Prophets, Kings and God

god-and-adam            Exodus begins with the Israelites “…greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”[i] They were becoming a potent people in Egypt which forced the Pharaoh to fear their power. This began the repression and enslavement of the Israelites which did not go unnoticed by God. “Indeed, this Israelite fulfillment of creation promise becomes the source of threat to the pharaoh and motivates his genocidal policies (Exod 1: 9-10), necessitating God’s saving intervention.”[ii]

Called out of exile by God, Moses becomes the tool for God to battle against Pharaoh. As stated in “A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament”, “Although Moses plays an important role as revolutionary agent, it becomes increasingly clear that the crucial confrontation is between the liberating power of Yahweh and the oppressive power of Pharaoh.” [iii]

A series of plagues illustrates this conflict and results in the “Passover” tradition which would bind the people into a the nation of Israel. The tradition of ‘Passover” would lead to the Christian celebration of “Easter” and create a continuity to the past and between the Jewish and Christian faiths.

The dramatic highlight of the mass departure is the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army by the power of God. This event would continually be used to inspire and remind Jews and Christians of God’s willingness to intervene on their behalf and of his sovereignty in their lives. It also reminds us that freedom comes from God alone and only he can defeat the oppressor. “In this climactic moment, the emphasis is firmly on Yahweh as the source of liberating power, and the key image for Yahweh in these texts is that of divine warrior.”[iv]

Once freed from Egypt the people are challenged by a long sojourn in the wilderness. They begin to question the Lord and Moses, becoming “a stiffed necked people”. It is during this period that four important transformations occur: God provides them with food, water and protection from desert enemies and while they bitterly complain, God demonstrates his fidelity to them. The second is the development of laws unique to God’s people and which bind them to him. The Ten Commandments exemplifies this commitment to divine edict. The third is the development of government which would be foundational in governing society up to the present day. And fourth, during this period of wandering, the old generations pass away and another, tempered by the wilderness experience and infused with sacred commandment, matures into adulthood. These four things confirmed God’s compassion, established his laws and disciplined his people to follow him. “…their religious, legal and social structure are in place, provided by Yahweh, the same deity who despite their rebellion had guided them from Egypt through the wilderness to this point.”[v]

According to the Book of Joshua, the people, unified under the law and disciplined by the long years in the wilderness, took possession of the land God had promised them. Unfortunately the Biblical text that describes this massive invasion does not match the archeological and historical data. “But actual “entry” into the land turns out not to be as clean and neat as Torah ideology might have suggested.”[vi] Archeological records show either a slow infiltration of people into the land, or an uprising of subjugated people already in the land against the rich and powerful “Canaanite” hierarchy. Therefore the text should be read “theologically” rather than “historically” with the emphasis being on establishing the ideology of Mosaic law and not the reality of how God’s people came in possession of the land. As Michael Coogan states; “The account of the conquest, then, like other etiologies, is a kind of fiction, and its message is theological rather than historical.”[vii]

It is possible that the historical narrative is a contrived instrument to support theology rather than record actual events. “It is important to see these texts as advocacy and not reportage. This does not mean they are untrue, but that truth is always interpretive.”[viii] If these early books of the Jewish Bible are historical contrivance, they are written not to falsify the record, but to emphasize the theology. “Consequently, many scholars incline to the view that what is offered as “history” is deeply saturated with ideological weight.”[ix] “That is, where there is ideology, we are moving away from “facticity,” so that what “happened” is from the outset filtered through the perspective and interests of the interpreting community.”[x] Perhaps the importance of this time period isn’t the military conquest but the institution of Mosaic laws and the establishment of government based on those laws. As Michael Coogan points out, “Israel was to be a nation governed by one divinely chosen leader, under whose direction the nation would worship Yahweh and Yahweh alone, and would live its life in strict accordance with the requirements of the laws taught by Moses.”[xi]

If Joshua was an idealized narrative of how God’s laws and people were established in the land, then Judges demonstrates how it all came tumbling apart. The central theology in Judges is obedience to God. “The text is intentional in creating a deep and total either/or between Yahweh and the Canaanite gods and between Israel and the Canaanite population.”[xii] From Abraham through Joshua the text demonstrates the influence of effective leadership in maintaining Israel as God’s chosen people. During the enslavement in Egypt and the period of the judges the people were weakened by lack of god centered leadership. Professor Coogan points out “…the book of Judges give a sobering and even appalling presentation of the reality, relating how the Israelites repeatedly failed to come to each other’s assistance, and by intertribal warfare.”[xiii] The paradox in Judges is that while God empowered men and women to lead the people, God refused to name an earthly king. Instead recognition of the sovereignty and kingship of God was demanded of the Israelites. While God refrained from pronouncing kingship, the sanctioning of individuals to lead the people demonstrated the effectiveness of kingly leadership.

