Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament
From Conquest to Exile: Joshua through Chronicles
Joshua is a controversial book. Many people over the centuries have pointed to its depiction of the slaughter of the people who happened to be living in the Promised Land as reason for rejecting a God who ordered the mass killing of people simply because they didn’t worship him.
The other major point of controversy concerns the historical accuracy of Joshua. Despite many years of archaeological exploration in Israel to date no evidence has been found that would indicate the kind of massive invasion and rapid conquest depicted in Joshua. Of the cities Joshua describes as destroyed by the Israelites, only for Hazor and Lachish is there evidence of destruction matching the likely time frame of the book. The first two cities, Jericho and Ai, described as destroyed in the biblical account weren’t even occupied between the earliest and latest possible dates for the Israelite arrival in Canaan. Ai had been reduced to ruins a thousand years before. Jericho was destroyed several centuries before the probable time of the events depicted in Joshua and remained unoccupied until around the time of King David. Jericho is one of the earliest, 9500-9000 BCE, inhabited cities in the world with the oldest known protective wall constructed around 8000 BCE (). It would be natural for a tradition about Israelite entry into Canaan to assume that the otherwise mysterious ruins of Ali and Jericho’s wall were related to the triumph of Yahve’s chosen people.
As is true for the Bible as a whole, the primary concern of the book of Joshua is not historical but theological. The narrative is about the often difficult relationship of Yahve and his chosen people, demonstrating, to again quote Rabbi Sandmel, that “God works in history; obey his law, lovingly, and he will work good for you, but disobey, and he will work ill for you” (p. 415)
While it is possible, as with the Bible as a whole, to rationalize arguments for Joshua as literal history, such arguments don’t carry much weight outside of fundamentalist circles. The current scholarly consensus is that the book of Joshua, like the other books of the Deuteronomic history, drew from ancient written sources, some of which are cited in the text, which combined historical memories, myth, and folktale, to present a particular theological view. Over time the writing was edited and added to without deleting earlier, sometimes conflicting accounts with the final form reached sometime in the late monarchical or early post-exilic period.
The lack of evidence for the conquest of Canaan as described in Joshua has produced a long-standing scholarly debate as to how the ancient nation of Israel came to be. A 1209 inscription known as the Merneptah Stele in which is described a group of people called Israel who lived between three Canaanite towns in the hill region of southern Palestine, is the earliest known non-biblical reference to Israel. Some scholars believe the Israelites were originally nomadic pastoralists who gradually migrated from the hill country of Palestine to a more settled life in villages. There is in fact archaeological evidence of an increase from a few fortified centers to several hundred villages between the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BCE, the most likely time for the Exodus. The Exodus story may be based on cultural memories of historic fact involving migrations from Egypt related to the mid-twelfth century disintegration of the Egyptian New Kingdom. Likely there were multiple factors, most of which will probably never be known with certainty, involved in the early history of the nation of Israel. Whatever the origins may have been of the book of Joshua, the story it tells is one of faithfulness to Yahve resulting in triumph over people who worshiped other gods.
As with the pre-conquest instances of ethnic cleansing depicted in Deuteronomy, Joshua’s wholesale slaughter of Canaanites is appalling to modern sensibilities, although until relatively recently the ruthless killing of native peoples by “superior” colonialists, although perhaps regrettable, was generally considered acceptable. Sandmel compares the attitude towards the Canaanites in Joshua to American settlers feelings about the people they found in “the New World:” for Joshua the only good Canaanite was a dead Canaanite. Indeed it could be argued that the Bible believing people who displaced native peoples from the lands they “discovered” took their clue from the book of Joshua. I remember standing in places in England and Ireland where Catholics were brutally executed for practicing a religion which had fallen out of favor with the ruling power. But wars of conquest and religious persecution are hardly unique to Christian nations or the book of Joshua, having occurred in many cultures throughout history.
The Oxford Annotated Bible’s introduction to Joshua describes the book’s representation of Yahve “as a purely nationalistic deity, the ‘God of Battles.” Destruction of the Canaanites and their gods was evidence of the superiority of Yahve over other gods and the efficaciousness of his blessing of the chosen people who at his direction had forsaken the worship of those gods.
But there are also instances in which Canaanites weren’t ruthlessly slaughtered. The prostitute Rahab who sheltered the spies sent in advance of the attack on Jericho was spared along with her family. According to the Gospel of Matthew (1:5) she married into the tribe of Judah and was an ancestor of David as well as Jesus. The people of Gibeon, fearing what would happen when Joshua and company arrived at their city, tricked the Israelites into thinking that they had journeyed from outside Canaan to join the Israelites about whom they had heard good things. Remembering that Moses had given permission for alliances with non-Canaanites, Israel made a covenant with them. A few days later they discovered that the Gibeonites were really from a nearby Canaanite city. As the word of Israel had been given not to harm their new allies, the Gibeonites were spared but only on condition that they become servants of the Israelites (9). Some other Canaanites were “put to forced labor” rather than killed (17:13). According to some scholars, these instances in the book of Joshua furnished an explanation of why some Canaanites survived to live alongside the Israelites.
The book of Joshua begins with its namesake assuming leadership of Israel as preparations were made for the crossing of the River Jordan into Canaan. Yahve spoke to Joshua as he did to Moses, giving instructions for the move into the Promised Land. In a repeat of the crossing of the Red/Reed Sea, the flow of the Jordan, which was at spring flood, miraculously stopped to let the Israelites to cross on dry land. There are two differing accounts about a memorial set up to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan. In one it is set up in the middle of the river; the other places it at the first campsite in Canaan (4:8-9, 20).
As no circumcisions had been done in the wilderness, all the males, except Caleb and Joshua who were the only surviving members of the circumcised generation that left Egypt, were uncircumcised. So a mass circumcision was done at “The Hill of the Foreskins” (5:2-7). As the Israelites waited in camp for the men to heal, the “Commander of Yahve’s Army” appeared to Joshua who asked what commands there were for him. The account breaks off without a response given (5:13-15); the last part of the text is apparently missing.
Joshua’s most famous episode, occupying more chapters than any other story in the book, is the “battle” of Jericho in which the walls “came tumbling down” in response to a “great shout” by the Israelites at the conclusion of seven days of marching around the city. Taking of booty was forbidden with everything, including all the people of Jericho, except Rahab who had helped the spies sent to scout out the city and her family, “devoted to the Lord for destruction” (6:17). However one Achan took some things for himself which he concealed. In their next assault on the city of Ai the Israelites were driven off. In despair Joshua and the elders “rent (their) clothes and fell to the earth upon (their) face(s) before the ark of Yahve . . . and put dust upon their heads” (7:6). Yahve told them that “Israel has sinned” and “transgressed the covenant.” Apparently the disobedience of one person contaminated the whole of Israel. Joshua was instructed to bring the tribes for Yahve to “take” (the text is unclear as to just what is meant, perhaps a casting of lots or the use of the oracle of the stones on the priest’s breastplate) first the guilty tribe, then the guilty family, then the guilty household, and finally the guilty person. Achan “was taken” and confessed. He along with his entire family, and all of his possessions including his animals, all eventually contaminated and made unclean by Achan’s sin, was “burned with fire and stoned with stones” by “all Israel.” “A great heap of stones” was raised over what was left of the guilty man, his family, and possessions which “remains to this day” (7). I can’t help but wonder what “heap of stones” the writer was referring to. There are several instances of “remains to this day” in Joshua, an indication that the writer must have been aware of things associated with the traditions from which he was drawing.
After the execution of Achan a second assault involving the luring of Ai’s army into ambush went well. Twelve thousand residents of the city were killed with only the king, taken captive to be executed by hanging. The city, whose name literally means “ruin,” was left “for ever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day.” But this time Yahve, perhaps avoiding the possibility of a repeat of the incident with Achan, allowed the taking of booty (8:1-29).
After the destruction of Ai, following instructions “as is written in the Book of the Law of Moses” (Deut. 27), Joshua moved north to build an altar on Mount Ebal, opposite Mount Gerizim, on which sacrifices were offered and a “copy of the law of Moses” was written “upon the stones” (it’s unclear whether on the stones of the altar or a separate set of memorial stones). The people were divided to stand half in front of one mountain and the other half in front of the opposite mountain while “all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law” were read (8:30-35). Interestingly, a Dead Sea Scroll of Joshua places this incident at Gilgal, the first camp in Canaan after crossing the Jordan as does the first century CE Jewish historian, Josephus. The scroll also indicates that a reference in an early version of Joshua to Mount Gerizim, which was many centuries later sacred to the Samaritans, was changed to Mount Ebal which had no Samaritan associations. In seeming support of the location in the Dead Sea Scroll and Josphus, Gilgal continued to be an important worship site for Israel; Mount Ebal is never again mentioned in the Bible as a place for worship.
