The One Who Struggles with God
The Historical Books of the Old TestamentHello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 19: The One Who Struggles with God. This is the fifth of ten shows that we’ll do on the Old Testament. In this program, we’re going to cover the Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible – in many ways, the very core and most riveting part of the Old Testament. This is probably going to be the longest episode in the entire podcast. But, in a podcast called Literature and History, when you cover the historical portion of the most literarily influential piece of writing on earth, hopefully you can be forgiven for taking a bit of extra time. The stories you’re about to hear were written twenty-five hundred years ago, and ever since then – every year, people have been reading them. So whatever your background, the Historical Books of the Old Testament are worth some special consideration. To a lot of us, they’re great because they’re the spot where the Bible lays off with the thou shalt and thou shalt nots and actually just starts telling a gigantic, dark, epic story. And today, we’re going to begin at the end of that story, and instead of opening with anything out of the Bible, I want to open something that comes to us from archaeology.
In 587 BCE, about fifty miles south-southwest of the city of Jerusalem, there stood a city called Lachish. Lachish was a well fortified town in the kingdom of Judah. It lay in the remains of a watershed in the dry hills on the fringe of the Negev desert. From Lachish, a long day’s march to the northeast could take you to the banks of the Dead Sea, and the future site of Masada. But Masada didn’t exist yet. Rome was barely a newborn. Lachish, and Judah more generally, had other concerns. Something was about to happen there. Something bad. [music]
Lachish, 587 BCEIn 1935, archaeologists digging at Lachish uncovered nineteen shards of pottery – shards with Hebrew writing all over them that were buried in a guard room. Pottery fragments were a standard medium for writing in the ancient world. These shards contained letters, some of which had never reached their destinations. The letters at Lachish captured the experiences of the military forces serving at the fortress town there. In one of these letters, a military officer wrote a brief dispatch to his commander, reporting on the bleak state of affairs in Lachish, in 587 BCE.
May Yahweh bless you with good news.[he wrote] I have posted your orders in writing. Following your orders to make a reconnaissance of Beth-haraphid, I discovered that it had been abandoned. [The soldier we arrested has been taken into] custody so that he can be transferred to Jerusalem for court-martial. I could not get him through the lines to Jerusalem today, but I will try again tomorrow morning. This letter certifies to my commanding officer that I remain on duty to carry out your orders to keep the signal fire burning at Lachish because the fire at Azekah has been put out.1We know nothing about the author of this letter, other than his name and post. But in these few words, we have a bleak, almost chillingly stoic account of the last days of the Kingdom of Judah. Forts are being abandoned. Lines of enemy forces are webbed through the countryside. Judah’s signal fires, one by one, are being put out. Invading forces from the east have arrived with chariots, and battering rams. Maybe Lachish knew what was coming. Lachish had been toppled before. Mass graves nearby held hundreds and hundreds of skulls. An old Assyrian siege ramp still stood beyond its walls that told the story of the city’s fall a hundred and fifteen years earlier. And so when this officer in the city’s guardhouse saw forts being abandoned, and soldiers disobeying orders, and lights, one by one, going out, he must have felt uncertain of what the next year would bring. Or the next month. Or day. Or hour. At the fringe of the desert, in 587 BCE, he knew that something was coming for his city. [music]
The Core of the Historical BooksArchaeological evidence and the Historical Books of the Bible have some points of contention. But they do agree on a general pattern of events in Canaan. They agree on the fact that worshippers of Yahweh Elohim lived through some of the most brutal conquests and dictatorships in ancient history. They were there when the pharaohs Merneptah, and Sheshonq, and Necho marched into Canaan with armies. They were there when the Syrian strongman Hazael, and his Damascan forces invaded and occupied the north. They were there when the Assyrian warlords Shalmaneser III, and Tiglath-Pileser III, and Sargon II, and Sennacherib poured into Canaan with immense armies, ready to behead, and impale, and skin anyone who opposed them. And they were there in the twilight of Judah, when the new Babylonian war machine under Nebuchadnezzar II was slowly grinding the southern lands into powder. The officer at Lachish, who wrote to his commander in such calm, dignified longhand as he saw watchtower lights sinking into darkness all around him, lived at the end of these long centuries of massacre and oppression. And when the Babylonians destroyed Lachish that year, the best that this officer might have hoped for was subjugation or exile. More probably, he died defending his city against foreign invaders. If you were a soldier in Canaan, in the Iron Age, this was a very, very probable fate.1 This poor officer of Lachish is close to the end of the dark story that we’re going to hear today – the story of the Historical Books of the Bible. These books include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and to a lesser extent Ruth, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The purpose of the Bible’s Historical Books is to take the chaotic, violent history of Canaan, and create a central narrative out of it. The narrative has villains, and monsters. It has grand victories, as well as mistakes and regrets. And it has an unforgettable protagonist at its center, a protagonist capable of both terrible blunders as well as indomitable fortitude. That protagonist is the nation of the Biblical Israelites. Their story is the bedrock and beating heart of the Old Testament. [music]
The writers of the Historical Books, as they worked in temples or scriptoriums in Jerusalem, and then Babylon, and then Yehud, during the later Persian period – the writers of the Historical Books had a big challenge. They needed to reconcile two things that seemed obviously contradictory. If their God were so exceptionally powerful, and if they were this God’s chosen people, then why had their cities and settlements served as punching bags for waves and waves of Egyptians, and Assyrians, and Babylonians, and others? Why had they been put under the yokes of foreign rulers, time and time again? Why, in some of the wars that they fought and the insurgencies that they attempted, had they been so unequivocally defeated? If there were a people that had the full backing of a single God during most of the Iron Age, the Assyrians were the most likely contender, and not the ethnically and religiously assorted hinterlands of Canaan. The writers of the Historical Books, when they produced their young kingdom’s history, had to answer all of these difficult questions. The answer that they produced is the main idea of this show.
The main idea of this episode is in its title: “The One who Struggles with God.” This is what Isra-El means, and from end to end of the Historical Books, the Israelites struggle with God. In the books we’ll cover today, the writers of the Bible took the complex international events of the Iron Age, and interpreted them as part of a grand design. At the center of this design was Israel itself. If little Canaan were invaded by gigantic Assyria, it was because the Israelites were being punished for their misdeeds. If the south fell to the Babylonians, it was because the southern kings had become blasphemous and lax in their morality. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians – whoever they were, they were merely interchangeable pawns or rooks, tossed by God at the real anchor of the universe – the people of Yahweh Elohim.
The Historical Books span eleven volumes of the Bible, some of them particularly long ones. They span thirteen, if we include Tobit and Judith, which non-Protestant bibles do. They are a massive production with hundreds of characters, and dozens and dozens of references to bygone places. But within the 279 chapters of the Historical Books, the same thing happens again, and again, and again, and again. And if you’ve been listening to recent episodes of this show, you’ve heard it before, from end to end of Exodus and Numbers. Someone, or some group of people, do something to incur God’s anger. God punishes, or is persuaded not to. And the sinner is either killed, or is spared. Infraction. Punishment. Infraction. Punishment. Infraction. Intercession. Forgiveness. Infraction. Punishment. Infraction. Punishment. You’ve already seen the pattern in the Books of Exodus and Numbers in the Pentateuch. It happens at an individual level, when a specific Israelite or foreigner does something abominable in the eyes of God. And in the Historical Books, most often, it happens at the level of a kingdom. This king did evil in the eyes of the lord, and his people suffered. This second king did evil in the eyes of the lord. His people suffered. This third king did what was good in the eyes of the lord. His people prospered. This fourth king did what was evil in the eyes of the lord. His people suffered. This fifth king did what was evil in the eyes of the lord. His people suffered. The 279 chapters of the Historical Books have an inexhaustible appetite for this central story arc.
If the Historical Books have a main character, then that character is, without a doubt, the nation of Israel. And that main character enjoys a deep back story, a shining bright youth, a meteoric rise to prominence, and then. And then. Well, that poor commander at Lachish who saw the posts being abandoned, and the lights going out on the perimeter of the southern desert – that commander at Lachish found out what happened at the end – or close to the end of the story.
At the end of this show, I’m going to talk about the archaeological record, and how much it supports the historical narrative that fills so much of the Old Testament. I think too often people talk about archaeology and biblical history as though it’s a thumbs up or thumbs down. Does archaeology support Biblical history, or doesn’t it? The internet will offer you all sorts of prickly, diametric information on that question. The real answer is neither a thumbs up nor a thumbs down, but a long, complicated story. I’ll introduce you to that story soon. But before we learn about what uncovered pottery shards, and stele, and inscribed paving stones all have to say about the history of ancient Canaan, let’s talk about the Historical Books themselves, those powerfully written scrolls that tell the story of the Biblical Israel, and its struggles with God. [music]
The Book of JoshuaThe sun had set over the Jordan River, and over the years of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness of Sinai following their exit from Egypt. The Israelites had finished listening to Moses’ retirement speech. The great leader had been buried. Early victories in the southeastern lands of Bashan and Moab seemed to promise the Israelites’ continued prosperity as a people. It was time to cross over the Jordan, hike up the western rise of the Jordan Valley, and venture into the land of Canaan, which had long been promised to them.
Canaan, however, was not empty. It was teeming with cities and inhabitants. God, perhaps looking westward and seeing the civilizations already present in Canaan, knew that the Israelites would have to fight their way into the Promised Land. At that point I guess it was the land of milk, honey, and also heavily armed city states opposed to your belief system. Anyway, God appointed Joshua as Moses’ successor, after whom this book of the Bible is named. Joshua, and his military excursions, are the book’s central subjects.
Reconnaissance expeditions along the other side of the river told Joshua and his followers that it was time to cross over. Men from the twelve tribes of Israel took the Ark of the Covenant out of the Tabernacle and carried it across the Jordan, the waters parting to allow the sacred chest filled with God’s covenant tablets to pass over to the other side. Having crossed the river, Joshua built a small memorial, and circumcised the Israelites who had not yet had the procedure done.
God told Joshua what was to happen next. The Israelites were to approach the city of Jericho, and circle the walls for seven days, led by seven priests with seven trumpets. They did so, and on the seventh day, a trumpet blast combined with a war cry from the Israelites brought down the walls of the city. The Israelites flooded in. They looted the silver, and gold, bronze, and iron. And in the city they killed all the men, all the women, all the children - even the livestock. Every living thing, vulnerable now that the walls were down, was murdered by Joshua and his followers.
