The priestly cult evolves

In the book of Joshua, the Levites do not get their own province but are instead given cities (more likely villages) spread throughout the lands of the other 11 tribes. Later in Joshua, when cites of sanctuary are designated, they happen to be those of the Levites — linking the priestly class with a concept of heightened mercy.

Finding refuge in a city of sanctuary.

When the duties of the priests are first delineated in the books of Moses, there are enough details to keep one twelfth of the adult male population busy (as we’ve already noted, I don’t buy the 600,000 Israelites in Sinai but a much smaller band).

Somewhere in the Holy Land, a shift in their emphasis seems to occur.

The Levites appear to evolve into a learned class. Are they also the teachers and scribes throughout the nation? How do they relate to their kindred tribes? And then, with the establishment of the temple in Jerusalem and later the captivity, how do they carry their authority?

What is their connection to the judges?

For most readers, when Hannah dedicates her infant son Samuel to the service of the Ark, lost is the connection of Zuphite as a subset of Levites. In other words, not every mother could make such an offering.

There’s a shift under Ezra, with his renewed austerity. How do they become the enforcers of the edicts?

Do they become like the Brahmins in the Hindu caste system an elite class, to some extent ruling over the rest? They have the law, after all, like lawyers. What’s the source of their income, and how does it compare to the rest of the people’s?

I see this as another element in a much larger story than the histories presented in the Biblical canon.

Were all of the Levites priests in the Temple, once it was built by King Solomon?

This matter of being a special people

With all of the focus on prophets and kings, a reader can easily lose sight of the Bible as a story of a people in relationship to their God. Indeed, I wish there were more stories of everyday people.

For now, here are a few elements to consider.

Gathering a people

Is it really twelve tribes descending from Jacob? Or, once we’re down to Judah alone, just one or two of the tribes all along — the core all along or truly a remnant?

Rather than twelve tribes descending from Jacob, could they in fact be twelve independent tribes that are cobbled together in a confederation?

Can they be seen not as a chosen people but as separated people who stand apart from their surrounding cultures? That is, a unique people? As in “holy”?

Or as a choosing people … or covenanted people? Even the obligated people?

How do we identify them, anyway? I had always assumed that the Israelites or Hebrews were Jews all along, but in my reading I now see that the very word Jew is a shorter version of Judean.

What do we make of the repeated breakdown, generation after generation? As the Mennonites say, “God has no grandchildren.” Mennonites do not pass down their faith. They pass it on, to grow afresh, like seed.

(I see the story from Eden as focusing on one strand of descendants while ignoring all others. How often the threat appears to be from “outside,” from either armies or wives who harbor competing cultures, yet there’s enough to see it can arise from within the people as well.)

Jacob flees Laban, as the Twelve Tribes take shape.,

Is a nation necessary to ensure the free worship of this monotheistic deity? Purity?

Is a nation necessary for preserving a faith?

This Biblical arch as a narrative primarily of failure! Unique, contrary to most histories that are written by the victors, this can be seen as one of remorse and lamentation … in its times of exile, an underground counterculture!

Woven into this is Ezra’s implicit concept of Holy Seed — the genetic endowment from Jacob on down — which overlooks Ruth and other outsiders or Isaiah’s vision of a house of worship for all peoples.

With Ezra/Nehemiah, the definition coming down through the male sperm, the holy seed, rather than via the mother, overlooks the reality that the child’s religious formation comes under her care. This definitely casts Judaism as a male fertility cult.

Faith or culture?

Again, drawing from a Mennonite insight. For any individual in a religious community, we can ask whether the identity arises primarily out of personal spiritual encounter and experience and how much relies on the culture of the faith.

We can certainly see this dynamic in the Hebrew Bible — and in congregations and peoples today.

Joseph and his brothers carry Jacob back to Canaan to be buried in the cave with the tomb of Abraham and Sarah.

