Sunday, April 27, 2014


The Hebrews’ request for a king, to replace God’s ad hoc helpers, makes two political statements: one about the earthly authority of God and another about the place of each Israelite among his or her people.

The request shocks Samuel, the last of the judges.

In prayer, he hears the Lord console him, saying that Israel’s wanting a king instead his judgeship is similar to many earlier acts of disloyalty to the Hebrews’ one ruler, God (1 Samuel 8:7-9).

At God's bidding, Samuel explains to the people what a king means in concrete everyday terms (1 Samuel 8:11-18). An Israelite king would spell then end of the implicit equality among kinsmen and accepted members of the nation.

In ancient times, a king was something in between the modern figurehead in Britain, who reigns but does not rule, and the absolute monarch of pre-revolutionary France or Russia, whose whims were law. The king of biblical times was the primary owner of all in a domain, who was owed taxes, produce, livestock and labor in exchange for defense of the realm.

Despite the security of God’s protection and the relative equality among themselves, the people of Israel want to be more like everyone else. They want to be less dependent on God and ruled under a hereditary monarchy. The reader can tell this spells nothing but trouble.

The great biblical kings we all recall—Saul, David and Solomon—are the three who ruled from about 1030 to 931 BCE (remember that years advance backward in BCE times) over the united kingdom roughly covering a territory that today is Israel and Jordan combined.

Saul is known for his various slayings—also for his failure to slay certain other enemies. David is known for his murderous adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba; shame and guilt later led him to the wilderness, to pen the Psalms attributed to him. Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba, is known for his judicial wisdom, for building the first temple of Jerusalem and for his many wives.

That is not the full story of the monarchy of the Hebrews. Solomon's quarrelsome sons split the kingdom into two.

In the south was the territorially small kingdom of Judah, with its capital Jerusalem; this was home to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, initially under Rehoboam. In the north, Jeroboam I set up the kingdom of Israel, with its capital city Samaria; here were the later “lost” ten tribes of Israel, who refused allegiance to Rehoboam.

The northern kingdom is the eventual home of Samaritans around the time of a certain woodworker from Galilee. Also in the 1st century of our era, the name of the southern kingdom, Judah, had become latinized to Judea, giving rise to the Roman name for its people, Iudeaorum, or Jews.

But I am getting ahead of the story.

Judah had 20 kings: Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Athaliah, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah , Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah.

Israel had another 20 kings: Jeroboam I, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Tibni, Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah, Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea.

Jumping Jehoshaphat, that's a lot of strange names!

Their stories are hugely complicated and best read directly in the Bible (from Samuel through the II Chronicles). I only add the usual caution: treat these narratives as epics written to advance rabbinical or theological points about the relationship of the Hebrews with God, rather than as a straightforward newspaper history of two ancient kingdoms of little importance in their own day.

I'll summarize all of them in three paragraphs.

Israel existed as an independent kingdom until about 720 BCE, when it was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire, which itself was absorbed within a century into the Babylonian Empire (located in modern Iraq). This is when the mass deportation of Hebrews, known in retrospect as the Babylonian exile, first took place.

Judah was able to remain independent until 586 BCE, until its alliance with the Babylonians’ enemy, Egypt, prompted the Babylonian invasion and eventual first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—both are noted in the book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.

In religious terms, Israel abandoned traditional faith with the acceptance of the worship of Baal, an agrarian fertility god. In the broader Semitic mythology of the Mesopotamia, Baal reigned as “master” over other gods, much as Zeus ruled the Greek set of deities. Judah remained steadfast to the God of Abraham, referred to as Elohim, but entered into dubious exchanges of ideas with Egyptians, who also offered the temptation of false gods.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


With Joshua, we enter the phase of heroic figures who “judge,” in the sense of living, encouraging or defending the virtue of justice. Biblically, this means the “righteousness” of the people of Israel when they obey divine ordinances, in particular our running theme, faithfulness.

Joshua is best known for the battle of Jericho. Archeologists have found the actual Jericho of the Bible and evidence of the city's destruction. The question that has been widely debated is when. The archeologist Kathleen Kenyon notably placed it about 100 years before the Hebrews' migration from Egypt, yet argued that this did not show the biblical narrative was “false.”

Yet the story of Joshua and most of the judges is not so much about particular battles as it is about the conflictive relationship between the Hebrews and the people already settled there.

Philistia or Palestine?

However, Joshua’s conquest story has a contemporary resonance that is often taken out of context.

Among the Canaanites were folks such as the people of the region eventually called Philistia, the Philistines, whence we get our terms Palestine and Palestinian. Although the biblical Hebrews were returning to land they claim as ancestral and divinely given to their first patriarch, the Canaanites saw them as invaders—much the way pre-1948 inhabitants of roughly the same territory, Palestinians, see modern-day Israelis.

