Archive for the ‘Jonathan’ Tag

The Genuine Jerusalem and the ‘trump of God’: Part three – Struggles for Independence.   Leave a comment

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From the top: Caesarea, The Wilderness of Judaea, Miriam’s Gate, Jerusalem

The Resurgence of Jewish Nationalism: The Maccabees

It seems that, in the interests of peace and unity in his Syro-Hellenic empire, Antiochus was trying to eradicate Jewish nationalism, if not the Jewish nation itself, in what would have been an act of genocide of unprecedented proportions. He both underestimated the strength of Jewish national feeling, supposing that their attitude towards religion was much the same as that of the Greeks, and over-estimated Jewish support for his attempt to introduce Hellenistic culture. Not all among the upper classes opposed it, certainly, and there were even those among the priests who supported Antiochus’ general policy, though perhaps more from weak-mindedness than on principle. Opposed to them were the Hasidim, the ‘pious’, who in contrast to those who had abandoned the holy covenant for a covenant with the Gentiles. The Hasidim saw themselves as mighty warriors of Israel who chose to die rather than profane the holy covenant. They first took part in passive resistance, but many then joined the more militant Maccabees to help them to restore the Temple and to regain their right to the observance of their religion.  Mattathias, the leader of this rebel group, was the head of a priestly family who lived near Jerusalem. He had five sons, but it was Judas ‘Maccabeus’, a nickname deriving from a Hebrew word for ‘hammer’, who emerged as their military leader.

One of the first signs of revolt against Antiochus was an incident in the Temple itself. Mattathias saw one of his own people, a Jew, preparing to take part in a service of sacrifice to the heathen god. Mattathias struck him down and, turning to the Syrian guard, killed him. For their immediate safety, he and his sons fled to the hills where they gathered around them a strong resistance movement. From the hills, Judas laid raid after raid against the Syrians, making their occupation of Judaea more and more dangerous and hazardous. They organised themselves into guerilla army, destroying altars and forcibly circumcising babies. They campaigned both against Hellenising Jews and persecuting Gentiles (1 Macc. 2. 1-48). In the midst of all the fighting, Judas regularly assembled his followers to observe the Jewish religious ceremonies, to watch and pray, and to read the Divine Law, the Torah.

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It was therefore hardly surprising that the fiercest reaction to Antiochus’ policy came from the Maccabees under Judas’ leadership. Their first aim was the regaining of freedom to obey the Jewish law and the recovery and purification of the temple. This was achieved after two years of fighting in 166-165 (1 Macc. 3. 10-4, 35), In December of 164 BC, Judas and his followers recaptured the temple and the priests reconsecrated the Holy Place, erecting new altars to the true God. It was also now protected by external fortifications, which were complemented by a permanent guard provided by the Maccabees. The colourful Jewish festival of Hannuka, also known as the Feast of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC.  It is said that when the perpetual lamp of the Temple had to be re-lit, only one day’s supply of non-desecrated oil could be found but miraculously this oil lasted eight days until a fresh supply could be brought. This is why the festival lasts for eight days and is commonly known as The Feast of Lights. The day which sees the start of the festival is the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the ninth month, which can fall on any day in December. The central part of the ceremony is the lighting of a candle on the eight-branched candelabra on the first day, with an additional candle lit on each of the seven successive days recalling the eight days of light provided by the miraculous oil when the Temple was re-dedicated. In 163 BC Judas’ campaign of resistance was extended to the defence of Jews resident among the surrounding Gentiles (I Macc. 5). The Syrians counter-attacked successfully, but the death of Antiochus forced them into offering terms to the Jews, allowing to live by their laws as they did before (I Macc. 6. 59).

The Pharisees also began to develop in this post-exilic period, fostering a lay spirituality for the whole nation, thus ensuring Israel’s continuity after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. The Essenes, a group referred to by Philo, Josephus and Pliny the Elder, and the related Qumran community broke away from the official orthodoxy of the temple and priesthood in the belief that the future lay with the ‘elect’, separated from the pollutions of the world. The movement of which the community at Qumran formed a part may be seen as an extreme form of Pharisaism, taking the principle of separation to new heights. It probably originated during the Maccabean period. Details of the community are provided by the site itself and two documents containing regulations, found in what came to be known as the Dead Sea scrolls. These documents are known as ‘the Community rule’, formerly called the Manual of Discipline, and ‘the Damascus Rule’, so-called because it describes a group which migrated to Damascus and entered into a new covenant. The latter document was found in the Cairo synagogue, but fragments have also turned up at Qumran; it probably represents a different stage in the development of the community. A third document, ‘The War Rule’, describes the final battle between the spirits of light and darkness, which would be paralleled on earth by a similar battle before a final victory was won.

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These future expectations helped to condition the day-to-day life of the sect and were an important reason for their continued purity. Their negative attitude to the rest of Judaism around them led to a rejection of the traditional calendar and of temple worship. Their own worship centred on the common meal, which probably represented the eschatological feast that would be celebrated in the last days. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and their contents at first led to some exaggerated ideas about the significance of the Qumran sect in relation to Christianity. In fact, very few direct connections between the two can be demonstrated, and none on matters of central importance. A reading of the scrolls alone will make it quite clear that their main importance is in the light that they shed on the different forms of Judaism to be found at the beginning of the Christian era.