Soon thereafter an impious man stole some sacred artifacts from the looted goods that had been given to God. And “[T]he anger of the LORD burned against the Israelites” (Josh 7.1). Here begins one of dozens of those intercession stories. The stolen artifacts resulted in God being angry with the Israelites. The Israelites soon faced defeat in battle. Joshua despaired, and in order to solve the problem, the impious man was found, burned, and stoned, and all of the objects that he stole were also annihilated. God, evidently, was pleased. For the Israelites again went up in battle against the same forces, and tricked its city’s defenders into leaving the city. Once inside, they began burning the town. They killed twelve thousand men, women and children, chasing their fleeing victims into the wilderness, and leaving no one alive. The Israelites hung the king in a tree, and later moved his carcass over near a heap of stones at the entrance to the city. [music]
Two civilizations of Canaan were thus utterly slaughtered. The Israelites went easier on a population called the Gibeonites. These individuals, having heard of the genocides in the cities that had come before them, negotiated with the Israelites to become a subject people.
The king of Jerusalem, also having heard about the frightening new invaders, built a consortium of five Canaanite kings to resist the Israelites. But these forces, too, were no match for Joshua and his people. The men, women, and children were all killed by the Israelites. The five kings, cowering in caves, were forced to lie down so that Israelites could walk on the backs of their necks. Then they were hung from trees.
Thereafter the Israelites continued on the warpath. Numerous civilizations fell – Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir were all attacked and destroyed. By the 10th chapter of Joshua, all the living citizens of all these civilizations were killed by Joshua and his people. When another consortium of kings rose against the invading forces of Yahweh, Joshua killed their soldiers, and their citizens, and even went so far as to hamstring their horses.
By this time, having superintended the murder of tens of thousands of indigenous Canaanites, Joshua was advanced in years. And God told him that many territories still needed to be conquered – particularly lands in the eastern reaches of Canaan. It was time to divide the lands already conquered amidst the tribes of Israel, and the tribes came into possession of the lands allotted for them, in some cases conquering and subduing further populations. Joshua, a book filled with death, closes with the title character’s death – at 110 years of age, the military leader finally passed away, and was buried. [music]
The Book of Judges
The Judges Prior to SamsonA new generation rose in the descendants of Israel – one which had not known the oppression in Egypt, the wanderings in Sinai, nor the Israelites’ first conquests in Canaan. This new generation had never known Joshua nor Moses, let alone the long gone twelve sons of the patriarch Israel. The descendants of these twelve tribes dwelt in Canaan in prosperity, and slowly the memory of Israel’s proud military history faded.
In Judah, at least, the vast southern region of the growing kingdom of the Israelites, citizens continued to fight and kill with the same zeal as Joshua once had. But the scions of the other tribes were not so merciless or militant. Instead, these populations often integrated with the older Canaanite populations, exchanging ideas with them and learning about their religions. God was not pleased. He wanted his race of believers ethnically pure and undiluted by foreign influences.
Hence begins the central story cycle of the Book of Judges – the second Historical Book. The Israelites, or a subgroup of them, do something evil. They lose their military strength and become enslaved. But God raises up a judge, or a leader, who helps get them out of trouble. These judges are the figures after whom the book of Judges is named. The Judges can be thought of as stopgap or emergency leaders. Since Moses and Joshua were fading from memory, and since the kingship hadn’t yet been established, the judges were intermediary figureheads, often heroes from individual tribes with folkloric elements in their stories.
Othniel, the first of the six major judges, is a good general example of what a judge is and does. Not too long into the period of the Judges, the Israelites “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and worshipping the Baals and the Asherahs” (Judg 3:7). God punished them by causing them to be conquered by King Cushanrishatham of Aram-naharaim. When the Israelites prayed to their God, God sent Othniel, and soon enough, Israel, with their judge, was able to prevail against the forces of King Cushanrishatham, and the equally hard to pronounce forces of Aram-naharaim. Thank goodness, or else the Star of David might be called the Star of Cushanrishatham of Aram-naharaim. And David Bowie might be Cushanrishatham of Aram-naharaim Bowie.
Anyway, again, the Israelites fell under the yoke of foreign oppressors, and again, a judge saved them. The third time this happened, the judge was a woman named Deborah.
Deborah’s story begins in a similar fashion to those of the other judges. The Israelites “again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (Judg 4.1). Thereafter, a powerful king called Jabin, with the aid of his general, Sisera, assumed control over Israel. The Israelites, panicked that king Jabin and his commander Sisera would be their undoing, went to the judge Deborah, a prophet, who sat underneath a palm tree near Bethel. She promised their demise, and in particular, the humiliation of General Sisera. Deborah first led the Israelites into military victory against king Jabin’s forces. As general Sisera fled to a nearby camp, a woman named Jael intercepted him, tricked him, and drove a tent spike through his head. And so, the forces of king Jabin and general Sisera were crushed by the power of the judge Deborah. Following this story is Judges, Chapter 5, a verse poem that Biblical scholars call the Song of Deborah. The Song of Deborah praises her leadership, and God’s involvement in the battle, and chastises various populations of Israel for not being involved in Deborah’s military campaigns.
There are many cool things about Deborah, and the Song of Deborah. First, obviously, a story about a female head of state offers a memorable contrast to the otherwise patriarchal power structures of the Old Testament, which generally treat women as property. Less obviously, Biblical scholars believe that the Song of Deborah, this fairly minor character in the Book of Judges, is the oldest part of the Bible. Not Genesis. The Song of Deborah. That’s something that surprises a lot of us when we first hear it – that the Old Testament doesn’t just go from oldest to newest, but that very old oral narratives from, say, the 800s or even 900s, which bear evidence of syntax and vocabulary from the earliest known Hebrew, often sit right next to later passages that use language and references from the vintage of the 600s, 500s, and even 400s. Genesis begins with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1.1), but for biblical scholars, in the beginning, before any of our known books of the Bible were floating around, the Song of Deborah was out there.
The Song of Deborah describes her as a “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7). She rushes out into a valley with male commanders to the defense of her nation. Even the story within the story of Deborah and the Song of Deborah features Jael, a woman who faces down a fearsome foreign commander by lulling him to sleep and putting a tent stake through his skull. So, in the oldest part of the Bible, the champions of Yahweh – the real alphas – are both women.
Anyway, after the story of how Deborah liberated the Israelites came, more folkloric judges stories proceed, including those of the unlikely hero Gideon, his power mongering son Abimelech, the doomed Jephthah, and a handful of minor figures. At the end of them, however, comes one of the Bible’s most colorful and famous characters, Samson. [music]
The Story of SamsonSamson is the last major judge in the Book of Judges. In a story repeated often throughout the Old Testament, Samson’s mother is barren, but God tells her she’ll have a son. She was told not to cut his hair, for he would be consecrated as a nazirite – a special sect of ritually clean Israelites – and, she was told that he would save the Israelites from their current foes – the Philistines, a coastal people often associated with Aegean Sea traders, who ruled over them.
Samson was born, and he grew up, and he fell in love with a Philistine woman. This was all part of God’s plan, for God, in fact, was looking for a pawn to use to strike against the Philistines, and in the form of Samson, God had found one. On the way to court his prospective fiancé, Samson encountered a lion and killed it. Later, when passing by it, he noticed that its carcass was filled with bees, and Samson took some honey from the carcass andate it.
Soon, Samson became engaged to the Philistine woman. Prior to their wedding, he decided he would pose the Philistines a riddle. If they could solve it, he would give them sixty fine garments for the ceremony. If they couldn’t, then they would give him the same prize. The riddle was, “Out of the eater came something to eat. / Out of the strong came something sweet” (Judg 14:14). The answer was the lion he’d killed, and the honeycomb he’d found in its carcass. I mean, who wouldn’t think of a honeycomb filled lion carcass when given a riddle like that? Those dull Philistines. So for seven days, the Philistines could not solve this conundrum. Then, at his wife’s bidding, Samson told her the answer. Soon enough, she disclosed the answer to her kinsmen, and Samson subsequently lost the contest. Furious, Samson killed thirty Philistines and took their robes to pay his price. He gave his wife to a companion to marry.
Although he himself had given his wife away to someone else, later that year, when Samson found that she had indeed married someone else, he was incensed. He sent foxes to ravage the Philistines’ fields. Which means, I guess, he could control foxes. Then he began killing scores of Philistines. This was a problem, for, hearing of the murderous rampaging Israelite, the Philistines attacked Judah. The people of the southern territory of Israel were terrified. Their Philistine oppressors were more powerful than they. What could they do to appease their angry masters?
Three thousand Israelites went to where Samson was hiding out. They explained the situation, and said that he would be bound and delivered to the Philistines, for the greater good. Samson agreed. He reached the land of the Philistines and saw them coming to meet him, but was filled with sudden power that allowed him to tear his ropes off. Then he picked up a donkey’s jawbone, and killed a thousand Philistines. Why a jawbone, and not a femur, or rib, or pelvis, or coccyx? Because a jawbone sounds cooler. [music]
The victor against the Philistines did not mark the end of Samson’s career. Later, his bloodlust temporarily sated by killing a thousand people with part of the remains of a farm animal, this famous Biblical hero traveled to Gaza to have sex with a prostitute. Gaza was in the land of the Philistines. After finishing with sex, Samson was attacked by Philistines, and destroyed part of the city to escape. The Philistines reeled, unsure of what to do about the seemingly invincible killer. They sent a woman named Delilah to uncover the secret to what made him so strong. Three times, Samson lied to her. Delilah only became more persistent. She goaded him and nagged him and eventually he revealed his secret. It had certainly been a bad idea to tell his previous Philistine fiancé the secret of the weird dead lion slash honeycomb riddle. Why not tell another woman an even more consequential secret? Samson’s strength, he told Delilah, came from his hair. Obviously, it wasn’t his brain. Soon after learning his secret, Delilah had him fall asleep in her lap, and his hair was cut.
Weakened by his new haircut, Samson was beaten, blinded, and captured by the Philistines, and reduced to a mere party trick. The flower of the Philistine nobility, some 3,000 men and women, all gathered in a columned hall to observe their broken nemesis. But Samson had one more trick up his sleeve. He yanked the pillars of the house loose and the roof collapsed on everyone, him included, marking the end of one of Israel’s final judges. [music]
The Dark End of the Book of JudgesA few more stories of Israel’s struggles with God follow Samson’s tale to close the Book of Judges. In an echo of the golden calf story, a man living in the territory of Ephraim made an idol out of metal, an idol which encouraged sin and idolatry.
