The book of Yehoshua takes over where the Five Books of Moses (Chumash) end, and continues until the death of Yehoshua in the year 2516 – 1244 BCE; just as Yehoshua took over as the nation’s leader. Yehoshua’s first mission was to help the Jews regroup after their devastating loss of Moses, the greatest prophet in history, and lead them across the River Jordan into the Land of Israel.
At first glance, this is where Jewish history ends. The people crossed the river and triumphantly marched into their new home. They proceeded to live happily ever after (except for some minor trouble with the Romans a few years later). But in a sense, this is really where Jewish history begins. The forty years in the wilderness were forty years of intense Torah study, forty years of preparation for the demanding task of living Torah lives in a real, challenging country. There was going to be no shortage of problems and challenges.
Aside from the newly-returning Jews, there were a number of other nations living in Israel at the time. As you might imagine, they were not terribly excited about the new guys claiming to be their landlords. The process of dealing with these nations one at a time would fill nearly five hundred years. A great deal of the book of Yehoshua is devoted to the efforts of the people to conquer the land, and then to divide it among the twelve tribes.
The Jews, who had until now been slaves (and later, wilderness scholars) had to become farmers and landowners. Not just any farmers and landowners, but farmers and landowners who live at the high spiritual level they had attained in that great, forty-year wilderness Yeshiva. There were now new and unique problems presented by this new and unique set of circumstances. Helping this young nation mature was Yehoshua’s second task.
The ultimate task of Yehoshua (and of the leaders who would follow him over the next five centuries) was to lay the groundwork for the first Jewish commonwealth whose center would be the Temple in Jerusalem.
The story of Yehoshua is the story of the Jewish nation’s second step in its long journey towards perfection.
The book of Shoftim traces the history of the Jews in Israel from the death of Yehoshua (2516 – which was 1244 BCE) until 2830 (930 BCE). The book goes through two parallel tracks: the first track details what happened to the nation, and the second track describs each generation’s leader – its judge (i.e. Gideon, Samson, Debra, etc).
Just a quick glance at the book will show the reader the regular cycle of the period’s history:
1. The people slip into idol worship.
2. G-d becomes “angry” and removes His close protection and the Philistines or Midionites (the bullies next door) are suddenly threatening.
3. The people cry out to G-d, who sends a judge to
• bring the people back to the proper Divine service
• push the enemy back out of Jewish territory
(for an overview of the Judges from the words of the book itself, see Shoftim, chapter 2; 11 – 23).
That’s the first impression…and it’s not necessarily wrong. In fact, if you took a good, long look at the whole 3500-year history of the Jews you might find a very similar pattern. Traditional Judaism believes that the hand of G-d is active in the affairs of this world and that He cares about the actions of individual human beings. If we are righteous (by doing what G-d wants), then, by and large, G-d will deal with us accordingly. Therefore, it’s only natural that the fortunes of Israel in this world should be bound to its spiritual life. There are, of course, exceptions – as there are to any good rule but the rule is strong enough just the same.
What was a judge? He (or in the case of Debra: she) was more than just someone who sat on a bench all day handing out traffic fines. A judge was the biggest political, (often) religious, moral leader of his generation. Perhaps most importantly, most of them were links in the chain of our oral tradition.
For a good look at the institution of judges (shoftim), see the book “Samson’s Struggle,” by Rabbi Gershon Weiss (Kol HaYeshiva Publications).
So which book of Samuel do I mean? “Samuel #1” (meaning the first book of Samuel) or “Samuel #2” (the second book)? The answer is…both.
Jewish tradition doesn’t distinguish between the two parts of this book (nor between the “two” books of Kings or of Chronicles). The division was made by the first Christian printers in the fifteenth century and doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the meaning or structure of the Tanach.
Now that we know what it is we’re talking about, we can ask the main question: what is the book of Samuel all about?
It wouldn’t be right to say that the book is of Shmuel’s life’s story – because he died at the end of the first half of the book! It would probably be more accurate to describe the book as the history of the founding of the Kingdom of Israel – in which Shmuel was instrumental.
Until Shmuel, the Jews had no kings. There was a judge in each generation who provided a certain amount of moral leadership, but his power and influence weren’t nearly as those of a king. The Jews who Shmuel served wanted a king to judge them “like all the nations” (I Samuel, 8 5) and who would “lead them out into battle” (I Samuel, 8 20).
G-d also wanted the Jews to have a king; indeed, the nation’s destiny could not be reached without one. But G-d wanted a king for the Jews in the right time, when they were ready. The fact that the request for a king was “so we can be like all the nations” was a clear indication that something was very wrong. The job of the Jews is not to be “like all the nations” but to be the nation of G-d.
Nevertheless, G-d instructed Shmuel to anoint a truly great king – Saul. It was Saul who was given the task of destroying the nation of Amalek – a necessary preparation for the building of Jerusalem and the Temple. And it was Saul who, through his humane sensitivity, left the king of Amalek and the captured flocks alive (see I Samuel 15). That mistake cost Saul his kingdom, his chance at unimaginable greatness and eventually, his life. There’s a time for sensitivity and mercy…but not when G-d Himself has told you otherwise.
