Hezekiah’s Passover: Exegetical Considerations

Once again forgive the length of this post, but this is material adapted here from my commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles. Tomorrow I will reflect on the text in connection with an application I recently made in a 2004 publication and will respond to some criticisms that application has engendered.  But today it is the hard–sometimes boring–work of exegesis.

 

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2 Chronicles 30 parallels the ark narrative in 1 Chronicles 13, 15-16 (Graham, “Setting,” 131-2). Hezekiah’s actions parallel David’s. Just as David consulted with his leaders and the whole assembly agreed (1 Chronicles 13:1-4) so did Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:2-4). In both cases it seemed right in the eyes of the assembly (1 Chronicles 13:4; 2 Chronicles 30:4). Everyone, including priests and Levites, are invited to join in the holy convocation (1 Chronicles 13:2, 5; 2 Chronicles 30:1). In both cases the king intended to reform past mistakes (David would consult the ark whereas Saul did not, 1 Chronicles 13:3; Hezekiah reformed the kingdom). Both convocations were joyous and accompanied with musical celebration (1 Chronicles 13:8; 2 Chronicles 30:21-23, 26). Both involved the sanctification of priests and Levites as well as accompanying sacrifices (1 Chronicles 15:12-15, 26; 2 Chronicles 29:4-15; 30:15-17, 22, 24), even though David’s first abortive attempt to move the ark lacked both (cf. 1 Chronicles 13:1-14). Hezekiah imitated the David of 1 Chronicles 15 rather than the unholy assembly of 1 Chronicles 13. “Therefore,” Graham (“Setting,” 132) notes, “it appears that Hezekiah showed proper respect for God and so avoided David’s disaster with Uzzah.”

 

Graham (“Setting,” 132-3) also notes connections with Solomon. 2 Chronicles 30:26 compares this celebration with Solomonic. This Passover follows a rededication of the temple (2 Chronicles 29) that echoed Solomon’s own dedication (2 Chronicles 5-7) where both had tremendous joy (2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:6, 10; 30:21-23, 26) and huge sacrificial offerings (2 Chronicles 5:6-7; 7:1, 4-5; 30:15-16, 22, 24). Hezekiah’s invitation (2 Chronicles 30;6-9) and prayer (2 Chronicles 30:18b-19) reflect Solomonic language from his own prayer (2 Chronicles 6) and God’s response (2 Chronicles 7:14). Solomon’s plea that foreigners be permitted to seek God at this temple (2 Chronicles 6:32-33) is fulfilled in Hezekiah’s Passover when aliens are part of the celebration (2 Chronicles 30:25).

 

Hezekiah’s Passover was the first recorded Passover since the schism to encompass both Israel and Judah. Thus, it had both Davidic and Solomonic meaning as all Israel celebrated God’s redemptive grace. Worship is a time of unity, thankful remembrance and seeking God’s face. “In short,” Graham (“Setting,” 141) writes, “it is a time for the reorientation of the human heart—to remember what God has done in the past and to infuse the present with hope for a future life of well-being and communion with God.”

 

Timing of Hezekiah’s Passover

 

The Law specifies that the Passover is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month, but here the nation decided to celebrate it in “the second month.” Why does Hezekiah delay the Passover? Most believe the Chronicler assumes the “Second Passover” law of Numbers 9:2-14 as the explanation for the delay (Dillard, 243-4; Selman, 2:496; Fishbane, 154-9). This law permits those who are unclean at the time of the first month to celebrate the Passover in the second month once they are clean. Hezekiah’s temple and nation were unclean on the fourteenth day of the first month and thus could not celebrate the Passover. Hezekiah, therefore, extends the individual legislation of Numbers 9 to a national level. The whole nation will celebrate the Passover in the second month rather than the first.

 

The Chronicler is “apologetic” (defensive) about the date and recognizes that it is irregular (Japhet, 939). The rationale provided in 2 Chronicles 30:3 is two-fold. First, “not enough priests had consecrated themselves” for the celebration. During the dedication rites the Levites had to assist the priests in the sacrificial ritual because there were too few of them (2 Chronicles 29:34). A Passover would include many more animals than the dedication rites of 2 Chronicles 29.  Hezekiah could have waited till the next year when there were a sufficient number of ceremonially clean priests, but he did not wait.  Second, the people were not yet “assembled in Jerusalem.” The temple cleansing had taken the first half of the first month to complete and once it was complete there was not enough time for a pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem.

