Monday, July 13, 2009

Mark Smith: Challenges To Israel During The Biblical

Challenges To Israel During The Biblical Period

Pre-Monarchic Challenges

We have seen that the early origins of Israel were the result of a basically peaceful development, involving a migration of farming populations from relatively nearby regions to the lightly populated highlands of Canaan. The infusion of tribal elements from the south (Midian) with their strong influence on religion and certain social structures was complementary to the "anti-feudal" attitudes of the indigenous population, and gave rise to a distinct Israelite identity. This distinct Israelite social, as opposed to political, identity was recognized as early as the victory Stela of Pharaoh Merneptah in 1208 B.C. The Egyptian inscription makes a careful distinction between the states or political entities that the Pharaoh defeated and Israel, which is categorized as a "people": a social reality but not one that was organized as a state or political entity.

As time went on and the population increased, two areas of conflict emerged for Israelite society, both of which are described in Judges: on the one hand intertribal tensions and feuds between Israelite and allied groupings, and conflicts with both more advanced coastal societies (primarily Philistines) as well as tribal groupings from the desert fringes (Midianites, Arab tribes, Amalekites, etc.) who combined trading and caravaneering with raiding. The informal tribal levy, the traditional response to such problems, is portrayed as effective in the case of intra-Israelite disputes, but we may well believe that as Israel became a more cohesive social reality the need was felt for a formalized authority to control the more destructive aspects of intertribal disputes. The informal response of the tribal levy proved clearly ineffective against external threats of a more organized character, particularly that of the Philistines. The Philistine threat was probably the most significant factor that led to the limited kingship of Saul--limited in that it was largely confined to the more advanced Josephite tribal groupings of the central highlands and Transjordan. Judah and the Galilean regions do not appear to have been part of Saul's kingdom. However, with Saul's death in battle against the Philistines the weaknesses of Saul's kingship were clear: it was still based in tribal loyalties and lacked the cohesive organization of a true state that was needed to withstand external threats of the type that Israel faced. (MG 46-50)

The Challenges of the United Monarchy

The Israelite response to this challenge came in two stages. First, a charismatic warlord, David, arose in the sparsely populated and rugged hill country of Judah, centered around Hebron. David gained valuable experience both in Saul's army as well as in the service of the Philistine city state of Gath, and he parleyed this experience into an independent military power base.

Shrewdly maintaining neutrality between Saul and the Philistines, David positioned himself to seize the leadership of the entire range of Israelite groupings after Saul's death. An important part of David's strategy was his ties to both important branches of the priestly families: Aaronid and Mushite. David formalized this strategy by establishing a new capital on a relatively neutral site (Jerusalem, which lacked strong tribal identification and was near the border between Israel and Judah) and by setting up a dual high priestly office--including both the Aaronids from Hebron (in Judah) and the Mushites from Shiloh (in Israel).

David's new, more broadly based kingship was superior to Saul's to the extent that it proved effective against the Philistine threat, but it was clearly framed in response to the need to respond to tribal tensions. The dual high priestly office was also probably inherently unstable. These tensions came to the surface under David's successor, Solomon. Solomon was a dark horse in the competition for kingship, but he won out through shrewd maneuvering, including alliances with the professional army and the Judahite priests. The losers in this competition were the northern Mushite priests and the tribal levies, and the winner was the Aaronid priesthood that presided over the Jerusalem Temple. The result, for the duration of Solomon's reign, was a centralized kingship on the Canaanite model which proved highly effective in relations with non-Israelite states. The Jerusalem Temple that Solomon built, with its cosmic iconography based in West Semitic mythology, was the concrete expression of Solomon's enhanced kingship--interpreted as divine choice of the House of David. (MG 49-52)

