The Rise and Fall of Israel
After Joshua died there was nobody to take his place so the people of Israel were governed by a series of judges. As you might expect, some of these judges were good and some were corrupt. As a result they were at continual war with the Philistines who were insistent on getting these foreigners off their land.
Eventually the people tired of the judges and wanted a king. They looked at how the countries around them were governed and figured they’d be better off with one guy in charge.
Samuel, the judge in charge at the time, warned them that it was a bad idea. Samuel was a prophet as well as a judge and God had told him specifically it would be a fiasco, but the people insisted.
For reference, this was about 400 years after Moses led them out of Egypt.
One thing led to another and Samuel ended up anointing1 a guy named Saul to be king over Israel. Saul was a devout guy, good looking, and the son of a very rich man.
But Saul was unknown and not everybody could get behind making him king even if Samuel anointed him. But that all changed after Saul kicked some Philistine ass in his first battle. That was all it took, Saul was king and the people loved him.
So Saul went about making war with all the kingdoms around him, killing and plundering and securing Israel’s place in the Promised Land. God had a big thing about killing everybody, men, women, children, even the sheep, cows and donkeys. Total scorched earth. Something about keeping ‘his’ people pure. Don’t fool around with those foreign women, they’ll lead you astray.
But there was one time, when God had told Saul to kill everybody and Saul didn’t do it. So God decided to take the kingdom from him and give it to somebody else. That somebody else was a kid named David.
There are two versions of how David and Saul got together and the first one goes like this;
God told Samuel he was going to dump Saul so, on the sly, Samuel anointed David with oil2. Although technically that made David king, Samuel didn’t announce it so Saul knew nothing about it. Kind of a ‘pre-installation’ anointing.
But ever since David got anointed Saul had been tormented by harmful spirits3, because, unbeknownst to Saul, the spirit of God had left him, and gone into David. These harmful spirits were debilitating and somebody suggested they find someone who could play the lyre4. Presumably this playing would soothe Saul when the harmful spirits hit him. Well, it just so happened David played a mean lyre.
So they sent for David and, sure enough, it worked. Saul really liked David and had him stay with him. He loved him like a son and David eventually became Saul’s armor-bearer.
That’s one story of how Saul and David met but, as seems to be the custom of the Bible, there is another version told in conjunction with the first.
You’ve probably heard the story of David and Goliath but, just in case you haven’t, here’s the condensed version.
Israel was at war with the Philistines. Each day as the armies faced off. Goliath, a Philistine giant, would come out into the open space between the two armies and call out the Israelis, saying he could take any one of them. Kind of a “Our baddest guy can lick your baddest guy” kind of thing.
The deal was, if anyone had guts enough to come out and fight Goliath and actually beat him, then the Philistines would be their servants. But seeing as Goliath was over nine feet tall and a warrior to the core, it’s not surprising that nobody was too keen to take him on.
This went on day after day until one day David showed up. He was bringing some food to his older brothers who were in the army and got there just in time for Goliath’s daily performance.
David was a young guy, just a lowly keeper of the sheep, with no military experience. But this giant got under his skin. The way he was making fun of his people and his God just wasn’t right. He said he’d fight the giant any day. Saul got wind of it and sent for this brash kid.
David talked a good game and, since Saul basically had nothing to lose, he sent the kid out to face Goliath.
Well, it turned out David was really good with a slingshot. This is not the kind of slingshot you might have had as a kid. It’s known as a shepherd’s slingshot; two long strips of leather with a pouch in the middle. It could hold a stone the size of your fist and deliver that sucker at over 100 mph. In the hands of an expert it could literally take your head off . And David was an expert.
It reminds me of the first Indiana Jones movie where this big Bedouin swordsman is waving his sword around, trying to intimidate Indiana Jones, but Indy just pulls out his pistol and shoots him dead. That’s basically what David did. He fired his sling from close range and buried that stone in Goliath’s head. Got him right between the eyes. Imagine Nolan Ryan5 firing a baseball-sized rock from ten feet away. Lights out.
Goliath went down like a ton of bricks. To add insult to injury, David used Goliath’s own sword to cut off his head.
Seeing this, the Philistines ran for the hills but the Israelites chased them down and killed them all. I always wondered why, if they could take them now, why did they wait.
The point I want to make is, up until now, Saul didn’t know David from Adam. No talk about harmful spirits or lyres. Again, it looks like the case that there was more than one legend surrounding these guys and for the sake of the documentary6, both versions had to be worked in.
Well, now David was a hero. The people loved him and sang his praises. It didn’t take long for Saul to get jealous and start to plot how to get rid of him.
