King Manasseh, from a 17th century painting by unknown artist in the choir of Sankta Maria kyrka in Åhus, Sweden.

If you’ve been following this series you won’t be surprised to hear that the books of Kings and Chronicles tell two very different stories about Judah’s longest reigning king (55 years), Manasseh. On one hand, Kings blames Manasseh for Judah’s defeat by the Babylonian empire and their exile to Babylon. On the other hand, Chronicles portrays him as a model of repentance.

Kings leaves the reader with no doubts about how bad Manasseh was as king, describing him as the most evil king in their history:

He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, following the abominable practices of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. 3 For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole, as King Ahab of Israel had done, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served them. 4 He built altars in the house of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, “In Jerusalem I will put my name.” 5 He built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD. 6 He 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, provoking him to anger. 7 The carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the LORD said to David and to his son Solomon, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever; 8 I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander any more out of the land that I gave to their ancestors, if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the law that my servant Moses commanded them.” 9 But they did not listen; Manasseh misled them to do more evil than the nations had done that the LORD destroyed before the people of Israel.

2 Kings 21:2-9

In fact, Manasseh was so evil, according to Kings, that God decided to destroy Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah and send them into exile (2 Kings 21:11-16). The prophet Jeremiah also blamed Manasseh: “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” (Jeremiah 15:4). This is hardly surprising as many scholars have noted several similarities between the “Deuteronomistic” parts of Kings and the writings of Jeremiah, and some think that Jeremiah himself may in fact have been the “Deuteronomistic editor” (DtrE) or redactor of Kings. Even if the DtrE and Jeremiah were not the same person, the writers of both books were evidently in the same theological camp or “school.”

There are, however, at least two problems with the writer(s) of Kings attributing the exile to Manasseh. The first problem is that Manasseh reigned in the first half of the seventh century BCE (c. 697-642), and Judah did not go into exile until a century later, with the first of a series of deportations in 597 BCE. Manasseh did not live to see it. This means that Manasseh himself was not punished for his sins, but that a later generation suffered because of him. This is manifestly unfair and the notion that one person can be punished for the sins of another presents difficulties for any reasonable concept of justice. There is good evidence that some of the biblical writers had similar issues with the apparent injustice of it. For example, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah refer to a proverb which said “the parents have eaten sour grapes and the childrens’ teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2; Jeremiah 31:29). Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah are set in the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. The fact that they both discuss this proverb suggests  that it was probably an issue that was being discussed at the time, perhaps by the populace in general. Ezekiel argues against the idea that an individual or generation can be justly punished for the sins of another: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel … it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:3-4). He emphasises that the people who went into exile were being punished for their own sins. Yet the problem remains that the book of Kings, and indeed Jeremiah, also claim that to a large extent the nation was being punished for the sins of Manasseh, four generations earlier.  (See also my post about transgenerational punishment.)

The second problem is that the biblical texts are not consistent in blaming Manasseh for the exile. While Kings and Jeremiah on the one hand say the the exile came about “because of what Manasseh did” the book of Chronicles, on the other hand, blames the exile on the people and a cumulative process of ignoring the prophets (2 Chronicles 36:15-16). In fact, rather than blaming Manasseh for the exile, the Chronicler says וַיִּכָּנַע he humbled himself, removed the idols from the Temple, instigated religious reforms, and thus avoided the destruction of his kingdom (2 Chronicles 33:12-19).

In an earlier post I argued that there is some evidence within Chronicles that its version of Manasseh’s life was based on an older account in the Annals of the Kings of Judah which also treated Manasseh positively. Rather than Chronicles deliberately changing the Kings version to whitewash Manasseh, the evidence suggests that the older versions of the story (on which Chronicles was based) treat Manasseh sympathetically and that it was a writer or editor of Kings who left out the story of his repentance, conversion and reforms in order to portray him as thoroughly evil. Why?

In the cases of Solomon, Jeroboam, Abiathar and Zadok, and Uzziah, which I’ve discussed already in this series, the evidence points towards different writers, perhaps rival priestly groups, pursuing their own political ambitions in their quests for power and influence. However, the differing accounts of Manasseh suggests there were other motives at play here, and the reason why Kings blames him for the exile could have been theological more than political (although the two are often intertwined). The writer or Deuteronomistic editor of Kings seems to have a real interest in prophecy being fulfilled, and on several occasions explains how events occured precisely as they had been predicted. It looks to me like something similar is happening here. Writing from exile in Babylon, and thinking about the reasons they were in exile, or perhaps debating questions of theodicy, the writer/editor may have recalled the words of Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 which summarised the attributes of God, and pondered on the line that says God “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” It would be easy enough to count back a few generations, and then argue that their defeat during the reign of Jehoiachin must have been the consequence of sins committed four generations earlier, in the reign of Manasseh, and then to modify the records so that they detailed his sins but didn’t mention his repentance, conversion, and reforms. Of course, we wouldn’t know about this deliberate re-writing of history for theological purposes if it wasn’t for the fact that the Bible has also preserved an alternative version, from a different theological perspective.

The lesson here may be that we shouldn’t look to the Bible for definitive answers to our questions, or for precise, factual historical details, but rather for examples of how its writers argued from different perspectives, and arrived at different conclusions. In doing so we should also recognise that they were driven by their own motives and aspirations and had pre-conceived theological ideas. Rather than defending our own pre-conceived notions by pulling texts from “the word of God” which seem to back up our ideas, we should first unravel what was going on in the lives and minds of its writers and be honest about their motivations and hidden agendas and recognise that parts of the Bible were written as propaganda.

Postscript: There is an interesting article here about the archaeological evidence for Manasseh being Judah’s most successful king.