The Challenges of the Divided Monarchy

Political and Religious Challenges

The breakup of the Solomonic kingdom after Solomon's death was concrete proof of the fragile basis on which the united kingdom had rested. It is of interest that the separatist movement of Israel, the northern kingdom, expressed its dissatisfaction with exploitation by the Jerusalem establishment in religious terms, and in particular in terms that hearken back to pre-monarchic traditions of the Exodus. The break with Jerusalem was viewed as a break with slavery (Egypt, and possibly the Canaanite past) and likely a return to the ethos of the tribal confederacy centred on the House of Joseph. The official cult symbol of Israel, the golden bull, of course recalled Bull El of the Canaanite and early Israelite pantheon, but it had also long been closely associated with the Aaronid priests who presided at the old shrine of Beth-El in the heartland of the House of Joseph. While later writers would portray the bull iconography as idolatry, preferring the cherubim cult symbol (which also has deep roots in "pagan" Semitic religion), the overwhelming likelihood is that the use of the golden bull--which served the same thronal function as the cherubim--was initially viewed as a return to traditional Israelite religion, in opposition to Solomon's royal cult in Jerusalem. And, like David, Jeroboam set up a dual priesthood with dual shrines that were hallowed by time--the Aaronids at Beth-El and the Mushites in the far north at Dan, where (we are told in Judges 17) the Danites had taken the image of Yahweh.

The World Theology of the Monarchy

We have seen that traditional West Semitic religion featured an elderly El who presided over a polytheistic family. By the 8th century, or possibly earlier, Israel had developed a view of Yahweh as its national god, to whom other divine figures were subordinated as part of his retinue. The Israelite scriptures recognize that other nations had their own patronal gods, but specify that Israel should not place any of those gods before Yahweh. In accordance with standard West Semitic thought, all these national gods were part of the divine family that was headed by El Elyon. This is clearly the scheme that is presupposed by texts such as Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9, or Exodus 15:11's "who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?" This view is preserved even in later texts, such as Habakkuk 3:5; we are a long way from monotheism as understood by modern Westerners. Moreover, there is pervasive evidence of a wide range of practices in Israel and Judah that were later regarded as "pagan": devotion to and communication with ancestors, even child sacrifices. These were traditional practices that the monarchies supported and to which the people clung in disruptive and troubling times. Ezekiel's tour of the Jerusalem Temple (Ezekiel 8-10) and Jeremiah's accounts of contemporary religious practices--including devotion to the Queen of Heaven--illustrate the tenacity with which Israel clung to traditional religion in the face of reformers. (MG 54-56)

Prophetic Critiques

In the context of the twin monarchies of Israel and Judah, the Israelite scriptural tradition of prophets such as Elijah and Elisha confirm rather than deny the "world theology" described above: Elijah's concern is not the metaphysical one of denying that Ba'al is a divinity, but of maintaining the preeminence of Yahweh as the national god of Israel. Smith focuses on Amos and Hosea. Amos, as we know, addressed the economic challenges facing Israel: the loss of family lands, the rise of social inequality. Dever, as we have seen, sees this as reflecting the foundational ethos of Israel, rooted in escape from serfdom in the Canaanite city states of the lowlands. The rise of the monarchical system saw also the rise of those same social tensions that had led to the birth of Israel as a people. This was seen as a crisis of the spirit for Israel and, since Yahweh had come to be identified as the national god who exemplified that spirit, these tendencies were identified as faithlessness to Yahweh.

Hosea's prophetic activity came in the period leading up to the final fall of Samaria to the Assyrians. Whereas we would never suppose from a reading of Amos that worship of any god but Yahweh was an issue in Israel, Hosea is focused on idolatry--on the failure of "Ephraim" (the dominant tribe in Israel) to put its trust in Yahweh rather than in political machinations. Two issues arise in the context of Israel's "world theology." The seeking of foreign alliances, that is, connections to nations with patronal national gods other than Yahweh, could be interpreted as lack of faith in Yahweh, as could the payment of tribute to nations (such as Assyria) whose national god was other than Yahweh. Hosea's critique of Israel's "idolatry" and his call for faith in Yahweh as a solution to the impending national crisis of Israel sets the tone of later Israelite analysis that posited a cause and effect relationship between "idolatry" and national catastrophe. Both Hosea and Amos also place an emphasis on personal devotion to Yahweh over cultic observances. (MG 56-57)