The Chronicler’s rationale for the irregularity does not invoke Numbers 9 (it may lie in the background as a principle, but the Chronicler does not cite the Torah as he does in other instances) and his rationale includes more than Numbers 9 explicitly permits. Japhet (939-40) correctly notes that Numbers 9:6-13 involves individuals who are unclean because they came in contact with the dead or who missed the Passover because they were far away from home. Neither are the case in 2 Chronicles 30. Further, Numbers 9 permits a second Passover but it does not permit a wholesale abrogation of the first. For the Chronicler, it was not the uncleanness of the people or the fact they lived far away that permitted the cancellation of the first Passover date, but the insufficient number of consecrated priests and the inability to gather the people in Jerusalem so quickly.

These exigencies permitted a new Passover date so that it could be celebrated in that calendar year. Pratt (433) comments: “[Hezekiah] was no pedantic legalist, insisting on precise and wooden application of the Law. Hezekiah’s situation was unusual and this extraordinary situation required the application of precedents in Mosaic Law in creative ways. The fact that Hezekiah postponed only one month demonstrates the king’s desire to adhere to Mosaic standards, but his unique situation required ingenious application.” A further indication of Hezekiah’s elastic application of the law is his extension of the Passover feast to an extra week—he celebrated the Passover over two weeks rather than merely the one prescribed in the Torah.  Moreover, the “whole assembly…agreed to celebrate the festival seven more days” (2 Chronicles 30:23).

 

For the Chronicler, the gracious renewal of fellowship with God is more important than the particulars of the Passover date. Mercy takes precedence over sacrifice; or grace takes precedence over ritual (cf. Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7). The law of Numbers 9 is itself a reflection of God’s merciful intention rather than his unyielding demand for ritualistic perfection. Thus, contrary to some construals, the Chronicler is no extreme ritualist or perfectionistic legalist (Williamson, 330-1; Graham, “Setting,” 135-40).

 

Hezekiah Invites Northern Israel (2 Chronicles 30:6-9)

 

While it appears that the letter is primarily addressed to the northern tribes, the Chronicler’s preface sends the letter “throughout Israel and Judah.” This reflects the “leveling down” of Israel and Judah during Ahaz’s reign so that effectively both were in exile as defeated peoples (Williamson, 366). Not only Israel, but Judah must repent. The proclamation goes out “from Beersheba to Dan” (2 Chronicles 30:5). Nevertheless, the letter appears to be directed at the northern tribes (“people [literally, children] of Israel”) since Hezekiah had already made a similar appeal to Jerusalem and Judah in 2 Chronicles 29:5-9 through the priests and Levites.

 

Building on Pratt (434) and Japhet (942), the structure of the letter is:

A. Opening (30:6b): “Return to the LORD”

B. Negative Imperatives (30:7-8a):

“Do not be like your fathers and brothers, who were unfaithful”

“Do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were”

B’ Positive Exhortations (30:8b-d).

“Submit to the LORD”

“Come to the Sanctuary”

“Serve the LORD”

A’ Closing (30:9): “If You Return to the LORD”

 

The letter articulates the “guiding principle” in the opening and closing (Pratt, 434). The use of the verb “return” forms an inclusio and occurs 6x. God will return to them and return (“come back”) their exiled relatives to their land if they will return (“turn”) to him. This expresses the fundamental theological principle of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 28:9; 2 Chronicles 7:14-22; 15:2). God finds those who seek him, and whoever returns to him, God will return to them. Further, the call to “return” is grounded in the character of God. Israel is called to serve the Lord because (the conjunction is left untranslated by the NIV) “if you return,” God will return you to your land. The ground of this principle is that “the LORD your God is gracious and compassionate” (the only time these two words occur together in Chronicles; cf. Exodus 34:6; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 145:8). God is faithful and “he will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” Thus, this principle expresses the relational and gracious heart of God.

 

The negative imperatives remind the north of their past. Their ancestors did not seek the Lord, but rather they were “unfaithful” (applied to Judah in 2 Chronicles 9:1) and “stiff-necked” (applied to a Judean king in 2 Chronicles36:13) As a result, God “made them an object of horror” (like Judah in 2 Chronicles 29:8) and God turned his “anger” on them (cf. 2 Chronicles 29:8 ). The letter does not stand arrogantly over Israel, but rather Judah stands alongside of Israel. They both have been made a “horror” and both have suffered God’s “anger.” They both have been “unfaithful” (cf. 2 Chronicles 29:6). One fallen relative reaches out to another. The letter invites Israel to join Judah in their return to God.