Chapter 9 relates the semi-comical account of the Gibeonite, who are also called Hivites, deception. After the covenant between Israel and Gibeon was established, five Canaanite kings joined forces to wage war against Gibeon. Joshua, with the assistance of Yahve who “threw down great hailstones from heaven” and made the sun and moon “stand still” at Joshua’s command to allow time to complete the battle (the other well-known account in Joshua), came to the rescue. The five kings were entrapped in a cave from which they were taken out, humiliated, and hanged (10:1-27). In another intriguing reminder of how much of the past has been lost, “The Book of Jashar” (also referenced in 1 Samuel 1:18) is cited as the source of a brief poetic account of the sun and moon standing still. Brief accounts of the conquest of Southern and Northern Palestine follow the battle with the five kings.
Joshua 12 is a summary of Israelite conquests outside Canaan under Moses and those of Joshua against the Canaanites. Chapter 13 leads off with Yahve telling Joshua that he is “old and advanced in years” with “there remaining very much land to be possessed.” Except for Philistine cities, most of the remaining land listed was outside the bounds of Palestine but Yahve promised to drive the inhabitants of those lands out to give them to Israel. A description of the tribal division of the land with much tedious description of the land and tribes runs through chapter twenty-one.
Among seemingly endless references to otherwise unknown people and places is an interesting account of Hebron being given to Caleb, the other survivor with Joshua of the original group who set out from Egypt (14:6-15) which is repeated with more detail in the next chapter (15:13-19) as well as in Judges 1:11-15. According to the second account, Caleb drove out three giants from Hebron, He then conquered another city, Debir, and gave his daughter as wife to the man who killed its king. His daughter urged her husband to ask Caleb for a field, but then, with no explanation given for the apparent change (or perhaps it was an additional request?), asked her father for a gift and was given “the upper springs and the lower springs.” There must have been some reason which perhaps was common knowledge for contemporaries of the writer for including this brief but detailed account, but just what the implications of the story might originally have been are long lost.
Joshua 22 relates a misunderstanding between the tribes settled on the east side of the Jordan and those in Canaan. The tribes on the other side of the river, released from their agreed upon involvement in the conquest of Canaan, built what appeared to be an altar “of great size” on the side of the river belonging to the other tribes. As sacrifice was prohibited anywhere other than in the place where the tabernacle was located they were accused of “rebellion against Yahve.” In response, the Transjordan tribes explained that they had constructed not an altar for sacrifice but a memorial “witness” of their unity with the rest of Israel in recognizing “that Yahve is God.” Which “pleased well” the priest and “the heads of the families of Israel” who came to confront them and all was again well between the tribes.
Joshua, “old and well advanced in years,” “summoned all Israel” to promise them that Yahve would drive out “those nations that remain” to give them the entirety of their promised inheritance “from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west” if they did "all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses” and not “turn back, and join the remnant of those nations left here among you” (23:2, 4-13). In what may be another version of the same event, he then “gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem,” the place where Yahve had many centuries earlier confirmed his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:6-8). After a review of the history of Israel beginning with Abraham’s departure from “beyond the Euphrates” through the conquest of Canaan, Joshua and the assembly of Israel renewed the covenant to serve and obey Yahve, all of which Joshua then recorded in the Book of the Law of Moses. A “great stone” memorial was set up as a “witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God” (24:1-28).
“After these things Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Yahve, died, being a hundred and ten years old” (24:29). (Biblical ages were becoming more realistic!) “The bones of Joseph which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried at Shechem” (24:32). So ends the book of Joshua with Israel firmly established in the Promised Land.
The Book of Judges could also be entitled “The Book of Rulers,” as the Hebrew title can mean either. It depicts a chaotic time with no unifying leader after the death of Joshua. The conquest of Canaan was far from complete with ongoing conflicts with surviving Canaanites and the Philistines, “sea-people” from Crete who settled coastal Palestine (the name is a derivative of “Philistine”) about the time the Israelites were establishing settlements to the east. The tribes of Israel were far from united; some of the conflicts in Judges involved battles between the tribes. Many of the stories are about one tribe or only a few tribes rather than a united Israel with at some of the judges appearing to be leaders of a single or only a few tribes rather than Israel as a whole. Israel in the Promised Land was falling apart. Or perhaps the situation reflected in Judges is one of various tribes which had not yet become a fully united nation.
There’s not much in the way of edifying stories in Judges. Some of the stories are appalling to a degree unmatched in the rest of the Bible. In fulfillment of a vow made in anticipation of victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah offered up his daughter as a burnt sacrifice to Yahve (11). In an incident reminiscent of the visit of the angels to Lot before the destruction of Sodom, the last episode in Judges involves a visiting Levite threatened by locals who demanded “to know” him. To save himself he put his concubine/wife (he is referred to as her husband) out to be ravished and killed by the mob after which he cut her body up into twelve pieces which he sent to the twelves tribes in an appeal for their help in avenging her death. In the aftermath, tens of thousands of Israelites were killed by other Israelites, with one tribe nearly wiped out (19-21). I still recall my shock at discovering this account many years ago when I was reading the Bible cover to cover in an effort to sort out my growing doubts about the religion in which I had grown up. My already shaky faith in the Bible as the Word of God began to resemble the walls of Jericho.
As with the book of Joshua, the “history” in Judges is at best questionable, a mix of probably genuine historical memory, legend with some degree of factual basis, myth, and simple folk tale, sometimes all combined in a single story. The combination of multiple sources is indicated by inconsistencies and textural difficulties. Again, it is important to keep in mind that the compilers of Judges were not intent on creating a record of history as we understand it but were making a theological point about the outcome of Israel’s breaking of the covenant with Yahve. But, apart from examples of the result of apostasy, Judges is not a particularly religious book. Even the cult of Yahve seems degenerate; images, human sacrifice, deception, and theft are associated with worship of Yahve with no clear indication of it being unacceptable.
There is also a political theme summed up in the verse which concludes Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). The writer(s) was clearly an advocate for the later Davidic monarchy. The tribe of Benjamin and its city of Gibeah, later the home of King Saul who proceeded and opposed David, are the villains in the story of the Levite and his concubine. Several stories are critical of what became the northern kingdom of Israel. The clear inference in the story of the images and priest stolen by the tribe of Dan during its migration to the north is that Israel’s sanctuary at Shiloh, which was a competitor of the later Jerusalem temple, was founded upon theft as well as the forbidden cult of images (18). A reference to “the day of the captivity of the land” of northern Israel (18:20-21) establishes a date for the book of Judges sometime after the 722/721 BCE Assyrian conquest.
While the book in its current form is much later than the time in which it is set, parts of Judges are much older. The Song of Deborah ((5) is regarded as the oldest extensive fragment of Hebrew literature. Samson, whose name is related to a word for the sun may have originally been an ancient solar hero whose myth was absorbed into Hebrew tradition. The hair from which Samson’s strength was derived is similar to myths in which the hero’s hair symbolizes the strength of the rays of the sun.
Judges opens with what is believed to be a fragment of an early tenth century BCE chronicle which apparently was added to the beginning of the book. The conquest of Canaan after the death of Joshua is described with the tribe of Judah taking the lead (1:1-2:5). Some of the accounts parallel those of Joshua with one passage (1:11-15) duplicating the text of Joshua 15:13-19. The focus is on individual tribes and their success or failure in driving out the Canaanites.
What seems to be the original opening of the book begins in 2:6, picking up where the book of Joshua left off. After the death of Joshua, “there arose another generation . . . who did not know Yahve. . . . and served the Baals. . . .So the anger of Yahve was kindled against Israel and he gave them over to plunderers . . . and sold them into the power of their enemies round about” (2:10-11, 14). But Yahve eventually took pity on them and “raised up judges who saved them out of the power of those who plundered them” (2:16). But when the judges died the people inevitably returned to their evil ways and again brought down the wrath of Yahve in the form of an enemy oppressor. Again and again the same cycle repeats. The people of Israel “play the harlot” by worshipping other gods. Yahve is angry and sends an enemy to punish them. In fear and misery they repent whereupon Yahve sends a hero judge to save them. Things go well for a while. Then the “people of Yahve did what was evil in the sight of Yahve” again, and an enemy takes over until another deliverer is sent.