The death of Menelaus, one of the leading Hellenising Jews led to the victory of the Hasidim over the priesthood. The Maccabees, however, continued to resist the Hellenising high priest, Alcimus, who had begun his high priesthood by murdering sixty of the Hasidim. The Maccabees defeated the Syrian Army sent to support him at Adasa in 160 BC. II Maccabees ends with this victory, but two months later the Syrians killed Judas in battle and re-occupied Judaea. The Maccabees fled to the wilderness to regroup under Judas’ brother, Jonathan; Alcimus died and the Syrians departed. For two years there was peace in Jerusalem and in Judah. But now the Maccabees wanted nothing less than political freedom, and the Hellenists did not feel secure while they could be harried from the wilderness. They asked the Syrian general Bacchides to capture Jonathan (157 BC), but Bacchides was defeated and made a final peace with Jonathan, who settled at Michmash, a stronghold north-east of Jerusalem (I Macc. 9. 73; see map above). Like the judges of old, he began to judge the people, and he destroyed the ungodly out of Israel. The Maccabees had won, and until the arrival of the Romans in 63 BC, Judaea was virtually independent. The Seleucid empire was weakening as the Parthians became more powerful to the east. In 142 BC, the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, “in the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews”  (I Macc. 13. 41f.).

However, in 134 BC Simon and two of his sons were killed by Ptolemy. A third son, John, in command of the army near Gezer, heard the news in time to reach Jerusalem before Ptolemy, and John was welcomed as high priest and ruler (I Macc. 16. 11-22). The Seleucid king made a further successful attack on Jerusalem, but in 128 BC was killed by the Parthians, and the internal struggles within the Seleucid empire prevented any further persecution of the Jews. There were a series of civil wars fought for control of the temple between the Sadducean party and the Pharisees. Salome ruled for the Pharisees, appointing Hyrcanus II as her high priest, while his brother Aristobulus led the Sadducees. When Salome died in 67 BC, Aristobulus defeated Hyrcanus, becoming both king and high priest. Then Hyrcanus made fresh alliances, defeated Aristobulus and besieged him in Jerusalem.

Roman Intervention and Imperialism: Herod the Great.

This was the point at which the Roman general Pompey arrived in Syria. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus appealed to him to come to their aid. When he reached Jerusalem, some Jews opened the city gates to him, while others barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress. Pompey built a ramp on the north side and brought up his great siege-engines. For three months the strong temple walls stood up to the battering rams before a great tower gave way, and the legionaries poured through the breach. The city surrendered, but no fewer than twelve thousand people were reported to have died in the massacre that followed. Pompey himself broke into the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to go, to find out what Jewish religion was all about, an act which the Jews could not forgive.

After his sacking and desecration of Jerusalem, Pompey removed Aristobulus to Rome, reinstating Hyrcanus as high priest. It was Hyrcanus’ ally Antipater who gained most, however, for the Romans relied on him to establish a stable government and later gave him the title of procurator of Judaea. His son was Herod the Great, and among his grandsons was Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee in the time of Jesus of Galilee. Once again, religious and political authority was separated and it is noteworthy that even in the independent Jewish state the combination of the two was not popular. The Jews seemed to prefer a secular state as, of course, was the case under Roman rule into the first century. Before we get to the Christian New Testament, these issues were reflected in the previous Hebrew literature, especially the book of Daniel, and in those books included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made at Alexandria, known to Christians as the Apocrypha. 

From the annexation of Palestine by Pompey in 63 BC down to the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-72, the struggles of the Jews against their new masters, the Romans, were accompanied and stimulated by a stream of militant apocalyptic literature. As it was addressed to the common people this propaganda made great play with the fantasy of an eschatological saviour, the Messiah. This fantasy was already very ancient; if for the prophets, the saviour who was to reign at the end of time was usually Yahweh himself, in the popular religion of the post-exilic period, the future Messiah seems to have played a considerable part. Originally imagined as a particularly wise, just and powerful monarch of Davidic descent who would restore the national fortunes, the Messiah became more superhuman as the political situation became more hopeless. In Daniel’s dream, the Son of Man who appears riding on the clouds seems to personify Israel as a whole. Already Daniel may have imagined him as a superhuman hero, and in the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra, which belong in the main to the first century AD, the superhuman being is incontestably a man, a warrior-king endowed with unique, miraculous powers.

In the Book of Ezra the Messiah is depicted as the Lion of Judah at whose roar the last and worst beast – now the Roman eagle – bursts into flame and is consumed; and again as the Son of Man who first annihilates the multitudes of the heathen with the fire and storm of his breath and then, gathering together the lost ten tribes out of alien lands, establishes in Palestine a kingdom in which a reunited Israel can flourish in peace and glory. According to Baruch, there must come a time of terrible hardship and injustice, which is the time of the last and worst empire, the Roman. Then, just when evil has reached its greatest pitch, the Messiah will appear. A mighty warrior, he will rout and destroy the armies of the enemy; he will take captive the leader of the Romans and bring him to chains to Mount Zion, where he will put him to death; he will establish a kingdom which shall last to the end of the world. All the nations which have ever ruled over Israel will be put to the sword, and some members of the remaining nations will be subjected to the Chosen People. An age of bliss will begin in which pain, disease, untimely death, violence and strife, want and hunger will be unknown and in which the earth will yield its fruits ten-thousand-fold. Such a Kingdom was worth fighting for, and these apocalypses had at least established that in the course of bringing the Saints into their Kingdom the Messiah would show himself invincible in war.

Under the procurators, the conflict with Rome became more and more bitter. In 40 BC, the Parthians invaded Syria with the son of Aristobulus and pretender to the throne of Judah. He attracted strong support from the Judaeans, and within a short time, Judaea was in revolt. High priest Hyrcanus was captured and Herod was forced to leave Jerusalem secretly. He and his brother Phasael, who committed suicide, had been made tetrarchs of Judaea by Mark Antony following the murder of Caesar and defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC.  Herod was now forced to leave his family in the strong fortress of Masada and then fled to Petra, eventually making his way via Egypt and Rhodes to Rome, where he appealed for Antony’s support. The latter, …

… recalling Antipater’s hospitality and filled with admiration for the heroic character before him, decided on the spot that the man he had once made tetrarch should now be king of the Jews.