Which god? Multiple understandings of this deity

Among its goals, my straight-through reading of the Bible sought to trace a clearer understanding of the evolving definition of the deity itself. We have many ideas about what we expect God to be, many of them contradictory or paradoxical, but just where do these originate in our common thinking? How many can we see as coming down from the Holy One’s own instruction and how many arise in enlightened individuals’ spiritual experiences? How do these teachings shape our own often vaguely shaped expectations of divinity?

For Christians, this can extend through the New Testament when we examine what Jesus says about himself and his relationship to the Father, as well as what his disciples and Paul, especially, say about Jesus and/or Christ. (There are differences.)

Surprisingly little of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha address this matter of definition directly. Far more is focused on matters of living within this faith, from instructions on sacrificial rites to finding favor in combat to ethics of living honestly and justly. And that’s before we get to the books where the Holy One is not even mentioned. As for the histories? I was amazed how political these Scriptures are — how many bumper stickers you could glean for use today.

Bodies before the fallen Ark.

Sometimes this Holy One is revealed by what it does. Creating the cosmos and walking in the Garden of Eden are two examples.

Sometimes, by what it says directly. Again, in the Garden to Adam and Eve and the Serpent, as well as at Mount Sinai to the people gathered at the foot or to Moses above or later to Job or the prophets.

More often our definitions come through others, with a range of human understanding and misunderstanding.

As I’ll argue, there are reasons we often perceive this Holy One as a bearded male, no matter the counter arguments.

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Pausing at a fork in the route

Anyone else feeling battle fatigue by now?

My straight-through reading of the Bible took less than three months, much of it with that can’t-put-the-book-down intensity of a bestseller. But then there’s the rough sledding of Kings and then, in the Christian arrangement of the books, Chronicles. The Hebrew Bible wisely saves that for the finale.

It also moves Ezra/Nehemiah to the back, after material arising before and during the Babylonian captivity.

My Christian background had always made me view the captivity as an interruption in the Jewish story, but in this review of my read-through, a comment by Herbert Tarr in Congregation now has me seeing something quite different. The captivity becomes a fertile opportunity in the refining and definition of the faith. “So the devastating Babylonian conquest, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of Judeans to Babylonia were followed by an unparalleled development — a miracle wrought by the Judeans themselves. … All other peoples assimilated, as did the ‘Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.’ The Judean captives, in contrast, developed a cultless religious community: no new temple was built in Babylonia and there were no new sacrifices, but there were more prayers and confession and fasts and worship in the incipient synagogue, and concentration on the Sabbath and other hold days continued. Then, still another miracle: in response to King Cyrus’ edict, a substantial number of Judeans, though established now in Babylonia, did return and erect the Second Temple.”

Vintage engraving of Israelites going into captivity. After the fall of Jerusalem, Nebuzaradan was sent to destroy it. The city was plundered and razed to the ground. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. Only a small number of vinedressers and husbandmen were permitted to remain in the land.

In the Hebrew Bible, the sequence of the books after Kings plunges straight into the materials that sustain the evolving thinking and experiences of exile — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial, the Twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zepaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi), Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.

The Christian ordering, in contrast, begins wandering through those and even more — the Roman Catholics having six more books than the Protestants. (Do we dare joke that there’s the reason fewer Catholics read the Bible than do Protestants?)

Alas, my road map included those six chapters — some of them welcome, but a few, well, tedious. For individuals setting forth on a read-through, I’d suggest sticking to the Jewish ordering and adding in the others more judiciously.

In my review of my reading, I have to admit how helpful Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible has been. I hope what I’m distilling from this anthology gives you a taste of their own thinking and the underlying richness of the rabbinical tradition. As we move ahead, we’ll encounter books that aren’t in the Jewish Bible and thus have no commentary from Congregation. I miss their companionship!