The Deuteronomic Response to the Fall of Israel

We have seen that the scholarly consensus is that the Deuteronomic theology/ideology arose in the northern areas of Israel associated with the House of Joseph. Exactly when it took form is difficult to say, but there seems little doubt that the prophetic critique of Israel was motivated in part by tendencies that later took final shape in the Deuteronomic books of the Israelite scriptures. In particular, the emphasis on loyalty and devotion to Yahweh above all other gods was central to this view and it evolved in the direction of a radical oneness--something approaching what we understand as monotheism. Smith sees this Deuteronomic view as developing under the pressure of the crisis engendered by the expansion of Assyria into the West Semitic world. (MG 58-60)

According to the "world theology" accepted by Israel, every nation was under the patronal protection of a god who was a member of El Elyon's divine family. The demise of a nation, threatened by Assyrian conquest, with its attendant threat of massive deportations of the elite segments of the population, revealed these national gods as impotent in a way that was more radical than in the past. The Deuteronomic view that arose from (or gave rise to?) the prophetic critique sought to explain this threatened demise as punishment for disloyalty by a people to its national god. The logical corollary, or hope, was that the looming disaster of Assyrian conquest might be avoided by a return to faithfulness to the national god: Yahweh. This explains Hosea's critique of foreign alliances, which from the Deuteronomic standpoint exposed a lack of faithfulness and trust in Yahweh. By the same token, the need for complete devotion to the national god to avert national catastrophe would logically tend to lead to a devaluation or even a denial of subordinate gods that were previously an unquestioned part of the prevailing "world theology."

By the same token, this critique of "world theology" also led to a critique of the common belief in divine kingship, the idea that a god's cosmic power resided in the king. This Deuteronomic critique of kingship took on special import following the fall of Israel and the flood of refugees south to the Davidic kingdom of Judah. Among the refugees were religious leaders, including those who espoused the Deuteronomic theology which emphasized adherence to Torah and the Mosaic tradition, as opposed to the more cosmic, temple oriented royal theology of Judah. Whereas Israel had seen numerous changes in kingship--usually violent overthrows--in Judah the Davidic dynasty had endured and was thus more plausibly seen as surviving under divine warrant. The Deuteronomic critique maintained that this confidence was misplaced: that the king must become a student of Torah and that the survival of kingship in Judah was conditional on adherence to Torah. Unfaithfulness on the part of the king would lead to national catastrophe (MG 59-60).  As we will see, this radical critique was later tempered by accommodation to the Davidic royal ideology, by which hope of a Davidic savior or restoration was held out following the fall of Jerusalem.

Hezekiah and Josiah

In attempting to resist the Assyrian advance to the west the kingdom of Israel had joined with the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus, and the two had pressured Judah to join their alliance. Judah responded by appealing for aid to the Assyrians, thus becoming an Assyrian vassal state. Following the fall of Samaria, however, Hezekiah, the new Davidic king in Jerusalem, attempted to throw off the Assyrian yoke. To that end he made careful military preparations, strengthening key fortresses, especially Jerusalem, before refusing to pay tribute to Assyria. This show of defiance by Hezekiah is lauded in the Deuteronomic history, as is to be expected: by refusing to pay tribute to Assyria, Hezekiah was demonstrating his total reliance on and faithfulness to Yahweh and refusing to regard Yahweh as somehow subordinate to the Assyrian national god.

While Hezekiah's stand against the mighty Assyrian empire won the praise of the Deuteronomists, the results were unpleasant enough for Judah. The Assyrians invaded in force and devastated Judah, with the exception of Jerusalem which was able to hold out, thanks to Hezekiah's preparations. But all Hezekiah's other fortresses were laid waste, large numbers of Judeans were killed or led off as captives and, while the Deuteronomic history is coy on this point, it appears that Hezekiah was forced to pay an enormous tribute to Assyria. Still, from the standpoint of Deuteronomic ideology, Hezekiah had withstood the Assyrian empire by trusting in Yahweh, something that other small West Semitic nations could not claim.

