People

Manasseh by Jesse Ainslie; Joseph Lam

The book of Kings and the book of Chronicles tell two very different stories about King Manasseh of Judah. What might have prompted these divergent stories?

What is significant about Manasseh of Judah?

He consigned his son to the fire;
he practiced soothsaying and divination
and consulted ghosts and familiar spirits;
he did much that was displeasing to the LORD, to vex him. (2Kgs 21:6)

The son of Hezekiah and the grandfather of Josiah, King Manasseh is described in 2Kgs 21:1-18 and 2Chr 33:1-20, and the activities of his fifty-five year reign weigh heavily on the fate of the Judean monarchy. In the book of Kings, his many idolatrous actions are credited for the misfortunes of Judah (2Kgs 23:26-27; see also Jer 15:4).

But there remains the matter and mystery of his repentance. According to Second Chronicles, after erecting altars and monuments to an indistinct pantheon, Manasseh is captured by Assyrian forces and imprisoned in Babylon. Alone and dejected, he turns to the god of his fathers and prays for deliverance. His prayer is answered, and he is returned to Judah, where he shores up the fortifications of the cities, removes the idolatrous altars, and offers sacrifices of thanks to Yahweh (2Chr 33:13-17). By contrast, there is no repentance in Second Kings: Manasseh is unwavering in his impiety, and his works are upheld as just cause for the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon and the subsequent exile of Judah.

Why are the accounts of Manasseh in Kings and Chronicles so different?

The conflict between these accounts reflects the distinct circumstances surrounding their composition. The book of Kings was compiled in captivity and asks the persistent question of a displaced people: how did we get here? The land of Judah was decimated by the Babylonian armies, and the people and their cultural identity were uprooted and transplanted to the conqueror’s city. The views of the compilers of Kings are expressed in the actions of the characters in the narrative. Hezekiah and Josiah, who sought to expel the worship of foreign deities from the land, brought blessings upon the people. Manasseh, who embraced the worship of foreign idols in the pattern of the earlier Ahab of Israel, is treated with severe condemnation, bringing both divine threat and earthly consequences upon the people. The book of Kings, completed in exile, views the exile as a fulfillment of the divine threat.

Some two centuries after the compilation of Kings, under Persian imperial rule, Chronicles recast the life of Manasseh in more sympathetic terms. The dissipation of the Judean monarchy allowed for the shift of political power to the priesthood, and the scribal work of this period, including the book of Chronicles, was likely under control of the temple. Manasseh’s repentance may be an effort to encode in the narrative the ultimate subservience of earthly power to divine power. In turn, the temple becomes a more important place to encounter God than the king’s palace. The more positive tone of the story may also serve as an implicit affirmation of the postexilic community. Where Kings could appear as a form of communal self-flagellation—royal scribes documenting the perspective of humiliated royals—Chronicles reflects a restoration of communal self-esteem concordant with the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple.

Jesse Ainslie, Joseph Lam, "Manasseh", n.p. [cited 22 Jun 2021]. Online: https://bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/manasseh

Contributors

ainslie-j

Jesse Ainslie
Undergraduate student in Religious Studies , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Jesse Ainslie is an undergraduate student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also an internationally touring musician who has performed alongside The National, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson.

Lam-Joseph

Joseph Lam
Associate Professor of Religious Studies , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Joseph Lam is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A supernatural ability granted to a human by a deity, or exhibited by the deity.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

the gods of a group of people

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

2Kgs 21:6

6He made his son pass through fire; he practiced soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, pro ... View more

2Kgs 21:1-18

Manasseh Reigns over Judah
1Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Hephzibah.2He ... View more

2Chr 33:1-20

33 Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign; he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. 2 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to ... View more

2Kgs 23:26-27

26 Still the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which ... View more

Jer 15:4

4 I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what King Manasseh son of Hezekiah of Judah did in Jerusalem.

2Chr 33:13-17

13 He prayed to him, and God received his entreaty, heard his plea, and restored him again to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord ind ... View more

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