Excerpts from Bible as History

V. When Israel Was an Empire from David to Solomon

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V. When Israel Was

an Empire from David to Solomon.

19. David, a great king.

A man of genius — from armour-bearer to monarch — unintentional military aid for Assyria — from the Orontes to Ezion-Geber — revenge at Beth-Shan — new buildings with casemated walls — finding of the Pool of Gibeon — Jerusalem fell by a stratagem — Warren discovers a shaft leading to the city — the Sopher kept the “Imperial Annals” — was David called David? — ink as a novelty — Palestine's climate is unpropitious for keeping records.
So all the elders of Israel came to the king to Hebron: and king David made a league with them in Hebron before the Lord. And they anointed David king over Israel... and he reigned forty years” (2 Sam. 5:3-4).
The new king was so versatile that it is difficult to decide which of his qualities deserves most admiration. It would be just as difficult to find as gifted and rounded a personality within the last few centuries of our own times. Where is the man who could claim equal fame as soldier, statesman, poet and musician?

Certain it is, in any case, that no people were more devoted to music than the inhabitants of Canaan. Palestine and Syria were renowned for their music as we learn from Egyptian and Mediterranean sources. Part of the essential goods and chattels which the group of members of the caravan, depicted in the wall painting at Beni-Hasan, took with them on their journey to Egypt, were musical instruments. The ordinary household instrument was the eight-stringed lyre.

The lyre travelled from Canaan to Egypt and Greece.
In the New Kingdom of Egypt (1580-1085 B.C.) inscriptions and reliefs deal with a series of themes connected with Canaanite musicians and instruments. Canaan was an inexhaustible treasure house of musicians, from which court chamberlains and seneschals obtained singers and even orchestras to provide entertainment for their masters on the Nile, the Euphrates and the Tigris. Above all ladies' bands and ballerinas were in great demand. Artists with international engagements were by no means a rarity. And King Hezekiah of Judah knew very well what he was doing in 701 B.C. when he sent men and women singers to Sennacherib the formidable king of Assyria.

From the depths of despair, from their hopeless situation under the yoke of the Philistines, Israel climbed within a few decades to a position of power, esteem and greatness. All of that was the work of David. He first appears, completely unknown, as Saul's armour-bearer, becomes a condottiere, then a fierce maquis fighter at war with the Philistines and ends up as an old man seated on the throne of a people that had become a great power.

As happened a few centuries earlier at the time of the conquest of Canaan, David's efforts were assisted by favourable external circumstances. Just after the beginning of the last millennium B.C. there was no state in Mesopotamia or Asia Minor, Syria or Egypt which was in a position to stop an expansion of Canaanite territory.

After the death of Ramesses XI, the last of the Ramessid dynasty, about 1080 B.C. Egypt fell into the greedy hands of a priestly clique who ruled the land from Thebes. Vast wealth had come into the possession of the Temple.

A hundred years earlier, as the Harris Papyrus informs us, 2 per cent of the population was employed as temple slaves and 15 per cent of agricultural land was temple property. Their herds of cattle amounted to half a million head. The priests had at their disposal a fleet of eighty-eight vessels, fifty-three workshops and wharves, 169 villages and towns. The pomp with which the daily ritual of the great deities was carried out beggared all description. To make the temple scales alone, on which the sacrifices at Heliopolis were weighed, 212 pounds of gold and 461 pounds of silver were used. To look after the luxury gardens of Amun in the old royal city of Per-Ramesses in the delta 8,000 slaves were employed.

We get some idea of Egypt's status in the eyes of the outside world during this priestly regime from a unique document, the travel diary of Wen-Amun, an Egyptian envoy, dating from 1080 B.C. Wen-Amun's mission was to get cedar wood from Phoenicia for the sacred barge of the god Amun in Thebes. Herihor, the high priest, furnished him with only a small amount of gold and silver but with a picture of Amun, which he obviously expected to be more effective.

The frightful experiences which Wen-Amun had to go through on his journey have left their mark in his report. In the seaports he was treated like a beggar and an outlaw, robbed, insulted and almost murdered. He, an ambassador of Egypt, whose predecessors had always been received with the greatest pomp and the utmost deference.

