Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Grove Press

The Bible

A Biography

by Karen Armstrong

“Karen Armstrong preaches the gospel truth in The Bible, explaining how the spiritual guide for one out of three people on the planet came into being and evolved over the centuries.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date November 18, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4384-6
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.75"
  • US List Price $14.95
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date November 13, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3969-6
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.75"
  • US List Price $21.95

About The Book

A groundbreaking history of the single most influential text of all time, by the world’s foremost religious historian.

As the single work at the heart of Christianity, the world’s largest organized religion, the Bible is the spiritual guide for one out of every three people in the world. The Bible is also the world’s most widely distributed book. Translated into over two thousand languages, it is estimated that more than six billion copies have been sold in the last two hundred years. It remains the best-selling book in the United States, year after year, with at least twenty-five million copies sold in 2005 alone.

But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six “books” written by various authors and divided into two testaments, its contents have changed over the centuries. The Bible has been transformed by translation and, through interpretation, has developed manifold meanings to various religions, denominations, and sects.

In this seminal account, acclaimed historian Karen Armstrong discusses the conception, gestation, life, and afterlife of history’s most powerful book. Armstrong analyzes the social and political situation in which oral history turned into written scripture, how this all-pervasive scripture was collected into one work, and how it became accepted as Christianity’s sacred text. She explores how “as the pragmatic scientific ethos of modernity took hold, scripture was read for the information that it imparted” and how, in the nineteenth century, historical criticism of the Bible caused greater fear than Darwinism. As she writes, “‘If Jonah did not spend days in a whale,’ asked a Lutheran pastor, ‘Did Jesus really rise from the tomb?’”

Karen Armstrong’s history of the Bible is a brilliant, captivating book, crucial in an age of declining faith and rising fundamentalism.


“A fascinating investigation.” —Christian Advance

“For the Books That Changed the World series . . . Armstrong accepted the arguably most daunting assignment. What other book has as long a history of influence as the Bible, or has affected more people and societies? [Armstrong] is, of course, up to the task and provides an excellent précis of the writing and compiling of the Bible and the ensuing centuries of biblical interpretation. . . . This is one terrific little book.” —Booklist

“Dispels any notion of religion as a rigidly fixed reading of sacred texts. Spanning millennia, from the scripture’s origins in oral stories to the conflicting beliefs, ancient and modern, over its message, her book will discomfort fundamentalists who believe that the Bible means what it says and says what it means.” —Rich Barlow, The Boston Globe

“One of the merits of Armstrong’s book is that it points to the modern origin of literalist interpretations of Scripture, and then revisits the preceding centuries of Biblical scholarship to bring its considerable diversity to the notice of modern readers.” —Edward Norman, Literary Review

“Vintage Armstrong: sweeping, bold, incisive, and insightful. In eight chapters it covers the history of the writing, canonizing, and reading of the Bible . . . Her choice of topics is impeccable . . . and her brief, 23-page discussion on the rise of the Talmud is masterful.” —P.L. Redditt, Choice

“A handy, erudite primer on the Holy Books.” —The Jerusalem Report

“A whirlwind tour through biblical studies. . . Armstrong’s analysis of the freedom previous generations (however far removed) felt with adapting, editing, redacting and re-writing the texts to suit contemporary purposes will undoubtedly remind savvy readers of all the current uses to which these same texts are being put.” —Kel Munger, Sacramento News & Review

“[Armstrong] shows how the highly disparate writings that now compose the Jewish and Christian scriptures came together and examines the very different methods of interpretation used over the centuries. Her book’s great strength is the way she unfolds the Jewish and Christian histories of formation and interpretation in parallel with one another.” —Richard Harries, The Guardian

“A learned but accessible history of the Bible’s origins and genesis. Armstrong goes behind the authorized versions preached by the churches to recreate the order—and the political and social circumstances—in which the books of the Old and New testaments were first written down, amended, and then endlessly reinterpreted and recast. . . . Armstrong’s great achievement, however, is that, as well as leaving you with a clearer, more historically accurate picture as to what precisely the Bible is (and isn’t), she also makes you want to go back and read it again with fresh eyes.” —Peter Stanford, The Independent (UK)

“[Armstrong] has never written on such a broad scale, or with as much passion . . . [her] concern that religion should no longer be used to promote violence animates her measured, lucid prose and vivifies her summar of the development of the Bible and its interpretation.” —Bruce Chilton, New York Sun

