(Some) Villains of Tanakh - Manasseh By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Part 1: The Book of Kings Version: II Kings 21:1-18


Hezekiah king of Judah was the father of Manasseh. Hezekiah carried out a very extensive cultic reform, ridding the land of all idol worship, as well as the high places that were used as worship places for the LORD. In his day the Northern Kingdom came to an end, exiled by Assyria that was reaching the peak of its power. Manasseh’s years are approximately 699-645bce.

1. Notice his long reign, the longest of any king of Judah or Israel.

  • This is going to pose a problem for the historiographer. Long life/long reign are equated with rewards. How do we understand his long reign in light of his behavior?

2. How does the narrator of Kings define Manasseh’s cultic behavior?

  • We have the term Vayashov (he returned) in verse 3. Ironic, as it is the same root as Tshuva (repentance). What follows is a long list of active verbs to describe his reinstating of an impressive list of pagan worship. While he is not the first king of Judah to allow other gods in Jerusalem, the comparison to Ahab is interesting, since in Ahab’s days the Baal/Ashera worship became the state religion, pushing out the worship of the LORD as the God of Israel.

3. Manasseh places a pagan symbol in the Temple. The narrator tells of this event in term reminiscent of God’s words to Solomon upon the completion of the building of the Temple (I Kings 9:2-9). Why?

  • The book of Kings is drawing to a close, and several events that were told about in the beginning of the book are being wrapped up now. (See also I Kings 13 that comes to a close in II Kings 23:14-18). The echo of the warning text of I Kings 9 prepares us for what will come.

4. What is the penalty for all of Manasseh’s behavior?

  • Here we seal both the fate of Judah and the book of Kings. Everything from this point onward will be running towards disaster. Even the righteous king Josiah (Manasseh’s grandson) will only be granted a stay of execution.

5. Bottom line: Why was the kingdom of Judah destroyed according to the book of Kings?

Part 2: The Chronicles Version, a Comparison: II Chronicles 33:1-22

The book of Chronicles parallels many of the narratives that appear in the book of Kings. What will interest us are the differences between the versions.

1. The beginnings of the narrative are similar with some changes in the list of pagan worship that was introduced in Jerusalem. What seems the most drastic change?

  • Notice the absence of the Baal worship, as well as the absence of comparison with Ahab king of Israel.

2. Where does the serious deviation begin?

  • At the point of the warning of the consequences the narrator has to decide if to take it to the point of no return, as did the book of Kings, or give it a chance for change.

3. What is the historic event that is mentioned here, and why might it seem as a narrator’s mistake?

  • That Manasseh and his kingdom were under the control of Assyria we know from Assyrian sources as well (see below). It is likely that the arrival of the Assyrian forces in Jerusalem to carry off Manasseh was a reaction to some rebellious action by Manasseh, by why take him to Babylon, not Ninveh? (Ninveh, the Assyrian capital, was located near Mosul, Iraq, of today). Now scholars believe that this was not a mistake. Read the information below about king Ashurbanipal of Assyria, whose reign runs somewhat parallel to Manasseh’s. His brother’s rebellion in Babylon (about 55 miles south of Bagdad, on the Euphrates River) forced him to spend a lot of time there. How does Manasseh’s arrest and delivery to Babylon support this? Could there have been some correlation between the rebellions going on in 2 ends of the Assyrian empire?

Cylinder C (Ancient Near Eastern Texts pp.294-95)

– Ashurbanipal on his march to Egypt:

"…Manasseh (Miin-si-e), king of Judah (Ia-u-di), Qaushgabri, king of Edom…together 12 kings from the seashore, the islands and the mainland; servants who belong to me, brought heavy gifts to me and kissed my feet. I made these kings accompany my army over the land… with their armed forces…"

Background of Ashurbanipal (668-627):

He was the last great king of Assyria. In addition to his many campaigns, he collected (and wrote down by himself as well – he was trained as a scribe) an impressive and important library in Ninveh, containing about 22,000 clay tablets. Babylon was under his brother’s rule (Shamash-shum-ukin) until his brother rebelled in 652 BCE. Babylon surrendered in 648 BCE.

4. Why is the historic event mentioned above included here, but is not even hinted at in the book of Kings?

  • Here we see the different agendas of the two books. In Kings, Manasseh is viewed as being responsible for the destruction of Judah, and repentance does not work well with that world view. Chronicles does not wish to place blame on him personally. Why? To understand the agenda of each book it is worth while to see where they end. Read the end of each book. Kings ends with the destruction of Jerusalem, Chronicles ends with hope: the declaration of Cyrus king of Persia allowing the return and rebuilding of Jerusalem. Could they be thinking of the next king?