At last Wen-Amun, having had his money stolen on the way, reached the end of his journey. “I came to the port of Byblos. The prince of Byblos sent to me to tell me: 'Get out of my harbour'.”

This went on for nineteen days. Wen-Amun in desperation was on the point of returning to Egypt “when the harbour master came to me and said: 'The prince will see you tomorrow!' When tomorrow came he sent for me and I was brought into his presence.... I found him seated in his upper room, with his back leaning against a window.... He said to me: 'What have you come here for?' I replied: 'I have come to get timber for the splendid great barge of Amun-Re, the king of the gods. Your father gave it, your grandfather gave it, and you must also give it.' He said to me: 'It is true that they gave it.... Yes, my family supplied this material, but then Pharaoh sent six ships here laden with the produce of Egypt.... As far as I am concerned I am not your servant, nor the servant of him who sent you.... What kind of beggar's journey is this that you have been sent on!' I replied: 'Don't talk nonsense! This is no beggar's errand on which I have been sent.'”

In vain Wen-Amun insisted on Egypt's power and fame, and tried to beat down the prince's price for the timber. For lack of hard cash he had to bargain with oracles and a picture of the god which was supposed to guarantee long life and good health. It was only when a messenger sent by Wen-Amun arrived from Egypt with silver and gold vessels, fine linen, rolls of papyrus, cow hides, ropes, as well as twenty sacks of lentils and thirty baskets of fish, that the prince permitted the required quantity of cedars to be felled.

“In the third month of summer they dragged them down to the sea shore. The prince came out and said to me: 'Now, there is the last of your timber and it is all ready for you. Be so good as to get it loaded up and that will not really take very long. See that you get on your way and do not make the bad time of year an excuse for remaining here.”

David had nothing to fear from a country whose ambassador had to put up with disrespect of this sort. He advanced far into the south and conquered the kingdom of Edom, which had once refused Moses permission to pass through it on the “King's Highway” (2 Sam. 8:14). This meant for David an accession of territory of considerable economic significance. The Arabah desert, which stretches from the south end of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqabah, is rich in copper and iron, and what David needed most of all was iron ore. His most dangerous opponents, the Philistines, had a monopoly of iron in their clutches (1 Sam. 13:19-20). Whoever controlled Edom could break the Philistine monopoly. David wasted no time: “And David prepared iron in abundance for the nails for the doors of the gates, and for the joinings: and brass in abundance without weight” (1 Chron. 22:3).

The most important caravan route from South Arabia, the famous “Incense Road,” likewise terminated in the south of Edom. By pressing forward to the shores of the Gulf of Aqabah the sea route lay open to him across the Red Sea to the remote shores of South Arabia and East Africa.

The situation was also favourable for a northward advance.

In the broad plains at the foot of Hermon and in the fertile valleys which lay in front of Antilebanon, Arab desert tribes had settled down and become static. They belonged to a race which was destined to play an important role in Israel's life, the Aramaeans, called simply Syrians in our Bible. They had founded city-states and smallish kingdoms as far down as the river Yarmuk, south of the Lake of Galilee over in Transjordan.

About 1000 B.C. they were in the process of reaching out eastward into Mesopotamia. In the course of it they came up against the Assyrians, who were within the next few centuries to become the strongest power in the ancient world. After the downfall of Babylonia, the Assyrians had subjugated Mesopotamia as far as the upper reaches of the Euphrates. Cuneiform texts recovered from palaces on the Tigris and dating from this period mention Assyria as being threatened by danger from the west. These were the Aramaeans whose thrusting attacks were made with ever increasing force.

In face of this situation David pushed north through Transjordan right up to the Orontes. The Bible says: “And David smote Hadarezer king of Zobah unto Hamath, as he went to stablish his dominion by the river Euphrates” (1 Chron. 18:3). Reference to contemporary Assyrian texts shows how accurately these words in the Bible describe the historical situation. King David attacked the Aramaean king as he was on his way to conquer Assyrian territory on the Euphrates.

Without being aware of it David was aiding those same Assyrians who later wiped out the kingdom of Israel.

The frontier posts of Israel were moved forward by David to the fertile valley of the Orontes. His most northerly sentries patrolled Lake Horns at the foot of the Lebanon, where now petroleum gurgles through the great pipelines from distant Kirkuk. From this point it was 400 miles as the crow flies to Ezion-Geber on the Red Sea, the most southerly point in the kingdom.