“Karen Armstrong preaches the gospel truth in The Bible, explaining how the spiritual guide for one out of three people on the planet came into being and evolved over the centuries.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“[A] richly interwoven and often surprising history.” —Michael Alec Rose, Bookpage

“While there are countless guides to reading the Bible, noted academic Karen Armstrong looks at the history of the book with a keen historian’s eye. . . . Armstrong condenses into a manageable volume the many ideas and traditions that influenced the creation of the Good Book.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This is one terrific little book.” —Booklist

“[A] spending series.” —Bill Ward, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“[Armstrong] does an exceptional job of balancing and interweaving Jewish and Christian approaches to scripture.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Of all the ‘Books that Changed the World’ surely the Bible is among the most important. And of all contemporary popularizes of religious history, surely Armstrong is among the bestselling. Who better, then, to recount the history of the Bible in eight short chapters than this former nun and literature professor who relishes huge topics and panoramic descriptions? Armstrong not only describes how, when and by whom the Bible was written, she also examines some 2,000 years of biblical interpretation.” —Publishers Weekly

“Armstrong judiciously summarizes centuries of history and writes with remarkable insight.” —Christian Science Sentinel

“Armstrong is at her best when explaining how today’s focus on the Bible as a literal, static text runs counter to a longstanding interpretative tradition that viewed study of the good book as ‘an activity for attaining transcendence.’” —Andrea McQuillin, Shambhala Sun

Praise for Karen Armstrong:

“Karen Armstrong is a genius.” —A. N. Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life

“Armstrong can simplify complex ideas, but she is never simplistic.” —The New York Times Book Review

Praise for The Great Transformation:

“Armstrong at her best—translating and distilling complex history into lucid prose that will delight scholars and armchair historians alike.” —Lauren F. Winner, The Washington Post Book World

“A tour de force . . . She has dedicated herself to understanding the most prominent world faiths and explaining them to a secular/postsecular society.” —Jane Lampman, The Christian Science Monitor

“Her conviction, passion, and intelligence radiate throughout the book, making us feel the urgency of the ideas it seeks to convey.” —Charles Matthews, The Baltimore Sun


#17 on The New York Times extended Bestsellers list


Chapter One — Torah

In 597 BCE, the tiny state of Judah in the highlands of Canaan broke its vassalage treaty with Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the powerful Babylonian empire. It was a catastrophic mistake. Three months later, the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, Judah’s capital. The young king surrendered immediately and was deported to Babylonia, together with some ten thousand of the citizens who made the state viable: priests, military leaders, craftsmen and metal workers. As they left Jerusalem, the exiles would have taken one last look at the temple built on Mount Zion by King Solomon (c.970-930 BCE), the centre of their national and spiritual life, sadly aware that in all likelihood they would never see it again. Their fears were realized: in 586, after yet another rebellion in Judah, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and burned Solomon’s temple to the ground.

The exiles were not ill-treated in Babylon. The king was comfortably housed with his entourage in the southern citadel, and the rest lived together in new settlements by the canals and were allowed to manage their domestic affairs.

But they had lost their country, their political independence, and their religion. They belonged to the people of Israel and believed that their god Yahweh had promised that if they worshipped him exclusively, they would live in their land forever. The Jerusalem temple, where Yahweh had dwelt among his people, was essential to his cult. Yet here they were in an alien land, cast out of Yahweh’s presence. This must be a divine punishment. Time and again, the Israelites had failed to keep their covenant agreement with Yahweh and had succumbed to the lure of other deities. Some of the exiles assumed that, as the leaders of Israel, it was up to them to rectify the situation, but how could they serve Yahweh without the temple that was their only means of making contact with their god?

Five years after his arrival in Babylon, standing beside the Chebar canal, a young priest called Ezekiel had a terrifying vision. It was impossible to see anything clearly because nothing in this stormy maelstrom of fire and tumultuous sound conformed to ordinary human categories, but Ezekiel knew that he was in the presence of the kavod, the “glory” of Yahweh, which was usually enthroned in the inner sanctum of the temple. God had left Jerusalem and, riding on what seemed to be a massive war chariot, had come to live with the exiles in Babylon. A hand stretched towards Ezekiel holding a scroll, which was inscribed with “lamentations, wailing, and moanings.” “Eat this scroll,” a divine voice commanded him, “feed and be satisfied by the scroll I am giving you.” When he forced it down, accepting the pain and misery of his exile, Ezekiel found that “it tasted sweet as honey”.

