There’s not much positive to find in these chapters. Successive kings both North and South lead their nations further away from the LORD’s way and we end up with Israel in exile, and Judah a shrunken nation paying tribute to Assyria. The days of David and Solomon are a distant memory.
Along the way, there are signs of how the religion of the nations has been degraded over the years. In Jerusalem, the Temple is given a makeover so that it looks a bit more like the shrines in Damascus – the old altar is moved to the side, and old-fashioned bronze calves are replaced by a modern stone plinth. It’s all part of making sure that the king of Assyria is kept happy and supportive – but at what cost? Israel and Judah were always meant to be nations whose ultimate king is the LORD, and in the end (17:19-23) it’s the LORD whose decision it is to ‘remove Israel out of his sight’. Seeking worldly security at the expense of faithfulness to the LORD is not a good long-term strategy.
In all of this, we’re back in the realm of kings and emperors. We’re not told a lot of what most of the people did through all of this time. One of the complaints that the author has about most of the kings of Judah, even the best, is that people continued to sacrifice at the high places – independent shrines outside Jerusalem. Given the mess that most of the kings and priests make of Israel’s faith, I can’t say that I blame them for just getting on with worship the best way that they could.
The Assyrians had a quite brutal way of dealing with conquered peoples. They – or at least the leaders – were uprooted and resettled in other subject territories. So here, (17:24) other nations are settled in the former Israel, now referred to as ‘Samaria’. There’s a fascinating bit that I didn’t know about, and am not sure quite what to make of. Naturally, those displaced people bring with them the worship of their own gods and religions. When they suffer from a sudden overdose of lions, the king of Assyria sends one Israelite priest back to tell them how to worship the ‘god of the land’. They then add the rituals of worship of the LORD to their own religions, but miss out all the bits about wholehearted service and obedience. We’re not told whether the lions stopped being a problem.
What we do hear, though, is the condemnation that this confused mix of religions continues ‘to this day’ – the beginning of the tension that we still see so strongly in the gospels between Jews and Samaritans.
Perhaps for those of us who are not rulers of nations, the key question from all of this might be how we are faithful to the LORD in a society of so many cultures and faiths – of which the strongest, our Assyria, is perhaps the faith of consumerism. Maybe, like the Israelite priest sent to the new inhabitants of Samaria to teach them the worship of the LORD, we can help those around us in some ways by helping them to value and live by certain parts of our heritage – our ethics, our festivals and so on. It would be unwise and wrong to look down on those who just pick the bits they like – they follow in a long tradition – but we ourselves are still called to a more radical obedience and faith in the LORD alone. And living that out will not be easy.