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The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

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If we take a broader view of the full biblical account of Israel’s covenant with God, all six elements can be identified in the biblical narrative. They’re scattered throughout the text, however. We have the preamble and the historical background to the covenant in God’s summary introduction to the people in Exodus 20: “I am Yahweh who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” It sums it all up: introduction, who I am, and why we are historically connected.
So this fact of God’s bringing Israel out of Egypt, presumably establishes God’s claim to sovereignty. The terms of the treaty are then stipulated at great length in the instructions that are found in Exodus chapter 20 through chapter 23. Moses reads the book of the covenant it’s called the Scroll of the Covenant publicly: this is said in Exodus 24:7. In Deuteronomy we read that it will be deposited for safekeeping in a special ark.
The Israelites vow that they’ll obey in Exodus 24:3, also 7b. The covenant is then sealed by a formal ritual. In this case it’s a sacrifice in Exodus 24:8. In a monotheistic system you can’t really call upon other gods to be witnesses to the sealing of the oath, so we have heaven and earth being invoked as witnesses – Deuteronomy 4:26; Deuteronomy 30:19; 31:28 – heaven and earth, the idea being perhaps the inhabitants thereof should witness. As for blessings and curses, we have a long list of each found in Leviticus 26, and Deuteronomy 28, also interesting reading.
Some of these curses, particularly the ones in Deuteronomy bear a very striking resemblance to curses in an Assyrian treaty that we have that dates to about 677 BCE from the Assyrian king Esarhaddon, and many of the curses are really almost word for word. So while no one passage contains all of the elements of the Hittite treaty form, there are enough of them scattered around to suggest it as a model, as well as its later instantiation in Assyrian culture.
So what’s the meaning of this? Why does it matter that Israel understands its relationship with God, and uses the covenant as a vehicle for expressing its relationship with God, the vehicle of the suzerainty treaty? According to Levenson, the use of a suzerainty treaty as a model for Israel’s relationship to Yahweh, expresses several key ideas. It captures several key ideas. First, the historical prologue that’s so central to the suzerainty treaty, grounds the obligations of Israel to Yahweh in the history of his acts on her behalf.
So, it’s grounded in a historical moment, and we’ll come back to this and what that might mean about her perception of God. Second, the historical prologue bridges the gap between generations. Israel’s past and present and future generations form a collective entity, Israel that collectively assents to the covenant. And even today, at Passover ceremonies everywhere, Jews are reminded to see themselves, they’re reminded of the obligation to see themselves as if they personally came out of Egypt, and personally covenanted with God. The historical prologue, thirdly, explains why Israel accepts her place in the suzerain-vassal relationship.
Israel’s acceptance of a relationship with God doesn’t stem from mystical introspection, or philosophical speculation, Levenson says. Instead the Israelites are affirming their identity and their relationship with God by telling a story, a story whose moral can only is that God is reliable. Israel can rely on God, just as a vassal can rely on his suzerain. The goal is not, Levenson says, ultimately the affirmation of God’s suzerainty in a purely verbal sense.
The point is not mere verbal acclaim of God as suzerain. Levenson points out that the affirmation of God’s suzerainty is rendered in the form of obedience to commandments, not mere verbal acclamation. Observance of God’s commandments is, as Levenson puts it, the teleological end of history.
Why is that important? Unless we recognize that the road from Egypt leads inextricably to Sinai, that the story of national liberation issues in and is subordinate to, is ultimately subordinate to, the obligation to God’s covenantal stipulations and observance of his laws, then we run the risk of doing what has been done for some centuries now: of reading Exodus as first and foremost a story of a miraculous delivery, rather than the story of a relationship, which is expressed through obligations to the observance of specific laws, commandments, and instructions.
The suzerain-vassal model has further implications. Levenson and other scholars, point many of these out. Just as the Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties specified that vassals of a suzerain are to treat other vassals of the suzerain well, Israelites are bound to one another then as vassals of the same suzerain, and are to treat one another well.
So covenant in Israel becomes the basis of social ethics. It’s the reason that God gives instructions regarding the treatment of one’s fellow Israelites. So the suzerain-vassal relationship grounds the social ethic within Israel. Also, just as a vassal cannot serve two suzerains that are pretty explicit in all the treaties, you owe exclusive service to your suzerain, so the covenant with God entails the notion of Israel’s exclusive service of Yahweh.
The assertion is not that there is no other god, but that Israel will have no other god before Yahweh. The jealousy of the suzerain is the motivation for prohibitions against certain intimate contacts with non-Yahweh peoples, because these alliances will end up entailing recognition of the gods of these peoples.