Josiah receives even greater praise in the Deuteronomic history than does Hezekiah. Josiah went further in his cultic reforms than did Hezekiah, even destroying the altars and shrines that Solomon had built around Jerusalem. Moreover, the Assyrian Empire faced a serious challenge from its longtime Mesopotamian rival, Babylon, thus seemingly opening new possibilities for Josiah. As Assyria stripped its garrisons in the west to try to stem the Babylonian challenge, Josiah began to extend his influence over the Israelite heartland in the central highlands. According to the Deuteronomic history, Josiah destroyed and desecrated northern Israelite shrines, including the ancient shrine at Bethel, and slaughtered the priests at these shrines on their altars. These actions appear to have been a clear assertion of the sovereignty of Yahweh from his temple in Jerusalem over all these territories. Again, it should be borne in mind that many of these "high places" were probably dedicated to Yahweh--Josiah's goal was to centralize worship and, therefore, sovereignty in Jerusalem. Moreover, that the clearly monotheistic trend of Deuteronomic thought was an elite movement is demonstrated by contemporaneous archaeological investigations throughout Judah: at virtually every Judahite site the homes commonly contain figurines of the goddess Asherah, corroborating Jeremiah's accounts of the popularity of this goddess among Israelites.

The Deuteronomic history vibrates with the great expectations that were placed in Josiah, as the messianic king who would restore the fortunes not merely of the House of David but of all Israel. Finkelstein maintains (David and Solomon, The Bible Unearthed) that the portrait of Josiah is modeled on that of Joshua, as the perfect king who was a student of Torah. Indeed, says Finkelstein, the Book of Joshua should be viewed as programmatic for Josiah's ambitions: Josiah's move to the north was the beginning of a New Conquest of Israel, patterned on Joshua's. As Smith puts it, "Joshua expresses through past narrative what Jeremiah 31 and 33 would communicate in future oracles: hope for a restored united monarchy lived under the ideals of the teaching of God."

Therefore when Josiah overreached by siding with Babylon against the alliance of Assyria and Egypt, leading to his execution by the Egyptians (the details are somewhat murky), the Deuteronomists were faced with a crisis of faith. How could Yahweh have abandoned the perfect king, who was on the verge of reestablishing Yahweh's rule over "all Israel"? Was Yahweh really the weaker god, as compared to the Egyptian and Assyrian gods? Was the demise of Josiah and all Israel's hopes the earthly reflection of a war in heaven, in which Yahweh was defeated, in spite of the expansive claims of his devotees, the Deuteronomists? That many of the common people may have blamed the Deuteronomists for this national calamity, citing their single minded elevation of Yahweh to supremacy, is likely reflected in Jeremiah's account of their recriminations after the fall of Jerusalem to the resurgent Babylonians, not long after Josiah's downfall: everything went well, said the people, as long as we didn't neglect the worship of the Queen of Heaven (Asherah). In other words, the monotheistic innovations of the Deuteronomists and their urging of an attempt to attain great power status to match the supremacy of Yahweh, was to blame for the national tragedy of Israel.

We can see in this debate the familiar patterns of Eliade's ontology of archaic man: earthly realities reflect the heavenly archetypes. As always, the collapse of earthly fortunes ignite doubts concerning the validity of the traditional worldview. The Deuteronomists, however, didn't back down from the convictions of their ideology. Instead, they found a scapegoat: the ultimate in wicked kings, Manasseh, whose wickedness foiled the virtue of even the most perfect of kings, Josiah, who was devoted to the study of Torah. Unlike in the story of Lot, even for the sake of Josiah, the uniquely righteous king, Yahweh refused to overlook the wickedness of Manasseh.

