Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Breakup of the Kingdom of David: Biblical Geopolitics and the Limits of Statism (incomplete draft 1)

By Michael Kaplan

Limestone relief of Pharaoh Shoshenq I (biblical Shishak), Temple of Amun at Karnak, Egypt, listing cities conquered in his invasion of Israel.  Digital Karnak, UCLA.

—1 Kings 14: 25-28. New Revised Standard Version

Israel’s King Solomon, whose wealth and wisdom have become the stuff of legend (and in the judgment of some scholars greatly exaggerated), died in 922 BC after a reign according to the Bible of nearly forty years. The king’s death was a moment of grave crisis for the Israelite monarchy created by Solomon’s father King David some 80 years earlier. Through war, diplomacy, treachery, and occasional cruelty, David had succeeded in forging a disparate group of loosely confederated highland tribes, clans, independent villages and Canaanite city-states, under constant threat from their richer and more powerful Philistine neighbors, into a new bureaucratic dynastic state: Israel. David’s Israel, with its new royal capital Jerusalem, was the first independent territorial state under local leadership ever to emerge in the land then called Canaan, later to be called Eretz Yisrael or Palestine.

David, in the judgment of his most recent biographer, “was a successful monarch, but he was a vile human being.” He is the pivotal figure of the Bible and the central political figure in Jewish history: the founding father of the Israelite nation who established Jerusalem as the focus of Jewish, and later Christian, religious faith, achievements which reverberate to the present day. The historical David was a masterful political leader and military strategist. He was also a cunning Near Eastern warlord and despot in the mold of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, who was transformed over the course of several centuries into the ideal king of the Judeo-Christian tradition, “a man after God’s own heart,” and the prototype of the Messiah. This process began during Solomon’s reign with the writing of an apology for David’s life and actions, a masterpiece of literature and propaganda later incorporated into the biblical books of Samuel. The Israel reborn in 1948 was the deliberate re-creation of David’s Israel in modern guise. As Joel Baden writes, the founders of the Zionist state “chose the name of David’s unified nation, linking the emergence of Israel in the twentieth century CE with the emergence of Israel in the tenth century BCE. . . . Geographically, politically, and ideologically, the Israel we know today is the embodiment of David’s legacy.”

The idealized David by Michelangelo. Wikipedia.

In 961 BC as David lay dying, his favorite wife Bathsheba, in league with her one time adversary the Prophet Nathan, engineered a palace coup that brought her son Solomon to the throne. Solomon built on David’s achievements, using diplomacy and dynastic marriages with princesses from neighboring states, to create a network of trade and commerce that enriched his kingdom. Yet Solomon’s autocratic rule, his imposition of high taxes and forced labor to support his public works program and opulent royal lifestyle, his favoritism toward his own southern tribe of Judah at the expense of the northern Israelite tribes, led to growing popular resentment. When Solomon’s son and successor Rehoboam went to the northern Israelite cultic center at Shechem (modern Nablus) to be anointed king by an assembly of northern elders, he arrogantly refused their demands that he lighten the state’s burden of taxation and conscription. Rejecting the counsel of his father’s advisors who urged him to compromise with the elders, and goaded on by his hotheaded young retainers, the king told the assembly, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:14). This was not what the elders hoped to hear. Seeing that they could expect no redress from the king the northern Israelites raised the banner of rebellion:
What share do we have in David?
   We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse.
To your tents, O Israel!
   Look now to your own house, O David.
When King Rehoboam, in a further display of royal arrogance and stupidity, sent Adoniram ben Abda, his minister of forced labor, to whip the rebels into submission, they stoned the hapless official to death. The king barely escaped with his own life by jumping into his chariot and fleeing back to Jerusalem. The northern assembly then chose Jeroboam ben Nebat, a former Solomonic administrator who had launched an unsuccessful rebellion against the old king, as king of a separate northern kingdom which took the name Israel. Rehoboam was left to rule the rump southern kingdom of Judah. The unified Israelite monarchy was never restored.