The scribe and the general and a new Judaism

The leap in sequence to Ezra and Nehemiah — a single book in the Hebrew Bible, but separate ones in the Christian editions, where it immediately follows Chronicles — comes as a jolt. We’re suddenly back in the land of Judah, roughly six decades after its leaders and many of its people have been marched off into captivity. Jerusalem is in ruins, and Ezra and Nehemiah are intent on rebuilding. (Many scholars, by the way, believe the history would have Nehemiah arriving first, perhaps never even meeting Ezra in the flesh.)

Ezra reads the law, as if he’s been caught in some clandestine activity and is trying to excuse himself.

Much of the text is dry detail that slides over a general reader — passages that Jay Neugeboren (“A Samaritan at Camp Winsoki” in Congregation) admits “might have been set down by an earnest CPA … lists and decrees and genealogies and catalogues and inventories and memoranda.” Only after revisiting the text at his urging do I find a deeper “voice that is individual and passionate and exacting … passages of the deepest personal feeling” that transform this into “a fascinating and compelling tale of exile and redemption,” mostly in the last two chapters of this short book of Scripture.

Up to this point of a straight-through reading of the Bible, one hears little or nothing of the utter angst of the Babylonian catastrophe or of the radical transformations occurring during the exile. For these insights we have to wait for the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Baruch to return us to those decades of anguish and reformulation. Would those books fit into the sequential presentation better if they were placed just before Ezra/Nehemiah? The overall story in this period would be difficult to present no matter how the various components were arrayed.

A general reader probably approaches Ezra/Nehemiah with an assumption that we’ve been following the Jewish people from Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses — and no other peoples — all the way up to the events at hand. The division of the Promised Land into two kingdoms after the death of Solomon leads to confusion (What? Jerusalem isn’t in Israel but in Judah?), and the antipathy toward the mysterious Samaritans in the New Testament draws a Sunday school teacher’s response, “They were kind of like the Jews.” Except they’re not, and Christians are left wondering just why the blackballed Samaritans get the short end of the stick in the New Testament, at least before the Apostle Paul’s message finds a welcome among them.

In this more public rendering, Ezra proclaims the law, causing weeping and moaning and breaking up families.

The idea that Judaism itself isn’t established until Nehemiah 8 (sometime more recent than 444 BCE?) more than five centuries after King David feels incomprehensible. Just what have we been following up to this point? (Drawing on a little forewarning, I’ve been using “Hebrews,” including places before Solomon where “Israelites” would have fit.)

One thing that becomes clear is that Ezra and Nehemiah have set out to do something beyond rebuilding the temple and the walled city. Most dramatic in the text is the implication that leads to the dissolving of marriages to “foreign” wives. (Note, once more, the male fertility line here; Jewish women married to husbands of other faiths are apparently already considered beyond the pale, no matter how much they raise their children in the faith they know and practice.)

There’s no evading the cruelty of the decree, which implicitly acknowledges these marriages to be the source of the idol worship that has plagued the Hebrews throughout their troubled history. Would this be sufficient?

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In the stained-glass view of Chronicles

The second scroll of Kings is tedious enough reading, but Chronicles stands largely a bad case of cut-and-paste. Long passages are drawn word for word from the books of Samuel and Kings. As you plod along, it’s fair to ask just what Chronicles adds to the whole. Placed right after Kings in the Christian Bibles, it’s deadly repetition. At least the Hebrew ordering puts it at the end of the canon, as a kind of musical reprise.

Chronicles quickly becomes tedious, beginning with its overview of the faith from Adam to the return from Babylonian captivity. There are the long genealogies focused on David’s line and the sanitized retelling of his life and Solomon’s, along with the recasting of David as a prophet of equal stature to Moses and Elijah.

One touch I appreciate in the emphasis on music — cantors along with harps, lyres, and cymbals, or later with choirs of “singers singing, and the trumpeters sounding their trumpets.”

There is a telling note, 2 Chronicles 2:4-5, where Solomon admits, “The house [temple] which I am building must be large, for our God is greater than all gods; even so, who would not find it an impossible task to build a house for him, when the heavens and the heavens of the heavens cannot contain him?”

