Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Socio-Historical Background of the Bible: Part 2 (1000 BC - 734 BC)

Before the Monarchy

As already described in my last post, the land which comprises the southern half of modern Israel was, before 1000 BC, likely a largely undeveloped and sparsely populated region, crippled by fractious political claims. Local chiefs ("judges" in the Bible) competed for the limited resources available and - for a long time - none emerged with any strong claim to authority over the region. The Bible tells us that the land then was divided amongst "the Twelve Tribes" (that is, descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob), but this is an explanation derived more from theology than remembered history. The names of these tribes are given 25 times in the Old Testament, but the lists are largely contradictory and are not of much value in determining what kind of divisions may have existed among these proto-Israelites. In any case, it bears repeating that there is little to suggest that these factions differed in any culturally significant way: all were seemingly inheritors of the Canaanite tradition and represent a clear continuity with what preceded them. Whatever may have divided these earliest groups, it certainly cannot be attributed to any major ethnic, cultural or religious differences.

In any case, by around 1000 BC we can begin to discern the emergence of political stability and urban development in the northern part of the region, a period of time close to that which the Bible asserts for the beginning of the Davidic monarchy. The status of King David in the Bible and (therefore) in early Hebrew theology cannot be overstated. His emergence as king represented for the later Biblical authors a clear demonstration of the power of YHWH, a validation for his monolatrous worship and a continuing justification for the existence of the united kingdom of Israel. We shall see a particularly pronounced expression of Davidic mythology when we address the reign of King Josiah in part 4. Quite how this Biblical picture squares with history, however, is a topic of ongoing and rather acrimonious debate among scholars. On one side there are many who are still prepared to assert the full historicity of the Biblical account, suggesting that the available archaeological evidence squares with the Bible's account of the emergence of a strong and dominant political leader in the region in around 1000 BC. On the other side, there are those who would go so far as to say that King David never existed. Here, I'll be treading a rather more equivocal path: asserting the historicity of King David while also recognising the Biblical account has been shaped more by later political and theological concerns than by genuinely remembered history.

 David and the Establishment of Judean Monarchy

In 1000 BC, the land of Judah (in the southern region of modern Israel) was small and insignificant even by the modest standards of the surrounding region. Its major city, Jerusalem, had been a seat of power for one "Abdi-Heba" in the 14th century BC, but its small size up to the turn of the millennium indicates that it was not a city from which any greater power ever emanated. The majority of Judah's inhabitants (who may have numbered as little as 5000 at this time) were pastoralists and likely lived without much interference from whatever authority resided there. It was in this small and largely uninteresting region that a man named "David" came to claim kingship over.

Quite how or why David emerged as king of Judah remains an unsolved mystery. The Bible tells us that the prophet Samuel found the young David tending sheep, and invited him to the court of Saul, a self-proclaimed "king" in the northern part of modern Israel (henceforth simply "Israel"). After various intrigues and an attempted assassination, David and Saul found themselves leading armies against each other and the former prevailed. David found himself anointed as king over both Judah and Israel, uniting these regions for the first time in their history and - with his son Solomon - overseeing a period of unmatched wealth and prosperity. A famous and stirring account, no doubt, but how reliable is it?

The historicity of the Davidic saga, it has become increasingly clear, is rather dubious overall, but there may still be kernels of historical truth there. In the first place, we might note that there appear to be at least two different sources for this tale - one complimentary and one rather uncomplimentary. The possibility has been raised by some scholars that the complimentary account was penned by a sympathetic Judean scribe, who saw David as the rightful leader of the united kingdom, and the other penned by a rather more antagonistic northern scribe who felt that David had duplicitously murdered the rightful king of Israel in a naked power-grab. Such an account, if true, could therefore be said to be attested by two independent sources in two different regions, which would lend greater credence to its historicity. There are, however, compelling reasons to cast doubt on the literal Biblical account.

Firstly, given the low population and technological backwardness of the region, it is unlikely that anyone whose power was based in Judah at the turn of the first millennium BC could have raised an army of particularly formidable strength, which renders the likelihood of David mounting a successful campaign to depose a competing monarch rather small. This is heightened by archaeological evidence which suggests that the northern region of Israel at this time was far more densely settled than the south, and may have been home to a population of around 40,000 (that is, eight times bigger than David's Judah). In fairness, the Bible does suggest that David enlisted the help of the Philistines in this campaign, but there is no external evidence that the Philistines would have been any better placed to wage such a campaign so far from their coastal home.

