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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Statsman Cometh

I am an obsessive statistician, a very slightly annoying quality for which I would apologize if anyone who knows me at all would take such an apology seriously.

Okay, I am an unrepentantly obsessive stats nut. I love numbers, and I love what they tell us about people and about life. If we know each other well, you may think you are keeping to your diet, but I probably have a better idea than you do whether you’re kidding yourself about your eating habits. Likewise, you may think you are characteristically timely for your appointments, but I can tell you precisely how often you aren’t.

Some people are more fun to know via the Internet than to put up with in real time.

Trivia Time

So if you hate facts and details, come back tomorrow. Today is trivia time, along with maybe one or two observations along the way that are not completely insignificant.

Since the writers of the Old Testament did not follow the time-honored grade school habit of dating their work at the top right for our convenience, all dates herein are approximate. Depending on the scholar you’re reading, you may be looking at a slightly different timeline by two, three or even five years. But they are pretty good approximations all the same. Most scholars without axes to grind are usually in the same ballpark.

Just don’t expect Sir Robert Anderson here: I like numbers, but I’m not a complete detail maniac.

The Kings of Israel and Judah

Where the nation of Israel is concerned, the word “kingdom” refers to a historical era that began with Saul’s ascension to the throne of a united Israel around 1050 BC and ended about 586 BC with the imprisonment of the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, in Babylon, a period of approximately 465 years.

Funny, it seems longer when you’re reading it.

Prior to this period, Israel had judges. Afterward it had captivities and later governors under the thrall of successive world empires, followed by a massive dispersion lasting more than 1,900 years. But no kings. The next time Israel has a king, folks, it’s going to be quite the show.

This handy chart shows who reigned in Israel, when he did it, how long he lasted, how he behaved, and even which of the more famous prophets served during his reign. There are probably all kinds of similar timelines around, but I like this one because it lays out a lot of information clearly in an area the size of a single computer screen.

The United Kingdom ... No, Not THAT One

As all Bible students know, the united kingdom of Israel was a short-lived affair spanning a period of 120 years during which only three kings ruled, though perhaps not all Bible students have calculated that each of these first three kings (Saul, David, Solomon) ruled for exactly 40 years. Care to speculate on the odds of that occurring naturally?

After Solomon died, God divided the kingdom as punishment for his latter-day idolatry. Judah and Benjamin formed the kingdom of Judah under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, while the remaining 10 tribes are in scripture called Israel, or the “northern kingdom”. Generally speaking, of the two, Judah did better.

Good and Evil

After the kingdom was divided, Judah’s kings outnumbered Israel’s 20 to 19, but you have to remember that the two kingdoms were not entirely contemporaneous. Both commenced around 931 BC, and both ended in captivity (Israel to the Assyrians and Judah to the Babylonians), but Judah outlasted Israel by fully 136 years, 345 to 209. So while the average reign of each king of Judah was a little over 17 years, the average reign of each Israelite king was only eleven. This may have had something to do with the fact that while the kings of Israel are all characterized in scripture as having done “evil” (in varying degrees, of course), eight of Judah’s 20 kings can arguably be characterized as “good” (also, naturally, in varying degrees).

Wait, you mean God blesses obedience and punishes disobedience in this world? Based on God’s dealings throughout scripture and on his dealings with particular kings, this seems a hard thesis to argue against. I can’t prove it, but it’s also possible that governments run by evil men have a greater tendency to self-destruct even apart from divine interference.

Need more evidence? Those eight “good” kings of Judah ruled for a combined 263 years, an average of almost 33 years each. The twelve “evil” kings combined for 82 years, an average of slightly less than seven years each.

When you’re running a kingdom, obeying God just seems to work out better. That’s too obvious a point, perhaps. Let’s try something less like a two-by-four to the skull.

If You Like Your King …

Another notable: Judah’s rulers came from one family, a single dynasty.

There was, as most of us know, a prophetic necessity for the providential preservation of David’s line. Messiah was to be David’s son and heir, and he could hardly be David’s son if David’s entirely family line was wiped out, as happened with astounding regularity in the nations of that day. And yet preserved it was, so that both Matthew and Luke would later document genealogies for the Lord Jesus that trace themselves in unbroken succession right back to King David himself.

Israel? Not so much. The northern kingdom was ruled by 19 kings from nine different dynasties, the longest of which spanned a mere four generations and the shortest of which lasted only seven days. And every one of those dynastic flip-flops involved a nasty, bloody regicide. “If you like your king you can keep your king”? Not in Israel you couldn’t. Somebody would knock the poor guy off the minute you turned your back to check what those wacky prophets of Baal were getting up to.

