One Man Makes the Difference
Haftarat Shekalim, 2 Kings 11:17–12:17
David Friedman, UMJC rabbi, Jerusalem
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shekalim, corresponding to the season in our calendar when the half-shekel tax was assessed in ancient Israel. Our haftarah is a short history lesson, but one that carries a challenge throughout the generations.
The times of King Joash (843–796 BCE) and the prominent kohen (priest) Jehoiada were tumultuous ones, full of betrayal, chaos in the royal family, and bloodshed. Queen Athaliah of Judah had bludgeoned her way into power. She was the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of the kingdom of Israel, and married into the royal family of Judah. Killing in order to strengthen her political position was one of Athaliah’s trademarks. Athaliah attempted to annihilate the royal house of King David. She acted similarly to her mother, Queen Jezebel, who was known for her penchant toward violence. Drastic and righteous actions were needed to put an end to the violence, disturbances, and disorder that Athaliah brought to the throne of Judah and to the nation. This is where we enter this week’s haftarah portion.
Wicked Queen Athaliah had suddenly fallen because Jehoiada bravely organized a coup against her. As a result of his actions, even more chaos could ensue. When a ruler fell, competing parts of a royal family could cause purges and civil war, endangering the nation’s stability. Right then and there, the kohen Jehoiada had the gumption to take swift and decisive action in the royal quarter of the city of David, ensuring the avoidance of further conflict in the government. He led the unified royal guards in a plot to overthrow Athaliah.
The sentiment of the palace officials and guards and of the city itself was to go ahead and place the rightful Prince Joash on the throne. “And all the people of the land rejoiced, and the city quieted down” (2 Kings 11:20).
Jehoiada seized the moment, and went ahead boldly with his actions. After setting up the seven-year old Joash as king, Jehoiada apparently stayed close to him, protecting him and advising him. In the ancient world, when a government fell, neighbors on the borders would often jump at the chance to invade, to gain territory, and flex their muscle. Jehoiada’s quick, decisive, and unifying actions did not allow this to happen.
The record shows Jehoiada to be wise and patriotic, loyal to God and passionate. When we combine the record of 2 Kings 11 and 12 with that of 2 Chronicles 24, that is indeed the picture that emerges.
Jehoiada then made a covenant between the Lord and the king and people, that they would be Adonai’s people. He also made a covenant between the king and the people. All the people of the land went to the temple of Baal and tore it down. (2 Kings 11:17–18a)
[On Jehoiada’s initiative] the king then took his place on the royal throne, and all the people of the land rejoiced. And the city was quiet, because Athaliah had been slain. . . . Joash (the new king) was seven years old when he began to reign. (2 Kings 11:19–21)
During the six years of Athaliah’s heavy-handed reign, Prince Joash had been hidden in order to save him from Athaliah’s sword: “He remained hidden with his nurse at the temple of Adonai for six years while Athaliah ruled the land” (2 Kings 11:3). Though this text does not explicitly say so, I assume that Jehoiada tutored the boy-king Joash and advised him closely during his boyhood. That is, he helped the king to rule justly and righteously, with the fear of God in the forefront. Indeed, the first action that Jehoiada is recorded to have taken after his successful coup was to lead a renewal of the covenant between God and the people.
Kings who took this type of decisive action (like Hezekiah and Josiah) are considered heroes. The kohen Jehoiada was a likeminded individual in his passion for the nation to be loyal to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. His recorded actions show us his heart. He was even accorded the honor of being buried alongside the kings: “He was buried with the kings in the City of David, because of the good he had done in Israel for God and his temple” (2 Chron 24:16).
“And Joash did that which was right in the eyes of God all the days of Jehoiada the priest” (2 Chron 2:24). This verse testifies to the influence of Jehoiada on King Joash. As long as Jehoiada was alive, he appears to have had positive influence upon the government and the very nation itself. Joash, though, had his faults, and after Jehoiada the kohen died, Joash allowed idolatry to creep back into the nation. Sadly, after Jehoiada’s death, Joash even was complicit in the murder of Jehoiada’s son: “King Joash did not remember the kindness . . . Jehoiada had shown him, but killed his son (2 Chron 24:22).
When I stop to think about the life of Jehoiada, I see one clear lesson: one person who takes courageous action at a given time can turn history around in a good way. For the Jewish people at that time, the actions of Jehoiada reversed the trend towards idolatry, and again placed the kingdom into the hands of the faithful, living, and true God, right where it belonged. Lives were saved, security was established, and righteousness now had a chance to be manifested in the nation. Covenant faithfulness towards God had a real chance to be established for a long time. The foundation for such a legacy was created by the work of Jehoiada. Unfortunately, Joash chose another path, ending in his own death.
This haftarah portion carries one particularly clear message. When I read it, it causes me to ask myself: can I be like Jehoiada? Will I allow God to fill me full of his courage so that I can help influence those around me, like my family, my workplace, and my community? When God opens doors for me to be the one person who can step through in order to make a big difference, will I do it? Will I muster up the courage and indeed step through? These are not rhetorical questions. As I ask them they may sound rhetorical, but they will become real for each one of us at some point in our lives.
My prayer is that the Lord will fill you and me both with that very courage, with the foresight and wisdom of Jehoiada, with the very decisiveness and righteousness that he displayed. I cannot think of a more important challenge for any one of us. Will we rise up, take the responsibilities that we have in life, and further the kingdom of God by excelling at our task? Yehi ratzono. May it be. Amen.