Monday, 8 December 2014

David and Solomon

After Joshua the narrative of the Deuteronomistic History continues with the book of Judges, which tells us more about the process whereby the Israelites settle Canaan. Along the way it introduces some memorable stories and characters such as Deborah the prophetess and Samson and Delila. The two books of Samuel and of Kings describe the events of the next few centuries up until the disaster of conquest by Babylonia.

The rise of kings

The ‘judges’ who rule Israel are charismatic religious leaders who must defend the Israelites from their enemies. Society is chaotic, without a central power. The main message of Judges is summed up by one recurring lament:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. [Judges 17:6]

The Israelites fail to exterminate the indigenous Canaanite peoples, as they were meant to. They forget their unique destiny and start adopting Canaanite gods and rituals. To put a stop to this corruption, Israel needs a king: it is not possible to organise a state without a strong central power.

In 1 Samuel, the elders of Israel demand that the judge Samuel appoint a king. He warns them of some of the perils of monarchy, but fails to dissuade them. The first choice is Saul, who violates God’s instructions. His replacement is David, a young shepherd from Bethlehem, who proves his worth when he defeats the Philistine champion Goliath armed only with a sling.

If Saul is the failed attempt at monarchy, David is the ideal. Under his kingship, told in the two books of Samuel, Israel is transformed from an alliance of theocratic tribes into a nation state. He fights a series of wars against the Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Arameans, turning Canaan into a strong Israelite empire with its capital in Jerusalem, the ‘city of David’. For the Biblical writers, he is the Messiah (mashiach) or ‘anointed’:

the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel. [2 Samuel 23:1]

David is succeeded by his son Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, fabulous wealth and construction projects – it is Solomon who builds the first Temple (1 Kings 6). His fame is so widespread that the queen of Sheba travels over a thousand miles to pay her respects (1 Kings 10) [1].

This period, when Israel was a single kingdom under a single king, is known as the United Monarchy, the golden age of ancient Israel. (When the kingdom later splits into Israel and Judah, that unity is lost.) King David is a central figure in both Judaism and Christianity. Yet paradoxically, the personal lives of David and his family are cruel and dysfunctional. David is repeatedly guilty of transgressions, such as adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed. His eldest son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar; in revenge, David’s other son Absalom has Amnon killed. Absalom goes on to rebel against David, raping his concubines.

Solomon too is less than ideal. As the son of Bathsheba he is illegitimate. He has 300 concubines, as well as 700 wives who lead him into idolatry. His reputation for great wisdom is openly contradicted by what happened after his death – the Israelites were so discontented by his regime and the prospect of being ruled by his son Rehoboam that the ten northern tribes seceded and formed a new kingdom, dividing the mythical empire of David for good.


The main narrative of the Bible, from Abraham’s journey to Canaan to the Exodus and Joshua’s conquests, are probably entirely fictional. Only from the advent of the monarchy does archaeology begin to vaguely support the Bible narrative. The earliest evidence is a stele found at Tel Dan, dating to the second half of the 9th century BCE, that mentions the defeat of a king of the ‘house of David’, which at least suggests that someone at the time believed he existed, and is pretty good evidence that there was a historical David and a Davidic dynasty.

However, neither David nor Solomon is mentioned in Egypt or Mesopotamian records – both empires were in decline at that time but the absence is still surprising... until we look at contemporary Israelite culture more closely.

David’s empire as described in the Bible.
Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.

If we accept that David and Solomon were in fact historical figures, they probably ruled between c.1000-930 BCE. The Bible describes a huge territory with its capital at Jerusalem and stretching from the Red Sea to the Euphrates, with a number of nations such as the Philistines, Moabites and Aram-Damascenes becoming client or vassal states. The archaeology from that period, by contrast, suggests there was an Israelite culture of some extent but there is no sign of the infrastructure, literacy, wealth, or population necessary to support an empire.

The historical David was probably an exceptional and memorable leader, but only in a small pastoral community. The kingdom of Judah was barely populated and impoverished, with no significant towns: even its capital, Jerusalem, appears to have been a simple village rather than a major city. As for Solomon, with his reputation as a builder of cities, the archaeologist Yigael Yadin caused excitement by claiming that gates and stables excavated at Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor might have been part of Solomon’s building programme. But archaeologists now think the structures were built a full century too late. Solomon’s crowning achievement, the first Temple in Jerusalem, may have been obliterated by the works of Herod, or lie hidden under the present Temple Mount where political sensitivities preclude excavation. But any big building leaves physical remains behind, and none have been found for any of Solomon’s supposed great projects.

