by Sanderson Beck
This chapter has been published in the book Mideast & Africa to 1700.
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Outside of the Old Testament there is little evidence of the history and ethics of the Jewish people in Palestine in the ancient times. The authors of the Hebrew Bible did have a strong sense of history and ethics, but these books were written by various individuals over several centuries. The Torah, or first five books also called the Pentateuch, purports to be by Moses himself although it concludes with an account of his death. Scholars have found numerous discrepancies not only between the first six books or so of the Old Testament and the limited historical records and archaeological evidence but also within the Old Testament itself so that it is clear that as history there are many inaccuracies.
Yet as the basis of the Jewish religion and, in combination with the New Testament, also as the scripture of Christianity (in addition to being revered by Islam and others), the Bible is probably the most influential book on the ethics of civilization in human history. Thus as scripture and literature it has developed a powerful cultural reality of its own regardless of how accurately it represented actual events. I believe that from the time of Moses on most of the events described did likely occur, though many of the details may have been altered by beliefs, imagination, and faulty memory of an oral tradition. Those books which are probably closer to literature than history will be indicated and discussed in the time period when they were likely written rather than in the era they were set, with the following exception of the first book in the Torah.
The book of Genesis is a collection of very ancient stories passed down for centuries in an oral tradition that modernized many details, confounding the scholars. Because of its immense influence as scripture and as a great work of literature, its ethical implications are profound.
Genesis begins with God creating the heavens and the Earth and light on the first day. In time God made the earth appear with its vegetation and animals, which were fruitful and multiplied according to their kinds. On the sixth day God created humans "in our image," implying a plural deity working as a group. Humans were created male and female, and God blessed them, telling them to be fruitful and multiply and giving them dominion over all other creatures. For food God at first gave humans and animals only the plants yielding seeds, a fruitarian diet. God saw what he had made and thought that it was "very good." On the seventh day God rested.
This benign creation, implying a progressive sequence not too unlike evolution, is followed by a second creation story in which man is formed of dust from the ground. The Lord (Yahweh) then breathed the breath of life into man, and he became a living being. The Lord planted a garden in Eden and put man there along with the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord warned man not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for it would cause him to die. Then the Lord made helpers for man in the beasts of the field and the birds of the air which were all named by man. During a deep sleep the Lord took a rib from man and made it into a woman; formed out of his flesh, a man and his wife were to become one flesh. They were both naked but not ashamed.
A serpent suggested to the woman that she eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, arguing that she would not die as God warned, but that she would become like God, knowing good and evil. Wanting to be wise, she and her husband ate from this tree. Their eyes were opened; they knew that they were naked, and they fashioned the first clothes from leaves. Hearing the Lord walking in the garden, they hid themselves. When asked why they ate from the tree that was forbidden, the man said the woman gave the fruit to him; she explained that the serpent beguiled her. The Lord then cursed the serpent, multiplied the pain of the woman in childbearing, made her subservient to her husband's rule, and forced the man to work by the sweat of his face to bring forth food; for they came out of dust, and to dust they would return.
The man named his wife Eve from the word for living because she was the mother of all living. The Lord made for them garments of skins and declared that man had "become like one of us, knowing good and evil."1 However, to prevent them from discovering the tree of life and eating from it so that they would live forever, the Lord sent them out of the garden of Eden to till the ground, guarding the tree of life with a flaming sword. This patriarchal and thus sexist story adds to woman's burden of childbearing the cultural obligation to obey her husband. It also vividly portrays the birth of ethics from the development of self-consciousness and implies that further development of consciousness would lead to eternal life.
Adam and Eve conceived, and Eve bore Cain and then Abel. Cain tilled the ground, and Abel kept sheep. When the Lord favored Abel's animal offerings over Cain's gifts of fruit, Cain became very angry and killed Abel in the field. The Lord asked Cain where his brother was, and Cain replied, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"2 The voice of his brother's blood cried out from the ground, cursing Cain so that the ground would not yield to his strength. Cain became a fugitive and was afraid that whoever found him would kill him; but the Lord said no, that anyone who killed Cain would suffer sevenfold vengeance. The Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one would kill him. This story reflects the outbreak of murder and war with the development of agriculture and conflicts between herders and farmers over the surplus wealth produced.
The ancient legend of the deluge is explained as the Lord's punishment for human wickedness and violence with a loyal family being saved by God's warnings and their preparations. However, after the flood God promised Noah that never again would he curse the ground because of man, because human imagination is evil from youth. Now in addition to the plants God gave humans the flesh of animals for food, though they were not to drink the blood. In regard to murder, God announced that whoever sheds human blood shall have their blood shed; for God created man in his own image, implying the principle of responsible creation and the spiritual law of cause and effect.
The family of Abram came from Ur of the Chaldeans by way of Haran to enter the land of Canaan. The Lord promised to make of his descendants a great nation. Abram and his nephew Lot agreed to separate enough so that they would not be in strife with each other. Abram was blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem and a priest of the highest God. God changed his name to Abraham, and he instituted the practice of circumcision.
Meanwhile Lot was living in the city of Sodom that was so wicked the Lord threatened to destroy it; but Abraham argued that the good people should not be destroyed with the bad. So the Lord agreed not to destroy it if there were ten good people there. When two angels disguised as men visited Lot, the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with them. Lot was so intent on protecting his guests that he even offered the men of Sodom his two daughters, but the angels blinded the men and helped Lot's family to escape from the city before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone from the Lord. However, Lot's wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. In this story homosexuality is not explicitly condemned, but the attempted violation of Lot's hospitality was considered wrong.
Late in life Sarah bore a son named Isaac. God tested Abraham by directing him to sacrifice his son. Abraham was willing to obey, but at the last moment God told him not to lay his hand on his son. Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket and sacrificed that animal instead. This story portrays Abraham as obedient in the extreme and indicates that animal sacrifice may have been justified as an alternative to human sacrifice. Isaac married Rebekah, and her second twin son Jacob stole the birthright and blessing from his older brother Esau by his cleverness and by lying to his father.
Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven on which angels of God were going up and coming down. Jacob visited his relative Laban and married his two daughters, Leah and Rachel; by them and their maids he had twelve sons and one daughter, Dinah. When Dinah was seduced by Shechem, he offered to marry her. The sons of Jacob said they would agree to have marriages between their families if they would be circumcised. Shechem got those in his city to be circumcised; but on the third day when they were sore, Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi killed all the males in their city with their swords. The sons of Jacob plundered the city and took its flocks. Jacob complained that they brought trouble, and God told them to return to Bethel, where Jacob had had his dream. God appeared to Jacob again and changed his name to Israel.
Because Rachel was Jacob's preferred wife, he favored her sons Joseph and Benjamin. When Joseph was seventeen, he criticized his brothers to his father. Loving him most, Jacob had a special robe made for Joseph; this was resented by his brothers. Joseph had a dream that his brothers and parents would bow down to him; this increased his brothers' jealousy. One day they took his robe and threw Joseph into a pit. Judah suggested that they sell Joseph into slavery to a caravan on its way to Egypt. Then they killed a goat and put its blood on the robe and showed it to their father Jacob.
In Egypt Joseph was bought by Potiphar, the captain of the guard. When Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph and he refused, she accused him of trying to seduce her (part of the famous Egyptian tale of two brothers). Joseph was put in prison, but by his ability he became in charge of the other prisoners. When he accurately interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh's butler and baker, he was eventually called before the Pharaoh to interpret his dream of seven lean cows eating seven plump cows, of seven full ears of grain and seven empty ones. Joseph explained that there would be seven abundant years followed by seven lean years and that the Pharaoh should prepare for the lean years by storing grain. In this way Joseph became Pharaoh's chief minister.
Suffering from the famine Jacob sent his sons (except Benjamin) to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognized them but remained unrecognized himself; he accused them of spying, questioned them, and told them they must bring their youngest brother. Simeon remained in prison, and Joseph sent them away with their money secretly returned in their bags. When the brothers got back to Canaan, Jacob did not want to let Benjamin go; but when they ran out of food, he sent all the brothers back to Egypt with double the money and gifts. Joseph was overjoyed to see Benjamin and hear that their father was well. Joseph invited them to eat at his home and then ordered that their money be secretly returned again and a silver cup be put in Benjamin's sack. Overtaken on the road, their sacks were searched, and the cup was found in Benjamin's bag. The brothers returned to the city. Joseph said that he would keep Benjamin as a slave. Judah explained that he was special to his father because the only other brother by the same mother was dead.
Then Joseph, alone with them, revealed himself to them. He said that they did not send him to Egypt but that God meant it for good; he promised that they would dwell in the land of Goshen in Egypt, and he arranged it all for them to move there. Because of Joseph's foresight, Pharaoh was able to buy most of the land in Egypt, except what the priests had, and many people were made Pharaoh's slaves because of the famine.
This marvelous piece of narrative literature, however, does not explain how the family of Israel eventually became slaves in Egypt, but Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities suggested that the Hebrews stimulated envy by their prosperity. Eventually the benefits of Joseph were forgotten, as a new dynasty took over in Egypt demanding that canals, walls, and ramparts be built. Over a period of four hundred years these afflictions increased.
Josephus also mentioned that a prophecy was given that a great leader would emerge from the Israelites, which was why the Pharaoh ordered the killing of the male children of the Hebrews. Josephus' account also differs from Exodus in his narrative of how Moses led a military victory against the Ethiopians on behalf of the Egyptians and even married Tharbis, an Ethiopian princess, on the condition that the city of Saba surrender to the Egyptians.
The Hebrew book of Names, called Exodus in the Greek translation (meaning "the way out"), tells the story of Moses in a context more historical than the accounts of the patriarchs in Genesis. The twelve tribes of Israel having been represented by Jacob's twelve sons, who all traveled to Egypt to avoid a famine, their descendants are portrayed suffering there under the tyranny of a Pharaoh, who believed they had grown too numerous and who feared them in war. They were set to working to help build the cities of Pithom and Ramses, bearing heavy burdens. So paranoid of their potential threat was the King of Egypt that he ordered male infanticide, but the Hebrew women avoided the midwives. After all Egyptians had been ordered to kill any Hebrew baby boy they found, Moses was born and placed in a basket caulked with pitch and put on the Nile River, where he was found by Pharaoh's daughter. Thus he was raised as an Egyptian in a royal family, though he was nursed by his actual mother.