 

The positive imperatives (submit, come and serve) build on each other. “Submit” is literally “give the hand” (cf. 1 Chronicles 29:24) which is a pledge of loyalty. God seeks a humble heart that submits. Secondly, Israel is invited to come to the sanctified “sanctuary” which God has given to his people “forever.” Coming to the sanctuary is coming to God and embracing his faithfulness. The Davidic covenant (cf. 2 Chronicles 6:41-2) is forever and found in the temple of Yahweh. Thirdly, they should “serve the LORD.” In this context, “serve” has a liturgical meaning. They should serve the Lord in worship. The invitation is for Israel to offer their loyalty to the Lord, come to his temple and worship him. This constitutes “returning” to God.

 

The theological message for the Chronicler’s postexilic audience is at least two-fold. First, they are in the same situation as the northern kingdom. They are a remnant who survived the Bablyonian assaults and exile. The principle speaks to them: “if you return to the LORD,” then God will return to you. The postexilic community should embrace the hope rooted in God’s faithfulness to his people and his gracious intent toward them. Second, the postexilic community should offer a similar letter to their northern neighbors. The principle applies as much to the north in 400 B.C.E. as it did in 715 B.C.E. God yearns for the reunion of his people in his holy presence. The Babylonian remnant must accept the Assyrian remnant.

 

Some northerners (“Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun”) accepted Hezekiah’s invitation. In contrast to most of the north, these pilgrims “humbled themselves”—a characteristic term for submission in Chronicles (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:14). In contrast to the majority report in the north, the south fully embraced Hezekiah’s project. Judah shared a “unity of mind” (literally, one heart). They were united in their support of “the king and his officials” as they too intended to follow “the word of the LORD.” To keep the Passover was to obey the Lord, but this Passover had some irregularities.

 

God receives the credit for the “unity” in Judah. Literally, the “hand of God was on Judah to give them one heart.” The “hand of God” is involved in “all true revivals” (Thompson, 353). God creates unity among his people. Consequently, Paul prays that God give the Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church unity (Romans 15:5-6). The difference between who scorn Hezekiah’s invitation and those who accept it is a matter of the heart (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:19). Whereas most of Israel laughed at Hezekiah’s proposal, Judah accepted it. Among hearts that seek him, God works unity, but among those who seek their own interests, God works wrath.

 

Preparation for the Passover

 

The religious zeal of the populace not only removed pagan altars, but they also came to the temple and “slaughtered the Passover lamb.” The laity (rather than the priests and Levites) killed their own animals (as in the original Passover in Exodus 12). In fact, there is a contrast between the laity and the “priests and the Levites” in 2 Chronicles 30:15: the laity were fully consecrated to kill their lambs while the clergy were scrambling to fully prepare themselves through consecration by means of “burnt offerings.” The shame which the clergy experience is due to the zeal of the laity and their state of unpreparedness for such a large number.

 

However, “the priests and the Levites” finally “took up their regular positions as prescribed in the Law of Moses.” Once the family had killed the lamb, priests “sprinkled” the “blood” on the altar. The Passover is a regular “sacrifice” (cf. Exodus 34:25; 2 Chronicles 35:11) where the blood of the animal is sprinkled (as in Leviticus 1:5, 11; 3:2, 8, 13). Japhet (950) believes the Passover took on the characteristics of a peace (well-being) offering. The Passover sacrifices also recalls the blood ritual of the original Passover (cf. Exodus 12:7, 22-23) and serves an atoning function (Exodus 12:13; cf. Selman, 2:499).

 

However, a problem arises. While the temple and clergy have been sanctified, “many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves.” Consequently, they could not kill their own animals. Due to their uncleanness, “the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs” for them. Unclean people cannot kill consecrated lambs. The Chronicler demonstrates a concern for cultic ritual by noting the substitution of the Levites for the worshippers. The Chronicler does not simply dismiss ritual but follows it as closely as possible (e.g., 2 Chronicles 30:16). The Levites sacrifice for them.

 

Theological Problem

 

But may unclean people eat the Passover? The text indicates that they did. Unclean people, especially “many” unclean “who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun,” ate what was clean. This is a clear violation of the Law of Moses and its cultic rituals. The Chronicler clearly states that they “ate the Passover contrary to what was written.” This is the opposite of what the Chronicler has stressed, that is, Hezekiah celebrated the Passover according to what was written (2 Chronicles 30:5, 12; cf. 1 Chronicles 16:40; 2 Chronicles 23:18; 31:3). Hezekiah had a clear understanding of temple and sacrificial ritual as he encouraged Levites who performed well (2 Chronicles 30:22). But in this case Hezekiah permitted unclean northerners to eat “contrary to what was written.”