The location that did have monumental buildings and a strong king in the 10th century was Samaria, seat of the Omride dynasty and capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Unlike its southern neighbour, this kingdom was strong, fertile, prosperous and internationally connected.

The culture of David and Solomon doesn’t register in the historical records because it wasn’t worth registering. There is virtually no physical evidence of any sort, outside the Biblical text, of either man. Historically, they were probably local folk heroes whose importance was wildly exaggerated by later myth-makers – they were certainly not great kings.

Judah, Israel and Josiah

As we saw in our last article, the Israelite culture seems to have emerged in about the 12th century BCE from sparse pastoral communities, responding perhaps to pressures created by the Bronze Age collapse. Canaanite towns ruined by the turmoil of the period were rebuilt as Israelite towns. The two Israelite kingdoms of Israel and Judah arose in the same period. In the more fertile north the population grew, agricultural output increased, there was specialisation and literacy. In the south, a remote, highland country poor for agriculture, Jerusalem remained a mere village in a weak state.

This relationship was turned on its head when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in approximately 722 BCE. (We have explained the unfolding of these events on a previous occasion.) A few years later the Assyrians returned, but after destroying Lachish, they pulled back from a siege of Jerusalem upon receipt of a heavy tribute and Judah survived. With the northern kingdom of Israel defunct, not only did Judah become the centre of Israelite culture, it also ended up writing the histories. For this reason, the United Monarchy is approached in the Hebrew Bible from the southern point of view. The northern Omrides are castigated by the Bible as decadent and – the ultimate crime – polytheistic:

[Ahab the son of Omri] took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him. [1 Kings 16:30-31]

A common interpretation of the passage is that the famous queen Jezebel is responsible for bringing the cult of Baal to Samaria, when she ought to have submitted to Israelite customs like the exemplary Ruth. Later, in 1 Kings 18, she has prophets of Yahweh killed.

Finkelstein and Silberman argue that in the Judah of King Josiah in the 7th century BCE, the story of the empire of David and Solomon was transformed into a prophecy of a united kingdom of Israel. In the Deuteronomistic History, which was probably written at that time, the wealth of the northern kingdom is transferred, by the magical stroke of a pen, to the house of David. It imagines an era when the northern and southern kingdoms were one mighty state, and supplies a narrative about how they became separated. The reasons for this feat of literature were geopolitical: with Assyria in decline, Josiah saw an opportunity to conquer the territory of the former northern kingdom, under one king of the Davidic dynasty, based in Jerusalem. Josiah would be a new David who would reunite the Israelites:

And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. [2 Kings 22:2]

The book of Joshua describes the boundaries of the territory Josiah wished to take over, and David and Solomon were projected as kings of all Israelites, based in Jerusalem, a model of the power and luxury that would be enjoyed if Josiah succeeded. All Israelites would be united under a Davidic king, and all Israelite cult would be united in a single Temple. To realise this, the Israelites had to obey God’s laws as laid out in the Torah, a policy that had the happy effect of allowing Josiah to centralise power and ideology from the royal palace in Jerusalem.

But as so often, the grandiose promises ascribed to Yahweh by one earthly authority or another would be proved hollow:

In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him, and Pharaoh Neco killed him at Megiddo, as soon as he saw him. [2 Kings 23:29]

The great leader was snuffed out, and his son Jehoahaz was put in bonds by the Pharaoh “that he might not reign in Jerusalem”.

It should be pointed out that there is little direct evidence to support Finkelstein and Silberman’s interpretation. It is constructed from the (often scanty) archaeology and from cautious readings of the Bible. We cannot prove, for example, that King Josiah even existed, let alone that he introduced religious reforms, or ordered the writing of key texts. But for me, this is for now the most convincing account of what might have happened all those centuries ago to produce those Bible texts.

The label of ‘anointed one’ or Messiah, previously a comment on the legitimate succession of the Davidic line to the throne in Judah, now changed its meaning. From an imminent historical event, the coming of the Messiah was put off until a vague time in the future: one day, a leader would appear who would realise the divine mission to create a kingdom of the Israelites. This myth became one of the bedrocks of Judaism.

The Jews are still waiting for their Messiah. Another world religion thinks he has already come: the myth survived into the Roman age and helped to define Jesus of Nazareth.

