2 Kings 17 (NIV)✞: Hoshea Last King of Israel, Israel Exiled Because of Sin, Samaria Resettled
This passage covers the end of the nation of Israel, when they get conquered by Assyria.
Verses 1–6✞ cover the “facts” of the end: the final king of Israel is a man named Hoshea, and, ironically, although he’s a bad king, verse 2✞ tells us that he’s not as bad as the kings of Israel who were before him.
But Shalmaneser the king of Assyria wouldn’t see it that way. As the chapter begins Israel is a vassal state of Assyria (just like Judah now is, per the previous passage), but Shalmaneser finds out that Hoshea has secretly been sending envoys to Egypt, hoping for an alliance with them – in fact, he’s so confident that things are going to work out with Egypt and he’ll stop being a vassal to Assyria that he’s stopped paying the Assyrians tribute. It all backfires when the Assyrians conquer Israel, deporting the people to Assyria and throwing Hoshea in prison.
After this verses 7–23✞ give a long explanation as to why the LORD would allow this to His people. I’m not quoting it here—click the link to read it, though, because it’s an interesting read—but the last few verses of the passage give a nice capsule summary:
21 When [God] tore Israel away from the house of David, they made Jeroboam son of Nebat their king. Jeroboam enticed Israel away from following the LORD and caused them to commit a great sin. 22 The Israelites persisted in all the sins of Jeroboam and did not turn away from them 23 until the LORD removed them from his presence, as he had warned through all his servants the prophets. So the people of Israel were taken from their homeland into exile in Assyria, and they are still there.
After this, verses 24–41✞ talk about the people who come to settle the land after the people of Israel have been exiled, and… honestly, this story surprises me at every turn!
|Verses||What Happens||My Surprise|
|24–26||New people are brought in to settle the area but because they aren’t worshipping the LORD they are being killed by lions.||One of the main points people of the day got wrong about God was assuming He was a “local” god, like all of the other gods. “Damascus has this god, and Israel has this god, and Egypt has these gods, and…” The God is not like that; He is the God of all the world. Yet in this passage it seems as if He really is local to the land of Israel (and presumably Judah). This could be a mistake on the part of the people, who don’t understand God, except…|
|27–28||The king of Assyria commands that priests of the LORD be sent back into Israel to teach the people there how to worship the local God, and it seems to work.||… Although the passage doesn’t specifically say “the lions stopped killing people,” the way the passage is worded causes me to think that that’s exactly what happens: the people start worshipping the LORD, and the lions stop killing people. Which would sort of make sense, people follow God and He rewards, them, except…|
|29–34||Although the people have begun worshipping the LORD they have also continued worshipping their former gods, too.||… they’re doing exactly what Israel had been punished for: syncretism. They’re trying to worship both the LORD and other gods at the same time. And He lets them!|
The passage ends in verses 35–41✞ which form as a kind of a summary: the LORD had made a covenant with the people of Israel—I think this means the entire people group of the Israelites, from before the nation was split, not just the Northern kingdom of Israel, though it applies either way—and He had promised them that if they didn’t worship other gods He would deliver them from the hands of all of their enemies, but they didn’t obey.
A lot of this passage is devoted to explaining why the people of Israel were abandoned by their God. It’s something that has clearly been building ever since the nations of Israel and Judah split from each other and yet it’s still shocking to see it finally happen. But part of the reason the book of Kings was written in the first place was to remind God’s people of how they’ve acted in the past so they could try to avoid those mistakes.
In fact, the last verse of the passage✞ says, “To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their ancestors did” (emphasis added). So the people reading the book of Kings, for generations and generations—up to and including North American Christians in the 21st Century—would always have that in mind: “Am I obeying God the way I’m supposed to? Do I have any false gods?”
Though I didn’t quote verses 7–23 above, two verses stood out in the middle of it all:
18 So the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah was left, 19 and even Judah did not keep the commands of the LORD their God. They followed the practices Israel had introduced.
2 Kings 17:18–19 (NIV)✞, emphasis added
Many have said this before me but we can’t simply read the Old Testament as a series of “morality tales.” When we come into the stories of the Old Testament looking to find obedient people who are rewarded for their obedience and disobedient people who are punished for their disobedience we are almost always going to come away disappointed or confused.
- Was Abram/Abraham good or bad? Well, sometimes the one and sometimes the other. But he’s the grandfather of the nation of the Israelites, and from him came Jesus.
- Was Jacob/Israel good or bad? Actually, almost always bad! But he’s the father of the nation of the Israelites, and from him came Jesus.
- Was King David good or bad? Good! Well… except for all the bad stuff he did, some of which caused the entire nation to suffer punishment for his actions. But descended from him came the true king, Jesus…
Much as we’d like to put things into an overly simplified Hollywood-style narrative the Bible won’t let us get away with that. Even here, when the passage is about the fall of the Northern kingdom of Israel and the reasons for their fall, the author(s) can’t help but point out that Judah didn’t properly follow the LORD either! I tend to focus on the fact that they did better than Israel, but… so what? In the previous passage I wrote a long tirade about the fact that worshipping God alongside worship of other gods/things/people is just as bad as abandoning Him altogether, so why should it matter that Judah’s faithlessness is not as bad as Israel’s? Lack of faith is lack of faith!
Even here, where we get to Israel being punished for their sin, the story isn’t 100% straightforward given that they have one of their least sinful kings when the nation falls.
Following the Pattern of Israel
My point about not oversimplifying things is also in danger of oversimplifying, because verse 19 quoted above blames Israel for Judah’s sin! Well… no, it doesn’t, it just says the people of Judah “followed the practices” of the people of Israel; the people of Judah are responsible for their own sin. But they are following a pattern set by their neighbours to the North, and the author(s) felt that was important enough to point out.
It’s an interesting insight into human nature. For thousands of years people have been reading the book of Kings and thinking to themselves, “Why couldn’t the people of Israel be more like the people of Judah? The LORD was clearly more pleased with the people of Judah; why couldn’t the people in Israel see that?” And yet, at the time, the people of Judah were trying to emulate the people of Israel!
Above I expressed surprise that the people settled in the land of Israel were freely worshipping the LORD alongside their own gods—the very thing the nation of Israel was punished for!—seemingly without repercussion. I think the explanation for that is simple, however: God puts more requirements on people who know more about Him, and less requirements on people who know less about Him. See, for example, Jesus’ words in Luke:
… From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
This is part of a larger context of Luke 12:35–59 in which Jesus gives his disciples detailed teaching on a number of subjects, one of which is this very idea: more is required of those who have more – in this case, knowledge of God and His ways. The people of Israel were supposed to know God’s will, and therefore were expected to follow it; the new people who settled in the land didn’t have the same expectations of knowing God’s law, so less was expected of them – but neither did He expect nothing of them, only less. (For comparison, we could also look at Romans 1:18–32 (NIV)✞.)