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However, it was not until 37 BC that Herod was able to enter Jerusalem, escorted to his capital by a force of Roman legionaries. He continued to be popular with the Roman rulers, including the Emperor Octavian (now Augustus) and Agrippa, Augustus’ junior partner in ruling the Empire. He was able to secure the latter’s support for the Jews of the Dispersion in Asia Minor, who were being persecuted in the Greek cities where they now lived. Herod never enjoyed the same success in his relations with the Jews in Judaea. He was an Edomite and therefore could not combine the offices of king and high priest. The separation of the two offices served as a permanent reminder to his subjects that he was a usurper and the nominee of a foreign power. It was also a lasting contradiction of what the historian Josephus called the theocratic tradition of the Jews. Nevertheless, his achievements on the material level were far from negligible. He developed the economic resources of his kingdom, rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, and founded two new cities – the port of Caesarea, which took twelve years to complete, and a city in Samaria which he also named after Augustus. When severe famine struck Judaea in 25 BC, he acted promptly and vigorously, selling the gold and silver furnishings from his palace to buy corn from the Roman governor of Egypt. Notable among the concessions made by the Romans towards the Jews of the Dispersion was the right to contribute to the temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s reign seemed to characterise the desire for ‘good government’ which the Jews had longed for since the days of Saul, David and Solomon.

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It is difficult to reconcile this vital and capable ruler with the tyrannical monster who, in the story told in Matt. 2. 16f. ordered the massacre of the innocents. This appears to have been a local incident, which the gospel-writer seems to have used to demonstrate the fulfilment of a prophecy and to emphasise the significance of the infant king Jesus as a very different ‘King of the Jews’ to Herod. The story is not recorded anywhere apart from the gospel, and a more historical view of Herod derives from the way in which he had to deal, on his death-bed, with a feud within his extended family. In 5-4 BC he was seriously ill when his son Antipater began plotting against him and his half-brothers, Archelaus and Philip, over the succession. Among the symptoms of Herod’s terminal illness were rapid swings in mood and delusions of persecution. In 4 BC, amid mounting pressures from the Pharisees and only a few days before his death, Herod had Antipater executed, and ordered the execution of a number of other leading nobles, either in order to prevent civil war after his death and/or so that the Romans would mistake the mourning of their families for mourning for him, demonstrating his popularity among his own people. He then issued his fourth and final will, under the terms of which the kingdom was to be divided between three of his remaining sons. Archelaus, only eighteen, was to be king of Judaea, Edom and Samaria; his brother Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Transjordan; their half-brother, Philip, tetrarch of the north-eastern territories of the kingdom. The kingdom remained divided into these tetrarchies, with a succession of Roman governors as ‘procurators’ of Judaea (see below), the fifth and most infamous of which was, of course, Pontius Pilate, responsible, together with the Judaean Sanhedrin, for the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

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(to be continued)

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: Part One – The House of David.   Leave a comment

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‘Fake History’ versus Religious Literacy:

‘Fake News’ has apparently now found a supplement in ‘Fake History’ for the Trump administration in the United States of America. At the beginning of Advent 2017, in a move mainly concerned with pleasing the religious right in America rather than appeasing Israel, the ‘peacock’ President unilaterally declared Jerusalem as the (exclusive) capital of Israel and promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this action in terms of an ultimate two-state solution in Palestine, the justification that it is based on three thousand years of history is, quite simply, in error, whether one looks at the historical, archaeological or biblical evidence. It is more connected with literal and heretical interpretations of the Book of Revelation among extreme evangelicals than with the records contained in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles, viewed in the context of other contemporary sources. It is also based on a view which is at best misguided and at worst purely ignorant of the nature of the territories and kingdoms of Israel and Judah in ancient times, in relation to their neighbours, as well as with regard to the role of Jerusalem in ancient times. We live in a time when a decline in religious and historical literacy has allowed a literal fundamentalism to become predominant in church and politics, at least in the USA. A leading American evangelical, Gary M. Burge, has recently expressed his frustration at the failure of his fellows to grasp and articulate the true message of the Old Testament about the true mission of the peoples of Israel:

Numerous evangelicals like me are less enamored of the recent romance between the church and Republican politics, and worry about moving the U.S. embassy. For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. We view the ethical teachings of the scriptures as primary, and recognize that when biblical Israelites failed in their moral pursuits, they were sorely criticized by the Hebrew prophets and became subject to ejection from the Holy Land. … We need people like them now to remind the White House that in the Middle East, even symbolic gestures can have very real, dangerous consequences. But we also need evangelicals to do this. Trump listens to his evangelical advisers—and they are the ones who can lead him back to the Hebrew prophets, where a different point of view can be found.

In this series of ‘postings’, I have chosen to return to the basic sources which I used as a student of Biblical Studies and Church History and informed my early career in teaching History and Religious Education. In doing so, I want to demonstrate how important it is to understand the parallel development of the ancient history of Palestine and Israel with the evolution of an oral and literary tradition of first Jewish and later Christian eschatology, concerned to provide the persecuted faithful with a sustained vision of divine power. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the two are connected in the figure and person of the Messiah breaking through into human reality. This time of year, Advent, Hannukah and Christmas are redolent of these themes.

