I want to like Ezra more than I do. The Jewish priest from Exiles in Babylon was instrumental in bringing Judaism as we know it back to Jerusalem and the land of Judah. The man was clearly a man of great conviction and lived his life accordingly. That is admirable in most anyone
And yet… Without Ezra’s work, we probably wouldn’t have the Hebrew Bible that we do today. He took a work that already had an agenda behind it, and added another one on top. That original work we don’t have anymore, but scholars are fairly sure it came out of the time of King Josiah. And that it definitely had an agenda.
The agenda was to inspire the people of the tiny nation of Judah that they could and should be the centre of a God-centred empire.
This is Bible History. Or, more specifically, Ancient Israel. For centuries, the church and the West has relied on the Christian Old Testament to tell us the history of the Jewish people. Where they came from, why there were there, what they did and didn’t do. And how great God is. Trouble is, many people down through history forgot the first rule of writing history: History Is Written By The Victors.
Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman haven’t forgotten this. Their book “The Bible Unearthed” is a treatise on what archaeology tells us about what happened in Palestine all those centuries ago. They look at oodles of modern scholarship – the kind that doesn’t treat the Old Testament as an inerrant record – and add a few theories of their own. It basically comes down to the fact that much of the history recorded in the OT is propaganda. Propaganda created by the priests around King Josiah, written to capture the imagination of the people living at that time.
It also explains oddities that even the ordinary person can spot in the Bible. The books of Joshua and Judges often have comments about special places, describing their name or state and often ending with lines like “still like that to this day”. Yet such places often don’t exist like that anymore. I don’t remember ever receiving an explanation that really made sense back when I was a child. But Finkelstein and Silberman’s explanation that the text was written a few hundred years later is the simple and obvious answer. And it makes sense. So much sense. The original authors of Joshua and Judges were not recording history: they were creating history.
I can’t summarise the whole book in a blog post. But their careful and patient analysis and explanations are compelling. I’ve known for many years that even bible scholars have trouble dating things much before the death of King Solomon. Finkelstein and Silberman have a very good series of explanations for this: Solomon was not the empire builder championed in the Bible. And David didn’t rule all of Judah and Israel from Jerusalem. And neither did Saul. They show that it was likely that Judah and Israel were never a unified kingdom and were most unlikely to even have a national identity before this time. We’re only just certain that David even existed. But Moses is questionable. And so is Abraham. The Jews just aren’t that old.
It also gives insight into what passes for religious practices in that time. I’ve been strident in the last year or so in reminding people I feel need reminding that the Jews were only a truly monothiestic people from The Return forwards. That would be Ezra’s influence again. Of course, he was building on earlier work. Monothiesm had been around before then.
Another interesting thing about this is that it also helps explain some of the origin of Yahweh. We don’t really know why the priests of Jerusalem picked Yahweh out of the Canannite pantheon as their god to rally around. We can guess as to why they promoted it, though: it was all a matter of control. Centralise the worship in Jerusalem where they lived and you would centralize the country. Easy. But to do that they have to get the people to abandon the old ways that they had been doing for centuries in one form or another.
I’ve grown comfortable with the fact that Yahweh isn’t a sole force. I like the fact he can work alongside or with awareness of the thousands of other deities us humans have called on over the millenia. And I like the fact that the Jews knew this once-upon-a-time.
Finkelstein and Silberman have written a controversial work. I would not have accepted their stance a year ago. I would not have considered their stance two years ago. Now I can.