Next, a trio of linked stories then relate an ugly civil war that unfolded in the last days of the Judges. In an even darker echo of the story of Gomorrah and Sodom, a Levite priest was staying with an old man in the city of Gibeah. He had just recovered his concubine there. Yes, priests had concubines. Denizens of Gibeah wanted to rape the Levite. But the Levite instead let them rape his concubine. The woman was raped to death. The Levite eventually left Gibeah and reached his home. When he arrived there he cut the concubine into twelve pieces and sent her to the tribes of Israel. So, to review, the priest let his concubine be raped to death and then used her severed body parts to send a message. And I think it’s good to stop here for a second and say that priests have come a long way since the Late Bronze Age.
Anyway, so the tribes received the raped to death concubine corpse fragments. I guess they must have had some post-it notes on them, or something, because the heads of the twelve tribes intuited that the severed body parts were caused by something that had happened in Gibeah. So the tribes soon amassed military forces, invading Gibeah, and more importantly, the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. Forces from the territory of Benjamin fought back.
But the territory of Benjamin was not militarily successful. Soon the other Israelite tribes resolved not to allow their daughters to marry a Benjaminite. They might be raped to death, after all. But, taking compassion on their fellow Israelites in the territory of Benjamin, the other tribes elected to raid a place called Jabesh-gilead. They killed every living citizen of this settlement, except for the virgins, whom they brought to the Benjaminites. But the Benjaminites needed more virgins. The other tribes of Israel made a plan for them, and the Benjaminites went through with it. They kidnapped young women from a settlement called Shiloh so that they would have people to marry. A final summation closes the Book of Judges. “In those days,” it says, “there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 21:25).
Now, if you’ve never read the Historical Books before, you might be thinking, “Gosh, this is brutal and violent. Genocide after genocide, rape and dismemberment, chaos and infighting between the Israelites themselves. But the kingdom will get established, won’t it? Things will get better, won’t they?” And the answer is, nope. Not at all. It’s a giant, remorseless bloodbath. [music]
The Book of RuthWell, I exaggerated. The book of Ruth is – actually pretty kind. [music] Everyone likes the Book of Ruth. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants all include it. It’s only four chapters long – an elegant short story or novella with a much gentler outlook than the meat grinders of books that surround it. The Book of Ruth seems out of place in the Catholic and Protestant Bibles, squished as it is between the violent narratives of Judges and Samuel. In fact, the Hebrew Bible situates it amidst the Ketuvim, or “writings,” far away from the grim warfare and apostasy of the Historical Books.
The Book of Ruth is about a Moabite woman. Moab was the region to the southeast of Canaan, across the Jordan River. Ruth, a Moabite woman, married an Israelite man. What’s that, you say? An Israelite man married a Moabite woman? Weren’t they impaling people for that in Chapter 25 of Numbers? Isn’t that a crime punishable by death in the rest of the Old Testament? Doesn’t God get savagely angry at anyone who – yeah, anyway – you get the point. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth, a Moabite, marries an Israelite, and no one is impaled or stoned to death as a result. That’s nice.
As if this isn’t enough to make you like the Book of Ruth, the remainder of the book tells a touching story. The male members of Ruth’s family all died – her father-in-law and his two sons. Ruth, however, had a special relationship with her widowed mother-in-law, and followed this mother-in-law back to her home town of Bethlehem. Even though Ruth was a foreigner, the inhabitants of Bethlehem treated her kindly. Ruth worked hard in the land of the Israelites, and her mother-in-law set her up with a reputable husband, who was able to gain a substantial inheritance through his marriage with Ruth. Ruth had a son, and at the end of her book, she’s revealed to be the grandmother of King David, who we’re going to meet pretty soon. That’s the Book of Ruth. The gentle, integrationist ideology, the use of two widowed women as main characters, and the general theme of second chances are a breath of fresh air amidst the doom and violence of the Historical Books. But – uh – doom and violence are pretty entertaining. So let’s go on to the Book of Samuel. [music]
The Book of Samuel
Samuel to SaulAt the end of the Book of Judges, Samson has butchered thousands of Philistines. During the Book of Samuel, which picks up where Judges left off, the Israelites continue to be at war with these powerful coastal adversaries. The enormous and eventful 55 Chapters of the Book of Samuel play out against the backdrop of a multigenerational war with the Philistines. Territories are shifting. Allegiances are changing. And most of all, at the leadership level, the Israelites continue to experience growing pains. The central subject of this major portion of the Historical Books is a power transition – a transition between Samuel, Israel’s final judge, and then the violent conflicts between Saul and David, both men who might warrant the title of the first king of Israel. Let’s start with Samuel.
Samuel’s birth story is similar to those of numerous other characters throughout the Bible. His mother was barren. Promises and prophecies were shared about what would happen if she gave birth. A baby was miraculously born to her, and she praised God. Miraculous births are a dime a dozen in ancient literature. The boy was a strong young man named Samuel. During Samuel’s youth, the war with the Philistines was in full swing. Frighteningly, the Philistines captured the Israelites’ greatest treasure – the Ark of the Covenant. Yet this Ark caused chaos in the land of the Philistines. It made their God, or their God’s statue, fall on its face. Worse, the Ark of the Covenant caused Philistines to have terrible tumors. Cowed by the holy object’s undeniable powers, the Philistines brought the Ark of the Covenant back to the Israelites.
By this time, Samuel was judging Israel. The Israelites had begun to wish that they had a king. Samuel was reluctant, thinking that a tyrant would come to power who would merely take from them. But eventually, God told Samuel that indeed, after all these generations of Israelites, it was time for a king to be appointed. [music]
The Rise and Fall of SaulA likely contender for king was Saul, a handsome young man from the tribe of Benjamin. Saul himself had no designs on kingship. Samuel, or maybe just a seer of Israel – the narrative is unclear – anointed Saul as king, speaking many prophecies about what Saul would do as a leader.
In the eastern lands of Ammon – Moab’s northern neighbor across the Jordan, there lived a king named Nahesh, who gouged out the right eyes of Israelites. Saul went to war against the Ammonites, and was victorious. Following this triumph, Saul became widely acknowledged as the first king of Israel. He offered a powerful inaugural address. And then, he turned his attention westward, to the Philistines. Saul, it seemed, was the bastion who would finally cow Israel’s ancestral enemies – a man who had been consecrated by a judge and by God alike, and had already defeated a powerful foe to the east. Saul would save them all.
Only, it was not to be. Following an initial skirmish with the Philistines, Saul did something blasphemous – whether making an illicit sacrifice, or challenging old Samuel’s religious leadership, it is not clear. At first, Saul’s reign seemed like it would continue successfully. His son led a powerful assault against the Philistines. And Saul was so confident at victory that he made his men take an oath not to eat before one of their battles, and he reacted angrily when his own son ate a bit of honey found during the campaign. As time passed, Saul’s passionate conviction proved to be a dangerous liability.
Gradually, Saul’s acts of rashness and impiety multiplied. God told Saul to murder an entire people – the men, women, children and babies. They were called the Amalekites, and had committed a generations-old offense against the Israelites. The adults, children, and infants of the Amalekites were butchered, but their king was left alive, along with some of their finer livestock. God was not pleased. He told Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands” (1 Sam 15:10-11). So /Samuel quickly hacked the Amalekite king to pieces, and God announced that it was time to find a new king. To the God of the Old Testament, ethnic cleansing means ethnic cleansing, and Saul had failed to understand this.
This new king, God said, would be found in Bethlehem. He’d be the son of a man named Jesse. Jesse had seven sons, and the oldest was tall and fair, but Samuel passed over them one by one. Finally, when he found a young man out tending sheep, he knew he’d found his king. The boy “had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (1 Sam 16:12), and his name was David. God abandoned Saul, and allowed his spirit to fill David. [music]
Saul and DavidDavid distinguished himself early on by besting the Philistine champion Goliath, hitting the formidable warrior with a stone from a sling and then beheading Goliath. There’s some confusion as to who killed Goliath, actually, for another verse in Samuel reads “Elhanan son of Jarre-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (2 Sam 21.21). And I guess David gets the credit because “David” is easier to remember than “Elhanan son of Jarre-oregim, the Bethlehemite.” So, whether it was David or Elhanan who defeated the Philistine champion, David’s notoriety continued to rise.
But one man was not happy to see the handsome new king’s ascent to power. This one man was Saul. Saul watched David’s military victories. Saul watched young David becoming friends with his son. Saul suggested that David marry his daughter, and demanded a hundred Philistine foreskins as her dowry. David, since he was always fighting Philistines, had little trouble acquiring the hundred foreskins. You know, severed foreskins were I guess easy to come by, in Canaan in the 900s. Just like – uh – today. So David gave these foreskins to Saul, and married the usurped king’s daughter.
Still, even though Saul’s daughter was prosperously married, and even though he even had – uh – foreskins – from a hundred foreign warriors, which were undoubtedly very useful, Saul began actively plotting to kill David. First, he tried a direct approach, but his spear thrust missed the king. Saul later sent a foreigner to murder some of David’s priests. Saul later chased David into a cave, where David sliced off a piece of his pursuer’s cloak. Showing Saul the severed scrap of cloak, David told Saul that he’d had opportunity to murder him, but had not taken it. Seeing this, Saul said, “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me with good, whereas I have repaid you evil” (24.17). [music]
The episode of David showing mercy in the cave seemed to presage peace. The old judge Samuel finally passed on. David continued his adventures and campaigns. But old habits and animosities die hard – especially in the Old Testament. As David acquired more and more wives, Saul worked to estrange his own daughter from David – the one who’d married him for the dowry of a hundred foreskins. Then, Saul snuck into David’s camp, and in a mirror of the episode of David cutting off his cloak, Saul stole the king’s spear and water jar and told David that he planned the king no harm. David was not convinced.
Saul continued to plot. He sought out the help of a medium, or witch, in a place called Endor. This witch summoned the spirit of old Samuel, who told Saul that Israel would fall to the Philistines, and that Saul and his sons would die. What’s that? You thought Exodus Chapter 22 compelled all Israelites to kill female sorcerers on sight? Then why is this witch of Endor consulted as a medium? I’m not sure.
Meanwhile, Saul’s nemesis David was involved in a – uh – rather strange campaign. David had joined forces with the Philistines and was pretending to be the bodyguard of one of their kings. While he had been living in a Philistine city, the Amalekites undertook a great raid, kidnapping his wives. What’s that? You were under the impression that Saul and Samuel massacred all of the Amalekites in Chapters 14 and 15, as was made unequivocally clear, and are now surprised that they’re back? Well. Way back in Genesis Chapter 1, promised I wouldn’t do this, so let’s just stick with the story.