A number of the judges are only briefly mentioned with little description of their deeds. But some are described at length in detailed stories which for the most part lack a clear religious focus. A frequently repeated moralizing commentary along the lines of “the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of Yahve” ties the stories together but isn’t part of the stories themselves.
The first detailed story tells how Ehud, “raised up to deliver Israel,” assassinated the king of Moab. Ehud, who was left-handed, concealed a sword under his clothes on his right side when he delivered tribute money to the king. He asked for a confidential meeting with the king which was granted, whereupon he thrust the sword into the belly of the king who was very fat. The fat closed around the sword and “the dirt came out.” Leaving the sword in the king, Ehud calmly left, locking the door behind him. The king’s attendants assumed that the king was “relieving himself” but eventually broke in to find “their lord dead on the floor.” There followed a battle in which ten thousand Moabites were slain, “and the land had rest for eighty years” (3:15-30).
Again Israel fell into evil and, in a rare Old Testament instance of female leadership, the prophetess Deborah came to the rescue. She recruited Barak to lead an army against Sisera, the commander of the enemy army. Barak refused to go unless Deborah went with him. She agreed to do so but told him that a woman rather than himself would receive the glory of defeating Sisera. The enemy was defeated and Sisera fled. He found refuge in the tent of Jael, the wife of a member of non-Israelite tribe that was neutral in the war. While he was sleeping Jael drove a tent peg into the Sisera’s temple (4). Chapter 5 is the song, likely dating to near the time of the incidents it describes, sung by Deborah and Barak in celebration of their victory. The song describes the battle and their victory, praising those who responded to Barak’s call to arms, shaming and cursing those who refused Barak’s call, tells how Jael killed Sisera, and imagines his mother’s anxiety as she waits for him to return from battle which he of course never did. As the very ancient text in some places is so badly damaged as to be almost unintelligible (Oxford Annotated Bible note), parts of the translation are guesswork.
The story of Gideon (7-8) defeating a large army with only three hundred men is, along with the tale of Samson, one of the Judges stories I recall from childhood. There is an explicitly religious element to Gideon’s story with the once again wayward Israel reproved by an angel who then appeared to Gideon to tell him that he had been chosen to deliver Israel from the Midianites. As usual with those who receive a divine summons, Gideon protested that he was not up to the task but was given signs to prove he had been selected by Yahve. Gideon began by destroying his father’s altar to Baal. The neighbors were upset by what they saw as sacrilege, but Gideon’s father defended him saying that, if he was a god, Baal should be able to “contend for himself.” Gideon became known as Jerubbaal, “Let Baal contend.” However that name would seem to better befit a worshipper, not an opponent, of Baal. The Oxford Annotated Bible notes this along with the confusion of the two names that occurs in the text and other inconsistencies as evidence that several different sources were combined in the story of Gideon.
After defeating the Midianites, Gideon pursued their kings (probably better described as tribal chieftains) across the Jordan. He asked for food for his three hundred men from Succoth, an Israelite city, but was refused. After the capture of the kings, he returned to the city where he “took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them taught (apparently tortured) the men of Succoth” (8:16). Gideon refused a request that he become a king over Israel, saying that Yahve was the rightful ruler of Israel. The story of Gideon ends on a puzzling note with him collecting golden earrings, booty from the Midianites, to melt down and make an “ephod,” a mysterious object which seems to have some sort of cultic significance in that “Israel played the harlot after it, and it became a snare” (8:27).
After the death of his father, Gideon’s son by a concubine who lived in Shechem, the site of an important shrine in northern Israel, stirred up his mother’s people to kill his father’s seventy (!) legitimate sons and install himself as king. He ruled Israel for three difficult years until he was stuck down by a millstone thrown by a woman from a tower he was besieging. Not wanting the shame of having been killed by a woman, he asked one of his soldiers to run him through with a sword (9).
After the brief mention of several minor judges, there follows the story of Jephthah (11), the dishonored son of a harlot, who was called out of exile to deliver Israel. He rashly vowed to offer as a burnt offering the first thing to greet him on his arrival home if he was granted victory over the Ammonites. Much to his grief, his daughter met him with “timbrels and dance.” Jephthah had “opened my mouth to Yahve, and I cannot take back my vow.” His daughter asked to be allowed to “wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity” (an Oxford Bible note explains that to die childless was a terrible disgrace for an Israelite woman) for two months. “And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. . . . And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah four days in the year” (11:39-40). I wonder if that is perhaps an indication of some pre-existing ritual lamentation for a Near Eastern fertility goddess who died every year at the time of harvest that was observed with a new rationale in ancient Israel.
Jephthah also figures in the “Shibboleth” (a word meaning “ear of grain”) episode in which he led a fight against the tribe of Ephraim which had not come to aid him against the Ammonites. The defeated Ephraimites from the other side of Jordan tried to hide their tribal identity and escape back into their home territory. But sentries were stationed at the river fords to demand that anyone seeking to cross say the word “Shibboleth” which the Ephraimites mispronounced as “Sibboleth.” Betrayed by their accent, the fleeing Ephraimites were slain. (12:1-6).
Jephthah was followed by several judges about whom not much is said. It is strangely noted that one “had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy asses” (12:14). Then, after forty years of Philistine oppression Samson came along.
The story of Samson (13-16) begins promisingly with the annunciation of a hero to be. An angel appeared to a barren woman to tell her she would bear a son. The son would be “a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel.” His hair was not to be cut and his mother before the birth was to refrain from grapes (associated with the religion of the Canaanites), alcohol, and unclean things. Presumably the same restrictions applied to Samson. But evidently the vows of a Nazirite didn’t include sexual continence as Samson repeatedly got into trouble with Philistine women. However it seems that God was involved in even that, for Yahve through Samson’s amorous adventures "was seeking an occasion against the Philistines.” Samson’s affairs with Philistine women led to a series of encounters with wild beasts and Philistines from which Samson repeatedly escaped as “the Spirit of Yahve came mightily upon him” giving him great strength with which he killed his enemies.
Samson seems to be a kind of folklore character, strong in body but weak in mind. Despite being repeatedly betrayed by Delilah who, mistakenly believing that he had told her how to defeat his strength, set the Philistines upon him, he didn’t seem to catch on to what was happening. Finally he revealed the true secret of the link between his hair and strength, was given a haircut while he slept, and hauled away to be enslaved and ridiculed by his enemies. But Samson got his final revenge as his hair and strength grew back, and he pulled down the temple of the god Dagon on the Philistines and himself.
The story ends by saying that Samson judged Israel twenty years. But there is nothing to indicate that he did much of anything that wasn’t related to his sexual adventures. How he may have benefited Israel is less than clear. Sandmel describes the story of Samson as one of a folk hero transformed (to a degree) into a religious story. But the religious aspect of the story is almost entirely limited to the angel’s visit before his birth.
The book of Judges ends with two stories which make no reference to judges. The first (17-18) begins by somewhat confusingly describing a man, Micah, who first stole and then returned his mother’s silver. In thanks she consecrated it “to Yahve to make a graven image and a molten image” (17:3). The images were installed along with other cultic objects in Micah’s shrine which was presided over by his son. An editorial comment seeks to explain the discrepancy between the description of the shrine and Mosaic law, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6). When a wandering Levite who happened to be a grandson of Moses came along, Micah hired him as his family priest. But the tribe of Dan, on the move after they had failed to subjugate their allotted land, stole the objects in Micah’s shrine with the help of the Levite who had assured them that they had the blessing of Yahve. They then moved on to slaughter the peaceful inhabitants of the poorly defended northern city of Laish, which they renamed Dan and made their new home. The cultic objects stolen from Micah were installed in the shrine at Shiloh where they remained with the descendants of the Levite as priests until the Assyrian conquest.
The story of the Levite who turned his concubine over to a mob to save himself and the resulting war which almost exterminated the tribe of Benjamin ends Judges on a very dismal note with the repeated editorial comment: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).
The beautiful, short-story like (only four chapters) book of Ruth, which Rabbi Sandmel calls “the most appealing book in Hebrew scripture,” is a refreshing contrast to the dismal book of Judges. While set “in the days when the judges ruled,” on the basis of its use of a later form of Hebrew Ruth is believed to have been written some time between 450 and 250 BCE. That there is included an explanation of a “custom in former times” indicates that the story was written sometime after that custom was no longer practiced.
