Melakhim Bet Chapter 15
Azarya (also known as Uzziya) reigns in Yehuda and continues the tradition of his fathers, serving Hashem but not dismantling the private altars. His rule is uneventful; however, at the end of his career, he is stricken with leprosy and his son, Yotam, assumes leadership while his father is still alive.
Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Israel, the dynasty established by Yehu comes to an end after four generations of rule and is followed by a great deal of instability, rebellions and a succession of coups. Zekharya, son of Yarovam II, is assassinated by Shallum ben Yavesh, who is himself killed after only one month of rule by Menahem ben Gadi. Menahem conducts and aggressive and violent campaign against Tifsah and reigns for ten years.During his rule, Pul, King of Assyria, dominates the region; Menahem levies a heavy tax on the population of Israel to pay Assyria a large bribe, essentially “buying” Israel’s independence from Assyrian hegemony.
After the death of Menahem, the throne is inherited by his son, Peqahya. Two years later, Peqahya is assassinated in a coup orchestrated by his own captain, Peqah ben Remalyahu and a group of fifty men. Peqah rules for twenty years until he is killed by Hoshea ben Elah who then occupies the throne.
Two years into the reign of Peqah, Yotam assumes leadership of the Kingdom of Yehuda. He is a righteous king who adheres to the way of Torah, with the notable exception of allowing private altars to continue operating in his kingdom. Yotam does, however, contribute to the beautification of the Temple by building its Upper Gate. There are international tensions at the borders of the kingdom that threaten the security of the country but are, for the most part, held at bay.
The reason for Azarya/Uzziya’s leprosy is not mentioned in the Book of Melakhim. In Sefer Divre HaYamim, we are told that the king became arrogant as a result of his many successes, which he attributed to his close relationship with the Almighty. He therefore attempted to usurp the role of the Kohanim and to offer incense in the Bet HaMiqdash, something strictly forbidden to ordinary Israelites. He was discouraged from pursuing his ill-conceived goal and reminded of its inconsistency with the laws of the Torah, but ignored all the warnings and was only stopped when leprosy erupted on his body.
While the king is expected to protect, support and promote the service of Hashem, it is not for a human ruler to decide who is worthy of serving in the capacity of the priesthood. Like Yarovam, who arrogated to himself the position of “Kohen Gadol” and appointed an array of priests for his illicit altars, Uzziya sought to merge the realms of the political and the religious. By commandeering the Temple Service in this way, Uzziya was neglecting his duty to subordinate his kingship to the Kingdom of Hashem and instead was subordinating the Holy Temple to his own dominion, like a type of conquest.
It is noteworthy that Sefer Melakhim does not offer us these details, instead merely commenting on Uzziya’s early retirement from public life. Apparently, the emphasis in this chapter is not on the particular failings of Uzziya who, in these respects, was not much different from the other “decent” kings of Yehuda. The theme of our chapter is the stark contrast between the Kingdom of Yehuda and that of Israel. In Yehuda, there is an evident stability and continuity in governance, even when a king is put “out of commission” prematurely, as Uzziya was. In Israel, by contrast, even when the kingdom is passed from father to son, the outcome is always tenuous and the balance of power fragile. Once again, with idolatry and assimilation come rampant violence, lust for dominance, and needless bloodshed.