Saturday, January 1, 2005

Battles of the Bible by Chain Herzog and Mordechai Gichon

I kept pushing this one back—back when I actually chose what book I read next, that is—because I thought it would be a real snorefest. Turns out it was not so bad, although I doubt I’ll take the time to read it again. An analysis of the strategy and tactics used in many of the battles described in the Bible, it was fairly readable on that level, as well as occasionally interesting for the spoken and sometimes unspoken revelations about the Bible it contains.

For example, much of the Old Testament is apparently a historical account of the various kings of Israel and the wars they fought to preserve the Jewish Kingdom. But not all such kings are mentioned there. “Omri was the king who succeeded in re-establishing Israel, in close coalition with Judah, as the major power in southern Syria and Greater Palestine. Surprisingly enough, however, nothing of his deeds has been preserved in the biblical records. A Jewish king who did not bow to the crown of David and did not accept the uniqueness of the Temple of Jerusalem—which means any of the kings of the Northern Kingdom—was mentioned by the biblical chronicler only insofar as he felt the matter was relevant to his own representation of the history of Judah.” That’s interesting to me because it shows that the Bible is not the single authoritative source it is sometimes held up to be.

The authors deal with and rely on other sources throughout their book, and even though they are writing from a decidedly “pro-Jewish” perspective, it’s clear that they acknowledge that the Bible, which contains a lot of historical facts, also contains some historical distortions if relied on as the only source material. The “discovery” of the Book of Deuteronomy is also briefly mentioned, and is said to have “served as an incentive for cleansing the country of alien influences.” I don’t think the authors agree with my college professor’s interpretation of the discovery—that Deuteronomy was in fact a book cooked up by contemporary church leaders to resolve some puzzling contradictions in the first four books of Moses and then ascribed to that ancient author through its “discovery” in the Temple—but their comment on Deuteronomy and its use makes me question anew how divinely inspired it actually was.

Josiah was king of Judah at the time, and he used Deuteronomy to oversee a “rapid process of religious rejuvenation.” Moreover, “the spirit of national elation [caused by Deuteronomy] served as a magnet for the leaderless Israelite rural population on both sides of the Jordan, as well as for the foreign ethnic groups who had been transplanted in Israel and had adopted themselves to the Jewish cult.” Consequently, “during the first decade of his reign, Josiah achieved virtual rule over most of former Israelite Cis-Jordan [land west of the Jordan River], as well as over parts of Gilead.” Lucky for Josiah that book was “found” during his reign, huh?

Even after Josiah’s death, when Judah became a vassal state under the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, the nation did not lose its sense of itself or its faith in its ability to shake off the foreign yoke. The authors say: “The religious enthusiasm brought about by Josiah’s reforms [precipitated by the discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy] was so persistent and deep-rooted that people from all walks of life refused to take matters at their face value. Against the isolated voice of the prophet Jeremiah, who preached temporary submission to Babylonia as a divinely sanctioned step within the concept of diplomacy as the art of the possible, many a ‘false’ prophet called for active measures and rebellion.”

I don’t know. Phrases like “cleansing the country of alien influences” and “rapid process of religious rejuvenation” taken in another context—say Nazi Germany—leaves one with a very different impression about what might have been going on than the one the Bible chronicler wants to leave you with.

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