I was asked to give a presentation this past Friday on the Old Testament to the guys in their first year of Franciscan formation. I had one hour, and with so little time I figured that, if nothing else, one ought to have a fairly general idea about the flow of major historical events which influenced the Hebrew Scriptures. Keeping this task to an hour was no easy feat, for if you knew me (or anyone in my family), you'd know that I can take a long time to get to the point of a story and often detour into excessive tangents. That being said, I'm not entirely sure if I accomplished my goal for those guys in formation. However, since today's post is about the so-called historical books, I figured it would be good to distill that hour-plus rant into a post that takes under ten minutes to read... for your sake and for theirs.
First of all, the books categorized as the "historical books" are not meant to be read like high school history books. Rather, I'd be inclined to think of them as more akin to Shakespeare's historically-based plays. We can talk about Richard III's rise to the throne and his eventual defeat as historical events, but it was Shakespeare's poetry and poignancy that put into his mouth "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Likewise, we know that Julius Caesar was assassinated, but did he really ever say "Et tu, Brute?" ("You too, Brutus?")? Probably not. Nevertheless, the reality of being betrayed by a close friend is a truth that resonates so deeply within us that we invoke these words whenever we feel as if we've been stabbed in the back by someone we love. What I'm getting at is that the "historical books," and much of the Bible for that matter, are not historical in the way we think about history today. But that isn't to say they don't speak the truth.
I'll let this notion sink in for now and return to it in a later post. It's an important topic and one that I think lot of people find difficult to grapple with. This is also my not-so-covert attempt to keep readers tuned in to subsequent blog postings.
For now, let's look at the quick-notes version of Old Testament history.
Last week I wrote about the Torah. It's difficult to pinpoint the events of most of the narratives in the Torah on a timeline, and some passages I wouldn't bother even putting on a timeline at all. The flow of events in the Torah is, however, important to keep in mind. The main things to remember are that Abraham was called by God out of Haran (near the Syrian-Turkey border of today) to immigrate to the land of Canaan (in modern-day Israel/Palestine). He begot Isaac who begot Jacob (aka Israel), and Jacob had twelve sons who more or less became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. These Israelite tribes went down to Egypt from Canaan because of a famine, and many generations later the Israelites were led out of the Egypt by Moses (you know the story... "Let my people go!" and all that). They then spent forty years wandering in the desert. According to Fran Fine from The Nanny it was because they were walking off the Passover meal. According to Scripture it was because the people had sinned. Anthropologists might say it was because they were nomads. Either way, they eventually reached the eastern bank of the Jordan river.
This brings us now to the setting of the historical books. The book of Joshua concerns the conquest of the land of Canaan. Moses has died, and Joshua is charged to lead the people into the Promised Land and take it from the Canaanite tribes. This book is rather triumphalistic, because it gives the impression that the conquest was reasonably successful. This was likely not the case, but rather wishful thinking on the part of the authors of Joshua.
Next we have Judges. This book goes to show just how unsuccessful the conquest of Canaan really was. As Michael Coogan says, the book of Joshua "presented the ideal... however, the book of Judges gives a sobering and even appalling presentation of the reality." The Judges were military leaders and/or administrators of pre-monarchic Israel – "the highest authority at the tribal level." At this time there was a lot war with the Canaanites and a lot of in-fighting among the tribes of Israel. Judges is a great book to read, by the way. Some of it reads like a Greek tragedy. Other parts are rather funny, like the story of Ehud (see Judges 3:12-25).
The book of Ruth takes place at the time of the judges. It doesn't deal with historical material per se, but it is a lovely book to read. And it's only four chapters, so I'm not even going to bother giving a summary of it. But I will note that it has much to say to us to today in terms of welcoming the immigrant or foreigner. Ruth, by the way, is one of the ancestors of king David.
By 1 & 2 Samuel we get into some chartable history. These books are named after the prophet Samuel, who is kind of a crusty figure in the Old Testament. He anoints the first king of Israel, Saul, even though he'd rather not have a king. He's pretty bent out of shape about it, but God tells him "You are not the one they are rejecting. They are rejecting me as their king" (1 Sam 8:7). Saul then becomes king, but falls out of favor with God and then goes a little nuts. Saul is succeeded, not by his son, but by the ruddy and handsome David. Under David are the tribes of Israel united for the first time, and the rest of the books of Samuel are about David's reign. The united kingdom of Israel is short-live, however. 1 & 2 Kings begins with the death of David, and then follows the line of his successors. Only his first successor, king Solomon, is able to keep the kingdom together (though, for all of Solomon's wisdom, he wasn't that admirable of a king). After Solomon's death (c. 928 BCE) the kingdom is divided by his sons Jeroboam and Rehoboam: the northern kingdom (Israel) which included most of the Israelite tribes, and the southern kingdom (Judah).