In its depiction of peaceful community life Ruth takes a viewpoint which is more cultural than religious. When Yahve is mentioned it is almost in passing. Unlike the books that come before it in the Old Testament, there is no concern with sacrifice, worship of gods other than Yahve, or conflict with non-Israelites. The writer of Ruth implicitly rejects Deuteronomy’s (23:3) prohibition against taking Moabites into the community as well as Ezra (10:1-5) and Nehemiah’s (13:23-27) harsh injunction against marriage with non-Jews. “Ruth reflects a post-exilic Jewish attitude at variance with that of Ezra and Nehemiah and thereby serves to restore a balance by expressing the opposite point of view from them on the subject of hospitality to aliens” (Samuel Sandmel, The Old Testament, p 493).
Ruth has none of the contradictions, inconsistencies, or disjointed narratives indicative of a composite nature in other biblical books. The relatively simple story is more character than action based. To escape a famine in Israel a married couple, Elimelech and Naomi, with their two sons moved to Moab where Elimelech died. The sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then the sons also died, leaving their wives childless. The famine in Israel ended and Naomi decided to return to her home in Bethlehem. Her widowed daughters-in-law wanted to go with her but she encouraged them to “return each of you to her mother’s house.” Orpah went “back to her people and her gods.” But Ruth, in the well known and beautiful passage, insisted on going with Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave you or return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your god my god; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried” (1:17).
The two women arrived in Bethlehem, where they were warmly welcomed, at the beginning of the barley harvest. As the two women were impoverished, Ruth went out to gleam, to gather what was left in the fields after the reapers had passed through the one time allotted in Mosaic law. Boaz, “a man of wealth” who was a kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband, heard about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and arranged for her to get extra shares of grain from his field. When Ruth came home with an unexpectedly large amount of barley Naomi asked her where she had gleamed and learned about Boaz’s kindness. Ruth continued to gleam in Boaz’s fields until the end of the barley and wheat harvests.
With the harvest ended, threshing began. Naomi suggested that Ruth avail herself of the custom of levirate (“brother-in-law”) marriage in which a surviving kinsman (in Deuteronomy 25:5-6 the brother of a decreased man but there is evidence from non-biblical Near Eastern texts that other relatives could be involved) was obligated to continue the family line by marrying the widow.
Naomi told the younger woman, “Wash therefore, and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (3:3-4).
Ruth followed Naomi’s instructions. “At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your maidservant; spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin.’ And he said, ‘May you be blessed by Yahve, my daughter; you have made this last kindness greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich’ “ (3:8-11).
Some commentators see indications of sexual activity in what was, whether literal or metaphorical, clearly a seduction. Boaz was very willing to take on his responsibility to Ruth, which also involved the purchase of land belonging to Naomi’s husband, but a nearer kinsman had first rights to the property. Promising to talk with the other kinsman, Boaz told Ruth to leave early in the morning before anyone could know that they had spent the night together and sent her home with six measures of barley.
Boaz sat down at the city gate, which was more than just an entrance to Bethlehem. In the ancient Near East city gates were a kind of public square where people hung out and transacted business. The kinsman came by and Boaz explained the situation. He was interested until Boaz informed him that in addition to buying the field from Naomi he would be buying Ruth “in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance” (4:5). As doing that would complicate the inheritance of his own line, the man declined, clearing the way for Boaz to marry Ruth. The agreement was sealed by what the text explains as “the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging” in which the two men formally stated their agreement after which they exchanged sandals.
The people at the gate witnessed the transaction, affirming the agreement and offering their blessing on the expected progeny, interestingly including a reference to another levirate union: “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (4:12). Perez was born from Tamar’s seduction, disguised as a harlot, of Judah, the father of her deceased husband (Genesis 38). He was also an ancestor of Boaz.
Ruth and Boaz had a son, who seems to have been a replacement of her sons for Naomi who “took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David” (4:16-17).
The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy of ten generations from Perez to David which resembles Genesis’ list of the ten generations from Seth to Noah. Boaz is the seventh generation in the book of Ruth’s genealogy; in Genesis’ list Enoch, “who walked with God” is in seventh place. David ends one list; Noah is last in the other. In the New Testament Matthew 1:1-18 and Luke 3:23-38 expand, but somewhat differently, the genealogy in both directions to extend from Adam to Joseph, the step-father of Jesus.
1 & 2 Samuel
(Unless otherwise designated, I am using “Samuel” to refer to both 1 and 2 Samuel). 1 and 2 Samuel through 1 and 2 Kings were originally two books which in the Hebrew Tanak were not divided into smaller volumes until late in the medieval era. In the Septuagint Greek translation of Hebrew scripture the four books are titled I-IV Kingdoms, fitting titles for their accounts of the troubled history of monarchy in ancient Israel and Judah.
It is believed that there are two distinct narratives, from different times, running through Samuel and Kings. The so-called early source, sort of a first edition, takes a positive attitude towards kingship. As both Samuel Sandmel and the notes in my Oxford Annotated Bible point out, the early narrator of Samuel was a masterful story teller who perhaps should be awarded the "father of history" title usually given to the Greek Herodotus who lived five hundred years later. The later source has nothing good to say about monarchy, depicting Israel's crowning of a king as a national disaster that led Israel away from Yahve into eventual exile. The later source is thought to have been written in Judah sometime after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel when things weren’t going well in Judah either.
A post-exilic editor(s) combined but didn't reconcile the two accounts and inserted some poems along with other material, resulting in a choppy, sometimes confusing narrative that’s especially apparent in 1 Samuel. The two narrative threads jump back and forth in time, with things that seemingly happened earlier in a later place in the book. Some parts, including whole chapters, are displaced from where they logically should be. Story details are sometimes inconsistent. Samuel is depicted as a judge ruling all Israel; then he is a local “seer” (clairvoyant) previously unknown to Saul who came to him seeking help in finding some straying asses and left as the anointed future king of Israel (1 Samuel 8 & 9). David was brought to Saul’s court as a musician to sooth the troubled king who “loved him greatly” and made David his armor bearer (1 Samuel 16:14-23). Then in the next chapter Saul has to inquire about the identity of the young man who killed Goliath (17:55-57). Having learned David’s identity, Saul then brought him to his court for the first time. In 1 Samuel 17 Goliath was killed by David but according to 2 Samuel 21:19 Goliath was killed at another time by one of David's warriors named Elhanan. In the most intact Dead Sea Scroll manuscript of Samuel the height of Goliath is described as a believable but still tall for that time six feet. But over time the legend and Goliath's height apparently grew. In later manuscripts he is ten feet tall.
There are many other problems with the text which became corrupt as it was repeatedly copied with attendant errors over time. Words, phrases, and whole texts were left out. The numerical count for Saul’s age and years of reign are missing from the text in 1 Samuel 13:1 (the translators of the KJV tried to supply the missing numbers by guessing). Some things were added by later editors. There are major differences between the Masoretic Hebrew text on which most translations are based and the Septuagint as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls Samuel manuscripts. Some of the problems have been cleared up with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The best preserved and most extensive Samuel manuscript in the Dead Sea Scrolls has a previously unknown paragraph that belongs at beginning of 1 Samuel 11, an account that Josephus knew and included in his first century CE Antiquities of the Jews. That passage has been restored in some recent scholarly editions of the Bible.
But however much the text may have been altered and damaged between the time of original writing and its incorporation into the Hebrew canon, the stories told in Samuel are well constructed narratives. 2 Samuel, apart from some misplaced sections (chapters 21 and 24 probably should come before chapter 9), has fewer of the textual problems of 1 Samuel. The Oxford Annotated Bible’s introduction to the book describes it as “one of the most clearly written, most homogenous, and most easily understood of all biblical books.” Chapters 9-20, detailing David’s domestic and political affairs, are particularly well written. It has been suggested that those passages were written by someone contemporary with the incidents described.
While, like the rest of the Bible, Samuel is more concerned with theology than history, the events depicted are believed by most scholars to be a relatively accurate representation of life in ancient Israel. Archaeologists have found evidence of increased settlement and centralization of power in areas described by Samuel as connected with the early monarchy. Extra-biblical references to the “House of David,” dated as early as the 9th century BCE have been discovered, challenging notions that David was not a historical figure.
The types of events and activities described by Samuel differ from those in the Pentateuch. Yahve rarely speaks directly to people; divine messages are for the most part conveyed by prophets. Apart from military victories and plague outbreaks attributed to Yahve, there are no miracles or direct divine interventions. Events are more secular, for the most part resulting from the actions of human beings. Apart from the call of Samuel, Yahve is not directly encountered but it is clear that he is behind everything, good or bad, that happens.