It was a prophetic moment. The exiles would continue to long for their lost temple, because in the Middle East at this period, it was impossible to imagine religion without one. But the time would come when Israelites would make contact with their God in sacred writings, rather than a shrine. Their holy book would not be easy to understand. Like Ezekiel’s scroll, its message often seemed distressing and incoherent. Yet when they made the effort to absorb this confusing text, making it a part of their inmost being, they would feel that they had come into the presence of God—just as they did when they had visited his shrine in Jerusalem.

But it would be many years before Yahwism became a religion of the book. The exiles had brought a number of scrolls from the royal archive in Jerusalem with them to Babylon, and there they studied and edited these documents. If they were allowed to return home, these records of the history and cult of their people could play an important role in the restoration of national life. But the scribes did not regard these writings as sacrosanct and felt free to add new passages, altering them to fit their changed circumstances. They had as yet no notion of a sacred text. True, there were many stories in the Middle East about heavenly tablets that had descended miraculously to earth and imparted secret, divine knowledge. There were tales in Israel about the engraved stones that Yahweh had given to his prophet Moses, who had spoken with him face to face. But the scrolls in the Judaean archive were not in this league, and did not play any part in the cult of Israel.

The Israelites, like most peoples in the ancient world, had always handed on their traditions by word of mouth. In the early days of their nation, in about 1200 BCE, they had lived in twelve tribal units in the Canaanite highlands but believed that they had a common ancestry and a shared history, which they celebrated in shrines associated with one of their patriarchs or an important event. Bards recited the epic stories of the sacred past and the people formally renewed the covenant agreement that bound them together as the am Yahweh, “the family of Yahweh.” Already, at this very early stage, Israel had a distinctive religious vision. Most peoples in the region developed a mythology and liturgy that centred on the world of the gods in primordial time, but Israelites focused on their life with Yahweh in this world. From the very beginning, they thought historically, in terms of cause and effect.

From early fragments embedded in the later biblical narratives, we can infer that the Israelites believed their ancestors to have been nomads. Yahweh had led them to Canaan, and promised that one day their descendants would own the land. For many years they had lived as slaves under Egyptian rule, but Yahweh had liberated them with great signs and marvels, led them back to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses, and helped them to conquer the highlands from the indigenous inhabitants. But there was as yet no master-narrative: each tribe had its own version of the story, each region its local heroes. The priests of Dan, in the extreme north, for example, believed that they were descended from Moses; Abraham, the father of the whole nation, had lived in Hebron and was especially popular in the south. At Gilgal, the local tribes celebrated Israel’s miraculous entry into the Promised Land, when the waters of the river Jordan had miraculously parted to let them through. The people of Shechem annually renewed the covenant that Joshua had made with Yahweh after his conquest of Canaan.

By about 1000 BCE, however, the tribal system was no longer adequate, so the Israelites formed two monarchies in the Canaanite highlands: the kingdom of Judah in the south, and the larger, more prosperous kingdom of Israel in the north. The old covenant festivals were phased out in favour of royal rituals at the national shrines that centred on the person of the king. On his coronation day, the king was adopted by Yahweh, became a “Son of God,” and a member of Yahweh’s Divine Assembly of heavenly beings. We know almost nothing about the cult of the northern kingdom, because the biblical historians had a bias towards Judah, but many of the psalms later included in the Bible were used in the Jerusalem liturgy and show that the Judahites had been influenced by the cult of Baal in neighbouring Syria, which had a similar royal mythology. Yahweh had made an unconditional covenant with King David, the founder of the Judaean dynasty, and had promised that his descendants would rule in Jerusalem forever.