Responses to the Fall of Judah and Jerusalem

Three major prophets help provide additional insights into the thinking of the Israelite religious elite in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians: Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah. While none of these major Israelite thinkers move beyond the Deuteronomic ideology (misfortune is the result of a breech of the divinely willed order and is willed by Yahweh), they do illustrate the tensions in that worldview and the attempts to move beyond it. Logically, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Israelite religious and political elite should have, from the Deuteronomic standpoint, spelled the doom of the nation--its conclusive repudiation by Yahweh. This conclusion is certainly pointed to by the Deuteronomic history, in which the perfect king (Josiah) who summed up all the hopes of the Deuteronomic elite was seemingly repudiated by Yahweh and tragically executed by the Egyptians for no fault of his own--rather, the fault which led to the failure of Josiah was that of his predecessor Manasseh, who led a long and (according to the Deuteronomic history) quintessentially wicked life.


Jeremiah lived through the final days of the Judahite kingdom in Jerusalem and died, an exile, in Egypt. His prophecies chronicle the refusal of the Israelites to give up their traditional religion, including worship of the Queen of Heaven in addition to Yahweh, for the Deuteronomic reformed vision of what true Israelite religion should be: a strictly monotheist worship of Yahweh and Yahweh alone. In the wake of Jerusalem's fall and the utter destruction of the temple Jeremiah blamed this catastrophe on the failure of Israelites to embrace the Deuteronomic reform. However, the remaining Israelites had a reply to Jeremiah: they blamed the Deuteronomic reform, the attempts to eradicate the cult of the Queen of Heaven from Israelite religion, where it had a long tradition (Jeremiah 44). All had gone well for Israel, they retorted, as long as they had followed their traditional religion. Interestingly, Jeremiah has no effective response to this counter-argument--he can only assert that, no, it's the fault of those who worshiped the Queen of Heaven. Jeremiah's thought is not theoretically articulated, he lacks a theoretically coherent vision that would allow him to persuade his listeners, to lead them by reason to a new conviction. This is a serious defect.

Still, Jeremiah's prophecies following the destruction of the temple are prophesies of hope. He continues to maintain that these misfortunes of history are direct divine punishment for sin, but insists that Yahweh, having punished Israel, will forgive Israel. The nations that afflicted Israel at Yahweh's behest will themselves now be punished and both Israel and Judah will be restored. Whereas the Israelites in the past failed to adhere faithfully to Yahweh and to Yahweh alone, in accordance with the Deuteronomic view of the covenant, in the future Yahweh will establish a new, wondrous covenant. There will be no need for the Israelites to study, to be persuaded--Yahweh will write his law on their hearts. Jeremiah's failed prophetic mission to convert Israel, which was unable to persuade Israelites by bare prophetic assertion, will this time be fulfilled by divine fiat: by no merit of their own, for no rhyme or reason, without repentance, the miserably unfaithful Israelites will be forgiven and will have Torah implanted in their hearts. The vicissitudes of history, the imperfection of human nature with its uncertainties and struggles, the weakness of human reason--all this will be overcome and banished forever.

What shall we say to this? Is it merely the victory of blind hope--of desire--over reason? To a great extent, yes. However, there is more. Jeremiah's hope reflects the human conviction of the beauty of human life lived in accordance with the law that governs all being, of human life that is motivated by love for the divine source of the order of the cosmos--which later Israelite thinkers will identify as the eternal Torah. Jeremiah's hope is based on the conviction that this beauty cannot be in vain, cannot be barbarously swept away with impunity. The weakness of Jeremiah's thought is the same as its strength. Jeremiah's hope is rooted in the ontology of archaic man, but like archaic man Jeremiah cannot envision an embodiment of this hope that is not political. And so he must posit a restoration of Israel and Judah as kingdoms and a covenant that will be embodied in one specific nation.