After David gave the not-actually-dead Amalekites another good trouncing and recovered his stolen wives, Saul threw himself into battle with the Philistines. Evidently crestfallen that he would never be king, Saul was broken further when wounded in battle. Saul killed himself, and his armor bearer did the same. Although his remains were initially abused by the Philistines, they were later recovered, burned, and buried beneath a tamarisk tree. The first king of the Israelites, one of the more tortured and three dimensional figures in the Old Testament, had fallen. And this, by the way, is where the Protestant Bible divides the Book of Samuel into two.[music]
David's KingshipDavid received news of Saul’s death, along with Saul’s crown, and armlet. Unfortunately, the death of Israel’s first king brought with it another first in Israel’s history – the first succession dispute. One of Saul’s sons was crowned king by a powerful military commander. Yet in a short timeframe, both the powerful military commander, as well as Saul’s son, were murdered, conveniently clearing the way for David’s legitimate kingship. David, the narrative emphasizes, had nothing to do with the political murders that benefited his bid for the monarchy; indeed, he disapproved of the military commander’s assassination, and had Saul’s son’s killers put to the sword.
At thirty, then, David was the full, legitimate king of Israel. He conquered Jerusalem, and brought the Ark of the Covenant there. King David took many concubines and wives, spending huge amounts of time in the bedroom and siring many children. He enjoyed many victories against the Philistines to the west, the Moabites to the southeast, and the Aramaeans to the north.
One day, David was standing on his rooftop on Jerusalem. On an adjacent rooftop, he saw a woman bathing, and learned that the woman was “Bathsheba. . .the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (2 Sam 11:3). Quite accustomed to having sex with anyone he wanted, any time, David sent for her, and compelled her to submit to his advances. Inconveniently, Bathsheba became pregnant with David’s baby. Now, the Bible doesn’t explicitly address the fact that its most famous king has committed a mortal sin according to the laws of the Pentateuch, but David, after his illicit encounter, at least understood that he’d done something naughty. Rather than coming clean, he tried to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah come home from the war and sleep with her, so he’d think that the baby was his. Then David generated another plan. He told Uriah’s battle commander, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (2 Sam 11:15). Soon enough, the inconvenient husband was killed in battle, and Bathsheba became one of David’s many wives.
The legitimate king of Israel, David had thus killed thousands on the battlefield, sired dozens of children from many different mothers, aggressively instigated an adultery, and killed his latest concubine’s husband. It is, therefore, not exactly shocking that after the ugly situation with Bathsheba and her husband, David’s fortunes finally began to take a turn for the worse. Generally speaking, his family tree – or bush – or uh rhizome – began to show signs of internal chaos. David’s firstborn son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar, one of David’s daughters. Tamar’s full brother, also David’s son, was called Absalom. Absalom was not happy that his sister had been raped by his oldest half-brother. He saw to it that Amnon, David’s oldest son, was murdered.
Though the murder of a crown prince was a terrible crime, David was persuaded to forgive Absalom. The wayward son was brought back from exile. But soon he proved to be a powerful enemy. Absalom successfully instigated a coup, and joined forces with David’s counselor. The king fled. From being a powerful and untarnished monarch, he’d fallen far, and fast. And things were growing worse. In Jerusalem, the usurper Absalom began having sex with the women in David’s harem. This was especially bad, because coupling with the king’s sex slaves was, to ancient Canaanites, a clear sign that you had successfully usurped the king.
Gradually, the respective forces of David and his son Absalom squared off for war, a few stalwart loyalists helping buy David precious information. The battle, when it took place, happened in a forest, and Absalom’s forces were routed. The wayward son ended up being chased to a tree, and then pierced through with many spears. David was not there, and when he heard the news, he covered his face, and cried aloud, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 19.4). That, by the way, is where William Faulkner gets the title to Absalom Absalom, the great twentieth century modernist novel that aligns King David with Thomas Sutpen, Absalom with Henry Sutpen, Amnon with Charles Bon, Tamar with Judith, and so on. Anyway, sidetrack. If I broke off the stories of the Old Testament every time there was a literary analog that had to do with one of these, it would take even longer. I just happen to really love Faulkner. Let’s move forward.[music]
After the coup and rebellion by his son Absalom, David’s later years were spent dealing with divisive conflicts in the kingdom – particularly an uprising in the north. He later turned some of Saul’s heirs over to their murderous adversaries, a rather handy for David to dispose of some of his remaining political rivals. After a brief appendix of assorted poems and stories about David, the king had grown old. He offered a long speech as his last words, telling his subjects that, in his humble opinion, he was “One who rules over people justly, / ruling in fear of God. . .like the light of morning, / like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, / gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (2 Sam 23:3-4). After this not-at-all modest speech, and an epilogue story, the time of David’s kingship, and the vast and eventful breadth of the Book of Samuel, both end. [music]
The Book of Kings
SolomonThe 47 chapters of Kings are lengthy. In a sentence, they tell of David and Bathsheba’s son Solomon becoming king, his acts of impiety, the division of Israel into north and south, and the slow decline of both due to both immorality and foreign invasions. Earlier books of the Bible have thus far contained household names – Abraham and Moses, Joshua and Samson, Saul and David. But as we move into Kings, we wade into huge masses of monarchs, subjects, and kingdoms known mostly to Biblical scholars and students of ancient history.
Nonetheless, what Kings lacks in human protagonists and sustained characterization, it makes up for in historical detail. Scholars estimate that if David and Solomon existed, and there’s some evidence that they did - there’s an Aramaen stela, carved around 835, that mentions the “House of David,” indicating that by this time the descendants of someone called David really were operating in the northern part of Canaan the century after the legendary David is said to have ruled. Anyway, scholars estimate that if Solomon and David lived, they lived during the 900s. So, what makes Kings exciting is that it’s in the Book of Kings that we begin to meet people about whom we know actually existed – whom we know existed by looking at extrabiblical records. While Ahab, and Hezekiah, and Manasseh, and Josiah, and Baruch aren’t the most famous figures in the Bible, we know that these were almost certainly real people. For this reason, the Book of Kings is the epicenter of what Biblical archaeologists look at when they investigate what was happening in Canaan in the Iron Age.
So, let’s jump into Kings. Conveniently, the book begins with the story of its most famous character. Just before David died, he gave plenty of advice to his chosen heir. This man’s name was Solomon. And Solomon emerged, rather immediately, as ruthless. A man asked if he might marry a virgin servant who had served King David, and Solomon had him killed. Again, you couldn’t allow anyone to get close to the king’s women. Various other killings helped consolidate Solomon’s rule. God did not reprove Solomon for his mercilessness. On the contrary, God offered Solomon a wish, and the new leader wished for a wise and discerning mind. Pleased at the request, God granted it, and soon, Solomon was putting his powerful mind to work.
In addition to solving disputes and enjoying the reverence of his kingdom, Solomon soon began some building projects. He first constructed a temple in Jerusalem, one which used an enormous quantity of gold. The Book of Kings elaborately describes Solomon’s temple – its pillars, its wheeled bronze stands, its basins, pots and vessels. Solomon devoted even more time to his own palace, and in time became fabulously rich. His special fondness for gold attracted the attention of an exotic foreign queen. The Queen of Sheba, from a region generally agreed to be present day Yemen, was just one of many of the foreign women with whom Solomon enjoyed relationships. In fact, Solomon’s stable of women included a Pharaoh’s daughter, along with women from the Hittites, Sidon, Ammon, and Moab. In total, he acquired seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. [music]
Unfortunately for Solomon, his sexual open mindedness was eventually matched by a religious open mindedness, and he began building temples for some of his wives’ gods, and making sacrifices to them there. These acts of wickedness were soon punished. God sent a flurry of adversaries against Solomon’s kingdom, and resolved that upon Solomon’s death, the Israelites’ kingdom would be divided into two. And so, when the wise, pluralistic, and sexually insatiable King Solomon died, the kingdom was indeed divided.
It happened because Solomon’s son Rehoboam seemed poised to become an especially vindictive ruler, and an opposition leader called Jeroboam set up an alternative power center in the north. This was the beginning of the situation I’ve described throughout these shows on the Old Testament. The south, called Judah, was the home of Jerusalem, and it was an arid land with few agricultural resources. The north, called Israel, was a more fertile, cosmopolitan place. Solomon’s reign is thought to have ended around 928 BCE, and after these years, according to the Old Testament, the worshippers of Yahweh lived in divided kingdoms. The Historical Books themselves, scholars generally agree, were written by inhabitants of the southern Kingdom of Judah, after the year 640, and the Historical Books show the prejudices and anachronisms of this era. So, anyway, let’s return to the Book of Kings, and the beginning of the divided kingdom period.
The Divided KingdomsNow, there are by my count 38 kings in the Book of Kings. It would be both incomprehensible as well as tedious if I told you about all of them. But fortunately, it is in the Book of Kings that the general plot pattern of the Historical Books becomes really pervasive – the plot pattern of a leader, or an entire kingdom, being sacrilegious, and being punished as a result. This pattern emerges quite quickly after the division of the kingdom. Let’s see if we can do this in an entertaining fashion. [music: “in the south, in Judah”]
Solomon’s son acted wickedly in the kingdom of Judah. As a result, God sent an Egyptian Pharaoh called King Shishak against them, and many of Solomon’s treasures were looted. Only Solomon’s second grandson, when he came to power, began turning things around for the wayward kingdom. A number of kings would pass by before Judah’s fortunes would turn for the better. Meanwhile, [music: “in the north, in Israel”]
In the north, Israel five rulers came to the throne in rapid succession, most of them illegitimately. The last of these was called Omri, and Omri’s son, Ahab, receives a special tongue lashing from the Bible. He married a foreign woman, Jezebel, and began worshipping her god, Baal. Since the northern king had committed such wicked acts, Israel began suffering from a terrible drought. The intercession of a prophet called Elijah helped bring the rains back, but the north was not done suffering.
Its wicked king, Ahab, was still in power, his capital in a place called Samaria. After Ahab stole the vineyards of one of his countrymen, the prophet Elijah savagely condemned the northern king, and Ahab repented. Hearing Ahab’s apology, God made the rather – uh – odd – decision to postpone punishment on Ahab, and instead punish Ahab’s son. So Ahab continued to operate in the Israel, until later, he died by an arrow wound while fighting the Syrians, his blood drenching his war chariot. The death of Ahab is where the Protestant Bible breaks Kings into two separate books. But we’re still going to be [music: “In the north, in Israel”]
Chaos in the north followed the death of Ahab. Ahab’s sons proved little different than him, and slowly the power of foreign forces marshaled against the sinful northern kingdom. The Prophet Elijah had a successor, Elisha, and young Elisha saw little sanctity in Israel. Moabites attacked and were beaten back. Then, a more powerful force took up arms against Israel. North of Israel was the kingdom of Aram-Damascus, modern day Syria, a region that spoke Aramaic. Aramaeans invaded and laid siege to the northern capital of Samaria, where famine and cannibalism followed in the court of Ahab’s second son. Though they did not take Samaria, soon a powerful king named Hazael took the reins of Aram-Damascus. It seemed that a decisive conquest would soon follow. Something needed to be done. The house of Ahab was obviously cursed. And so the prophet Elisha anointed a new king as the leader of Israel, and this new king killed Ahab’s two monarchic successors. He killed Jezebel, and he killed scores of Ahab’s descendants throughout Samaria. This new king slaughtered all of the Baal worshippers in Samaria, and turned Baal’s temple into a toilet. Still, God was not pleased with the north.