Now that the old tales had been liberated from the cult, they acquired an independent, literary life. During the eighth century, there was a literacy revolution throughout the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. Kings commissioned documents that glorified their regime and housed these texts in libraries. In Greece, the epics of Homer were committed to writing at this time, and in Israel and Judah historians began to combine the old stories to create national sagas, which have been preserved in the earliest strata of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

From the multifarious traditions of Israel and Judah, the eighth-century historians built a coherent narrative. Scholars usually call the southern epic of Judah “J” because the authors always called their God “Yahweh,” while the northern saga is known as “E” because these historians preferred the more formal title “Elohim.” Later these two separate accounts were combined by an editor to form a single story that formed the backbone of the Hebrew Bible. During the eighteenth century BCE, Yahweh had commanded Abraham to leave his home town of Ur in Mesopotamia and settle in the Canaanite highlands, where he made a covenant with him, promising that his descendants would inherit the whole country. Abraham lived in Hebron; his son Isaac in Beersheba, and his grandson, Jacob (also called “Israel”), eventually settled in the countryside around Shechem.

During a famine, Jacob and his sons, the founders of the twelve Israelite tribes, migrated to Egypt, where they flourished initially but, when they became too numerous, were enslaved and oppressed. Finally, in about 1250 BCE, Yahweh liberated them under the leadership of Moses. As they fled, Yahweh parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds, so that the Israelites passed over in safety, but Pharaoh and his army were drowned. For forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness of Sinai, south of Canaan. On Mount Sinai, Yahweh had made a solemn covenant with Israel and gave them the law, which included the Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets in Yahweh’s own hand. Finally, Moses’s successor Joshua led the tribes across the Jordan river into Canaan; they destroyed all the Canaanite cities and villages, killed the native population and made the land their own.

However, Israeli archaeologists, who have been excavating the region since 1967, have found no evidence to corroborate this story: there is no sign of foreign invasion or mass destruction, and nothing to indicate a large-scale change of population. The scholarly consensus is that the story of the Exodus is not historical. There are many theories. Egypt had ruled the Canaanite city states since the nineteenth century BCE, and had withdrawn at the end of the thirteenth century, shortly before the first settlements appeared in the formerly uninhabitable highlands. We first hear about a people called “Israel” in this region in about 1200 BCE. Some scholars argue that the Israelites were refugees from the failing city-states on the coastal plains. They may have been joined there by other tribes from the south, who brought with them their god Yahweh, who seems to have originated in the southern regions around Sinai. Those who had lived under Egyptian rule in the Canaanite cities may have felt that they had indeed been liberated from Egypt—but in their own country.

J and E were not modern historical accounts. Like Homer and Herodotus, the authors included legends about divine figures and mythological elements that try to explain the meaning of what had happened. Their narratives are more than history. From the very beginning, there was no single, authoritative message in what would become the Bible. The J and E authors interpreted the saga of Israel very differently, and later editors made no attempt to iron out these inconsistencies and contradictions. Subsequently historians would feel at liberty to add to the JE narrative and make radical alterations.

In both J and E, for example, very different views of God were expressed. J used anthropomorphic imagery that would embarrass later exegetes. Yahweh strolls in the Garden of Eden like a Middle Eastern potentate, shuts the door of Noah’s ark, gets angry and changes his mind. But in E there was a more transcendent view of Elohim, who scarcely even ‘speaks’ but prefers to send an angel as his messenger. Later Israelite religion would become passionately monotheist, convinced that Yahweh was the only God. But neither the J or E authors believed this. Originally Yahweh had been a member of the Divine Assembly of “holy ones,” over which El, the high god of Canaan, had presided with his consort Asherah. Each nation of the region had its own patronal deity, and Yahweh was the “holy one of Israel.” By the eighth century, Yahweh had ousted El in the Divine Assembly, and ruled alone over a host of “holy ones,” who were warriors in his heavenly army. None of the other gods could measure up to Yahweh in his fidelity to his people. Here he had no peers, no rivals. But the Bible shows that right up to the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586, Israelites also worshipped a host of other deities.

Abraham, a man of the south, not Moses, was the hero of J’s history. His career and the covenant God made with him looked forward to King David. But E was more interested in Jacob, a northern character, and his son Joseph, who was buried in Shechem. E did not include any of the primeval history—the creation of the world, Cain and Abel, the Flood and the rebellion at the Tower of Babel—that was so important to J. E’s hero was Moses, who was more widely revered in the north than the south. But neither J nor E mentioned the law that Yahweh gave to Moses on Sinai, which would become so crucial later. There was as yet no reference to the Ten Commandments. Almost certainly, as in other Near Eastern legend, the heavenly tablets given to Moses originally contained some esoteric cultic lore. For J and E, Sinai was important because Moses and the Elders had a vision of Yahweh on the mountaintop.

