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King Manasseh was vilified during the exile in the book of Kings but redeemed in the postexilic writing of Chronicles.

Rassam Cylinder

The book of Kings and the book of Chronicles tell two very different stories about King Manasseh of Judah. What might have prompted these divergent stories?

What is significant about Manasseh of Judah?

He consigned his son to the fire;
he practiced soothsaying and divination
and consulted ghosts and familiar spirits;
he did much that was displeasing to the LORD, to vex him. (2Kgs 21:6)

The son of Hezekiah and the grandfather of Josiah, King Manasseh is described in 2Kgs 21:1-18 and 2Chr 33:1-20, and the activities of his fifty-five year reign weigh heavily on the fate of the Judean monarchy. In the book of Kings, his many idolatrous actions are credited for the misfortunes of Judah (2Kgs 23:26-27; see also Jer 15:4).

But there remains the matter and mystery of his repentance. According to Second Chronicles, after erecting altars and monuments to an indistinct pantheon, Manasseh is captured by Assyrian forces and imprisoned in Babylon. Alone and dejected, he turns to the god of his fathers and prays for deliverance. His prayer is answered, and he is returned to Judah, where he shores up the fortifications of the cities, removes the idolatrous altars, and offers sacrifices of thanks to Yahweh (2Chr 33:13-17). By contrast, there is no repentance in Second Kings: Manasseh is unwavering in his impiety, and his works are upheld as just cause for the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon and the subsequent exile of Judah.

Why are the accounts of Manasseh in Kings and Chronicles so different?

The conflict between these accounts reflects the distinct circumstances surrounding their composition. The book of Kings was compiled in captivity and asks the persistent question of a displaced people: how did we get here? The land of Judah was decimated by the Babylonian armies, and the people and their cultural identity were uprooted and transplanted to the conqueror’s city. The views of the compilers of Kings are expressed in the actions of the characters in the narrative. Hezekiah and Josiah, who sought to expel the worship of foreign deities from the land, brought blessings upon the people. Manasseh, who embraced the worship of foreign idols in the pattern of the earlier Ahab of Israel, is treated with severe condemnation, bringing both divine threat and earthly consequences upon the people. The book of Kings, completed in exile, views the exile as a fulfillment of the divine threat.

Some two centuries after the compilation of Kings, under Persian imperial rule, Chronicles recast the life of Manasseh in more sympathetic terms. The dissipation of the Judean monarchy allowed for the shift of political power to the priesthood, and the scribal work of this period, including the book of Chronicles, was likely under control of the temple. Manasseh’s repentance may be an effort to encode in the narrative the ultimate subservience of earthly power to divine power. In turn, the temple becomes a more important place to encounter God than the king’s palace. The more positive tone of the story may also serve as an implicit affirmation of the postexilic community. Where Kings could appear as a form of communal self-flagellation—royal scribes documenting the perspective of humiliated royals—Chronicles reflects a restoration of communal self-esteem concordant with the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple.

  • ainslie-j

    Jesse Ainslie is an undergraduate student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also an internationally touring musician who has performed alongside The National, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson.

  • Lam-Joseph

    Joseph Lam is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept (Oxford University Press, 2016).