The Empire of David and Solomon:

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The history of Jerusalem as a Hebrew or ‘Israelite’ capital begins with David’s capture of it from the Philistines, following his establishment of his united, independent rule over the whole of the territory of the ten tribes (II Samuel 5. 17-25). The Philistine empire had been swept away overnight by a man who, unlike the current American President, had won his way to power through his sheer intellectual ability. After the battle of Mount Gilboa (c. 1,000 BC), in which both King Saul, the first Hebrew king, and his son Jonathan were both killed (1 Sam. 31), it had seemed that the Israelite kingdom was at an end and that Philistine power was unchallenged. David’s first steps towards national leadership were taken under Philistine auspices. They thought that they had every reason to trust him, and no doubt approved on his first action, which was to advance on Hebron, the chief city of Judah (II Sam. 2.2-4). They underestimated his status as a ‘national hero’ to the Judaeans, who needed no show of force to choose him as their king. However, to the Philistines, this ‘kingship’ was a title without substance: as far as they were concerned, he was governing Judea as a vassal state on their behalf.

David spent his next few years consolidating his territorial position. He accepted the invitation of the local elders to become king of the north and east (II Sam. 5.1-3). Although his defeat of the Philistines was decisive, he did not annex their home territory: he left them still independent but unable to harm him (II Sam. 8.1). Instead, he went on to conquer the neighbouring states of Moab, Edom and Ammon, and the Aramaean kingdoms of Zobah and Damascus (II Sam. 8; 10. 15-19; 12. 26-31), in such short order that the more distant states of Hamath and Tyre quickly established friendly relations with the new power which had appeared in Palestine. As a result, during his lifetime, no foreign power attacked the Israelite territories. Apart from his capture of Jerusalem, we are not told what happened to the city-states of Canaan. Some had been conquered by the Philistines, others remained independent. Only later in the biblical narrative are they referred to as ‘cities in Israel’. We may assume that they capitulated to David, as it was unlikely that he would have tolerated independent enclaves within his home territory when setting out on foreign campaigns.

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Therefore, by the mid-tenth century BC, a ‘country’ which, only a few years previously, had consisted of a few loosely-organised tribes under foreign domination had now become an Israelite empire, stretching from the border between Egypt and Gaza to the Euphrates. Its creator, David, was to rule it for almost forty years, until 961 B.C. Internally, David took some shrewd steps to consolidate his position. Although his capture of Jerusalem probably took place later than is suggested in the biblical account (II Sam. 5. 6-9), he then transferred his capital there from Hebron. He thus not only secured an extremely strong, fortified city as the centre of his government but also forestalled tribal jealousies. Had he continued to rule from Hebron, the northern tribes might have seen him as a Judaean upstart; but Jerusalem had no tribal connections at all, so he was able to project himself as an impartial king of ‘all Israel’.

Even more successful was David’s transfer to Jerusalem of the ark of the Covenant. This was a sacred object, once the rallying point of the tribal league, which had been captured by the Philistines. It still had the power to command the old loyalties to the priesthood which had existed before Saul became king, and by placing it in his new capital, David made another shrewd move to strengthen loyalty to himself and to allay any suspicions that more conservative factions might have had that he intended to sweep away old traditions and institutions in establishing a new type of monarchy based on the pagan model of the imperial rulers in the region. By this action, he proved both his piety as an Israelite of old and his concern to give the old tribal league a permanent centre where the traditional worship of the God of Israel would be carried on as before.

He was greatly assisted in these policies by what must have seemed to his subjects and contemporaries as miraculous success in everything he did. No-one, it was believed, could have been so successful without at least a measure of divine favour. This is the constant narrative theme of the Hebrew scriptures about him, becoming almost a ‘theological dogma’ in II Sam. 7 where God is represented as confirming David’s position as the divinely appointed and anointed leader through whom God’s will for his people was achieved. There is no reason to doubt that David himself believed this, and saw himself as the servant of the God of Israel. At the same time, however, he was well aware that his was a composite, multi-ethnic kingdom, comprising Canaanites as well as Israelites. The cooperation of the latter was not only essential for the safety of the state, but also of great potential benefit to it. They were the heirs of centuries of civilised urban living and superior to the Israelites both in warfare and in the arts of peace. Unassimilated, they constituted a serious existential threat; assimilated, they provided David with much-needed administrative and military expertise. In return for their loyalty, David seems to have recognised their autonomy over their own local administration, also allowing them the freedom to practise their own religious traditions.

Thus in his religious policy, David steered a careful middle course. At Jerusalem, the worship of the God of Israel centred upon the ark was modified by elements borrowed from the pre-Israelite Canaanite cult. In this way, Canaanites who worshipped in the city did not feel that the Hebrew worship was entirely alien, imposed on them by a foreign conqueror. A similar policy was adopted in the former Canaanite cities, and the worship of their gods, thus tolerated, continued to flourish throughout the period of the monarchy. David was no religious fanatic, though believing himself to be under the favour and protection of the God of Israel. In fact, this ‘multi-cultural’ approach contributed considerably to his success as a ruler by divine right.

David’s systematic monarchy was very different from the chaotic rule of Saul. As a powerful political state, Israel rapidly developed institutions which were entirely new to the Israelites, in many respects modelled on those of its neighbours. The business of efficient government required a professional civil service which David recruited from both Israelite and Canaanite sources, also employing skilled scribes from other countries which had greater experience in administration, especially from Egypt. This central government at Jerusalem provided the king with advice on political problems in the ‘wisdom’ tradition of the Near East. It also administered justice under the king as chief judge, collected taxes and dues, organised a state labour force, kept administrative records and dealt with foreign affairs, maintaining diplomatic correspondence with foreign powers and negotiating international treaties.

