The Period of the Judges
The book of Judges is very much a patchwork of sources. On the one hand it twice presents the idealistic, anti-Canaanite view of egalitarian Israelite values: "In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did as he pleased." On the other hand (in striking contrast to the book of Joshua, in which Israel is portrayed as acting in conformity with the much later Deuteronomic views), Judges shows this period to be almost anarchic. In accordance with the Deuteronomic view of history, which is inserted into the narrative at regular intervals, the period is viewed as virtually one long story of backsliding from true Yahwism, of apostasy to supposedly foreign, Canaanite gods. But older appearing sources, which we will examine further in a later section, cast doubt on that portrayal and raise the possibility that, as archaeology would lead us to expect, early Yahwism was much closer to Canaanite religion than later writers were willing to admit.
Saul to Solomon (WWB 37-43)
According to the scriptural account, the period of the judges came to an end when Israel realized that a more effective executive authority (a king) was needed to defend Israel against surrounding nations that were organized under kings. This realization is portrayed in the Israelite scriptures as an apostasy against Yahweh, but that judgment may well reflect the original spirit of Israel that Dever describes: distrust of older Canaanite institutions that had led to the oppression that caused the proto-Israelite move to the highlands (1 Samuel 8). The most prestigious institution in Israel at this time was the central shrine at Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This shrine was maintained by Mushite priests (claiming descent from Moses), and it was a Mushite priest, Samuel (note the El element in the name), who anointed the first king of "all Israel," Saul. While the shrine at Shiloh had the status of a central shrine for the tribes of Israel, there were other shrines of regional importance. For example, Mushite priestly families--as well, perhaps, as allied Midianite priestly families--maintained shrines at Dan and Kadesh-Nephtali in the north and at Arad in the south, and other shrines were maintained by Aaronid priests (principally Hebron in the Judean hills), as well as other priests.
Lets review the lay of the land at the beginning of this period. Most people are familiar with the division of ancient Israel into a southern region of Judah and a northern region known as Israel. What was the relative status of those regions?
From 1550-900 B.C. Judah had only a handful of permanent sites. Most were tiny villages and there was no real urban center or even a single fortified town. The entire sedentary population of the area was no more than a few thousand. Jerusalem "could not have been more than a small village." Archaeological investigations for over a century have uncovered no significant remains in the period preceding David's rise. (DS 40-44) The most important city in Judah was Hebron, in the rugged highlands south of Jerusalem, and it possessed a locally important shrine. The shrine at Hebron was maintained by a priestly family that claimed descent from Aaron.
Saul's kingdom was restricted to the central highlands ("the House of Joseph," which I will refer to as Samaria) with an extension east of the Jordan in the north Transjordanian plateau region, called Gilead. It did not include the Judean hill country nor does it appear to have included Galilee. But Saul's kingdom included "all Israel," that is, its core regions. Samaria and Gilead were prosperous and relatively densely populated regions, having experiencing "a dramatic demographic expansion" from the Late Bronze to the Iron I period. In Samaria there are 230 recorded sites (up from an earlier 25), supporting a little over 40,000 inhabitants. There are even signs of public construction and administrative activity. In Gilead there are about 220 sites for this period (up from an earlier 30). By contrast, in Judah there are no more than 20 sites and a total population (over a comparatively large area) of less than 5,000. During this period of dramatic demographic expansion in Samaria and Gilead, which saw the rise of proto-Israel, Judah's demographic and economic profile remained static--it was a marginal area that was probably "governed" by petty chiefdoms. (DS 66-68)
Thus, throughout the kingship of Saul, Judah remained a pastoral backwater. David, the future king, was little more than a talented local warlord who alternately played the Philistines and Israelites off against one another, while building up a professional military that didn't need to rely on tribal levies. When David was accepted as king of both Judah and Israel, after the death of Saul and Saul's son Ishba'al (note the reference to the Canaanite god Ba'al), he moved quickly to assure the populous and prosperous Israelite north that their traditions and interests would be respected. He did this in two ways. First, he moved his base of operations north from Hebron and established a new capital at Jerusalem, a site that was near the border between Judah and Israel. Then, and just as significantly, he established Jerusalem as the religious center for both Israel and Judah by not only bringing his own high priest from Hebron--an Aaronid priest named Zadok--but also bringing as co-high priest the Mushite priest Abiathar from the prestigious central Israelite shrine at Shiloh. In Mushite eyes the transfer of the Ark to Jerusalem under their tutelage was tantamount to the transfer of Israelite centrality from Shiloh to Jerusalem, also under their tutelage. With the Ark and their traditions the Mushite priests also brought their religious symbolism, in particular the imagery of the cherubs as the throne for Yahweh. This dual high priest arrangement lasted only as long as David lived. In the succession struggle that ensued upon David's death, the Mushites supported the losing side while the Aaronid Zadokites supported the winner, Solomon. In retaliation, Solomon banished the Mushites from Jerusalem to Anathoth, a village a few miles from the capital that was home to Aaronid priests. The Mushites who had come to Jerusalem in triumph were, in effect, placed under house arrest among the Aaronids.
