Melakhim Bet Chapter 16
Ahaz rules the Kingdom of Yehuda and initiates a radical departure from the religious path of his righteous father. Ahaz engages in occult practices, such as passing his children through the fire, a pagan ritual. Not only does he fail to remove the private altars and sanctuaries, he actively supports them, sacrificing and worshiping at them.
During this period, the Kingdom of Yehuda finds itself under siege from both the Kingdom of Israel and Aram, and suffers territorial losses that reversed the gains made a couple of generations previously. Ahaz reaches out to Tiglat-Pilesser, the King of Assyria, with a large bribe, taken from his own treasuries as well as that of the Temple, and requests that he intervene in the ongoing conflict on behalf of the Kingdom of Yehuda. The Assyrian king complies and attacks Aram, defeating them soundly.
Ahaz travels to visit and express his gratitude to Tiglat-Pilesser, to whom he basically pledges to become a vassal. He takes note of the design of the sacrificial altar used in Damascus and sends a sketch of the layout to Uriah the Kohen, instructing him to build a facsimile of the Assyrian altar in Jerusalem. When Ahaz returns, he sacrifices and offers libations on the new, Assyrian-style altar, and commands the Kohen to move the original altar of King Solomon to the side where it will be reserved for temporary use; from now on, the altar commissioned by Ahaz will be the primary site for daily, communal and individual offerings.
Ahaz dismantles several other components of the Bet Hamiqdash, removing the “Sea of Shelomo” from its base of oxen and cutting the washing stations off of their stands, and makes some architectural changes to the building itself. Apparently, the objective of all of these innovations was to make the Bet Hamiqdash less “Jewish”, more cosmopolitan and consistent with the fashions and expectations of the dominant local cultures. Ahaz dies and is succeeded by his son, Hizqiyahu.
At first, the contrast between the devoutly religious father and grandfather, Uzziya and Yotam, and their wayward descendant Ahaz is shocking. However, when we consider the errors that led Uzziya astray at the end of his life, we observe a certain continuity between the behavior of the two kings, and we may surmise that the grandfather exerted some influence upon his progeny.
Uzziya wished to break down the barriers that separated politics and religion, to arrogate to himself the privilege of serving in the Temple as a Kohen. Although he was committed to Hashem and genuinely close to the Almighty, he came to believe that his righteousness entitled him to conquer and direct even the Bet Hamiqdash. In a sense, Ahaz simply follows his grandfather’s minor mistake to its logical conclusion. He agrees that the Temple, like any other national institution, comes under the jurisdiction of the monarch; therefore, he feels justified in completely hijacking its operation and its resources for what he considered legitimate political advantage.
Ahaz pursues what he perceives as most strategically beneficial to his agenda; for example, rather than oppose or ignore the private altars, he worships at them, establishing himself as a “man of the people” who endorses and validates the practices of his citizens. Surely this openness won him much support from those who were attached to the individual sanctuaries and may have felt alienated by the kings of Yehuda who officially disapproved of them (although, in practice, they tolerated them).
We can compare Ahaz to a modern day politician who panders to his constituents by cheerfully embracing “progressive” social innovations and legislation (we need not go into detail, I’ll leave it to your imagination) that were once frowned upon and tolerated by the leadership but were never openly endorsed. Alternatively, consider the common practice of politicians frequenting talk shows like Saturday Night Live; at one time, this would have seemed undignified, but today, failure to visit these “individual altars” would be seen as a reflection of elitism and a refusal to engage the common citizen.
Although there is no indication in our text that Ahaz worshiped other deities, he attempted to refashion the Temple, the altar and the practices of Judaism in a way that made them more compatible with “mainstream” religion and therefore more acceptable to the power brokers in the region. Ahaz promotes a kind of “Reform Judaism” or “Jewish Renewal Movement”, in which Jewish observances and institutions are adapted to include popular and attractive elements of the surrounding culture.
Ahaz’s craving for recognition and assistance from the King of Assyria may seem like pathetic weakness in our eyes, but his ultimate goal was to advance the interests of his kingdom by winning the favor, protection and support of the “global superpower” of his era and by “fitting in” with what was then perceived as cutting edge, progressive and worldly. We can hardly claim that today’s Jewish establishment is much different from Ahaz’s administration in this respect!
To Ahaz, who felt that the King of Yehuda had the authority to command the Kohen and was master even of the Miqdash, “modernizing” and “updating” the Temple of King Solomon in the mold of an Assyrian sanctuary was a great achievement, not a failure or an act of surrender. He saw his activities the same way that countries today consider “Westernization” or “Americanization” an ideal toward which to strive, a gateway to becoming a recognized member of the “international community”.