The northern conqueror Hazael began a renewed assault on Israel. Enfeebled by this conquest, the north also feuded with the southern kingdom of Judah, and after civil war, a new king rose to prominence in Samaria in the north. This new king was a just leader, but following him were a succession of usurper monarchs, ending with a military captain who had overthrown his predecessor. Meanwhile, [music: “in the south, in Judah”]
Hell itself had come upon the southern kingdom. A king called Tiglath-pileser forced the Judahites to alter Solomon’s sacred temple, probably sacrilegiously. As the Assyrians tightened their grip on Canaan as a whole, [music: “in the north, in Israel”]
A northern king tried to broker an alliance with Egypt. He was unsuccessful. The Assyrians retaliated, invading, deporting, and importing the populations of the north as they saw fit. Thereafter, the north became increasingly pluralistic and cosmopolitan in its religion. As a powerful bastion of the worship of Yahweh, the north’s days were over. [Music: “in the north, in Isr –”] Yup. That’s the end of the north. However, [music: “in the south, in Judah”]
A really, really terrific king had come to Judah at an unlikely moment. The Assyrians were carving up the north, the whole countryside was awash with migrants, and suddenly, the south had their best king since David. His name was Hezekiah. He was a passionate worshipper of Yahweh, he worked to stamp out religious diversity in Judah, and he sought to center all religious activities in the Jerusalem temple. The Old Testament just can’t say enough good things about Hezekiah. Contrary to everyone’s advice, Hezekiah did not want to yield to the Assyrians. He faced internal dissent for seeking to stand up to them, but in the end Hezekiah stood strong, and was glad he did. Because God himself killed 185,000 Assyrians, and the Assyrian king was assassinated. Hezekiah had a long and healthy life, and lived to see his son Manasseh come to the throne.
Manasseh was a heartbreaking disappointment for the kingdom of Judah. Though Manasseh had a long reign, his sacrilege and apostasy knew no bounds. Seeing what an evil king Manasseh was, God looked at the kingdom of Judah and resolved, “[I] shall give them into the hand of their enemies; they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies” (2 Kings 21:14). After the death of Manasseh and the brief reign and assassination of his son, a king called Josiah came to power. And Josiah was a big deal [music: “In the south, in Judah”]
Biblical scholars generally agree that everything we’ve been talking about today – everything except Ruth, anyway, everything within the five or hundred year period covered in the Historical Books, were written in the time of King Josiah. Accordingly, Josiah is probably the most moral, just, and highly praised monarch in the Old Testament. He may have commissioned a large portion of the Bible. He receives less page space than David, but there’s also less moral ambiguity to him than David. Josiah very nearly does no wrong.
Firstly, Josiah read the covenant laws, presumably parts of the Pentateuch, before the assembled elders of Judah. Josiah obliterated idols to Baal, Asherah, and others. He destroyed unsanctioned centers of worship. He slaughtered renegade priests. He made sure everyone was celebrating Passover. He was so terrific, in fact, that he receives these words of praise by the narrator: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23.25).
For a time, it seems, as you read end of the Protestant Book of Second Kings, that Josiah is it – that Josiah is the happy ending. He’s the monarch that history and God all collaborated to produce, who will usher in a holy era. But unfortunately, as Assyria, the monster often in the shadows of the Historical Books, reeled due to foreign invasions, Egypt came up into Canaan, attacked Judah, and killed King Josiah.
Only a few years later, Babylon, one of Assyria’s historical adversaries, came westward and sought control over Judah, and a couple of decades after good king Josiah’s death, the south had fallen, too. [music “in the south, in Jud –”] And that was the end of the south. The Book of Kings ends with a single descendant of David, called Jehoiachin, resident in the city of Babylon, and holding some possibility of the continuation of Israel’s kingship. [music]
The Book of ChroniclesChronicles, with its whopping 65 chapters, can be covered pretty quickly. It’s a revised account of what’s already been told in the rest of Historical Books. Chronicles was written later in Canaan’s history – probably during the Persian period, from 538-332 BCE, by a writer or writers very familiar with the city of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity, and its author or authors really liked the Jerusalem temple, and they really liked King David. Briefly put, Chronicles tries to smudge out some of the uglier bits in the earlier history, and its chapters are ultimately more optimistic than those of the earlier Historical Books.
Again, Chronicles loves King David. He comes to power much more decisively in Chronicles, and appoints his successor much more unequivocally, in Chronicles. In the Chronicles version of King David, there’s no Bathsheba or murdering her husband, and no Absalom. Chronicles is also preoccupied with the fact that David was involved in the planning and preparations for the temple in Jerusalem – the later history, Chronicles, attests that David actually prepared, planned, and stockpiled goods for Solomon’s temple.
Chronicles celebrates the temple and career of King Solomon with a confidence and zeal not present in earlier books. The Chronicler adores Solomon – the Chronicler seeing him as the summit of Canaan’s entire history, and his temple, with its gold drinking vessels, gold footstool, gold this, and gold that, as the most fascinating things in the world. Chronicles also, strangely, has almost nothing to say about the northern kingdom of Israel, seeing the whole breakaway kingdom as an outrage to God that need not be mentioned much.
Because Chronicles focuses on Judah, it is able to spend far more time on the central story of the Historical Books – which is, this first Judahite king was good, and his reign was prosperous; this second Judahite king was bad, and his reign was a disaster; this third Judahite king was good, and his reign was prosperous, and on and on and on. This teeter-totter continues though Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijam, Asa, Jehosaphat, Jehoram, Joash, Amaziah, Azariah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiakin, and Zedekiah, through the 900s, the 800s, 700s, 600s, and 500s. Thus, with its careful revisionism and special emphasis on Judah, Chronicles covers much of the same ground as earlier Historical Books, telling the same basic story of sin, punishment; goodness, reward; sin, punishment; sin, punishment. But there’s one last difference. Chronicles doesn’t end with the destruction of Solomon’s temple and Babylonian captivity. It ends with one of the best loved figures in world history, Cyrus of Persia, freeing the captives in 538 BCE, and telling the long-suffering Judahites that they’re welcome to go home.
The 112 Chapters, of Kings and Chronicles, the dozens of monarchs, and similar number of opposition leaders, are longer than the earlier portion of the Historical Books combined, and form the true core of this part of the Bible. There are just a few more – Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, which I’ll summarize briefly here. [music]
Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther[music: “Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther!” ] These three books take place during the post-exilic period, or after 539 BCE. Some of Judah’s worst days are behind it, and the exiles have returned home, making the journey from present day Iraq back to present day Israel. They are technically under the rule of Persia, but, after the Assyrians and Babylonians, the mild and tolerant kingdom of Cyrus the Great is quite bearable in comparison.
Ezra starts with the Israelites returning to Judah. Some initial complexities arose with the reconstruction of Solomon’s temple, but soon, its assembly was underway. A central figure in post-exilic Jerusalem was Ezra himself. Ezra served as a religious figurehead for the returning exiles. He championed the Pentateuch as the law, kept careful track of his countrymen, and ardently opposed intermarriage with foreigners, to the extent that he had foreign wives and children of illicit marriages exiled, as he believed the Pentateuch required. That’s Ezra in a nutshell. [music: “Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther!” ]
Now, on to Nehemiah. If Ezra is the religious figurehead of post-exilic Jerusalem, then Nehemiah is sort of a logistics and economics manager. He was the cupbearer to the fifth king of Persia, who ruled much of the civilized world during the mid to late 400s BCE. By the way, what ever happened to cupbearers? That would be an interesting job. This Persian king permitted Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding various portions of it – particularly its gates and its walls, in the face of some local Canaanites who opposed the reconstruction. He also helped sort out and standardize how taxation worked in the territory of Jerusalem, and he was so successful that he became the appointed governor of Judah.
As governor, Nehemiah went the way of Ezra and turned his attention to religious matters. Nehemiah made sure priestly rites were conducted correctly, that Judahites were keeping the Sabbath, and that everyone understood the regulations of the Pentateuch. And also like Ezra, Nehemiah vigorously opposed intermarriage with foreigners, confident in the closing words of the book that bears his name that “Thus I cleansed [Israel] from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering, at appointed times, and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh 13.30). And that’s Nehemiah. Together, Ezra and Nehemiah show that a certain population in post-exilic Jerusalem campaigned vigorously for the preservation of their religion and racial purity, in spite of pervasive tendencies toward multiculturalism, miscegenation, and polytheism. And now for that last book, Esther. [music: “Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther!” ]
Esther is one of the most controversial books in the Bible. It is an almost entirely secular story. Martin Luther “wished it had never been written.”2 Like the Book of Ruth, Esther the tale of a woman making her way in a foreign land – in Esther’s case the Persian capital. And also like the Book of Ruth, Esther doesn’t hammer home messages so central to other portions of the Old Testament – the necessity not intermarrying with foreigners, or strictly adhering to the laws of the Pentateuch, and that kind of stuff. Esther, like the Book of Ruth, seems content to be a mostly autonomous story. Of all the books of the Old Testament, Esther’s ten chapters might seem the most out of place. For that reason I’m going to leave Esther, and the apocryphal Additions to Esther, for some special bonus episodes later on. To tell you the dramatic story of her time in the faraway Persian capital, married to Xerxes I, would be distracting in the midst of this multi-hour show. This show’s emphasis, we can’t forget, is Israel, or “The One Who Struggles with God.” And though it’s been a bit of work, we’ve moved through 239 chapters of the Old Testament, and you’ve heard the long, tortuous tale of how Israel arose from Abraham, how it was destroyed by Assyria and Babylon, and everything in between. There’s just one more thing we need to do in this show. We need to ask a very consequential, and very prickly question. How many of these events, considering our current archaeological knowledge, have we found evidence for? [music]
Contextualizing Biblical History Amidst Other Works of Ancient HistoryEverything that we’ve just talked about can be classified as a large, exceptionally important work of ancient history. Let’s talk about ancient history in general. When you read many works of ancient history – those of Herodotus, or Plutarch, or Livy, for instance, you notice a tendency. The Roman historian Livy wrote about the death of his countryman Tarquin, fifth king of Rome. Tarquin, incidentally, was roughly the contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. Anyway, back to ancient historians. King Tarquin had been murdered over five hundred years earlier, and yet Livy wrote him a long and exceptionally dramatic death scene. Livy writes of hand gestures, and the layouts of rooms. He describes where people sit, and the details of their garments at pivotal junctures. And most famously, Livy inserts speeches into their mouths – long, entirely made up speeches influenced by the rhetorical culture of Augustan Rome. His histories are operas starring Rome’s legends. They are detailed, and dramatic, and very entertaining. Again and again, Livy’s histories drives home the cardinal Roman virtues of bravery, and resilience, and discipline. But in terms of factual accuracy, we know, and even his Roman readers knew, that much of Livy was fiction.
