II Chronicles 17 is about the glory and deeds of King Jehoshaphat of Judah. I have two items:
1. II Chronicles 17:5 states: “Therefore the LORD established the kingdom in his hand. All Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor.” That is the NRSV, which is what I was reading while I was writing my notes about this chapter.
Judah bringing her own king tribute perplexed me, a bit. I imagined tribute to be a tax that subjugated countries were required to bring to the country that subjugated them. I wondered how that would fit Judah, and why the Chronicler, in exalting King Jehoshaphat, would say that Jehoshaphat collected lots of taxes from his own people. That doesn’t sound like that great of a king, does it?
The KJV translates the word that the NRSV renders as “tribute,” minchah, as “presents.” And it does appear that “presents” is one meaning of minchah (see here). E.W. Bullinger refers to I Samuel 10:27, in which certain Israelites did not honor King Saul of Israel with presents at the beginning of his reign. The idea is that they were supposed to do so, in “token of subjection and loyalty” (Bullinger).
Yet, II Chronicles 17:10-11 does appear to say that Jehoshaphat received tribute. Nations were afraid of him, and some Philistines brought him minchah and silver massa. Minchah is the same word that appears in II Chronicles 17:5. Here in v 11, it may mean that the Philistines brought Jehoshaphat presents because they were afraid of him, or that they brought him tribute. The former seems to me to be more likely, for there is no indication that Jehoshaphat is requiring them to bring this tribute, but they are doing so to appease him, out of fear. Massa is often translated as “burden.” That sounds tribute-like, since tribute can be a burden. But perhaps the text is saying that the Philistines burdened themselves by bringing Jehoshaphat silver, since they were afraid of Jehoshaphat.
The Judahites bring Jehoshaphat presents as a concrete expression of their love, their loyalty, and their appreciation for Jehoshaphat, as well as their acceptance of his rule. The other countries do so out of fear. The former is better, in my opinion, especially when it comes to our service to God. Yet, the latter has its place, too. Because the other countries were afraid, they were not attacking Judah. That allowed Judah to have peace and security.
2. II Chronicles 17:7-8 states (in the KJV): “Also in the third year of his reign he sent to his princes, even to Benhail, and to Obadiah, and to Zechariah, and to Nethaneel, and to Michaiah, to teach in the cities of Judah. And with them he sent Levites, even Shemaiah, and Nethaniah, and Zebadiah, and Asahel, and Shemiramoth, and Jehonathan, and Adonijah, and Tobijah, and Tobadonijah, Levites; and with them Elishama and Jehoram, priests.”
Secular and religious authorities are teaching the law to the people of Judah. Why? Could not the Levites do that by themselves? They were the ones who were trained and educated in God’s law. Why would princes be around to help them teach?
There are a variety of explanations for this. One is that the princes were teaching the king’s law, whereas the Levites taught religious law (Ralph Klein in the HarperCollins Study Bible, sort of, and Keil-Delitzsch). Another is that the princes were organizing the Levitical teaching mission (E.W. Bullinger). A third is that the princes were around to show people that the rules that the Levites were teaching had the king’s backing (Keil-Delitzsch). A fourth is that the princes were around to ensure that Judahites were obeying the law and not rebelling (Keil-Delitzsch). A fifth is that this detail is mentioned to show that the laity can teach God’s law, which could be a legitimation of post-exilic synagogues, since the Chronicler wrote after Israel’s exile (Raymond Dillard mentions this idea). Similarly, a note in Peake’s Bible Commentary says that Nehemiah was a prince who taught the law in the post-exilic period (Nehemiah 8:9-12).
All of these are possible, I think, depending on how far one wants to stretch the definition of teaching. Keil-Delitzsch say that the word translated as “princes,” sarim, could refer to family heads. While the Judahites may have been more open to accepting teaching from their local chiefs, I doubt that sarim means that here. I think that the sarim are the king’s officials, since they are called his sarim, “his” meaning the king. And sarim can refer to a king’s official, or a prince (see here).
That somewhat contradicts the spirit of item 1, doesn’t it? In item 1, I say that the Judahites bring King Jehoshaphat presents out of love and loyalty. In item 2, I mention the view that Jehoshaphat had to send princes with the Levites to show the Judahites that the Levite’s teaching had royal backing, thereby discouraging rebellion and enforcing obedience. That does seem to be a tension within Judaism and Christianity: we are supposed to serve God freely, out of love, and yet we are required to obey him, and there are punishments if we do not.