By the eighth century, a small group of prophets wanted to make the people worship Yahweh exclusively. But this was not a popular move. As a warrior, Yahweh was unsurpassed, but he had no expertise in agriculture, so when they wanted a good harvest, it was natural for the people of Israel and Judah to have recourse to the cult of the local fertility god Baal and his sister-spouse Anat, practising the usual ritual sex to make the fields fertile. In the early eighth century, Hosea, a prophet in the northern kingdom, inveighed against this practice. His wife Gomer had served as a sacred prostitute of Baal and the pain he felt at her infidelity was, he imagined, similar to what Yahweh experienced when his people went whoring after other gods. Israelites must return to Yahweh, who could supply all their needs. It was no use hoping to appease him by temple ritual: Yahweh wanted cultic loyalty (hesed) not animal sacrifice. If they continued to be unfaithful to Yahweh, the kingdom of Israel would be destroyed by the mighty Assyrian empire, their towns laid waste, and their children exterminated.

Assyria had established unprecedented power in the Middle East; it regularly devastated the territories of recalcitrant vassals and deported the population. The prophet Amos, who preached in Israel in the mid-eighth century, argued that Yahweh was leading a holy war against Israel to punish its systemic injustice. As Hosea condemned the widely respected cult of Baal, Amos turned the traditional cult of Yahweh the warrior on its head: he no longer reflexively took Israel’s side. Amos also poured scorn on the temple rituals of the northern kingdom. Yahweh was sick of noisy chanting and devout strumming of harps. Instead he wanted justice to “flow like water, and integrity like an unfailing stream.” From this early date, the biblical writings were subversive and iconoclastic, challenging prevailing orthodoxy.

Isaiah of Jerusalem was more conventional; his oracles conformed entirely to the royal ideology of the House of David. He had received his prophetic commission in about 740 in the temple, where he saw Yahweh, surrounded by his Divine Assembly of celestial beings, and heard the cherubim crying “holy [qaddosh] holy, holy!” Yahweh was “separate,” “other” and radically transcendent. Yahweh gave Isaiah a grim message: the countryside would be devastated and the inhabitants put to flight. But Isaiah had no fear of Assyria. He had seen that Yahweh’s “glory” filled the earth; as long as he was enthroned in his temple on Mount Zion, Judah was safe, because Yahweh, the divine warrior, was once again on the march, fighting for his people.

But the northern kingdom enjoyed no such immunity. When the king of Israel joined a local confederacy to block Assyria’s western advance in 732, the Assyrian king TiglethPileser III descended and seized most of Israel’s territory. Ten years later, in 722, after another rebellion, the Assyrian armies destroyed Samaria, Israel’s beautiful capital, and deported the ruling class. The kingdom of Judah, which had become an Assyrian vassal, remained secure, and refugees fled to Jerusalem from the north, probably bringing with them the E saga and the recorded oracles of Hosea and Amos, who had foreseen the tragedy. These were included in Judah’s royal archive where, at some later date, scribes combined the “Elohist” tradition with J’s southern epic.

During these dark years, Isaiah was comforted by the imminent birth of a royal baby, a sign that God was still with the House of David: “A young woman [ almah ] is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call ImmanuEl [God-with-us].” His birth would even be a beacon of hope, “a great light,” to the traumatized people of the north, who “walked in darkness” and “deep shadow.”. When the baby was born, he was in fact named Hezekiah, and Isaiah imagined the entire Divine Assembly celebrating the royal child, who, like all the Davidic kings, would become a divine figure and a member of their heavenly council: on his coronation day he would be called “Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.”

Although the biblical historians revere Hezekiah as a devout king who tried to outlaw the worship of foreign gods, his foreign policy was a disaster. After an ill-advised rebellion against Assyria in 701, Jerusalem was almost destroyed, the countryside brutally laid waste and Judah reduced to a tiny rump state. But under King Manasseh (687-42 BCE), who became a vassal of Assyria, Judah’s fortunes improved. In an attempt to integrate with the empire, he reversed his father’s religious jurisdiction, setting up altars to Baal, erecting an effigy of Asherah and statues of the divine horses of the sun in the Jerusalem temple, and instituting child sacrifice outside the city. The biblical historian was horrified by these developments, but few of Manasseh’s subjects would have been surprised, since most of them had similar icons in their own homes. Despite Judah’s prosperity, there was widespread unrest in the rural districts that had borne the brunt of the Assyrian invasion, and after Manasseh’s death the smouldering discontent erupted in a palace coup, which deposed Manasseh’s son Amon and put his eight-year-old son Josiah on the throne.

