Regular people don’t spend their time thinking about Manasseh, but I’ve been thinking about him for years.
Manasseh was an Old Testament king of Judah and one of the Bible’s most perplexing characters. I guarantee you every observant Jew in Jesus’s time thought about him a lot, and there exists no universe in which Jesus and his disciples didn’t know his story verbatim. If today was the first time you’ve ever heard this name, you might pause before deciding you have nothing to learn on the topic of this series.
In part 1, I talked at length about school buses. I made no argument other than this matters to many people, and you should read part 2. I’m pleased at the feedback I received from that. In part 2, I looked deep into the opening poem of the Bible and explained the driving motivations of its writer. To the extent that you frame your questions about LGBT relationships within the lens of what is “biblical,” you need to orient the questions you bring to the Bible around the questions that its own writers brought when they wrote it.
This part 3 is about Judaism and its moves.
So, who Is Manasseh?
The Old Testament book II Kings is well known for its repetitive and, frankly, tedious recounting of Israel’s and Judah’s history—one bad king at a time. However, it informs the reader that of all the kings who “did evil in the eyes of the LORD,” a certain Manasseh was the single worst and most evil. In fact, according to the writer, his wickedness made God so angry that he caused Babylon to destroy Judah. Even five decades after his death and even though his grandson, Josiah, reversed what he had done during his lifetime.
Manasseh offered children as sacrifices to various gods and was a murderous tyrant king. No one disputes that his deeds were horrible. But what to make of a God who reacts to Manasseh’s evil by fifty years later destroying a whole nation?
In part 2, I wrote that the Jewish religion has long been devoted to the question of how to survive in a world in which big kingdoms used their resources to dominate small kingdoms. Manasseh’s story is important because it reflects an early and primitive answer to that question. As I’ll show you, it is one interpretation of Israel’s history of desolation. Under this interpretation, God and his Torah are fundamentally and irreversibly retributive: they provide safety and prosperity for those who do good, but total disaster for those who do bad. Telling Israel’s story this way, then, kind of got God off the hook. Israel wasn’t destroyed because God lacked the power to save it; it was destroyed because God must punish evil.
And a whole chunk of the Old Testament arises out of this understanding of God. The book of Deuteronomy starts out by imagining a time many centuries prior to its writing. In this time, the writer explains that God gave his law to a man named Moses, and then the writer provides that law (which, not coincidentally, closely resembles the form of treaties that the kings of Assyria would impose on people they conquered in war, and Israel was one of those nations who lost to Assyria in war). Not surprisingly then, the “Law of Moses” is finely tuned to argue why God caused Babylon to destroy Israel.
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:
You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.
The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you.
However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:
You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.
This contractual relationship to God, as you can see, is described philosophically from the beginning to the end of the book of Proverbs.
Good people obtain favor from the Lord,
but he condemns those who devise wicked schemes.
The wicked are overthrown and are no more,
but the house of the righteous stands firm.
No harm overtakes the righteous,
but the wicked have their fill of trouble.
Again, this is the philosophy that God sends good things to good people and bad things to bad people. And an interpretation of Israel’s and Judah’s history that is rooted in the law of Deuteronomy and the wisdom of Proverbs is painstakingly recorded in the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings. The descriptions of God in those books are so consistently harmonious with the Deuteronomist perspective that scholars explicitly call them the “Deuteronomist” voice.
I bring this up and speak about it this way because the Deuteronomist voice is not the only voice in the Bible. This is important. Not only are there multiple voices in the Bible, but they are usually at odds with each other.
Which brings me back to Manasseh.
I and II Chronicles have probably been read in the last century by a grand total of five real human people (I kid, but seriously). It’s an achievement by itself to get all the way through the books of Kings (unless reading that Jehoahaz, Jehoakim, and Johoachin did “evil in the eyes of the LORD” is fun to you), but when most people then get to Chronicles, they see the torture they just endured in the books of Kings as just starting over. Not to mention that Chronicles begins with nine brutal chapters of nothing but genealogy.
But those who do stick it out eventually reach the story of Manasseh again, and something interesting happens in this second telling. Specifically, the second account of Manasseh tells us that he was actually not the reason Babylon destroyed everything after all.
I know I’ve gone several paragraphs through wonky Bible stuff, and perhaps you missed that. Let me repeat. The story of Manasseh is found in two books of the Bible. In one book, Manasseh was the sole reason that Babylon destroyed Judah. In the other book, he wasn’t. And you don’t have to be an Oxford scholar of Biblical languages to appreciate that those differences aren’t small.
And it gets even more interesting. Details are added to the story, and they take it in a bizarre new direction. In the old account, Manasseh was evil from start to finish, and his story was not complicated. He engaged in child sacrifice, he was murderous, he engaged in the worship of other gods, and he died. But the retold story informs the reader that Manasseh went through a wild set of events that led to him actually changing every wrong thing about him. The story goes that the Assyrian army invaded Judah, captured Manasseh (and, strangely, only Manasseh), brought him to Babylon to become a slave (which makes absolutely no sense historically), Manasseh humbled himself while in slavery there, came back to Judah, and repented of his sins. Because . . .
These additions are remarkable for multiple reasons. First, the story by itself is wild. Second, there is no way any of it really happened historically. The Assyrian army never successfully invaded Jerusalem, never captured Manasseh, and never would have given him over to their bitter arch rival, Babylon, even if it did. These things just didn’t happen. I don’t know how else to say this to you.
But most shocking than this . . . unexpected . . . addition in the new story is that it changed one of the most important conclusions of II Kings. It changed the whole explanation for the war.
In other words . . .
The Bible argues with the Bible.
And it does this a lot.
And it’s awesome.