During Solomon's reign the combined kingdom of Judah and Israel made further strides toward becoming a more or less typical, small West Semitic kingdom, with a centralized bureaucracy. As part of this tendency, and importantly for our purposes, Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem, a sort of royal "chapel" for the official cult. The descriptions of the Temple make clear that it was closely modeled on, was, indeed, a typical example of, the Canaanite style of temple that was prevalent throughout the Syro-Palestinian region--not only in its basic design but also in its iconography, which stresses the same fertility oriented themes that were typical of Canaanite religion. Within the sanctuary were the two cherubs--composite animal figures--which were considered to be the throne of god in Shilonite tradition. Solomon also built "high places" (raised platforms) for the worship of other gods than Yahweh near Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:1-8), in addition to the numerous high places that already existed throughout the land for the worship of Yahweh as well as other gods, such as El and Ba'al.
Israel and Judah: The Two Kingdoms
With Solomon's death in 920 B.C. the underlying tensions between Israel and Judah boiled to the surface. Supported by the disaffected Mushite priests of Shiloh, Israel broke free from what was seen as Judahite domination and established a separate kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam, the first king of the new kingdom of Israel, followed David's religious policy, with a twist. Two national shrines were established at ancient sites, Beth-El (site of an ancient shrine of El) in the south and Dan in the north. As in Jerusalem, the icononography of these shrines was typical of West Semitic/Canaanite religion. No doubt the Mushite priests had expected their support of a separate Israelite kingdom to be rewarded by official guardianship of a national religious shrine--a return to the days of Shiloh's centrality--but they were bitterly disappointed. The Dan sanctuary remained in the hands of another Mushite family, while the shrine at Beth-El was given over to a group of priests that included Aaronids who had had a long association with Beth-El. Moreover, the cherubs of Shiloh (and Jerusalem) tradition were replaced with two bulls at Dan and Beth-El. This imagery was bitterly criticized as "paganism" by both the Mushites and the Zadokites in Jerusalem, although in reality the bulls, like the cherubs in Jerusalem, were viewed as the throne of god, not as images of god himself. Interestingly, Mark Smith, in Memoirs of God (MG 34), points out that among artifacts that have been recovered from the excavation of the Dan "high place" are "jars with snake decorations [recall the bronze snake Nehushtan made by Moses, with its Midianite associations: cf. below] and a female figurine (a consort for Yahweh?)."
Thus the Shiloh Mushites were pushed aside in both Judah and Israel, and Shiloh itself became a relatively minor religious center in the new order. The separate kingdoms pursued parallel, rival paths until 722 B.C., when the Assyrian Empire captured and destroyed Samaria, the capital of the relatively more prosperous kingdom of Israel. The tiny highland kingdom of Judah was to survive until 587 B.C. as a vassal of one or the other of the contending empires in the ancient Middle East. Of great importance for our purposes will be the efforts of two late kings of Judah, Hezekiah and Josiah, to "reform"--or to change, depending on the point of view--the religion of Israel.
