Cohn, R. L., 2 Kings.
(Berit Olam; Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000), xvi, 186 pp. ISBN 0-8146-5054-6. $34.95
Reviewed by Bob Becking
Faculty of Theology, Heidelberglaan 2, NL-3584 CS Utrecht

Despite its redundancy, the Second Book of Kings is an intriguing text. Following the format of the Berit Olam Series, Robert Cohn is presenting a final form reading of these 25 chapters. This implies that he takes the narrative as it stands not entering into text-critical discussions or into an analysis of the historical world around the text. Cohn presents a coherent close reading of the text. The book aims at a general readership including the informed layman and the trained biblical scholar. This readership is informed about the literary qualities of 2 Kings: its narrative strategies and its compositional qualities.

Cohn divides 2 Kings into four parts. 2 Kgs 1.1–8.6 form the story of Elisha; 8.7–13.25 are depicted as Revolutions in Aram, Israel and Judah. Chapters 14–17 concentrate on Israel. They are strikingly headed by Cohn as: ‘turmoil and tragedy’. After Ch. 17 only Judah remains: ‘renewal and catastrophe for Judah’ (18–25). Everyone who has read 2 Kings will understand that these divisions are not to be compared with concrete watersheds. The four blocks are, as Cohn correctly observed, tied together by several overlapping themes. As the story on Elisha refers back to the narratives on Elijah in 1 Kings, they also prepare the way for the revolutions in Aram, Israel and Judah. These relationship are for instances observed in an excursus (pp. 91–95, where Cohn remarks that the Elisha-narratives probably were not at home originally in the Omride-stories).

Cohn discusses every textual unit by making remarks on features in relation to the composition of that textual unit. Here he applies the literary model that divides textual units into pieces that are arranged in orders that can be depicted by the model of the traditional egg timer and its variants. 2 Kings 2, for instance, is construed by him as follows:

A Elijah and Elisha leave Gilgal

    B Elijah and Elisha at Beth-el

        C Elijah and Elisha at Jericho

            D Elijah and Elisha leave the sons of the prophets and cross the Jordan river

                X The ascent of Elijah

            D' Elijah crosses the river and confronts the sons of the prophets

        C' Elisha at Jericho

    B' Elisha at Beth-el

A' Elisha returns to Samaria

He discusses the separate episodes, but seldom makes exegetical remarks on the composition as a whole, or phrased otherwise: A more semiotic approach that accounts for the narrative programme(s) expressed by the text is absent.

Another compositional feature that is not accounted for by Cohn is indicated on p. 9 of his commentary. In discussing the final lines of 2 Kgs. 1, Cohn correctly observes that an interruption between the report of Ahaziah’s succession and the note about the date of this succession in the chronology of the kings of Judah is marked by a long open space within the line in the Massoretic tradition (see 2 Kgs. 1.17). He then states that the function of this open space in not entirely clear. It seems Cohn has overlooked the pioneering work by scholars like Oesch, de Moor and Korpel on the function of setuma and petucha as unit delimiters within ancient manuscripts.

Within the limits of the approach, Cohn is offering an interesting commentary. He sticks to his conviction that 2 Kings is not a textbook on history. But, since I am raised in a comparative way of thinking, I cannot forbear making the remark. 2 Kings is a text in history and has been read at a specific point in history by its first readership. When discussing the last four verses of 2 Kings, Cohn states that the day of Jehoiachin’s release coincides with the day of the accession of a new king, Evil-Merodach, to the throne in Babylon, and that his release should be compared with the release of the cup-bearer in the Joseph story (Gen. 41.14). The day mentioned in 2 Kgs. 25.27 is not the day of Evil-Merodach’s accession to the throne—which was a few months earlier. Jehoiachin’s release from prison is dated only two days before the first New Year festival in the reign of the new king. The original readership of 2 Kings most probably was aware of the custom—attested already in the Ancient Near East—that such a festival was an occasion for new rulers to grant amnesty to prisoners of all sort. This custom is presumably also in the background of Gen. 41.

When reading his commentary, I was wondering why Cohn made no remarks on the macrostructure of 2 Kings. My suggestion that the book narrates the past ‘from a king fallen from grace’ to ‘a people fallen from grace’ might be helpful when pondering the question why Kings was divided into two books exactly at the transition to the reign of Ahaziah.

Despite these remarks, I would nevertheless recommend this commentary. It introduces its readers into the literary richness of a text that too often has been reduced to merely a historical source.