II Chronicles 27 is about Jotham the king of Judah. Jotham was a righteous king.
Rashi’s comments on Jotham caught my eye (see here what Rashi says about verse 2). Rashi refers to something that Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai said that was told to him by Rabbi Eliezer ben Moses. (This discussion appears in Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 45b, albeit in a briefer and a different form.)
Essentially, according to Rashi, Rabbi Simeon was told that we do not find sin in Jotham, and so Jotham and “I” (I guess Rabbi Eliezer) can take upon themselves the sins of people from Abraham to Rabbi Eliezer’s time, and even to the end of the generations, the same way that Abraham took upon himself the sins from creation to his own time. What does this mean exactly? The text does not go into much detail, but it reminds me of what a number of Christians say about Jesus: that Jesus was a righteous man (God, even) and could thus make atonement for sinful humanity. Jesus bore blame that he did not deserve, so that sinners could be freed from blame that they do deserve.
Of course, rabbinic Judaism would not suggest that Abraham and Jotham were God. A number of Christians, perhaps drawing from Anselm, say that a significant reason that Jesus’ atonement was so efficacious was that Jesus was God, and thus was worth more than all human lives put together. How could one man, Jesus, atone for the sins of all of humanity? Because Jesus was more than a man, many Christians say: Jesus was God.
Rabbi Eliezer does not go so far in his portrayal of Abraham, Jotham, and himself. In his mind, Abraham did not have to be God to bear the sins of all of the people before him, and thereby to persuade God to spare sinful humanity. Abraham simply qualified for this role as an especially righteous human being, one who pleased God. Similarly, in the Book of IV Maccabees, the righteous martyrs die, and their martyrdom is depicted as an act that brings forgiveness to Israel (IV Maccabees 6:27-29; 17:17-22). These martyrs did not have to be God to atone for the sins of Israel, but they were righteous people. (On a related note, see this article, which explores substitutionary atonement in the Bible, Greek thought, and IV Maccabees).
Rabbi Eliezer appears a bit proud in suggesting that he could bear the sins of humanity after the time of Abraham. To be fair, however, he is not saying that he could do that all by himself. He is saying that, if he had to bear the sins of humanity, the person he would choose to do so with him would be Jotham. The reason is that II Chronicles 27 does not record any sin that Jotham committed, whereas the Bible does refer to the sins that other kings—-including righteous ones, like David—-did. For Rabbi Eliezer, apparently, that must mean that Jotham was sinless!
Was Jotham perfect, though? He did do good things. He added to the Temple in order to protect it. He was brave in war—-he challenged the Ammonites. I suppose whether or not that counts as “good” is in the eye of the beholder: Is it good to challenge and subordinate another nation? But perhaps the other nation would challenge and subordinate Judah if Judah did not act first. And yet, God told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 2:19 to leave the Ammonites alone. In any case, it does appear that the Chronicler approves of Jotham’s war policies, for II Chronicles 27:6 says that Jotham became mighty because he prepared his ways before God.
But was Jotham perfect? II Chronicles 27:2 says that the people of Judah continued to do corruptly under his reign. Was that Jotham’s fault, though, or could one simply say that the people of Judah were so corrupt that not even the righteous leadership and example of Jotham could inspire them to desist from sin and pursue righteousness? The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says that at least Jotham’s predecessor, Uzziah, sought to reach a higher spiritual level by entering a part of the Temple that he was not permitted to enter, whereas II Chronicles 27:2 makes the point that Jotham did not do that. Jotham, seeing that his father was stricken with leprosy, shied away from doing what his father did, and the Artscroll says that this was why Jotham failed to stem the tide of Judah’s corruption. That is an interesting interpretation, not that I would suggest that the Chronicler had any of that in mind. I doubt that the Artscroll is suggesting that Jotham should have tried to enter the area of the Temple that was forbidden to him. I think that what it is saying, though, is that Uzziah at least had a passion for spiritual advancement, whereas Jotham did not, even though Jotham may have done good and right things. Can one be an inspiring spiritual leader without spiritual passion and hunger?
II Kings 15:35 says that the high places were not taken away under Jotham. That, perhaps, was a blight on his record, and Rashi does not interact with that. Was Jotham in that case sinning, or simply failing to be a strong spiritual leader? Well, Deuteronomy 12:2-4 commands the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite high places and not to worship God in that fashion. Was Jotham sinning and disobeying God? Or did he just realistically conclude that he could not force the Judahites to abandon the high places, since they were popular?
Another question: How exactly would Jotham bear the sin of people after the time of Abraham? Did God cause him to suffer or die in place of those people, as Jesus did? Not as far as I can see in II Chronicles 27 and II Kings 15. But perhaps a few considerations should be kept in mind. For one, Rabbi Eliezer is presenting a hypothetical situation. He is not saying that Jotham actually did bear the sins of people, but that, if Rabbi Eliezer were to bear the sins of people, he would want Jotham bearing them with him. Second, bearing other people’s sins does not necessarily imply suffering or dying in their place. According to Leviticus 10:17, Aaronide priests bear the iniquity of Israel by eating the sin offering. They do not suffer and die in Israel’s place, but they still perform a priestly role of bearing iniquity and bringing atonement to Israel. (I attribute this point to R.N. Whybray’s book on Isaiah 53, Thanksgiving for a Liberated Prophet.)
Here is a question: Could a righteous person bear the iniquity of sinners by interceding for them before God, while being burdened about the sinners’ sins and wanting God to forgive them? I do not see that explicitly in the Bible, but how else would Abraham and Jotham bear people’s iniquity, in the mind of Rabbi Eliezer?