Hebrew Bible: The Deuteronomistic History
The so-called Deuteronomistic History, which is composed of the seven books of the Hebrew Bible from Deuteronomy through Kings, is one of the most interesting and accessible parts of the Bible. If it were written today, it would be marketed as a historical fiction trilogy and publishers would have trouble restraining themselves from putting the overused words “Game of Thrones style epic” in the back cover blurb. Actually, I enjoy it for the same reasons that I enjoyed George R.R. Martin‘s books; it is a sweeping story with numerous well-draw characters and a good mixture of politics, sex, and gore.
In my last post I mentioned that the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before they enter the holy land, is essentially the prologue to the books which follow it. Like any good prologue, it sets the scene and catches the readers up on what has happened in previous books, summarizing the major events of Exodus through Numbers and reiterating the terms of the covenant between the Israelites and God. It then foreshadows the plot and themes for the story that follows: God is about to deliver on his part of the bargain by giving the land of Canaan to his followers. Their responsibility is to eradicate all other gods and their followers and to observe the law, as passed down through Moses. As long as they deliver on their side the good life will be theirs–a country of their own, fertility, and divine protection. However, any failure to honor the covenant will result in horrific punishment,
[T]he Lord will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies. He will bring back upon you all the diseases of Egypt of which you were in dread and they shall cling to you.. Every other malady and affliction, even though not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will inflict on you until you are destroyed…And just as the Lord took delight in making you prosperous and numerous, so the lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction; you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to possess…The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt…and there you shall offer yourselves as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer. (Deut 28:59-68)
If they rebel, God will wipe them out and the survivors won’t even be fit to be slaves. The dramatic tension is palpable because, with an introduction like this, you just know that they won’t be able to live up to the covenant and bad things are going to happen.
Initially things go fairly well. The Israelites easily overwhelm the locals. Soon, though, things start to go wrong, preventing the complete genocide that had God ordered. The Gibeonites maneuver Joshua into agreeing to nearly annex their towns instead of massacring their population. In other towns the women are allowed to live and intermarry with the Israelite men and start converting them to the local religion. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem like the Israelites will ever be able to dislodge the Phoenicians in their fortified cities on the coast. Despite these hiccups, however, the conquest is substantially complete by the end of Joshua. The land is parceled off to the tribes of Israel and the horde disbands to take up residence in their newly gained real estate.
The whole country immediately descends into anarchy and stays that way until part way through Samuel. It’s more or less every town for themselves. Actually, the situation isn’t too different from the way Greece was in Homer’s time. As in Homer, heroes emerge–heroic in terms of abilities, not morality. Men like Gideon or Sampson could have shown up at the siege of Troy and fit right in, with their super strength and fondness for dirty tricks. Things are truly horrible; the nearest modern analogue would be the bad parts of Somalia. Even I winced a little at such cheerful anecdotes as the Ammonite king who made a habit of gauging the right eye out of every Israelite he met (1 Sam 10) , or the Kenite woman who was persuaded to double-cross her ally and killed him by hammering a tent stake through his skull (Judg 4:21).
The closest thing to law and order happens when a local leader (referred to as a judge) manages to scrape together a strong enough militia to fight off the latest invader or establish martial law over a small area.
There is plenty of gratuitous violence between the Israelites themselves. In Judges 19 and 20 we read about the concubine of a Levite man who is gang-raped to death. Her husband, who had used her as a decoy to avoid the same fate himself, responds by dismembering her corpse and sending the pieces to his allies to get their attention. They proceed to massacre every Benjaminite they can find until they realize that they have gone to far and the tribe is in danger of becoming extinct. Making peace with the Benjaminites, they give them permission to kidnap and rape every maiden they can catch at a particular religious festival so they can rebuild their bloodline. The author ends many of these passages with the words “In those days there was no King in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The main purpose of this section is to justify the need for the monarchy to come.Gradually, things get better. The later judges are able to hold larger and larger sections of the country. The last judge, Samuel, is the de facto leader of all of Israel. Samuel has very little formal authority, though. The people are ready for a real king and pressure Samuel to appoint one. He eventually relents and chooses Saul. As soon as Israel has a king, the game of thrones begins in earnest. For the rest of the monarchy the court is a snake pit of intrigue. When Saul and his heir are killed in war one of his former commanders, David, seizes power. David had previously fled the country after Saul had plotted to have him killed. Upon his return, he becomes the best king in the history of Israel: strong in war, stronger in politics, and–most importantly–a devout follower of Yahweh. David is adept at maneuvering his underlings into assassinations and other unsavory actions, while maintaining plausible deniability. This allows him to eliminate anyone who stands in his way, while still remaining popular with the people.
David is succeeded by his son Solomon, who is neither as politically adept nor as devout. Solomon has the good fortune to rule during a long economic boom. Under his leadership Israel becomes decadent and complacent and tolerates the worship of foreign gods, once again earning divine punishment. After Solomon the ten tribes in the North of the country break away and the House of David is left only with Judah and Benjamin. The books of Kings follows the history of the Kings of Judah and Israel. When a king is devout, his country prospers. When a king strays from the law, the people are punished. The overall trend, though, is downhill. By the end of the story, both kingdoms are alternately puppet states of Egypt and Assyria. Finally, Israel is conquered outright by Assyria. Later a new superpower, Babylon, annexes both Assyria and Judah and another great epoch of Hebrew history comes to an end.From this point Israel is never again ruled by an independent monarch. It won’t even become an independent Jewish country again until the 20th century. The era of chiefs and kings is over, while the era of scribes and prophets is just beginning. Next time I post about the Hebrew Bible, I will be discussing their writings.