 

Some have invoked Numbers 9 as a specific authorization for unclean people to eat the Passover. But Numbers 9 does not address this situation. Eves (“Role,” 213) argues that

 

the original intent of the Numbers passage is to allow those who are unclean at the time of the Passover feast to be ceremonially clean by the Second Passover and able to keep it. However, the working assumption of the passage is that at the time of the Second Passover they will be culticly clean. To a considerable degree, however, this is not the case in regard to Hezekiah’s Passover. Incredibly, another ingenious alteration (if not rejection) of the Numbers legislation is that Hezekiah knowingly allows unclean people to eat the Passover (2 Chronicles 20:17,18).

 

The issue in Numbers 9 is not whether or not unclean people may eat the Passover. The unclean are prohibited from eating the Passover. The presumption of Numbers 9 is that those who eat a “second Passover” will be clean when they eat it. Numbers 9 does not authorize unclean people to eat the Passover. 2 Chronicles 20:18 violates even Numbers 9, and explicitly violates Leviticus 7:19-21 regarding sacrificial meals (which includes the Passover).

 

Why was not this cultic violation punished with death as in the case of Uzzah in 1 Chronicles 13 or even Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10? Why is not this cultic violation punished as Uzziah’s violation was? Hezekiah’s prayer answers the question and reveals the essence of the Chronicler’s theology of worship (Graham, “Setting,” 136-40). Uzzah was part of an unholy convocation and he dared to touch the presence of God (cf. 1 Chronicles 13). Nadab and Abihu arrogantly and drunkenly contradicted the command of God by taking the fire from a place other than God explicitly prescribed and thus contradicting the command of God (cf. Leviticus 10). The principle which Hezekiah articulates here—and consistent with the whole of Chronicles—is that the heart makes the difference and not the ritualistic technicalities.

 

The prayer appeals to the gracious promise of God in 2 Chronicles 6-7 (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:14). God accepts those who seek him, and Hezekiah adds “even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” The critical point is the orientation of the person—the one “who sets his heart on seeking God.” This phrase combines two extremely important words in Chronicles: “heart” and “seeking.” Hezekiah prays for the forgiveness (literally, to provide atonement) of those who violated the divine ritual out of a heart that sought God. The guiding principle of forgiveness is two fold: (1) the goodness of God who seeks a people for himself (1 Chronicles 28:9; 29:14-17) and (2) the orientation of the heart toward God. God forgives those who seek him even when they violate his cultic legislations. This is the principle of mercy over sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7).

 

God accepted unclean worshippers whose hearts sought him. The Chronicler roots their acceptance a particular way of understanding God’s mercy and grace. The God of the Chronicler is a merciful and gracious God who fulfills his promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 when even unclean worshippers—worshippers that explicitly and knowingly violate the law of God–approach him with hearts that seek him.  Just as God promised Solomon in response to his prayer (2C 7:14), if Israel will “humble” (2C 30:11), “pray” (2C 30:18), “seek” (2C 30:19), and “turn” (2C 30:9), God will “hear” (2C 30:20) and “heal” (2C 30:20). The text explicitly records, as if to emphasize the legitimacy of Hezekiah’s request, that “the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people” (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:14). Significantly, the Chronicler commends Hezekiah’s actions in the renewal of 2 Chronicles 29-31: “in everything…he sought his God and worked wholeheartedly” (2 Chronicles 31:21).

 

Williamson (370) notes that 2 Chronicles 30:18-20 clarifies that 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not to be interpreted culticly, but according to the heart. The ritual is not the most important thing. Even the Sabbath with all its strict regulations and penalties was secondary to human needs and suffering (Hicks, “Sabbath,” 79-92). The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath (cf. Mark 2:23-3:6). Ritual is made for humanity, not humanity for ritual. Rituals serve the ends for which God has designed them, but they must never be used to repress the heart that seeks God.

 

Resources Quoted

 

Dillard, Raymond B. 2 Chronicles. WBC. Waco, TX; Word Books, Publisher, 1987.

 

Eves, Terry L., “The Role of the Passover in the Book of Chronicles: A Study of 2 Chronicles 30 and 35,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Annenberg Research Institute, 1992.

 

Fishbane, Michael. Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

 

Graham, M. Patrick, “Setting the Heart to Seek God: Worship in 2 Chronicles 30.1-31.1.” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honour of John T. Willis. JSOTSup 284. Edited by M. Patrick Graham, Rick R. Marrs, and Steven L. McKenzie Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999. Pages 124-41.

 

Japhet, Sara. I & II Chronicles: A Commentary. OTL. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993.

 

Pratt, Richard L. 1 and 2 Chronicles: A Mentor Commentary. Fearn, Ross-Shire: Mentor, 1998.