By this time, Assyria was in decline and Egypt in the ascendancy. In 656 the Pharoah forced Assyrian troops to withdraw from the Levant and the Judahites watched with astonishment, as the Assyrians vacated the territories of the former kingdom of Israel. While the great powers fought for supremacy, Judah was left to its own devices. There was a surge of national feeling and in 622 Josiah began to repair Solomon’s temple, the symbolic memorial of Judah’s golden age. During the construction, the high priest Hilkiah made a momentous discovery and hurried with the news to Shaphan, the royal scribe. He had found the “scroll of the law” (sefer torah), which Yahweh had given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the older stories, there was no mention of Yahweh’s teaching (torah) being committed to writing. In the JE accounts, Moses had passed on Yahweh’s directions by word of mouth and the people had responded orally. The seventh-century reformers, however, added verses to the JE saga which explained that Moses “put all the commands of Yahweh into writing” and read the sefer torah to the people. Hilkiah and Shaphan claimed that this scroll had been lost and its teachings never implemented, but its providential discovery meant that Judah could make a new start. Hilkiah’s document probably contained an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, which described Moses delivering a “second law” (Greek: deuteronomion) shortly before his death. But instead of being an ancient work, Deuteronomy was an entirely new scripture. It was not unusual for reformers to attribute new ideas to a great figure of the past. The Deuteronomists believed that they were speaking for Moses at this time of transition. In other words, this was what Moses would say to Josiah if he were delivering a “second law” today.

Instead of simply recording the status quo, for the first time an Israelite text was calling for radical change. After the scroll had been read aloud to him, Josiah tore his garments in distress and immediately inaugurated a programme that followed Yahweh’s new torah to the letter. He burned down Manasseh’s abominations in the temple and, because the Judahites had always regarded the royal shrines of the northern kingdom as illegitimate, demolished the temples of Bethel and Samaria, killed the priests in the rural sanctuaries and contaminated their altars.

It is instructive that the Deuteronomists, who pioneered the idea of scriptural orthodoxy, introduced startlingly new legislation, which—had it been implemented—would have transformed the ancient faith of Israel. To ensure purity of worship, they tried to centralize the cult, create a secular judiciary independent of the temple, and strip the king of his sacral powers, making him subject to the torah like everybody else. The Deuteronomists actually changed the wording of earlier law codes, sagas and liturgical texts to make them endorse their proposals. In some ways, Deuteronomy, with its secular sphere, centralized state and constitutional monarchy, reads like a modern document. It was even more passionate about social justice than Amos and its theology more rational than the old cultic mythology of Judah: you could not see God and he did not live in a humanly constructed building. Israelites did not own their land because Yahweh dwelt on Zion, but because the people observed his commandments.

The reformers did not use their scripture to conserve tradition, as is often done today, but to introduce radical change. They also rewrote the history of Israel, adding fresh material that adapted the JE epic to the seventh century, paying special attention to Moses, who had liberated the Israelites from Egypt, at a time when Josiah hoped to become independent of Pharaoh. The climax of the Exodus story was no longer a theophany on Sinai, but the gift of the sefer torah and the tablets that Yahweh gave to Moses were now inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The Deuteronomists extended the Exodus story to include Joshua’s conquest of the northern highlands—a blueprint for Josiah’s reconquering of the northern territories. They also wrote a history of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the books of Samuel and Kings, arguing that the Davidic monarchs were the only legitimate rulers of the whole of Israel. Their story culminated in the reign of Josiah, a new Moses and a greater king than David.

Not everybody was enamoured of the new torah. The prophet Jeremiah, who began his ministry at about this time, admired Josiah and agreed with many of the reformers’ aims, but had reservations about a written scripture: the “lying pen of the scribes” could subvert tradition by a mere sleight of the pen and a written text could encourage a superficial mode of thought that concentrated on information rather than wisdom. In a study of modern Jewish movements, the eminent scholar Haym Soloveitchik argues that the transition from an oral tradition to written texts can lead to religious stridency by giving the reader an unrealistic certainty about essentially ineffable matters. Deuteronomist religion was certainly strident. The reformers depicted Moses preaching a policy of violent suppression of the native Canaanites: “You must destroy completely all the places where the nations you dispossess have served their gods . . . you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, set fire to the carved images of their gods and wipe out their name from that place.” They described with approval Joshua massacring the people of Ai as though he were an Assyrian general:

When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open ground and where they followed them into the wilderness, and when all to a man had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and slaughtered all its people. The number of those who fell that day, men and women together, was twelve thousand, all people of Ai.