These ‘wise men’ were also known as ‘scribes’, belonging to an educated class which was international in character and identifiable throughout the ancient Near and Middle East. It comprised statesmen and administrators as well as men of letters, and it exerted great influence on the affairs of Judah from the time of David to the fall of the Judaean state. They were products of a higher education whose aim was to inculcate a religious mental discipline and to provide hard-headed and clear-thinking men to fill important diplomatic and administrative offices in the state. The title of ‘scribe’ was given to such high officials in Egypt as well as to their counterparts in Babylonia and Assyria. The title ‘scribe’ or ‘secretary’ does not simply mean that the person is a skilled writer, nor does it show that the office he holds is one which calls for linguistic dexterity. It implies that without these skills a man did not possess the essential qualifications for office, and is a reminder that the mastery of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform scripts required intellectual concentration of a high order. In II Sam. 8. 16-18 and 20. 23-25 there are official lists of the leading members of David’s establishment, ecclesiastical, civil and military. Of the two political officials named, Seraiah is ‘the secretary’ of state, and Jehoshaphat is ‘the recorder’. Both are of the highest rank in the government.  Solomon’s principal officials are called ‘statesmen’, and a hereditary principle is seen to apply in both civil and ecclesiastical spheres. The office of secretary of state, occupied by Seraiah under David, appears to be held jointly by his two sons (I Kings 4. 1-6). Solomon’s list is longer than that of David’s reign, reflecting the more complicated organisation of Solomon’s state. Azariah, son of Nathan, is said to have control of ‘the officials’, probably the twelve appointed by Solomon over all Israel, each of whom was responsible for the provisioning of the royal household for one month of the year.

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The degree of centralised control which was exercised by Solomon brought into being a cadre of officials who had close associations with Jerusalem and the court and to whom administration and diplomacy were trusted. They were a class specially educated from an early age for the responsibility of high office, and it may be that a school for ‘scribes’ was founded by Solomon in Jerusalem in order to meet the demand for high service in his state. These ‘statesmen’ were at the centre of government and foreign affairs in Israel and Judah from the time of David to the end of the monarchy. They had all the prestige and reputation as weighty counsellors to the king. Diplomacy and administration became a profession in Judah and were in the hands of a class of men who understood the internationally accepted protocol and had their own standards of efficiency, conscientiousness and integrity.

These administrative developments had far-reaching consequences. In particular, they facilitated greater social distinctions than Israelite society had ever known before. The Canaanite cities were already accustomed to a highly stratified social structure, but this was the first time that the freeborn Israelites had experienced rule by a wealthy, urban ruling class whose interests were far from identical from their own. In the reigns of David and Solomon, Jerusalem became a wealthy, cosmopolitan city in which this ruling class enjoyed a standard of living beyond anything which could have been dreamed of by the Hebrew peasantry and craftworkers. Apart from the fact that they were now free from foreign oppression and slavery, the ordinary Israelite population still consisted mainly of farmers who hardly felt the benefits of Israel’s new ‘imperial’ status.

Supreme above the new upper class stood the king. Whatever the divine sanctions by which he claimed to rule, and however much he might rely on the loyalty of the ordinary Israelite, one of the main sources of his power was his professional army, which owed him a purely personal loyalty. It was this army which had first enabled David to capture Jerusalem, but many of its members were foreigners who had no reason for loyalty to Israel or its deity (II Sam. 8. 18; 11; 15. 18-22; 20. 7, 23). It was these ‘servants of David’ who, during Absalom’s rebellion, defeated the rebels, known as ‘the men of Israel’ and restored David to the throne (II Sam. 18. 7). Having secured his position through this mercenary army, David was able to play the part of an oriental monarch, gathering around him a court which imitated the splendour of foreign courts and tending to become more isolated from the common people (II Sam. 15. 3 f.) He was too shrewd, however, to allow this tendency to go too far. He knew that ultimately he could not retain his throne without the loyalty and affection of his people, and also that too great a departure from social and religious traditions of the Israel of old would put his throne in danger. It is unlikely that this Israelite monarchy, at this or any other time during its short existence, succumbed to the temptation of claiming for itself that semi-divine character which was characteristic of other monarchies of the time. We have to distinguish between some of the high-flown language in the Psalms and the Second Book of Samuel and the actual political realities faced by David. He was certainly regarded, like Saul, as ‘the Lord’s anointed’, the man who had brought salvation to his people, but there were too many men at his court who knew the facts of his rise to power for any further extravagant notions about his office to gain wide credence.

David did, however, firmly adopt one aspect of the monarchical concept which hardly accorded with the Israelite ideas of charismatic leaders, chosen personally by God: the principle of a hereditary monarchy. Saul had also intended that his son Jonathan should succeed him, but under David, the principle seems to have been taken for granted, and it was given a religious sanction in the divine promise given to him in II Sam. 7.  However, neither David’s own position nor the future of his family was really secure. The power and prosperity of the Israelite state made it vulnerable to usurpers, and such men found no lack of grievances which could be turned to their advantage. There were many who had remained loyal to Saul and his family and continued to regard David as a traitor and a murderer, and there were others who had come to disapprove of his arrogant and sinful actions such as his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah. In the north, there were those who resented being ruled by a Judaean, and there were still others who felt that the old religious and social traditions were being overthrown. Following the rebellion led by his own son, Absalom, a man called Sheba, of Saul’s tribe of Benjamin, also rose in rebellion (II Sam. 15-20). Although that rebellion was similarly crushed, the feelings of discontent remained.