Besides, even if we do accept the Biblical account it's difficult to explain why Israel remained a regional power that continued to dwarf that of the southern kingdom. Even if we can accept the Biblical claim that David was once the sole ruler of a united kingdom from the southern city of Jerusalem, it is clear that he could not have exercised any great control over the northern territories, rendering his claim to such territories tenuous at best. That is to say, whatever the historical realities of the Davidic monarchy, the Biblical claim that the territories of Israel and Judah were ever united in any meaningful way by a powerful king named David are mostly the mythical products of later monarchical claims. If there was a historical King David (as most scholars accept) his power was far more limited in scope.

In actuality, it seems far more plausible that David's most major success was the rather more modest (though still significant) pacification and unification of the "tribes" of Judah. In the power vacuum of competing strong-men, it seems likely that David was simply the most successful among them and the first to emerge in the region with legitimate and widespread authority. He centralised power in Jerusalem and successfully oversaw a period of relatively benign growth and development in the region (as evidenced in the archaeological record by the growth in city size in the region during the 10th century BC). His establishment of a centralised, increasingly urban Judean state under the auspices of kingship came to solidify forever the foundation of the culture that gave rise to Judaism and Christianity. His legacy will be explored further in subsequent posts, but for now it is time to turn to developments in the northern kingdom of Israel.

Israel Ascendant

As mentioned earlier, the stature of southern kingdom of Judah was comprehensively dwarfed for the entire time period covered by this post by the stature of its northern neighbour, Israel. Israel was bigger, more densely populated, more heavily involved in international trade and - most certainly - more influential in the region. Judah and Israel shared a common cultural background (both clearly emerged from the wider culture of Canaan) though there were differences (particularly concerning religion and myth) which I shall explore more fully in my next post. For now, though, it's only important to note that for all they shared in common, Israel and Judah were separate nations (even according to the Biblical account) from very early on.

Leaving aside the question of the historicity of David and Saul, it is clear that in the 10th century BC Israel was a comparatively strong and advanced nation by regional standards. It had achieved such influence in the region that by 926 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh was incited to move against it as a legitimate competitor for power and influence in the region. Despite the fairly comprehensive nature of the Pharaoh's victory (archaeological evidence suggests a fairly steep decline in the size of urban settlements in this period) Israel soon re-emerged as a relatively powerful state.

The process by which it achieved such ascendency is difficult to uncover, because the only comprehensive records we have for the region at the time were penned by unsympathetic Judean writers hundreds of years later in the Biblical Book of Kings. These describe a decadent and unfaithful culture, beholden to foreign gods (which may simply be a reflection of Israel's international standing) and ruled by capricious, murderous claimants to an ephemeral throne that was shared among several competing "houses". Whether there is any historical truth to this portrait is difficult to say, but we do know that the state of Israel was ultimately consolidated - and subsequently underwent a great period of growth in power and influence - when King Omri took the throne in around 885 BC. He undertook massive building projects that were originally attributed to the King Solomon by the Judean authors of the Bible - but which most archaeologists now believe are better dated to the time of Omri - and he established the capital city at Samaria. He also undertook the first of a wave of conquests that eventually led to Israel claiming territory in Syria and other nearby regions. The Assyrians - whose influence in the region will be explored more fully in the next post - continued to refer to Israel as "the House of Omri" for well over 100 years after his death. He is the first Biblical character for whom we have unequivocal archaeological evidence and it would be no exaggeration to call Omri the first major king of Biblical history.

The rapid growth of Israel during this period presented also marked a period of increasing marginalisation for Judah, which seems to have been little more than a vassal state in the 9th century. The Judean king Jehoshaphat (who reigned from 870-846 BC) was apparently forced into providing men and horses for the wars of conquest being waged by Israel, and later his daughter was married off to an Israelite king. This marriage provided the grounds for a united kingdom of sorts, though it must be noted that the power balance here was incredibly asymmetric. This was unequivocally an Omridic Kingdom rather than a Davidic one.