The covenant with Yahweh will also, we shall see soon, preclude alliances with other human competitors. If Israel serves a divine king, she can’t, for example, serve a human king, and that’s an idea that will express itself in biblical texts, as we’ll see, that are clearly opposed to the creation of a monarchy in Israel.
Not everyone was onboard with the idea that Israel should be ruled by a king. So, there are texts that will object to the creation of the monarchy of King Saul, and King David, and so on. There are also texts that are going to object to alliances with any foreign king, or subservience to any foreign king, whether it’s Egypt or Assyria or Babylonia. So, subservience to a human king, native or foreign, is in these texts considered a rejection of the divine kingship, which is the ideal the exclusive kingship of Yahweh and it’s seen as a breach of the covenant.
Now, Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty models also speak repeatedly of the vassal’s love for the suzerain. Vassal will love the Assyrian lord, and that’s an element that is not absent at all in the biblical texts that deal with the covenant bond. The Israelites promise to serve and to love Yahweh. That’s an additional theme that’s associated regularly with the covenant. It’s one that we’ll take up in greater detail, though, when we get to the book of Deuteronomy, where it is stressed to a greater degree than it is in Exodus, but for now, we can accept Levenson’s claim that Sinai represents an intersection of law and love, because of the use of the suzerainty model.
So the covenant concept is critical to the Bible’s portrayal and understanding of the relationship between God and Israel. The entire history of Israel, as portrayed by biblical writers, is going to be governed by this one outstanding reality of covenant. Israel’s fortunes will be seen to ride on the degree of its faithfulness to this covenant.
The book of Exodus closes, with the construction of the sanctuary, and when the sanctuary is completed, the text says the presence of the Lord filled the tabernacle. This is a sign of divine approval.
The long section where we have the receipt of the instructions for the building of the temple, and then we have an actual account of those instructions being fulfilled, not the temple, tabernacle, excuse me: it’s just a tent structure at this stage so receiving the instructions and then the actual construction of the tabernacle, that extends from Exodus 25 to the end of the book, Exodus 40; but it’s interrupted in Exodus 32 by the account of the Israelites’ apostasy with the golden calf, which is a great and very ambiguous story.
The moment of Israel’s greatest glory is to be the moment of her greatest shame. As Moses receives God’s covenant on Mount Sinai. He is there at the top of Sinai communing with God the Israelites who are encamped at the foot of the mountain grow restless, and rebellious, and they demand of Aaron a god, because they don’t know what’s become of “this fellow Moses.” They say: what about this guy, Moses?
They use a very colloquial kind of term to dismiss him. So Aaron, feeling the heat, makes a golden calf, and the people bow down to it, and someone declares, “This is your God, oh Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Well, an enraged God tells Moses: You know what’s going on down there? And he tells him to descend from the mountain. The people are sinning, they’ve already gone astray, and he says: I’m through. I want to destroy the nation, and I’m going to start a new nation again from you, Moses.
Moses manages to placate God momentarily, and then he turns around to face the people. He comes down from the mountain, he approaches the camp, and he’s stunned by what he sees. He’s carrying the tablets, the instructions, and then he smashes them at the foot of the mountain in fury. He manages to halt the activities.
He punishes the perpetrators; he has a few choice words for Aaron. This temporary alienation from God is ultimately repaired through Moses’ intense prayer and intercession. It actually takes several chapters to reach a resolution, and God pouts for quite a while, but a renewal of the covenant does occur, and another set of stone tablets is given, and according to one rabbinic text the broken tablets, as well as the new tablets, are both placed in the ark. And this embarrassing episode is just the beginning of a sequence of embarrassing events that will occur as the Israelites move from Egypt towards the land that’s been promised to them.
Most of these episodes will occur in the book of Numbers, and they involve the rebellion of the people in some way, generally God’s fury in reaction to that rebellion, Moses’ intervention usually on behalf of the people, and God’s appeasement. The book of Numbers recounts the itinerary of the Israelites throughout the 40 years of their wanderings and encampments around the sacred tabernacle.
The tabernacle always moves in the centre of the tribes, and they’re positioned in certain specific positions around the tabernacle as they move. They stay at Sinai for a year, I believe, in the text, before they begin their movement, and Numbers contains some law, and much narrative material. The material tells of God’s provision for the people in the desert, but it also tells of the Israelites’ constant complaining, and rebellion.
The Israelites rebel against Moses and God, and they long for Egypt. There are several times when God threatens to exterminate them, but Moses manages to dissuade him. In Numbers 14, for example, when the Israelites complain again, God is determined to destroy them, and Moses intervenes, and the intervention leads to a compromise.
