The Bible

The Biography

by Karen Armstrong

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The Biography
Karen Armstrong

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Excerpt: The Bible

The Bible

A Biography

Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright © 2007Karen Armstrong
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-84354-396-1


Introduction..............................11 Torah...................................92 Scripture...............................323 Gospel..................................554 Midrash.................................795 Charity.................................1026 Lectio Divina...........................1267 Sola Scriptura..........................1558 Modernity...............................183Epilogue..................................222Glossary of Key Terms.....................231Notes.....................................243Index.....................................279

Chapter One


In 597 BCE, the tiny state of Judah in the highlands of Canaan broke its vassalage treaty with Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the powerful Babylonian empire. It was a catastrophic mistake. Three months later, the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, Judah's capital. The young king surrendered immediately and was deported to Babylonia, together with some ten thousand of the citizens who made the state viable: priests, military leaders, craftsmen and metal workers. As they left Jerusalem, the exiles would have taken one last look at the temple built on Mount Zion by King Solomon (c.970-930 BCE), the centre of their national and spiritual life, sadly aware that in all likelihood they would never see it again. Their fears were realized: in 586, after yet another rebellion in Judah, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and burned Solomon's temple to the ground.

The exiles were not ill-treated in Babylon. The king was comfortably housed with his entourage in the southern citadel, and the rest lived together in new settlements by the canals and were allowed to manage their domestic affairs. But they had lost their country, their political independence, and their religion. They belonged to the people of Israel and believed that their god Yahweh had promised that if they worshipped him exclusively, they would live in their land forever. The Jerusalem temple, where Yahweh had dwelt among his people, was essential to his cult. Yet here they were in an alien land, cast out of Yahweh's presence. This must be a divine punishment. Time and again, the Israelites had failed to keep their covenant agreement with Yahweh and had succumbed to the lure of other deities. Some of the exiles assumed that, as the leaders of Israel, it was up to them to rectify the situation, but how could they serve Yahweh without the temple that was their only means of making contact with their god?

Five years after his arrival in Babylon, standing beside the Chebar canal, a young priest called Ezekiel had a terrifying vision. It was impossible to see anything clearly because nothing in this stormy maelstrom of fire and tumultuous sound conformed to ordinary human categories, but Ezekiel knew that he was in the presence of the kavod, the 'glory' of Yahweh, which was usually enthroned in the inner sanctum of the temple. God had left Jerusalem and, riding on what seemed to be a massive war chariot, had come to live with the exiles in Babylon. A hand stretched towards Ezekiel holding a scroll, which was inscribed with 'lamentations, wailing, and moanings'. 'Eat this scroll,' a divine voice commanded him, 'feed and be satisfied by the scroll I am giving you.' When he forced it down, accepting the pain and misery of his exile, Ezekiel found that 'it tasted sweet as honey'.

It was a prophetic moment. The exiles would continue to long for their lost temple, because in the Middle East at this period, it was impossible to imagine religion without one. But the time would come when Israelites would make contact with their God in sacred writings, rather than a shrine. Their holy book would not be easy to understand. Like Ezekiel's scroll, its message often seemed distressing and incoherent. Yet when they made the effort to absorb this confusing text, making it a part of their inmost being, they would feel that they had come into the presence of God - just as they did when they had visited his shrine in Jerusalem.

But it would be many years before Yahwism became a religion of the book. The exiles had brought a number of scrolls from the royal archive in Jerusalem with them to Babylon, and there they studied and edited these documents. If they were allowed to return home, these records of the history and cult of their people could play an important role in the restoration of national life. But the scribes did not regard these writings as sacrosanct and felt free to add new passages, altering them to fit their changed circumstances. They had as yet no notion of a sacred text. True, there were many stories in the Middle East about heavenly tablets that had descended miraculously to earth and imparted secret, divine knowledge. There were tales in Israel about the engraved stones that Yahweh had given to his prophet Moses, who had spoken with him face to face. But the scrolls in the Judaean archive were not in this league, and did not play any part in the cult of Israel.

The Israelites, like most peoples in the ancient world, had always handed on their traditions by word of mouth. In the early days of their nation, in about 1200 BCE, they had lived in twelve tribal units in the Canaanite highlands but believed that they had a common ancestry and a shared history, which they celebrated in shrines associated with one of their patriarchs or an important event. Bards recited the epic stories of the sacred past and the people formally renewed the covenant agreement that bound them together as the am Yahweh, 'the family of Yahweh'. Already, at this very early stage, Israel had a distinctive religious vision. Most peoples in the region developed a mythology and liturgy that centred on the world of the gods in primordial time, but Israelites focused on their life with Yahweh in this world. From the very beginning, they thought historically, in terms of cause and effect.