When Moses grew up, he identified with the Hebrew people; for he killed an Egyptian because he was beating a Hebrew. Though he buried the corpse in the sand, someone must have found out, because when he tried to settle an argument between two Hebrews who were fighting, the man was afraid that he would be killed also by this man, who seemed to want to be a prince and judge over them. Afraid that he might be caught for the murder, Moses fled to the land of Midian, where he married the daughter of a priest named Jethro. In their bondage in Egypt the Hebrews cried out for help, and God heard them. Moses kept a flock for Jethro, and one day on Horeb mountain an angel appeared to him in a glowing bush (described as being on fire without being consumed). The Lord (Yahweh) spoke to Moses, saying that he was the God of his father, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he had seen the affliction of his people by their Egyptian taskmasters, and that he would deliver them from Egypt to the land of Canaan.
The Lord proposed to send Moses to Pharaoh to bring forth the people, and Moses asked what name he should use for this God. God said to Moses, "I am who I am." He was to go to the elders of Israel and tell them what the Lord intended to do. The Lord promised that he would tell him what to say. When Moses asked him to send someone else, the Lord got angry and said that his brother Aaron, who speaks well, would assist Moses. So Moses took his wife and sons and went back to Egypt, for he was assured by the Lord that those who were seeking his life were dead. The Lord told Moses that he would do miracles before Pharaoh, but that he himself would harden Pharaoh's heart so that he would resist letting the people go.
Moses and Aaron told the elders and then went to Pharaoh (probably Ramses II in the thirteenth century BC) asking permission for their people to hold a religious feast in the wilderness; essentially they wanted a three-day holiday to worship their God, but Pharaoh did not want to let them off work. Instead he ordered that heavier work be laid upon them by making them gather their own straw for the bricks without reducing the quota of bricks they must make. Naturally the workers felt worse off and did not listen to the promises of Moses. So the Lord sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh to perform magic and miracles more powerful than the Egyptians could do. The Egyptian magicians could make their staffs become snakes, but Aaron's rod swallowed up theirs. Next Aaron put his rod in the Nile and turned it to blood so that it became foul, and the fish died. This was followed by epidemics of frogs, gnats, and flies.
Pharaoh became afraid and was willing to let them sacrifice within the land, but Moses explained that religious conflicts might lead the Egyptians to stone them; they needed three days to make the journey into the wilderness. Although the Pharaoh promised, and Moses got the Lord to remove the flies, the Pharaoh went back on his word. So the Lord killed all the Egyptian cattle while preserving the cattle of the Israelites. Next Moses threw ashes up toward heaven that became boils on all the Egyptians. Then hail rained down on the Egyptians, destroying their fields; this was followed by locusts, which were blown away by the wind when the Pharaoh confessed his sin and requested it. Still Pharaoh would not let them go; so Moses called down a darkness for three days, and Pharaoh said that he never wanted to see his face again.
The climax of all this black magic practiced by the Lord and Moses against the Egyptians was the killing of all the first-born in Egypt, which the people of Israel were to escape by putting the blood of a lamb on the doorpost so that the Lord would "pass over" them. After this catastrophe Pharaoh finally allowed the people of Israel to leave Egypt. Afraid that they would change their minds and return to Egypt if they had to face war right away in the land of the Philistines, God first led them into the wilderness by way of the Red Sea, which he parted for them but closed to drown the pursuing Egyptian army.
In the wilderness the Lord provided quails in the evening for meat and a manna like coriander seed every morning, but the greedy who kept some overnight found it became foul and bred worms the next day. However, on the Sabbath when there was none to be found, that collected the day before was all right. When they were thirsty, Moses provided water from a rock. When the Amalekites attacked them at Rephidim, Moses held up his hand so that Joshua and his men could mow them all down with swords. Jethro visited them and observed Moses judging the people from morning till night, explaining the laws of God and his decisions. Jethro suggested that rather than wear himself out this way, Moses should teach them the statutes and decisions but choose able men to judge them as rulers of various-sized groups. Only the great matters would be decided by Moses.
They traveled on to Sinai, where the Lord declared through Moses that he would make a covenant with these people, who would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received from the Lord the following ten commandments:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a graven image
or any likeness of anything;...
you shall not bow down to them or serve them,
for I the Lord your God am a jealous God,
visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
but showing steadfast love to thousands of those
who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain....
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work;
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God;
in it you shall not do any work....
Honor your father and your mother....
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house;
you shall not covet your neighbor's wife
or his manservant, or his ox, or his ass,
or anything that is your neighbor's.3
Then Moses went into more specific ordinances such as a Hebrew slave after serving six years shall go out free in the seventh year. Capital punishment was demanded for killing a man; except if one did not lie in wait for him, a place of exile would be appointed. Execution was also mandated for striking or cursing one's father or mother, for stealing a man, for lying with a beast, and for working on the Sabbath. The fear of women's magic is seen in the statement that a sorceress should not be permitted to live, and the fear of other religions in the command that whoever sacrifices to any other god should be utterly destroyed. Later it was commanded that no one was to be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Stealing was to be paid for by restitution, but those who had nothing were to be sold for the theft. Except for the strong religious restrictions these were not unlike earlier law codes of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and the Hittites.
The people agreed to all these laws, but then the Lord called Moses up on the mountain for forty days. By the time he came back they had melted down their jewelry to make a golden calf to worship. This made the Lord so angry that he wanted to consume them; but Moses pleaded for them and persuaded the Lord to turn from his fierce wrath and repent of this evil, reminding the Lord of his covenant. Nevertheless when Moses saw the golden calf and the dancing, he threw down the tables of writing and broke them. He burned up the calf, ground it to powder, put it in water, and made the people of Israel drink it. A rebellion broke out, and Moses ordered the loyal sons of Levi to slay every man his brother, companion, and neighbor, killing about three thousand men. In addition the Lord sent a plague because of the calf Aaron made.
The sons of Aaron and the tribe of Levites were made hereditary priests and provided for by their share of the extensive animal sacrifices and gift offerings required of the Israelites. However, Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu were killed by the Lord for offering unholy fire such as had not been commanded them. Also a man, who had blasphemed the Name and cursed, was commanded by the Lord to be stoned by the Israelites, and they did so. One good teaching of the Lord was that strangers sojourning with them were not to be wronged but were to be loved as themselves, for they had been strangers in the land of Egypt.
When most of the spies (except Caleb and Joshua) did not recommend attacking Canaan, the Lord became angry and said that the Israelites would not enter Canaan for forty years because of their faithlessness; the men who brought this "evil report" died of a plague. A man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath was stoned to death, as the Lord commanded through Moses. When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron, the ground split open and swallowed up Korah and his family, and the 250 men offering incense in this protest were consumed by fire. The people of Israel complained about this killing. So the Lord sent a plague that killed 14,700 before it was stopped by Moses and Aaron.
The people of Israel entered the land of the Amorites and took their villages, defeating the King of Bashan in a battle at Edrei, killing him, his sons, and all his people. In Shittim the people of Israel were seduced by the daughters of Moab, for which the Lord commanded Moses to hang them in the sun; so Moses told the judges to slay those who had joined Baal. About 24,000 died of this plague. In a war against Midian, they slew every male and burned all their encampments. Moses ordered them to kill all the prisoners except the female virgins, which they were to keep for themselves. This Lord, who had forbidden it, certainly was promoting much killing. Yet being friendly with people of another religion was considered an even worse offense.
The Lord once again promised to bring the Israelites into the land west of the Jordan River and clear away the nations that were there before—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. When these mightier nations were defeated, they were to be "utterly destroyed," and no covenant was to be made with them. Their daughters were not to be taken in marriage lest they turn the sons of Israel away from this jealous God to serve other gods; this would anger the Lord, who would then destroy them. Instead their altars were to be broken down, their pillars dashed to pieces, and their graven images burned with fire.
Moses' recommendations for relating to the people they were invading were inherently unfair. He did suggest offering terms of peace first, but those who accepted this "peace" were to be made slaves of forced labor, the very condition he brought them out of in Egypt! Those who did not submit to this servitude were to be killed by the sword in war, the males executed and the women and children taken as spoil. This policy was only for the cities that were far from the land they wanted. The people in the cities that the Lord was "giving" them as an inheritance were to be utterly destroyed.
Although obviously unethical and unjust to foreigners, the Lord did command the Israelites to appoint judges to settle their own affairs according to justice and nothing else. They should not show partiality nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the just. Finally Moses died in the land of Moab, and the Israelites were ready to cross the Jordan into their promised land.
Joshua was appointed by the Lord to succeed Moses and lead the invasion of Canaan. The spies sent to Jericho were helped by Rahab, a harlot; so it was decided that everyone was to be destroyed in Jericho except Rahab's family. After marching around Jericho once a day for a week, the Israelites marched around it seven times, blew their trumpets, then attacked and destroyed the city. Achan, caught stealing votary items of silver and gold, was stoned to death. Next Joshua led his troops in a victory over Ai, killing all 12,000 of their people with the sword. The people of Gibeon took advantage of Moses' "peace terms" for distant cities by pretending they were from far away, and they were made servants by Israel. Gibeon was defended by Israel's forces when it was attacked by Amorite kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon. In this battle according to Joshua the majority of Israel's enemies killed were by the hail the Lord threw down. Nevertheless there was a great slaughter, and the five kings were hung on trees.
Then the book of Joshua tells how this military leader attacked and destroyed Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, the forces of Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir. All their kings were killed, and peace was made with none except Gibeon.
For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts
that they should come against Israel in battle,
in order that they should be utterly destroyed,
and should receive no mercy but be exterminated,
as the Lord commanded Moses.4
Thirty-one defeated kings are listed. Some Canaanites managed to survive, but according to this book when Israel grew strong, they were made to do forced labor. The Lord gave the tribes of Israel a land on which they had not labored, cities which they had not built, and vineyards and olive orchards which they did not plant.
The book of Judges makes clear that the victory was not quite so overwhelming. Conflicts and struggles for domination continued in various parts of Canaan as the Lord raised up judges, who were actually military leaders in most cases, to fight for the various tribes of Israel. Judah took the hill country but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had iron chariots. The people of Benjamin had to co-exist with the Jebusites in the Jerusalem area. The Lord complained that the Israelites served the Baals and Ashtaroth (Astarte, a goddess of fertility, love and war), and this is blamed for their defeats.
After Joshua died, the first judge was Othniel, who prevailed in a war against a king of Mesopotamia. Ehud, a Benjaminite, led a battle in the hill country of Ephraim in which all ten thousand of the Moabites were killed. According to Judges, Deborah and Barak led Zebulun and Naphtali in killing the entire army of Sisera. Since the Midianites and Amalekites kept destroying the produce and animals of Israel, Gideon was called by an angel of the Lord to take only three hundred men to defeat the Midianites. Gideon personally slew their kings, Zebah and Zalmuna, but he refused to rule over Israel, saying that the Lord would rule over them. But one of his sons by a concubine, Abimelech, joined with men of Shechem to kill seventy of his brothers. While Abimelech was ruling, the men of Shechem ambushed and robbed people on the mountain roads. Abimelech attacked and took Shechem, killed all its people, razed the city, and sowed salt. However, when he was attacking a tower of Thebez, a woman dropped a millstone on Abimelech that crushed his skull, punishing him for having killed his brothers.
