47. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : part 2 : the Historical Books (King James version)

This section covers the Books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. For the earlier five books, see post numbered 22.

My thoughts : As said previously, I will not comment on the text as religion, merely my experiences in dealing with the books as literature and evidence of life and customs in the ancient world.

Here there comes a real divergence in structure between the Hebrew, Protestant, Catholic and Eastern orthodox versions of the Old Testament. Some versions have more or less books than those listed above, but I will be sticking with the Protestant canon, and specifically the King James version.

The Book of Joshua starts where the book of Moses finished;  with the recognition of Joshua as Moses’ successor. Joshua leads the invading army of Israelites across the Jordan (when the waters part in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant) to destroy all the peoples already living in the Promised Land, and divides the land between the tribes of Israel.

Not that I am a regular church goer by any stretch, but very little of the people and events in Judges had I ever heard of : Judah, Othniel, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Jotham, or Jephthah, until we finally get to Samson and Delilah (Chapters 14-16).

Likewise in the Books of Samuel,  I was unfamiliar with much about Samuel or Saul until I reached David, and his defeat of Goliath (“whose height was six cubits and a span”, or eleven and a half feet tall!) using his sling and a stone. Eventually David becomes King of Israel, defeating Saul and his sons. (God had turned away and forsaken Saul because he had disobeyed the strict instructions to kill not only all the men, women and children, but also all the livestock, and kept the best sheep and cows to offer as sacrifice to the Lord)

David is the closest person to a modern idea of a Christian (of course, the term Christian has little meaning at this stage when the devout obey God’s law, while the heathen do not) but he shows remorse for his actions (such as having Bethsheba’s husband sent into the front line to be killed so he can have her) and is willing to forgive his enemies. The most heartbreaking section was Absalom turning on his father King David to wrest Israel from him, and despite this treachery, David’s heartache and grief when Absalom is killed (2 Samuel 18)

The two Books of Kings are a long stretch of the history of the Kings of Israel and Judah, many of whom turned away from God, and worshipped idols, causing their peoples’ eventual exile from their land. Notable in this section were the abilities of Elisha which foreshadowed Jesus’ miracles (raising the dead, feeding the multitudes, curing leprosy). The following two Books of Chronicles repeats much of the history content of the Books of Kings, finishing again with the overthrow of the Israelites by King Nebuchadnezzar, and the people being taken captive to Babylon.

The Books of Ezra and Nememiah start with the Lord stirring up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia (who we were introduced to by Herodotus when he spared the life of King Croesus) to rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and release the people to return there. In Ezra (the priest)  and Nememiah (the governor), the text moves in and out of first-person, as if it has been clumsily edited together, which raises the whole issue of exactly how many authors produced the Old Testament – I have heard more than forty suggested. One good editor amongst them wouldn’t have gone amiss!

Different again is the Book of Esther, which reads more like a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm ; not mentioning the Lord or scriptures at all, but describing a Cinderella-like girl who becomes Queen to King Ahasuerus (who ruled the lands from India to Ethiopia) defeating the looming threat of the genocide of the Jews, including her foster parent Mordecai, from the scheming court official Haman, who ends up hanged from the very scaffold he had built to execute Mordecai. But true to Old Testament form, the slaughter is reversed so that the Jews instead kill all their enemies.

Things I learnt from this section of the Old Testament

  • It wasn’t the sound of the trumpets which destroyed the walls of Jericho, but the final shout of the Israelite army after the walls had been circled seven times and the trumpets blown.
  • The continuing and repeated times the Israelites turned away from God and worshipped idols
  • When Samson brings down the building, killing himself and the Philistines within, there were also three thousand Philistines on the roof watching his ridicule, who presumably perished with the rest
  • Saul seeking out a witch to raise the spirit of Samuel to seek advice – ghosts in the Bible?!
  • “For the battle was there scattered over the face of all the country: and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.” At first I took this to mean that the trees came alive in some way, which seemed reinforced by the way Absalom being caught by the neck and lifted off his mule by the tree branch, but then perhaps I just read too much Tolkien, and it simply refers to the rough terrain impeding the flight of Absalom’s forces (2 Samuel 18 : 8-10)
  • Goliath had four sons, all giants, and all slain by the soldiers of Israel
  • David took a census of the Israelites, which angered God (was this a prideful act on David’s part?) so much that He sent a plague on the Israelites
  • Elisha mocked by little children, turns and curses them, and then two bears come out of the wood and ate them (although some scholars interpret children in this passage to mean uneducated people, which is not much of an improvement!)

The language of the King James version in these histories, particularly the Books of Samuel, was hard to decipher at times, and I just had to keep reading until further events clarified what had happened.

Favourite lines/passages

The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich : he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory, for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and he hath set the world upon them.                                                                                                 1 Samuel 2 : 7-8

For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.                                          1 Chronicles 29 : 15 

Personal rating : I didn’t feel I gained much at all from this reading. Just a 2.

Next :  From the not-quite-sublime to the ridiculous?  The Wasps by Aristophanes

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