Excavations have revealed plenty of traces of the acquisitions and expansion of the kingdom under David. There is a clear trail of evidence which accompanies his advance, including the burning of the cities of the Plain of Jezreel. Not much later than 1000 B.C. Beth-Shan, together with its pagan sanctuaries, was levelled to the ground. Archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania dug up on these sites of ruthless fighting, shattered temples, deep layers of ashes on top of ruined walls, ritual objects and pottery belonging to the Philistines. David's vengeance administered a crushing blow to the city which had compassed the shameful end of the first king of Israel, a blow from which it did not recover for many years to come. There is no indication above the layer of ashes which points to any habitation having existed there during the centuries immediately following.

Various building projects dating from the earlier years of David's reign remain in some state of preservation, principally fortresses in Judah which had been erected for defence against the Philistines. The structures clearly reflect the pattern of Saul's stronghold in Gibeah. They have the same rough-hewn casemated walls.

Seven miles north of Jerusalem, American excavations in 1956 brought to light not only traces of the walls of the town of Gibeah, which is so frequently mentioned in the Bible, but also uncovered the scene of a bloody encounter in these olden days. As we are told in II Samuel, once upon a time on this spot there took place a murderous hand-to-hand combat between supporters of the rival generals Joab and Abner — twelve on each side, the one lot on the side of David, the other owing allegiance to the surviving son of Saul. According to 2 Sam. 2:13, they “met together by the pool of Gibeon.” Beneath a field of tomatoes in el-Jib, as the place is now called, Professor J. B. Pritchard, of Columbia University, discovered the “Pool of Gibeon,” apparently in its day a well known spot. He found a circular shaft, over thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet deep, which had been driven vertically into bed rock. A spiral path led down a ramp cut into the inside wall. Below that a winding staircase, with two openings for light and air, descended for a further forty-five feet to the reservoir itself, chiselled out of solid limestone. When the rubble which covered the whole lay-out had been cleared away, the great cistern began to fill slowly again with water from the fissures in the rock as it had done 3,000 years ago. This Biblical “Pool of Gibeon” had also provided the town with an ample supply of fresh drinking water during an emergency or in time of siege.

Valuable evidence as to the celebrated wealth of the place — “because Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities” (Josh. 10:2) — was collected by the American scholars from among the rubble of the vast cistern. It is now clear that the source of Gibeon's prosperity was a flourishing and well organised wine trade. Sixty handles belonging to clay wine-pitchers, together with the appropriate clay stoppers and fillers, were stamped in Indent Hebrew characters with firms' trade marks — among them vintners with genuine Biblical names. Repeatedly the stamp of “Gibeon” cropped up and a word that probably means walled vineyard” and might indicate a wine of special quality Other handles again bore the names of towns in Judah, like Jencho, Succoth and Ziph (Josh. 15:24) to which the various consignments were to be delivered.

Quite near the reservoir, further diggings in the winter season of 1959-60 led to the discovery of extensive wine cellars. Sixty-six almost circular cavities about six feet deep and the same in diameter had been carved out of the rock and sealed with round stone bungs. Some of these cellars had obviously been used as wine presses for trampling out the grapes; other cavities, protected by a waterproof cover, could be identified as fermentation vats. The total storage capacity so far discovered approaches 50,000 gallons.

In view of this new evidence of what was at one time a flourishing wine industry at Gibeon, a hitherto apparently insignificant point in the Biblical narrative acquires fresh significance. It concerns an incident which took place while the Israelites were bent on conquest of Canaan. We are told Josh. 9:3-5 that “when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done unto Jericho and to Ai they did work wilily... and took... wine bottles, old and rent and bound up... and old garments upon them.” In this guise they appeared before Joshua and succeeded in hiding from him both where they came from and what a prosperous place it was.

Finally, in Jerusalem, later David's capital, the foundations of a tower and large sections of the revetment certainly point to David as the builder. “So David dwelt in the fort and called it the city of David. And David built round about....”

The romantic manner in which the stoutly guarded stronghold of Jerusalem fell into David's hands was brought to light last century partly by chance and partly by the scouting proclivities of a British army captain.