A Gilead warrior named Jephthah gathered worthless fellows around him for raiding. When the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead got him to lead the Israelites in defeating twenty cities of the Ammonites "with a very great slaughter." The men of Ephraim resented his not asking them to join him in this battle so much that they fought each other; 42,000 Ephraimites fell because they could not pronounce the word "Shibboleth."
The powerful warrior Samson could refrain from wine and from cutting his hair, but he could not keep a secret from a woman. His Philistine wife caused him to lose a bet, and so he killed thirty men to take the spoil to pay it. He burned the Philistines' fields using foxes and claimed to have killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. When his hair was cut off and his strength weakened, his eyes were gouged out in revenge. When his hair grew back, he pulled down the pillars of a Philistine temple, killing many more of them and himself. This tale implies that the Israelites would be able to defeat their wine-drinking Philistine enemies if they practiced temperance and kept their secrets.
A similar story to that of Lot in Sodom is told of Benjaminites in Gibeah, who demanded to have sexual relations with a man visiting; but instead they raped and abused his concubine all night. The man divided her body and sent the parts to the twelve tribes of Israel, leading to a civil war against the tribe of Benjamin in which 90,000 Israelites died in four days. The men of Israel who gathered for this war swore that they would not give their daughters in marriage to the tribe of Benjamin; but rather than let the tribe die out, they sent to Jabesh-gilead warriors, who had not participated in the civil war, to slay all the men and women except four hundred virgin women, whom they took to the Benjaminites. Benjaminites were also advised to take by force the daughters of Shiloh for wives. These events occurred when Israel had no king, and every person (and tribe) did what they thought was right.
The sordid tale just recounted contrasts to the tender story of Ruth, a Moabite woman, who married a man from Bethlehem, a refugee from a famine. When her husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law died, her mother-in-law Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth elected to go with her and helped her to survive by gleaning the harvest that was left for the poor and needy. Ruth eventually married Boaz and bore a son, who was to become the grandfather of David. This warm tale indicates some tolerance for a foreigner who proved herself loyal.
In the first book of Samuel the Lord of Israel called a man of that name to be a judge so that they could win back the ark of God that had been captured by the Philistines. Under Samuel's leadership the cities, which the Philistines had taken, were restored to Israel from Ekron to Gath, and there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. When Samuel got old, he appointed his two sons judges; but seeking gain, they took bribes and perverted justice. The elders of Israel asked Samuel to appoint a king to govern them like other nations. The Lord guided Samuel to do this even though the Lord felt rejected as king of Israel. The Lord also told him to warn them what it would mean to have a king, who would take their sons for his farming work and for making implements of war, their daughters as perfumers and cooks, and the best products of their fields, servants, and farm animals; they would be his slaves, and the Lord would not be able to answer their complaints in that day.
But the people insisted, and the Lord told Samuel to anoint as king a tall and handsome man named Saul. The men of Jabesh were about to have their right eyes gouged out by the Ammonites when Saul mustered 300,000 men of Israel and 30,000 men of Judah to defeat the Ammonites. Saul and his son Jonathan led the war against the Philistines. Samuel criticized Saul for offering a burnt offering without him. Saul was going to put to death his son Jonathan for eating honey against his orders, but the people saved Jonathan. After defeating the Amalekites Saul spared the life of their king Agag and their best animals, and all that was good he did not destroy. This merciful policy according to the scripture angered the Lord and Samuel, causing another argument that led Samuel to reject Saul even though he went and killed Agag with his own sword.
According to the first book of Samuel, Samuel anointed David while he was only a young shepherd and unknown, but this strains credulity. Saul was suffering from an evil spirit, and a servant suggested that David's music might help him, which it did. So skilled with the sling that he had killed lions and bears, David volunteered to face Goliath's challenge of single combat, and he killed the giant warrior from Gath. However, this story may have been re-assigned to David to portray him as a hero, since 2 Samuel 21:19 states that Goliath was slain by Elhanan. David then led many victories against the Philistines, and women began to sing, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands." Saul became so envious of David that he threw his spear at him while he was playing the lyre. Saul sent David out to fight the Philistines, and he kept winning victories; so Saul offered him his eldest daughter in marriage, but then he turned around and gave her to another. However, Saul's daughter Michal loved David. Still trying to get David killed by the Philistines, Saul asked for the foreskins of a hundred Philistines as a marriage present, which David got by killing two hundred Philistines with his men.
Saul tried to get his son Jonathan to kill David, but Jonathan liked David and warned him. David fled from Saul and gathered about four hundred discontented men around him while Saul ordered the killing of 85 priests of Nob who had befriended David. The Lord told David to defend Keilah from the Philistines, and he and his men made a great slaughter among them. Saul sought David at Keilah, and David was guided by the Lord to flee from there. Jonathan visited David and declared that David would be the next king. On more than one occasion David could have killed Saul, but he refrained from slaying the "Lord's anointed." David promised Saul that he would not cut off his descendants nor destroy his name. In Carmel Abigail helped David when her husband refused to support David and his men; when her husband died, she married him. David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel, for Saul had taken Michal and given her to another man.
Afraid Saul would kill him, David went to the Philistines and made Ziklag his home for 16 months, raiding the Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites, leaving none alive, but telling the king of Gath that he had raided Negeb of Judah, the Jerahmeelites, or the Kenites. He even seemed willing to fight alongside the Philistines against the Israelites, but the Philistine commanders would not trust him to do this and dismissed him. David went back to find that Ziklag had been burned by the Amalekites after they captured all its women and children. David consulted the priestly oracle of the ephod and pursued them with six hundred men and defeated the Amalekites, rescuing all whom they had taken, including David's two wives.
Meanwhile Saul consulted a witch to raise the spirit of Samuel. Saul had expelled mediums and wizards, but he promised the woman he would not punish her. The spirit of Samuel told Saul that the Lord was going to give Israel and its army into the hands of the Philistines and that Saul would be joining him. This prophecy came to pass the next day when the Philistines defeated Israel, killing Jonathan and two other sons of Saul. Saul in despair fell on his own sword. An Amalekite reported to David in Ziklag that he had killed the wounded Saul and taken his crown, which he brought to David. David ordered the Amalekite killed for destroying the Lord's anointed.
David then went to Hebron, where he was anointed King of Judah. For seven and a half years David held this position and fought a war against the house of Saul. The latter's military commander Abner offered to bring Israel over to David's side, and David accepted, provided that he brought along Saul's daughter Michal. However, David's military commander Joab killed Abner in revenge of his dead brother. David mourned the death of Abner, pleasing the people. Two brothers killed Saul's son Ishbosheth, who had been made king of Israel by Abner, and they brought his head to David. Again David had these assassins killed. The elders of the tribes then came to David at Hebron, and he was anointed king of all Israel. David took the stronghold of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his capital. As the Lord commanded, David fought the Philistines from Geba to Gezer. He also invaded Syria, killing 22,000. A second account listed the men of seven chariots and 40,000 Syrian horseman slain. On his return David is credited with killing 18,000 Edomites, making all the Edomites his servants.
At home David fell in love with Bathsheba and conceived a child with her. She was married to Uriah, a Hittite soldier in his army; but David ordered him into the worst of the fighting, and Uriah was killed. David married Bathsheba; then the prophet Nathan came and asked David about a rich man, who took the one little lamb of a poor man. When David declared that the rich man deserved to die and ordered that the lamb should be restored fourfold, Nathan accused David of being the man for having killed Uriah and taken his wife. Nathan prophesied that the sword would never leave David's house. David confessed his sin, but the child died anyway. Bathsheba bore a second son named Solomon, but by different wives David had older sons named Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah.
When Amnon raped Absalom's sister Tamar, Absalom found an opportunity to have his servants kill Amnon. Absalom fled to Geshur and remained there three years. Joab sent a woman to David to plead with him to protect her son, who had killed his brother. When David promised to do so, she said his decision convicted himself, for his own son was banished as an outcast. David suspected Joab's influence but agreed to send for Absalom. For two more years Absalom did not see David; but finally, summoned by Joab, Absalom spent the next four years comforting people who came to the King for judgment, winning thus the hearts of the people of Israel.
Then Absalom organized a conspiracy to make himself king that was successful enough to induce David to leave Jerusalem. David prayed that his renegade counselor Ahithophel's advice be turned to foolishness, and to help this along he sent Hushai to confuse the counsels of Absalom. Meanwhile the fleeing David shrugged off the curses of Shimei without punishing him. The advice of Ahithophel was rejected in favor of that by Hushai, leading Ahithophel to go home and hang himself. David and his men crossed the Jordan and defeated the men of Israel in the forest of Ephraim; 20,000 died that day in this civil war. Absalom was caught on an oak branch and killed by Joab. David mourned Absalom, once again refused to punish Shimei, and returned to Jerusalem. A second revolt led by Sheba was also put down.
When Israel suffered a famine for three years, David, believing it was caused by the bloodguilt of Saul's house, had seven of Saul's sons hanged at Gibeon, sparing only Jonathan's son Mephibosheth. War with the Philistines continued; when David became tired and was almost killed, his men would not let him go out to battle anymore. David was an outstanding musician and was credited with composing most of the Psalms, though it is difficult to know which of them David may have written.
The 18th Psalm is also recorded in 2 Samuel 22. David gave thanks and praised the Lord as his rock, his fortress, and his deliverer, who saved him from violence and his enemies. He called upon the Lord and was heard, believing he was rewarded according to his goodness. The faith was expressed that God is loyal to the loyal, blameless with the blameless, pure to the pure, but perverse to the crooked. God's way is perfect and true to his promises, offering a shield to those who take refuge in him. The Lord brought down vengeance on his enemies. Though not pure of this negativity, at least in the Psalms the prayer relies on the Lord for vengeance. The ethics of right and wrong is closely identified with belief in and the power of God. The philosophy is that the good and the just will prosper while the wicked, the violent, and the deceitful will suffer the recompense of their wrongs because God's judgment of good and evil is all-knowing and all-powerful.
Through prayer the Psalmist can align oneself with God and be guided into goodness and justice, strengthening one's inner resources. In the 7th Psalm David (or the author) trusted the judgments of the Lord and expected to be requited for his own wrongdoing. He asked that the wicked come to an end so that the just might be established by a just God, who tries the minds and hearts. The wicked, who conceive evil and lies, dig a pit and fall into the hole they made; mischief returns on one's own head, as does violence. Some of the ethical values are described in the 15th Psalm:
O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?