Let’s go back to Proverbs. Remember how certain its writer was that the righteous prosper and the wicked are destroyed? Well, the best way to understand the writer of Ecclesiastes is to say that he thinks the writer of Proverbs was a complete moron. Here’s a sampling from both. You be the judge.
Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.
By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others?
Now there lived in a city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.
Do not be too righteous, neither be too wise—why destroy yourself?
If you read the first set of quotes, you will notice that it is nothing like the second set of quotes.
As I said earlier, the Deuteronomist voice, which was elaborated on in Proverbs, arose out of the need to get God off the hook for what must have felt like a failure on his part to protect his people from Babylon. It lead to a whole philosophy in which good is surely rewarded and evil is surely punished. It provided a clear argument for what Israel needed to do to be safe. And the first writers of Israel’s history wrote its story with this assumption.
The problem with this worldview is it’s a bad worldview.
Life doesn’t work that way, and they soon figured it out (by “soon,” I mean after several centuries). As generations of ruthless, unmerciful, immoral people continued to do well at the expense of everyone else, the words of Proverbs became reduced to a shrill sound. The teachers of Judaism could no longer defend its absolute assurances.
So Judaism moved.
A new history of Israel and Judah were written, and the new and sometimes wild details in the new account were crazy but also ingenious. This is what I and II Chronicles are. Whoever wrote I and II Chronicles had the original stories in front of him (or her), but the writer had better ideas than the ideas of the old stories and so the writer made new versions of those stories to reflect those better ideas.
Like when the old story of Israel’s history says that God caused King David to conduct a particular census that ended in disaster, but the new story says that Satan caused King David to conduct it.
(Haha, please don’t try to harmonize those two accounts).
And other new and clever stories were imagined and written—stories that moved the religion forward. One such story involved an ancient man named Job, who had lost his family, his health, and his fortune. The story informs the reader early on that Job was a righteous and just man, but for more than thirty chapters Job’s friends thoroughly apply the philosophy of Proverbs in an effort to convince Job that he was suffering because he had done something evil. Job’s friends are exhausting, and you cannot read Job without hating them. It’s not humanly possible. And that’s because the writer was an expert in the Deuteronomist philosophy and effectively used Job’s friends as a vehicle to personify the flaws of that philosophy. The book isn’t just a story with a moral at the end. It’s part of the Bible that argues against a different part of the Bible.
And the Bible showcases without censorship plenty more of these Jewish moves.
Imagine the discomfort when the prophet Hosea announced on behalf of God, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Or when the Psalmist declared: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire . . . burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.” I’ve read the Old Testament book of Leviticus several hundred times, and nowhere does it make optional its commands to offer burnt offering and sacrifices. I can hear some ancient Israelites hearing the Psalmist and saying, “Oh, yes, they are required. I’ll show you where it says so in the Bible!”
Or imagine the discomfort when the story of Ruth finished with King David being the grandson of a Moabite, considering that Deuteronomy prohibited any Moabite or descendant of a Moabite from entering Israelite society. I can hear their protests: David can’t be a Moabite. The same God who appointed David to be our king also forbade any Moabite from living in Israel. It’s in the Bible!
Or imagine the discomfort when the story of Jonah described as good all the people in the city that had just gone to war with Israel—and described as bad the only Israelite in the whole story. Anyone who had read the story of Nahum knew that everyone there was irredeemably evil and that God would destroy them.
Or when Psalm c89 cleverly, but in no uncertain terms, accused God of breaking the promise found in the books of the Dueteronomist voice that King David and his line would always be on the throne in Israel.
The Moves of Judaism
Modern-day Christians are prone to reduce Judaism to being stuck in legalism and tradition, but I hope to change your mind. The reality is different. Judaism’s vocation, as I discussed in part 2, was to usher in a just world in which the weakest and lowest are not laid to waste by the world’s powerful empires. In pursuit of that vocation, it is and always has been a religion on the move.
The Hebrew Bible is more or less unified in pursuit of the world in which swords are made into plowshares.
In which the wolf will live with the lamb.
And the infant will play near the cobra’s den.
This is the world born of the imagination of the prophet Isaiah.
Where the Hebrew Bible is not unified is its ideas on how to get to that world. To me, one of the most inexhaustibly fascinating qualities of the Old Testament is how openly it presents conflicting ideas that the most brilliant thinkers of its religion offered at different times in its history.
Which means that when you open your Bible, the thing you are reading is not a small target. It’s not a thing to aim at and better hope you don’t miss, lest you burn in the outer darkness for eternity. It’s not a how-to guide to get to Heaven when you die. The Bible is a trajectory. It’s the journey of history’s great suffering people as they lived Hell and had to courage to imagine and insist on something better.
It’s possible that you have in mind that my strategy in all of this is to take the Bible and weaken it. That’s wrong. I want to strengthen the Bible.
But if you want to take the Bible in all its power, you need more than a deep knowledge of its verses and stories. What you really need is a deep knowledge of its moves. This requires first identifying its competing voices and then learning to place them in their historical context to understand their motivations. Over time, Judaism increasingly developed from primitive rituals that were practiced in the countryside to highly formalized rituals practiced in a powerful and authoritarian temple order. Along the way, and oftentimes in tension with the other movements, came movements that introduced increasingly progressive social arrangements that were committed to the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members. The interplay of these movements become clear when you learn to enter into and sit for a time in each of the different voices that the Bible presents.
Once you understand (1) the Jewish vocation, (2) the movements of Judaism, and (3) the rabbinical system that arose between the testaments—which we will talk about in part 4—you will be in a great place to understand Paul and how he relates to the whole Jewish project that Jesus fulfilled.
And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the heart of the matter.