Jumping ahead about 200 years later, the kingdom of Israel in the north falls to the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE. The elite from this kingdom are exiled to Assyria (modern day northern Iraq). King Sennacherib of Assyria tries to take Judah and lays a nasty siege on Jerusalem during reign of Hezekiah, but surprisingly Jerusalem and the southern kingdom does not fall... yet. In 586 BCE the Babylonians (from modern day southern Iraq, and sometimes referred to as the Chaldeans in Scripture) destroy Jerusalem and the Temple and send the upper classes of Judah into exile in Babylon. I cannot express how devastating this was to the Judahite's psyche and religious morale. A lot of prophetic literature concerns either the impending experience of exile, the exile itself, or the return from exile.
This brings us to the end of 1 & 2 Kings. The exile lasted almost fifty years. But then the Persian empire (from modern day Iran) captures Babylon in 539 BCE, and the Persian king, Cyrus II, allows the Jews to return to Judah in 538. They begin working on reconstructing the Temple. The next four historical books, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, were written during the time of this reconstruction of Judah. 1 & 2 Chronicles are pretty much a retelling of the books of Samuel and Kings, but from a post-exilic viewpoint and theology. Ezra was a priest and a scribe, and Nehemiah was governor of Judah appointed by the Persian King. These two men, though active at different times, were most responsible for reorganizing Jewish life after the exile.
I'm going to skip Tobit and Judith for now. They are interesting books, but they don't have much to do with the history of Israel for our purposes today. Perhaps I'll treat them later in a post about Deuterocanonical books. Protestant traditions refer to these books as apocrypha, which simply translated means "hidden." The book of Esther doesn't have much to do with the history of Israel either, but it takes place during the Persian period. Here's a one sentence synopsis: Jewish queen of a Persian king convinces the king not to enact the genocide against her people which his official, Haman, devised. Like many of the books of the Bible, its message is about God saving his people.
The Persian period lasted from about 539-332 BCE, but, as we may be familiar with from the movies, Alexander the Great conquers a fat chunk of the eastern world including the Persians. Thus the land of Judah came under the control of the Greeks – more specifically, the Seleucid empire. This brings us to the last period of the Old Testament, the Hellenistic period. Do you remember that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Toula's father says, "There are two kinds of people in this world: Greeks and everyone else who wishes they were Greek"? This must have been the attitude of the Greeks back then too, because they loved their culture and thought everyone should love it too. They wanted to spread their Hellenistic ways all over the world. This did not make some folks too happy.
Now you've got this small nation of Jewish people who have not been self-ruling for over 250 years. They have not only kept their faith and traditions but have become staunchly committed in their beliefs and culture despite the trials of the exile, and now they've got Greeks wanting to Hellenize them – that is, make them Greek. Well, some of them went along with it and assimilated. Others, however, thought the very infringement on their Jewish culture was a heinous persecution. And then Antiochus IV came along and really acid rained all over Jewish religion, essentially making it punishable by death to practice the Jewish faith at all. The books of 1 & 2 Maccabees are concerned with this Hellensitic period in what is known by this time as Judea. Like Tobit and Judith, I'll say a little more about 1 & 2 Maccabees in a later post. But for now I shall say that these books relate the surprisingly successful Maccabean revolt (a Jewish revolt against the Seleucids) which eventually led to the Hasmonean dynasty (Jewish rulers of Judea) and fairly independent rule for the Jews until the Romans came and did... well, what Romans do. Conquer people.
So obviously this could not cover every detail in Old Testament history, and yet it was still a rather long post. But hey, we just covered over a thousand years of history! I hope, however, that this helps to put some of the Old Testament into context.
Since this post had a lot to do with rulers, kings, and empires, and since this Sunday was the Church's celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King, my recommended Scripture reading for this week is 1 Samuel 8. As you reflect on this passage, compare and contrast this warning about earthly kings with Christ who is king of heaven and earth. What does it mean for you to have God as king? What do you think the kingdom of God is like? Given the rather unfortunate history with earthly rulers that unfolds in the Old Testament, do you think a kingdom of justice, peace, charity, mercy, and self-sacrifice with God's own son as king can make a difference in our own time? What do you hope for if/when you pray "thy kingdom come"?
As always, I am grateful to hear from readers any comments or questions. Don't forget to subscribe in the "Follow the Codega" box. And tune in next week to learn more about the wisdom/poetical books!
Peace and all good things, and have a joyful Thanksgiving!