Whoever walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth from one's heart;
who does not slander with one's tongue
and does no evil to one's friend
nor takes up a reproach against one's neighbor;
in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
but who honors those who fear the Lord;
who swears to one's own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out one's money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things shall never be moved.5
In the 37th Psalm David advised us not to fret because of the wicked nor to envy wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass. "Trust in the Lord and do good; so you will dwell in the land and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart."6 The 51st Psalm expresses David's penitence after he was reprimanded by Nathan for having gone in to Bathsheba. He acknowledged his transgression and sin and believed God was justified and blameless in judgment. He admitted that he was "brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,"7 an early indication of the belief in the original sin of procreation.
Only the 72nd Psalm is attributed to Solomon, who asked that he might judge correctly, that the mountains bear prosperity, that he defend the poor, deliver the needy, and crush the oppressor. He asked for power over his enemies and foreign kings, long life, abundance of grain, and fame as he blessed the name of the Lord. Some psalms lament that judgments seem unjust as the wicked thrive, and they ask for justice for the weak, the rights of the afflicted, rescue of the needy, and deliverance from the wicked, who have neither knowledge nor understanding and walk in darkness. The 82nd Psalm goes on to proclaim, "You are gods, sons of the Highest, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like humans."8 God is asked to judge the Earth and all its nations.
Later Psalms, such as the 120th, lament the lack of peace and complain of those who are for war. The 140th asks for deliverance from violent men, who plan evil and stir up wars continually; their tongues are sharp, and in their mouths is poison. The Psalmist prayed that the slanderer may not be established in the land and that the violent man may be hunted down quickly by evil. The just and upright give thanks to the Lord, who maintains the cause of the afflicted and executes justice for the needy.
When David was very old, Adonijah assumed that he would be the next king; but Bathsheba and Nathan told David how Adonijah was acting as if he were king. So David had Solomon anointed as king. In fear Adonijah clutched the horns of the altar until Solomon promised that he would not die unless he was wicked. During his last years David was given the beautiful Abishag the Shunammite to keep him warm. When David died, Adonijah asked Bathsheba to intercede with King Solomon so that he could have Abishag as his wife. For this request Solomon had Adonijah killed, and he expelled the priest Abiathar. When Joab heard this news, he fled to the altar and caught hold of its horns; but Solomon ordered Joab killed anyway for his guilt in shedding the blood of Abner and Amasa without cause. For murdering Adonijah and Joab on the king's orders Benaiah was put in charge of the army. Shimei was allowed to live but ordered not to leave his house in Jerusalem. When he did three years later to go after slaves who had run away, Shimei was also killed by Benaiah.
Solomon made an alliance with Egypt by marrying Pharaoh Siamen's daughter. According to the first book of Kings Solomon loved the Lord. When asked by God in a dream what he wanted, Solomon asked for an understanding mind to govern his people so that he might discern between good and evil. The Lord was so pleased with this wise request that he granted Solomon not only wisdom but long life and wealth as well. His wisdom was demonstrated when two women came before him arguing over whose baby had survived when the other baby was negligently killed in bed by the sleeping mother. Solomon ordered that the living baby be divided in two, giving half to each mother. The woman who immediately gave up her claim so that the child might live was judged the true mother and given the child.
Solomon ruled over a kingdom that was said to have stretched from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. Solomon must have demanded considerable tribute, for he did become extremely wealthy and built a lavish temple and palace, buying timber and skilled workers with grain and vegetable oil from King Hiram of Tyre with whom he made a treaty and lived in peace. King Solomon appropriated 30,000 men in forced labor to bring the wood from Lebanon and 70,000 burden-bearers and 80,000 hewers of stone in the hill country. Forced labor was also used at Millo, Hazor, Megiddo, and in rebuilding Gezer, which the Egyptians had destroyed by fire before it was given to Solomon as a dowry with Pharaoh's daughter. According to Kings these forced levies of slaves were taken from the remaining Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, but not the people of Israel who served as soldiers, officials, and horsemen. Supervisors of the work numbered 3,300. In dedicating the temple Solomon prayed to God that the guilty have their conduct brought upon their heads and the good be rewarded according to their deeds. He asked for forgiveness and that each person be treated according to their hearts, which God knew.
Famed for wealth and wisdom, Solomon was visited by the queen of Sheba. Solomon loved many foreign women and was said to have had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. The religious author criticized Solomon for worshiping other gods and goddesses, and the prophet Ahijah declared that the Lord was going to take the kingdom from Solomon and give ten tribes to his son Jeroboam. For this reason Solomon sought to kill Jeroboam, but he fled to the court of Shoshenk I, who ruled Egypt for 21 years starting about 945 BC. Like David, Solomon was said to have ruled for forty years. He was succeeded by his son Rehoboam.
According to Kings Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs and composed a thousand and five songs. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon are traditionally ascribed to him, but they are probably the products of many minds and hands over the centuries. The Proverbs begin with the quest for wisdom and advice for avoiding violence.
The Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
That people may know wisdom and instruction,
understanding words of insight,
receive instruction in wise dealing,
goodness, justice, and equity;
that prudence may be given to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
the wise person also may hear and increase in learning,
and the person of understanding acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
Reverence for the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Hear, my son, your father's instruction,
and reject not your mother's teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
and pendants for your neck.
My son, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, "Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood,
let us wantonly ambush the innocent;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive
and whole, like those who go down to the Pit;
we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with spoil;
throw in your lot among us,
we will all have one purse" -
my son, do not walk in the way with them,
hold back your foot from their paths;
for their feet run to evil,
and they make haste to shed blood.
For in vain is a net spread
in the sight of any bird;
but these men lie in wait for their own blood,
they set an ambush for their own lives.
Such are the ways of all who get gain by violence;
it takes away the life of its possessors.9
The author trusted that God gives wisdom to the upright, protects those who have integrity, guards the paths of justice, and preserves the way of the saints. The reader is advised not to turn away from one's neighbors nor plan evil against them. One should not contend for no reason with someone who has done no harm. The violent are not to be envied nor are their ways to be chosen; for the perverse are an abomination to the Lord and cursed while the upright are in God's confidence and blessed. Scorners are scorned, but the humble are shown favor. The wise inherit honor; the fools get disgrace. The Lord particularly hates haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry toward evil, false witness, and one who sows discord among brothers.
Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but those who pervert their ways will be found out. Criticism is not to be avoided because closing one's eyes can cause trouble; but reproving boldly brings about peace. "The mouth of the good is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses."10 The wise lay up knowledge, but the babbling of a fool brings about ruin. Those who conceal hatred have lying lips, and uttering slander is foolish. The basic faith is that the evil will not go unpunished while the good will be delivered. The fool will serve the wise, and whoever troubles one's own house will inherit the wind.
Actions have their consequences and words their fruit. The work of one's hand comes back. Fools believe their way is right in their own eyes, but the wise listen to advice. Fools become vexed at once, but the prudent ignore insults. Rash words can be like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful words endure forever, but lying is for the moment. Those who plan good have joy, but the wicked are filled with trouble. Those who walk with the wise become wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. It is a sin to despise one's neighbor, but happy are they who are kind to the poor. Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but a hasty temper exalts folly. Whoever oppresses a poor person insults one's Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors the Maker. The wicked are overthrown by their wrong-doing, but the good find refuge in integrity.
Those who are greedy for unjust gain make trouble for their household. Pride goes before destruction and a fall. The crooked do not prosper, and one with a perverse tongue falls into calamity. A cheerful heart is good medicine. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding but only in expressing one's opinion. Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid. "Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future. Many are the plans in the mind of a person, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established."11 It is an honor to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.
To do goodness and justice
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
Haughty eyes and a proud heart,
the lamp of the wicked, are sin.
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,
but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.
The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.
The violence of the wicked will sweep them away,
because they refuse to do what is just.12
When justice is done, it is a joy to the good but dismay to wrong-doers. Does not the one who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will you not be requited according to your work? If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. Beware of creating negative consequences, for you may fall into the pit you dig, and a stone may come back upon the one who started it rolling. A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin. The poor who walk in integrity are better than the rich who are perverse in their ways. When the good are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan. By justice a king gives stability to the land, but one who exacts gifts ruins it. The good know the rights of the poor; the wicked do not understand such knowledge.
Ecclesiastes expresses the cynical view that "all is vanity and a striving after wind" because everyone ends in death. Nevertheless wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. Yet everything has its own time.
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain has the worker from his toil?
I have seen the business
that God has given to the human sons to be busy with.
He has made everything beautiful in its time;
also he has put eternity into the human mind,
yet so that one cannot find out
what God has done from the beginning to the end.13
In this moral relativism wisdom is still valued; even when in a youth it is better than a foolish king, who will no longer take advice. The advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of the one who has it. In the end the preacher admonished us to respect God and keep the commandments; for this is the human duty, and God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
The Song of Solomon is a collection of love songs, both from the male and female points of view. Here sensual love is greatly valued, though the following advice is given: "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please."14
The Book of Job, the other wisdom book in the Old Testament, is thought to have been based on a folktale as old as the second millennium BC, though the extended philosophical discourses are surely from a later period. In this story evil is personified as the adversary Satan, who asks the Lord to test Job's faith by removing all the rewards he has gained from his good deeds. The Lord allows Satan to take away other things without touching Job's person. After losing his material possessions and the lives of his seven children, Job still worships God, saying, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."15
Next Satan is allowed to go after Job's body but has to spare his life. Suffering various diseases, Job's wife suggests that he curse God and die; but Job says that he has received good from God, asking should he not receive evil also? Thus Job did not sin, but before his friends he curses the day of his birth and prays for death to end his suffering. There follows a long dialog in which his three friends argue the traditional view that God is just and that Job must therefore have done wrong, or he would not be suffering this. Yet Job replies that he cannot repent until he knows what he has done wrong. God is surely more powerful than humans but seems to be unjust to the just as well as the unjust when disaster strikes.
Once again Job's three friends attack him as godless and unrepentant. Job responds by asking for mercy and pity rather than judgment, and he questions whether the universe is just. Job praises wisdom though, recalls his good deeds, bewails his wretchedness, and asserts his integrity, asking to be weighed on a just scale. Job is still baffled why the wicked thrive and the just suffer so much. A fourth person, Elihu, angrily condemns Job and justifies the ways of God, marveling at the greatness of God.
Finally the Lord speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, asking him, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?"16 God's omnipotence and omniscience are truly overwhelming. God boldly declares, "Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine."17 Job must acknowledge that God can do anything and that in comparison he has little understanding. Thus he repents in dust and ashes. God now expresses more anger at Job's friends, demanding sacrifices from them while restoring the fortune of Job with twice as much as before. This amazing book challenges us to recognize the greatness of God in spite of the undeserved suffering we seem to experience in this life.