Livy’s near contemporary Quintilian wrote that Livy “has a wonderful charm and transparency in narrative, while his speeches are eloquent beyond description; so admirably adapted is all that is said both to the circumstances and the speaker; and as regards the emotions, especially the more pleasing of them, I may sum him up by saying that no historian has ever depicted them to greater perfection.”3 Notice what Quintilian admires there about Livy. The eloquence. The charm. The perfection. The pleasantness. No words, whatsoever, about factual accuracy, or impartiality, or careful research. In the time of the early Roman Empire, the discipline of history as we know it today was in its infancy. The fact that state histories would be partially fictitious, and serve to advance state agendas, and have overtly didactic messages – these were all assumed and understood.
The people who lived in Judah, and later Babylon, and later the Persian province of Yehud who wrote the Historical Books of the Old Testament were doing the same thing that Livy was doing. They were creating a national history, a history which inculcated their contemporary moral and religious values. The massive, vivid speech of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy is now understood to have been written by someone who lived in the late 600s or early 500s BCE, almost a thousand years after the rabbinical date of the Exodus. The Historical Books, in short, were written in a literary culture that had little interest in historical accuracy for its own sake.
So, quite ironically, fundamentalists who argue for the factual truth of every chapter and verse of the Old Testament – these modern fundamentalists may have quite a different idea of the Bible’s cultural role than the Deuteronomist and his successors had when they wrote about the descendants of Abraham, and Isaac, and Israel. These late Iron Age scribes knew the inspirational power of a good story. They knew that a powerful national history can bring people together, and create a shared sense of identity – that it can heal wounds, and fill us with hope for the future, and inspire us to believe, and to do good. These, more than faultless accuracy, were their motivation of the authors of the Historical Books. [music]
Anachronisms in the Early PentateuchBut. Of course, the Historical Books aren’t all just some invention. Far from it. Generally, from the mid 800s BCE onward, we begin to have archaeological records that support some – not all, but some – of the later stories in the Historical Books. In other cases, archaeology contradicts those stories. In still other cases, we have no archaeological evidence one way or another for the accuracy of a narrative, but nonetheless anachronisms within chapters suggest that they were written at a certain period. Anachronisms, anachronisms, anachronisms. A knight in shining armor in an office cubicle. A fighter jet dropping bombs on the armies of Genghis Khan. Anachronisms are everywhere in the Pentateuch. The stories of the patriarchs are full of camels. Abraham has camels (Gen 12:15), Jacob has camels (Gen 31:17) and the Israelites have tons of camels in the period of the Judges (Judg 6:5) – all of these events, according to traditional biblical dating, took place during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, from 2,000 to 1,200 or so. But it wasn’t until after 1,000 BCE that camels were present in the Fertile Crescent, and not until even later that they were widely in use as livestock. In a similar anachronism, the gum, and balm, and myrrh described as part of Joseph’s caravan at the end of the Book of Genesis did not circulate in Egypt until the 800s and 700s, a thousand years after Genesis was supposed to have taken place, once the Assyrian Empire had consolidated trade routes with the Arabian Peninsula. Camels, gum, balm, and myrrh – these may seem like small details. But then, we don’t tell stories about George Washington driving a Ferrari and drinking diet cola. Such stories would be comparably anachronistic.
We also don’t tell stories about George Washington going to Hollywood, or fighting the Soviet Union, or campaigning for workers’ rights in Shenzhen. Just as the Hollywood, and the Soviet Union, and Shenzhen factory workers didn’t exist in the late 1700s, dozens of places and peoples mentioned throughout Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings did not exist during the periods that they are reported to have. Jericho, a large city whose walls fell due to the trumpet blasts of the Israelites in the Book of Joshua, was a tiny unfortified settlement during the Late Bronze Age. There were no walls to fall, and no vast citizenry to execute. Other settlements described as present and populous in the times of the earliest patriarchs – Gerar, Pithom, Edom, Kadesh, Heshbon, the kingdoms of Moab and Ammon on the Transjordan Plateau, either did not exist, or were little more than semi-nomadic gathering places.
Some of these cities, however, were important regional centers far later, during the 700s and 600s. Moab, Edom and Ammon were some of Judah’s rival kingdoms to the east, and Gerar a Philistine stronghold to the west of Judah, during this later period. We don’t tell stories about George Washington fighting the Soviet Union, but certain moments of the Old Testament do something very similar. [music]
Searching for the ExodusThe further back we go in the Old Testament, the more its history seems to be a compilation of folkloric legends, tribal ancestral tales, and political propaganda that bears the worldview and geographical orientation of the city of Jerusalem in the 600s BCE. The work of heavyweight biblical scholars like Martin Noth, Albrecht Alt, Donald Redford, and hundreds of others sets biblical chronology alongside archaeological finds. I want to summarize three major areas of study where the Bible drove researchers to dig up, dust off, and catalog artifacts, and those researchers were surprised at what they found.
For the first of these, we need to leave the Historical Books for a minute and go all the way back to Exodus. Exodus and Numbers are quite clear about a major population migration that happened in the Middle Bronze Age. 600,000 Israelites, says Exodus, left Egypt, migrated to the northeast, spent some time on the Sinai Peninsula, and then went into Canaan with guns blazing. This figure – 600,000, has drawn some attention. First, 600,000 Israelites had to have been produced in Egypt in only four generations after the initial 12 sons of Israel himself. This means that, if male Israelites followed the mandates of the Pentateuch and only married other Israelites, each couple over four generations would have needed to sire 74 children. That is – uh – a lot of children. It would mean that many Israelites over these generations would have 5,476 cousins each.
So, Exodus and Numbers tell of these 600,000 Israelites trouncing Egypt in the Late Bronze Age and then wandering to the northeast to Mount Sinai, where the ten, or, as we saw in the previous episode, 613 commandments were first voiced.
Mount Sinai is a real place. So is Kadesh-barnea, a site in eastern Sinai, where the Israelites are said to have camped for 38 out of their 40 years in the wilderness. And archaeologists, whether driven by religious zeal, secular doubt, or just the desire for a paycheck, have been all over Sinai, and Kadesh-barnea, now called Ein el-Quderirat. One would imagine that 600,000 people who spent 38 years in a place might leave something behind. A pot. Maybe a bronze spear head. Or stone figurine. Or wash basin. Or skeletons of livestock. Or skeletons of people. But archaeology at these sites hasn’t found anything from the Late Bronze Age.
What did exist in Sinai, and in Canaan, during the period of the Biblical exodus, and the period warlike Joshua and the Judges, were Egyptians. It’s difficult to imagine 600,000 people heading out of Egypt’s robust fort and garrison network that existed between the Nile Delta and Canaan. In the 1400s – the traditional date of the Exodus, Egypt was the most muscular empire in the Fertile Crescent. And this takes us to the second point – another point where archaeological investigations prompted by passages in the Old Testament have led to surprising and unexpected discoveries. [music]
Joshua, the Invasion of Canaan, and the Archaeological RecordIn the early Historical Books – the ones we covered at the beginning of this show – the Israelites swarm into Canaan and kill everything in sight. There are lumps and bumps, but up until the beginning of Second Kings, the Israelites are generally the battlefield victors of Canaan, and they pulverize almost everything in their path, and they dump corpses into mass graves.
There are a couple of problems with the story of Joshua, which takes place during the second half of the 1300s and the first half of the 1200s. The civilizations there – Jericho, Ai, Gideon, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, Eglon, and Hazor, are purportedly robust, and politically developed. But during the years in which Joshua’s conquest is supposed to have taken place, these civilizations were either dormant, or quite small. In some cases, they had been larger during the Middle Bronze Age, but as Egypt’s imperial power swelled, they’d receded. In others, they didn’t exist at all during the 1300s and 1200s, and only rose later, during the Iron Age. Archaeologists do face conundrums and logistical challenge when it comes to dating. But to go to a place like Lachish, and descend through tells, and look for something – anything – that can be radio carbon dated to a certain half century – this is something that archaeologists are good at. And the city states mentioned in Joshua, in many cases, were not even inhabited settlements during the Late Bronze Age. The Book of Joshua describes the vast forces of the Israelites crossing the stilled waters of the Jordan River to lay waste to the populous and diverse city states of Canaan. But archaeology has found nothing to support the arrival of a colossal, 600,000-strong coordinated invasion force, and comparably little evidence of the decimation of large complex societies in Canaan during the period Joshua is said to have lived.
If a force of 600,000 flooded westward over the Jordan and up into the foothills of the Mountains of Judah in these years – if they actually did do that - the power that actually did exist in Canaan – and this was Egypt – would have noticed. The world’s largest imperial power might have taken some interest in the fact that a terrifying invasion force was laying waste to one its most prized territories. It might have mobilized armies to face this frightening new enemy. But instead, the Merneptah stele – the one I mentioned a few episodes ago, found in Thebes and carved in 1207 BCE by the conquering Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah – the Merneptah stele mentions that after fighting many important foes in North Africa, the Egyptian army had also squished some foes in Canaan. The last foe mentioned is Israel. Not to belabor the point, but as biblical scholarship and archaeology has matured over the past three decades, it has become increasingly difficult to believe that hundreds of thousands of people tore out of Egypt, lived in the Sinai desert for four decades, exploded into Canaan, and shattered a dozen civilizations there. The Merneptah stele tells a different story. In 1207, the Israelites were one of a number of regional tribes operating in Canaan – no more robust than their neighbors in Askalon or Gezer, and in 1207, the Egyptians, almost as an afterthought, recorded defeating them.
