Judaism and the Course of Human History

  June 18, 2022   Read time 3 min
Judaism and the Course of Human History
With the emergence of the Hebrew kingship at some time about 1000 BC appears another institution, that of the special distinction of the prophets, for it was the prophet Samuel who anointed (and thus, in effect, designated) both Saul, the first king, and his successor, David.

When Saul reigned, the Bible tells us, Israel had no iron weapons, for the Philistines took care not to endanger their supremacy by permitting them. None the less, the Jews learnt the management of iron from their enemies; the Hebrew words for ‘knife’ and ‘helmet’ both have Philistine roots. Ploughshares did not exist, but if they had they could have been beaten into swords. Saul’s work was completed by David. Of all Old Testament individuals, David is outstandingly credible both for his strengths and weaknesses. Although there is no archaeological evidence that he existed, he lives still as one of the great figures of world literature and was a model for kings for 2000 years.

Yet it was David’s son and successor, Solomon, who was the first king of Israel to achieve major international standing. He gave his army a chariot arm, launched expeditions to the south against the Edomites, allied with Phoenicia and built a navy. Conquest and prosperity followed. ‘And Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the river [Euphrates] unto the land of the Philistines, and unto the border of Egypt . . . And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fi g tree, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all the days of Solomon’ (I Kings 4 : 21 , 25 ). King Solomon made use of possibilities available to the weak when the great are in decline; the success of Israel under Solomon is further evidence of the eclipse of the older empires and it was matched by the successes of other now-forgotten peoples of Syria and the Levant who constituted the political world depicted in the obscure struggles recorded in the Old Testament.
A tribal religion had successfully resisted the early dangers of contamination by the fertility rites and polytheism of the agriculturists among whom the Hebrews had settled in Canaan. In the end Israel would be remembered not for the great deeds of her kings but for the ethical standards announced by her prophets. They shaped the connections of religion with morality which were to dominate not only Judaism but Christianity and Islam. The prophets evolved the cult of Yahweh into the worship of a universal God, just and merciful, stern to punish sin but ready to welcome the sinner who repented. This was the climax of religious culture in the Middle East, a point after which religion could be separated from locality and tribe. The prophets also bitterly attacked social injustice. Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah went behind the privileged priestly caste to do so, denouncing religious offi - cialdom directly to the people. They announced that all men were equal in the sight of God, that kings might not simply do what they would; they proclaimed a moral code which was a given fact, independent of human authority.
The Assyrians obliterated Israel in 722 BCand most of the Hebrew tribes disappeared from history in mass deportations. Judah lasted the longest. It was more compact and somewhat less in the path of great states; it survived until 587 BC , when Jerusalem’s walls and Temple were razed by a Babylonian army. The Judaeans, too, then suffered deportations, many of them being carried away to Babylon, to the great experience of the Exile, a period so important and formative that after it we may properly speak of ‘the Jews’, the inheritors and transmitters of a tradition still alive and easily traced. Once more great empires had established their grip in Mesopotamia and gave its civilization its last fl owering. The circumstances which had favoured the appearance of a Jewish state had disappeared. Fortunately for the Jews, the religion of Judah now ensured that this did not mean that their national identity was doomed too.

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