The Deuteronomists had absorbed the violent ethos of a region that had experienced nearly two hundred years of Assyrian brutality. It was an early indication that scripture reflects the failures as well as the high points of the religious quest.

Although these texts were revered, they had not yet become “scripture.” People felt free to alter older writings and there was no canon of prescribed sacred books. But they were beginning to express the community’s highest aspirations. The Deuteronomists who celebrated Josiah’s reform were convinced that Israel was on the brink of a glorious new era but in 622 he was killed in a skirmish with the Egyptian army. Within a few years, the Babylonians had conquered Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and became the major power in the region. Judah’s brief independence was over. For a few decades the kings veered in their allegiance between Egypt and Babylon. Many still believed that Judah would be safe as long as Yahweh dwelt in his temple, even though Jeremiah warned them that to defy Babylon was suicidal. Finally, after two futile rebellions, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586.

In exile, the scribes pored over the scrolls in the royal archive. The Deuteronomists added passages to their history to account for the disaster, which they attributed to Manasseh’s religious policies. But some of the priests, who in losing their temple had lost their whole world, looked back to the past and found a reason for hope. Scholars call this priestly layer of the Penateuch “P,” though we do not know whether P was an individual or, as seems more likely, an entire school. P revised the JE narrative and added the books of Numbers and Leviticus, drawing upon older documents—genealogies, laws and ritual texts—some written down, others orally transmitted. The most important of his sources was the “Holiness Code” (a collection of seventh-century laws) and the Tabernacle Document, a description of Yahweh’s tent shrine during the Israelites’ years in the Sinai wilderness, which was central to P’s vision.53 Some of P’s material was very old indeed, but he created an entirely new vision for his demoralized people.

P understood the Exodus story very differently from the Deuteronomists. The climax was not the sefer torah but the promise of God’s continual presence during their desert years. God had brought Israel out of Egypt simply in order “to live [skn] among them.” The verb shakan meant: “to lead the life of a nomadic tent dweller.” Instead of residing in a permanent building, God preferred to “tent” with his wandering people; he was not tied to one place, but could accompany them wherever they went. After P’s revision, the book of Exodus ended with the completion of the tabernacle: the “glory” of Yahweh filled the tent and the cloud of his presence covered it. God, P implied, was still with his people in their latest “wandering” in Babylonia. Instead of ending his saga with Joshua’s conquest, P left the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land. Israel was not a people because it dwelt in a particular country, but because it lived in the presence of its God.

In P’s revised history, the exile was the latest in a sequence of migrations: Adam and Eve had been expelled from Eden; Cain condemned to a life of homeless vagrancy after murdering Abel; the human race had been scattered at the Tower of Babel; Abraham had left Ur; the tribes had emigrated to Egypt, and eventually lived as nomads in the desert. In their latest dispersal, the exiles must build a community to which the presence could return. In a startling innovation, P suggested that the entire people observe the purity laws of the temple personnel.58 Everybody must live as though he were serving the divine presence. Israel must be “holy” (qaddosh) and “separate” like Yahweh, so P crafted a way of life based on the principle of separation. The exiles must live apart from their Babylonian neighbours, observing distinctive rules of diet and cleanliness. Then—and only then—Yahweh would live among them: “I will place my tabernacle in your midst,” God told them, “and I will walk about among you.” Babylonia could become another Eden, where God had walked with Adam in the cool of the evening.

Holiness also had a strong ethical component. Israelites must respect the sacred “otherness” of every single creature. Nothing could be enslaved or possessed, therefore, not even the land.61 Israelites must not despise the foreigner: “If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must count him as one of your own countrymen and love him as yourself—for you were once strangers in Egypt.” Unlike the Deuteronomists, P’s vision was inclusive. His narrative of alienation and exile constantly stressed the importance of reconciliation with former enemies. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his most famous work, the first chapter of Genesis, in which P describes Elohim creating heaven and earth in six days.