God swears that none of the adults who witnessed the Exodus with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who did not join in the rebellion any of the adults, who witnessed the Exodus, would see the fulfillment of God’s salvation, and enter the Promised Land.
This means the Israelites will have to wander for 40 years in the desert until all of those who left Egypt as adults pass away, leaving a new generation that hasn’t really tasted slavery, to enter the land and form a new nation. The book of Numbers, I think, is most remarkable for the relationship that it describes between Moses and God.
I love reading these particular stories, and just hearing the dialogue between them, and imagining it, because the two of them alternate in losing patience with the Israelites, and wishing to throw them over. But each time the one convinces the other to be forbearing.
The relationship between Moses and God is a very intimate one, very much like a husband and wife, who are working together as partners and parenting a difficult child. They’re partners in the preparation of Israel for their new life, readying Israel for life in God’s land as a nation, as a people.
I’m going to just give you two examples of the way Moses and God act as a check upon each other. The first excerpt is from Numbers 14, and it shows Moses’ ability to placate the wrath of God. Now, in this story, the Israelites express great fear. They’ve just heard a report from a reconnaissance team that scoped out the land, and they come back and say: Oh, boy, you know, it looks really bad and that they think that the chances of conquering the Promised Land are very, very slim. The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron.
“If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!” And they said to one another, “Let us head back for Egypt.” … the Presence of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites. And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn me, and how long will they have no faith in me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” But Moses said to the Lord, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land…. If then you slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’
Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression…. Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to your great kindness, as you have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” And the Lord said, “I pardon, as you have asked…” So, note God’s offer to start all over again with Moses. This is a pattern with this god, you know – create, gets upset, a flood wipes them out, let’s start again, oh, still not too good, let’s choose one person, Abraham, see how that goes; oh, disappointed, let’s go with Moses, so this is a bit of a pattern. But Moses refuses to accept the offer, and instead he defends the Israelites, and he averts their destruction. He appeals primarily to God’s vanity: What will the neighbours think if you destroy them? They’ll think you couldn’t fulfil your promise.
They’ll think you’re not the universal God of history. But the roles are reversed in the following passage, and this is where the text blows hot and cold. In fact, there’s a rabbinic image, there’s a rabbinic tradition that talks about this period of time, and has God and Moses talking, and God says: Listen, between the two of us, whenever I blow hot, you blow cold, or when I pour hot water, you pour cold, and when you pour hot, I’ll pour cold, and together we’ll muddle through, and get through here. The Israelites won’t be wiped out. But in this next passage, which is Numbers 11, Moses is the one who is impatient with the Israelites’ constant complaints and lack of faith, and he’s ready to throw in the towel.
I’ll just read this last passage. The riff raff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt Okay, we were slaves, but the food was free, you know? I just love that line. We used to eat this fish free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shrivelled.
There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at! …Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, and each person at the entrance of his tent. The Lord was very angry, and Moses was distressed. And Moses said to the Lord, Why have you dealt ill with your servant [me], and why have I not enjoyed your favour, that you have laid the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that you have promised on oath to their fathers?
Where am I to get meat to give to this entire people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat?’ I cannot carry this entire people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg you, and let me see no more of my wretchedness! Then the Lord said to Moses, Gather for me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you.
I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone. So again, hot and cold. And in many ways, Moses sets the paradigm for the classical prophet. He performs this double duty.
He chastises and upbraids the Israelites for their rebellion and failures. When he’s turning and facing the people, he’s on their case. But at the same time, he consoles the people when they fear they’ve driven God away irreparably, and when he turns to face God, he defends the people before God. He pleads for mercy when they do in fact deserve punishment and he knows they deserve punishment.
He even says as much, but please [he says] have mercy. At times he expresses his frustration with the difficulty of his task, and resentment that it’s been assigned to him. But we’ll consider the character and the role of Moses in much greater detail when we reach the book of Deuteronomy next Monday. For the coming week, I would like you to please pay particular attention: we’re dealing with two topics that will be, I think perhaps for some of you, a little different, new, alien.
We’re going to be dealing with biblical law on Monday, and biblical ritual, purity text, holiness, temple, on Wednesday. These are worlds apart from many of the things we know, so please, there’s a lot of textual reading to do for Monday and Wednesday. Please do it carefully, and I might even hand out a little bit of a study guide to help you with that.
Quotations marked RSV are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Correction: I am referring to the work of Mendenhall in the 1950s. I meant to say even earlier in the 1900s or the twentieth century.
Correction: I am referring to a Talmudic tradition that is not in the Bible.