It’s unlikely that a people called the Israelites actually laid waste to the scattering of Late Bronze Age civilizations that existed in Canaan before 1207 BCE. But something else did. This something else is that historical event that’s come up again and again in this show, whether we’re talking about Greece, or Mesopotamia, or Egypt, or Canaan. This event was the Bronze Age Collapse, that cataclysmic fusion of climate change and mass migration that led to the end the ancient world. The Bronze Age Collapse shattered Canaan, and not a force of 600,000 Israelites who had broken from the gates of Egypt. [music]
The Israelites and the Bronze Age CollapseThere was a first phase of Biblical archaeology. During this phase, specialists found widespread evidence of destruction in Canaan. There were burn layers and a pervasive transition to a rougher pottery style, which showed a concentrated period cultural change during the Bronze Age Collapse. Initially, investigators believed that these burn layers were proof that Joshua’s armies really had invaded Canaan from the east and killed its inhabitants. But we now know from many different sources – the tablets of Ugarit in modern day Syria, those of Hattusa in Turkey, those of Assyria, and Egypt, that what happened in Canaan in the Bronze Age Collapse was the result of waves and waves of oceanic invasions from the west, and not a single desert invasion from the east.
So, who were the Israelites? If both archaeology, and widespread ancient records tell a different story about the fall of Canaan’s civilizations during the Bronze Age Collapse, then who were the ancient forebears of the people who wrote the Bible? I actually told you already. It was the very first thing I talked about when we arrived at the Old Testament in Episode 15. In the late 1960s, in the high hill country between the Jezreel valley in the north and Jerusalem to the south, archaeologists began uncovering networks of early Iron Age villages. These highland villages had similar patterns of construction – their stone structures encircled livestock, and were largely self-sufficient. They also, unlike comparable civilizations in the lands of modern day Jordan to the east, did not keep pigs as livestock. They were unfortified and they had no weapons, and seemed to have grown and proliferated during the Bronze Age Collapse. In other words, as the lowlands and coast fell to foreign invasions during the Bronze Age Collapse, these early Iron Age highland communities sprang up and began to thrive. Yohanan Aharoni, the pioneering Israeli archaeologist who drove early digs in the central hill country in the 60s and70s, found a new probable origin for the ancestors of the Bible’s authors. They were not a warlike population who travelled into Canaan and caused the Bronze Age Collapse there. Instead, they’d been in Canaan all along. And when the trade networks broke down, and interstate commercial relationships fizzled out, and civilization in the lowlands fell into shambles, a hill dwelling people who by 1207 were calling themselves the Israelites were well equipped to survive. They were self sufficient, decentralized, capable of migrating, and these qualities insulated them from the carnage happening in lowland cities everywhere. By the early Iron Age, the populations of these hill communities numbered perhaps 45,000 people in total, and they started heading down into the plains and establishing communities in areas that had been destroyed and depopulated during the Bronze Age Collapse.
So, to summarize what you’ve heard so far, careful investigations into the territories described in Exodus and Numbers have yielded no indication that a population of 600,000 broke through Egypt’s bulwark of forts. Similar explorations of Canaanite sites described in Joshua and Judges have shown that in many cases, during the 1300s and 1200s, the large cities that the Israelites supposedly conquered were either nonexistent, or abandoned, or that these places were small unfortified settlements. And finally, the search for the historical progenitors of Israel and Judah has found evidence that, during these same centuries, they were actually an indigenous Canaanite population of hill-dwelling herders, and not a grand, culturally unified, administratively complex civilization with a powerful military. [music]
Archaeology and the Unified Kingdom PeriodThere’s just one other major area where archaeological evidence tells a very different story than the one told in the Bible’s Historical Books – one other major area before we get into the period of invasions by Syria, Assyria, and so on, when the Old Testament’s chronology starts to get pretty consistent with the chronology carved in stone at dig sites in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This last area, or final major contradiction between mainline archaeology and strict interpretation of the Bible, is contentious for an entirely different set of reasons than what you’ve heard so far. Of course, the whole tail end of this show would be quite disagreeable to a Biblical literalist – the lack of evidence for the Exodus, the lack of evidence for Joshua’s invasion of Canaan, and so on. But a whole different set of people might voice concern when you start talking about Saul, David, and Solomon, and the period of the unified monarchy covered mostly in the Books of Samuel and Chronicles.
In these books, the nation of Israel, north and south, comes together under Saul, David, and Solomon. Its capital is Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a grand city by the time of Solomon. It has an immense palace, swimming with gold, a harem that must have been the size of a small town, and various other amenities. Solomon has a fleet of ships, entire cities used for goods storage, cities just for his chariots, and his cavalry, and a huge population of slaves (1 Kings 19-28). He has such wealth in livestock that at one point he’s able to sacrifice 120,000 sheep and 22,000 oxen (1 Kings 8:63). Just one shipment of gold that comes into Solomon weighs 420 talents of gold (1 Kings 9:28), or 28,000 pounds of it. With today’s gold prices at a little over $1100 per Troy ounce, this means that in just one of Solomon’s gold shipments, he received over $451,000,000 worth of the precious material.
The reign of Solomon is said to have taken place during the 900s – the New Oxford Annotated Bible states 968-928 as the years of his reign, centered, again, in Jerusalem. Now, with these rivers of gold pouring into Jerusalem, these hundred billion dollar construction projects, these cities filled with chariots, ship fleets, and immense military forces, you would expect to find some archaeological remnants of the kingdom of Solomon. You would expect, somewhere in Jerusalem, or other cities said to have been built by Solomon – these include Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer, to maybe find remnants of the huge construction projects that could be unequivocally dated to the mid 900s. But these remnants aren’t there. On the contrary, Jerusalem in the 900s BCE was a tiny settlement – one of perhaps two dozen small, pastoral villages that all together totaled two or three thousand inhabitants. We have not found archaeological evidence of a large, religiously unified civilization with a multi-billion dollar annual income – only a sparsely populated, arid region that had never really recovered from the Bronze Age Collapse.
The archaeology and scholarship pioneered over the last three decades by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman has yielded important conclusions. At the dig sites of Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezar – again, cities supposedly reconstructed by Solomon during the middle 900s, there are famous similarities in construction – ashlar blocks, monumental entrances, and gate complexes that closely resemble one another. The similarities between these three cities, during the mid 20th century, were considered evidence that they were built during the Solomonic period, and that indeed Solomon had reconstructed them, as it says in the Bible. But closer investigations of these supposedly Solomonic cities has shown that these northern construction projects were carried out a century later, during the 800s.
Why are we talking about gates, and ashlar blocks, and cities that haven’t stood for thousands of years? Why is it so consequential for archaeologists and historians that there is no evidence for the grandeur of King Solomon? What archaeology tells us in this case is simple, and, to some of us, extremely shocking. Together with biblical scholarship, archaeology tells us that the story of Solomon’s power in Jerusalem is a piece of imaginative history, authored by someone from Jerusalem, 350 years after the period Solomon is said to have lived. More consequentially, archaeology does not conclusively support the existence of a united kingdom of Israelites, ever. There was no juggernaut Early Iron Age capital at Jerusalem with hundreds of thousands of pounds of gold being dumped into it. To some Biblical literalists, and just as importantly, to modern expansionists who use the geography described in the Old Testament to support territorial claims, the lack of archaeological excavations that support the existence of a unified kingdom is a really, really, really big deal. [music]
The Obelisk of ShalmaneserIf you’ve ever been to Israel, or just seen even a satellite image of it, you know that it is a country with many different ecosystems. The same was true in the Early Iron Age. As is always the case in history, climate and natural resources were always a factor there in the development of human civilizations. Climate and natural resources, along with connections to neighboring Iron Age civilizations, drove the northern and southern regions of Israel to develop at timeframes that were a hundred, and in some cases, two hundred years apart. The north, then, as it is today, was more populous and more fertile. The north produced grain, olives, and vineyards, and it lay along the all important overland trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the north, the olive oil industry, and with it stone administion centers, developed two hundred years before these things first began to appear in the south. The northern capital, Samaria, rose to prominence in the 800s. It wasn’t until nearly two hundred years later that Jerusalem emerged as a regional power center – centuries after David and Solomon are purported to have made the southern capital into a palatial metropolis.
The north, during the timeframe of most of the Historical Books, was where all the cool stuff was happening. Those palaces at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezar, once believed to have built by Solomon, are now believed to have been constructed by a northern king called Omri. Omri and his son Ahab were some of the most powerful monarchs in the history of Canaan. Though the Old Testament lays into Ahab as an idolater and his wife Jezebel as a wicked temptress, but archaeological evidence suggests that Ahab was a strong ruler whose marriage to a Phoenician princess was designed to secure a political alliance with Samaria’s western neighbors. We know that he was a strong ruler, because Ahab is mentioned in Assyrian annals that were set down in the mid 800s – the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, on an obelisk found in the far north of Iraq, records having gone toe to toe with “Ahab, the ruler of Israel,” who had “2,000 chariots [, and] 10,000 soldiers.”4 To the Old Testament, Ahab is a grotesque misfortune. But to the historical kingdom of Israel, Ahab might have been the bulwark that saved a whole generation from Assyrian armies.
Biblical Archaeology's Most Seminal DiscoveriesWhat you’ve heard so far might sound like a case for Biblical minimalism. This style of scholarship, associated by figures like Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies, generally seeks to discredit all biblical history as an invention from a far later period – the Persian Period, or even the Hellenistic Period. Those inclined to Biblical minimalism might hear what you’ve heard so far, dust their hands off, and conclude that the Bible’s historical books are an elaborate and sustained work of pure fiction. But, as I said before, beginning in the 800s – during the reign of Ahab in the north, we begin to have numerous moments when the Bible’s records look reasonably close to stone carvings and tablets unearthed in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The inscription in which the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III mentions having met King Ahab in combat, while it paints a different picture of Ahab from the one in the Bible, at least still mentions a biblical figure. Ahab was not made up. Neither, evidently, were a number of other people mentioned in the Old Testament. Let’s consider a few of these – a few moments when old carvings and obelisks mention biblical names and deeds. These will definitely be some of the most exciting 2500 year old pieces of rock you will ever hear about. I can guarantee that. [music: ro-o-o-o-ocks]
The Tell Dan AnnalsIn 1993, in the extreme northeast of Israel, north of the Sea of Galilee and close to the Golan Heights, archaeologists uncovered a paving stone. This paving stone was made out of basalt. It had been broken off of something long before – a large stone stele covered with Aramaic writing. Aramaic was the language of Israel’s northern neighbor, Aram-Damascus. This paving stone records a conquest, likely by the Syrian king, Hazael, into Israel. Second Kings also records this conquest. Here’s an excerpt from this unusually important chunk of basalt paving stone, again written by the Syrian king about his conquest into Israel.