Khirbet Qeiyafa, a Judahite fortress in the Elah Valley, where the Bible says David slew Goliath. Excavations by Yosef Garfinkel unearthed a multichambered gate and artifacts dating to David’s time in the early 10th Century BC.  Greg Girard/National Geographic.

The breakup of the Israelite kingdom is an object lesson on the excesses of statism (while keeping in mind that 10th-century BC statism was quite different from and far less advanced than its 21st-century AD counterpart). American patriots in 1776 saw in Rehoboam’s abuse of the northern Israelites a paradigm of their own mistreatment at the hands of King George III, while the Israelite rebellion against the Davidic monarchy provided sacred legitimation for the American Revolution. The northern Israelite tribes valued their traditional autonomy and freedom from the burdens of intrusive and overbearing royal government. The richer and more culturally sophisticated northerners also resented having to bend the knee to a dynasty of jumped-up southern hillbillies. David and Solomon may have forcibly unified the tribes and subjected them to the royal establishment in Jerusalem, but they were never able to heal the social and political fissures in the kingdom. Indeed David’s, and especially Solomon’s, policies only widened those fissures by making the northern tribes bear the financial and human burdens of a monarchy that ignored their interests while devoting itself to the power and prosperity of Judah and Jerusalem. Hebrew University archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel concludes from recent excavations that the development of a centralized state was a century more advanced in Judah than among the northern Israelites (a conclusion disputed by other archaeologists). So when pushed to the brink by Rehoboam, the northern Israelites pushed back.

Solomon’s glory through Victorian eyes. The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, by Sir Edward John Poynter, 1890. Wikimedia.

Israel first emerged as a people over three thousand years ago in the land then known as Canaan, later to be called Israel, Judah, and Palestine. It is the central article of the Jewish faith that God made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, promising the land to their descendants, the Children of Israel (benei-yisra’el), who would be as numerous as the stars, with the Bible as the record of Israel’s birthright.

The first reference to Israel outside the Bible – the first anywhere in fact, as it pre-dates the oldest written portions of the Bible by at least 200 years – was in a hieroglyphic inscription on the stele of Egypt’s Pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BC. Israel is depicted in the stele as a socioethnic entity (a “people” rather than a city-state or territory) living in the central hill country of Canaan, the region now called Samaria. Ironically, the pharaoh claimed to have been the agent of Israel’s destruction: “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” Like many later would-be destroyers of Israel, Merneptah, whose father Rameses II was the most likely pharaoh of the Exodus, spoke too soon. (Percy Bysshe Shelly had some choice things to say about Rameses II and the hubris of kings in his poem “Ozymandias.”)

The Merneptah Stele

Civil strife and discord at home often leaves a nation vulnerable to threats from abroad. So it was with the now rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Pharaoh Shoshenq I (935-914 BC, the biblical Shishak) the Libyan warlord and usurper who established Egypt’s XXII Dynasty, tried to weaken Solomon’s grip on power by giving refuge to Jeroboam after his failed rebellion.

The Kingdom of Judah, ruled by the descendants of King David, along with the First Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Babylonians (modern Iraq) in 586 BC, and much of the population sent into exile. Fifty years later a restored Judahite commonwealth was established as a province of the Persian Empire and a Second Temple was built in Jerusalem. From this time forward a diaspora of Jewish communities were established throughout first the Persian, and later the Hellenistic and Roman empires. An independent Judaea under the Hasmonean Dynasty (which is celebrated at Hanukkah) would have a stormy existence for 80 years until falling under Roman rule in 63 BC. In the wake of violent and unsuccessful revolts against Rome in the first and second centuries AD, the Second Temple was destroyed (70 AD), and in 135 AD the Roman Emperor Hadrian changed Judaea’s name to Palestine in honor of Israel’s ancient enemies the Philistines. Palestine remained a province of Rome, which became a Christian empire in the fourth century, until its conquest by the armies of the Caliph Omar in 638 transformed it into an Arab Muslim land.

Meanwhile, the center of Jewish life would shift to the diaspora.