© 2019 Rev. Rodney Schofield All Rights Reserved.
I want to begin with a summary of where we’re heading this morning, which is intended to be an overview of Israel’s history and the scriptures that emerged from it. In recent decades there’s been a lot of archaeological research alongside the ongoing textual study of the Bible and its literary development; and there seems to be a consensus which I quote here from the Pontfical Biblical Commission:
Oral traditions about the ancestors of the patriarchal period were recovered and reinterpreted … in a largely theological and symbolic form. The acknowledgement of God as the Creator of all … is the fruit of Israel’s history.
This can be expanded a little as follows. 1) Israel’s religious traditions reflect the conclusion of a long process; the Hebrew Bible is the outcome of Israel’s lived experience over a thousand years and more, and presents a deeply spiritual – and of course theological – interpretation of all that has gone before. 2) In an earlier phase the worship of Yahweh was probably followed by one faction or tribe alone, who eventually achieved political dominance in the larger assembly we know as Israel, and with considerable success promoted their own religion over rival beliefs and customs (although some of these were never quite extinguished). 3) Although the Old Testament has writings and reminiscences which predate the Babylonian Exile (in the 6th century BC), its final form emerged during and after that time, as a response to the Exile and of course to the continuing impact of the outside world. 4) What scribes then recorded of the past was not intended merely as an archival exercise but very much as guidance and inspiration for times yet to come.
So now we start to look at some of the evidence that has emerged, either in extra-biblical sources or through scrutiny of the texts themselves. The map showing roughly how things were around 1350 BC may be helpful – it takes us back to the probable beginnings of Israel’s own history. Palestine, or the Holy Land as we know it, was for many generations a ‘buffer zone’ between more powerful countries to the north and to the south. Palestine was part of the Fertile Crescent, and sometimes fell into Egypt’s orbit but at other times was controlled by semi-nomadic Amorites from Mesopotamia, later by Hurrian speaking Mitannites, and then (as we shall see) by the Hittites. Eventually there were also invaders of Sea Peoples from Mycenean Greece via Cyprus, who became known as Phoenicians (and then as Philistines). It was only the eastern aspect, looking to the Arabian desert, that was less of a threat.
No one “empire”, however, was dominant for very long – but they may all have influenced the culture that eventually emerged in Palestine; for example, they had creation myths, stories of a primeval flood, and in the first Babylonian dynasty there was even a legislative Code, named after its ruler Hammurabi, which dates from about 1700 BC. In the late 1930s a collection of 25,000 clay tablets, including this law code, was discovered at Mari on the Euphrates. An older law code is known to have been in force much further down the Euphrates at Ur.
Meanwhile in northern Mesoptamia the Mitanni were settling in steadily greater numbers. Unsurprisingly, as they spread south, they clashed with the Egyptians who controlled Palestine (or Canaan as we should now call it) from about 1500 to 1300 BC. Egyptian dominance there was significantly weakened, and in the mid-14th century there were raids into Canaan from nomadic bands on its borders. These are described in the famous el-Amarna letters as ‘Habiru’ or ‘Apiru’, which is probably the origin of the word Hebrew. This el-Amarna cache of cuneiform tablets was found in Upper Egypt in 1887 by a peasant woman digging through the mud, and comprises about 350 letters sent to the Pharaoh by various rulers, but mainly by princes in almost every region of Canaan communicating their anxieties to the Egyptian governor based in Gaza. There are no clear clues as to the ethnic identity of the Habiru, who have been described as ‘a motley crowd of social outcasts’, although ‘displaced persons’ might be more accurate. They are also mentioned in hundreds of other sources (dated both before and after the Amarna letters) from across much of the Fertile Crescent. Abraham may have been the leader of one such group – ‘a wandering Aramean’ as in Deuteronomy 26.5 (the name Aram occurs in one of the oldest known texts, from Mari in the 18th century BC).
It’s from this same period that reference to a God called YHW – similar to the biblical YHWH – was found in ‘Shasu-land’, understood (from Egyptian records) to mean nomadic territory to the south-east of Judaea. Here we have comparable OT texts, such as the Song of Deborah (in Judges 5) which declares:
Yahweh, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled.
Mount Seir is located in a desert region south of Canaan, not too far from Sinai: hence, given the claim (in Exodus 3) that the name Yahweh was revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, it may be that worship of Yahweh originated among Semitic people in this area bordering Midian, who probably also had contacts with Habiru.
