Ethical Issues in the Historical Books of Tanach;
JOSHUA, JUDGES, SAMUEL, KINGS (Nevi’im Rishonim)
books ostensibly are merely the history of Israel from the entry into the
Promised Land until the destruction of the Temple and the temporary loss
of independent statehood. In fact they are actually, in a specifically
Jewish sense, the most deeply religious and spiritual books of the Bible.
One does not have to be specifically Jewish to see or feel the religion
and spirituality in the revelations of the prophetic writings or in the
words of the Tehillim. They speak to all people, as evidenced by the fact
that the Bible is still the world's bestseller and there are millions of
non-Jews who regularly recite the Psalms. However, it is specifically and
intrinsically Jewish to understand that G-d is revealed in the prosaic
material, in the political, social and military events in the lives of
ordinary men and women, kings and leaders that are described in the Nevim
Rishonim. Here are described the ideology and religious thoughts in
Judaism, while in Chronicles we have the purely historical.
Usually the evil kings, both of Judah and Israel, are described as following in the ways of Yeravam ben Nevat, who broke away from the Davidic dynasty to form the Northern kingdom of Israel. In order to secure the new kingdom, he set up a golden calf at Dan in the north and at Bet-El in the south, as a substitute for the Temple in Yerushalayim. The armed forces that were introduced to prevent the people from going there were only abolished some 200 years later by Yoram, the last king of Israel. These calves were meant to represent a form of Hashem's worship that was legitimate and traditional rather than a revolt against Him. Their worship was made to seem a continuation of that which was introduced by Aharon during the wanderings in the desert. Yeravam was the first to introduce this idolatry thereby sinning and causing many others to sin, so the Tanach's verdict of the others who did the same, was: "He walked in the ways of Yeravam ben Nevat".
Achav was likewise considered to be the innovator of a form of idolatry. He sought to assimilate his kingdom into the culture of the surrounding nations by adopting the worship of Baal and Ashtarte. As we read throughout the book of Shoftim, soon after their entry into the land, the Israelites had worshipped local deities of the springs, fields and trees in addition to Hashem, in order to guarantee the fertility of their crops, their flocks and their progeny. Hashem was considered as the Lord Creator and national redeemer and as such to be far removed from the everyday affairs and needs of people; for that they needed these local and personal idols.
Achav raised Baal and Astarte, male and female as superior deities, so to speak rulers over these local gods but still in addition to Hashem. "How long will you walk haltingly between G-d and the Baal? If Hashem be G-d follow Him but if Baal, then follow him" is Eliyahu's challenge to Israel at that time (Melachim Alef 18:23). Achav claimed that everything that happened to man was accidental and pure chance so that there was no cause - mans actions, and no effect - Divine reward and punishment.
However, Menashe outdid them both, expanded the scope of idolatry and changed its nature and its purpose, as we see from the text that lists them in ascending order. "He rebuilt the bamot that his father had destroyed, erected altars to the baalim and made asheirot, and he prostrated in worship to the hosts of the heavens [thus deifying them to exclude Hashem] and built altars to them in the two courts [of Israelites and of Kohanim] in the Temple, [introducing a new form of idolatry worshipping the sun, moon and stars that was common to all the cultures of the Middle East. After his time we find all the prophets alluding to this form of idolatry]. Menashe passed his sons through fire; he practiced soothsaying, divination and sorcery [the ancestors of the fortune telling of all kinds practiced today]. And he led Judah astray to what was evil" (2 Chronicles, 33: 2-9).
He killed the prophet Yeshayahu who had fled when threatened by him. When discovered hiding in a hollow tree, the soldiers tried to cut down the tree but could only do so when they reached the place of his mouth. That mouth that had said "I am a man of unclean lips and among a people of unclean lips I dwell". Said Hashem,"You may judge yourself, but who gave you the right to speak that way about My People".
"Menashe did that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord"; from this we learn that he did additional personal sins unrelated to the people, since the verse does not say as usual, that he led them astray. He erected altars to many baalim and asherot thus outdoing Achav and deified the hosts of the heavens; in that he also outdid Achav" (Malbim, Melachim Bet 21:2).
All these were practiced by the Canaanites whom G-d drove out of the Holy Land because of their sins; we were warned against following their ways otherwise we would suffer their fate (Dvarim 18:9-13). Yet Menashe did more even than those nations, as he did these sins"le'hach'is", recognizing Hashem yet rebelling against Him (Sifra Vayikra 26:14). In recent history we have witnessed similar actions "le'hach'is". People who ate on Yom Kippur not because they were hungry but "le'hach'is", bread on Pesach not because they needed bread but"le'hach'is"; and they still exist.
When the Sages were discussing whether Menashe had a share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 10:12), Menashe said to them, "If you would have lived then at the time of such a lust for avoda zara, you would have clung to my coattails and followed me in that sin". The struggle against idolatry in all its forms is the kernel of the books of Neviim Rishonim and only ends with the destruction of the Temple and the exile. Our Sages teach that this yetzer hara in Israel, was weakened after that destruction; we see, however, that it persisted throughout the Far East. Indeed, many consider that modern Western society is under attack by various culture and ideologies that are rooted in those countries and that it is reverting to a pagan society after being weaned away from idolatry over the centuries, by the spread of Judaism.
This is the 62nd installment in Dr. Tamari’s series on “Tanach and its messages for our times”