Now Calculate These Odds

If you think the odds of three straight kings serving coincidental forty year terms are not outrageous, ask yourself what are the odds of a dynastic chain of 22 kings lasting over 425 years during this same hyper-murderous period. It was so remarkable that the Judaean line was still called the “House of David” 300-plus years AFTER David had been buried with his fathers. In Israel, the servants, the head of the army, the generals and probably the royal plumber were queuing up in Samaria or Jezreel to take your throne away. But in Judah, even when one of David’s heirs was occasionally murdered, another somehow ended up right back on the throne to succeed him. King Joash was murdered by his servants, and yet his son Amaziah was handed the throne. When Amaziah was later murdered by his people, they dutifully placed his son on the throne to succeed him. What kind of half-baked, amateur regicide is that?

Props to wicked queen mother Athaliah for coming closest to getting the job done, but her attempt too was thwarted. Explain all this without a divine thumb on the scales, please.

Moms Matter, Apparently

The writers of Kings and Chronicles love to mention people’s mothers. Seventeen (or eighteen) different mothers of nineteen different kings are mentioned by name in Kings and Chronicles. (The Israelites Ahaziah and Joram were brothers, both sons of Jezebel, and who knows about Maacah and Michaiah? It’s possible they were the same person and Asa was a grandson rather than a son, or else one may have been Abijam’s wife.)

In any case, here’s the complete list of queen moms called out in Kings and Chronicles:


Mother
King
Good/Evil
Nation
1.
Rehoboam
Evil
Judah
2.
Abijam/Abijah
Evil
Judah
3.
Good
Judah
4.
Good
Judah
5.
Ahaziah
Evil
Israel
5.
Evil
Israel
6.
Evil
Judah
7.
Good
Judah
8.
Good
Judah
9.
Good
Judah
10.
Good
Judah
11.
Hezekiah
Good
Judah
12.
Manasseh
Evil
Judah
13.
Amon
Evil
Judah
14.
Josiah
Good
Judah
15.
Jehoahaz
Evil
Judah
16.
Jehoiakim
Evil
Judah
17.
Jehoachin
Evil
Judah
18.
Zedekiah
Evil
Judah

* Of mixed heritage (Athaliah) or foreign (other mothers with asterisks).

I can’t help but notice that the mother of every single good Judaean king is mentioned by name. Credit where credit is due, apparently. Of the remaining 31 (evil) kings of Judah or Israel, only nine mothers warrant mention, frequently for infamy. In some cases, like Jezebel, Maacah or Naamah, they were horrendous idolaters who personally led Israel and Judah into sin. In others, like Athaliah, they stepped onto the stage and tried to run the show themselves.

It’s a small statistical sample, useless for proving anything categorically, but I find it interesting anyway. In Judah, kings born to Israelite mothers had a 57% chance of turning out godly. Kings born to godly fathers had a 50/50 chance of turning out godly, but kings born to an evil father had a 57% chance of becoming evil rulers themselves. We probably face similar odds in our churches today: there are no guarantees, even if you bring your children up with a consistent and godly example to follow, that they’ll actually do so.

Can we make anything dogmatic of this? Probably not.

Some Things Just Never Work

On the other hand, kings born to foreign mothers had no chance of turning out well. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Something about plowing with oxen and donkeys or one of those other strange things you find in Israel’s law, I’m sure. Okay, here is it:
“You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.”
Like and unlike do not mix. Light and darkness have no common purpose. Sidonians and Ammonites reliably made lousy Israelite royalty.

There’s probably a lesson in that for young Christian men who can’t find seem to find sufficiently appealing marriage prospects in their churches: it’s not just your own life you’re nuking when you pair up with an unsaved woman, it’s your children’s as well. When you put two unlike things together, it simply does not work, and a mother has a lot more time to mould a child’s character at an early age than a father does. If Old Testament history means anything, your chances of making marriage to an unbeliever work out well for the spiritual health of your kids are roughly that of the kings of Israel and Judah: 0.0%.

That’s not just true for kings: my friends and acquaintances who have tried it over the years have struck out just as consistently even without the complications and responsibilities of royal lineage to worry about.

I’m not resistant to playing long odds from time to time, but trying to raise godly children in life-partnership with a wife committed to some other deity — especially these days when the deity of choice is most often Self — are odds that look too long even for me.

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