Monday, October 6, 2014

Book Write-Up: Gods and Kings, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Gods and Kings.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2005.

Gods and Kings is the first book of Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series.  This series draws from the Hebrew Bible and focuses on eighth century Judah, specifically the reigns of kings Ahaz, Hezekiah, and Manasseh.  Gods and Kings covers the time from Hezekiah’s childhood to the early days of his reign.

I definitely want to read all of the books in this series.  It may take me a little time to get to the second book, since I have other books to read and review, including the second book of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles, which focuses on Israel’s post-exilic period.  (See here for my review of the first book of the Restoration Chronicles.)  But, in Gods and Kings, Austin writes a compelling story with sympathetic characters, and she captures the  insecurities that eighth century Judah faced, as well as the religious and political attempts to cope with those insecurities.

Judah is threatened by the Arameans, and King Ahaz of Judah is sacrificing some of his children to the pagan god Molech to ameliorate this threat.  King Ahaz is also contemplating inviting the brutal Assyrians to help Judah out, even though he is warned that doing so could give Assyria a foothold in Judah.  Meanwhile, the Temple of Yahweh is scarcely attended or supported, as the people of Judah have a variety of other religious options and sanctuaries available to them, many of them pagan.  The high priest Uriah is allowing paganism into the Temple in order to increase the number of people who attend the Temple’s ceremonies (and thus the tithes), as well as his own influence on King Ahaz. Uriah assures pious Yahwist detractors that he will use this influence for good—-for the worship of YHWH.  Zechariah the Levite, who was a religious adviser to King Uzziah years before but failed to stop Uzziah from making a tragic religious mistake, blames himself for the direction that Judah is going and becomes a drunk, but he gets a second chance at life by teaching his grandson, Prince Hezekiah, the ways of the LORD.  And Isaiah, a prophet from the royal family who got kicked out of the palace, is confronting and annoying King Ahaz in public.  The book also has an atheist character: Hezekiah’s Egyptian tutor, Shebna.

Even the villains in this book are portrayed as real people, with strengths and weaknesses in character.  King Ahaz was close to his brother, and he feels lost when his brother is killed in battle.  And Uriah is one who struggles with his conscience as he compromises his principles for his own security and advancement.  Uriah also loved Ahaz’s wife (and Hezekiah’s mother) Abijah from an early age, and he has a lot of contempt for King Ahaz, whose favor he still curries.

A powerful scene in the book is when King Ahaz travels to the recently conquered Damascus, in Aram (Syria), to meet with the victorious Assyrian King Tiglath-Pilesar, who took care of Ahaz’s problem by crushing the Aramean threat.  Ahaz thinks that he is going to meet Tiglath-Pilesar as an equal, but he is informed once he arrives that he is there as a vassal, along with other vassals to Assyria.  There, Ahaz sees how the Assyrians treat their conquered, who are impaled alive, and Ahaz’s guide tells him that this is to be a warning to him not to rebel against Assyria.  Ahaz would also have to pay lots of tribute to the Assyrians.  Austin artfully portrays Ahaz’s humiliation.

I have two criticisms of the book.  First of all, while Austin at one point indicates that she is aware that Northern Israel (which was different from Judah) was allied with Aram, she did not do much with that fact.  I would have liked to have seen some of the Judahite characters reflect on how their fellow Israelites to the north were siding with Aram to defeat Judah.  Second, in accordance with Isaiah 7:14, Austin presents Isaiah giving Ahaz the virgin birth prediction (a virgin will give birth to a son and call his name Immanuel) within the context of predicting the defeat of the threatening Arameans.  This verse has been discussed often within scholarship, especially the question of whether the woman in Isaiah 7:14 was a virgin, but I had to wonder: How does Austin believe that the virgin birth of Jesus relates to the situation of eighth century Judah?

The book ends powerfully.  Hezekiah has become king, and one of his initial acts (after being re-awakened to his lost belief in YHWH) is to repair the Temple.  Austin then quotes II Chronicles 29:1-3: “Hezekiah was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years.  His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah.  He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his father David had done.  In the first month of the first years of his reign, he opened the doors of the Temple of the Lord and repaired them” (NIV).  This was moving, especially after I had gotten to know the characters of Abijah and Zechariah.  A few pages later, we read a bit about the next book of the series, and we learn (or are reminded) that Hezekiah’s reign will not be a cake-walk.  Not only will he have to deal with people in Judah who do not care for his religious reforms, but the menacing Assyrians have not gone away, either!

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