During the relatively early period of the monarchy, possibly during the reign of Solomon, an important literary development took place. Two prose works took shape that claimed to represent the history of Israel from its foundations, one from the creation of the world and the other from the Patriarch Abraham. These two prose works are designated, respectively, as J and E, after their preferred names for God. The J book consistently referred to God as Yahweh, while the E preferred Elohim. Significantly, J shows a keen interest in everything related to the kingdom of Judah. While E recounts the relationship of Jacob to the central area of Israel (the House of Joseph's land), J carefully emphasizes the patriarch Abraham's covenant with Yahweh and Abraham's roots in the area of Hebron, the home of the House of David. J views the history of Israel as pointing towards and culminating in the Davidic kingship and, especially, in the reign of Solomon and the establishment of Solomon's glorious temple. E is concerned with Israel--particularly the House of Joseph which gave rise to the most important northern tribe, Ephraim, in whose territory was located the shrine of Shiloh. Also, E misses few opportunities to denigrate Aaron--and by implication the Aaronid priests at Beth-El as well as in Jerusalem. E, in contrast with J, has no interest in the temple but instead focuses on the tent shrine or tabernacle and the ark of the covenant. For E, Moses is the central figure in Israelite history, the person to whom God revealed his true name, Yahweh, signaling a sharp transition from the religion of the Patriarchs who were so important to J. Most importantly, it is with Moses that Yahweh makes the covenant with Israel at Sinai. Samuel is E's hero in the more recent history of Israel, a priest second only to Moses.
Clearly J was written by someone from the priestly Aaronids in Judah. Friedman maintains that J not only provides much of the material in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, but that J is also the backbone for the history of Israel that runs through Joshua, Judges, the two books of Samuel and into I Kings, culminating, as we have indicated, with the reigns of David and Solomon in Jerusalem (and later extended to the reign of Hezekiah). Friedman (WWB 79-80) makes a strong case that E was written by Mushites associated with the priests of Shiloh. Friedman also refers to what we were at pains to point out in the last section: that the Mushite tradition in Israel that finds expression in E was closely associated not only with the House of Joseph ("Ephraim whose roots are in Amalek") but with the Yahwist tribes of Midian, members of whose priestly families settled in Israel and Judah. Friedman speculates that the Levites (the tribe of Moses and Aaron) were in origin a relatively small outside element that brought Yahwism to Israel, which was overwhelmingly Canaanite in origin, and whose religion emphasized the Canaanite pantheon with its high god El, his consort Asherah, and secondary gods such as Ba'al. The Egyptian names of the leading Levites, along with their connections to Midian, an important trading partner of Egypt, lend credence to this speculation. This outside element--Semitic but from outside Canaan--somehow appears to have been influential in Israel, although this element was landless and, as far as one can tell, not a significant military factor:
This hypothesis, too, fits with the idea that the author of E was an Israelite Levite. His story of the revelation of the name Yahweh to Moses would reflect this history: the God that the tribes worshiped in the land was El. They had traditions about the God El and their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then the Levites arrived with their traditions about Moses, the exodus from Egypt, and the God Yahweh.Exactly what happened is unclear. Why was it that these Yahwistic elements migrated to Israel? What was the nature of their connection to Egypt, since it appears clear that nothing like the biblical Exodus occurred? How did they attain positions of influence and how long did that take? Unfortunately, there are no answers at present to these questions. (WWB 81-83)
To continue. After the fall of Israel in 722, Judah was flooded with refugees from the north, fleeing the Assyrian onslaught. The number of of refugees was so large that the population of Jerusalem alone is known to have doubled at this time. Among those refugees, apparently, were priests who brought a copy or copies of E to Judah. And at some point, for reasons that are not clear, J and E were combined into a hybrid document: JE. This JE must have been created very shortly after the fall of Israel, because another new foundational document, the P or Priestly tradition, appears to be "pushback" directed at JE--and P, argues Friedman, was composed during the reign of Hezekiah, which began shortly after the fall of Israel.
What was there about JE that would have caused some significant faction of Priests to respond? JE contains much of E's Mushite tendencies: Moses is portrayed as the greatest figure in Israelite history, against whom all others--specifically including Aaron and the House of David--are to be measured. P is very clearly a priestly response by the Aaronid's to JE. In P, the claim is advanced, against the Mushites, that, alone of all Levites, the priesthood of Aaron is the priesthood of the nation--and P specifically notes (Exodus 6:23) that the Davidic and Aaronid families are united by marriage. Moreover, the Mushite ties to Midian come in for scathing criticism in P. Seen from this perspective, we are now able to see Hezekiah's "reforms," undertaken shortly after the influx of northern Israelites, as a defense of the prerogatives of the Zadokite (Aaronid) priesthood of Jerusalem.
