Bible “Contradiction” Resolved: Presuppositions in the Jehoiakim Accounts

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Wise scholars have said, “The aims and presuppositions of interpreters govern and even determine their interpretations… many interpreters find precisely the meaning, and only the meaning, they expected (and wanted!) to find.”[1]  The difference between the Biblical interpretive schools, sometimes generally classified as Liberal and Conservative, can almost entirely be boiled down to the presuppositions that are brought to the text.  Understanding how these presuppositions affect, and even control, the interpretive process is important for both comprehending the conflicts in modern scholarship and also for becoming self-aware of a vital, yet often forgotten, element in interpretation.  This presuppositional contrast is most clearly seen dealing with issues such as the reign and death of the Judean king, Jehoiakim; Liberal scholarship, represented in this essay by David Noel Freedman, an author in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, views the Bible as having recorded unfulfilled prophecies regarding Jehoiakim’s death, while Conservative scholarship, represented in this essay by Donald J. Wiseman, an editor of the New Bible Dictionary, proposes a way in which all of the accounts can synchronize. The data being essentially the same, the two groups come to very different conclusions based on the presuppositions brought to the texts.

The dispute regarding Jehoiakim’s death is first founded upon four texts within the Bible.  The writer of 2 Kings tells the readers that Jehoiakim “slept with his fathers” (2 Kgs 24:6) – a phrase which is often taken to mean that he died a natural and peaceful death – and afterward Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and took Jehoiachin, along with the vessels of the sanctuary, to Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-17).   The author of 2 Chronicles writes that when Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem he put Jehoiakim in chains in order to take him to Babylon, and took vessels from the sanctuary to Babylon (2 Chr. 36:6-7).  On top of these two texts which may appear to contradict, the prophet Jeremiah prophesied that Jehoiakim’s body would be dragged and dumped outside of the gates of Jerusalem (Jer. 22:19), and that it would suffer the heat of the day and the cold of the night (Jer. 36:30).  The fourfold group of verses has been notoriously difficult for interpreters to understand, as a brief skim through a variety of commentaries and their attempts at piecing together a coherent picture will reveal.

Extra-Biblical sources further complicate the issue.  Josephus writes that Jehoiakim was alive when Nebuchadnezzar arrived in Jerusalem and that he was killed at the command of the Babylonian king, despite having offered no resistance and allowed the Babylonians to freely enter the city.  Josephus further explains that Nebuchadnezzar did not allow Jehoiakim to be buried, but rather had his body tossed by the city walls.[2]  He goes on to recount that it was Nebuchadnezzar who placed Jehoiachin as the vassal king in Jerusalem.[3]  The Babylonian Chronicles are in agreement with Nebuchadnezzar entering Jerusalem and establishing a vassal king of his own choosing, but this is most likely a reference to Zedekiah.[4]  The extra-biblical history of this time period shouldn’t be easily discounted, unless satisfactory explanation can be given for why it ought to be.  Both the Conservative and Liberal camps must interact with these documents as well as the Bible.

The Liberal camp of Biblical interpretation can be said to have some general presuppositions in common, primarily coming from the secular worldview, although there are some exceptions.  The Bible is definitely not held as being an ultimate authority figure by secular society and as such it is often treated as an old book, with the same flaws as any other writing.  This means that apparent contradictions are accepted as actual contradictions, since no human author is infallible and capable of perfectly harmonious thought.  Furthermore, since human beings cannot predict the future with accuracy, then the Bible must also not be able to do so.  Meaning, fulfilled prophecies were actually written after the fact, and prophecies that are not said to be fulfilled were indeed written beforehand, but were failed predictions.  These presuppositions have a large effect on the interpretation of passages such as the ones mentioned above.

The Anchor Bible Dictionary, often held as a bastion of scholarship for the Liberal camp, best demonstrates the point being made in this essay.  David Noel Freedman, who authors the article on Jehoiakim, considers the phrase “slept with his fathers” as definitive and rejects Josephus’ account of the situation out of hand, because “this account probably reflects [the] 2 oracles contained in the book of Jeremiah,”[5] rather than reflecting the actual events.  The assumption being that if Josephus is in agreement with Jeremiah’s prophecies then it must be because he has slanted historical facts in order to make his rendition of history fit with the prophet’s predictions.  Freedman appears to be taking the Babylonian Chronicles as an exhaustive account, holding only to the single siege mentioned on the tablets, and thus rejecting the multiple visits recorded in the Biblical canon and in the works of Josephus.  Consequently, “it is most probable that Jehohoiakim died a natural death (December 598, or possibly January 597), and that predictions of Jer 22:18-29 and 36:30 were thus unfulfilled.”[6]  Freedman thus discounts the binding of Jehoiakim’s body and the prophecies of Jeremiah, holding only 2 Kings and the Babylonian Chronicles as containing the historical account.