Again, I’m left wondering just who he’s trying to impress.

King Solomon in a Tiffany Studio stained glass setting circa 1900.


At the dedication of the temple, we have repetition of Elijah and David’s fire coming down from heaven to ignite the blaze that consumes the sacrificial offerings (2 Chronicles 7:1).

And, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, we have our first reference to Satan as such.

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How else could a people of God been governed?

My training in political theory and policy analysis has me pondering these episodes by asking, “How else could a people of God have been governed?”

In Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Lore Segal casts the problem this way: “The story tests government by kingship, a possibly sinful experiment for a people who had the Creator of the universe Himself for its King and chose instead to have Samuel choose them a human one so that they could be like, and could fight like, all the other nations.”

How could a nation, especially one surrounded by hostile armies and marauding bands, be able to act decisively in maintaining a space where they could advance their unique religion and its way of life?

Laying the foundations of the Temple. Did the God of the Israelites really want one?

In practice, the libertarian rule of judges broke down into small, uneven fiefdoms. And the Jews — or proto-Jews, this being the narrative of their evolving identity — were a contentious group. David’s great achievement was in uniting them as one, albeit at great cost.

As far as I can see, the ancient mindset presents no alternative to the model of a king, or at least a smaller version like sheik. The Greeks have not yet experimented with democracy. Even Plato’s Republic takes the royal model to an extreme where the monarch is largely isolated from human experience, as if that would make him a more rational (and thus presumably effective) decision-maker. The Hebrews respond with the idealized concept of Messiah.

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The complications of Kings

The two scrolls of Kings in my straight-through reading of the Bible turned my understanding of King Solomon 180 degrees. Forget the self-serving propaganda in the text. Counter it with the evidence his clerks insert, perhaps on the sly. Wisest man? The story begins with King David’s greatest error, the coronation of Solomon, who soon executes his own half-brother Adonijah and his first-cousin Joab. (What kind of family loyalty is that?)

That, after David has been forbidden to build the temple because he has blood on his hands. And now we’re to accept that Solomon is allowed to build a court for the Ark because his hands are clean? No, this no longer squares.

Even Solomon’s Jewishness becomes suspect. He has a foreign mother and takes on foreign wives. He worships their gods. The temple extravagance appears to reflect the temptations of worldly rivalry and enhancement of Solomon’s standing at home and abroad more than an acknowledgement of the Unseen Deity of the Covenant.

Is this building for the glory of God? Or of a man sitting at the head of his nation? Or is it essentially Solomon’s royal chapel, after building temples for his wives’ pagan gods?

Revisiting this project, I find a note suggesting that Solomon had miniatures of the temple distributed throughout the land, perhaps to rally support for its construction.

Despite the claims of his toady court scribes (his faithful propagandists), what is typically viewed as the glorious epitome of the descendants of Jacob looks instead more a mirage.

Solomon’s aspirations and excesses imposed heavy tolls on the Israelites. How long could they sustain it?

Not long, as we’ll see.

One lingering question is how much of the codification of the Hebrew scriptures begins to shape up during his reign, with the collecting of written manuscripts, many of them possibly copied and edited by anonymous literate women of the court? His father, King David, instituted the role of court scribes and recorders and instructed his son to do the same.

With Solomon’s death and his son Rehoboam’s arrogance and oppression, the nation collapses into two kingdoms: Judah, retaining Jerusalem, and Israel to the north. This becomes both a political and religious schism, as 1 Kings 12 details.

The ensuing narrative, based on the overlapping reigns of the king one country and then the other and back again, is difficult to follow, even before the boilerplate repetition of their sinful lives plays out. The intent of this parade of mostly evil, often inept, monarchs is tragic. Dramatically, I think it would play better as over-the-top comedy. This is what you get for insisting on a king, you unfaithful idiots.