Hadad, my divine patron, made me king of Israel. With Hadad riding before me, I liberated Israel from two ruthless monarchs by destroying their chariots and cavalry and killing Jehoram, son of Ahab and ruler of Israel, and Ahaziahu, son of Jehoram and ruler of the household of David. I destroyed their cities and left their lands barren.5Now, like the obelisk of Shalmaneser, this piece of rock also mentions Ahab. The guy was obviously important, since the kings of two foreign nations mentioned him. But the paving stone found in the extreme north mentions other Biblical figures – Jehoram, Jehu, and the Syrian king Hazael himself. And uh – one more person – just to make sure you caught that – the paving stone also mentions “the household of David.” Hmm. This suggests that, by the 800s, David really was recognized as a foundational figure in Israel’s monarchy. It doesn’t prove the absolute truth of the Old Testament, nor of a united kingdom, nor does it say anything about David’s life. But it’s solid evidence that an important early patriarch or ruler called David really existed.[music: ro-o-o-o-ocks]
The Mesha SteleSecond rock. About ten miles east of the central Dead Sea lies the city of Dhiban in modern day Jordan, an arid town that sits atop a plateau that extends into the edge of the Jordan Valley. In 1868 German and French explorers working there found and translated the tablet, written in Moabite but with Hebrew letters. The tablet was carved some time during 886-875, because it describes the military expeditions of King Ahab’s father Omri into the kingdom of the Moabites. It mentions that “Omri, ruler of Israel, invaded Moab year after year because Chemosh, the divine patron of Moab, was angry with his people” (1307). Later, it describes how the Moabite king led a retaliatory attack into Israel, where he “won a great victory and. . .sacrificed seven thousand men, women, and children. . .to Chemosh.” It says that he “brought sacred vessels from the sanctuary of Yahweh and laid them before Chemosh.”6
So why is this second rock also a big deal? Two reasons. Like the first two inscriptions, it suggests that Omri, and his dynasty in the north, were extremely powerful, internationally recognized kings – northern kings who in their own lifetimes were known for their military successes, even if the southerners who wrote about them over two centuries later dismissed them as blasphemers. The other reason that this third rock – it’s called the Mesha stele, by the way – the other reason that this third rock is a big deal is that it shows a view of history similar to the perspective that pervades every single page of the Bible’s Historical Books. The Moab stele reveals that the Moabites also thought themselves at the center of history, that the Moabites also believed that foreign invasions were caused by the displeasure of their god, and not other forces. The Israelites, thus, were not the only territory in Canaan who explained world events as the reverberations of their relationship with their god. [music: ro-o-o-o-ocks]
The Annals of Tiglath-Pileser IIILet’s talk about some different rocks – some rocks from Syria. Once we start getting into the late 800s BCE and the 700s, archaeology and the Bible start to reinforce one another. The annals of Tiglath-Pileser III, like the book of Second Kings, record Assyrian forces obliterating Syrians in the north around Damascus, and extracting a tribute from the northern capital of Samaria. A different set of annals – these from the later Assyrian king Sargon II – these later annals describe the decline of Israel under the iron heels of Mesopotamia. First, Israel became an ally in 738. In 732, because it could no longer pay its tribute to Assyria, Israel’s status was reduced to that of a colony. And in 720, Israel and its capital Samaria were finally conquered, Israelites were deported to various locations in Mesopotamia, and Assyrians resettled the northern part of Canaan with their own people. This, generally, also is what it says in the Old Testament, and what Assyrian conquest records state. When people say that archaeology supports the Bible, they are likely talking about the story of the military and economic decline of Israel during the second half of the 700s. Because the southerners who wrote the Historical Books a century later were more than happy to give an accurate recounting of their northern neighbors’ downfall.
When it came to their own decline under Assyria, however, those southern scribes weren’t quite willing to tell the whole story. One moment in the Historical Books which is more obviously fiction is the story of the southern king Hezekiah facing off against an Assyrian king called Sennacherib. Now, Hezekiah, again, was the first of two kings that are the darlings of the historical books – these are Hezekiah and his great grandson Josiah. Both of these guys are incomparably pious, good leaders whom Yahweh loves and who guide their people into periods of great holiness. So 2 Kings records this beloved king Hezekiah standing up to Sennacherib, and winning. There’s a dramatic, Livy-like scene, in which Sennacherib threatens Hezeikiah beneath the siege walls of Jerusalem, with a gigantic military force standing behind him. Hezekiah, reassured by his prophet, is unafraid. And then, wonder of wonders, an angel appears, slaughters 185,000 Assyrians, and the evil king Sennacherib is murdered by his sons when he arrives home. It’s – uh – just a bit different than the account that Sennacherib himself wrote down when he got back to Nineveh. [music: ro-o-o-o-ocks]
Sennacherib's PrismAnd now, time for one final, biblically significant rock. The six sided stone column archaeologists call Sennacherib’s prism shows no recollection of losing 185,000 soldiers to an angel of Yahweh. Instead, mentioning Hezekiah of Judah again and again, Sennacherib recollects laying siege to 46 southern cities and conquering all of them, taking 200,000 prisoners, and imprisoning Hezekiah. Sennacherib recollects how “Hezekiah, who was overwhelmed by my terror-inspiring splendor, was deserted by his elite troops, which he had brought into Jerusalem. He was forced to send me 420 pounds of gold, 11,200 pounds of silver, precious stones, couches and chairs inlaid with ivory, elephant hides, ebony wood, boxwood, and all kinds of valuable treasures, his daughters, wives, and male and female musicians. He sent his personal messenger to deliver this tribute and bow down to me (1473-76; 2 Kgs 18:14-16). This doesn’t sound much like a military defeat caused by divine intervention. It sounds like Hezekiah lost, to the Assyrians, and lost badly.[music]
Lachish and the One Who Struggles with GodAt the beginning of this show, over two hours ago, now, we read letters from Lachish – the correspondence between a military officer and his faraway commander, in which the officer saw the watch fires going out all around him. This was the moment when the southern kingdom fell, when the temple at Jerusalem was razed to the ground, and when the worshippers of Yahweh decisively lost power in the lands of Canaan. When that officer at Lachish saw the Babylonians approaching, with their chariots, and siege equipment, and iron armor and weaponry, you have to wonder what he thought about his own nation’s history. Judah already had plenty of scars. It had been forced to pay tributes to Mesopotamian strongmen. It had lost thousands during past invasions. That officer had probably lost relatives in earlier wars. We will never know whether he thought – as the Historical Books convey again, and again, that the latest invaders were a scourge from Yahweh, a punishment for Judah’s sinfulness. We’ll never know if he conceived his nation’s history as a struggle with God, or whether in his last days he saw the history that had led up to him as terribly, meaninglessly random. But we do know that the unique set of experiences shared by a few generations of southern Canaanites – shared during the years between 650 and 500 – were the experiences that shaped the bulk of the Old Testament. We know that as Judah fell – as the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, something else was rising – a core set of stories that helped explain a pressing question. This question was, “If Judah is the chosen nation of God, chosen out of all other nations, then why has Judah faced such pain and strife, generation after generation?” And the answer is, again, the main idea of this show. Judah wasn’t really struggling with Egypt, or Assyria, or Babylon. Judah was struggling with God. But that question – the question of why good people suffer so much strife and anguish – that question did not go away. In fact, the first book that follows the Historical Books in Catholic and Protestant Bibles is the Book of Job. And the Book of Job is just bristling with difficult questions. In the next episode, we’re going to break away from covering many books of the Bible and spend a lot of time with just one of them. And reading the Book of Job, we will make the surprising discovery that one of the most astute critics of the Old Testament’s theology is the Old Testament itself. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and for those of you who like the musical numbers, I’ve got a doozy for you in a minute – otherwise, see you next time, amigos. Still here? So I got to thinking. The individual who scholars believe wrote most of the historical books is generally called the Deuteronomist – he also is thought to have written Deuteronomy. I got to thinking about what it would sound like if he – this Deuteronomist guy – put on some bling, went to a recording studio, and recorded a rap song – sort of a gangster rap song about busting into Canaan with his Israelite homies and taking over everyone’s turf. So I wrote this tune, which is called “Rolling into Canaan,” which can double as a very silly study slash review tool. Hope you all like it, and I’m honored that you stuck with me through this long, dense program, and I’ll see you next time. [Music: "Rolling Into Canaan"" song]
|Paid||Hardcopy/Kindle||The New Oxford Annotated Bible||Ed. Michael D. Coogan, et. al.||This is the Bible that I've used throughout my career and this podcast. Its annotations, accompanying essays, and notes on translation are terrific.||Free||Podcast||The History in the Bible Podcast||Garry Stevens||This is a sprawling, wonderful podcast entirely dedicated to historical analysis of the Bible. If you liked this episode, subscribe to Dr. Garry's podcast. Read my full review here.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||The Bible Unearthed||Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman||This modern classic is perhaps the most famous work on the doings and findings of survey archaeologists in Israel, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and so on. It's grippingly narrated and informed by a huge amount of scholarship.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Old Testament Parallels||Victor Harold Matthews||This is an anthology with extensive notes. It includes transcriptions of papyri and stele that have direct linguistic and thematic parallels to the Old Testament - materials from places like Egypt, Assyria, Ugarit, Babylon, and so forth. It also includes useful short essays introducing the materials.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt||Toby Wilkinson||I recommended this amazing one volume history of Ancient Egypt throughout Episodes 4-6. Wilkinson's summary of the Hyksos and the Canaanite presence in the Nile Delta throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages is excellent.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Who Wrote the Bible?||Richard Elliott Friedman||This book was first published in 1987, and then reissued in 1997. It's a deep analysis of the Documentary Hypothesis, and basically a detective story in which Friedman tries to identify the Deuteronomist. If you've read the Old Testament, you will find this book as fascinating as the other hundreds of thousands of people who have read it have.|
1.^ Matthews, Victor Harold. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, 2007. Kindle Edition, location 1550.
2.^ Coogan, Michael, et. al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 708.
3.^ Quintilian 10.1.101 tr. H. Edgeworth: Loeb Classical Library edition, 1922.
4.^ Matthews, Victor Harold. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, 2007. Kindle Edition, location 1389.
5.^ Ibid, locations 1335-9. Some evidence exists that the inscription represents the words of King Jehu of Israel (r 844-815) recording a revolt in the north.
6.^ Ibid, locations 1316-18.
2.^ Coogan, Michael, et. al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 708.
3.^ Quintilian 10.1.101 tr. H. Edgeworth: Loeb Classical Library edition, 1922.
4.^ Matthews, Victor Harold. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, 2007. Kindle Edition, location 1389.
5.^ Ibid, locations 1335-9. Some evidence exists that the inscription represents the words of King Jehu of Israel (r 844-815) recording a revolt in the north.
6.^ Ibid, locations 1316-18.