So David literally had to head for the hills to escape Saul. In the process he gathered about 600 men around him. He had various adventures, escaping Saul and various treacherous scoundrels, and picked up some wives along the way. In the process David had Saul in his cross hairs twice but refused to kill him. He wasn’t about to kill God’s anointed.
David even made a deal with the Philistines who let him hide out in their land. Yes, these are the same Philistines as in Goliath the giant. Why they let him hide out in their land is a wonder but, according to the story, they did. And from this hideout, David would raid various cities, killing everybody and taking all their stuff. I’m assuming these weren’t Israelite cites but the Bible doesn’t specify. At this point David had basically turned into a murdering bandit.
One time, while David was away, another army came and raided his camp. But they didn’t kill anybody, they just kidnapped them, including David’s wives. Post haste, David hunted them down, rescued all his people and killed all the guys who raided him. Sounds a little like when Lot got taken from Sodom and Abraham rescued him.
Saul, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. He took on the Philistines one last time and ended up on the wrong end of it and got killed.
DAVID BECOMES KING
So David, his wives and all his men went up to Judah. Judah was one of Jacob’s (Israel’s) twelve sons, and the land they got was called the land of Judah. And the men of Judah anointed (there’s that word again) David as their king.
But Abner, the head of Saul’s army, made Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth, king over the rest of the tribes, who are henceforth called Israel. So the house of David (Judah) and the house of Saul (Israel) were at war for a long time. Ever since, there would be a distinction between the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
After all kinds of treachery and deceit, Abner, Ish-bosheth, and a bunch of other people are assassinated. With hat in hand, the men of Israel came to David and asked him to be their king too. So they anointed him and David became king over all of Israel and Judah. Along the way, David took on a host of wives and concubines. David was quite the ladies man.
Without going through all the details, God made a deal with David. If he would stay loyal to him, then God would perpetuate his kingdom forever. Apparently it didn’t matter what kind of guy he was, kind, honest, deceitful or treacherous; he just had to stay loyal. And David managed to do it. The world has been paying for this deal ever since.
As king, David went to war with everybody around him and beat them all. Besides being a ladies man, David was quite the warrior and kicked ass wherever he went. Israel became the preeminent nation of the region.7 This was the height of Israel as a nation. This is why David is revered even to this day, not because he was a good guy, which he obviously wasn’t, but because he was a mighty warrior and was responsible for Israel coming to prominence.
Besides the previous examples, it only takes one story to show what kind of guy David really was. It’s the story of Bathsheba.
As the story goes, one day David was walking around the roof of his house and from that high vantage point he spotted a woman taking a bath. She was naked and she was hot. This was too much for David to bear so he sent for her, had her brought back to his house, and raped her.
It turns out this woman, Bathsheba, was the wife of one of David’s trusted inner circle, Uriah the Hittite8, who was off fighting the Ammonites.
As luck would have it, Bathsheba got pregnant. So David, hoping he could cover it up, called for Uriah to return from the battle. The plan was Uriah would be so glad to be home, the first thing he’d do was go have sex with his hot wife. Unfortunately for David, Uriah had too much integrity. How could he have sex with his wife while his men were out there sacrificing themselves on the battlefield?
So David sent Uriah back off to battle and told his general, Joab, to put Uriah on the front lines and, when the battle got hot, draw back from him. So Joab did what he was told and Uriah got killed. Then David snatched up Bathsheba for his wife.
God wasn’t thrilled with this so, as punishment, he killed the first son of David and Bathsheba. But they had another son who they called Solomon, you might have heard of him.
Purists will give David a break saying he had to be with Bathsheba in order to get to Solomon but I’m pretty sure God, being God, could have brought Solomon into the picture without David being such a heartless, murdering scoundrel.
It’s pretty obvious David liked the ladies and was used to getting his way, so raping the wife of one of his inner circle and then having him killed to cover it up was not a big deal.
AMNON AND TAMAR
As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. In David’s case it was one of his sons, Amnon, who took up his father’s penchant for taking what he wanted. In this case it was his sister,9 Tamar.
Amnon fancied Tamar and it didn’t matter whether she was his sister or not, he was going to have her. And so he did, raping her like a good son of his father. But, like what happens more times than we’d like to admit, as soon as he got what he wanted, he had no use for Tamar anymore. So Tamar was basically damaged goods and put away.
There are several reasons I mention this incident besides the fact that these guys were total scum. First, they were obviously not following the laws that Moses laid down. Since Amnon raped Tamar in the city and she didn’t cry out, according to the law she should have been stoned. Secondly, since Amnon had sex with is sister, they both should both have been shunned and cut off from their people. Obviously none of these guys were following the law except when it was convenient. If they even knew anything about these laws. More on that later.