Structurally, presenting the parallel histories of the two countries would be difficult under the best of circumstances. How would this work orally if Israel were voiced by one performer and Judah by another? On the page, having two distinctively different typefaces to represent each country might be helpful.

Apart from David, the kings who rule the two Hebrew nations turn out to be a string of disasters, many of them offering sons and daughters to the pagan gods as sacrifices either by the sword or burning them alive. How does the Jewish legacy even survive under such political rule? God is opposed, even oppressed!

More telling is the sense of kings in general as being shallow and weak. In addition to those heading Judah and Israel, those in Esther and Judith illustrate this sense.

Jezebel, the indisputable queen of terror in the Bible.

But as the epitome of weak kings, who could surpass Ahab and his tyrannical wife Jezebel, in the northern kingdom, countered by the prophet Elijah? (Easily overlooked in that conflict is Elijah’s raising of a widow’s son from the dead, 1 Kings 17:17-24.) A rich mixture of warfare, conflict between religions, murderous corrupt politics ensues, “And indeed there never was anyone like Ahab for double dealing and doing what is displeasing to Yahweh, urged on by Jezebel his wife” (1 Kings 21:25). And when he dies, “the dogs licked up the blood, and the prostitutes washed in it” (1 Kings 22:38).

That part of the story continues with far more about Elijah’s successor Elisha, considered the lesser of the two prophets. Among his miracles is a multiplication of loaves (2 Kings 42-44), foreshadowing the two events in the New Testament gospels.

Elijah is fed by ravens in his flight from Jezebel’s persecution.

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Admitting the predominance of a war-god

Reading the Bible straight-through, I could no longer deny the obvious. The bulk of the Hebrew Bible identifies the Holy One primarily as a war-god. For those of us in the historic Peace Churches (Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, and Friends/Quakers), this can be problematic, but it’s also an obstacle for many others in the general public, especially those who blame religion rather than economic inequities as the primary cause of armed conflict.

It’s too easy, by the way, to make an assumption that the Israelites alone were to blame as the aggressive, blood-thirsty gang through all of this. A broader history would point out they faced strong hostilities from all sides. Indeed, the number of other players and their city-states appears overwhelming. Don’t be misled by the general usage of the word kings in the translations to denote sheiks, along with our lack of familiarity with a landscape of what we likely assume was nations rather than the more likely scattering of small city-states. Our grasp of the blood-filled action is easily muddled.

For me, a key passage comes 2 Samuel 11:1, which my New Jerusalem Bible presents as, “At the turn of the year, at the time when kings go campaigning.” You might think they were seeking votes for an upcoming reelection. More directly rendered in the Contemporary English Version, we get, “It was now spring, the time when kings go to war,” or in the more sonorously roaring lines of the King James as “And it came to pass, after the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle.”

Here, then, warring sounds more like a major league sport, a time of plundering and ravaging one’s lesser opponents before going home with trophies or shattered dreams and grudges to nurse till next year. How many dead bodies are there, anyway, or how much gore? Is this sustainable? It’s got to be hyperbole, right? Like the claim, “We’re gonna cream ’em.” We could be dealing with gangs, mobs, or tribes as well as athletic teams and sports pages headlines or barroom boasts. Think, too, of big-screen action-adventure movies or the total number of killings a typical child sees growing up watching TV or even the post-game interviews where key players give thanks to God for their winning. (The passage, by the way, is repeated verbatim in 1 Chronicles 20:1.) Exterminations? Unlikely, considering how many opponents remained to return again.

Naturally, I want to tone all this down. In a nuclear age, when annihilation hangs over more than city-states and genocide runs rampant, to read chapters or books of the Bible as endorsement for such action is utter lunacy. The bigger picture, I feel, is that these stories show the ultimate failure of such policies. But that requires close reading of the full history rather than heated short sections.