Obedience to Yahve is of paramount importance; what we think of as basic moral standards not so much. Saul was not reproved for trying to kill David but for his failure to wait for Samuel to offer a sacrifice instead of doing it himself (1 Samuel 13) and for saving the life of a captured enemy king, disregarding Samuel’s order to “utterly destroy” the enemy. After denouncing Saul, telling him his descendants will not inherit the throne of Israel, Samuel “hewed in pieces” the captive king (1 Samuel 15), an action that would be considered an immoral war crime today. David’s affair with Bathsheba and sending her husband to be killed in battle was reproved, with the child born from the affair dying (2 Samuel 9), but his census (as in Numbers a counting of men available for military service) of Israel brought down worse punishment. Confusingly, in an narrative that goes around in circles, Yahve is described as having “incited” David to “Go number Israel” and then killed “seventy thousand men,” out of the eight hundred thousand numbered in the census as punishment for what he had led David to do (2 Samuel 24). Belief that everything, evil as well as good, comes from God is pervasive throughout the Old Testament. Perhaps two unrelated events, the census and an outbreak of disease, were associated with Yahve as the causal connecting agent.
There are three main characters in the books of Samuel: Samuel the prophet who is also portrayed as the last judge of Israel, Saul the first king, and David the most glorious of all Israel’s kings. 1 Samuel covers the period from the birth of the prophet Samuel to the death of King Saul. 2 Samuel is entirely about David, one of the most fully developed and appealing characters in Hebrew scripture. Before being proclaimed king, but with Samuel having already anointed him, David was sort of a Robin Hood figure, fleeing from Saul’s attempts to kill him, out in the wilds with a band of outlaws but still effectively fighting against Israel’s enemies. Which of course made him an appealing hero figure for me as a child. His story is for me still one of the most compelling in the Bible.
I knew David mostly from Arthur Maxwell’s The Bible Story. But there were some troubling details that Uncle Arthur left out in his retelling of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. Such as Saul demanding one hundred foreskins of the uncircumcised Philistines as the price of giving his daughter to David, and David coming in with two hundred Philistine penises to claim his bride (1 Samuel 18:20-30). Or the "Spirt of the Lord" coming upon Saul so that he "stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel, and lay naked all that day and all that night” (1 Samuel 19:18-24) There is another account (1 Samuel 10:5-6) or perhaps another version of the same incident in which Samuel told the newly anointed Saul that he would encounter a band of prophets “coming down from the high place (typically in the OT the place where gods other than Yahve were worshipped) with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre, prophesying. Then the spirit of Yahve will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man.” Which incident is puzzlingly said to have given rise to a proverb, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” Then there was David’s (2 Samuel 6:20-23) near naked dance, which outraged his wife, before the ark as it was brought to Jerusalem. Apparently dancing and nudity were part of the ecstatic visionary experience of prophets in ancient Israel. Maybe something like the naked holy men of India?
1 Samuel begins with the promise of a son to a barren woman named Hannah. In return for Yahve “opening her womb” she would give the child “to Yahve all the days of his life” (1:11). In due time Samuel was born and taken to Eli, the priest of the shrine at Shiloh, in fulfillment of Hannah’s vow. At this point in the text there is inserted a poem/psalm (which according to an Oxford Bible note is really a psalm of national thanksgiving) which became the model for the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:46-55. Luke (2:52) also borrowed “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with Yahve and man” (1 Samuel 2:26) to make it a description of Jesus as a youth. While still a boy assisting the priest, Samuel was “called” by Yahve who told him that Eli’s corrupt sons would not be allowed to succeed him. It is not directly stated but implied that Samuel would be Eli’s successor. After the detailed account of Samuel’s birth and childhood call he becomes a more vague figure who led Israel in times of crisis, anointed as king first Saul and then David, and instructed/reproved Saul.
1 Samuel 4-7 is an account of how the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant which was foolishly taken into battle in the belief that it would help Israel. When Eli, who was ninety eight years old and blind, heard of this terrible development he fell backward out of his seat, breaking his neck. But the ark brought “tumors” (perhaps bubonic plague) upon the Philistines who decided to send it, along with five golden sculptures of “tumors” and five golden mice, off on a cart pulled by unattended cows who unerringly brought it back to Israel. There was much rejoicing with the cows sacrificed as a thanksgiving offering to Yahve. However Yahve “made a great slaughter” of seventy Israelite men who “looked into the ark.” After the people followed Samuel’s instruction to “put away the foreign gods,” Yahve helped drive the Philistines out of Israel.
There follow conflicting accounts of Yahve’s attitude, as conveyed by Samuel, towards the people’s demand that they be given a king (8-10). At Yahve’s direction, Saul was anointed but not yet proclaimed king, something which Saul didn’t disclose when he got back home with good news about missing asses he went in search of. Then Samuel called an assembly (chapter 10 which more logically should follow chapter 8) in which he denounced the request for a king before casting lots to choose the king. The lot fell to Saul, who however was hiding. Yahve (through Samuel?) revealed Saul’s hiding place from which he was brought to be acclaimed as the king. But not until after a decisive victory over the Ammonites was he actually installed as king.
Initially Saul, who is described as standing head and shoulders above everyone else, was an effectual leader, defeating enemies and acting as a judge over Israel. Then he made a mistake in offering a sacrifice himself rather than waiting for the tardy arrival of Samuel (13). The promise of an eternal kingly dynasty was taken away. He again failed to follow Samuel’s instructions and saved the life of a captive king along with the flocks and herds of the enemy. Yahve “repented” of having made Saul king and sent Samuel to again denounce him. Saul blamed “the people” who saved the animals to sacrifice to Yahve. To which Samuel replied, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” words that I well remember from my religious indoctrination although I don’t think I knew their origin. Yahve demanded perfect obedience; for this failure Saul was “rejected from being king over Israel.” The kingship would be given to “a neighbor” (15) who turned out to be David.
There followed the secret anointing of David and his entrance into the court of Saul as a musician to sooth Saul from whom “the spirt of Yahve departed, and an evil spirit from Yahve tormented him. . . . And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him” (16:14, 23).
I Samuel 17 tells the well-known story of David the shepherd boy, in this account as yet unknown to Saul, killing Goliath the giant champion of the Philistines. In chapter 18 David was brought to Saul’s court. Saul’s son, Jonathan, “made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” David proved his worth as a soldier and was “set over the men of war.” But David began to outshine Saul, with women greeting him upon his return from battling the Philistines singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” In an envious rage Saul twice tried but failed to spear David.
Saul’s jealous mania seemed to wax and wane, sometimes treating David well; other times trying to kill him. Eventually David fled with the help of Samuel, his wife who was also Saul’s daughter, and Jonathan. Until the death of Saul along with Jonathan in battle, David remained in hiding with a band of men who gathered about him who he led against various enemies of Israel. Eventually David took refuge with the Philistines who excused him from going with them to fight against Israel.
2 Samuel 1:19-27 quotes from “The Book of Jashar” (also cited in Joshua 10:13) the “How are the mighty fallen” lamentation of David over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. David gradually moved into the position for which Samuel had anointed him, taking leadership first over Judah and then, after negotiations with the other tribes and “a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” in which David proved stronger, becoming king of all Israel (2 Samuel 2-3. All the following citations are from 2 Samuel). With the capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, who were the last remaining Canaanites, the court of David was moved from Hebron to what became known for all time as “the city of David” (5:6-10). Further battles and various treaties eventually extended the territory of Israel to the boundaries of the Pentateuch’s “Promised Land.”
While David was very successful in battle, he was plagued with domestic problems. He had a number of wives, at least ten concubines, and many children. Michal, the daughter of Saul and David’s first wife who was given to him in exchange for Philistine foreskins, helped David escape from her father, but then was given (by Saul?) to another man. David reclaimed her despite her second husband who “went with her, weeping after her” until he was ordered to turn back (3:16). But things did not go well with Michal who was scandalized by David’s dance wearing only a loin cloth before the returning ark. David angrily responded to her protests about his performance and apparently no longer had sexual relations with her as she remained childless (6:20-23). Then there was the affair with Bathsheba in which she became pregnant, the virtual murder of her husband which cleared the way for David to marry her, confrontation by the prophet Nathan, and the death of the child born to Bathsheba who, however, later gave birth to Solomon (11:2-12:24).