Soon after the Habiru disturbances in Canaan, the Egyptians’ hold there was then threatened by Hittites from eastern Turkey. We hear of them in Genesis 23, where Abraham is portrayed as a semi-nomadic leader with an abundance of flocks and, according to Genesis 14, over three hundred tribesmen to fight for him; he is negotiating for a plot of land near Hebron where he can bury Sarah, his deceased wife.
Abraham rose up from before his dead, and said to the Hittites, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight’. (Compare the NT Letter to the Hebrews: ‘By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob’.)
It is worth noting here that the term El (or similar) meaning ‘a god’ was in fairly widespread use throughout this region, but could designate different divinities. So we read an important clarification in Exodus 6.3:
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but was not known to them by my name, YHWH.
In the 12th century BC the Hittites found themselves under attack from the Sea Peoples. Egypt was also invaded; Ramesses III fought against them, firstly in the Nile delta and then three years later on land. In his successor’s reign, an ancient papyrus describes how the Philistines were now building fortified settlements. According to archaeological research (chiefly on burial sites), from roughly the late 13th century onwards (which was also the beginning of the Iron Age) the hill country of Canaan was steadily becoming occupied by previously ‘non-sedentary’ populations such as the Habiru and Shasu, as well as by others fleeing from conflict and oppression elsewhere in Canaan. It was a sedentarizing society, composed of farmers and herders who inhabited villages seldom with more than 100 people each, as well as being an egalitarian society, concerned chiefly with its own subsistence in the difficult conditions of the hill country and desert fringes. There is no evidence for town life among these settlers, but otherwise their style of building, pottery and crafts were little different from those of neighbouring Canaanites. About 300 of these sites are known, and – allowing for undiscovered sites – their total population was probably no more than 50,000.
The obvious question now arises: how does the biblical account of Exodus (the story of an extremely large band of migrants heading for the land of Canaan under Moses’ leadership after escaping from apparent slavery in Egypt) fit into the picture? At the outset it is important to note three significant points. Firstly, despite the ample archive material extant from Egyptian sources, there is no mention of Habiru or Israelites ever living as slaves in Egypt, nor of any mass exodus. Secondly, the figures recorded in the Bible (‘600,000 men besides women and children’ according to Exodus 12, with similar figures in Numbers 1, 11 and 26) are quite implausible. However, one ancient text in the Bible is thought to be reliable – the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15) which records the pursuing ‘horse and rider thrown into the sea’. Then, thirdly, there is a curious silence in what are undoubtedly pre-exilic (older) texts within the OT about Moses. Only in Micah 6 is there a single reference to Moses. There is, however, a string of references to Israel being brought out of Egypt. We should observe here that Abraham and Isaac are not mentioned at all in these early prophetic records, although Jacob is (mainly in the expression ‘House of Jacob’ e.g. Amos 3.13).
What may be thought likely, therefore, is that the resettlement of Canaan, which began in the hill country of southern Canaan (later known as Judah), was effected over a longish period both by internal displacement and nomadic infiltration – the latter including a significant band who, having previously spent increasingly uncomfortable years of refuge in Egypt, sojourned in the Sinai peninsula and in Transjordan (where Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites had arrived in the 13th century BC) before eventually gaining lands of their own in Canaan. While by now they adhered to the worship of YHWH, their neighbours still retained other religious cults.
The archaeological evidence offers limited support for the idea of a dramatic invasion, nor could any such have been on the scale suggested in the book of Joshua. Over the centuries a number of Canaanite towns were destroyed, perhaps more than once, and were subsequently rebuilt. Jericho was one of them, but during the probable years of Israel’s initial existence it was actually a ruin. Joshua may have caused walls to collapse elsewhere – but not here, whose existing rubble may have influenced the more dramatic Bible story. The so-called ‘conquest’ is equally overstated in the opening chapters of Joshua:
So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.
If we read more carefully though, both in the book of Joshua and in Judges, a rather different picture emerges. Here is a small sample of the continuing struggle described in Judges:
And the men of Judah fought against Jerusalem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and set the city on fire. And afterward the men of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who dwelt in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland.
The record is one of limited success, and of necessary co-existence:
Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob; but the Asherites dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.
The reality was therefore a certain intermingling of cultures and religions; although Yahwistic faith had migrated northwards from Sinai, its hold upon the emerging population was far from complete. What we can detect in these ‘historical’ books is the difference between how the Yahwist believers would like it to have happened and the reality of religious plurality that remained for many years to come. What can also be detected in the Hexateuch (the first six books of the Hebrew Bible) are later reflections upon the means taken to ensure religious uniformity. In particular, a dialogue between Abraham and the Lord is presented in Genesis 18 about the morality of genocide: in the end, Yahweh agrees that, even if there as few as ‘ten righteous’ men in a city, he will not destroy it. This conclusion clearly conflicts with the previous quotation from Joshua, described there as ‘utterly destroying all that breathed’ throughout the land.