When Jeroboam heard that Solomon had died and Rehoboam was king, he returned from Egypt to the assembly of Israel at Shechem. Rehoboam also came to Shechem, where the assembly and Jeroboam asked him to lighten the hard service that Solomon had placed on them. Rehoboam asked some elders for counsel but disregarded their advice, following the youths, who said he should add to the burdens of the people and punish them even more severely. So the people of Israel turned away from the house of David and went home to their own tents. When King Rehoboam sent Adoram to be taskmaster over forced labor, he was stoned to death. Rehoboam quickly retreated to Jerusalem, and the assembly made Jeroboam king of Israel. Rehoboam gathered 180,000 warriors from the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin to win back the rest of the kingdom, but the word of God came to a holy man named Shemaiah that they should not go up and fight their kinsmen but return to their homes. They followed this message, though there was said to be a continual war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam during their reigns.
2 Chronicles 13 recorded a major battle in which Jeroboam brought an army of 800,000 against the 400,000 of Abijah, who had succeeded his father Rehoboam as king of Judah. Josephus amplified Abijah's speech to include the following:
Yet certainly there is no strength at all in an army
of many ten thousands, when the war is unjust;
for we ought to place our surest hope
of success against our enemies
in goodness alone and in piety towards God.18
Abijah asked northern Israel to repent, stop the prosecution of the war, and remember the laws of their country. While Abijah was speaking, Jeroboam sent his forces to surround Abijah's army; but Abijah encouraged his forces to trust God; priests blew the trumpets, and the soldiers of Judah shouted and then killed 500,000 of their enemies in a victory that established an equilibrium between the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin and the other ten tribes of the north. The two kingdoms remained divided as King Asa of Judah and King Baasha of Israel warred throughout their reigns as well.
Baasha had replaced the son of Jeroboam, Nadab, whom he had killed along with the rest of his family. However, after he ruled 23 years and died, his son Elah was killed by Zimri, a military officer. Zimri did not spare his family either because according to the prophet Jehu, the Lord wanted the house of Baasha destroyed. When the troops besieging the Philistines learned that Zimri had killed the new king, their commander Omri was made king. The siege was transferred to Tirzah, where Zimri burned the royal house and died. Omri was succeeded by his son Ahab, who married a princess from Sidon named Jezebel, who was criticized for worshipping Baal. The prophet Elijah predicted a famine. Elijah lived on the food ravens brought him until the brook Cherith dried up; then he went to live with a widow, whose son he brought back to life.
According to 1 Kings 18, Ahab organized a contest between 450 prophets of Baal and Elijah on Mount Carmel to see who could magically light the sacrificial fire. When Elijah won this contest, at his word the people killed all the prophets of Baal. King Ahab won two military victories over Benhadad, king of Syria, killing 100,000 Syrian troops in one day. When Ahab coveted a neighbor's vineyard, Jezebel got the local people to accuse and stone to death the owner and his sons. The Lord sent Elijah to the vineyard to tell Ahab his blood would be licked by dogs there also. In 853 BC King Ahab supported the Aramaean kingdoms of Syria with 2,000 (Some scholars change this to 200.) chariots and 10,000 infantry in a major but indecisive battle against Assyria's Shalmaneser III at Karkar on the lower Orontes River. Next Ahab wanted to reoccupy Ramoth-gilead, and he asked King Jehoshaphat of Judah to help him. They consulted Ahab's four hundred prophets, who assured them of success; but Micaiah saw how the Lord was enticing Ahab to the battle with false prophets so that he would be killed there; this came to pass even though Jehoshaphat was dressed like a king, and Ahab was in disguise.
As Ahab's son Ahaziah became king, Moab rebelled against Israel; but Ahaziah soon fell through a lattice, leaving him in critical condition. He sent to an oracle of Baal for advice; but his messenger met Elijah, who reprimanded him for ignoring the God of Israel and predicted the King would die. When Ahaziah sent a captain and fifty men to Elijah summoning the prophet, Elijah called down fire from heaven and killed these men to prove that he was a man of God; the same thing happened a second time with another captain and fifty more men before the Lord allowed Elijah to go to the court with the third group. Ahaziah did die; but so did Elijah, who was carried up to heaven, an event witnessed by Elisha, who was to replace him. Moab refused to continue giving the King of Israel a hundred thousand lambs and the wool of a hundred thousand rams every year. So Ahab's other son Jehoram mustered Israel and marched out of Samaria; he was joined by the kings of Judah and Edom. They consulted Elisha, who told them that they would conquer the Moabites and devastate their land.
Like his predecessor Elijah, Elisha also stayed with a widow, and he revived her dead son. He also told Naaman, the commander of Syria's army, how he could be cured of leprosy by washing seven times in the Jordan. However, Elisha's servant, who accepted money for this, was given leprosy. When the Syrian army tried to capture Elisha, he prayed to the Lord that they be blinded temporarily; but he did not order their execution, and they were allowed to return to Syria.
In Judah 2 Chronicles 19 credited Jehoshaphat with appointing judges and admonishing them to be impartial and not take bribes. When Jehoshaphat died, his son Jehoram became king of Judah and married Athaliah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel and sister of the other Jehoram. Edom revolted, setting up their own king. In the north King Benhadad of Syria mustered his troops and besieged Samaria, causing a famine so severe that cannibalism occurred. Frustrated, the King (probably Jehoram of Israel) sent someone to kill Elisha; but changing his mind, he followed after him. Elisha ordered the door shut until the King came. Elisha predicted meal would be available the next day when the Syrians, afraid of being attacked by Hittites and Egyptians, fled their camp, which was then plundered.
Elisha sent a young prophet to anoint as king the army commander Jehu, who formed a conspiracy and shot Israel's King Jehoram with an arrow, killing him. They also pursued another Ahaziah, the king of Judah, and shot him also; he died after fleeing to Megiddo. At Jezreel Jehu got some eunuchs to throw Jezebel to her death from a window. Jehu then ordered the massacre of the house of Ahab—their great men, friends, and priests. Forty-two more were slain at the pit of Beth-eked. All those related to Ahab in Samaria were killed because of the word the Lord had spoken through Elijah. Next Jehu gathered together the worshipers of Baal and had his soldiers slaughter them with swords.
In Judah Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, ruled for six years until the priest Jehoida arranged for the crowning of seven-year-old Joash, who had been hidden away and escaped Athaliah's slayings. Jehoida commanded the captains to take Athaliah out of the temple and kill her. After the priest Jehoida died, King Jehoash had his son Zechariah stoned to death for criticizing him. Jehoash ruled for forty years until he too was murdered by a conspiracy of his servants. Amaziah began his reign by killing the servants who had killed his father; however, the law of Moses restrained him from murdering their children. He also was responsible for killing ten thousand Edomites when taking Sela by storm. Amaziah was defeated and captured by Jehoash, King of Israel, at the battle of Bethshemesh in Judah. Nevertheless Amaziah outlived Jehoash by fifteen years until a conspiracy arose against him in Jerusalem, killing him after he fled to Lachish.
Amaziah was succeeded by Uzziah (also called Azariah), who ruled Judah for fifty-two years during which he made war against the Philistines, the Arabs of Gurbaal, and the Meunites. The Ammonites paid tribute, and the fame of his power spread as far as Egypt; but according to 2 Chronicles 26 he was punished with leprosy for burning incense in the temple without authorization from the priests. At about the same time Jeroboam II ruled for forty years in Israel and was even more powerful than Uzziah, for these two rulers maintained excellent relations with each other.
Jeroboam II's son Zechariah ruled only six months before he was killed by the conspiracy of Shallum, who was struck down after only one month by Menahem, who also sacked Tappuah and murdered its pregnant women. Menahem bought off the king of Assyria with a thousand talents of silver. Menahem was succeeded after ten years by his son Pekahiah, who was murdered two years later by his captain Pekah. Pekah and Resin, the king of Syria, besieged Jerusalem, possibly because Judah’s King Ahaz ignored Isaiah’s advice to trust God but instead sent money to and made an alliance with Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria. According to 2 Chronicles 28, Pekah's forces killed 120,000 men in Judah in one day, but the prophet Oded persuaded them not to take away 200,000 captured women and children.
Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III then invaded Syria, taking Damascus and accepting the capitulation of Tyre; Israel lost some territory, and the people captured were taken away to Assyria. Hoshea's conspiracy, aided by Tiglath-pileser, killed Pekah. Northern Israel's last king Hoshea paid tribute to Assyrian King Shalmaneser until Hoshea decided to ask for help from Egypt. Assyria besieged Hoshea's Samaria for three years, and in 722 BC Israel was captured by the Assyrians; its people were deported to Assyria and Media, where the survivors of these ten tribes were eventually assimilated. Other people from the Assyrian empire came to Samaria and settled there.
In the middle of the eighth century BC during the reigns of Uzziah in Judah and Jeroboam II in Israel, a shepherd named Amos came from the Judean village of Tekoa to announce messages from the Lord to the powerful nations of the area. Amos accused and warned that the Lord would punish Damascus for threshing Gilead with sledges of iron, the Philistines for carrying off people to Edom, Edom for pursuing their brothers with the sword without pity, the Ammonites for enlarging their territory and killing pregnant women, Judah for rejecting the law of the Lord, and Israel for selling good people for money and the needy for a pair of sandals. Those who "store up violence and robbery in their strongholds" do not know how to do right.
Amos declared that the people of Israel hate the one who reproves them and abhor the one who speaks the truth; they pervert justice by taking bribes, use false scales, and turn aside the needy at the gate. Amos prophesied that they would be the first to go into exile. For his unpopular statements Amos was expelled from the sanctuary at Bethel and told by their priests to go back to Judah. Once again he predicted that Israel would go away into exile, but in the end the Lord promised to restore the fortunes of the people Israel so that they might plant vineyards and gardens and eat their fruit.
Not long after Amos spoke, Hosea was guided by the Lord to take a harlot for a wife to symbolize the unfaithfulness of Israel. He warned that the house of Jehu would be punished for the blood spilt at Jezreel. Hosea also held out the vision of a better relationship with God.
And I will make for you a covenant on that day
with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air,
and the creeping things of the ground;
and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land;
and I will make you lie down in safety.
And I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you to me in goodness and in justice,
in steadfast love, and in mercy.