From early fragments embedded in the later biblical narratives, we can infer that the Israelites believed their ancestors to have been nomads. Yahweh had led them to Canaan, and promised that one day their descendants would own the land. For many years they had lived as slaves under Egyptian rule, but Yahweh had liberated them with great signs and marvels, led them back to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses, and helped them to conquer the highlands from the indigenous inhabitants. But there was as yet no master-narrative: each tribe had its own version of the story, each region its local heroes. The priests of Dan, in the extreme north, for example, believed that they were descended from Moses; Abraham, the father of the whole nation, had lived in Hebron and was especially popular in the south. At Gilgal, the local tribes celebrated Israel's miraculous entry into the Promised Land, when the waters of the river Jordan had miraculously parted to let them through. The people of Shechem annually renewed the covenant that Joshua had made with Yahweh after his conquest of Canaan.

By about 1000 BCE, however, the tribal system was no longer adequate, so the Israelites formed two monarchies in the Canaanite highlands: the kingdom of Judah in the south, and the larger, more prosperous kingdom of Israel in the north. The old covenant festivals were phased out in favour of royal rituals at the national shrines that centred on the person of the king. On his coronation day, the king was adopted by Yahweh, became a 'son of God', and a member of Yahweh's Divine Assembly of heavenly beings. We know almost nothing about the cult of the northern kingdom, because the biblical historians had a bias towards Judah, but many of the psalms later included in the Bible were used in the Jerusalem liturgy and show that the Judahites had been influenced by the cult of Baal in neighbouring Syria, which had a similar royal mythology. Yahweh had made an unconditional covenant with King David, the founder of the Judaean dynasty, and had promised that his descendants would rule in Jerusalem forever.

Now that the old tales had been liberated from the cult, they acquired an independent, literary life. During the eighth century, there was a literacy revolution throughout the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. Kings commissioned documents that glorified their regime and housed these texts in libraries. In Greece, the epics of Homer were committed to writing at this time, and in Israel and Judah historians began to combine the old stories to create national sagas, which have been preserved in the earliest strata of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

From the multifarious traditions of Israel and Judah, the eighth-century historians built a coherent narrative. Scholars usually call the southern epic of Judah 'J' because the authors always called their God 'Yahweh', while the northern saga is known as 'E' because these historians preferred the more formal title 'Elohim'. Later these two separate accounts were combined by an editor to form a single story that formed the backbone of the Hebrew Bible. During the eighteenth century BCE, Yahweh had commanded Abraham to leave his home town of Ur in Mesopotamia and settle in the Canaanite highlands, where he made a covenant with him, promising that his descendants would inherit the whole country. Abraham lived in Hebron; his son Isaac in Beersheba, and his grandson, Jacob (also called 'Israel'), eventually settled in the countryside around Shechem.

During a famine, Jacob and his sons, the founders of the twelve Israelite tribes, migrated to Egypt, where they flourished initially but, when they became too numerous, were enslaved and oppressed. Finally, in about 1250 BCE, Yahweh liberated them under the leadership of Moses. As they fled, Yahweh parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds, so that the Israelites passed over in safety, but Pharaoh and his army were drowned. For forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness of Sinai, south of Canaan. On Mount Sinai, Yahweh had made a solemn covenant with Israel and gave them the law, which included the Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets in Yahweh's own hand. Finally, Moses's successor Joshua led the tribes across the Jordan river into Canaan; they destroyed all the Canaanite cities and villages, killed the native population and made the land their own.

However, Israeli archaeologists, who have been excavating the region since 1967, have found no evidence to corroborate this story: there is no sign of foreign invasion or mass destruction, and nothing to indicate a large-scale change of population. The scholarly consensus is that the story of the Exodus is not historical. There are many theories. Egypt had ruled the Canaanite city states since the nineteenth century BCE, and had withdrawn at the end of the thirteenth century, shortly before the first settlements appeared in the formerly uninhabitable highlands. We first hear about a people called 'Israel' in this region in about 1200 BCE. Some scholars argue that the Israelites were refugees from the failing city-states on the coastal plains. They may have been joined there by other tribes from the south, who brought with them their god Yahweh, who seems to have originated in the southern regions around Sinai. Those who had lived under Egyptian rule in the Canaanite cities may have felt that they had indeed been liberated from Egypt - but in their own country.

J and E were not modern historical accounts. Like Homer and Herodotus, the authors included legends about divine figures and mythological elements that try to explain the meaning of what had happened. Their narratives are more than history. From the very beginning, there was no single, authoritative message in what would become the Bible. The J and E authors interpreted the saga of Israel very differently, and later editors made no attempt to iron out these inconsistencies and contradictions. Subsequently historians would feel at liberty to add to the JE narrative and make radical alterations.

