Biblical history

Reading the Deuteronomic Histories

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I’ve been reading the Deuteronomic history very closely, reflecting on the stories from my rather atheist, somewhat heathen point of view. The Deuteronomic history is made up of the Biblical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. Those books may have been compiled and edited together sometime around the time of King Josiah or sometime later and share a theological viewpoint that resembles that of the book of Deuteronomy. They tell of kings that rise and fall, making frequent complaints about those not deemed to worship one god properly. They are at times rambling and sometimes confusing, but they show an amazing literary skill.

I love how the story of the ark being captured and taken to the Philistine cities reflects other ancient stories of one god’s authority over another. (I shared the story recently with some children, about how the ark brought illness to the Philistine cities, and a child told me they obviously need to clean it off because it must be carrying a virus.)

I love how the story of the priest Eli’s authority giving way to Samuel foreshadows the story of David surpassing Saul. I love how the story of David shows him taking all the roles of kingship, bit by bit, and how the Deuteronomic histories wrestle with the problems of kings – kings who can declare war, accumulate wealth, and force others to labour for them.

Now I’m moving onto the stories of Elijah and Elisha. I love the parallels and careful construction of the stories. (2 Kings 1 – 2 is an underappreciated masterpiece that involves a fairy-tale like repetition of events and some children being mauled by bears for teasing a prophet!)

I love the struggles over questions about how one recognizes a prophet and whether one can trust a prophet’s word. Think of all those prophets that lie to Ahab telling him to go into battle, because God wants to lure him into defeat! Or think of how Elisha tells Hazael that the King Ben-Hadad will die, and then Hazael goes and smothers Ben-Hadad! (Did Elisha orchestrate a coup? Or perhaps two, since he then appoints Jehu to overthrow the king of Israel? Or did Hazael orchestrate both coups and then use Elisha and the Israelite God for cover? What does the Tel Dan stele, sadly broken, say about this?) Can you trust a prophet anymore than Macbeth’s witches?

In one place the Bible says to know a prophet spoke the word of the Lord if the events they predict came true, but does this count if it is the one who hears the prophet who then murders the king? And what do we make of the paradox of Jonah, the prophet whose prophecy did not come true because people believed in him.

Everything I read about the Bible these days is flavoured by the Assyrian literature I’ve been reading too. I think of the prayers of the Assyrian divines to their gods, for their gods to show them the truth. The story of King Ahab consulting multiple prophets makes me think of the story of the story of Sennacherib asking the gods why his father was left unburied. He had different diviners all in different groups so they couldn’t confer about what answer they were going to give him. Sennacherib is mentioned in the Bible, and his father’s lack of burial is mentioned too, in one of the poems of Isaiah. The story of Sennacherib turning to diviners was political, of course, as he or his son sought to patch up his relationship with the Babylonians, but what a heathen I am sometimes, seeing the humanity and the searching for wisdom within the Assyrian texts, and not just the Christian ones! But that’s the point I’m trying to get at. I see the stories of ancient Israel as being one set within a multitude of others unfortunately not as available to us.

I used to believe that somehow the Biblical texts must have survived because they were better. I thought the eye-for-an-eye thing was an improvement over slaughtering whole villages, but how does that fit with the earlier texts of other earlier rulers urging mild fines and reasonable punishments? I though the Judeo-Christian god must have been an improvement over the other ancient ones. They were gods of violence, I was told, and he a god of mercy. But over the years I’ve grown less certain.

The other ancient gods were often mixed and melded together. Ishtar and Inanna. Artemis becomes Diana. Zeus and Jupiter. Baal and Hadad. What if the ancient god of Israel and Judah are an amalgamation of many other deities? What if the early Hebrews were those who rejected the assentation of the Canaanite El’s son Baal, and clung instead to the old god, ascribing the characteristics frequently associated with Baal and later merging him with the mysterious Yahweh? Does it matter if the early Judeo-Christian ancestors worshipped Yahweh and his Asherah (a goddess)? What if the stories of Elijah originated as those of a prophet of Teshub, the Hittite god of storms? What if their god was not substantively different than the other gods around them? I’ve often wondered, did people believe in Zeus? Or rather, what would it be like to believe in Zeus? Or Artemis or Inanna?

What if all the stories of the Biblical patriarchs were a later addition, written during the Persian period to justify the rule of the land by the elites? Or perhaps they were the disparate explanations for local shrines joined together in one story to create a sense of unity, as Sargon II’s daughter joined the different temples of Akkad and Sumer together in her poetry?

What if the conquest was not a conquest but an immigration? What if King David’s kingdom was really small? What do the stories of the kings sound like when one reads them not as a kings of a chosen people forsaking an established god, but as one group of people among many trying to declare themselves and their god as chosen?

I love the Bible. I wrestle with the Bible. I treasure it. But I don’t believe it.

Of course there’s differences between God and, for example, Zeus. But I think the difference was in the followers and how they dealt with the hands dealt to them. Even if much of Judeo-Christian writing arose after the Persian kings ordered the provinces to formalize their religious code, for the better running of the Persian Empire, the texts written could speak to people, growing and changing with them as they moved from a Persian province into the Hellenistic world and onward. It was kept alive. The spark of belief was somehow kept alive. Their god transitioned from a warrior deity, overthrowing kings to something else. Burnt offerings were put aside. Personal belief and practices became the norm. Was it just more flexible a religious tradition than its ancient ancestors?

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