On the east side of Jerusalem where the rock slopes down into the Kidron valley lies the “Ain Sitti Maryam,” the “Fountain of the Virgin Mary.” In the Old Testament it is called “Gihon,” “bubbler,” and it has always been the main water supply for the inhabitants of the city. The road to it goes past the remains of a small mosque and into a vault. Thirty steps lead down to a little basin in which the pure water from the heart of the rock is gathered.

In 1867 Captain Warren, in company with a crowd of pilgrims, visited the famous spring, which, according to the legend, is the place where Mary washed the swaddling clothes of her little Son. Despite the semi-darkness Warren noticed on this visit a dark cavity in the roof, a few yards above the spot where the water flowed out of the rock. Apparently no one had ever noticed this before because when Warren asked about it nobody could tell him anything.

Filled with curiosity he went back to the Virgin Fountain next day equipped with a ladder and a long rope. He had no idea that an adventurous and somewhat perilous quest lay ahead of him.

Behind the spring a narrow shaft led off at first horizontally and then straight up into the rock. Warren was an alpine expert and well acquainted with this type of chimney climbing. Carefully, hand over hand, he made his way upwards. After about 40 feet the shaft suddenly came to an end. Feeling his way in the darkness Warren eventually found a narrow passage. Crawling on all fours he followed it. A number of steps had been cut in the rock. After some time he saw ahead of him a glimmering of light. He reached a vaulted chamber which contained nothing but old jars and glass bottles covered in dust. He forced himself through a chink in the rock and found himself in broad daylight in the middle of the city, with the Fountain of the Virgin lying far below him.

Closer investigation by Parker, who in 1918 went from the United Kingdom under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund, showed that this remarkable arrangement dated from the second millennium B.C. The inhabitants of old Jerusalem had been at pains to cut a corridor through the rock in order that in time of siege they could reach in safety the spring that meant life or death to them.

Warren's curiosity had discovered the way which 3,000 years earlier David had used to take the fortress of Jerusalem by surprise. David's scouts must have known about this secret passage, as we can now see from a Biblical reference which was previously obscure. David says: “Whosoever getteth up to the gutter and smiteth the Jebusites...” (2 Sam. 5:8). The Authorise Version translated as “gutter” the Hebrew word “sinnor,” which means a “shaft” or a “channel.”

Warren solved only half the problem, however, for the opening of the shaft lay outside the walls which in his day were thought to be those of the old Jebusite Jerusalem dating from before David's time. Anybody who had climbed through the shaft would still have found himself facing the Jebusite wall. It was not until the sixties of this century that the extensive excavations of Kathleen M. Kenyon cleared the matter up. The wall of what had been considered the most ancient Jerusalem was, in fact, not so old as had been thought. A much older wall was revealed which dated from before David's day and this wall ran along the slope below the opening to the entrance to the spring. David's men, who had climbed through the shaft, consequently emerged not in front of but a good distance behind what was actually Jerusalem's oldest wall; they were right inside the town which they were aiming to capture. This confirms the second Book of Samuel 5:8 and thus removes much of the puzzling nature of this passage.

It was in David's reign that the exact recording of Old Testament history began. “We must regard the David narratives as largely historical,” writes Martin Noth, who is an extremely critical German theologian.

The increasing clarity and lucidity of contemporary records is closely associated with the gradual creation of a political system which was David's great achievement and something new for Israel. A loose federation of clans had become a nation: a settlers' colony grew into an empire which filled Palestine and Syria.

For this extensive territory David created a Civil Service, at the head of which, next to the Chancellor, stood the Sopher. “Sopher” means “writer of chronicles” (2 Sam. 8:16-17). A writer in the second highest position in the state!

In face of the millions of secretaries and typists in the modern world, and the thousands of tons of paper that they put into their machines and cover with type every day, the legendary glory of the “scribe” has long since departed. Not even the enviable post of chief secretary to an oil magnate can be compared with that of her ancient colleague either in salary or still less in influence. It was only on the stage of the ancient orient that the scribes played the role of their profession incomparably and uniquely. And little wonder, considering how much depended on them. Mighty conquerors and rulers of great empires were their employers and they could neither read nor write!

