s people had been praying for. Another great victory had been won, and, once again, no blood had been spilled among the people of Judah.
Hanani and Asa's End
And then that prophet showed up. “Hanani the Seer” he was called. Was Asa expecting another commendation? We can’t say, but it seems like no one had yet called Asa to account for what he had done, and, so, he may conceivably have expected another divinely-inspired endorsement, just as thirty-some years ago from Azariah son of Oded.
But Asa got nothing of the kind.There was no praise for a cleverly designed plan that had protected Judah. Asa received no accolades for using the temple treasure for the good of the people. Hanani did not even offer any warning, let alone a bit of constructive criticism. What Azariah had said three decades ago still stood. Hanani simply conveyed a straightforward message of judgment. He reminded Asa of the fact that not he, but God, had won against Zerah and the army of Cush. If all the fiddle-faddle about Asa’s piety, as I have depicted it, had actually taken place, Hanani burst that bubble. For the rest of his reign, Asa would have to fight off enemies.
“Because you depended on the king of Aram and have not depended on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped from your hand. … You have been foolish in this matter. Therefore, you will have wars from now on.”
All the pretense that Asa had been basking in was gone. He had placed his trust in a pagan king, who couldn’t care less about God or Asa or the temple or human lives. His army’s services for destroying towns in neighboring countries could be bought for a price, and Asa had not only paid it, but used treasures right out of God's temple for the purchase.
The idea that no one had criticized Asa previously is borne out by his reaction to Hanani. Nobody talked to the king that way. Hanani was sent to prison.
Now a few other people started to grumble, and Asa responded by mistreating his subjects, ordering unspecified acts of cruelty.
Asa continued to slide backwards. He acquired a serious disease of his feet, but would not consult God by way of the temple priests or maybe another prophet. Instead, he put himself into the hands of the “physicians,” which was the word used for sorcerers who specialized in healing at the time (in other words, not medical doctors in our sense).
When Asa died, the people showed him all of the honors due to a great king, and—for a long time—he had been such. Only a few folks who had felt Asa's heavy hand towards the end were exempt from the peace and prosperity he had brought to his people.
Asa did well in his first crisis. In the second one, he entrusted the fate of God’s kingdom and God's people to his own plan and put the temple property at the disposal of a pagan ruler without a conscience. His subjects apparently did not care, though God certainly did.This story is very sad, and, as I said at the outset, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit of late.