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness;
and you shall know the Lord.19
At that time though, Hosea found no faithfulness, kindness nor knowledge of God in the land; there was swearing, lying, killing, stealing, adultery, and they broke all bounds with murder following murder. Hosea found the spirit of harlotry in their religious observances. He said the Lord wants "steadfast love and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."20 Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. Plowing iniquity, they have reaped injustice and eaten the fruit of lies because they trusted in their chariots and many warriors; so the tumult of war shall arise among them, and all their fortresses shall be destroyed. Thus Hosea advised with the help of God that they should return and hold fast to love and justice, waiting continually on God. Assyria would not save them. The wise would understand that the ways of the Lord are right; the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble.
The visions of Isaiah were announced in the reigns of Judah's kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. The Lord was concerned that the sons he had raised had rebelled against him; their hands were full of blood. According to Isaiah they needed to wash themselves clean, cease doing evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, defend orphans, and plead for widows. The Lord called them to reason together, promised to make their scarlet sins as white as snow or wool if they were willing and obedient; but those who rebelled would be devoured by the sword. Isaiah proclaimed that the law and the word of the Lord out of Zion may teach the ways of God.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.21
The good shall do well and eat the fruit of their deeds, but what the hands of the wicked have done will be done to them. The mighty shall fall by the sword in battle. Yet the survivors of Israel will be called holy. The Lord looked for justice but saw bloodshed. Isaiah predicted that within 65 years Ephraim would be broken to pieces and no longer be a people. The wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria would be carried away to Assyria.
Nevertheless Isaiah had a vision that a child would be born who would take the government; he would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government would increase and bring endless peace with justice and goodness. In his time Isaiah railed against iniquitous decrees, oppression, neglect of the needy, robbing the poor of their rights, and taking advantage of widows and orphans. The one who comes with the Spirit of the Lord with wisdom and understanding will judge the poor with goodness and decide with equity for the gentle of the Earth. His breath shall slay the wicked. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion shall all be together led by a child. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all the holy mountain, for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
Isaiah pleaded that the outcasts of Moab be allowed to sojourn among them and be given counsel and justice as a refuge from the destroyer. When there is no oppressor any more, and destruction has ceased, when those who trample on others have vanished from the land, then a throne of steadfast love will be established by one who judges and seeks justice. In 711 BC when Assyria attacked Ashdod, which had been abandoned by Ethiopian-ruled Egypt, Isaiah predicted that Egypt and Ethiopia would also be conquered by Assyria. Ten years later when Egypt tried to help Judah, they were defeated by Assyria.
In his apocalyptic vision Isaiah saw a universal judgment, but in all the destruction and desolation he said that the one whose mind stays on God and trusts in God will be kept in perfect peace. The way of the good is level, and their path is smooth. Yet the Lord warned that those who draw near with their mouth and honor him with their lips, while their hearts are far away, will find their wisdom perishing and their discernment hid. Those who hide their deeds in the dark and think no one sees them have turned things upside down, for how can the potter be regarded as the clay? Should the thing made say of its maker, "He did not make me"? God will hear your cries and answer. Though you may have to suffer affliction, yet the Teacher will be revealed; your ears will hear, "This is the way; walk in it." But woe to those who rely on horses, chariots and horsemen but do not look to the Holy One or consult the Lord! Woe to the destroyers who will be destroyed, for those who deal treacherously will be dealt with treacherously. When the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, then justice and goodness will be in the fruitful field yielding peace, quietness and trust forever.
Isaiah spoke the words of the Lord to King Hezekiah, saying that the Assyrians would return to their own land, and the Assyrian King Sennacherib did in fact depart to Nineveh. At first Isaiah said that Hezekiah would die, but Hezekiah prayed to the Lord. His prayer was answered, and he was allowed to live fifteen more years while the city of Jerusalem was delivered from the hands of the Assyrians.
The prophet Micah, a common man from the Judean hills near Jerusalem, was a slightly younger contemporary of Isaiah. He too spoke for social justice and against the violence of war. He complained of those who "strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war,"22 of those who drive women out of their houses and take away their young children. Micah, who was probably unpopular, criticized lying prophets who might preach wine and strong drink or who cry "Peace" when they have plenty to eat but declare war against those who do not feed them. Micah also criticized the rulers of Israel, who abhor justice, pervert equity, and build Zion with blood and wrong, giving judgment for a bribe. He spoke against priests who teach for hire and prophets who divine for money. To Micah, none seemed upright, as they lie in wait for blood and hunt their brothers; princes and judges ask for bribes, and the great utter the evil desires of their souls.
Like Isaiah, Micah declared that God would judge between peoples and decide for strong nations far off, repeating the vision of swords beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not fight against nation when they learn to war no more; but everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. Micah predicted that they would be rescued and redeemed by the Lord from their enemies. Micah wrote, "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"23
While Hoshea was still ruling in Israel, Hezekiah became king of Judah. Hezekiah attacked and killed Philistines as far away as Gaza. He had a tunnel built so that Jerusalem would have spring water, and he stored up food reserves. After Assyrian King Sargon II was succeeded by Sennacherib, Judah with an army of conscripted troops joined with Egypt and some Philistine cities in a rebellion against Assyria in 701 BC; but they were defeated when Lachish was besieged and taken. The Assyrians claimed to have captured 46 fortified towns of Judah and deported 200,150 of its people. Hezekiah was taken prisoner and paid a tribute of three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold stripped from the doors of the temple. Sennacherib demanded the surrender of Jerusalem, but a timely plague caused the Assyrians to withdraw, a deliverance prophesied by Isaiah.
Hezekiah was succeeded by Manasseh when he was only twelve, and Manasseh ruled Judah for fifty-five years. According to 2 Kings 21 Manasseh burned his own son as a sacrificial offering and shed very much innocent blood. His son Amon was only king for two years before he was assassinated by a conspiracy of servants, who were then slain "by the people of the land;" these made Josiah king of Judah when he was only eight. Ten years later a book of the law was discovered, and Josiah instituted reforms even more sweeping than those of his great-grandfather Hezekiah. Josiah made a covenant with the Lord with all his heart and soul to follow the laws of the book. All Canaanite and foreign elements were removed from religious practice, and the houses of the male cult prostitutes were torn down; he also had the high priests of the high places in Samaria killed. During Josiah's 31-year reign the Assyrian empire receded as Babylonian power increased and took the Assyrian capital at Nineveh in 612 BC. Judah expanded its influence in all directions; but when Josiah tried to stop Egypt from helping Assyria in a battle at Megiddo in 609 BC, he was wounded by the Egyptians and died on his retreat to Jerusalem.
Josiah's son Jehoahaz was only king for three months before Egyptian Pharaoh Neco had him put in bonds and taken to Egypt (where he died) along with a tribute of a hundred talents of silver and one of gold. Jehoiakim was made king of Judah and served Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar for three years before rebelling. His son Jehoiachin had been king for only one hundred days when he surrendered Jerusalem in 597 to Nebuchadrezzar and was deported to Babylon with a substantial portion of the population. The Babylonians appointed his uncle Zedekiah king in Jerusalem. Nine years later Zedekiah joined Egypt in a revolt. Nebuchadrezzar returned with his army, and Jerusalem's starving inhabitants surrendered after two years of siege in 586 BC. Zedekiah was blinded and sent to Babylon along with most of the remaining Jewish population.
Zephaniah prophesied in the early years of the reign of Josiah, calling the people to come together in an assembly and follow the Lord's commands before the anger of the Lord came upon them. He predicted the destruction of Assyria and the desolation of Nineveh. The Lord promised to renew their love and remove disaster from them by dealing with their oppressors. The lame and the outcasts will be saved and gathered, changing shame to praise and renown among all the peoples of the Earth.
The writing of Nahum also prophesied that the Lord would destroy the Assyrian empire and waste its capital Nineveh. His short work concludes:
Your shepherds are asleep,
O king of Assyria;
your nobles slumber.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with none to gather them.
There is no assuaging your hurt,
your wound is grievous.
All who hear the news of you
clap their hands over you.
For upon whom has not come
your unceasing evil?24
The prophet Habakkuk asked the difficult questions,
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongs
and look upon trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is slacked
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the good,
so justice goes forth perverted.25
Habakkuk predicted the Chaldeans were coming with violence, terrorizing and gathering captives like sand. They scoff at kings and rulers and laugh at fortresses—the "guilty men whose own might is their god!"26 Habakkuk acknowledged God as everlasting, knowing we shall not die. The Lord ordained them as a judgment and for chastisement; yet God seemed to look on the faithless silently even though the wicked swallow up the good. How long will nations be mercilessly slain?
The Lord told Habakkuk to write the vision. Those not upright will fail, but the good shall live by their faith. The arrogant and greedy, who never have enough, like death, will not last. Woe to those who heap up what is not their own! Their debtors will arise; those who have plundered many nations will be plundered by the remaining people "for the blood of men and the violence to the earth."27 Those who get evil gain have devised shame for themselves and will forfeit their lives. Woe to those who build a town with blood and found a city with iniquity! For the Earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. False glory will become contempt and shame; the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm them. Habakkuk prayed to the Lord for renewal so that in the wrath mercy might be remembered.
Jeremiah wrote that the word of the Lord came to him in the days of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah until the captivity of Jerusalem. The Lord touched his mouth and gave him words to denounce the nations and the sins of Judah in particular. He predicted that out of the north evil would break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land. As with many of the prophets, the Lord was most concerned that his people had forsaken him for other gods. Instead of thanking God for rain and the harvest, their iniquities had kept these blessings away.
For wicked men are found among my people;
they lurk like fowlers lying in wait.
They set a trap;
they catch men.
Like a basket full of birds,
their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich,
they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness;
they judge not with justice
the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Shall I not punish them for these things?
says the Lord.28
Jeremiah found that from the least to the greatest they were greedy for unjust gain; all the prophets and priests dealt falsely. They said, "Peace, peace," when there was no peace. Yet the Lord still promised that if they would truly amend their ways by practicing justice with one another, by not oppressing the alien, orphans, or widows, by not shedding innocent blood, and by not going after other gods, then the Lord would dwell in the land with them forever. Yet everyone was wary of their neighbor and trusted no brother, for they were supplanters, slanderers, deceivers, and commit iniquity and were too tired to repent. Thus Jeremiah counseled: let not the wise glory in their wisdom, the might in their power, the rich in their wealth; but let glory be found in understanding and knowing the Lord, who practices steadfast love, justice, and goodness on the Earth.
According to Jeremiah the horror that the Lord would bring was because of what Manasseh did in Jerusalem, also because the people had gone after other gods, forsaken the Lord and not kept the law.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately corrupt;
who can understand it?
"I the Lord search the mind
and try the heart,
to give to every man according to his doings."
