I interrupt the normal flow of history and political blogs for an announcement of great importance. My new book Jerusalem Throne Games: Bible Story Battles after the Death of David (Oxbow Books) has been published. The book is a relentlessly political approach to the battle for power after the death of David as fought through six stories at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. The preface to the book is presented below.
‘When I was at Teheran, I realized for the first time what a very small country this is. On one hand the big Russian bear with its paws outstretched – on the other the great American Elephant – & between them the poor little English donkey – who is the only one that knows the right way home.’
Winston Churchill to Violet Bonham-Carter several months after the Conference, in her diary entry for 1 August 1944.
Jerusalem Throne Games: Bible Story Battles after the Death of David is about exactly what the title states. David was one of the most extraordinary human beings who ever lived. He changed the course of human history although he did not know it at the time. Then he died. Now what?
Queen Bathsheba was an intensely ambitious person. She could not become king but she could marry one and become mother of one. In modern parlance the manner in which she installed her son on the throne following the death of her husband is called a “coup.” Her actions generated a vigorous response that failed politically. However, stories were written in the aftermath of her success. Six of them are the basis of this study.
The stories were written in the language and conventions of their time. It was a time before abstract language where a picture is worth a thousand words and a story a thousand footnotes. If you saw an image of an elephant stomping a donkey, what would come to mind? Would you consider such action an unusual occurrence within the animal kingdom? Would you alert the appropriate animal authorities? Would you record the event and upload it to the web? Suppose the animals were red and blue?
Most likely, if you are an American, you would recognize that the elephant and the donkey symbolize the two leading national political parties as of the time of this writing. Most likely you would understand that the image is a comment on the recent presidential election as of this writing. Most likely you would know that literal animal concerns were not pertinent to the message being delivered. But suppose you are not an American, then would you understand its message? Suppose it is the year 3016, 4016, or 5016? Will people 3000 years from now be better equipped to understand our time than we are to understand David’s?
As it turns out there is a biblical donkey story in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 22. In that story the prophet Balaam is riding his donkey when they come upon a messenger of the Lord. At least the donkey sees the armed messenger of the Lord, the prophet does not. The donkey then stops in the presence of the divine messenger and is berated by the prophet who does not see him. Amazingly, the donkey then speaks. Like the serpent in the garden, the donkey possesses the power of speech. After a dialog ensues, the prophet’s eyes are opened and he sees the light, he sees the messenger of the Lord and responds accordingly.
Typically, this incident is viewed as a folktale because of the talking animal. This makes about as much as sense as deciding the elephant and donkey are just two animals in the wild. Ancient Israel had political parties, too. Here they are symbolized by a donkey and a wilderness (Transjordanian) prophet in the area where writing in the name of Balaam has been found at Deir Alla. In this instance, the donkey prevails. He is beaten by the prophet but he sees the truth and convinces the prophet of the error of his ways. Contrary to traditional exegesis, the story is a political one and not a folktale.
Sometimes the stakes were higher. A short time later in the narrative sequence (Num. 25), still in the wilderness, Phinehas, the priest and grandson of Aaron, spears a man and a woman at the tent of meeting. One presumes that the man and woman who were killed with a single spear were engaged in activities deemed inappropriate in that setting. Phinehas is rewarded with the covenant of eternal priesthood. The woman was a Midianite, the same as the wife of the prophet Moses, the giver of the covenant. The brutal death of Cozbi, a daughter of Midian, has become a cause celebré for feminists. However, contrary to feminist exegesis, the story is a political one and not a folktale. Here the political parties are represented by Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, and a Midian from the family of Moses.
The wisdom of judgement story of Solomon similarly is political. Visually one sees a graphically striking image of an infant perhaps on the verge of be rendered asunder, chopped in half. Once again, the literal reading conveys a story that is abhorrent to modern sensibilities. Once again, the story is about a political situation. What story would you tell if part of your country sought to separate or secede? What story would you tell if you wanted to separate from a larger Union? Given that emotions involved are likely to have been intense, it is equally likely that the story of a division is likely to have been intense as well. When the kingdom separated after the death of Solomon, the emotions involved were just as raw and intense as they are today when similar actions occur. The writers of the biblical stories in this book expressed strong feelings and they did so through the story not the tweet, the blog, the op-ed piece, or the essay.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows as the pairings in biblical stories often reveal. Unfortunately, the political basis for the stories is often overlooked in the emphasis on folk, myth, and sin. In politics, there are winners and losers and then they may switch sides. The storytelling in the battle for power after the death of David has no counterpart in the ancient world. The stories enable us to enter a three-thousand year old world by reading the words of specific human beings battling for power in the royal arena in Jerusalem. This book is dedicated to the journey to see the truth of those stories as they originally were created.
“China is a dragon. America is an eagle. Britain is a lion. When the dragon wakes up, the others are all snacks,”
Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told Global Times (Chris Buckley, “Trump’s and Xi’s Differences Magnify Uncertainties between U.S. and China,” NYT 12/20/16)
Public Debut: October 2, 7:30 PM, Monday, Scarsdale Public Library, 54 Olmsted Road, Scarsdale, NY 10583 (I can get it for you wholesale!)