The situation in the latter part of the reign was complicated by uncertainty about the succession to the throne. David had a number of wives, several of whom had borne him sons. In the hereditary monarchies of the ancient Near East, there was no rule of ‘primogeniture’, that the eldest son must succeed. The king had the right to choose his own heir, and it was obviously desirable that this should be done in good time. After the death of Absalom, there remained Adonijah and Solomon, half-brothers, as obvious candidates. The rivalry between the brothers led to a dangerous feud among the leading men of the state. But Adonijah made a false move, and paid for it with his life, dragging down with him some of the most important personalities of the reign which was now ending. Solomon was king, but he began his reign with a bloodbath (I Kings 2). In spite of splendid outward appearances, not least the construction of the Temple, the reign (961-922 B.C.) was a period of stagnation and the beginnings of Israel’s decline. This came as no surprise to contemporaries for whom even the reign of another David (which Solomon was not) could probably not have held together the heterogeneous empire for a second generation.

In economic terms, matters continued to progress relatively well. Although the agricultural resources and reserves of Israel were by no means great, it was well placed in other respects. The overlordship of the Canaanite plain had given David control of the only land route linking Egypt in the south with Mesopotamia in the east and Asia Minor in the north. Solomon ensured his control over it by extensive fortifications of the key cities  (I Kings 4. 26; 9. 15-19; 10. 26), deriving considerable wealth from it through tolls, taxes and external trade. He also established, through the alliance with Tyre, a lucrative maritime trade, building his own sea-port on the Red Sea. He also mined copper in Edom and refined it for export. Besides the trade with Egypt and Tyre, trade was also established with South Arabia (I Kings 10. 2,13). These activities brought considerable profit to Israel, but Solomon succumbed to a fatal folie de grandeur by attempting to imitate the splendours of Egypt and Mesopotamia, erecting buildings of great magnificence. Since Israel itself possessed neither the materials nor the skilled labour, he had to import these from Tyre, and as a consequence found himself in financial difficulties (I Kings 9. 10-14). At the same time, he alienated popular support not only by over-burdening his people with an extravagant court (I Kings 4. 7-19, 22f.) but also by extending the forced labour scheme which David had begun to such an extent that it seriously impaired agricultural efficiency (I Kings 5. 13-18).

The Israelite empire began to break up. Judah remained loyal to the king, and the Canaanite cities gave no trouble; but Edom and Damascus revolted, re-establishing their independence and becoming dangerous enemies (I Kings 11. 14-25); and the northern tribes of Israel produced their own leader, Jeroboam, who, when his first uprising failed, retired to Egypt where he was given protection and bided his time (I Kings 11. 26-40).

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Solomon’s most enduring achievement was the building of the temple at Jerusalem, but he could not have realised at the time the significance this would have in later times. The building was merely the corollary of David’s bringing of the ark to Jerusalem. Solomon provided a magnificent shrine for it, but in doing so he employed Phoenician architects and craftsmen to design and build it, thereby ensuring an increase in the Canaanite element of Israel’s worship. Solomon is praised in several biblical passages for his wisdom, but only one of these refers to his statesmanship in doing so. He may have been wise in other respects, but statesmanship was not one of these. Therefore, the early promise of political greatness for Israel went unfulfilled. It had undertaken fundamental changes during the reigns of David and Solomon, changes which would not be reversed. The Hebrews had been brought into the world of international politics and culture. The striking literary examples of this are to be found in the ‘succession narratives’ in which the characters and events at David’s court are described in vivid detail (II Sam. 9-20; I Kings 1; 2) Much of the advances in literary craftsmanship are due to the influence of Egypt and the Canaanite cities, but it is no mere imitation; its authors applied the newly-acquired techniques and insights to their own historical traditions, in which the new confident, national spirit inspired by the heroic achievements of David had given them a new sense of pride.

We not only have the narrative texts of the Books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and the interpretative sources of the prophets on which to base our knowledge of the rise and fall of the Israelite empire, but a vast quantity of written sources dealing with the international setting of the history of Israel has been discovered. Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian records provide a very full account of the histories of those empires, including their relationships with the Israelite kingdoms. In a few instances, they contain independent accounts of events described in the biblical narrative. From Palestine itself we also have two texts, written in Hebrew; the Siloam Inscription, written by Hezekiah’s engineers inside a water tunnel (cf. II Kings 20. 20) and the Lachish Letters, a correspondence between Judaean army officers during the campaign which ended with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. The excavation of Samaria, the Israelite capital built by Omri, also brought to light the Samaria Ivories, part of the decoration of Ahab’s palace (I Kings 22. 39).

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Cool to be kind!   Leave a comment

Fruit of the Spirit: Kindness

2 Samuel 9: David and Mephibosheth

Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper (died 1672)....

‘Cruel to be kind’ was an expression I used to hear a lot as a child. Not so much in my own home, the manse, but certainly at school and occasionally at church. It was sometimes accompanied by the first part of the proverb, ‘spare the rod…(and spoil the child.’) It used to puzzle me then, and it puzzles me even more now. I think it was Martin Luther King who wrote that the ends never justify the means, but the means are always inherent in the ends. Oliver Cromwell’s ‘cruel necessity’, the execution of Charles Stuart, ‘that man of blood’, found guilty of tyranny and war crimes against his own people was, for others, a brutal act of regicide, making the Stuart King a martyr for his divine right to rule. There was nothing ‘necessary’ about it, but, of necessity, it led to a brutal dictatorship which only ended with the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and the reaffirmation of its ‘divine right’ to rule.