As part of his "reform" of the official cult, Hezekiah organized the "priests and Levites" into "divisions" and centralized worship in the Royal Temple in Jerusalem, which was firmly in the control of the Zadokites. Further, Hezekiah destroyed the "high places" outside the capital--a move that benefited one group and one group only: the Zadokite priests in the Jerusalem Temple. All other priestly families, including Mushites but also other non-Aaronid Levites, were thus excluded from exercising priestly, sacrificial functions. Hezekiah also took another action that specifically targeted Mushites: he destroyed the bronze snake Nehushtan which Moses was said to have personally constructed in the desert during the Exodus--a supposedly 500 year old relic of a central figure of Israel's history and identity, not merely replaced but smashed. (Interestingly, archaeologists have recovered a bronze snake figure from the desert district of Midian, to whose priesthood Moses was connected by marriage.) However, while Hezekiah destroyed the "high places" in country districts at which non-Aaronid priests could have officiated--many of them shrines that may have been devoted to the worship of Yahweh--he left untouched the altars just outside Jerusalem that Solomon had built to foreign gods --those were destroyed only during the later reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23:13), the "darling" of the Mushite priests (WWB 211).
We should emphasize, at this point, that it's difficult to assess the religious significance of this infighting. That there were "theological" differences is clear. For example, the JE narrative portrays Yahweh/Elohim in highly anthropomorphic terms, whereas the P writer "depicts Yahweh as more cosmic, less personal" (WWB 191). The question of where Yahweh was to dwell--in a tent or in a temple--is another reflection of theological differences. As for religious practice in the two kingdoms, there was a diversity in both that was at odds with later Judaism. In Israel we are told that, in addition to Yahwistic worship, there was an official cult of Ba'al, while at Jerusalem Asherah, the female consort of El (or Yahweh?), was worshiped in the Temple. Child sacrifice was officially practiced in both kingdoms, and may not have ended until some time after the Exile. Nevertheless, what we may be seeing in the controversies among the priestly families--and this is something we will need to be alert for--is a trend toward true monotheism. With that in mind we will proceed to the reforms of Josiah.
After Hezekiah's death his "reforms" were quickly undone by his son Manasseh. In the Bible this is attributed to the sheer evil of Manasseh, but it may be assumed that Hezekiah's "reforms" had proven to be deeply unpopular--particularly in the country districts that had, from time to time, made or unmade kings and which resented the loss of their high places. But the break with traditional religious practice that Hezekiah's "reforms" had marked had probably proved unsettling. An additional factor may have been Assyrian demands for a proper show of fealty. Hezekiah had attempted to throw off the Assyrian yoke, but the result had been little short of disastrous. As it was, Judah was a tributary state of Assyria and Hezekiah's successors had to show subservience in every important respect--and Assyria would not have wanted any show of national independence in something as important as religion.
Manasseh had a long (and, as the Bible tells us, evil) reign, but his son Amon was assassinated at the young age of 24. Amon's son Josiah became king at the age of 8, thanks to the support of the country people who rose up against the coup leaders. Josiah's young age means that a regent probably exercised most important authority for close to 10 years--by the time we hear of Josiah exercising significant authority he was 26 years old. In past cases of underage kings the regent had been the High Priest, and we can assume that in this case as well the High Priest, if not the actual regent, would have had great influence. Meanwhile, the political landscape in the Middle East had changed. In Mesopotamia, Babylonia, long restive, rose against its Assyrian overlords in 627 B.C., the beginning of a Mesopotamian civil war that ended in 612 B.C. with the decisive defeat of Assyria. Egypt, too, was resurgent and hoped to assert itself in Asia at the expense of Assyria, as Assyria struggled to maintain its hold over Mesopotamia. A further result of these imperial struggles was that Assyria, totally occupied close to home, could no longer exercise close control over Judah.
