Melakhim Bet Chapter 21
Menashe ascends to the throne of Yehuda following the death of his father, Hizqiyahu. Menashe is, undoubtedly, the most evil and corrupt monarch that Yehuda has ever seen. He reestablishes all of the private altars that had been eliminated by Hizqiyahu, and actively promotes idolatry throughout his realm, constructing altars for the worship of the Baal and the host of heaven.
Menashe even goes so far as to place idolatrous shrines and an Ashera tree in the Holy Temple itself, desecrating it and disconnecting it from its sacred purpose of proclaiming God’s Unity. He enthusiastically participates in every popular form of occult ritual that was commonplace at the time, including passing his son through the fire of Molekh, and sponsors the practices of soothsaying and divination as well. A true despot, Menashe is responsible for the spilling of an unprecedented amount of innocent blood in the kingdom. In light of Menashe’s wickedness, Hashem decrees that the kingdom of Yehuda will be destroyed and that the population will be exiled from their land in a dramatic and horrific manner.
The text reiterates the divinely orchestrated process of development of the Jewish people from the Exodus until the present, emphasizing that Jewish possession of the land of Israel was conditional on their faithfulness to the covenant and their observance of Torah and mitzvot. Their repeated failure to adhere to the dictates of Torah had disqualified them from any further “chances” and their fate was now sealed.
Menashe dies and is succeeded by his son, Amon, who continues in the wicked and idolatrous path of his father. Two years later, officers of Amon conspire against him and kill him, and his son Yoshiyahu reigns in his stead.
Many readers are troubled by the shockingly stark contrast between the exemplary conduct of Hizqiyahu who passionately served Hashem and implemented His laws in Israel and the absolute rejection of the Torah and embrace of idolatry and paganism by his son and grandson. How could this happen? In order to develop a cogent answer to this question, we must dig a bit deeper and grapple with an even more incisive problem: how could the Jewish people, led to Torah and educated by Hizqiyahu so thoroughly, possibly have succumbed to the influence of an evil personality like Menashe? Why didn’t they protest, object, rebel or resist?
I would like to suggest what I believe is an inescapable conclusion from this radical reversal – the Jewish people had never bought into Hizqiyahu’s program to the extent that he believed they had. As we saw in the previous chapter, Hizqiyahu was sincerely religious, but his implementation of reforms in the land had much to do with his own feeling of responsibility and need to demonstrate his righteousness, and had less to do with genuine concern for the long term future of the Jewish people. Consciously or not, Hizqiyahu may have overestimated just how devoted and committed his subjects were to Torah, and he may have underestimated how much of the veneer of Torah living was a product of his own imposition of will over the population.
If we follow this approach, then the events unfolding in this chapter make more sense. The nation, as a whole, still harbored a connection to the popular and attractive trappings of paganism popularized by King Ahaz and perhaps also a hankering for the individual altars that had been tolerated in the kingdom for generations. With the death of Hizqiyahu, a zealous champion for Judaism, these feelings of disenfranchisement and nostalgia may have reemerged and Menashe, seeking to build up his base of popular support, capitalized on them.
Like his father, Hizqiyahu, Menashe placed a high premium on his standing on the international scene as well as his image as a powerful and effective leader. Unlike his father, however, he opted to seek the recognition and position of influence that he desired through conventional, idolatrous means. Like King Ahaz before him, Menashe promoted forms of worship that were popular and “mainstream” in the Ancient Near East, bringing the Kingdom of Yehuda into step with other communities in the region for whom the pure monotheism of the Torah may have been off-putting. In a manner reminiscent of the period of Izevel, Menashe had no compunction about shedding blood and stifled political and ideological opposition aggressively and violently.
With this in mind, we can understand why the reign of Menashe was the last straw from Hashem’s perspective. Previous monarchs had failed to live up to God’s expectations in various ways, but none managed to totally uproot the Jewish character of Yehuda and to replace it with a non-Jewish political, cultural and religious identity. Even King Ahaz, whose actions may be seen as a precursor to those of Menashe, still intended for his “modernized” Jewish kingdom to retain its Jewishness on some level; after all, even his Assyrian altar was the site of the worship of God, not another deity.
Menashe, on the other hand, succeeded in refashioning the entire kingdom of Yehuda into a conventional, tyrannical and pagan regime, in which even the signature institution of Israel – the Bet Hamiqdash that was designed to represent the One God’s presence in the world and to inspire the Jewish people to sanctify His name – was hijacked and transformed into a house of idolatry.
Of course, we cannot absolve the people of responsibility for the corrupt initiatives of their king; tragically, the nation allowed him to implement his radical policies and then let them remain the status quo for fifty five years. The last vestiges of Torah and Judaism fully erased from the landscape of Israel, the kingdom of Yehuda was now totally disconnected from the whole purpose of its existence and had lost any right to claim possession of the Holy Land or entitlement to the Holy Temple.
According to Sefer Divre Hayamim, Menashe repented at the end of his life and reversed many of his evil policies, but it was “too little, too late” – the damage had already been done. The objective of Sefer Melakhim is to chart the downfall of the Kingdom and explain, from the prophetic standpoint, why the Temple was destroyed. Therefore, it does not address Menashe’s personal life and later transformation, since this change had no discernible effect on the decree of destruction that had already been passed against the Kingdom of Yehuda.