This was not a literal, historically accurate account of creation. When the final editors put the extant biblical text together, they placed P’s story next to J’s creation narrative, which is quite different. In the ancient world, cosmogony was a therapeutic rather than a factual genre. People recited creation myths at a sickbed, at the start of a new project, or at the beginning of a new year—whenever they felt the need for an infusion of the divine potency that had, somehow, brought all things into being. P’s story would have been consoling to the exiles who felt that Yahweh had been ignominiously defeated by Marduk, god of Babylon. Unlike Marduk, whose creation of the world had to be repeated annually at New Year in spectacular rites in the ziggurat of Esagila, Yahweh was not obliged to fight other gods to create an ordered cosmos; the ocean was not a frightening sea-goddess like Tiamat, who fought Marduk to her bitter end, but simply the raw material of the universe; the sun, moon and stars were not deities but mere creatures and functionaries. Yahweh’s victory did not have to be renewed: he finished his work in six days and rested on the seventh.

This was no bombastic polemic, however; there was no taunting, no aggression. In the ancient Near East, gods usually created the cosmos after a series of violent, terrifying battles; indeed, the Israelites told stories of Yahweh slaying divine sea-monsters at the beginning of time. But P’s creation myth was non-violent. God simply spoke a word of command and one by one the components of our world came into being. After each day, God saw that all he had made was tov, “good.” On the last day, Yahweh confirmed that everything was “very good” and blessed his entire creation, including, presumably, the Babylonians. Everybody should behave like Yahweh, resting calmly on the Sabbath, serving God’s world and blessing every single one of his creatures.

But another prophet, who preached in Babylonia during the second half of the sixth century, espoused a more aggressive theology and could not wait to see the goyim, the foreign nations, marching behind Israel in chains. We do not know his name, but because his oracles were preserved in the same scroll as Isaiah’s, he is usually known as the Second Isaiah. The exile was drawing to a close. In 539, Cyrus, king of Persia, defeated the Babylonians and became the master of the largest empire the world had yet seen. Because he promised to repatriate all deportees, Second Isaiah called him Yahweh’s meshiah, his “anointed” king. For Israel’s sake, Yahweh had summoned Cyrus as his instrument and caused a revolution of power in the region. Could any other god compete with him? No, Yahweh declared scornfully to the gods of the goyim, “you are nothing and your works are nothingness.” He had become the only God. “I am Yahweh, unrivalled,” he announced proudly. “There is no other god besides me.” This is the first unequivocally monotheistic statement in what was becoming the Hebrew Bible. But its triumphalism reflected the more belligerent characteristics of religion. Second Isaiah relied upon a mythical tradition that had little connection with the rest of the Pentateuch. He revived the ancient tales of Yahweh slaying sea dragons to order primordial chaos, declaring that Yahweh was about to repeat this cosmic triumph by defeating the historical enemies of Israel. He did not, however, reflect the views of the whole exiled community. Four “Servant Songs” punctuated Second Isaiah’s exuberant prophecies. In these, a mysterious figure, who called himself Yahweh’s servant, was entrusted with the task of establishing justice throughout the world—but in a non-violent campaign. He was despised and rejected, but his suffering would redeem his people. The servant had no desire to subjugate the goyim, but would become “the light of the nations,” and enable God’s salvation to reach to the ends of the earth.

Cyrus fulfilled his promise. Towards the end of 539, a few months after his coronation, a small party of exiles set out for Jerusalem. Most of the Israelites chose to stay in Babylon, where they would make an important contribution to the Hebrew scriptures. The returning exiles brought home nine scrolls that traced the history of their people from the creation until their deportation: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings; they also brought anthologies of the oracles of the prophets (neviim) and a hymn book, which included new psalms composed in Babylon. It was still not complete, but the exiles had in their possession the bare bones of the Hebrew Bible.

The Golah, the community of returning exiles, were convinced that their revised religion was the only authentic version of Yahwism. But the Israelites who had not been deported to Babylonia, most of whom lived in the territories of the former northern kingdom, could not share this vision and would resent this exclusive attitude. The new temple, a rather modest shrine, finally completed in 520 BCE, made Yahwism a temple faith once again. But another spirituality began, very gradually, to develop alongside it. With the help of those Israelites who had remained in Babylonia, the Golah were about to transform their medley of texts into scripture.