The effect that presuppositions have had upon Freedman’s work on Jehoiakim’s reign and death can clearly be seen.  Firstly, he disregards three historical sources (Josephus, 2 Chronicles, and Jeremiah), in favour of two, the Babylonian Chronicles and 2 Kings.  However, the phrase “he slept with his fathers” from 2 Kings can easily mean that he was buried with his ancestors, and does not necessarily imply a natural death.  Secondly, he ignores the worldview of the Bible when interpreting the Bible – prophecies do not necessarily come true, according to Freedman.  Thirdly, as we will see, other interpretations are possible that allow for agreement amongst all historical sources on this matter, and thus only a bias against the historicity of the Bible can account for forcing texts to contradict each other.  The conclusions Freedman came to are a result of the presuppositions he brought to the text – he expected a document with contradictions and falsified history, and he found it.

The Conservative view also brings presuppositions to the text in the task of interpretation.  The approach of most Conservative scholars is to “discover, state, and consciously adopt those assumptions we agree with and can defend, or else we will uncritically retain those we already have, whether or not they are adequate or valid.”[7]  As Conservative scholar Eugene Merrill puts it, “[since] we grant that the writings of Israel’s history and the writings of the history of any other people are on entirely different planes precisely because, in the former case, history and theology cannot be separated, we must assert that the kind of negative skepticism that is a necessary part of conventional historiography has no place in our work.”[8]  In other words, the Conservative approach to the Bible is intentionally guided by the view that since the Bible is inspired by God, it necessarily is correct in its assertions and is the litmus test that all other historical documents are judged by.  This approach may be considered the exact opposite of that taken by Liberal scholars.

The New Bible Dictionary is one of many Conservative reference works that deals with the issue of Jehoiakim’s reign and death.  The article by Donald J. Wiseman presents a synchronized view of both Biblical and extra-Biblical sources.  He argues that there were multiple invasions of Babylon into Jerusalem, and “points out that the campaign against Jehoiakim is not mentioned in the Babylonian records because Nebuchadnezzar’s main objective [at the time of his first visit] was Egypt and not Judah.”[9]  Meaning that the Babylonian records focus on the main purpose of the king’s journeys rather than mentioning every small kingdom – Jerusalem was small, at least compared to Egypt and Babylon – Nebuchadnezzar happened to stop by along the way.  This view is also in agreement with Josephus, as mentioned above, who described multiple campaigns of Nebuchadnezzar in to Jerusalem.  Wiseman explains Jehoiakim was bound in chains to be taken to Babylon with some of the vessels from the sanctuary, but instead was killed on the order of Nebuchadnezzar and his body was left at the gates of the city, thus fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecies and giving a context to the binding of Jehoiakim mentioned in 2 Chronicles 36:6.[10]  This does not conflict with the concept of Jehoiakim “sleeping with his fathers” because the prophecy of Jeremiah does not specify that his body will never be buried, but only that it would be dumped outside the city like the corpse of a donkey.  Presumably, the killing of Jehoiakim, the enthronement of a new vassal king, the looting of temple items, and Nebuchadnezzar’s other activities in Jerusalem did not all happen instantaneously.  Thus there would have been a period of time between the dumping of Jehoiakim’s body outside of the walls of Jerusalem and the departure of Nebuchadnezzar, meaning that the original burial would have been similar to that of a donkey and the second ceremonial burial given by Jehoiakim’s son, Jehoiachin, would have what constituted the phrase “he slept with his fathers.”  It was only upon Nebuchadnezzar’s third visit to take Jehoiachin captive and set up his uncle, Zedekiah, as king, that the Babylonian king took the entirety of the vessels from the sanctuary.  As a consequence of the Conservative presupposition the history records of all three parties (Josephus, the Babylonians, and the Bible), fit together without discrepancy.

The Conservative presupposition of the Bible being an ultimate authority forced the interpreter to take the time to discover how the apparently contradictory accounts could find unity in the flow of history.  By not simply assuming the Bible to be a fallacious book, the easy Liberal answers of labelling every difficulty as a contradiction, an unfulfilled prophecy, or a historical misrepresentation, have no part of the interpretive process.  While the discussion of whether or not this Conservative presupposition is justified and truly a key to understanding the ultimate reality of our universe is beyond the scope of this paper, it does prove, in this case, to provide an answer that gives credence to all of the historical accounts mentioned.

All people have presuppositions that determine how they interpret experiences in life.  The vast difference between the Liberal and Conservative camps need not be attributed to laziness and poor scholarship, but rather to the effects of presuppositions, since both Freedman and Wiseman both reference the same historical documents in their works.  Therefore, the individual who is concerned with a more authentic interpretation will actively be aware of their presuppositions, ensure their validity, and take all historical sources into account, ensuring that no documents are discounted without justifiable cause.   The cause of truth may be better promoted through such scrupulous introspection, validation, and research.


[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed.  (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 143.

[2] Josephus Ant 10.6.3.

 [3] Ibid., 10.7.1.

 [4] Jona Lendering, “The Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar,” Livius, revised April 1 2006, http://www.livius.org/cg-cm/chronicles/abc5/jerusalem.html (accessed October 12, 2012).

 [5] John M. Berridge, “Jehoiakim,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 665.

 [6] Ibid.

[7] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Biblical Interpretation, 143.

[8] Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 20.

 [9] Ibid, 464, note 61.

[10] Donald J. Wiseman, “Jehoiakim,” in The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, D. J. Wiseman (2007; repr., Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 547.

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About salutations75

Born and raised Atheist turned Reformed Baptist.
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