In this new political climate, the young Josiah hitched his star to the fortunes of Babylonia, in opposition to Assyria and its ally Egypt. What did Josiah have in mind? From his actions it appears that he calculated that Babylonia might reward him by allowing him to retake some of the territory of Israel. And Josiah drew support within Judah for this position through a new document.
In 622 B.C., five years after the start of Babylonia's war against Assyria, the priest Hilkiah informed Josiah that he (Hilkiah) had found the "Book of the Torah" in the Temple. What was this "Book of the Torah" that Hilkiah found? This book of the Torah was certainly part of what is now known as the Deuteronomistic History, or simply D, after its author, source D. This history begins with the book of Deuteronomy and includes the following historical books: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. Now, the book of Deuteronomy purports to be the farewell address of Moses, but the core of the book is the Law Code contained in chapters 12-26. The Book of the Torah that was read to Josiah was, therefore, at a minimum the Law Code, which served as the basis for Josiah's "reform."
Who wrote this Law Code? Friedman presents Halpern's analysis (WWB 120-127), an analysis that rests upon the question: whose interests were represented in the Law Code? It is clear that the Law Code attacked core interests of the Zadokite priesthood (Aaronite) who ran the Temple in Jerusalem, in that it upholds the priesthood of Levites in general, not restricting the priesthood to a single family. Nor does the Law Code even mention Aaron by name or refer to the ark or the cherubs. It never once refers to the High Priest. Yet it was not congenial to the majority of the Levitical priests, either, since most of them officiated at the "high places," which the Law Code also banned. And since many of the priests at Beth-El were not Levites, the Law Code was inimical to them as well. The answer is that the author of D in general, and of the Law Code in particular, was almost certainly a Mushite from Shiloh, probably one of those residing at Anathoth.
Friedman believes that it is possible to get even closer to the identity of the author. He first notes that it wasn't the High Priest who found the scroll. Who, then, was this "Hilkiah the priest" who found the scroll in the Temple? One priest active at the time of Josiah who was named Hilkiah happens to have been the father of the prophet Jeremiah, and this Hilkiah was a Mushite--a Mushite from Anathoth. Jeremiah himself (in Yahweh's voice) refers to the shrine of Shiloh as "My place which was in Shiloh, where I caused My name to dwell at the first." This "place" where Yahweh's "name" dwelt "at the first" was transferred to Jerusalem with Abiathar when Abiathar was invited by David: Yahweh's "place" became the Jerusalem Temple. It would not therefore do for the scroll to be found anywhere but where Yahweh's name currently dwelt, but it is highly doubtful that it was found by a Zadokite priest. In fact, it is likely that the Law Code was a compilation of Mushite tradition over some period of time, possibly centuries. Presumably the story would have been that the Law Code was transferred from Yahweh's place in Shiloh at the same time that Yahweh's "place" was transferred to the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem.
Thus, the Law Code should be seen as a response to the P document. P had diminished Moses and exalted Aaron. P maintained that only priests from the House of Aaron, the Zadokites, could be priests: non-Levites and non-Aaronite Levites need not apply. This was the teaching of the priestly Torah. The Law Code of Deuteronomy was the Mushite response, as we have seen. How did Jeremiah, the Mushite from Anathoth, possibly the son of the priest who "found" the Law Code, feel about the priestly Torah? We are fortunate to have his words:
How dare you say: We are wise,Somehow the Mushites had gained influence with Josiah, and when Josiah was read the Law Code he implemented it. According to D, there had never been another like Josiah, since Moses:
and the Torah of Yahweh is with us?
Look how it has been falsified
by the lying pens of the scribes! (Jeremiah 8:8)
And there was none like him before him, a king who returned to Yahweh with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might according to all the Torah of Moses, and none arose like him after him. (2 Kings 23:25, Friedman's translation)D goes into great detail regarding all the things that Josiah did. Some, such as the centralization of worship, had also been attempted by Hezekiah, but others were an enactment of the Mushite agenda. Josiah destroyed all the Canaanite symbols of worship in the Temple, the altars and sacred poles, and he desecrated the site in the Valley of Hinnom where child sacrifices were performed. He even desecrated the altars that Solomon had built for other gods on the Mount of Olives. He also instituted a national feast of Passover and called all Israel to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem--a thing which D claims had not been done since the days of the judges (if then). This mirrors all the emphases in E and the Mushite tradition regarding Moses and the Exodus. And in all this D (in 2 Kings 22-23) describes Josiah in terms that were applied in Deuteronomy to Moses.