We should recall that initially there was no centralised control – no ‘state’ authority that governed these scattered communities, even if particular groups had their own local leaders (sometimes referred to as ‘judges’). What seems to have prompted greater collaboration was the need to resist the encroachments of the Philistines, and here we turn to the next phase of occupation – the monarchic period which saw the rise of ‘kingdoms’ in the late 11th century BC. The following comments are typical of today’s consensus that once again, the biblical accounts appear to exaggerate Israel’s territorial extent and its initial integrity:
The picture of ‘Israel’ in the Old Testament is an idealization. It must be understood as an Israel of literature and not necessarily of historical reality.
Monarchic Israel and Judah and their ‘traditions’ are a creation (though not necessarily entirely from nothing) of a later society and do not correspond to any society that occupied Palestine in the Iron Age.
One method of assessing the biblical claims is to survey the place names mentioned in the stories, first of Saul, then of David. Predominantly, the sites linked to Saul prove to be north of Jerusalem, whereas David’s area of activity and influence is further south. According to 1 Samuel, David controls the land south-west of Jerusalem as a bandit chief – a typical ‘shasu’ or ‘habiru’:
And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented, gathered to him; and he became captain over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.
By way of comparison, we hear in 2 Samuel that ‘Saul’s son had two men who were captains of raiding bands’. But as well as fighting Philistines, David also collaborated with them:
Then David said to Achish, ‘If I have found favour in your eyes, let a place be given me in one of the country towns, that I may dwell there; for why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?’ So that day Achish gave him Ziklag; therefore Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day. And the number of the days that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was a year and four months.
1 Samuel 25 indicates that, like most guerrilla leaders, David operated a protection racket, a popular leader who shared out the booty. Where then does his youthful encounter with Goliath fit? There are indications that this singular story is also a later literary construction:
While Saul failed to keep the Philistines out of the northern hill country, David had greater success in the south, and seems to have taken over the Jebusite fortified village of Jerusalem. To describe either of them as ‘a king’ is misleading, since their territorial control must always have hung in the balance – and in any case there were hardly the resources to develop the apparatus of centralised oversight. Jerusalem, for example, remained as a large village, not even mentioned by Shishak in his campaign (described in 1 Kings 14) during the late 10th century, a time when Egypt began to feel threatened by Rehoboam’s increasing strength in the north. External political fortunes changed, of course, which allowed the rise of Omri as king of Israel in the 9th century. There is a famous Mesha stone, erected in 840 BC by the then king of Moab at Dhiban, east of the Dead Sea. It included these words:
Omri was king of Israel and he oppressed Moab for many days because Kemosh was angry with his land.
The claim is made in 1 Kings 15 that Omri established Samaria as the capital of Israel (the northern half of Canaan), and archaeologists confirm that massive building works were undertaken there in his reign. It is Omri (much later than David) who organized the first real administration of the land. When the Assyrians became the main external threat, it’s surely significant that they termed Israel as ‘the house of Omri’. The subsequent marriage of Omri’s grand-daughter Athaliah to Jehoram of Judah (2 Kings 8) then encouraged Israel and Judah to combine forces, enabling the weaker Judah to fortify certain towns and cities.
Whereas Saul is linked with a band of ecstatic prophets (1 Samuel 10), the tradition credits David with bringing to Jerusalem the ark of the covenant; this was a cult object that had at one point been captured by the Philistines. The ark was a visible symbol of Yahweh’s presence among his people, probably brought to Palestine by shasu groups. This contrast reflects features that were formative in the development of Israel’s faith: a northern prophetic element, along with the establishment of the Yahweh’s worship, focused particularly in Jerusalem in the south – hence also a priestly element. How far the religion of Yahweh impacted upon the generality of people is hard to discern, but there is some evidence from personal names, from extra-biblical inscriptions, and from artistic representations on seals and amulets.