The tragic story of Absalom is the most extensive episode in 2 Samuel (13-19). It began when one of David’s sons, Amnon, overcome with lust for his half-sister, Tamar, raped her after which he refused to redeem her honor by marrying her. David was angry but did nothing. Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, however avenged her by killing Amnon after which he fled. Joab, David’s chief general whose good intentions sometimes didn’t turn out well, intervened with David to bring Absalom back home. But Absalom conspired against the king and gained a following which crowned him king in Hebron after which he moved on Jerusalem. David and his court fled with the sacred Ark of the Covenant, leaving his ten concubines “behind to keep the house.” Absalom occupied Jerusalem, taking his father’s concubines for himself, something that apparently represented succession to the throne. Eventually David’s more skilled soldiers defeated those of Absalom who fled upon a mule. Riding under a tree, his head (not his hair! 18:9) was caught in the branches where he hung suspended until Joab killed him. David withdrew in deep mourning. Joab reproved him: “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and concubines. . . . For I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. . . . Then the king arose, and took his seat in the gate. . . . And all the people came before the king” (19:5-8). There followed another revolt that took “all Israel” except for Judah away from David but was quelled by Joab (20). Throughout the reign of David there are indications of tensions between Judah and the other tribes of Israel which eventually led to the divided monarchy after the death of Solomon.
Chapter 22 of 2 Samuel is song of praise for deliverance which is duplicated in Psalm 18. There is another poem (23:1-7) which is represented as the last words of David, although there is no account of his death until the beginning of 1 Kings, followed by a list of “the mighty men whom David had” along with their exploits (23:8-39) which includes at the end, with no reference to his exploits, marriage, or manner of his death, “Uriah the Hittite,” the husband of Bathsheba.
1 & 2 Kings
Like the other numbered books of the Old Testament, 1 and 2 Kings were originally one book. Kings continues Samuel’s narrative, relating events from the death of David to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Kings might more fittingly be entitled “The Decline and Fall of Ancient Israel” as that is basically what is described with one king after another, with a few exceptions, condemned as unfaithful to Yahve who finally decided to turn his disobedient people over to their enemies for punishment. According to Kings the reigns of David and Solomon were forty years each, which would mean that Israel as a united nation lasted only eighty years. Although forty years perhaps shouldn’t be taken literally as that number is often used in the Bible to simply signify a relatively long period of time.
It is generally accepted that there are two primary compositional threads from different periods running through Kings. The earlier account was probably written during or shortly after the reign of Josiah in Judah as it seems to have no awareness of the Babylonian conquest. The later part was composed during the Babylonian exile or shortly thereafter as indicated by references to exile and promises of return. Apparent archival records are repeatedly cited as sources for more information about specific kings: The Book of The Acts of Solomon, The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, and The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (which are not the biblical books of Chronicles). For the first time events reported in the biblical account can be reliably verified by non-biblical sources. Accounts of the military exploits of kings from surrounding nations collaborate some of the accounts in Kings, establishing specific dates as well as verifying the names of kings in Israel and Judah. Ruins of ancient Syrian temples match the description of Solomon’s temple. Accounts of the construction and dedication of the temple have parallels in the literature of ancient Mesopotamia and Ugarit.
1 Kings opens with the last days of David, who had become old and feeble, unable to stay warm. A beautiful young woman was found to chastely lie with him to provide warmth and nurse him. The prophet Nathan, who had reproved David for his relationship with Bathsheba, conspired with her to persuade David to name her son, Solomon, heir to the throne rather than David’s eldest surviving son. David proclaimed Solomon as king shortly before he died. After some drama and the killing of several people, including the older half brother, who represented threats to his rule, “the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon” (1 Kings 2:49).
After several chapters detailing the building and dedication of the Jerusalem temple, the construction of Solomon’s palace, the visit of the Queen of Sheba (whose kingdom was probably located not in modern Ethiopia but Yemen), and verses boasting of his wealth and wisdom, Solomon’s reign is for the most part quickly passed over. He started out well, for “Solomon loved Yahve, walking in the statutes of David his father” (3:3). But as time went on problems emerged which Kings blames on the fact that he “loved many foreign women” (11:1), although his many wives probably had more to do with politics than love. It seems likely that his marriages were related to alliances made with other nations/tribes. Eventually he had a claimed “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (11:3) (it’s hard to believe that he could have had personal/sexual relationships with that many women!) who brought their gods and worship customs with them and “when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (11:4). His massive building projects required increased taxation and slave labor, creating resentment. Long standing tensions between Judah, the tribe of David, and the other tribes of Israel increased, bringing disaster after his death.
Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials, encountered a prophet who told him that because of Solomon’s worship of other gods ten of the twelve tribes would be taken away with Jeroboam ruling over the seceding tribes. However the kingdom of David would not be split until after the death of Solomon. This prophetic passing along of punishment for the sins of a king to his son which is repeated throughout Kings would seem to be an editorial explanation couched as prophetic utterance for why some wicked kings had lengthy reigns. The fate of the tribe of Benjamin is unclear; some verses indicate that it was with Judah, others mention only ten northern tribes of Israel and the single tribe of Judah. Some scholars think it was either split between the northern and southern kingdoms or at some point absorbed into Judah.
After the death of Solomon there was a protest against the burdens that he had placed on his subjects. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, foolishly disregarded the advice of his elders to lighten the load on people, instead listening to “the young men who had grown up with him” who told him to “add to the yoke” imposed by his father: “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (12:11). This was “a turn of affairs brought about by Yahve that he might fulfill his word spoken” by the prophet to Jeroboam (12:15) whom the ten rebellious tribes of Israel proclaimed as their king. Rehoboam made preparations for war against the now separate nation of Israel but was told by a prophet that “this thing is from me (Yahve)” (12:24) and called it off.
Jeroboam quickly established what in Kings is the standard measure for the wickedness of the kings of Israel. He sought to keep his subjects from going to the ritual center of Jerusalem by creating rival sacrificial sites to the temple, setting up golden calves (seemingly the standard idol for ancient Israel) in the northern shrine cities of Bethel and Dan.
A prophet from Judah came to Bethel to denounce Jeroboam as he was offering a sacrifice. The prophet had been told not to eat or drink until he was out of Judah. But another prophet lied to him, saying that Yahve had told him to tell his fellow prophet that he should eat with him. The Judean prophet believed him, but during the meal “the word of Yahve” came to the prophet who had invited him to dinner, denouncing his guest for having disobeying a divine directive. His body would not “come to the tomb of your fathers.” On this way home the Judean was killed by a lion. The lying prophet found the body and buried it in Israel (13:1-32). It is difficult to understand just what the point of this strange story might be other than demonstrating the fate of those who failed to obey Yahve’s directives, even when mislead by a prophet.
1 Kings 14 begins a pattern of interweaving accounts of the kings of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel with added comments as to whether they were good or wicked. All of the kings of Israel are described as bad, with the repeated phrase “___________ did what was evil in the sight of Yahve; he did not depart all his days from the sins of Jeroboam, which he made Israel to sin.” Most of Judah’s kings were also wicked in permitting the worship of other deities, sometimes even in the Jerusalem temple, but some did follow the “ways of Yahve.” But most of the good Judean kings still failed to destroy the high places of sacrifice which competed with the temple.
In the southern kingdom Solomon’s son “did what was evil in the sight of Yahve.” Shishak, the “king of Egypt” raided Jerusalem, looting the temple and the royal palace, the first of several times that the treasure of the temple would be carried off or given away as tribute to keep other kings from invading Judah. (Fragments of a stela erected by Shishak, who also invaded Israel, have been found at Megiddo). Objects that Solomon had made of gold were replaced by copies made of bronze (14:25-28). This was one of several instances in which temple treasure was either given away as tribute or looted by an enemy (once by Israel when they sacked Jerusalem - 2 Kings 14:11-14). I wonder just how much was left for the Babylonians to eventually carry away?
In Israel the death of Jeroboam was followed by a series of assassinations of kings and heirs to the throne in which whole families were wiped out. Kings goes through several listings with brief descriptions of the kings of both kingdoms, sometimes with similar or even identical names which make it difficult to keep them all straight. Only particularly wicked or good kings get fuller accounts. In the northern kingdom Ahab who married a Phoenician, the infamous Jezebel who brought her gods along with her to Israel, gets several chapters as one of the most wicked of Israel’s generally bad rulers. In Judah Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and especially the reformer Josiah stand out as good kings who “did what was right in the eyes of Yahve.”
