The Tragedy of Asa

King Asa of Judah made a strong start, purging the land of idols, altars, and images, and winning a war against the ginormous Cushite army led by Zerach. It all unraveled in his final years. From his thirty-fifth year to the forty-first year, when his reign came to an end,  Asa was plagued by war and eventually suffering from a disease.

Things start to go badly with another war. When Zerah attacked with his overwhelming force, Asa prayed, presumably toward the temple, and Yahweh heard (2 Chronicles 14:11-12). When Baasha of Israel fortifies Ramah, near the border of Israel and Judah, Asa’s response is very different.

The war with Baasha has a back story. In the previous generation, Asa’s father Abijah fought with Jeroboam. Jeroboam won the war, and in the process captured cities from the north – Bethel, where the golden calf was, Jeshanah, and Ephron, along with the daughter villages associated with each city (2 Chronicles 13:19). Now, in the time of Asa, Baasha, who overthrew the dynasty of Jeroboam, tries to recover that lost territory, and making Ramah his base of operation.

Asa doesn’t pray. He doesn’t seek the Lord. He does go to the temple but not to worship or sing. He goes to the temple in order to strip the storages rooms of silver and gold, so that, along with treasure from his own house, he can offer a bribe to the Arameans.

The Arameans have been allied with Baasha, but Asa hopes that his treasure will entice the king of Aram to break that covenant (16:3). It works. Ben-hadad of Aram breaks his treaty with Baasha and enters into a military alliance with Asa. Ben-hadad attacks Baasha from the north, in the territory of Ijon, Dan, Abel-maim, and other cities of Naphtali. To defend his northern territories, Baasha has to abandon his fortifications and Ramah, and Asa and Judah move in to seize the materials to put to work in their own building projects.

It’s a clever move, and a successful one. It’s the kind of political manipulation by which the world runs. It’s also one of the stupidest things that a king of Judah ever does. How is it stupid? Let me count the ways.

For starters, Asa uses the treasures of the temple to buy off Ben-hadad. These are the same treasures he has just devoted to Yahweh as part of the covenant-renewal between Judah and Yahweh (2 Chronicles 15:18). Even if Asa didn’t believe that Yahweh was real, it would be dumb for him to devote treasure to the temple only to remove it. But Asa is a Yahweh-worshiper, and taking Yahweh’s stuff is really stupid. Asa consecrates silver and gold to Yahweh, making it holy, Yahweh’s possession. Then he takes the silver and gold away from Yahweh. The treasure isn’t his to use. He steals from God, commits sacrilege in order to secure a victory. He commits the sin of ma’al, trespass, a sin that always leads kings into disaster.

Asa doesn’t seem to realize the implications of what he does. Ben-hadad has been in an alliance with Baasha to attack Judah. Asa pays him off to break his covenant and attack Israel. How clever is it to cut a covenant with a partner who is willing to abandon a covenant When a better offer comes along? How reliable can Ben-Hadad be?

Asa inflicts a wound on his own realm. Asa funds an Aramean attack on the northern kingdom. He’s funding Gentiles to attack his brothers. But it gets worse: Asa is the legitimate king of the whole territory of Israel. The towns in the north that Ben-hadad attacks are as much a part of Asa’s realm as the cities that Baasha was trying to recover. Asa funds an Aramean attack on his own territory. He’s not only betrayed and stolen from Yahweh. He’s effectively renounced his own standing as Davidic king. He’s acting as if the northern territories belonged to someone else.

Asa’s disloyalty makes him stupid.

The prophet Azariah met Asa as he returned from his war with Zerah (2 Chronicles 15:1-7) with an encouraging message: “Be strong and do not lose courage, for there is a reward for your work.” In response, Asa re-initated his efforts to reform Judah’s worship. After the war with Baasha, another prophet, Hanani, meets the king. He does’t bring a message of encouragement but one of rebuke.

The issue, Hanani says, is one of trust. It’s a question of faith. Faith isn’t a private set of beliefs. Faith is a political factor, and the political and military fortunes of Judah depend on which way the king’s faith is directed – toward Yahweh or toward Aram.

Ben-hadad’s very name highlights the contrast. Ben-hadad means “son of hadad,” and Hadad is the proper name of the god usually known as “Baal.” Ben-Hadad is in the same position in Aram as Asa is in Judah (William Johnstone), a son of Aram’s God. Supporting Ben-hadad isn’t just relying on a Gentile power; it amounts to a confession that Hadad is stronger than Yahweh. Asa’s political action is a breach of faith with Yahweh, a confession of faith in Hadad.

Hanani reminds Asa that the Lord delivered Judah from an immense army of Ethiopians and Libyans. The same could have happened in the war with Baasha. Asa could have trusted God to deliver him from Baasha, but Aram itself would have been brought under his power (16:7). Instead, Asa allows Aram to become a power that will threaten the northern kingdom for several generations. Aram’s rise to regional power depends on Asa’s gold and silver, Yahweh’s gold and silver.

Asa has been faithless in war, and Hanani warns that he will have war for the remainder of his reign. When he sought Yahweh, he had rest. When he gave treasure to Yahweh, the land was at peace. When he stole from Yahweh and allied with the son of Baal, his borders became porous and he had to fight wars the remainder of his life.

Asa began well, but his breach of faith leads to defeat, disease, and a ignominious death. Asa’s life and death is a cautionary tale, both personal and political.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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