Soon after Solomon, however, great changes occurred. Following his reign, which had already betrayed manifest marks of decline in foreign relations, Egypt's interference helped separate the northern kingdom (Israel or Samaria) from the southern (Judah). From the beginning of Asa's reign until the time of Josiah, a weakened Egypt ceased sending armies into Palestine....

For a century before Tiglath-pileser reached Palestine, Assyria cast its shadow over the shores of the Mediterranean... These international developments found corresponding expression in domestic social and economic conditions. After a long peace, continuous warfare prevailed. Instead of receiving tribute, Israel and Judah had to send from time to time, heavy loads of precious metals to foreign overlords. Sometimes foreign invaders ransacked the country and its central treasuries and carried off rich spoils. The economic situation became worse and worse. The population, which under vigorous leadership in times of peace, with foreign indemnities pouring in, had achieved a measure of well-being, was increasing impoverished.

General economic decline was accompanied by a steady process of differentiation. Some of the rich grew richer at the expense of their fellows under the prevalent pre-capitalistic forms of exploitation. Each catastrophe, national or international, affected largely the poor peasant. Foreign invasions, earthquakes, alternating droughts and floods or, worst of all agricultural plagues, the locusts, repeatedly destroyed the accumulated fruits of years of labor.... Political clashes arising from the clash of interests and traditions added to the social instability. Neither in Israel nor in Judah after Solomon, was there a strong government for any length of time....

The central figure in messianism, the "anointed of the Lord" or the "redeemer," clearly shows the interdependence of social and religious features. More than one vigorous imperialistic king of mighty Egypt and Babylonia flattered himself, and was often told by obsequious courtiers, that he would extend his boundaries of his realm to the ends of the known world and thereby restore the Golden Age. Israel could not hope for world conquest in these centuries of decline. God himself was to accomplish this feat in a superhuman way.

Experience, however, had taught that God performs miracles only through men, for example, Moses and Elijah. The new miracle would also have to be accomplished through some one man. The levitical priests probably looked for a return of Moses. The prophets of the north seem to have been so much impressed by the vivid memories, embellished by legends, of the striking demeanor and personality of Elijah. that they hoped for his miraculous return in the same manner as when he "went up by a whirlwind into heaven."

Messiah, the son of David

For the Judean prophets it was natural to expect that the Messiah would be a scion of David, whose house had ruled the country for centuries and in its early years had been blessed by God with power and prosperity. Despite the dynasty's later corruption, there was still a hope that the exalted poet-king would reappear and and establish an age of unrivaled glory. The priests of that age left little, if any writings, and Samaria had vanished as an independent state at the very beginnings of written prophecy. The ideology of the southern prophets, therefore, soon overshadowed all others. The Davidic Messiah became the apotheosized figure on which all later Jewish eschatology centered. Moses, Elijah, and even the Messiah of the house of Joseph so prominent in later times, were relegated to secondary positions.

This idealization of the past was a general characteristic of the age; in a sense it eclipsed the messianic hope. Eschatological passages, strange as it may seem, are not foremost in the prophetic writings. Some of the prophets never refer to the end of days. Those who do, speak of it as a well-known popular idea and limit themselves to cryptic allusions. It is the glorification of bygone days which fills their writings and the other poetical and legal works of the Old Testament... Thoughtful Israelites were growing more and more disgusted with the conditions of the day; they naturally turned increasingly to the past.

There was so much vitality left in the Israelitic, and even more so the Judean people, that they simply refused to throw up their hands in despair of resolving the social conflicts and the unending national frustrations. They turned to ancestral lore not only for comfort but for a way out of difficulties... These ancient historians... were all aware that not extravagant exaltation, but a discriminating glorification of the past could teach a lesson to the over-civilized, sophisticated citizens of Jerusalem and Samaria. Thus the glorified past was to combine with an exalted future to serve as a psychological buoy for a drowning people which refused to die....

History thus became more than an escape. It became the dominating principle in the national and religious life. The present may appear to be desperately bad — the people became accustomed to hearing — but it is only a moment in history, a transitory link between an ideal past and a still more perfect future.


From: Salo Wittmayer Baron A Social and Religious History of the Jews, volume 1; Columbia University and JPS ISBN 0-231-08838-

Salo Wittmayer Baron (b. Galicia, Austria-Hungary 1895; d.1989), American Jewish historian and educator, taught for several decades at Columbia University (New York), holding the first professorship of Jewish history in a U.S. university. His major work is the monumental Social and Religious History of the Jews.

KING DAVID Table of Contents




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