Rowan Atkinson as Lord Edmund Blackadder

In British society, the idea that stoicism can only be taught through suffering has, thankfully been replaced, but the idea which has replaced it also seems to have its limitations. Whereas generosity characterised much of British behaviour in the war-time generation, more recently it has seemed that the prevailing wisdom is that it isn’t  ‘cool to be kind.’ The most popular situation comedies of recent years have used ‘dark humour’ if not ‘black comedy’ to portray the long-suffering character of the British in sit-coms.  To be successful over five series, the character of Edmund Blackadder needed a ‘butt’ to kick sideways in the mis-shapen turnip-nosed  Baldrick, who was never given a Christian name except for ‘Sodoff’, because that was what the other children in the playground told him to do! Tony Robinson’s character became the perfect ‘foil’ for the hapless Blackadder, with Baldrick taking on all the blame for Rowan Atkinson‘s woes. The only time that Blackadder speaks to Baldrick without a barbed remark is at the end of the last series when they all face the ultimate cruelty of going ‘over the top’ into the barbed wire together. ‘Cool to be cruel’ often seems to be the basis of a lot of British humour, both on screen and of, so that we are encouraged to laugh at latter-day clown figures, rather than with them, or through their suffering.

Even Christians in Britain, though generous in deed towards the poor and the sick, often seem to find it difficult to affirm each other in Church. Non-Christians have sometimes misinterpreted  what may be traditional ‘reserve’ for coldness, even cruelty. Occasionally, preachers seem to regard it more important to make fun of themselves, or to gently mock others, rather than to express a kind word to their congregations. Perhaps they worry that they might be seen as courting popularity rather than confronting truths. But it concerns me greatly when I read in the social media that Christians are seen as going  to Church because we think we’re better than others and that we then carry on behaving badly towards others at work or more broadly in our six-day lives.

One such social media site is called ’Random Acts of Kindness’, giving suggestions and examples as to how we might improve the atmosphere around us by helping others. The site asks, ‘what acts have you encountered recently?’ When I read this, often nothing springs very readily to mind. Even more difficult to bring to mind are specific acts of kindness I might have performed for others, whether pre-medidated or spontaneous. The latter are generally more prevalent, which is perhaps as things should be, but I wonder if, sometmes, I don’t actually block the flow of God’s kindness into my life by not being more pro-active in identifying need in others.

The anger of Saul with David.

The anger of Saul with David. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The early chapters of 2 Samuel give us an interesting comparison and contrast in their pen-portraits of Saul and David as early Kings of Israel and Judah. Saul allows jealousy, envy and bitterness to block the flow of kindness, twice tries to kill David. Jonathan, Saul’s eldest by his only wife (1 Sam 14:49-50), comes to David’s rescue, out of friendship and loyalty…and also perhaps because he realises that his father is mentally ill and will destroy himself by destroying David.

2 Samuel is a ’history’ book about David; 1 Sam is about the transition to monarchy under Saul, picking up from ’Judges’ in which the continual attacks on the Hebrews from surrounding tribes make the people ask for king (as a necessity, NOT as an ideal form of government, you’ll notice). David is a shepherd boy, youngest of eight sons of Jesse, a skilled musician and composer. The second book begins in civil war after Saul’s death in battle and ends with the rivalry of David’s sons over the succession. David establishes Jerusalem as capital, Solomon succeeds him (1 Kings) and builds the Temple; the kingdom is then split in two under Rehoboam, King of Israel (the ten tribes in North) and Judah (the two in south). This is ‘His’ story told from special point of view – God’s plan at work in the Jewish nation. It is therefore highly selective and deliberately biased, as much history is. However, this is NOT legend or mythology, nor is it  propaganda – its reliabity is testified to contemporary documents and archaeology, in addition to older wrtings, records, and genealogies. Looking forward, Jesus is seen as David’s descendant, the ‘Messiah’ (Hebrew), ‘Christ’ (Greek), or ’anointed one.’ Just as a king or queen is anointed. It’s no ‘fluke’ that the oldest crown jewel in Britain, is also one of the smallest – the anointing spoon, with which the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the monarch as s/he turns to the High Altar. The Coronation anthem, Handel’s ‘ Zadok the Priest’ reminds us of  2 Samuel 8:17, in which the High Priest appointed by Solomon helps to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem (1 Ki 2:26-35).

"Death of King Saul", 1848 by Elie M...

“Death of King Saul”, 1848 by Elie Marcuse (Germany and France, 1817-1902) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the beginning of 2 Samuel, David returns to Ziklag following his victory over the Amalekites, a nomadic tribe who lived in the desert south of Judah. They had been at continual war with the Israelites from the time of the exodus. A survivor of Saul’s defeat at the Battle at Mount Gilboa by the Philistines arrives with the news of the death of the king and his three sons, including Jonathan. He is an Amalekite, and therefore tells lies in saying that he agreed to Saul’s request to kill him before the Philistines captured him (in fact, Saul fell on his own sword),  thinking David would be pleased. However,  since  he has killed ’the Lord’s anointed’, David has him killed. He then writes an elegy for Saul and Jonathan which includes the following verse:

’How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights. I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.’ 

When Saul’s remaining son is murdered, David has his murderers killed. He is then made king, first by the tribes of Judah and then by the whole of Israel. He makes a ’contract’ or ’covenant’ with them, and is anointed king at the age of thirty, reigning for forty years in all. He begins with a series of victories over the Philistines. Then the Ark of the Covenant is brought to Jerusalem.

What kind of king is Jesus compared with his ancestor? His entry to Jerusalem is not on warhorse, with soldiers, but on a donkey, with children and pilgrims. Power struggles among the leaders of Israel had allowed Rome to take control in 63 B.C., and rulers like Herod ‘the Great’ were anything but that, for they were approved and appointed by Rome. They were not seen as ’anointed’ by God and weren’t popular with the people. They therefore used methods of terror to keep control, and savagely put down any support for alternative authorities, such as prophets and ’messiahs’. 

By contrast, in his relationship with Jonathan, David shows great faithfulness, giving his commitment to Jonathan’s descendants, something unusual for a king to do, upholding another king’s dynasty, which was normally seen as a threat and banished (at the very least).

