The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

The Battle of the Bands

Jehoshaphat is a complex and important king in the Book of Chronicles. He gets more attention than any other monarch, save Hezekiah. Yet it is not entirely clear in the final balance just how to judge his reign.

Things start well, as Jehoshaphat undertakes a vigorous policy of religious reform and fortress building (2 Chr 17). This results in abundant prosperity and peace, and fear falls upon all of Judah’s neighbors. Even the Philistines ring the doorbell to give Jehoshaphat gifts. The king then blunders in a major way, however, by making a marriage alliance with King Ahab, his counterpart in the northern Kingdom of Israel. Together they determine to wage a war against Ramoth-gilead. The monumental military debacle that ensues begins with a disturbing pre-battle battle of the oracles, in which four hundred lying prophets urge on the suicidal folly with a breezy assurance of the Lord’s good pleasure. Only Micaiah speaks the truth that a disaster is looming.

In the eyes of the Chronicler, of course, the Northern Kingdom is an inveterately idolatrous and rebellious house. Jehoshaphat’s entanglement of the two dynasties, the Omrides of the north and Davidides of the south, thus confers a legitimacy on the upstart rebels entirely contrary to the Lord’s plan. It is a false image of true unity, and a political parody of God’s expressed design. The Lord wishes one people under one royal son of David, joined together in Jerusalem in the one Temple.

Somehow escaping Ahab’s battlefield death, Jehoshaphat apparently learns his lesson. He promptly returns to his program of religious reform and his next military encounter has quite a different aspect. A huge alliance of eastern nations, a million-man army, gathers together against Judah, so that the king himself becomes afraid. Rather than seeking aid from abroad, however, the king and the people turn to the Lord in fasting and prayer. In the assembly, the Levite Jahaziel prophesies, with clear echoes of Moses’ words to the terrified Israelites at the Red Sea: This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not fear or be dismayed (2 Chr 20:17).

The Chronicler next puts in Jehoshaphat’s mouth, as he is rallying his troops, the same words Isaiah spoke to the wobbling King Ahaz, who was also afraid before an invading army and tempted to seek security through stratagems of alliance: Believe in the Lord God and you will be established! Believe in his prophets! (2 Chr 20:20; cf. Is 7:4). Isaiah’s theology of an inviolable Zion is, in fact, the key to the remarkable scene that follows, and what we witness is Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled in deed: The Lord of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill (Is 31:4). Accordingly, at Jehoshaphat’s order, a liturgical marching band leads out the Judean hosts, singing and praising the Lord, and the three invading armies suddenly fall upon themselves in a mysterious spasm of mutual self-destruction. Like the Hebrews before Pharaoh’s menacing hosts, Jehoshaphat and Judah simply stand back and watch the enemy’s complete self-extermination.

The odd epilogue of Jehoshaphat’s story comes in the next chapter, when the king again turns to make an alliance with his northern neighbors, even after this miraculous endorsement of trusting in the Lord. He represents, in this way, not only a new era of Judean kings, who continually fall into this trap, but all who ever since God’s mighty victory at the Red Sea fail to be still and learn that the Lord is a warrior (Ex 15:3).

 

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.