5. By claiming that Manasseh did tshuva (repented) after his ordeal with the Assyrian, the narrator has solved a problem that the book of Kings was facing with Manasseh. What was the problem?

  • As we asked in the beginning: How could a king like Manasseh seemingly be rewarded?

Part 3: Rabbinic Sources

כתיב וידבר ה' אל מנשה ואל עמו ולא הקשיבו ויבא עליהם את שרי הצבא אשר למלך וילכדו את מנשה בחחים. מהו בחחים בכירו מניקייא. א"ר לוי מולא של נחושת עשו לו ונתנו אותה בתוכה והיו מסיקין תחתיו שכיון שראה שצרתו צרה לא הניח ע"ז בעולם שלא הזכירה כיון שלא הועיל לו כלום אמר זכור אני שהיה אבי מקרא אותי את הפסוק הזה בבית הכנסת בצר לך ומצאוך כל הדברים האלה באחרית הימים ושבת עד ה' אלהיך ושמעת בקולו כי אל רחום ה' אלהיך לא ירפך ולא ישחיתך ולא ישכח את ברית אבותיך אשר נשבע להם הרי אני קורא אותו אם עונה אותי מוטב ואם לאו הא כל אפייא שוין. והיו מלאכי השרת מסתמין את החלונות שלא תעלה תפילתו של מנשה לפני הקב"ה והיו מלאכי השרת אומרים לפני הקב"ה רבונו של עולם אדם שעבד ע"ז והעמיד צלם בהיכל אתה מקבלו בתשובה אמר להן אם איני מקבלו בתשובה הרי אני נועל את הדלת בפני כל בעלי תשובה.

It says “and the LORD spoke to Manasseh and to his people but they did not listen so He brought upon them the heads of the army of the king [of Assyria] and they captured Manasseh with spikes… (II Chron. 33:11) As he saw that his distress was indeed distress, he did not ignore any pagan worship in the world [that he called to.] As nothing helped, he said: ‘I remember that my father would read me this verse in the synagogue: “When you are distressed because there befell you all these things, in future days, you shall return to the LORD your God and hearken to his voice; for a merciful God is the LORD your God, He will not weaken you and not destroy you, and not forget the covenant with your fathers that He swore to them.” (Deut. 4:30-31) So I shall call him, if he answers – good, and if not – all their faces are equal.’

And the angels were blocking the windows so that Manasseh’s prayer would not rise in front of the Holy One Blessed be He. And the angels were saying before the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘Master of the Universe, a person that has worship pagan worship, and placed an idol in the Temple, You will accept his tshuva (repentance)?’ He said to them: ‘If I do not accept his repentance, then I am locking the door in the face of all repenters.’

1. Manasseh approaches every deity he knows about. What does this tell us about pagan worship thinking?

  • To a monotheist this is impossible. Turning to another God is rejecting your God. You only have one. Not so in a polytheistic world. When the two understandings of God/god meet, an impossible situation arises.

2. His mention of his father (who is remembered in a synagogue setting, even if that is anachronistic) raises an interesting question: Hezekiah was known as an extremely pious king who did a great cultic clean up. How could his son have turned out this way?

  • This is asked in Mekhilta DeRabbi Ishmael (an early midrash), and it does not come to any conclusion. They do suggest that Hezekiah must have taught his son, but that it did not help, he chose his own path and repented only after great suffering.

3. What does Manasseh mean by ‘all their faces are equal’?

  • After contemplating what he means, consider the phrase that the Midrash chose. In Lev. 20:3, God turning His face on a person is part of a punishment. In the Priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26), God turning His face towards a person is a blessing.

4. Is his tshuva (repentance) out of comprehension of the LORD?

  • Notice that rather than a bowed head we see bargaining. But Moshe also “twisted God’s arm” at the Golden calf (forgive the people or erase me from your book, Ex. 32:32) and God accepted. Could one come to tshuva kicking and screaming? Accepting God as true despite wishing it was otherwise?

5. The angels are expressing good logic. Tshuva (literally: turning back) is problematic. It is not fair. Should a person be able to walk away from the worst offenses?

  • In this case the offense is against God, and God is supposed to grant the option of tshuva. (By rabbinic understanding, there is no tshuva on transgressions against another human being unless the other person has agreed to forgive. Tshuva involves the injured party).