All biblical citations have been quoted from “Tanah: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text.” Copyright (c) 1985 by The Jewish Publication Society. Single copies of the JPS biblical citations cited within the transcripts can be reproduced for personal and non-commercial uses only.
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 (2nd edition, 1971) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Collins, John. 2004. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible with CD-Rom. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.
Coogan, Michael. 2006. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press. Levenson, Jon. 1985. Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. Minneapolis: MN: Winston Press.
“Concepts of Purity in the Bible” (JSB pp. 2041-2047) Milgrom, Jacob. “Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly Picture of Dorian Gray.” Reprint of Revue Biblique, 82:74-84.
The Priestly Legacy: Cult and Sacrifice, Purity and Holiness in Leviticus and Numbers
In this part, the Priestly source (P) found primarily in Leviticus and Numbers is introduced. The symbolism of the sacrificial cult and purity system, the differences between moral and ritual impurity, as well as holiness and purity are explained within the Priestly context. The concept of holiness and imitatio dei, or human imitation of God, is explained.
Today we’re going to be turning to Leviticus. And Leviticus is a primary document of the Priestly School. And we identify this work as Priestly because it deals with matters that were of special concern to and under the jurisdiction of priests: the sanctuary, its cultic rituals, the system of sacrifices, the distinction between the holy and the profane and the pure and the impure.
So the Priestly materials are found as a block in Leviticus, a large part of Numbers, and then they’re scattered throughout Genesis and Exodus. And because of these common themes, we say that they were produced by a Priestly School: we hypothesize a Priestly School. We don’t quite clearly understand exactly what that means and who and exactly when. These materials emerged over a period of centuries; that’s clear.
They reached their final form in the exilic or post-exilic period. But they certainly often preserve older cultic traditions and priestly traditions as well. We can break the book of Leviticus down into the units that are listed on that side of the board. You have in chapters 1 through 7 the sacrificial system. Chapters 8 through 10 recount the installation of Aaron as high priest and the Aaronides then as the priestly clan within Israel. Chapters 11 through 15 cover the dietary system, the dietary laws as well as the ritual purity laws. Chapter 16 describes the procedure to be followed on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. Chapters 17 through 26 then are a block of material that’s referred to as the “Holiness code” because of its special emphasis on holiness. So most scholars think that that block of material comes from a different priestly school, and so we designate that H: holiness.
The relative dates of P and H, P now meaning the non-H parts of the Priestly materials, they’re much debated; but I think increasingly, the consensus is that H the block of material in Leviticus 17 through 26 and then also its got passages scattered around other parts of the Bible–but the consensus increasingly is that H is later.
It’s a redactor or editor of the other priestly materials. So P is a difficult term of reference, because P can refer to the entirety of Priestly writings altogether. But when we think about H and talk about H then P in contrast to H means the Priestly writings that are not H: so maybe a small P and a capital P, I don’t know.
Now, the Priestly materials have for a long time been I think a devalued part of the Hebrew Bible. And scholarship of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century is generally characterized by a deep-seated bias that views impurity rules as primitive and irrational taboos, and sacrifice as controlled savagery that’s empty of any spiritual meaning.
Religion without such rites is evolutionarily superior or higher; more spiritually meaningful. And with those kinds of attitudes, it’s not difficult to understand why scholarship on Leviticus and those parts of the Bible tend to be rather dismissive. In the later part of the twentieth century, the situation began to change.
As anthropologists and ethnographers began to study the danger avoidance practices of many cultures, the taboos and rituals of many cultures, including modern Western culture, new avenues for understanding the danger avoidance practices of the Bible began to emerge.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas changed forever the way scholars would approach the impurity rules of the Bible, because she insisted on their interpretation as symbols, symbols that conveyed something meaningful to those who followed them.
Biblical scholars like Jacob Milgrom and more recently Jonathan Klawans, attuned to developments in the social sciences, have made very great advances in our understanding of Israelite purity practices. They’ve tended to view the elaborate and carefully constructed texts of P as part of a system whose meaning derives from the larger cultural matrix or grid in which those materials are embedded.
How much the system laid down by P represents what ordinary Israelite Judeans thought and did; how much these rules were actually enacted and followed; how much they drew upon older random practices, brought them together, modified them, imposed some semblance of order upon them; how much they represent just the ideal construction or blueprint of an elite group: these are all unanswerable questions.
The fact is, no one really knows. But we do know from living cultures that people do engage in all kinds of ritual and symbolic actions because of genuine beliefs about the importance of those actions, because those rituals and symbols are extraordinarily meaningful to them. And in any event, our primary concern is with the program of the texts as they stand before us: is there a symbolism operating here? What are the key ideas and the key themes of the Priestly material?