[1] Scholars generally agree that Sheba was the Arabian kingdom of Saba in modern-day Yemen.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The dubious conquest of Canaan

When the Israelites travel north from Sinai and reach the borders of Canaan, they send spies to scout the land (Numbers 13). They are so disheartened by the strength of the cities there that God curses them for lack of faith, condemning them to continue to wander the deserts until a new generation has replaced the old. Finally the Israelites return to the promised land, and on the plains of Moab the elderly Moses reveals the laws his people must obey if they are to inherit Canaan. He warns of the evils of idolatry, as well as laying down various social rules and insisting they worship in a single sanctuary (Deuteronomy 26:2). The fate of Israel depends upon its obedience to the covenant.

Moses, who is the dominant figure among the Israelites for four of the Torah’s five books, dies on the border and never enters Canaan. This is surprising because he was especially favoured: one of the few who got to speak to God face to face. An explanation is given in Numbers 20, where we see the Israelites in the wilderness of Zin without water. Yahweh tells Moses to gather his people and “tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water”. Instead he strikes it twice with his stick, saying “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” The water flows, but Yahweh immediately says:

Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Numbers 20:12)

Moses and Aaron have gravely offended Yahweh. Firstly, Moses uses his stick instead of speaking to the rock as he was told. Secondly, by claiming to be ones bringing water out of the rock, they are forgetting that the power is Yahweh’s not theirs. If Yahweh’s punishment seems harsh, it is entirely consistent with his brutal character, which is nowhere clearer than during the genocidal conquest of Canaan.

Moses’ death ends both the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah. The books that follow, known as the Deuteronomistic History – Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – relate the ongoing history of the Israelites from the conquering of the promised land, through the kingships of David and Solomon, to the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile.

The Israelites march around the walls of Jericho.
The new leader is Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, who was one of the twelve spies sent into Canaan in Numbers 13. He and Caleb were the only spies who did not return full of pessimism, which is why Yahweh allows them to enter the promised land instead of letting them die out like everyone else. The book of Joshua is in two parts. The first twelve chapters report the invasion and conquest: once the Israelite multitude has crossed the River Jordan, Joshua leads a military campaign to conquer the new land, which belongs to seven relatively small nations. The Israelites give these nations the option to clear out, the price of refusal being annihilation. The reason for this ethnic cleansing is that the Canaanites could corrupt the Israelites with their sinful, idolatrous ways. The great kings of Canaan refuse, and Joshua smashes them to fulfil Israel’s national destiny. This process includes the famous episode of the destruction of the walls of Jericho, after which the Israelites turn their genocidal rhetoric into practice:

Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:21)

The Israelites take Ai, then are tricked into a treaty by Gibeon. Five Amorite kings join forces (chapter 10) but their forces are crushed, aided by huge hailstones from heaven. Joshua’s army takes the cities of the south then turns north to take Hazor. Eventually, Joshua takes “the whole land” – Yahweh’s divine promise is fulfilled, and the Canaanites are (mostly) annihilated. The land is then divided between the twelve tribes. The seven years of conquest are followed by seven more of settlement. In the last few chapters, Joshua calls the tribes together to renew the covenant, after which he dies and leadership of the Israelites passes to a set of leaders known as judges.

Joshua vs history

According to the Bible, Joshua’s army exterminates several terrified populations of Canaan as it captures city after city, a saga that makes much more entertaining reading than the dreary edicts of Deuteronomy. As it is taken as historical truth by many Jews and Christians, it’s tempting to ask if any of it really happened.

Many of the cities reportedly smashed by the Israelites – Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Lachish, etc – were real places that have been found and excavated. We would expect to find clear evidence of Joshua’s campaign in the form of destroyed settlements, new site names, changes in pottery styles, and so on. The invasion’s likely date, leading on from our timescale for the Exodus, was the late 13th century BCE, and in some cities there is indeed evidence of fire damage inflicted during that century. But many of the sites, such as Ai and Gibeon, weren’t even inhabited – including Jericho, which at the time didn’t have any walls. The exception is the important town of Hazor, which shows evidence of a catastrophic fire in the late 13th century BCE. It’s possible that Israelites caused this. However, we must remember that this is the period of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a major crisis that left the ancient Near East in ruins. The major attack on Egyptian hegemony in this time came from the Sea Peoples, who are at least as likely to have burned Hazor. We don’t know who the Sea Peoples were, or precisely how much destruction they were responsible for, but the wrecking of the Canaanite cities happened over a century, not in one seven-year campaign.

It seems unlikely that the Israelites, a ragbag of former slaves with no military experience, could have fought a triumphant war against strong Canaanite cities equipped with forts and chariots. What makes it even more unlikely is that the region was not a series of independent cities. We know that from the 15th to the 12th centuries BCE, Canaan was controlled by Egypt, and guarded by Egyptian garrisons. The king in the late 13th century was Ramses II, a strong king unlikely to tolerate any military challenge in the region, and the Egyptian presence continues after the supposed date of Joshua’s conquest. It is unthinkable that the Egyptians would leave such a huge attack against their Levantine possessions unrecorded, yet the only mention of the Israelites is on the Merneptah stele, which records they were crushingly defeated [1].

