Melakhim Bet Chapter 17
Hoshea ben Elah rules over the Kingdom of Israel and pledges allegiance to Shalmanesser, King of Assyria. Hoshea follows the wicked precedent of the kings before him, but is not quite as evil as his predecessors. The Rabbis tell us that since the altars in Dan and Bet El had already been dismantled and carried off by the Assyrians anyway, he lifted the ban on visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, nullifying the longstanding policy established by Yarovam. This can be inferred from the fact that Hoshea is the only king of Israel who is not described as following the path of Yarovam and causing Israel to sin.
Hoshea eventually conspires with Egypt to rebel against Assyria. The plot is discovered, and the response of Shalmanesser is swift and decisive. He imprisons Hoshea, lays siege to the kingdom and exiles all of its inhabitants to other lands under Assyrian dominion.
The chapter then provides a “retrospective” on the slow disintegration of the Kingdom of Israel that eventuated in the exile. The text explains that the failure of the kingdom stemmed from their worship of idols, rejection of the laws and statutes of the Torah, immoral behavior, imitation of the superstitious and occult practices of the other nations, and refusal to heed the messages and warnings that were repeatedly conveyed to them by the prophets of Hashem. Only the Kingdom of Yehuda remains, but it, too, had fallen short of the Divine standard set for it.
The practice of the King of Assyria was to relocate conquered populations to new areas in order to exert his dominance over them. When the Jews are removed from their territory, the King of Assyria replaces them with a collection of citizens of other nations whom he had vanquished. These people settle in Israel and become known as the Shomronim, or “Samaritans”, because they now dwell in Samaria. They find themselves regularly attacked by lions and conclude that this must be the result of their neglect of the “God of the land”, that is, the God of Israel.
The Shomronim petition the King of Assyria, who sends them a Kohen – probably one of the appointed “priests” who served in the kingdom of Israel, not an actual descendant of Aharon – who instructed them in the laws of Hashem. Given the background of this “kohen”, it is unclear and probably unlikely that his teachings resembled authentic Judaism in any way. Nevertheless, the lion attacks ceased, and, from that day forward, the Shomronim committed themselves to serving their own native gods as well as the God of Israel. They developed some kind of fusion between their idolatry and occult practices and their acknowledgement of the God of the Jews.
The chapter concludes by once again noting that the Jewish people failed to fear Hashem and observe the laws He had given to them, ignoring the significance of the Exodus from Egypt and the obligation of Divine service it devolved upon them, and refusing to trust in Hashem’s promises of protection and support. The last verse of the chapter closes the narrative of the Shomronim, remarking on their odd combination of fear of Hashem and worship of graven images, which they would perpetuate as a tradition, passed down from generation to generation until the time of the Second Temple.
This chapter integrates the preceding narratives of the Book of Melakhim with its overarching theme. One might see in the destruction and desolation of the land of Israel an indication that Hashem abandoned the Jewish people or reneged on His promises to them. Alternatively, one could interpret the events as a sign that political power and military strength are, in reality, the forces that determine the course of human history.
Our book teaches us that, on the contrary, it was the nation that failed to fulfill its responsibilities, not the Almighty, and our exile from the land was part of His plan, not a function of the agenda of the King of Assyria. As students of Tanakh, we see the downfall of the Kingdom of Israel not as a contradiction to or disproof of the truth of Torah but as a concrete manifestation of its prediction, and the predictions of all the prophets, that our survival in the land of Israel would be dependent not on our wealth, international popularity or military strength but on our commitment to Torah and to Hashem.
The whole purpose of redeeming the Jewish people from Egypt and granting them gift of the Land of Israel was to enable them to establish a nation and a society that sanctified the name of God in the world, furthering the mission that was inaugurated by our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov who settled in Israel and devoted themselves to proclaiming the Oneness of Hashem and the futility of idol worship.
The Jews were to consecrate a sanctuary in the name of Hashem and to put a monarchy in place that would enforce the laws of God, maintain the centrality and sanctity of the Bet Hamiqdash and ensure that the nation remained singularly focused on the ultimate objective of its existence. When this lofty commitment was forgotten, the Jewish king became like any other king and the Jewish people became like any other nation. This led to their loss of the special privilege that had been extended to them.
When the prophet Shemuel addressed the nation about the benefits and drawbacks of establishing a monarchy, he noted that the king would not “save” his people – the psychological satisfaction they desired in having a king to provide them with security and stability was an illusion. In reality, both the citizens of Israel and their leader would be accountable to God Who is the ultimate source of all success. The careful reader will notice that our chapter quotes a phrase directly from the speech of Shemuel when it states “they went after nothingness (hevel) and became nothing [vayehbalu)”. We are only as good as that which we strive for in life. In chasing after empty fantasies, the Jewish people sacrificed the qualities of wisdom, justice, and compassion that had made them special and distinct, and rendered themselves obsolete.
The intertwining of the accounts of the Jewish exile and the Shomronim makes the flow of the text confusing. However, it also serves to highlight the ironic contrast between the two communities. The Jewish people continued to stubbornly disregard the messages being sent to them by Hashem, and their monarchs supported and even shared their resistance to those messages. The Shomronim, however, immediately interpret their crisis as an expression of Divine disapproval, and seek to learn His ways and fulfill His will. The King of Assyria, unlike the Kings of Israel, provides the people with a teacher to instruct them in the ways of God.
Granted, through no fault of their own, their execution of this is incomplete and lacks authenticity, and the lifestyle adopted by the Shomronim is far from a genuinely Jewish one. Nonetheless, it highlights the failure of the Jewish people, who willfully ignored Hashem’s word, neglected to turn to Him in times of crises and to repent, and whose kings and leaders resisted any suggestion that they embrace the Torah as the solution to their problems. The openness of the Shomronim to the will of God, however diluted and distorted, certainly reflects poorly on the Jews who should have known better but did worse.