Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

History With A Viewpoint

Posted by foryourfaith on April 14, 2013

 

The biblical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings relate the history of the Israelites from the time they entered and conquered Canaan, the land that God had promised them, until they lost the land and were carried off to exile in Babylon. For about 2,000 years students of the Bible assumed that these books were written by different authors at different times. Then, in 1943, all of that changed. A German biblical scholar, Martin Noth, showed that these books had a uniform style and outlook, and concluded that they constitute a single ancient history. Furthermore, Noth claimed that Deuteronomy, which shares the same style and outlook, had been written as an introduction to the history, connecting it to the Pentateuch; it had not been written as part of the Pentateuch, as formerly believed. Today many scholars agree, though most believe that the history, now known as the Deuteronomistic History, evolved gradually.

The Deuteronomistic History as it appears in the Bible today was probably shaped during the Babylonian exile, when Israelites were struggling to understand why God had seemingly abandoned them, his chosen people. The first edition may have been started centuries earlier. Soon after Israel was divided into two kingdoms, Jeroboam, the first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel, built shrines containing images of calves, scandalizing orthodox believers who considered it against the law of Moses to do so. To make matters even worse, Jeroboam also appointed priests from the tribe of Levi as required. According to a recent theory, the Levitic priests who were replaced by these new appointees joined together to preserve their revered traditions. Their descendants, who continued this work, eventually moved to Jerusalem sometime before the northern kingdom completely fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC. These so-called Deuteronomists may have started to write their history soon after the fall of the northern kingdom, to explain why the northern kingdom had fallen.

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No More Priests

The Bible tells how Jeroboam indiscriminately made priest for his shrines. “Whosoever desired it was consecrated and became a priest” (1 Kings 13:33). Significantly, from that point on, the history makes only two references to northern priests. One says that all of King Ahab’s priests were killed (2 Kings 10:11) and one remarks that the Assyrians had exiled all the priests from the land (2 Kings 17:27). If the Deuteronomistic History was truly written by descendants of the ousted priests of Israel, the authors were showing their contempt for the wrongfully appointed priests by ignoring them.

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In writing their history, the Deuteronomists made use of various ancient sources, including chronicles and court histories, military records, territorial lists, cycles of stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and ancient songs (including the Song of Deborah). The first version of the history was probably completed during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, and it presented Josiah as a model king whom God would use to restore his relationship with the Israelites. This early version stressed the need to keep the laws of Moses and to rid worship of all pagan influences. The texts did not represent themselves as actual histories, but merely as theological commentaries on history. Each king was judged only on his relationship with God. His strictly political accomplishments, the Deuteronomists said, could be read in other books – books that are now lost. For the Deuteronomists, if a king allowed pagan worship, he was evil. If he supported God’s law and worshipped only him, he was good. Most of the kings of Israel were bad, and so Israel fell. Under Josiah, however, the kingdom of Judah would prosper with God offering full support.

The optimism of the Deuteronomists was suddenly dashed when Josiah was killed in battle. The next four kings were not good ones, and finally Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and by 586 BC most of the Israelites had been carried off into exile. In order to make the history understandable in the face of these tragic circumstances, the Deuteronomists’ texts needed revision. The early version of the history had blamed bad kings for the troubles of the people, but there were no more kings. Consequently, an editor or group of editors reworked the history and brought it up to date. The changes show that it was not merely the kings who had done wrong, but the people as a whole. The role of the people is greatly expanded in the revised texts, and it is made clear that God had established his covenant with the people themselves and not merely with their rulers. God remained faithful to his convenant even though the people continuously broke it by refusing to listen to God’s word and by disobeying his laws. But when trouble came and the people repented, God always forgave them. The history seems to end on a note of hope that if the people turn back to God during this time of exile, he will again forgive them and again restore them to his favor.

No one really knows who wrote the Deuteronomistic History or who edited it during the exile. Some scholars believe that the prophet Jeremiah might have done the revisions from his exile in Egypt. They point out that the books are careful to say nothing about their author, and that Jeremiah does not enter into the history even though he was a major figure who advised the last four kings of Judah. This omission may have been deliberate because Jeremiah did not want to bring himself into the history that he was writing, Jeremiah’s own work is covered in the separate book that bears his name.

After the exile ended the revised text was probably returned to Jerusalem, where it was jointed to the Pentateuch, with more changes and additions being made to smooth out the fusion. The final text, which we have today, shows a loving god who continues to care for his people, even though they constantly move away from him. God is always seen as loving and faithful in the Deuteronomistic History.

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Josiah, an Ideal King

When his father, Amon, was assassinated in 640 BC, the eight-year-old Josiah became king of Judah in his place. In time Josiah came to revere God, though his father had not. He undertook a restoration of the temple, financing it with money collected from the people. In 622 BC, as the work proceded, a book of law, probably an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, was found, and Josiah was so inspired by it that he instituted far-reaching religious reforms – with the backing of the prophet Jeremiah. Because the law required all sacrifices to be offered in Jerusalem, Josiah destroyed all altars outside the temple, including the one Jeroboam had erected at Bethel. In 609 BC Josiah went to war with Egypt and was killed in battle. The Bible concludes: “Before him there was not king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).

 

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