Ezekiel the priest was among the first group of Judean exiles who were resettled in Babylon, ten years before the final fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied hope for Israel: God cannot remain angry with one who repents after sinning. God will breathe new life into Israel, like dry bones clothed once again with living flesh. Yahweh will once again dwell in a wondrous new temple, among his people. Also like Jeremiah, Ezekiel's prophecies echo the basic viewpoint of the "world religion": Yahweh is portrayed as the God of Israel, who will care for and shepherd Israel, but will punish the nations that had been the instruments of divine punishment. The idea of free will, of the possibility that Israel would once again sin, is not addressed. This is, of course, one of the fundamental tensions within the archaic ontology: if a given society is divinely founded, is a reflection of heavenly archetypes, is it possible for that society to vanish from the earth? This is a problem that most archaic societies choose to ignore, as do Ezekiel and Jeremiah: the catastrophe that Israel has suffered can only be temporary, a punishment that will be followed by forgiveness; Yahweh cannot destroy the society that mirrors his order because it is ultimately part and parcel of the divine order. Without a concept of true creation ex nihilo by a transcendent God, Yahweh remains a god who is part of the cosmos. Furthermore, individual responsibility and even salvation must, for lack of a concept of immortality, give way before this corporate view of society as the embodiment of divine archetypes. It is the society that lives and has a divine purpose.


The prophet now known as Deutero-Isaiah wrote to celebrate the return of the Judean elite made possible by the victory of Cyrus the Persian over the Chaldean Empire of Babylon (although by far not all of the exiled Judeans chose to return). Many modern readers regard Deutero-Isaiah as the climax of Israelite prophecy. Deutero-Isaiah draws a powerful picture in evocative language of Cyrus as the instrument of Yahweh's redemption that will restore Israel. As in archaic ontology, these earthly events are seen as earthly counterparts to Yahweh's heavenly activity--Yahweh is described in deliberately archaic terms as the warlike storm god who, through Cyrus his instrument, fights for his people with irresistible fury. The return of Israel from exile is seen as a new Exodus.

And not only will Israel be restored--Israel will be exalted, and the Israelites will lord it over all the nations of the world. Kings and queens will be their servants and will lick the dust at the feet of the Israelites (the very picture of utterly groveling humiliation). The gates of the new Jerusalem will have to remain open both night and day, as "the wealth of nations," tribute from the gentiles who now fawn at the feet of the Israelites, pours into the city--any nations that refuse to pay tribute will perish utterly. As with Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Yahweh will establish an everlasting covenant that will make the Israelites lords of the earth who live in luxury gained from the riches of others--there will be no looking back and no apparent possibility of Israel relapsing into sin.

All this is stock prophetic fare, albeit written in extraordinarily powerful language. But Deutero-Isaiah also exalts Yahweh as God without rival, he who alone and without assistance made heaven and earth. The gods of other nations are mere hunks of matter--idols, but no gods at all. While this is a theoretical advance in the direction of true monotheism, the implications of Yahweh's supremacy are not drawn out. Isaiah remains largely within the world of archaic man. Yahweh's universal sway is not matched by lordship over a universal mankind. Instead, Yahweh's people remains tiny Israel alone--other humans are fit for nothing but servitude under the heel of the Israelites. Moreover, Yahweh's supremacy rests upon no proof but Cyrus' redemptive work, nor is Yahweh truly a god who creates ex nihilo--a true theoretical monotheism of a creative god lies still in the future.

And so those exiles who chose to return to Judah labored to build a tiny theocracy. The Davidic line vanished under mysterious circumstances and Jewish life centered increasingly on the temple cultus and observance of Torah, as elaborated by the priestly classes. Still, the increasing prominence of a Jewish diaspora also led to a greater degree of separation of Israel from the Land and and identification of Jewish life with a way of life that no longer depended entirely on the Land. This development was, almost certainly, a factor in the evolution of monotheism.

1 comment:

  1. In theology, it isn't what you know, but Whom you know...

    Theories as to what God makes Stuff from: nothing or just undifferentiated, disorderly Stuff -- are less important than whether God is embedded in the process of producing this [truly!] peculiar people & prodding their spiritual development as all this history unfolds.

    Certainly the "Our God's people are more, uh, us than those other gods' peoples" aspect gets really embarrassing from time to time. On another hand, this is a people who've kept the parts about: "Remember you were slaves & foreigners, and take care to treat the help nicely" -- or something like that.

    But they aren't called to pass 21st Century systematic theology exams, but to learn to know and love God. Despite the bewildering ways in which this has been accomplished, overall you'd have to say they've been better at this than we have.