In both J and E, for example, very different views of God were expressed. J used anthropomorphic imagery that would embarrass later exegetes. Yahweh strolls in the Garden of Eden like a Middle Eastern potentate, shuts the door of Noah's ark, gets angry and changes his mind. But in E there was a more transcendent view of Elohim, who scarcely even 'speaks' but prefers to send an angel as his messenger. Later Israelite religion would become passionately monotheist, convinced that Yahweh was the only God. But neither the J or E authors believed this. Originally Yahweh had been a member of the Divine Assembly of 'holy ones', over which El, the high god of Canaan, had presided with his consort Asherah. Each nation of the region had its own patronal deity, and Yahweh was the 'holy one of Israel'. By the eighth century, Yahweh had ousted El in the Divine Assembly, and ruled alone over a host of 'holy ones', who were warriors in his heavenly army. None of the other gods could measure up to Yahweh in his fidelity to his people. Here he had no peers, no rivals. But the Bible shows that right up to the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586, Israelites also worshipped a host of other deities.

Abraham, a man of the south, not Moses, was the hero of J's history. His career and the covenant God made with him looked forward to King David. But E was more interested in Jacob, a northern character, and his son Joseph, who was buried in Shechem. E did not include any of the primeval history - the creation of the world, Cain and Abel, the Flood and the rebellion at the Tower of Babel - that was so important to J. E's hero was Moses, who was more widely revered in the north than the south. But neither J nor E mentioned the law that Yahweh gave to Moses on Sinai, which would become so crucial later. There was as yet no reference to the Ten Commandments. Almost certainly, as in other Near Eastern legend, the heavenly tablets given to Moses originally contained some esoteric cultic lore. For J and E, Sinai was important because Moses and the Elders had a vision of Yahweh on the mountaintop.

By the eighth century, a small group of prophets wanted to make the people worship Yahweh exclusively. But this was not a popular move. As a warrior, Yahweh was unsurpassed, but he had no expertise in agriculture, so when they wanted a good harvest, it was natural for the people of Israel and Judah to have recourse to the cult of the local fertility god Baal and his sister-spouse Anat, practising the usual ritual sex to make the fields fertile. In the early eighth century, Hosea, a prophet in the northern kingdom, inveighed against this practice. His wife Gomer had served as a sacred prostitute of Baal and the pain he felt at her infidelity was, he imagined, similar to what Yahweh experienced when his people went whoring after other gods. Israelites must return to Yahweh, who could supply all their needs. It was no use hoping to appease him by temple ritual: Yahweh wanted cultic loyalty (hesed) not animal sacrifice. If they continued to be unfaithful to Yahweh, the kingdom of Israel would be destroyed by the mighty Assyrian empire, their towns laid waste, and their children exterminated.

Assyria had established unprecedented power in the Middle East; it regularly devastated the territories of recalcitrant vassals and deported the population. The prophet Amos, who preached in Israel in the mid-eighth century, argued that Yahweh was leading a holy war against Israel to punish its systemic injustice. As Hosea condemned the widely respected cult of Baal, Amos turned the traditional cult of Yahweh the warrior on its head: he no longer reflexively took Israel's side. Amos also poured scorn on the temple rituals of the northern kingdom. Yahweh was sick of noisy chanting and devout strumming of harps. Instead he wanted justice to 'flow like water, and integrity like an unfailing stream'. From this early date, the biblical writings were subversive and iconoclastic, challenging prevailing orthodoxy.

Isaiah of Jerusalem was more conventional; his oracles conformed entirely to the royal ideology of the House of David. He had received his prophetic commission in about 740 in the temple, where he saw Yahweh, surrounded by his Divine Assembly of celestial beings, and heard the cherubim crying 'holy [qaddosh] holy, holy!' Yahweh was 'separate', 'other' and radically transcendent. Yahweh gave Isaiah a grim message: the countryside would be devastated and the inhabitants put to flight. But Isaiah had no fear of Assyria. He had seen that Yahweh's 'glory' filled the earth; as long as he was enthroned in his temple on Mount Zion, Judah was safe, because Yahweh, the divine warrior, was once again on the march, fighting for his people.

But the northern kingdom enjoyed no such immunity. When the king of Israel joined a local confederacy to block Assyria's western advance in 732, the Assyrian king Tigleth-Pileser III descended and seized most of Israel's territory. Ten years later, in 722, after another rebellion, the Assyrian armies destroyed Samaria, Israel's beautiful capital, and deported the ruling class. The kingdom of Judah, which had become an Assyrian vassal, remained secure, and refugees fled to Jerusalem from the north, probably bringing with them the E saga and the recorded oracles of Hosea and Amos, who had foreseen the tragedy. These were included in Judah's royal archive where, at some later date, scribes combined the 'Elohist' tradition with J's southern epic.