Saturday, November 12, 2005

In 1958, a German Biblical scholar named Gerhard von Rad wrote a slim little book called Holy War in Ancient Israel, which has been the touchstone for scholarly work on that subject even since.

Surely you've wondered how the modern Christians, Jews and Muslims can even claim, with a straight face, to practice a peace-loving religion when the early followers of the god they worship were -- with more than a little active encouragement from their deity -- genocidal jihadists.

I didn't have time to read the whole book, but I’ll try to give you my best shot at a synopsis of Von Rad's theory. First, Von Rad put forward the unsurprising thesis that the holy wars of the conquest of Canaan didn't quite happen the way the Bible says they did, with Yahweh often doing most of the ass-kicking and the Isrealites sometimes just sitting back and watching the bloody mayhem (other times, with God actually stopping the clock so the Isrealites could finish the killing of innocents in time for dinner). Rather, this aspect of the story -- a story that saw the nation of Israel enjoying a surprising amount of political unity without a king, as well as "increased psychic strength" and "a great magical network of powers" due to their submission to God -- was a post-Exile invention of certain prophets striving to maintain the unity of the faith (and with it, the political unity of the nation) after the monarchy had fallen and the Isrealites dragged off to the rivers of Babylon in 586 B.C. In fact, even during the period of the monarchy, the priests and prophets of Israel had preserved an "alternative tradition" to the routinized bureaucratic monarchy put in place by King David and his son, Solomon. This mystical, theocratic tradition came back with a vengeance following the Babylonian Captivity and the subsequent return. That's certainly not all the book says, and it may not even be quite right, but that's how I remember it.

I mention this not because it's relevant to anything in particular. I just wanted to point out how nice it is to have access to a big university library where you can find obsure stuff like this. I came across this book in September, during my month in Dublin, at the Trinity College library where I'd snuck in posing as a graduate student.

It's almost enough to make one consider a life in the academy. Almost, but not quite.


On a vaguely related note, I was lucky enough to spend some time recently with a Dutch philologist (and a fluent reader of Assyrian cuneiform script) at a remote 13th-centuty B.C. archaeological site in northern Syria. (I know, I know, Dutch Assyrian philologist is not the same as a German Old Testament scholar, but I said vaguely related.)

According to eyewitness reports, this wild, wooly, white-haired Dutch philologist talked in his sleep. Didn't just talk, but yelled. Strange things. What things?

OK, one day, for instance, in English, he screamed out in his sleep, "THE GATES OF HELL!" He was just that kind of fellow.


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