Take, for instance, the size of the cities under consideration. Archaeological evidences suggest that few were larger than 5,000 population, although Babylon under Neb may have reached 200,000, with most of the populace going out to farm the surrounding countryside. A thousand to two thousand may have been much more common — for comparison, just one packed New York City subway train holds 1,200 to 1,800 riders. They’d fit easily into many of the city’s theaters and concert halls.

Does this help deflate the impression of the victories? It does for me, especially when other scholars weigh in that there’s no evidence for the eradication claimed and that linguistic research in fact points to the assimilation of the earlier peoples in the Holy Land.

Joshua in battle, in all of its Romanesque musculature.

Still, identifying the Holy One primarily as a war-god skewers our comprehension, imbuing it with Y-chromosome attributes. This deity hovers somewhere over the combatants, if not actually leading them from the vanguard. Combined with the male-fertility deity attributes, the impression of a male God is inescapable.

Indeed, in referring to Yahweh Sabaoth, “Lord of Hosts,” starting in 1 Samuel 1:10, the text means “Lord of Armies.” We soon have David’s army and champions (sounding like sports teams! could that be a clue?) reinforcing the image. Yes, there is also a repeated them of smaller, motivated, disciplined Israelite forces outwitting and outmaneuvering larger masses. And, yes, we humans do seem to love cheering on our teams, as long as they’re winning.

The stakes here, though, are high. Defeat can mean death or enslavement.

As a theology for public consumption, I suppose this is fine if you’re winning, but it does lead to a crisis when you’re not.

And while this experience of the Holy One can be applicable on the battlefront, how does it sustain family life at home, including the crops and children, or a people in times of peace?

How do we reconcile close combat with the Torah’s prohibitions against contact with blood or dead bodies? Do we get an explanation anywhere in these later texts?

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Despite all the glory of David

As the narrative of Samuel’s priestly influence spills over to the second scroll, the focus shifts to David.

In my straight-through reading of the Bible, I came to this section expecting to revisit the golden age of Jewish history, the reign of its golden boy, the one Jerome Charyn has already seen in his own contrarian light as an irritating Boy Scout. In another commentary in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Lore Segal extols David, who “plays more roles, in more situations, than any modern protagonist: he is a boy warrior, musician with healing powers, poet laureate, court favorite; for a while he is the leader of a band of marauders who massacre alien cities. He is a monarch, general, diplomat, a natural at public relations, a public man with a private life — a careful son, an irritating younger brother, a loving and faithful friend, the husband of a harem that includes one very angry wife; the father of children who make him howl with grief, an adulterer who plots murder, a penitent, a frequent mourner, and an old man, at last, who meets a new Goliath and can’t do anything about it — can’t make love, can’t keep warm.”

Well, that briefly encapsulates the book of Samuel. Segal says, “The story tests government by kingship, a possibly sinful experiment for a people who had the Creator of the universe Himself of its King and instead chose instead to have Samuel choose them a human one so that they be like, and could fight like, all the other nations.”

David plays his harp as a young shepherd. As a boy, I’m sure I preferred the image of the slingshot instead.

What I see in my reading this time, though, is that for all of his talents and triumphs, David’s reign is highly flawed. This is no golden age — indeed, there’s no golden age anywhere, not somewhere in my Quaker legacy nor in American history, no, nowhere, is there? David executes messengers, his enemies within and without his circle are not imaginary, he’s a disaster as a father, how else can we view the rape of a daughter by her stepbrother or the rebellion by another son? And that’s before his selection of the wrong heir to the throne, a king whose oppression will lead to rifting the nation and the eventual evaporation of ten of the twelve tribes of Jacob?

Yes, the storytelling is masterful, as Segal explains. “The Bible’s writers might have attended a course in ‘creative’ writing they tell so little, render so much, use so few adjectives and fewer adverbs. … The Bible does not know the formulation ‘King Saul felt that …’ or ‘saw that …’ or ‘thought that …’ except, wonderfully, when we look downward with the eyes of the King of King Himself at our own ubiquitous wickedness, before the Flood, and He tells His own heart that He regrets that he ever made us.”

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