This series continues with an examination of the Scriptural tradition during the period of the kings of Israel.
The Period of the Kings
This situation began to slowly change under the kings of Israel and Judah. There had always been prophets in Israel, but they functioned more as seers and diviners than as sources of theological revelation. Thus when young Saul lost his family’s donkeys, he went to ask a seer where they were (read all about it in 1 Samuel 9). The seer was Samuel, who occupied a place in Israelite society later occupied by the prophets (1 Samuel 9:9). The prophets were ecstatic figures, given to bouts of ecstasy—in fact the verb “to prophesy” — Hebrew naba — is sometimes translated “to rave”. (Thus 1 Samuel 10:10 and 1 Kings 18:29).
The institution of prophecy underwent a long development in Israel—too long to detail here. Suffice to say that when Israelite kings held court, they would always have some prophets among their staff and on their payroll. The job of these prophets—as in other parts of the ANE—was to advise the king about whether or not a possible course of action was a wise one. And, given human nature, to encourage the king and tell him that what he had already decided to do was the right thing. Most of these prophets left no written records of their prophecies. Thus even such “A-list” prophets as Elijah and Elisha left no written documents.
But during the later period of the kings of Israel and Judah, some of the prophets did leave literary remains. We have their documents in our Bibles, as the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc. etc. Why the change from entirely oral to oral-and-written? Here we come to an important turning point in Israel’s history and in the history of Scripture itself.
The people of Israel and Judah, from the days of the Judges, had embarked on a long and disastrous journey of syncreticism and idolatry. They had not obeyed the Law that Yahweh had given them through Moses, which commanded them to shun all other gods and to worship Him alone. They combined the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Canaanite gods such as Baal, the storm god, and a host of other pagan deities as well.
So it was that much of the literature that began to be produced about this time (the exact timing of its production is a little fuzzy, as I have said) made a point of denouncing this syncretism and idolatry. Thus Joshua not only detailed the victories and distribution of the Promised Land, but also called Israel to cast away their idols. Thus the Book of Judges detailed how bad things were before the kings came when every man did what was right in his own eyes and flouted God’s Law. Thus the epic story of the rise of Saul, David, and the other kings detailed how Israel continued down this idolatrous path to their own ultimate destruction at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
The prophets of this time also took up the mantle of denunciation and called Israel back to fidelity to God. The whole drama can be seen and summed up in Jeremiah’s confrontation with Jehoiakim, king of Judah, recorded in Jeremiah 36: Jeremiah wrote down on a scroll words denouncing Judah’s sins and threatening divine retribution, and in response the king simply burned the scroll. In those days, the words of the prophets were written down as an indictment of Israel’s sins, and as a record of the promise of restoration after these sins had been paid for. The wisdom literature of Israel—the Psalms and Proverbs—similarly served this over-arching ethical purpose.
The Post-Exilic Period
It was only after the sins of Israel had resulted in their exile to Babylon and the people had returned to the Land that this written record of Israel’s history grew to have a greater importance than it formerly had. The bulk of the people were still not that literate (opinions differ about the degree of literacy), and anyway scrolls were expensive to produce and hard to come by. When Ezra wanted to impress upon the people the importance of the Law of Moses, he did not give them a text, but read to them from a text (Nehemiah 8) — even though by then the text required translation from Hebrew into the Aramaic vernacular.
In this post-exilic period, Israel retained a vivid sense of the catastrophic results that came from disobeying the Law of Moses and ignoring the prophets who had called them to repent and obey the Law. How could they not? Though they were by then back in the Promised Land, in a sense their exile was still ongoing. God had promised a glorious future after they had paid for their sins and returned to the Land. Then a king would reign righteously, a king from the House of David, and all the nations would come and worship the Lord at Jerusalem, bringing their riches and glorifying His Temple. There would be a new heavens and a new earth. The lion would lie down with the calf and the nursing child would play over the hole of the asp, and they would not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain, for the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The time after the return from exile was to be glorious.
But none of this happened. It was as if their sins had not yet been fully forgiven and their exile not fully over. Post-exilic Israel found itself in a small and impoverished slice of land, much reduced in size from the days of David and Solomon. They were still the province and plaything of the major powers, each of which ruled in turn over them. For a little while they achieved political independence under the Hasmoneans in the days of the Maccabees. But this little respite only sharpened their sense of despair, for life under the Hasmoneans was hardly a new heavens and new earth. Rather the Hasmonean rulers proved to be every bit as corrupt and brutal as the Gentile rulers.
Still they waited for the promised glory—and as they waited, they read. The written Scriptures became ever more important, for they contained not just the Law they must keep if they expected restoration, but the promises of restoration itself. Their religious life might have been centered upon the Temple, but their hope centered upon the Scriptures. In the days immediately preceding the birth of Jesus, the written texts grew to have an importance they never had before. Israel was rapidly become the People of the Book, even as they worshipped at the Temple.
Next: Second Temple Exegesis