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Manasseh was the king of Judah. Long life and a long reign were often taken as signs of God’s favor. But Judah’s longest reigning monarch proved the exception.
During his fifty-five year reign, Manasseh led his people into shocking new depths of idolatry and immorality. Ironically, Manasseh’s father, Hezekiah, was one of Judah’s great reformers—but Manasseh was determined to restore Judah’s idolatry. He embraced an “all of the above” approach to religion—adopting the Baal cult of the Canaanites who once occupied the Promised Land, borrowing astrology from the Babylonians who would crush Jerusalem not one hundred years later, and reviving nature worship from the depths of early humanity.
But for the writers of Kings and Chronicles, two acts in particular confirmed Manasseh’s place as an object of revulsion: human sacrifice and the desecration of God’s temple. Despite his long rule, Manasseh appears to have been no more than a client king, subject to the Assyrian Empire, the reigning superpower of the day. An ancient artifact called the Prism of Ashurbanipal identifies Manasseh as one of nearly two dozen regional kings who paid tribute to Assyria. At one point, Manasseh was dragged to Babylon on orders from the Assyrian king, something the chronicler took as proof of God’s displeasure (see 2 Chronicles 33:10–13).
This humiliation proved to be a pivotal moment for Manasseh. Upon returning to Jerusalem, Manasseh removed pagan objects from the temple grounds and restored the altar by making fellowship and thank offerings to God. Manasseh stopped short of purging the whole country of its idolatry, however. Nonetheless, God was moved by Manasseh’s willingness to humble himself.
The author of 2 Chronicles reveals that Manasseh sacrificed humans.
2Chr.33:6 ..He sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.
This valley, just outside Jerusalem, was so detestable that it became the primary image for hell in Jewish thought. The word gehenna, which Jesus used frequently for hell (see, for example, Matthew 5:22), came from the Hebrew name for this valley where Manasseh sacrificed his own son.