In II Chronicles 20, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the inhabitants of Mount Seir (the Edomites, most likely), and possibly another group (the NRSV says “some of the Meunites,” probably basing that on what the Septuagint has) are preparing to attack Judah. The Judahites, under King Jehoshaphat of Judah, fast and seek God’s help, and God encourages them. Jehoshaphat puts a choir of Levites in front of the army of Judah to sing praises to God. God fights on Judah’s behalf, for, under God’s instigation, the Ammonites and Moabites fight the people of Mount Seir, then each other.
I have three items:
1. There is debate about whether this story is historical. Raymond Dillard in the Word Biblical Commentary and David Rothstein in The Jewish Study Bible list different scholarly ideas about this.
a. One view is that II Chronicles 20 is a midrash of the story in II Kings 3. In both stories, Jehoshaphat is king of Judah and is in some sort of conflict with Moab. The stories have some similarities, but also significant differences. In II Kings 3, Moab is rebelling against the king of Israel, and Judah and Edom join Israel to fight Moab. The prophet Elisha says that God will help this Israelite alliance on account of Jehoshaphat, a righteous king, and this happens when the Moabites see some puddles of water and think that they are blood, and that the people of the Israelite alliance have killed each other. Feeling secure, some Moabites rush to get some spoils, and the Israelites come out and kill them. In the heat of battle, the king of Moab sacrifices his oldest son as a burnt offering, and the Israelite alliance departs.
We see common themes in these two stories: the theme of people on one side fighting with each other, and of God supporting one side in battle. But the stories are different. II Chronicles 20 may have borrowed themes from II Kings 3, but I have a hard time believing that the Chronicler there was intentionally interpreting the story in II Kings 3.
b. Who are the Meunites who may be mentioned in II Chronicles 20:1? (They’re not in the Masoretic Text, but the LXX mentions Minaeans. The MT refers to the third group as people other than the Ammonites, which is a bit odd, so I can understand why there are interpreters who believe that the term was originally a proper name for a specific people-group. It is strange, though, that v 1 does not mention the Edomites or the inhabitants of Seir, since they are presented as part of the Moabite-Ammonite alliance later in the chapter.) One view is that the Meunites were Nabateans who were aggressive in the late fourth-early third centuries B.C.E. According to this view, II Chronicles 20 does not reflect the time of Jehoshaphat, but rather the time when II Chronicles may have been written, a time when Nabateans were aggressive. In this scenario, the Chronicler is retrojecting into history some elements of his own time. The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, however, mentions alternative possibilities that may indicate that the Meunites in II Chronicles 20:1 reflect a pre-exilic setting, not a post-exilic one. It notes, for example, that inscriptions of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pilesar III refer to the Mu’unaya.
c. Some think that the Chronicler used an earlier document that talked about an alliance against Jehoshaphat, but others dispute that we can draw firm conclusions about what really happened in battles from the writings of the Chronicler, for his battle stories are stylized and have common themes. I would say that a common theme in Chronicles is dependence on God in battle: sometimes (as in II Chronicles 13-14) the Judahites take more initiative in fighting, and sometimes (as in II Chronicles 20) God does more of the work, but the Judahites still depend on God, and God helps them. The idea of some scholars seems to be that, if a story reflects the author’s ideology, that casts suspicion on its historicity, for real life does not neatly work out according to one’s ideology.
There are questions that one can ask when trying to determine if the story in II Chronicles 20 is historical: Would not I-II Kings mention these events if they happened? Does their absence from I-II Kings necessarily indicate that they did not occur? I can understand why some would conclude that the events in II Chronicles 20 are made-up by the Chronicler. Still, I draw spiritual strength from a story about people who are vulnerable and afraid seeking solace from God.
2. In II Chronicles 20:11-12, Jehoshaphat prays to God: “And now, behold, the children of Ammon and Moab and mount Seir, whom thou wouldest not let Israel invade, when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them, and destroyed them not; Behold, I say, how they reward us, to come to cast us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit” (KJV).
Jehoshaphat hearkens back to the time soon after the Exodus, when God expressly forbade the Israelites to attack, destroy, or dispossess Ammon, Moab, and Seir (see Deuteronomy 2:5, 9, 19). “And this is how they repay us—-by trying to attack our land?”, Jehoshaphat is saying.
Jehoshaphat may have a point: as far as he was concerned in the story, the Israelites never took and occupied land that belonged to the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites. The Israelites let these people-groups dwell in their own land. But one cannot say that the Israelites never hurt these people-groups. I Chronicles 18 mentions David subjugating Moab and Edom, and II Samuel 8:2 depicts David’s subjugation of the Moabites as very brutal. The Moabites and Edomites could still live in their land, but they were subjects of Israel. At the same time, though, one could refer to earlier stories in the biblical narrative, where the Moabites and Edomites themselves were hostile and aggressive towards Israel. In the area of land-rights, in Judges 11, the Israelite judge Jephthah gets into a debate with the Ammonites over whether the Israelites took Ammonite land. Jephthah says no, whereas the Ammonites say yes. In II Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat may have sincerely believed that the Israelites never took land from these people-groups, and that those people-groups were thus ungrateful; the other side, however, may have had a different perspective.
3. Jehoshaphat put the choir in front of the army. Raymond Dillard says that music was a part of ancient warfare, but was putting the choir before the army normal? I have my doubts.
When I went to Harvard Divinity School, a visiting speaker at the Christian fellowship referred to this story in II Chronicles 20. She was saying that Christians should sing praises to God. Evangelicals at Harvard Divinity School had questions about how they should interact with their environment, which, arguably, was not particularly friendly to evangelicalism. How can they be witnesses to Christ, in such an environment? Some thought apologetics (defending the faith intellectually) was the solution, but others would respond that many students at HDS were already familiar with apologetic arguments and rejected them. One could say that prayer, loving others, and praise were the ways to get God to work on campus and to attract people to Christ, but some preferred apologetics: Give others intellectual reasons to believe. Retreating behind prayer and praise would not solve anything, some thought.
I fondly reminisce about this, for I still have some evangelical sentiments within me, as much resentment as I have against evangelicalism. I believe that, in encouraging people to come to God—-and that can entail apologetics, albeit not obnoxious and intellectually-smug apologetics (as I may have used)—-prayer and praise are both important. God can open people’s eyes, and evangelicals should depend on God to avoid becoming proud and pompous in their approach to others. They should also pray for those to whom they witness because that can cultivate within them (the evangelicals) an attitude of love—-of wanting people to find a loving God—-as opposed to triumphalism and pomposity.