But David determined to end the feuding as well as keep his promise never to ’cut off his kindness’ from Jonathan’s family. (1 Sam 20, vv 15, 42). He also makes the same promise to Saul, on oath, even after Saul tries to kill him (1 Sam 24: 20-22). Even after Saul loses God’s favour, David treats him with respect and even spares his life (’from evildoers come evil deeds’). David only takes lives ’in cold blood’ where justice is served, despite brutality of the times.

Did David keep his promise?

Read 2 Samuel 9:

David asked, ’Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’

Now there was a servant of Saul’s household named Ziba. They called him to appear before David, and the king said to him, ’Are you Ziba?’

’Your servant,’ he replied.

The king asked, ’Is there no-one still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?’

Ziba answered the king, ’There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in both feet.’

’Where is he?’, the king asked.

Ziba answered, ’He is at the house of Makir son of Ammiel, in Lo Debar.’

So King David had him brought from Lo Debar, from the house of Makir son of Ammiel.

When Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honour.

David said, ’Mephibosheth!’

’Your servant,’ he replied.

’Don’t be afraid,’ David said to him, ’for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.’

Mephishobeth bowed down and said, ’What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?’

Then the King summoned Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, ’I have given your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. You and your sons and your servants are to farm the land for him and bring in the crops, so that your master’s grandson may be provided for. And Mephishobeth, grandson of your master, will always eat at my table.’ (Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.)

Then Ziba said to the king, ’Your servant will do whatever my lord the king commands his servant to do.’ So Mephishobeth ate at David’s table like one of the king’s sons.

Mephishobeth had a young son named Mica, and all the members of Ziba’s household were servants of Mephishobeth. And Mephishobeth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table, and he was crippled in both feet.

(New International Version)

 1. What characteristics of David stand out?

He shows respect for Saul and Jonathan, behaving honourably, wanting to show God’s ’exceptional kindness’, or ’grace’, towards them. It includes forgiveness.

 2. What steps did David have to take to find Mephibosheth?

Ziba, Saul’s servant  was sent to find Mephishobeth in Lo Debar. Wherever this was, it was a considerable distance from Judah.

3. What reasons might David have had for not being kind to Mephibosheth?

His disability – because he was dropped by his nurse, (2 Sam 4). Also because his  his uncle, Ish-Bosheth, had been made king over large part of Israel, while David was king of Judah only for first 7 years, so there had been a bitter civil war between the House of Saul and the House of David. It wasn’t just that Saul had tried to kill him, but that many ’brothers’ had died in the War.  David’s actions remind me of how Henry Tudor united the Houses of York and Lancaster through marriage and the symbol of the Tudor Rose, combining the red rose of Lancashire with the white rose of Yorkshire, whilst at the same time dealing harshly with ‘pretenders’ to the throne.

 4. What was David’s kindness based on?

On his love for Jonathan, on his promise made to him;  on his forgiveness for House of Saul and on his promise to Saul.

 5. In what specific, practical ways did David show kindness to Mephibosheth?

The way he greeted him, as Jonathan’s son, with enthusiasm, though they had never met; the granting of Saul’s land, the settling of Ziba’s family to farm the land; the protection of him at the Royal Court in Jerusalem (as a disabled person he was unable to defend himself and his lands directly, but his position at court enables him to have a son and therefore continue the House of Saul.)

6. What thoughts or feelings do you think Mephibosheth had when called before David?

As last surviving member, he probably feared for his life, especially after having fled before uncle’s murder by men at his own court, even though David had executed the men responsible, which he may not have known.

7. What would he have felt as he heard the words contained in verse 7?

Mightily relieved? Reconciled, recognised, restored and reaffirmed.  No longer a refugee. Justified by the Restitution of his family.

 

A Hymn/ Psalm:

 Praise my Soul

The King of Heaven

To his feet

My tribute bring

Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,

Who like me his praise would sing.

The Challenge:

Think of those who have been especially kind to you.  How have you been blessed by their kindness?

How can you repay their kindnesses? How can you affirm and encourage them?

What is an affirmation? How can we make one?

It’s not simply a general, positive statement, but a promise to do something specific for someone.

Christians have been showered with blessings from the King. Can you count your blessings while you may? There are two great songs, one British and the other a Salvation Army chorus, popular in the USA, which charge us with doing just this:

Count Your Blessings (#1; British):

 

Count your blessings one by one,

When dawn appears and day has just begun.

They will light your heart with happiness,

Make each hour bright

And bring you gladness.

 

 Count your blessings one by one,

When twilight falls and toil of day is done,

And in sweet dreams they’ll come again to you,

If you will count your blessings

Each day through.

 

Count your blessings while you may,

For we are here but little time to stay.

All around are hearts sincere and true,

Lovely things abound just waiting for you.

 

Count your blessings while you may,

For big or small, whichever come your way.

For then you’ll find this world a place of love,

If you will count your blessings from above.

 

Count Your Blessings #2 (American):

Chorus:

Count your many blessings, name them one by one.

Count your many blessings, see what God  has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,

And it will surprise you, what the Lord has done.

 

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,

When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,

Count your many blessings, name them one by one,

And it will surprise you, what the Lord has done.

 

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?

Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?

Count your every blessing and each doubt will fly,

And you will be singing as the days go by.

 

When you look at others, with their lands and gold,

Think that Christ has promised you his wealth untold.

Count  your many blessings; wealth can never buy

Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high.

 

So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,

Do not be disheartened, God is over all.

Count your many blessings, angels will attend,

Help and comfort give you till your journey’s end.

 

So, Remember….

Don’t lose sleep,

Counting sheep;

When you’re stressing out,

Count your blessings out!

And don’t forget to bless others….


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