Like the partridge that gathers a brood which she did not hatch,
so is he who gets riches but not by right;
in the midst of his days they will leave him,
and at his end he will be a fool.29
Jeremiah warned the people of Judah to turn away from evil ways when Jehoiakim first became king. His prophecy of destruction was greatly resented by the priests, prophets, and the people, who called for his death; but others said he did not deserve to die. Jeremiah's prophecies were written down by Baruch and came to the attention of King Jehoiakim, who listened to them read but then had them burned.
After many Jews were deported from Jerusalem in 597 BC and Zedekiah was made king by the Babylonians, the Lord told Jeremiah to put on a yoke as a symbol that they must serve King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. The prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah and broke them; but the Lord told Jeremiah to tell Hananiah that he was not sent from the Lord and would be removed from the Earth that year; in the seventh month Hananiah died.
When the King of Babylon did return, and only Jerusalem, Lachish, and Azekah held out against the Babylonian forces, Jeremiah advised King Zedekiah to free all the Hebrew slaves; for the law of Moses said slaves must be set free after six years. Apparently Zedekiah commanded the release of slaves; but the princes and people went back on this when Jerusalem was besieged. For this breaking of the covenant Jeremiah prophesied that they would be given into the hands of their enemies.
Jeremiah warned that they could not rely on Egypt as other prophets had said; he said the King of Babylon would renew the war against Jerusalem with a siege, a famine, and would destroy people, take others into captivity, and burn the city. However, Jeremiah saw a way out, a choice between life and death. He said that whoever stayed in the city would die by the sword, famine or pestilence; but those, who went out and surrendered to the besieging Chaldeans, would live. Those, who were sent away to the land of the Chaldeans, would be replanted like good figs; but those, who remained in Judah, would be destroyed like bad figs. The whole land of Judah would become a ruined waste. Jeremiah sent a letter to those already in exile telling them to pray for their city of exile, for they would find welfare there; they would serve the King of Babylon for seventy years until Babylon was punished for its iniquity in wasting the land. Then they would be brought back, and their fortunes would be restored.
When Jeremiah tried to go home to his birthplace of Anathoth, he was accused of deserting to the Babylonians. He was arrested, taken to the rulers, and tortured. When eighteen months of siege had caused famine and pestilence in Jerusalem, Jeremiah cried out from prison that the people should open the gates to the King of Babylon, for in that way they would be preserved. He said if they did not surrender, they would be destroyed. Many rulers complained to the King that Jeremiah was a madman disheartening their minds and weakening the resolve of the soldiers. Even though King Zedekiah was not perturbed by this, he allowed them to put Jeremiah in a cistern of mire until an Ethiopian told the King what they did and got him released.
Jeremiah was then called before Zedekiah, but he was reluctant to speak, fearing that what he would say would get him condemned to death. When the King promised not to kill him, Jeremiah told him to deliver the city to the Babylonians if he wanted to escape danger and prevent the destruction of the city. However, if he did not do this, Zedekiah would bring about miseries on the citizens and calamity on his whole house. Though he promised compliance, Zedekiah continued to struggle against the siege. When Jerusalem fell, Zedekiah was captured near Jericho with his family. They were brought before King Nebuchadrezzar, who accused him of ingratitude, commanded his sons and the Judean nobles with him to be killed, and had Zedekiah blinded and carried to Babylon.
Jeremiah was with the captives in chains on their way to Babylon when the captain of the guard released him so that he could join Gedeliah, who had been appointed governor by the King of Babylon. With the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would make a new covenant with Israel and put the law within them, writing on their hearts. The Lord would still be their God, and they would be his people. No longer would each person teach one's neighbor because they would all know the Lord from the least to the greatest, and their sins and iniquities would be forgiven.
Many Jews came to Gedeliah at Mizpah, and some warned him that Ishmael would take Gedeliah's life; Jotham offered to kill Ishmael. However, Gedeliah refused to believe that someone, whom he had not treated badly, could be so wicked; even so, he would rather be killed than destroy someone who had come to him for refuge. At a banquet Ishmael and ten men did murder Gedeliah; they also killed many Jews and the Chaldean soldiers there and others who came. Ishmael and his men took the people of Mizpah captive and set out for the land of the Ammonites; but Johanan led a revolt and rescued the captives, though Ishmael escaped with eight men.
Johanan and the people went to Jeremiah for advice. Jeremiah warned them not to go to Egypt as they planned; but they went anyway, taking him and Baruch with them. Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would smite Egypt through the King of Babylon and pestilence, consuming the remnant of Judah that went to Egypt. Nebuchadrezzar did invade Egypt on a punitive expedition in the 37th year of his reign (568-567 BC). Jeremiah also prophesied that the King of Babylon would be punished just as the King of Assyria had been for the evil they had done to Zion.
The Lamentations over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC was attributed to Jeremiah; but scholars believe that it was probably written by someone else. Among these dirges can be found the following consoling passage:
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willing afflict
or grieve the sons of men.
To crush under foot
all the prisoners of the earth,
to turn aside the right of a man
in the presence of the Most High,
to subvert a man in his cause,
the Lord does not approve.30
The prophet Obadiah criticized the Edomites for betraying their brothers; they should not have gloated over the ruin of Judah, looted its goods in the days of calamity, cut off its fugitives, and delivered its survivors in their distress.
Ezekiel, a priest, wrote about the visions of God he saw while in Babylon starting in 593 BC, the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin. His writings claimed to have foreseen the coming siege of Jerusalem, predicting that a third of the people would die of pestilence, a third of famine, and a third by the sword. The disasters he saw were because of bloody crimes and violence; the worst of nations would take possession of their houses, and their holy places would be profaned. The Lord stated through Ezekiel that he was only doing to them according to their own judgments. Some of the people were to be saved, and Ezekiel saw how those who lamented the abominations were being marked so that they would not be touched by death.
Ezekiel traveled in Spirit to Jerusalem and described the men who devised iniquity and gave bad counsel to the city. The number of killed in the city had multiplied. They had feared the sword, and the sword would be brought upon them. The Lord predicted they would be given into the hands of foreigners. After they were removed and scattered, they would be gathered again in Israel. Their hearts of stone would be replaced with hearts of flesh. Ezekiel gave signs and allegories how the inhabitants of Judah were to be captured and taken into exile. He described Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife who played the harlot, but instead of accepting money she even paid for her own harlotry. He predicted that the King of Babylon would come to Jerusalem and take their king to Babylon, a king who had rebelled against him by sending ambassadors to Egypt asking for a large army; but the large armies of the Pharaoh would not help against the siege.
Ezekiel expressed the belief that the Lord judges the good and bad by their individual actions. Those who do not worship idols nor defile their neighbor's wife nor oppress anyone but restore their pledges to debtors, commit no robbery, give bread to the hungry and cover the naked with a garment, do not lend at interest, refrain from iniquity, execute justice in human relations, walk in God's statutes observing the ordinances—these are good and will surely live, says the Lord. Those who have done the opposite will surely die for those abominations. However, if the son of such an evil one does good, he shall not die for his father's iniquity. Yet the one who turns away from past sin and does what is right will live while the previously good, who commit wrong, will die. Thus everyone is judged according to their ways. Ezekiel exhorted them, "Repent and turn from all your transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!"31
Ezekiel warned that things could not remain as they were, recommending that they exalt the low and abase the high. He accused the princes of Israel of shedding blood. Fathers and mothers were treated with contempt. Sojourners suffered. Orphans and widows were wronged. Holy things were despised, and the Sabbath was profaned. Men slandered to shed blood, committed lewdness, humbled unclean women, defiled daughters and sisters, took bribes to shed blood, and collected interest and extorted gain. Priests had violated the laws and profaned holy things. Princes were like wolves destroying honest lives for gain. Prophets provided whitewash and divine lies for them. People practiced extortion and committed robbery, oppressed the poor and needy, and extorted from sojourners. For these reasons the Lord was going to scatter them among the nations that their filthiness might be consumed out of them. Ezekiel's wife died when Jerusalem was taken in 586 BC. Ezekiel was guided not to mourn but remain silent until the news of Jerusalem's fall reached Babylon.
Like the watchman, who warns the people the sword is coming, Ezekiel was sent by the Lord to warn the wicked to change their ways. The watchman can be blamed if he fails to blow the trumpet, and the people are taken away in their iniquity. If the wicked are warned and do not turn from evil ways, they will die; but the prophet will be saved. If the wicked restore their pledges, give back what they have robbed, walk in the statutes of life, and do no iniquity, they shall live.
The Lord told Ezekiel that people may come and sit before him, hear what he says but not do it. With their lips they show much love, but their heart is set on gain. The prophet is like one who sings love songs to them; they hear them but do not do it. Ezekiel prophesied against the shepherds of the people who have been feeding themselves instead of the sheep. They eat fat, clothe themselves with wool, slaughter the fatlings, but do not feed the sheep. The weak they have not strengthened; the sick they have not healed; the crippled they have not supported; the strayed they have not brought back; the lost they have not sought; with force and harshness have they ruled. Thus they were scattered because there was no real shepherd; they became food for all the wild beasts.
The Lord promised to be the shepherd now by bringing them out from the countries and gathering them in Israel. The Lord will feed them with good pasture, seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, helping the crippled, strengthening the weak, and watching over the strong. The Lord will judge the sheep and set over them a shepherd, David, who will feed them. The Lord will be their God and make a covenant of peace with them, banishing wild beasts from the land so that they may be secure. The Lord will send down showers of blessing; trees will yield fruit and the earth its increase. They will know the Lord when he breaks their yoke and delivers them from those who have enslaved them. The cities will be inhabited again and the waste places rebuilt. No longer will nations prey upon them. Such was the promise the Lord made through Ezekiel.
Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones in a valley which came to life from his prophecy of the restoration of Israel. He also described a detailed vision of a new temple. The Lord warned the princes of Israel though to cease evicting people, to put away violence and oppression, and to practice justice and goodness. Ezekiel also reported oracles against Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt. In 571 BC Ezekiel prophesied that Nebuchadrezzar would destroy Egypt.
In Babylon Jehoiachin and his sons were given food as royal hostages. In 561 BC Nebuchadrezzar's successor Amel-Marduk (Evil-Merodach) removed them from prison to his royal palace. Jehoiachin's oldest son Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel. Much of the great literature of the Old Testament was written in the Babylonian exile. However, after Nabonidus became king of Babylon in 552 BC, pious and patriotic Jews were persecuted with heavy labor even for the aged. More vocal or active Jewish critics were put in dungeons, whipped, beaten, and insulted.