Prophets, some named, others anonymous, appeared to advise and reprove as directed by Yahve the kings of both kingdoms. There are references to the somewhat mysterious “sons of the prophets” who appear to be, not the offspring of prophets, but individuals belonging to some sort of organization or collective of prophets, or perhaps disciples of more elder prophets. Of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha in Israel (1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 10) along with Isaiah in Judah get the most attention.
Stories involving the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha, are the part of Kings that I remember best from my childhood. Elijah is introduced as an opponent of Ahab and Jezebel. Several miracles, including raising from the dead and multiplication of food, were performed by Elijah. In the most dramatic Elijah episode he challenged four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal along with four hundred of Asherah, Baal’s consort, to a contest to see whose god would send down fire to consume a sacrifice. Of course Yahve won, upon which Elijah slaughtered all the prophets of the other gods (some commentators have suggested this was a human sacrifice to Yahve; in any case it is difficult to understand how he could have killed all eight hundred and fifty himself). A long drought brought on as punishment for neglect of Yahve ended and Elijah ran in front of Ahab’s chariot many miles through the driving rain to escort him back to the entrance of the city. Then, in fear of Jezebel, Elijah fled to Mt. Horeb, into a cave where Yahve confronted him with wondrous demonstrations of his power followed by a “still small voice” (Rabbi Sandmel says that a better translation would be “out of the still, a voice” (17-18).
Elijah denounced Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of a man whose vineyard Ahab coveted, foretelling their deaths in which Ahab’s blood would be licked by dogs and Jezebel eaten by the same animals. After Yahve put a “lying spirit in the mouths” of Ahab’s prophets predicting success in an alliance with the king of Judah against Syria, Ahab died in battle and dogs licked up blood that drained from his chariot. Jezebel was thrown out a window and her body devoured by dogs who left behind only her skull, feet, and hands (1 Kings 21; 22:38; 2 Kings 9:30-37).
Elisha was anointed by Elijah as his successor, receiving his mantle when Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11 - following references are to 2 Kings). Forty-two boys who ridiculed Elisha were cursed by him and killed by bears. A number of miracles, some closely resembling those of Elijah, performed by Elisha are related in chapters 4-8. A couple of the miracles involved Syrians. He traveled to Damascus where he foretold the murder of the Syrian king by his successor who had been appointed by Yahve to punish Israel. He was also behind the scenes in events that brought about the extinction of the house of Ahab (8:7-15; 9-10). In death, Elisha performed one last miracle when a burial party frightened by “a marauding band” hurriedly tossed a body into his grave. “As soon as the (dead) man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet” (13:21).
2 Kings relates an incident which seems to indicate that gods other than Yahve had some real power. When a battle with Israel was not going well for him, the king of Moab offered his son as a burnt offering on the wall of his city. “And there came a great wrath upon Israel (apparently from the Moabite god pleased by the human sacrifice); and they withdrew and returned to their own land” (3:27).
The boundaries of Israel shrank as conquered territories revolted and broke away. Eventually it became a vassal of the king of Assyria against whom the Israel king revolved by forming an alliance with Egypt. The king of Assyria responded by invading Israel, capturing the capital Samaria after a three year siege, “and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria,” scattering them into other parts of the Assyrian empire. Israel no longer existed as a nation, with the ten tribes “lost” to history after the Assyrian conquest in 721 BCE. Of the twelve tribes that had entered the Promised Land, only Judah was left.
Other captive people were settled in what had been Israel. But Yahve “sent lions among them, which killed some of them.” Assyrian officials told the king, “The nations which you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria (as the former Israel was renamed after what had been its capital) do not know the law of the god of the land.” It was decided to send one of the exiled Israelite priests back to “teach them the law of the god of the land.” So a priest came “and taught them how they should fear Yahve.” But while “they feared Yahve (they) also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away” (17). So began the Judean disparagement of the Samaritans which continued into the time of Jesus. However some historians believe that the split between Judaism and the Samaritans occurred after the return the Jews to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian Captivity. Whatever their origin, the Samaritans, who still exist in present day Israel, practice a monotheistic religion closely resembling that of ancient Israel with their sole scripture a version of the Pentateuch ().
In Judah there were good and bad kings. One of the worse was Ahaz, who “even burned his son as an offering.” He bribed the Assyrian king, Tiglathpileser, with the temple gold and silver to protect him from Syria and the not yet fallen Israel, necessitating extensive changes to the temple. But his son, Hezekiah (obviously not the son who was sacrificed!), was very different. “He did what was right in the eyes of Yahve. . . He removed the high places, and broke down the pillars, and cut down the Asherah (a wooden pole sacred to the goddess Asherah). And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it. . . There was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him” (18:5). He rebelled against vassalage to Assyria, causing Sennacherib to invade Judah, whereupon Hezekiah apparently tried to bribe him with gold and silver stripped from the temple and royal palace but either then or at another time (whether there were one or two invasions is disputed by scholars) the Assyrian king still laid siege to Jerusalem. 2 Kings 18:13-20:19 duplicates word for word with minor variations Isaiah 36-38’s accounts of the interactions of Hezekiah with the prophet Isaiah during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem which failed due to divine intervention, Hezekiah’s illness, and the king’s mistake in showing the treasures of Israel to envoys from Babylon. Isaiah prophesied that it along with Hezekiah’s heirs would all be carried away to Babylon after his death.
Hezekiah was succeeded by his son, Manasseh, who undid all the reforms of his father, going so far as to install altars to foreign deities in the “house of Yahve” and offer his son as a burnt offering. “Manasseh seduced (Judah) to do more evil than the nations had done whom Yahve had destroyed” ((21:9). The next king followed a similar path until he was murdered by his servants whereupon his eight year old son, Josiah, was made king.
Josiah “did what was right in the eyes of Yahve, and walked in the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (22:2). In the eighteenth year of his reign Josiah gave orders for the repairing of the temple. In the course of setting the temple straight “The Book of the Law,” thought to have been an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, was found and brought to Josiah who was horrified to learn how far Judah had strayed from “the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (22:13). The “book of the covenant which had been found in the house of Yahve” was given a public reading after which “the king . . . made a covenant before Yahve . . . to perform the words of the covenant that were written in the book; and all the people joined in the covenant” (23:3). There followed a major reform effort in which all the objects associated with the cults of other gods were destroyed along with the high places and their priests. “Moreover Josiah put away the mediums and the wizards and the teraphim (thought to have been household gods) and the idols and all the abominations” (23:24). Jerusalem was firmly established as the only place of worship and Passover observed for the first in a long time. Although a prophet had declared that the reign of Josiah would be peaceful, “Yahve did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath . . . because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him” (23:26). This seems an obvious, rather unconvincing attempt to explain why such a righteous king and his kingdom had a terrible fate. Because of his grandfather’s misdeeds Josiah was killed in battle against the Egyptian pharaoh and Judah became a vassal state to Egypt.
The son of Josiah who followed him on the throne took more after his grandfather than his father, doing “what was evil in the sight of Yahve.” But he didn’t have much time for evil as the pharaoh who controlled Judah removed him after just three months and installed another son of Josiah by a different wife in his place. A few years later he died and was succeeded by his son. By then the Neo-Babylonians/Chaldeans had defeated both Egypt and Assyria to become the dominant power in the Near East. “At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged.” The Judean king quickly surrendered and was carried off along with his family, palace officials, and “all of the treasures of the house of Yahve” to Babylon. “Only the poorest of the people of the land” remained (although there apparently were still some ruling class people remaining to be killed or exiled a few years later when Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Babylonians) .
Nebuchadnezzar put an uncle of the captive former king in his place (24). In the ninth year of his reign, the puppet king rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar who responded with a siege of Jerusalem that lasted two years. With famine decimating the city, the king “with all the men of war” escaped through a breach in the wall. The Babylonians caught up with them at Jericho, scattering what was left of the Judean army and capturing the king. His sons were brought and executed “before his eyes” after which he was blinded and taken in fetters to Babylon. The captain of Nebuchadnezzar’s bodyguard “burned the house of Yahve, and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down” (25:9). The city walls were broken down and remaining officials of the king executed. All but the “poorest of the land” who were left to tend crops, were taken into exile. A governor was appointed to run what was left of Judah but was killed during a revolt after which the rebels fled to Egypt (25).
That Kings makes no mention of Jeremiah, who according to the book bearing his name was very involved with events before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem, is surprising. Especially given Kings’ duplication of several chapters of Isaiah detailing that prophet’s dealings with Hezekiah during several crises.