Major and minor judges rose and fell as God attempted to restore the covenant between the Israelites and Yahweh. The individual stories have theological and historical significance. However, collectively the writers of Judges express the belief that God will punish those who follow other gods and will actively become involved in the affairs of Israel. The implication is that “…the land given by the promise-keeping God can be taken away by the Torah-insisting God.”[xiv]

Perhaps a greater lesson from Judges is that Israel needed to learn to live in the world with other nations while maintaining their identity as God’s chosen people. The heroic exploits helped cement future generations in a common culture of “us versus them” and also strengthened them to stand as equals in the family of nations.

Israel was unique in that rather than a monarchy to rule the people, theirs was a “Covenant community”. It recognized God as sovereign and participatory in their lives. Thus God was a true King to whom they would be obedient. “Kings operate by the grasping that comes from power. Covenant community operates by the gift of relationship to God, from which loyalty and obedience flow.”[xv]

Ironically the success of the Judges caused the people to desire a human ruler and have less faith in the covenant relationship with God. Just as the people sought to worship the gods of other nations they also sought to have a monarchy as did other nations. “But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”[xvi]

God allows the people to choose a man named Saul whom the Lord infuses with the Holy Spirit. Initially Saul serves God’s purpose; however, he is never the king God intended the nation to have. It was God’s spirit working in Saul that gave him success. Yet when Saul began to disobey God the spirit was withheld and Saul’s kingship began to fail. “What remains ahead, for Saul or any of God’s anointed kings, is a career that must be measured by obedience to God’s covenant and monitored by God’s prophet.”[xvii] In the covenant community of God, kings cannot rule by their own free will, “They rule subject to God’s designation and accountability.”[xviii]

As Saul rejected the authority of God, a younger man is chosen to become king. Unlike Saul, David will honor the covenant of God and rule according to the spirit which God gives him, at least for a time. Even though David would succumb to human desire, first by seducing Bathsheba, the wife of his general Uriah, then by having Uriah killed in battle to hide David’s infidelity, God favored him because from the Davidic line of kings will come the Messianic King.    The lineage of kings through David’s bloodline will rise to glory and fall to shame. It is through both the righteous and the self serving kings of Judah that the messiah will emerge.

The first in the line of succession is the son of Bathsheba and David, Solomon. The new king ruthlessly secures his power by having his half brother Adonijah murdered as well as David’s trusted general Joab. He then asked God “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”[xix]

Because of this request God would bless Solomon with wealth, power and wisdom. Unfortunately David’s son would fall away from God and begin a line of successors who would lead the Jewish empire toward division, conquest and eventual exile. “Solomon’s reign takes on the trappings of many of the surrounding kingdoms and achieves considerable influence, but his rule also sows the seeds of dissension that lead to the division of the kingdom in 922 BCE.”[xx]

The kingdom which God had forged under David was committed to a covenant government with Yahweh. Despite his wisdom Solomon allowed the covenant to deteriorate into apostasy, influenced by his many wives and the strong influence of the Baal religion. David’s son had built a political empire modeled after other monarchies and subject to the culture of other religions.

Canaanite religion had not been eliminated under David or Solomon and continues to exert a strong influence on Israeli society. Polytheistic in its deities, it was focused on fertility, invoking ceremonies that were sexual in nature. The carnal appeal of these rituals slowly began to infiltrate Jewish rites until the covenantal nature of government became lost. The nation was also becoming splintered politically. An aging Solomon could no longer bind the twelve tribes together and as his father had. Unlike David, Solomon could not increase the revenue of Israel by conquering new lands. Instead he had to increase taxes which never endears a leader to his people.