 

Selman, Martin J. 1 Chronicles: An Introduction and Commentary and 2 Chronicles: A Commentary. Tyndale. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

 

Thompson, J. A. 1, 2 Chronicles. NAC. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.

 

Williamson, H. G. M. 1 and 2 Chronicles. NCB. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

 



13 Responses to “Hezekiah’s Passover: Exegetical Considerations”

  1.   Gardner Hall Says:

    This is a fascinating text and your post on it is very helpful. I have focused in the past more on vss. 17-20 but will consider more your thoughts on vss. 2-3 and Numbers 9.

    I think in verses 17-20 we see here the proper spirit to deal with those today who haven’t gone through God’s cleansing requirements:

    (1) Humbly invite them to feast with us.
    (2) Do not justify them in their error, or act as if their error is insignificant.
    (3) However, pray for God’s clemency for them when they “seek him” in spite of their misunderstanding.
    (4) Leave the final decision of clemency in God’s hands.

    The result of this spirit is seen in verse 27, one of the most beautiful in the scriptures.

    Thanks. I’m going to see if I can buy one of your commentaries.

  2. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Gardner,

    I appreciate your points. They are helpful. But I do have one question concrning #4: Has not God, in this text, made his clemency evident?

    Thanks for enhancing the post with your comments.

  3.   Gardner Hall Says:

    In this text and in this situation, yes, because the text says that he chose to extend it.

    My point is that we do not have the right to say something like, “I know that X person, in spite of not being cleansed in the Biblical manner, will receive God’s clemency.” That decision is God’s unique prerogative. We can ask for God’s clemency for those scripturally unwashed and even think in our minds that surely it will be given, but we must be careful to avoid making that declaration ourselves. To do so might be to comfort someone in their error who instead needs to take action to correct it. It would be presumptous.

  4. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    It seems to me that God has demonstrated his clemency and the basis of it in the prayer remains true today. The model of God’s clemency here is true throughout Chronicles…and the declaration of God as “gracious and compassionate” reverberates throughout Scripture. I think that is a good basis for confidence myself.

    It would not comfort someone in their error but encourage their heart to continually seek God and understnad the way of the Lord more perfectly (as was said regarding Apollos).

    Thanks for the dialogue, Gardner.

  5.   Tim Archer Says:

    I liken it to Jonah’s views of what God would do in Nineveh. Even though he anticipated mercy, he preached the message as God gave it to him, a stern message.

    I can have confidence that God will be merciful, yet in the end, it is His prerogative to extend that mercy when and where He chooses.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  6. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    No dobut God will show mercy to whom he will show mercy. But it is also faithful to recognize the sorts of channels through which God shows mercy and has consistently done so within his story. This is our comfort and hope, and it is part of the story we should tell as well.

    When God tells us that he seeks seekers, that he is a good, gracious and compassionate God, and that he finds those hearts that seek him even with they are imperfect (and we all are!), I believe we can tell that story.

  7.   Gardner Hall Says:

    Amen. The key is that we be true seekers, and God knows who they are!

  8.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Thanks John Mark,
    I understand this is a good example of God dealing with his covenant people, and their willingness to repent and assemble.

  9.   gregory Says:

    ive no doubt. its at God’s discretion to show mercy to whom he wills

  10. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I do not doubt that either.

    And, within the narrative of Scripture, we see the mercy of God shown according to his willing. He shows mercy, for examplet, to those who trust in Chirst. He showed mercy to the unclean at Hezekiah’s passover.

    Thus, we see something of the mode of God’s mercy. Consequently, we trust in that mercy, praise that mercy and enjoy that mercy with confidence.

  11.   richard constant Says:

    I think it is of God’s character and nature in looking up on his creation, we are all sinners, he knows that, God does not hear sinners, but there’s a distinction among sinners, some have no delight in their heart for this attitude.

    God considers these people these people that believe that he is the one and true creator of all.

    So you might want to look at a scripture that says seeking first the kingdom of God and all of this will be added unto you.
    Doesn’t mean you’re not a sinner just means you take no delight in being one.

    Blessings rich in California

  12.   R.J. Says:

    In 2 Chronicles 30:18, I understand that the Hebrew word “lo” can be rendered as “otherwise” and “chakkatuv” as “prescribed”.

    But can the Hebrew passive participle be construed as a demonstrative?

    Or was it common Hebrew style to state a negative to affirm a positive(i.e-”not written” really means “contrary to that which was written”)?

    Thanks.:)

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Yes, the NRSV & ESV renders it that way—”otherwise than prescribed.” Either alternative is possible which is verified by the diverse translations (HCSB) or some other alternative: “otherwise than it is written” (ASV). JPS says “in violation of what was written.”

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