But Amnon got his just deserts because Absalom, Tamar’s brother10, ended up killing him. But Absalom had higher aspirations, he wanted to be king and, in fact, was anointed as such.11 He got enough people to follow him that David had to make a run for it.
To add insult to injury, when Absalom entered Jerusalem as the new king, he took all David’s concubines up on the roof of his house and had sex with them in sight of all the people. Talk about humiliating your dad.
But Absalom’s victory was short-lived because in his first battle with David he was killed and all his followers scattered.
So David became king again and, once again, waged war all around. Once again, David made Israel the preeminent nation of the area.
In case you haven’t gathered by now, these Israelites were a fickle crowd.12
There’s just a weird thing that happens here that I don’t really understand but I just want to point it out. It has to do with David doing a census.
First off, God told David to take a census of Israel and Judah. Then David told his commanders to go do it but for some reason they were against it. But David insisted so they did it. After all, God told him to do it, right?
But then God got pissed at David for taking the census, which, if you’ll remember, he told him to do in the first place. He gave David three choices by which he could atone himself. He could choose three years of famine, or he could flee for three months while his enemies pursue him, or he could have three days of pestilence in the land.
If this were a parable or myth, which I personally believe it is, it seems like a classic choice of whether David will take personal responsibility for his actions or whether he’ll pass the buck.
As you might expect, David passed the buck and, rather than have to pay for it personally, he chose to let a pestilence come across the land. Said pestilence killed over 70,000 of his own people.13
Lest you still have some notion this Old Testament god is kind, loving and forgiving, this story should pretty much put the puppy to rest.
But this is just one instance, of which we’ve already seen several and will see more, that reinforces why so many people, especially literalists and fundamentalists, insist there must always be a price that is paid for any indiscretion. The scales must be evened out, so to speak. It is the very foundation of the Christian religion.
By now David was old and getting feeble so the first thing they did was find him a young girl to take care of him. Good ol’ David, some things never change.
But some of his sons had an eye on the throne and, in fact, one of them, Adonijah claimed it. But Bathsheba14 went to David and reminded him that he’d promised her Solomon would succeed him as king. So David anointed Solomon king and Adonijah slinked off into the shadows, just glad to be alive.
But Adonijah’s escape was short-lived as Solomon didn’t waste any time cleaning house, killing pretty much everyone who’d crossed him or his father. So Solomon’s kingdom was firmly established.
You may have heard that Solomon was considered the wisest man ever.He wasn’t always that way but after he became king, God came to him and asked him what he wanted, he’d grant any wish. As the story goes, instead of asking for riches or a long life, Solomon asked for an understanding mind and the ability to discern right from wrong so he could be a wise and proper ruler.
Well, this pleased God to no end so he gave him wisdom unlike anyone who’d come before or would come after. He also got a lot of riches in the bargain.
The Bible shows this wisdom in the story of the two prostitutes. It seemed these two prostitutes had babies at the same time but on the third day one of the babies died. So, in the middle of the night, the mother of the dead baby switched babies, taking the live one for herself and laying the dead on next to the other mother. Well, the other mother knew better, and somehow they ended up before Solomon to decide whose baby it was. Since they both claimed to be the mother, Solomon commanded the baby be cut in half and each woman would get half.
As you might expect, the true mother immediately gave up her claim and said the other woman could have it. The fake mother said it sounded fair so go ahead and cut the baby in half. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who the true mother was, so Solomon gave her her baby.
As a funny aside, I actually tried this ploy with my step-kids when they were young, about 8 or 9 years old. They were fighting over a rubber toy spider, both claiming it was theirs. So I said I’d rip it in half and give them both half. Sure enough, one of them panicked and said no, don’t do it, and the other said fine, go ahead. You can probably guess who I gave the spider to.
Solomon became super wealthy and his fame spread. Part of what David had charged him to do was to build himself a super nice house and an extravagant temple in Jerusalem to hold the Ark of the Covenant which, if you recall, contained the original Ten Commandment stone tablets. This would be a permanent house of God.
The temple was outrageously ornate, full of gold, silver, bronze and hand carved cedar. As a small sample of how extravagant things had gotten, when they dedicated the temple, Solomon’s personal sacrifice was 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. They’d come a long way from a simple altar of unhewn stones.
And like David before him, Solomon was quite the ladies man, having 700 wives and 300 concubines. That’s a lot of ladies to please. I guess if you’re that rich and you’re the king, you can do what you want.15
But as what often happens when you get too much of a good thing, you get yourself into trouble. Just what God had warned against, some of these wives were foreign ladies and they ended up turning Solomon’s head toward their own gods and goddesses. Needless to say, God was not happy. Solomon was not loyal like David had been.