In this situation a prophet arose who looked toward Cyrus, the king of Persia, as a deliverer of the exiled Jews. His name is not known, but his writing was added to the book of Isaiah as chapters 40-55. Cyrus had become king in 559 BC and had conquered Persia's former masters, the Medes, in 550 and Lydia in Asia Minor in 546 BC. The second or Babylonian Isaiah began his writing by comforting the Jews that their warfare was ended and their iniquity pardoned by the Lord for double all their sins. He proclaimed that a voice was crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord with a straight highway for God. Valleys will be raised, and mountains and hills brought low. Rough ground will be made smooth. God's glory will be revealed, and everyone will see it; God's word lasts forever.
Jerusalem should herald that God is coming with power bringing rewards and recompense. God is like a shepherd feeding his flock. Who can compare with God? Even the nations are like drops in a bucket or dust on the scales. Yet God gives power to the faint and strength to the patient. God tramples kings under foot; the earth trembles. Everyone helps and encourages their neighbor. Israel has been chosen and will be helped. Those who contend against them will be nothing. The Lord will provide water for the thirsty. Another power from the north will come and trample on the rulers.
Second Isaiah saw a servant of the Spirit who will bring justice to the nations of the Earth with law. God has called people in goodness and given them as a covenant and a light to the nations to open the eyes of the blind and release prisoners from their dungeons. Former things are passing away as the new springs forth. "Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!"32 The blind will be led; in unknown paths they will be guided. Darkness will be turned to light, rough places made smooth, because those who see do not observe, and those with ears do not listen. Yet the Lord will redeem Israel, which is forgiven, and God's spirit will be poured forth on them; for their sake Babylon will be broken. Cyrus will fulfill the purpose of the Lord; Jerusalem and the cities of Judah will be built. The God, who created the heavens and formed the Earth, will be worshipped. The prisoners will go forth from Babylon; God will arrange the restoration of Israel.
God's law goes forth, and divine justice is a light to the peoples of the world; for even the heavens will vanish like smoke, and the Earth will eventually wear out like a garment; but salvation is forever. This prophet asked those who knew goodness and had the law in their hearts to listen and not fear reproaches from men. Jerusalem must rouse itself and stand up. The people of Israel have suffered much, but the good tidings that publish peace and salvation are beautiful, knowing that God reigns. Sing for joy to see the return of the Lord to Zion.
Next the prophet described a servant, who was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows who bore their grief. He was wounded for their transgressions, taking on the chastisement that made them whole. He was oppressed and afflicted, but kept his mouth shut like a lamb going to be slaughtered. He was oppressed by a judgment, taken away, and cut off from the land of the living for the sake of the people's transgressions, although he had done no violence and had no deceit. This was the will of the Lord, a sacrifice that would make many become good. His soul was poured out with the criminals even as he bore the sin of many and interceded for them. This description of the suffering servant probably described a martyr, who was persecuted for taking on the collective karma (or sin) by revealing what reforms were needed to improve the society, while committing no fault of his own. It would serve as a heroic model for such redemptive sacrifices.
The Persian King Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 BC and made himself its king. According to the account of Josephus, Cyrus acknowledged the all-powerful God and the prophecies that foretold his coming. Cyrus graciously decreed that the Jews could freely return to Judah; he even gave back to them precious items so that they could be restored in their temple. In addition to Babylon, all of Palestine was now part of the Persian empire. Cyrus appointed Zerubbabel governor of that region across the Euphrates, and Joshua, the grandson of the last high priest, became high priest. In 537 BC about 50,000 people, counting the proselytes who acknowledged the God of Israel, journeyed back to Jerusalem escorted by Persian guards in the joy and peace foreseen by second Isaiah.
Many of their neighboring Samaritans wanted to help them rebuild the temple and participate in its religious rites. A council was gathered, and Zerubbabel informed the Samaritans that they would not be allowed to join with the Judeans. Conflicts with the various tribes in the area developed as they had when the Hebrews first came into Canaan. Drought and hail resulting in poor harvests led to much suffering. However, after the death of Persian King Cambyses in 521 BC ended wars in the region, his successor Darius looked more kindly on Judea. A story in Josephus tells how Zerubbabel went to Persia and impressed Darius with his wisdom by explaining that truth is more powerful than even wine and women. The favor he asked for was that the temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt with the King's support. The wealthy and powerful people in Jerusalem did not want the temple rebuilt yet; but the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people, and by 516 BC, seventy years after its destruction, the rebuilt temple was dedicated.
However, a conflict developed between Zerubbabel, supported by Haggai, and Joshua, whom Zechariah declared should wear the crown, a rivalry won by Joshua. When Joshua was succeeded as high priest by his son, the authority of the high priest in the Jewish community had been established, though a governor was appointed by the Persians as an administrator who did not reside in Jerusalem. Since the Samaritans and others did consider themselves part of the same religion, many Jews married them. Those who had been in Babylon tended to follow the law more closely which forbade marriages with Moabites and Ammonites until the tenth generation after conversion. Ezra, who was descended from the priest who carried the book of the Law to Babylon, was able to study the written law. Ezra began to teach based on his studies and received more attention even than the prophets. In 458 BC Ezra gathered 1,600 men and their families and went from Persia to Jerusalem. King Artaxerxes even sent gifts along with them.
Some people complained to Ezra about the mixed marriages, which Ezra considered a sin. He tore his clothes and pulled out his hair and beard, fasted, grieved, went to the temple, and threw himself down. A man there named Shechaniah suggested that they make a covenant to put away all the strange wives and their children. Ezra immediately accepted the idea and demanded that all present swear they would repudiate their foreign wives. The assembly of elders summoned all those with mixed marriages to appear within three days on pain of excommunication. This rigid wall of separation naturally caused much sorrow and became an artificial barrier between Jews and other people. It was during this period that the charming book of Ruth was written to show that a foreign wife could become a good and loyal Jew. In this conflict the opposition led by Sanballat even attacked Jerusalem, tearing down its walls and destroying its buildings, although they spared the abandoned temple. Many people took back their wives and made peace with their neighbors.
Other Jews went for aid to the Persian court, where the Judean Nehemiah was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. The King allowed the zealous Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem if he would return after twelve years, and he appointed him governor. Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem with an armed escort and secluded himself for three days. Then Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem; this was done by workman having swords and shields nearby for when scouts and trumpeters sounded the alarm. Many wealthy families secretly communicated with the enemies, and they also oppressed the poor by taking their lands, goods, and even their children as slaves when they could not pay their debts. Nehemiah called a great assembly and demanded that the slaves, goods, and property of the poor be returned to them and their debts be canceled; no interest should be charged. Nehemiah also refused to eat the food allowance that was due him as governor, advancing money and grain to the poor.
Gradually Jerusalem was rebuilt and repopulated. More people were needed, and a tenth of the people in surrounding areas were chosen by lot; but Nehemiah made sure that only truly Israelite families were selected. To educate the people Ezra came forward, and at an outdoor festival he read aloud the Law. Nehemiah also had houses built for the poor; after twelve years he returned to the court of Artaxerxes as he had promised. Later Nehemiah wrote to justify himself for contending, cursing, and beating those who gave their daughters to foreigners in his efforts to "cleanse them" from everything foreign.
The book of Joel was probably written during the Persian period, though his call for warmaking and beating plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears could be much earlier before it was nobly reversed by Isaiah; or his condemnation of Tyre and Sidon for selling Judeans into slavery to the Greeks could reflect later times under Greek domination. Joel also prophesied desolation on Egypt and Edom for the violence they did to the people of Judah.
The imaginative story of Jonah, which resembles a cartoon, is set way back in the early eighth century BC, but its opposition to narrow Jewish nationalism would place it in the late Persian period. Jonah was a reluctant prophet, whose story may be based on accounts of cetaceans saving a human. Jonah asked people to turn from their evil ways so that God would repent of his anger, which happened, making Jonah angry. Then the Lord showed him that he did not do well to be angry over this; for it was good that God took pity on the people of Nineveh.
Malachi wrote in the fifth century BC and asked whether we all have one father, the God who created us. If so, then why are we faithless to each other? Yet he left this universal view to complain that Judah had married the daughter of a foreign god. Malachi believed that God hated divorce as well as violence. He criticized the moral decline of his times when the bad were thought good, and people asked, "Where is the God of justice?"33
The book of Esther is set in the reign of Xerxes (r. 485-464 BC) and is probably a fictional account of a Jewish woman who is made queen of Persia by Xerxes so that she can stop the evil plans of Haman to have the Jews killed by royal decree. Esther uses her influence with the King to save her father Mordecai and have Haman hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. The evil plan Haman had paid for was averted, but instead "the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces."34 According to this violent fantasy 75,000 were slain by the Jews, although they did not take any plunder.
Eventually the Samaritans built their own sanctuary on Mount Gerizim; they accepted only the five books of the Torah because of the later writings' frequent mention of Jerusalem. Yet in Judaism collecting the writings of the prophets along with the histories and wisdom books gave the prophets' words more influence than they probably had in their own time. Concepts of the devil, hell, paradise, and resurrection were adopted from the Magian religion of the Persians. Weakened by their own divisions and perhaps awakened to the futility of war by the prophets, Israel was mostly a bystander to the battles between the Persians, Egyptians, and the Greeks. Legend has it that Alexander had a dream with the God of the Jews advising him he would conquer Persia, and therefore he spared the Jews and worshipped God at Jerusalem; but scholars doubt it. However, the Samaritans did rise up and killed Alexander's governor Andromachos in 331 BC, bringing on the conqueror's wrath with tortures, executions, and a harsh military rule in Samaria. Thus Alexander favored the Judeans and gave some of the Samaritan territory to them.
1. Genesis (Revised Standard Version), 3:22.
2. Ibid., 4:9.
3. Exodus 20:3-17.
4. Joshua 11:20.
5. Psalms 15.
6. Ibid. 37:3-4.
7. Ibid., 51:5.
8. Ibid., 82:6-7.
9. Proverbs 1:1-19.
10. Ibid., 10:11-12.
11. Ibid., 19:20-21.
12. Ibid., 21:3-7.
13. Ecclesiastes 3:1-11.
14. Song of Solomon 8:4.
15. Job 1:21.
16. Ibid., 38:4.
17. Ibid., 41:11.
18. The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, tr. W. Whiston, 8:11:2.
19. Hosea 2:18-20.
20. Ibid., 6:6.
21. Isaiah 2:4.
22. Micah 2:8.
23. Ibid., 6:8.
24. Nahum 3:18-19.
25. Habakkuk 1:2-4.
26. Ibid., 1:11.
27. Ibid., 2:8.
28. Jeremiah 5:26-29.
29. Ibid., 17:9-11.
30. Lamentations 3:31-36.
31. Ezekiel 18:30-31.
32. Isaiah 42:10.
33. Malachi 2:17.
34. Esther 8:11-12.
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