This can clearly be seen from the style of the letters. It is not the person to whom the letter or message is sent who is addressed in the first instance. Greetings and good wishes from scribe to scribe take precedence. There is also a request to read out the contents of the letter distinctly, and, most important, correctly and under no circumstances to suppress any of it. How things were managed within this scribal sphere of authority is indicated by a vivid scene in the Foreign Office of Pharaoh Merenptah. The scribes' department is divided into three sections. In each of the two side aisles about ten secretaries sit tightly packed together. Some of them have one foot on a stool, great rolls of papyrus lie across their knees. The spacious middle section is reserved for the chief. A zealous slave keeps the troublesome flies off him with a fan. At the entrance stand two commissionaires. One is telling the other “Spray some water and keep the office cool. The chief is busy writing.”

No doubt the administrative office at the court of Jerusalem was considerably less impressive. The young state of Israel was still too rustic and too poor for that. Yet David's “recorder” must have been an important and awe-inspiring official. It was his job to compile the “Imperial Annals,” which doubtless were the basis of all the factual Biblical references to the administrative system and social structure under David. Among these are the great national census conducted on the approved Mari-plan (2 Sam. 24) as well as the information about his bodyguard of “Cherethites and Pelethites,” a kind of Swiss guard, which consisted of Cretans and Philistines (2 Sam. 8:18; 15:18; 20:7). Undoubtedly the “Sopher” would also be the first to write down the new name of his sovereign.

This name has presented a problem to the specialists, for they repeatedly came across a very similar word in texts from the Ancient East, texts from Man; the word “davidum.” Did this puzzling word mean “commander of an army,” “supreme commander,” “chief, and was David's name consequently no name at all but a title which had become a name when he mounted the throne? In addition, the Bible more than once mentions a certain Baal-hanan, the son of an Edomite king Saul (Gen. 36:38 and 1 Chron. 1:49). On the other hand, a certain Elhanan is reported as having vanquished David's adversary Goliath and on another occasion Goliath's brother (2 Sam. 21:19 and 1 Chron. 20:5). The names Baal-hanan and Elhanan obviously contain the names of the Canaanite gods Baal and El.

Was David's name then originally Baal-hanan or Elhanan and did he first take the name David after his accession to the throne? Thirty years ago a number of scholars were convinced of this, but since then greater caution has been shown, at least concerning the linguistic connection between the words “David” and “davidum,” for it has become apparent that “davidum” does not mean “commander of an army” or anything similar, but “defeat.” And nobody has ever thought of deriving the title of a commander from that word! Nor can it be accepted that personal names like Baal-hanan or Elhanan, elements of which are the names of Canaanite gods, would have met with the approval of the Biblical writers. The problem of David's name still remains unsolved.

This question of “writing” conjures up one of the arguments levelled by critics of the Bible. In Egypt waggon loads of papyrus have been found, similarly in Babylonia and Assyria mountains of cuneiform tablets — where then are the literary documents of Palestine?

Archaeologists and meteorologists may be permitted to answer this question.

About the beginning of the last millennium B.C. Canaan deserted its angular cuneiform script and the use of clumsy clay tablets in favour of a less cumbersome method of writing. Until then the text of the document had to be scratched in soft clay with a stylus. The clay had then to be baked or dried in the sun, a time-wasting procedure, before the bulk letters were ready for despatch. A new type of writing, with wavy lines, became more and more fashionable. This was the alphabet which we have already encountered in the attempts at writing made by the Semitic miners at Sinai. Stylus and clay were clearly unsuited, these new smoothly rounded letters. So they looked for new writing utensils and found them in their baked clay tablets inkpot and ink. Archaeologists call these little tablets with their flowing script “Ostraca.” They were replaced in special cases by papyrus, the most elegant writing material of the ancient world The Wen-Amun report shows how greatly this Egyptian export was in demand. The prince of Byblos received in return for his cedars 500 rolls of it: well over a mile of writing paper!

Palestine has a damp climate in winter on account of its rainfall. In such a climate ink is very quickly washed off hare clay, and papyrus soon disintegrates. Greatly to the distress of archaeologists, scientists and historians, all of them thirsting for knowledge, practically the sum total of Canaan's records and documents has been lost to posterity for this reason. The fact that the archaeologists were able to produce such an impressive haul from Egypt is simply the result of its proximity to the desert and the unusually dry climate.

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