Was King Jehoram’s “youngest” son not his last son?

Q.  I’m confused about Jehoram and Ahaziah. Jehoram was 32 years old when he became king and he reigned 8 years, so he was 40 when he died. The people of Jerusalem took his youngest son Ahaziah and make him king when he was . . . 22? So Jehoram stopped having sons when he was 18?  That seems so unlikely.  And then I see in a footnote that some manuscripts say that Ahaziah was 42 when his father died at 40, which of course is impossible! I mean it doesn’t really matter, but what do you think is the deal?

Actually, it does matter quite a bit, as we’ll see at the end of this post.  But first, let’s try to figure out what’s going on here.

The traditional Hebrew text of the First Testament (the Masoretic Text) does say in Chronicles that Ahaziah was 42 years old when his father died at age 40—an impossibility, as you note.  This is clearly a copying error that has crept into the text.  The account of these same rulers in Samuel-Kings has a more reliable figure: Ahaziah was 22 when his father died.

But your real question is, assuming that 22 is the correct age, why did Jehoram stop having children at only age 18 (since Ahaziah is said to be his “youngest”)?  This is an excellent question, and one that I haven’t seen discussed in the scholarly literature.

Most Israelite men didn’t marry and have children until they were somewhat older, but crown princes had a responsibility to make sure that the royal line continued, so they married younger and had many children by multiple wives and concubines.

According to the version of this account in Chronicles, the reason why Ahaziah, the youngest, succeeded to the throne is that Judah’s enemies invaded the land and carried off and killed all the older royal princes.  (Ahaziah may have been overlooked or ignored precisely because he was the youngest.)  Since there were these older brothers, this means that Jehoram probably married and started having children as soon as he was physically able, in his early teens.  But this doesn’t explain why he stopped at age 18, particularly in a climate where a nation’s enemies might try to wipe out the entire royal line.

Here’s what I think is going on.  The text explains that during Jehoram’s reign, “the Philistines and the Arabs who lived near the Cushites attacked Judah, invaded it and carried off all the goods found in the king’s palace, together with his sons and wives. Not a son was left to him except Ahaziah, the youngest.”  Then, after Jehoram dies, it says, “The people of Jerusalem made Ahaziah, Jehoram’s youngest son, king in his place, since the raiders, who came with the Arabs into the camp, had killed all the older sons.”
I think this actually means, “The people of Jerusalem made Ahaziah king in Jehoram’s place, since the raiders, who came with the Arabs into the camp, had killed all of his older sons, but Ahaziah, who had been the youngest at the time, had survived” (because he was overlook or ignored because he was just an infant).

In other words, this is one of those places where the Hebrew narrative describes a person from the perspective of a past incident that is being related, rather than from a contemporaneous perspective.  Ahaziah likely wasn’t Jehoram’s youngest son absolutely, but he was the youngest of the senior royal princes who were born early in Jehoram’s reign.  He continued to be known as the “youngest” (the qatōn) because that was how he had survived the massacre.

In fact, the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament notes that in Judges, qatōn “singles out” Jotham, Gideon’s “youngest,” as the “sole survivor when his brothers were murdered—probably on the assumption that he was too small to be noticed.”  The TDOT then adds that “the special position of such a survivor is clear from” the story of Ahaziah in Chronicles.

This, I would say, is the answer to your excellent question—why would a king whose lineage was threatened not have had any children for the last twelve years of his reign, when he was still in young adulthood?  Actually, he did, but Ahaziah is described as the “youngest,” even though he wasn’t the last, because he survived the massacre and could succeed to the throne.

So why does this matter?

First, the fact that in the Bible a man’s son could be described as his “youngest” even though he wasn’t his last shows that we can’t read the First Testament in a simplistic, literalistic way.  We need to be sensitive to the nuances of meaning inherent in Hebrew language and literature.

Second, going back to the faulty reading “42,” we need to recognize that the Masoretic text does contain some blatant errors, some of which even contradict other places in the Bible.  (Often in cases like this the Masoretes left a marginal note to the synagogue reader to say something different than what’s found in the text, but there’s no such note in this case.)  So we shouldn’t give automatic preference to the Masoretic Text in determining the original reading.  But the RSV and NRSV do this, and so they have Ahaziah 42 years old when his father was 40—without any explanatory footnote!  A word of caution to translators: don’t preference the Masoretic Text to this extent.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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