The extravagant spending and its resultant taxes imposed by Solomon was carried on by his son Rehoboam. Upon Solomon’s death the empire split into two regions, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah which was ruled by the descendants of David. This political and financial friction caused the breakup of David’s kingdom and led to a profound weakening of God’s rule in the land. With the carnal influence of Canaanite religion and the political schism between the tribes of Israel, The God centered covenant of David’s kingdom fell once again into disobedience and rejection.

It is important to remember that neither Jews or Canaanites claim there was only one god. The nations of that region accepted the existence of another’s god and did not dispute the right of any people to worship the gods of their traditions. The cultural blending of religious practices was unacceptable to a many in Israel and viewed as a rejection of God’s covenant. Thus the battle was no longer over land or resources, instead the conflict revolved around the fidelity and commitment to a sovereign deity and the restoration of a covenantal relationship with Yahweh. “The failure to keep the commandments is understood to be symptomatic of a more pervasive problem, namely, Israel’s disloyalty to God and its refusal to heed the prophetic call for repentance.”[xxi]

Judges, warriors or Kings would no longer be guided by God’s will. Instead a new person would be sent to lead the people from rebellion and apostasy; “To this end, major portions of the narrative focus on the word and work of God through the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha.”[xxii]

The dynamics between Israel and Judah, the nature of their kingship, the application of their faith, the geography and resources of their land, the diversity of their people and the alliance with other nations, would provide theological battlefield for God’s prophets. These prophets would either add to the schism between Israel and Judah or seek to reconcile the two nations. In either case their purpose was to reestablish the covenant with God and make Yahweh’s sovereignty the foundation of their culture. As kings in both the southern and northern kingdoms rose and fell, prophets would be sent to either to oppose or encourage them in restoring the nations to God.

The kings, and queens, of both kingdoms would be instrumental in the theology of modern Jewish and Christian faith. They themselves would not define the canon of the Judaism and Christianity but would create the issues which the prophets struggled to resolve through divine knowledge and guidance.

While the laws of Moses dealt with the pragmatic issues of a huge tribe of people wandering in the desert, they also laid the foundation for a covenantal government between God and the nation of Israel. From the division of the nation till its Babylonian exile, prophets would apply Mosaic law and God centered covenant to addressing the problems which plagued the divided nations of Judah and Israel. These are issues which still plague the world today. Thus the prophets words and action are more than of historical interest but address the political, social and theological matters of today. “The narratives stand as a strong word to all subsequent generations regarding the central importance of the first commandment in Israel’s life and worship and the dangers of syncretism and apostasy.”[xxiii]

This vast period of time from exodus to exile is filled with tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s defiance. Read historically, the events seem disruptive, unconstructive and reinforces the conflict that continually separates man from God. However if viewed theologically, the covenant that Gods seeks is revealed in the pattern of Gods use of patriarchs, deliverers, warriors, judges, kings and prophets. The chaotic history prior to the exile begins to demonstrate a pattern of God’s plan though the post-exilic prophets. For Christians the meaning of all this historical turmoil is made clear by the Gospel and the works of the apostles. God is faithful and seeks a continual relationship with the people, an eternal covenant which is established through Jesus Christ and the Cross.

 

 

 

 

[i] Zondervan (2011-11-01). NIV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 50976-50977).

 

[ii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 96). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[iii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 100). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[iv] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 113). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[v]Michael D. Coogan (2011). The Old Testament, A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scripture: 2nd Edition (p. 175) Oxford University Press

 

[vi] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L.

(2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 178). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition

 

[vii] Michael D. Coogan (2011). The Old Testament, A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scripture: 2nd Edition (p. 208) Oxford University Press

 

[viii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 183). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[ix] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 183). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[x] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 183). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xi] Michael D. Coogan (2011). The Old Testament, A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scripture: 2nd Edition (p. 210) Oxford University Press

 

[xii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 191). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xiii] Michael D. Coogan (2011). The Old Testament, A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scripture: 2nd Edition (p. 213) Oxford University Press

 

[xiv] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 195). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xv] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 230). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[xvi]Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (1 Samuel 8:19-20, Kindle Locations 11459-11461). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

 

[xvii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 232). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xviii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 232). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xix] Zondervan (2011-11-01). NIV Study Bible (1 Kings 3:9, Kindle Locations 118332-118336). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

 

[xx] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 215). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xxi] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 260). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xxii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 257). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[xxiii] Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L. (2011-12-01). A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition (p. 274). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.