There are more problems. If we are to believe Numbers 26:51, the Israelites had over 600,000 fighting men at their disposal. With an army of that size, Joshua could not only have conquered Canaan, he could have carried on to conquer the entire known world. Alexander the Great probably commanded less than a tenth of that figure. Then there is the claim that the Israelites conquered Canaan in a single campaign in which no indigenous person or animal was spared.

Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. [Joshua 22:43-44.]

However the narrative of struggle against surrounding peoples continues in later books after Joshua’s death, indicating that the colonial process actually took much longer, and that many Canaanites survived Joshua’s campaign. The very first verse of Judges has the Israelites asking: “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” Even Joshua contradicts itself by noting that Joshua failed to conquer certain peoples and regions. One example is the Jebusites in Jerusalem; according to 2 Samuel that city was not taken until King David’s time.

The Bible therefore, as we already knew, is highly unreliable. Not only is it a poor match for the facts, but even its own account is not consistent.

For something more substantial we must turn to archaeology, which tells us that around 1200 BCE a series of hilltop villages started to spring up on the outskirts of existing Canaanite towns. These small settlements were remote and self-sufficient, with little or no social stratification, and their cultural remains (such as pottery) suggest a semi-nomadic people who became farmers. As productivity in Canaan failed, pastoralists had to grow their own grain, and settle. The Israelites therefore were probably a culture indigenous to Canaan, possibly growing from a merging of local peoples who began to establish farming settlements during the Bronze Age Collapse. Hebrew for example is really just a dialect of Canaanite, and Israelite material culture is Canaanite.

Finkelstein and Silberman argue that the historical evidence directly contradicts the Bible:

The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan – they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were – irony of ironies – themselves originally Canaanites!

If they were Canaanites themselves, why did the Israelites’ texts promote these myths about conquering the region from outside? Genesis and Exodus too reinforce the idea that the Israelites were not native to Canaan, claiming they originated in Mesopotamia, then colonised Canaan only after escaping from a long period in Egypt. The narrative seems to want to obscure the Israelites’ Canaanite origins, perhaps as part of forming their identity: the myths say who you are, but also who you are not. In part the Israelites may have been flattering themselves as triumphant warriors. More importantly, the myth emphasises their distinctiveness, perhaps to strengthen their sense of solidarity and to encourage them to obey the Torah rather than Canaanite pagan traditions. The Israelites had invented the concept of a single all-powerful god, in a context where the peoples around them worshipped several gods. By posing as outsiders, they distanced themselves from the idolatrous cultures. The story of their servitude in Egypt is a distortion of the likely truth that the early Israelites were subservient to Egypt in Canaan.

The wickedness of the indigenous peoples – i.e., worshipping their own gods, not Yahweh – supposedly justifies the genocidal campaign that mostly wipes them out. However, the book that follows Joshua, Judges, warns us:

“And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.” (Judges 2:10-11)

Yet again, the Israelites quickly forget about the god who has manifested himself directly in their history, and fall into the very corruption that the genocide was meant to obliterate.

Joshua’s narrative of the Israelites’ national origins is not history. It is a myth of the establishment of a state, strewn with brave deeds and impossible episodes such as the stopping of the sun. It was probably put together from a variety of sources: king lists, tribal histories, misrememberings of real events, and folk memories from distant and troubled times, recrafted for literary reasons into a single book of stirring war stories. The general message is clear. When the Israelites obey God’s laws they are victorious; when they don’t, they are punished with setbacks.

This suggests another possible reason for why Joshua is written the way it is. If we accept Richard Elliott Friedman’s persuasive account, the book was written during the 7th century BCE during the reign of Josiah (with a further edit during the Exile). The book emphasised possession of a specific portion of land as part of Israel’s national destiny – the territories outlined in Joshua were precisely the area that Josiah hoped to conquer from his base in Judah, and rule over as the founder of new regional empire. Whether or not Joshua matches historical and archaeological reality is irrelevant to its purpose: it is not history but religious propaganda aimed at defining a nation in the service of a contemporary geopolitical project.

In recent decades, the racism and territorialism of Joshua has been served a new purpose – to provide religious legitimacy for the modern Zionist state in its colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories.

[1] “The people of Israel is laid waste – their crops are not.”