That was basically the end of the Israeli dynasty. Many of the nations around about whom David had conquered began to rise up against Solomon’s rule. Solomon ended up fighting them off until the day he died.
After Solomon died, his kids made a mess of things. Not only were they defeated, but Israel and Judah were forever divided.
THE FALL OF ISRAEL
For a good part of the next five hundred years things went from bad to worse for Israel and Judah. Both went through a whole succession of kings with a few being good but most being bad.
The benchmark for being good or bad was always the same, whether they walked in the ways of David, who followed God with a steadfast heart. That steadfast heart seems to be entirely based on the fact that he didn’t go chasing after other Gods. It obviously had nothing to do with his strength of character or following the laws that Moses had put down.16
Eventually Assyria conquered Israel and Judah and stripped the temple of all its gold and everything of value except, apparently, the Ark of the Covenant. And they also took all the people away to Assyria, into what’s known as the first exile.
But things didn’t go well in the region so it wasn’t long before the king of Assyria sent them back. As long as they paid tribute everything would be fine.
JOSIAH AND THE BOOK OF THE LAW
Again, the sons of Abraham got back into the same round-robin of good king, bad king, until a guy named Josiah became king.
Josia walked in the way of David and only wanted to serve the Lord. In fact the Bible says there was never a king before him or after him who followed the Lord with all his might.17 So much for David. Apparently Josiah was the new benchmark but he never really got the credit.
While he was at it, Josia decided to fix up the temple which had been stripped when the Assyrians first took over about 80 years before. In the process, one of the priests found the original Book of the Law, a document supposedly hand-written by Moses18 and stashed inside the Ark of the Covenant along with the original Ten Commandments19. This Book of the Law had all the laws and statutes set out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
How this Book escaped the scrutiny of the Assyrians as they plundered the temple seems a bit far fetched. You would think any self-respecting plunderer wouldn’t miss the big gold box with sacred texts inside..
But what’s really astonishing is apparently neither Josia, nor any of the priests, had any idea this book even existed. So even though these laws were literally right under their noses, nobody had been following them at least since the time of Solomon and probably before David or Saul. Granted, that’s well over 300 years but it still seems unlikely that, if they were there, nobody knew about it.
This is where the Documentary Hypothesis20 comes in. It’s quite possible, and more than likely, Josia was trying to figure out how to bring his people back to God, so he had his priests ‘document’ all the word of mouth stories and legends about the history of the Israelites and what came out of it was this Book of the Law. Hence the competing versions of the same stories.
Then he broke out this newly discovered document and the people were floored when they heard about the laws they were supposed to be following and completely freaked out when they heard the curses that would happen if they didn’t.
But even that didn’t do any good. God was still pissed so he ended up taking Israel down by way of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. Josia got killed in battle and Nebuchadnezzar took over Jerusalem. He did a proper plundering of the Temple, taking all the gold, silver and bronze. Why the Assyrians hadn’t taken it to begin with is still beyond me. Then he burned the whole place to the ground. This is the last anyone hears of the Ark of the Covenant. It’s assumed Nebuchadnezzar took it back to Babylon and from there it’s anyone’s guess.
But the Book of the Law somehow survived. It poked its head up one more time a couple of hundred years later when, after the Israelites had gone back to the Promised Land, a priest named Ezra found it again and read it to the people at the dedication of the rebuilt temple21.
It’s very possible it was Ezra, and not Josia, who was the actual ‘documentarian’ of the Book of the Law 22.Was he the one who first committed it to parchment? Did he give credit to Josia to add credibility to his own treatise? Scholars have debated this for centuries. Honestly, we’ll never know.
So that’s about it for what Christians call the Pentateuch, what the Jews call the Torah, and what is the foundation of the Old Testament. All the other books just expound and expand on what happened in those first five books.
Now that we’ve established a decent background, let’s talk about a guy who came along about 400 years later. His name was Yeshua ben Yosef, better known as Jesus.
4A guitar-like instrument
5If you’re old enough to know who Nolan Ryan was
6See ‘Documentary hypothesis’
82 Samuel 23:39. If you believe David didn’t know Bathsheba was Uriah’s wife I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you
9By another mother
10From the same mother.
11A lot of anointing going on. A messiah (later referred to as ‘Christ’) isn’t really the big thing it’s touted to be.
14The not naked lady on the roof
15Talk about a libido.
16Which nobody did; see Documentary Hypothesis
172 Kings 23:25
20See the Forward and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_hypothesis
21Where it had been since the time of Josia is anybody’s guess
22https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ezra; See Documentary Hypothesis (again)