The ascendency of the Kingdom of Israel would only grow with time, arguably reaching its apex under the leadership of Jeroboam II. Eventually, though, it would be brought to heel by the simply irresistible might of the Assyrian empire in 722 BC. Yet even before then there were critics of the policy of Israel who suggested - rather presciently - that its pursuit of power and its (perceived) promiscuity concerning foreign gods would eventually lead to its downfall. It is to these critics that we turn to next.

The Rise of Prophecy and Religious Orthodoxy

Prophecy was a common feature of most ancient near-Eastern religious traditions. Contrary to popular understanding, the main function of prophets was not to divine the future so much as to offer a religious critique of state policy. The future-looking aspects of prophecy were usually conditional: if you continue to pursue this policy, then God will do this. They were, in a very real sense, the world's first political commentators.

One important fact is that by the 9th century both Israel and Judah were worshipping YHWH as their primary God. While I've been focussing on the differences of the two states up until now, I should properly emphasise the overwhelming cultural similarities that permitted many prophets to have successful careers (if that is the right word) in both kingdoms. Early prophets such as Hosea, Amos and Isaiah preached on both sides of the border and their proclamations were directed against both kingdoms. It's difficult to tell exactly what differences existed in the religious outlook of the two kingdoms, but it is apparent that the commonalities ran deep enough for "southern" prophets to have received a wide audience for their particular brand of doom-saying amongst the people of the north. And it is indeed true that the majority of their anger was directed against the northern elite and their perceived sinfulness.

Common to each of these prophets was the belief that Israel (or - more specifically - its ruling class) had shunned YHWH by erecting shrines to foreign gods, by abandoning the plight of the poor, by forming alliances with foreign powers and generally disregarding their religious and political responsibilities. This seems as much a reaction to the growing cosmopolitanism of Israel as anything else. The stature of these early prophets cannot be reliably ascertained, but tradition generally paints them as rural folk called by God (reluctantly at times) to bring the powers-that-be into line. They, in a sense, represent the growing divide separating the rural, perhaps more traditional parts of the land with their urban rulers, a theme that has recurred throughout history and that I will explore more fully in my next post. For now, though, it need only be noted that the early prophets do genuinely seem to have been reactionary forces against the creeping decadence and internationalism of the ruling elite. The punishment for such intransigence would - the prophets assure us - be swift and brutal, a judgement borne out by subsequent history.

At this time (8th century BC) we can probably safely assume that little of the Bible as we know it had been written down. Evidence for widespread literacy is extremely sparse for the region at the time, and even the books of these early prophets suggest a reliance on oral - not written - transmission. The prophets are generally commanded to speak the words of God rather than write them down, and there is evidence from within the books themselves that they were not to be collated textually (by the "disciples" of the prophets) until a later date (e.g. Isaiah 8:16. Isaiah 1:1 indicates the book was not written by Isaiah himself). The kind of social forces that both centralised and sacralised the status of the written text in ancient Israel (and which began to produce the texts of the Bible as we know it) wouldn't arrive until the 7th century BC. This, however, begs the question of what the Judean prophets were basing their substance of proclamations on, given the lack of some definitive text from which to derive a fixed theology.

In truth, the idea that there was some pristine state of religious orthodoxy from which the northern kings had fallen (and that the early prophets were looking to reinstate) is plainly anachronistic and plainly more representative of the ideology of later Biblical authors than of lived history. We know from certain archaeological finds (for example, the graffiti at Khirbet el-Qom) that the religious orthodoxy of later periods had yet to emerge by the 8th century BC. We can probably still assume widespread henotheistic practices at this time, so the early prophets - to the extent that the words attributed to them in the Bible were actually theirs and not the product of later redaction - might well have been in a minority position in their insistence on the monolatrous worship of YHWH. Whatever the case, the cosmopolitan nature of Israel - including the syncretisistic worship of foreign gods - may not have been a matter of widespread controversy among the populace at the time, and it's unfair to uncritically accept the judgements levelled by the prophets that the kings who oversaw such prosperity in the region at the time were in any way degenerate for drawing on foreign sources for religious inspiration. It would be similarly remiss to assume that the eventual fall of Israel can be traced to its faithlessness or - in the words of Hosea - its "whoredom" to foreign powers.

It is to the fall of Israel - and its influence on the formation of the Bible - that we will look at in the next post.

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