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.

Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?

Q. I always felt sorry for Saul.  God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it.  Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him.  I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”

Rembrandt, King Saul (detail)

These are excellent questions.  In this post I’ll look at why God rejected Saul as king.  In my next post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”

Kingship in Israel was supposed to be different from kingship in the surrounding nations.  Israel’s king was not to be considered divine.  In the law of Moses, God carefully distinguished the priesthood from the kingship and gave future kings careful instructions that put them under the law.

So it was vital that Israelite kings not usurp any priestly or divine prerogatives.  The precedent that Saul set as Israel’s first king would influence all of his successors (like George Washington declining a third term).  So he was held to a strict standard.

At one point during Saul’s reign, he was campaigning against the Philistines and waiting for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to seek God’s favor.  When Samuel didn’t arrive as soon as he expected, Saul offered these sacrifices himself, assuming the prerogatives of a priest.  When Samuel did arrive, he told Saul, “You have done a foolish thing,” using the Hebrew term for people who act without regard for God.  Samuel warned that Saul’s kingdom would not endure, meaning that his family would not establish a dynasty.  He’d be succeeded on the throne by someone from a different family.

Some time later, however, God gave Saul a new assignment in his capacity as king.  Samuel introduces this assignment by saying, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel.”  So perhaps this was intended as a “second chance.”

God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites.  (This is one of those episodes of total destruction in the Bible that are very difficult for us to understand; I’ve shared some thoughts about them here.) One thing we can recognize in such episodes is that the Israelites were never to take any plunder because weren’t in the war for themselves; they were considered agents of divine judgment.

But Saul and his army spared “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.”  They only destroyed what they thought was undesirable and worthless.  They spared King Agag because in this time captured kings were a prized trophy of war.  By conducting this raid as if it were ordinary warfare that he was directing, Saul once again usurped a divine prerogative and misrepresented the character of divine judgment, which doesn’t privilege the powerful and the beautiful.

It seems that God gave Saul a second chance, but this only showed that he still hadn’t learned to respect the limits of his authority as king.  And so, to prevent Israelite kingship from being established on the model of the divine kings or priest-kings of surrounding nations, God didn’t allow Saul to establish a dynasty.

Nevertheless, even after Samuel announced this judgment a second time, he granted Saul’s request, “Please honor me [as king] before the elders of my people and before Israel.”  Saul reigned for 42 years and throughout that time he was acknowledged as the rightful king.  David, even though promised the kingship himself, respected and protected him as the “LORD’s anointed.”

One of the last things we hear about Saul in the Bible is David’s tribute to him after he was killed in battle.  Acknowledging how Saul had made Israel secure and prosperous by defeating its enemies, David laments,

Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!

So even though Saul wasn’t able to establish an Israelite royal dynasty on the right principles, the Bible acknowledges the benefits Israel received from his long reign.