Melachim Bet

We just can't stop learning! ...The Bekiut Nach class of 5766 in a quest to complete Nevi'im Rishonim

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ch. 15 Uzziah and Yerovam

The reign of Yerovam ben Yoash and Uzziah
The Best of Times; The Worst of Times

We are now going to move on to the next period; that of Yerovam ben Yoash in the North (Yisrael) and Uzziah (or Azariah) in the South (Yehuda.)

All our information points to the fact that from many respects this was a period of great wealth and influence for the region. Sefer Melachim gives sparse evidence both for Uzzia and Yerovam, so to fill in the gaps we have to look elsewhere.

UZZIA – the evidence in Divrei Hayamim.

Uzzia reigned 52 years. This is a span of time in which one can creat real achievements. Uzzia seems to have been a very positive king – supporting correct service of God, expanding the kingdom and building significantly.
Divrei Hayamim II 26:6-8 talks about his conquests against the Pelishtim, Ammon, and the Sinai all the way to Egypt. What we can glean from this is that Uzziah truly controls the region. The borders and beyond are safe. The country can turn its attention to other issues rather than defense. And now they can also charge levies and tolls which bring significant government income.
26:8 – his renovation of the walls and towers of Jerusalem.
26:9 – his "love" of farming and agriculture, irrigating new pasture land and arable areas.
26:13-15 His large army, and their hardware, including new technology – חשבונות מחשבת חושב – some sort of new firing mechanism.
All in all it seems like the times were very good indeed.

Unfortunately the reign of Uzziah ends with his becoming a leper. Again, Sefer Melachim is silent about this. In Divrei Hayamim the story is reported how he wanted to offer incense in the Temple. He was warned against this by the Kohein Gadol and yet persisted. And in the middle of the act he was struck with Tzaraat. The Talmud comments upon this:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ערכין דף טז עמוד א

א"ר יוחנן על שבעה דברים נגעים באין: על לשון הרע, ועל שפיכות דמים, ועל שבועת שוא, ועל גילוי עריות, ועל גסות הרוח, ועל הגזל, ועל צרות העין...ועל גסות הרוח, דכתיב: +דברי הימים ב' כ"ז /כ"ו/+ ובחזקתו גבה לבו עד להשחית וימעול בה' אלהיו, +דברי הימים ב' כ"ז /כ"ו/+ והצרעת זרחה במצחו.

Maybe all the power went to his head and he sought to become not only king but also High Priest bringing the Ketoret. Whatever way, the Talmud accuses him of arrogance or brazenness in this act.

The Midrash Tanchuma sees this as a product of his preoccupation with material matters and his relative disregard of the spiritual:

מדרש תנחומא פרשת נח סימן יג

בעוזיה כתיב כי אוהב אדמה היה (ד"ה =דברי הימים= ב כו) שהיה מלך והפקיר עצמו לאדמה ולא נזקק לתורה, יום אחד נזקק לבית הועד, אמר להם במה אתם עוסקין אמרו לו בהזר הקרב יומת (במדבר א) אמר להם עוזיה הקב"ה מלך ואני מלך נאה למלך לשמש פני מלך ולהקטיר לפניו, מיד ויבא אל היכל ה' להקטיר על מזבח הקטרת

During the period of Uzziahu there was a significant earthquake that was remembered long into the future – see Amos 1:1 and Zecharia 14:5. Chazal connect it with Uzziah's act of bringing the Ketoret. One wonders why this act specifically should generate an earthquake rather than Achav's Avoda Zara or Menashe's Molech. And yet Chazal tie a third event together here: Yishayahu ch.6 in which Yishayahu receives his initial Nevua warning about the destruction of the land.

In other words, Uzzia's act belies a certain mode of behaviour: putting oneself above God's rules, seeking personal grandeur, the desire to follow one's desire despite the convention and authority that restricts a person. All of this is a sign of a materialistic indulgent society. Now is this the atmosphere that lead God to warn Yishayahu about a future Galut?.

This leads us neatly to Yerovam. Again Sefer Melachim is extremely sparse. It simply informs us that the border with Aram in the North, and in the East too was restored, indicating Israel regaining its military edge. And yet archeology reveals enormous building works at Shomron during Yerovam's reign. The city wall was built so strong that it resisted 3 years of siege by the mighty Assyrian army some decades later.

However the true atmosphere is found in the prophecies of Amos who functioned in the Northern kingdom at this time. Amos prophecised during the reign of Yerovam as can be seen by the opening passuk of the book (1:1-2) and by his prophecy in 7:11.The book of Amos reveals a situation in which there was enormous wealth in the Northern kingdom and yet there were massive inequalities of income with the rich-poor gap at startling proportions.

" So says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, yea,
for four, I will not reverse it (the Destruction): because they sell the
righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; 7 That trample the dust
of the earth upon the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the humble;
and a man and his father go unto the same maid, to profane My holy name; 8 And
they lay themselves down beside every altar upon clothes taken in pledge, and in
the house of their God they drink the wine of them that have been fined."

Here is a society that is deaf to the plight of the poor. People build massive wealth on the backs of the poor, eating the fines they take from the desperate honest hard-working peasants and enjoying the pledges that they have seized in exchange for loans. Here we are dealing with the haves and the have-nots, with loan-sharking systems that make the rich richer and leave the poor in desperation. Here Amos addresses the super-rich living in their palaces:

"They lie on ivory beds;
lolling on their couches,
Feasting on lambs from
the flock
And on calves from the stalls.
They listen to song to the tune
of the lute –
They account themselves musicians like David
They drink
straight from wine bowls
And anoint themselves with the choicest oils

But they are not concerned with the ruin of Joseph.
Assuredly, right
They shall head the column of exiles;
They shall indulge no more at
festive meals

My Lord swears by Himself;
I loathe the Pride of
And I detest his palaces.
I will deliver (to the enemy) the city
and its inhabitants alike." (6:4-8)

Amos talks to a society that is wealthy and complacent. They believe in their own military might (6:13). They insist – on religious principle (9:10)- that God will do them no harm, that if there will be a day of God's retribution, the Jews as God's chosen people will escape unscathed (see 3:2 and 5:18).

Amos delivers a biting critique of society. His major complaint is the oppressive economic environment that has the rich living in luxury and the poor are worse off than ever before. He warns that:

"4 Hear this, O ye that would swallow the needy, and destroy the poor of the
land, 5 Saying: 'When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell grain? and the
sabbath, that we may set forth corn? making the ephah small, and the shekel
great, and falsifying the balances of deceit; 6 That we may buy the poor for
silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes, and sell the refuse of the corn?' 7
The LORD hath sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of
their works. 8 Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that
dwelleth therein? Yea, it shall rise up wholly like the River; and it shall be
troubled and sink again, like the River of Egypt. {P}"

These are people who cannot wait for Shabbat to be out so they can oppress the poor even more. He warns that the "land will tremble for this." IS this the cause of the earthquake during the generation of Uzziah and Yerovam. IS the sin of the people – the economic disparity, the guise of high society when the workers wallow in absolute misery and hopeless despair – that caused the earth to quiver?

And maybe Uzziah's arrogance and the people of Shomron's indulgence are two sides of the same coin.

How terribly sad that in times of good, in periods of wealth calm and plenty, we could not have found a way to practice kindness, justice , community and support. Why is it that in good times we forget our needy brother. How can it be hat God-given wealth is not used in order to better the lot of all of Society? How can we be so blind?