However, there are many problems with attempting to draw modern geopolitical lessons from the biblical narrative.

Not the least of these is that Abraham, to whom the land is given by God, was almost certainly born in what today is Iraq. Also, Palestine and Palestinian are terms that do not apply to quite the same land or people as Philistia and Philistine. Thirdly, the descendants who might claim due inheritance would literally include the heirs of Abraham's first born, Ishmael, by the handmaiden Hagar; these people, called “Ishmaelites,” are today’s Arabs.

Luckily, the Bible is not about who is right or wrong in the modern wrangle between ethnic and religious cousins in the land called Israel or Palestine. Instead, the tales are the recalled collective memory of the troubled relationship—in the poetic wisdom books of the Bible it is called a courtship and a marriage—between the Abrahamic God and the people of Israel.

Epic Cycles

Besides Joshua, are 15 other judges appear in the Bible: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson and Eli. Each of the judge narratives has a similar epic cycle.

The people of Israel start off in obedience to the Lord. They fall into disobedience and idolatry (to understand what is meant by this, consider our own modern idolatry of the dollar and its moral effects). This straying from God leads to the defeat and enslavement of Israel. Then the people cry out to the Lord for help. God calls a judge to bring about deliverance. Finally, Israel repents and returns to faithfulness to the Lord.

Note that there is a woman among the judges: Deborah, a prophetess, counselor, warrior and wife (of Lapidoth) in Judges 4 and 5. She leads a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin, king of Canaan. The story ends with a triumphal song to Deborah well worth reading; think of a troubadour recounting a great tale of a recent heroine.

The sequence of judges ends with Samuel, which begins with the beautiful and prophetic-style story of his calling (1 Samuel 3). (I recommend that you read 1 Samuel chapters 1 and 2 as well. You see here a perfect example of portentous birth narratives, very useful to keep in mind for when we come to a certain baby born in Bethlehem.)

At the end of Samuel’s ministry, comes a crucial political transformation among the Hebrews concerning how they understand authority and earthly power. Up to Samuel, the people have relied on God to send leaders, lawgivers and rescuers; they were God's people, the Lord was their God and ruler.

Now they want to be more like their neighbors, as we shall see.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rescuers, Leaders and Spokespersons

There’s an old story told about a man on the roof of his house in a flood. He refused the help of a guy in a canoe, a family in a raft and the Red Cross in a helicopter, saying each time that God would save him. After he drowns, he’s at the Pearly Gates lamenting that he had not received the divine help he expected. Then God says, “Hey, I sent you a canoe, a raft and a helicopter and you refused each one.”

Pretty much the same are the story arcs of God’s rescuers and spokespersons to the ancient Hebrews as they enter and conquer Canaan. Up to Moses, we have patriarchs. They were literally the successive fathers of the descendants of Abraham.

By the time they get back to Canaan, the promised land, the Hebrews (600,000 people says the Bible, 600 families say benign scholars) are no longer only the lineal descendants of Abraham. There are marriages to people outside the tribe and converts to the faith.

Induction by marriage is illustrated by the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who married Naomi's son Mahlon, the eventual grandmother of David and ancestor of Yeshua. Conversion is depicted in the story of Rahab, the harlot enlisted by Joshua as a spy, who is later welcomed as a member of the Hebrew people. Both Ruth and Rahab are particularly significant since identity at birth as an ancient Hebrew or a modern Jew was, and still is, passed on by the mother.

These stories indicate the Hebrews’ emerging self-understanding as a confederation of tribes under the rule of God, rather than a blood-related ethnic or national group. At that point, the Hebrew people are bound in belief in the one deity whose name is set apart, referred to by title, Adonai (Lord), and respected by obedience to the law that God gave. They gradually take on the name Israel, meaning “one who is triumphant, or prevails, with God.”

Once the Hebrews have received from Moses the first foundational commandments, God sends them three kinds of people to lead them: judges, kings and prophets—which I now describe in a quick sweep of the next eight centuries, with details left for later.

The judges ruled roughly between the 12th and 10th centuries BCE, beginning with Joshua, Moses' successor, chosen as the one to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land. There were 16 divinely appointed judges, who served as unelected and nonhereditary leaders who had judicial and military authority.

Then come the kings, 9th to 6th centuries BCE, first in a single united kingdom, then in the two kingdoms, both of which enter into crisis and are eventually overrun.

During the decline of the monarchy there emerge the appearance prophets who warn, cajole and ultimately lament the great biblical disaster that was the fall of the kingdoms and the subsequent Babylonian captivity. At the end of the captivity (around the 5th century) comes a restoration of at least the faith that binds them as a people, a reality expressed in the first compilation and draft of the written Hebrew Bible.