But Josiah didn't stop at reforming Judah. He also moved into what had formerly been Israel, taking advantage of Assyria's withdrawal of its forces to face the Babylonian threat. He desecrated the main temple at Beth-El and destroyed high places throughout the north, killing their priests. These were political statements, indicating his claim to sovereignty over all Israel. For Babylonian consumption this may have been explained as the actions of a Babylonian ally, but for home consumption it was done as the deeds of the perfect king, the one like Moses, who would restore true worship of Yahweh and glory to Israel. Finkelstein (BU 94-96) makes a strong case that, in this venture into Israel, Josiah was enacting a New Conquest. In support of this position Finkelstein (citing Richard D. Nelson) points out the strong parallels in the Deuteronomic descriptions of Joshua and of Josiah, and especially in their devotion to Torah:
Even more telling is the passage in which God commands Joshua to meditate on the "book of the Law" day and night (Joshua 1:8-9), in uncanny parallelism to the biblical description of Josiah as a king uniquely concerned with the study of the Law, one who "turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses" (2 Kings 23:25).Thus, at the same time that these events were unfolding, D was putting the final touches on the first edition of the Deuteronomistic History. In it D judged the entire history of Israel and every king in Judah and in Israel by the criteria set forth in the Law Code. All were found wanting--all but Josiah and the superhuman figure of Joshua.
But Josiah overreached. In 609 B.C. Pharaoh Necho marched north to aid Assyria. Josiah, as an ally of Babylon, attempted to block Necho's passage at Megiddo and died in the vain attempt. And with Josiah died the grand Deuteronomic vision of reform.
The death of Josiah not only marked the end of Judahite ambitions to head a reunited Israelite kingdom but also its ability to maintain its own independent status. The last few Davidic kings in Jerusalem struggled to maintain some semblance of independence but the effort was doomed to tragic failure. The new Babylonian overlords of the Middle East continued the Assyrian policy of deporting the leading elements of restive subject populations. Already in 597 the Babylonians had deported the Judean elite, including the priest/prophet Ezekiel, to Babylon. A few years later, in 586 B.C., Babylon conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and deported to Babylon that portion of the ruling class that hadn't already fled to Egypt. The Babylonian Exile lasted approximately 50 years, until 538 B.C., at which time the conquering Persian Empire reversed the policies of the various Mesopotamian Empires and allowed exiled populations to return to their native lands. In fact, only a portion of the Judean exiles did return from Babylon, while those who remained in Babylon thrived and exercised a tremendous influence over what was to become "Jewish" life and religion. The Jewish community in Egypt also thrived and, while not as formative of Judaism as the Babylonian community, was responsible for the important Greek translation of the Israelite scriptures: the Septuagint.
The Judean elite who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon were led by the Davidic heir and a Zadokite high priest. They accomplished the construction of the Second Temple, but this appears to have been the focus of nationalistic expectations of a restoration of the Davidic kingdom, fueled by the "prophecies" of Haggai and Zechariah. Probably as a result of a Persian response to this unrest, the Davidic family vanishes from history after 515 B.C. The historical record is silent for over 50 years, but beginning in 458 B.C. Ezra and Nehemiah came out to Judea from Babylon to reform and reorganize the Judean community, based on the Book of the Law of Moses that Ezra brought with him from Babylon.
Knowledge of Jewish history during most of the Persian period is sketchy, beyond that the high priestly Zadokite family exercised most authority in Jerusalem. This situation continued through the conquest of the area by Alexander the Great and his successor Hellenistic kingdoms in Egypt and Syria until the Maccabean revolt that led to an independent Jewish kingdom that lasted for approximately 100 years, until the Roman conquest in 67 B.C. The later years of the Hellenistic period were marked by turmoil in the affairs of the Zadokite high priestly family, which was replaced by the Maccabees with members of their own family.