In summary, it appears that prior to the Exile there were three main religious strands: the official Yahwism sometimes upheld by the court, the prophetic Yahwism which often spoke from the margins, and (the probably syncretistic) folk religion. There were, however, differences between Israel and Judah:
These named prophets clearly had sufficient following for their words to be remembered, and indeed soon afterwards to be written down – with literacy becoming more common from the 8th century onwards. The factors that promoted this were: firstly, the growth of a scribal class belonging to the court establishment dating back to Omri, and influenced by the long established scribal tradition in Egypt (Solomon’s scribe mentioned in 1 Kings 4 had an Egyptian name Elihoreph); secondly, the invention of the alphabet, apparently by the Phoenicians some three hundred years earlier (as discovered at Ugarit). The latter simplified writing and gave rise to local variations such as the Hebrew alphabet. When Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BC, royal chronicles and other written or oral traditions, such as the Book of the Wars of Yahweh (Numbers 21), the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10 and 2 Samuel 1), the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) or smaller fragments of ancient song, were taken south to Judah by scribes and prophetic groups seeking refuge. It was probably during Hezekiah’s reign (727-698 BC) that the first steps were taken towards coordinating the records, hence laying the foundations for a unified national epic.
But Judah too was invaded by the Assyrians under Sennacherib in 701 BC. For the next 60 years Judah was a vassal state of Assyria and ‘pagan’ religious elements were allowed to flourish again. Then Assyrian power weakened and in 640 BC those who favoured Yahwism enthroned the 8-year old Josiah (2 Kings 21f). During his reign, under the influence of what became known as Deuteronomic theology, Jerusalem became a national, not just a royal, sanctuary. It was held that past disloyalty to Yahweh was responsible for previous setbacks and disasters, hence an exclusive Yahwism was religiously and politically essential. However, Josiah’s death in 609 BC at the hands of the pharaoh Necho II meant that Judah became a vassal state to Egypt. Twenty years later, Babylonian forces took control in 587 BC, with massive deportations marking the beginning of 70 years in exile, especially for the literate classes. These reverses allowed popular religion to be freed from official control, and the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel contain abundant evidence that ordinary people turned back to ‘pagan’ deities and away from the austere Yahwism that had apparently failed. Much was destroyed at this time, not least the temple in Jerusalem along with the monarchy. What survived (in Babylon) were a priestly caste and a scribal class, together with their traditions and written records. In effect, Judah was on the way to becoming a faith based upon texts that were now held in regard as scripture and which during the exile were developed further.
In 539 BC fate intervened in the person of Cyrus, king of the Persians, who brought an end to Babylonian supremacy. It became possible for the Jews, as they began to be known, to return from exile. It was Cyrus’ successor Darius who appointed governors or ‘satraps’ to the conquered territories, and allowed them the freedom to administer customary law. So Ezra’s introduction of the Jewish law had official sanction:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel.
This Mosaic lawbook is now seen as a colonial programme (under Persian suzerainty) that moves power towards the Levites and enjoins the creation of a temple-centred society. It responds to a situation in which traditional leaders were feuding (despite their defunct authority) and local shrines were the focus of fierce conflict. It was the aftermath of war, necessitating the need to restore order, which meant a radical reconstruction of religious practice and the abolition of divisive teachings. Promotion of state authority is thus a fundamental feature of the Deuteronomic reforms endorsed by Nehemiah. In post-exilic times, any disturbing religious influences would have posed an unwelcome threat to centralised authority:
Since the beginning of the Persian period … there are no figurines and no remains of any other pagan cultic objects. This is in sharp contrast to the late Judaean monarchic period.
To the Persian period (539-333 BC) can be assigned the editing of the Pentateuch into its final form (with the creation stories forming a guiding theological preface) together with the substantial completion of the prophets, which included Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings known together as the Former Prophets since their message was essentially religious too. By the middle of the 4th century BC the chronicler’s revised history (Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) was produced along with other Writings. Wisdom compilations seem to have continued into the Greek period, inaugurated by Alexander the Great’s conquests. The advent of the Greek language, the founding of free Greek cities, especially in Transjordan, and the general spread of Greek culture had a noticeable effect upon the last canonical writings. Job and Ecclesiastes seem to have been written in response to a growing skepticism, produced not only by the need to respond to Greek philosophy, but by aristocratic individuals who questioned aspects of official Yahwism. Ecclesiastes always uses the general Hebrew word El for God rather than Yahweh, and makes no mention of Israel being specially chosen by God, although it accepts that human beings live in a world created by God, to whom their spirits return at death. Its scepticism arises from the need to relate Israelite monotheism to the sufferings of innocent people and to the many injustices that go unpunished (there being as yet no belief in the afterlife), issues simply not answered in the prevailing Deuteronomic theology.
To appreciate the Hebrew Bible in its final form, it is important to understand that the opening chapters (1 to 3) of Genesis are, as stated already, a ‘guiding preface’. There are themes here that recur later:
As I indicated in my previous talk, Jewish writings continued to abound in the centuries before and after Christ, and it was only after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD when rabbis are supposed to have gathered in the Council of Jamnia that the ‘canon’ of Hebrew scriptures was first officially recognized.