What was lost when the Assyrians took out the Northern Kingdom, spread its people in some of its other provinces and brought people from other provinces to relocate them into “the promised land”? What did that have to say about God?
The book of Kings pays very little attention to the historical details of the fall but uses its space for a sermon about breaking the law and worshiping her neighbor’s gods and doing what he neighbors did and rejecting God’s commands, etc.
When most atheists hear this what is forefronted is a (make-believe) story about a big man in the sky that’s something like an immature European despot or Donald Trump. He’s got power and he uses it to enforce whatever capricious whim appeals to his juvenile mind. This of course casts the children of Israel as children of the 60s who were just trying to overcome the repressive religious tyranny of their parents when all they really wanted to do was look for truth in other places because of course no one “god” could claim to have it all…
If we pull back, however, and try to see the whole thing without ethnicity or flags what would we see? Probably almost nothing.
What the writer of Kings I think is saying is that Israel had destroyed herself long before the LORD called Assyria in to do what this world has always done anyway. Whether it was Samaria that fell, or Tyre or Ashdod or Damascus it was all the same, nothing to see here. Yet another polytheistic people with a localish fertiilty cult gets assimilated into the larger empire of Assyria. The only reason anyone cares is because it happened to them. This isn’t any different from how people in Sacramento feel or any other city in the world. It’s really just about what matters to me.
What then to do with this strange God who got angry and the prophet/scribes who attribute the dissolution of the nation to her “sin”? That doesn’t seem to be a wholly different story. A peculiar people are only peculiar if they are in fact peculiar and Israel was not and despite the efforts of Elijah and Elisha never really had much of a taste for it. If the LORD was putting out for them they were happy enough with him, but as religious consumers they were always open for a better deal. Jacques Ellul points out that we would imagine the post-hoc religious overlay would demand that Israel had good times during those kings that scored a bit better on the Deuteronomist scale and bad times under the more idolatrous kings but this seems to be exactly the opposite.
The rest of the chapter highlights the first of it. Empires in the prophets were often seen as rivals to God (read Daniel and Ezekiel). Assyria in a sense accomplishes in a Bizarro way the mission of the LORD. The nations come to the promised land and offer a corrupted fulfillment of the vision. Yes they come and “the LORD” is on their lips in order to ward off the wild beasts (chaos again for the Buckos) but they do as the Israelites do. They offer their own children to the flames and generally do what anyone else does, they just add Israel’s god into the mix. (This of course sets up the woman at the well scene of John 4 eventually.)
So what died when Samaria fell, her people moved out and others moved in? Identity and story. “Israel” was always a story, her identity created by that story of the Exodus and God dismantling the gods of Egypt.
Someone in besieged Samaria might say “where is the God of the plagues when we need him?”
One forgets the key element of the story in this. God didn’t show up to Egypt because Israel had a favor she could ask. Israel was always built upon the initiative of her God, not the obedience of her people.
That sets up the regular but strange tension. How could the disobedience of the people bring in Israel’s destruction BUT her obedience not guarantee it? Is the prophet/scribe of Kings saying that if Israel HAD complied with the covenant THEN Israel would have shined like the sun and stood above the nations as the prophets so often imagined?
Once that question is posed your glance should go directly to Jesus. Why? Because Jesus was faithful Israel, and she too was dismantled by the empire of the day. He was spread naked on a cross for the political sport and mockery of his day even though he, unlike Israel, had fulfilled the covenant.
So if disobedience yields dissolution (Israel pre-dissolved its identity even before Assyria just made it obvious by moving the flags) why doesn’t obedience secure the kinds of blessing our religious consumer hearts long for? Doesn’t that seem fair?
The catechism says we can’t do it. Israel shows we can’t do it. Someone needs to do it for us.
So then what should we do? Gratitude. Does Gratitude contribute? Only on to of grace, just like your acts of goodness are contingent upon all the the layers of matter and history and story and and and and everything else in the universe that affords the tiny event you call your contribution to goodness. pvk