They feared YHWH and served their own gods according to the custom of the nations from among who they had been carried away into exile. To this day they do according to the earlier customs: they do not fear YHWH, . . . 2 Kings 17:33-34
Feared – This just doesn’t make any sense. Verse 33 says they feared YHWH but served their own gods. Then verse 34 says they did not fear YHWH. What? How can people who truly fear the Lord practice the kind of fertility cult behaviors described in this section (like burning children alive)? How can the text tell us that these people “feared” YHWH and then turn right around and tell us they didn’t fear Him? The problem is the difference between adjectives and verbs.
Verse 33 reads et-YHWH hayoo yere’eem. If we carefully analyze the construction, we see that et-YHWH marks the direct object, but the verb we expect (yare’- to fear) appears as an adjective (yere’eem – plural “afraid” or “fearful”). The real verb is hayoo (“they became”). So the sense of this verse is not, “They demonstrated awe and reverence toward YHWH.” It is rather, “They became emotionally fearful of YHWH.” In other words, they were scared of what YHWH might do, but that didn’t stop them from worshipping the fertility gods. They had an emotional reaction of fear, not a reverential and obedient reaction of awe and respect. They simply accommodated YHWH into their current pagan practices as one more god to be appeased.
We see this clearly in the next verse where the Hebrew reads eynam yere’eem et-YHWH. The sense here is “not fearing YHWH.” This is behavioral, not emotionally descriptive. Here we have a statement about disobedience, expanded in the subsequent text concerning their disregard for the statutes, ordinances and commandments of Torah.
So we cleared up the confusion, right? The two verses use two different senses of yare’. We are linguistically satisfied. But this isn’t the end of the story. Now it’s time to reflect on what this text implies. A priest from exiled Israel is sent to instruct these people in the ways of God. They are in trouble. Lions are eating people. They want the danger to pass. But after the priest gives them an archery demonstration and lessons, they simply incorporate what he teaches into their current practices. They might shake a little over this new god, YHWH, but they aren’t willing to follow Him exclusively. They just add Him to the pack. As the text says, “To this day they do according to their customs.”
What about us? To this day are we still doing according to our customs? Have we merely added God’s instructions to our already pagan attachments? Is God just another deity among the ones we worship? Don’t we celebrate Eastre (or Tammuz or Astarte) on Easter and Saturn (Mithras) on Christmas? Doesn’t Christendom worship human saints and a human mother? Haven’t we changed a simple meal into a religious miracle? Haven’t we altered the Scriptures time and again to fit our theological needs?
Maybe we need some man-eating lions in our midst? On second thought, that didn’t seem to work either. As soon as the danger passed, people went right back to their old ways. Maybe what we need is a radical change of heart – and a new quiver of arrows.
Topical Index: yare’, fear, fearful, pagan, Torah, 2 Kings 17:33-34