Thirty-seven years after going into exile, the king taken captive at the end of the first siege was invited to sit at the royal table in Babylon and given an allowance (25:27-30). So the book of Kings ends with the somewhat hopeful news that the Davidic dynasty had not completely died out. But kingdom of David that was supposed to last forever in fact came to an end about four hundred years after its founding.
This has been a long one! I am probably leaving out some important bits but I’m glad to finally be at the end of these rather dismal two books. Here are some random reflections that come up for me in thinking back over what I’ve read:
Apart from the cycle of stories about Elijah and Elisha which likely came from its own source, there is very little mention of anyone who wasn’t either a king or a prophet. It’s hard to get a sense of what life was like for ordinary people. But then again the title of the book indicates that it isn’t about the common people.
Kings is most concerned with allegiance to Yahve as the only god; following the requirements of the covenant between him and his chosen people is of paramount importance. The worse sin is sacrifice to other gods; there is much less concern about dealings with other people. The story of Ahab and Jezebel’s stolen vineyard is just about the only instance in which a prophet denounces a king for a wrong done to another person. The goodness or evil of the nations of Judah and Israel is more or less equated with the relationship of the ruler to Yahve. Surely not everyone “did what was evil in the sight of Yahve” just because the king did or went along, for instance, with the reforms of Josiah. Yet divine judgement of the entire nation is represented as being dependent on the king’s behavior. Of course this, however unrealistic it might be, is characteristic of many monarchal traditions in which ruler and the country ruled are equated.
It seems clear that the apparently usual practice of royal polygamy could greatly complicate the issue of succession to the throne. Royal brothers with different mothers who may have grown up in separate households were rivals for their father’s blessing, sometimes resulting in royal fratricide.
Actually it is hard to think of the books of Kings as inspiring, motivating one to do good, etc. unless “doing good” is defined as worshipping the right deity in the right way out of fear . That seems to be the primary message in these books, and perhaps most of the Old Testament as a whole.
1 & 2 Chronicles
The two (originally one) books of Chronicles are rather an oddity. Evidently someone living during the time of the exile or shortly thereafter decided to rewrite the story of Israel-Judah from the reign of David through the beginning of the Babylonian exile using as sources not only Samuel and Kings but parts of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Psalms, and Ruth plus sixteen otherwise unknown sources cited in the text. Parts of Chronicles are obviously derived from Samuel and Kings with alterations, omissions, additions, and rearrangements to emphasize the role of the Jerusalem temple. While Samuel-Kings is centered on the history of the monarchy, Chronicles is about the institution of the temple. Chapter after chapter describes various aspects of the temple and the people involved with it. It is questionable how much is based on historical realities as opposed to presenting an idealized picture of what the author(s) believed should have been.
Prophets have a lesser role than in Samuel-Kings while that of priests and Levites is much greater. Elijah appears only in the form of a letter of reproof sent to a wayward Judean king. Isaiah and Jeremiah are briefly mentioned.
The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are series of complex genealogies from Adam to - well it’s hard to say. The last set is the family of Saul and his descendants but sorting out all the fathers and sons, along with the few mothers and daughters mentioned, would require a very large genealogical chart.
Chapter 10 describes the death of Saul and his sons. Then David was crowned king after which he captured Jerusalem. Much of the David narrative in Samuel is passed over except for accounts of David’s mighty men which go back to when he was fleeing from Saul and brief mentions of his military conquests. There is nothing about his anointing by Samuel, who isn’t in Chronicles at all, David’s relations with Saul and Jonathan, or his slaying Goliath. (Although 1 Chronicles 20: 5 seems to clear up the confusion in 1 Samuel 17 and 2 Samuel 21:19 as to who killed Goliath by having one of David’s men kill Goliath’s brother rather than Goliath himself). The bringing of the ark to Jerusalem is a much grander event than it is in Samuel, involving a great many Levites officiating in various ways and playing music along with “David and the elders of Israel, and the commanders of thousands.” David danced and “made merry” wearing more clothes than he did in Samuel but still drew his wife’s scorn (1 Chronicles 15). The psalm of thanksgiving for the arrival of the ark in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 16:8-35) is made up of borrowings from Psalms 105:1-15, 96:1-13, and 106:1, 47-48.
David and Solomon are depicted as ideal righteous rulers. There is no mention of David’s affair with Bathsheba and murder of her husband or the rape of Tamar and rebellion of Absalom. The only problematic incident involving David is the census which Yahve punished with a plague. It seems likely that only reason that story was included is because it explains how David acquired the site on which the temple was built. While Samuel (2 Samuel 24) states that Yahve incited David to take the census for which he then punished all Israel, 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that “Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to number Israel,” reflecting changes in Jewish theology that emerged from the Babylonian exile. No longer was Yahve the source of everything, evil as well as good, that happened. Influenced by Persian dualism, “The Accuser” vaguely depicted elsewhere in Hebrew scripture as a member of the divine court was moving towards becoming the independent agent of evil he would eventually become in Christianity.
According to Chronicles, David planned the temple, collected materials for it, and established every detail of how the priests and Levites would serve in it. There are a number of chapters describing in detail what was to be done by whom, naming temple staff (and their genealogies!) with duties ranging from guarding the temple gates to performing music. The role of the singers is particularly emphasized, leading some commentators to think that Chronicles was written by a Levite who was a temple singer. It is highly unlikely that such elaborate rituals existed during the time of David when the ark was housed in a tent. Scholars believe that the distinction Chronicles makes between priests and the rest of the Levites didn’t exist until after the return from exile and the building of the Second Temple. The description of the temple and its services, like much of Chronicles, is highly idealized and may not correspond to the reality of the rebuilt temple either. In any case, the numbers given of people performing various duties and sacrifices offered are, like many biblical numbers, highly unlikely.
Solomon, like his father, is represented as a near perfect king. Kings’ account of the political intrigue connected with the beginning of his reign is not in Chronicles. Instead of backroom deals and murders, Solomon’s reign begins with a religious act, the offering of a thousand burnt offerings at Gibeon where the tent of meeting (without the ark which was in another tent in Jerusalem) was (2 Chronicles 1). 2 Chronicles 2-7 describes the building of the temple and its dedication with a dedicatory prayer (6:41-42) adapted from Psalm 132:8-10. There are some interesting variations from the description of the temple in Kings. The vestibule in Chronicles is for instance approximately 200 feet high, four times its height in Kings.
As with David, the faults of Solomon noted in Kings don’t appear in Chronicles. The only reference to his many foreign wives involves the building of a separate house for his Egyptian wife so she wouldn’t be near the holy place where the ark was (2 Chronicles 8:11). The visit of the Queen of Sheba, and Solomon’s wisdom and wealth is described as in Kings. But the story of the two harlots both claiming the same baby isn’t in Chronicles and there is no mention of him worshipping other gods.
After the split into two kingdoms Chronicles focuses almost entirely on Judah, which is in several places referred to as “all Israel.” It was in fact the only part of ancient Israel still in existence when Chronicles was written The northern kingdom of Israel is mentioned only when there is some connection with events in Judah. War between Judah and Israel (2 Chronicles 13) is described as conflict between the true worship of Yahve and apostasy. Yahve’s Chosen People are the Judeans and no one else. There is nothing about the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria. The writer of Chronicles doesn’t seem very familiar with the northern kingdom; 2 Chronicles 25:13 mistakenly places Samaria and another northern city in Judea.
Chronicles account of the kings of Judah follows that of Kings with some changes including both omissions and expansions. The crowning of good king Joash following a ruler allied with wicked Ahab of Israel involved Levites and temple singers (2 Chronicles 23) rather than the military of Kings. According to 2 Kings 21:10-15 the evil done by the long reigning king Manasseh brought about the eventual destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. But according to 2 Chronicles 33:10-13 he was taken captive to Babylon by the Assyrians (it’s not clear why the Assyrians would take him there) where he repented. Yahve heard his prayer “and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom” where he eliminated the worship of gods other than Yahve. While there is nothing of this in Kings, there may be some historical basis for the account of his Assyrian captivity as his name appears in Assyrian inscriptions as a vassal to Assyrian rulers (Oxford Bible note).
After Josiah’s reforms as described in Kings, Chronicles follows a similar but somewhat briefer course with the last rather sorry kings of Judah, the Babylonian siege, destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and exile which fulfilled “the word of Yahve by the mouth of Jeremiah” (36:21). But there is a hopeful postscript in the last two verses, skipping past seventy years of exile to describe Cyrus making a proclamation ordering the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. In the Tanak 2 Chronicles is the last book; perhaps someone thought it needed to end on a hopeful note?
© 2021 James Moyers
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