The man chosen by G-d to replace Saul was a young shephard from the tribe of Judah (Yehuda), David. David would bring Israel’s capital to Jerusalem and lay the groundwork for the Temple. David’s son, Solomon (Shlomo) would build the Temple amidst the peace and prosperity of the whole nation. Their descendants would rule (at least part of) the people of Israel until the destruction of the first Temple. This was a period which covered nearly 500 years.
The balance of the book of Shmuel, is the story of King David, his relationship with his father-in-law, Saul, his struggles with the enemies of Israel and with some of the members of his own family and with the coming of age of the first Jewish Commonwealth. The book begins with the birth of Shmuel (2832, or 928) and ends shortly before the death of King David (2924, or 836).
So what’s wrong with a monarchy?
Let’s look at the record. From the beginning of David’s reign (2884 – 876 BCE) until the destruction of the first Temple and death of the last king of Yehuda (3338 – 422 BCE), there were twenty one kings in Jerusalem.
Spanning a period of approximately half of that of the line of David, there were twenty one kings of the breakaway ten tribes. Every one of the northern kings was an idol worshipper, and a good majority of the population of the ten northern tribes followed their leaders’ example. Nearly half of the kings in Jerusalem were themselves idol worshippers (Achaz, Menashe, Amon etc.), some in a most disgusting and insane of ways.
But Jewish history is not just a story of kings and their families. It’s just that, to a large extent, the king was responsible for the religious life of his people. When a king was bad, most of the people went with him. When he was good, his people could soar to majestic heights. A Jewish king was a leader in every sense of the word – and in every direction. And there lies the danger of the monarchy. For if everything rests on the shoulders of one man, it stands or falls with him. If those shoulders should buckle under the weight, the whole house can tumble. Under the Shoftim (the Judges) however, there was much more room for individual movement. The judge didn’t enjoy the all-powerful influence over the kingdom’s daily life that the kings would later inherit, so even if a judge went bad, the nation wasn’t centralized enough to be drawn down with him.
Perhaps because judges held less power than kings, or perhaps because of the nature of the institution, corruption and idol worship were not generally associated with the position.
The book of Kings, appropriately, covers the period of Jewish history in which Jewish kings ruled over the Jewish nation in the Jewish land. We are lead from the death of King David (2924, or 836), until the destruction of the first Temple (3338, or 422 BCE). The destruction of the first Temple marked the end of the reign of the last king of Judah (Yehuda). The book of Kings spans the years from the Jewish commonwealth’s greatest era to the tragedy that seemed certain to bring an end to Judaism itself.
The forty year rule of King Solomon (Shlomo – the son of David) was a rule of peace and prosperity. It was the high point in Jewish history – the time when the nation dwelt in Israel, while remaining safe from hostile neighbors, and free to come to worship and serve G-d at their Temple in Jerusalem. During this period the nation had the means and, by all accounts, the desire to serve G-d in their Temple. But this near-perfect situation was not to last. Even before Solomon’s death, the seeds of revolt and intrigue had already been planted.
Rechavam, the son of Solomon, was set to inherit the empire from his father. But G-d was leading events in another direction. For no clear reason, Rechavam chose to oppress his own people “My father gave you a heavy burden (of taxes and national service), and I will add to your burden. My father rebuked you with clubs, and I will rebuke you with thorns” (I Kings 12; 14).
The majority of the nation – the ten northern tribes – rebelled against the rule of Rechavam and broke off to form a new country under the rule of Yeravam ben Nevat. This part of the Jewish people quickly fell to the deepest depths of idol worship from which they never recovered. Around 250 years later, the ten tribes were exiled and scattered by Sancheriv – the king of Assyria (what is known today, more or less, as northern Iraq).
What had made Rechavam – the son of the wisest of men – do something so stupid? With nothing more than the text of the Tanach (Bible) itself, we can see that this “insane” decision was no different from that of Pharaoh who chose to fight a suicidal battle against the Almighty G-d. “The hearts of kings are in the hand of G-d.” There are times when G-d Himself intervenes in history, sometimes even partially suspending a person’s free will.
This was one of those times. How do we know? Just read verse 15:
“And the king did not listen to the people, for it was caused by G-d in order to uphold His word that He had sent…to Yeravam.”
It was this reality – a reality of two opposing Jewish nations – that was to be the setting for most of the rest of the book of Kings. The people of the northern kingdom generally followed their kings away from the service of G-d (and away from Jerusalem – to the point where their kings even placed road blocks to prevent pilgrimages) in a mad, chaotic excess of idol worship. In the other kingdom, those loyal to the line of David also looked to their kings for leadership.
And how were the people of the southern kingdom led? That depends on who was in charge. It was the moral mood of a particular king that decided the moral mood of the entire nation. Over and over we read of this or that king slipping to astonishing depths of depravity… and of his people following at his heels. Then, his son or grandson claims the throne and brings G-d back to the Jewish people, and the Jewish people back to G-d. For one example of many, see the lives of Achaz, his son Chizkiya and his son Menashe (II Melachim 16, 18 – 21).
Despite many great moments in the history of the kings of Yehuda (Judah), the overall trend was down. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah warned of the coming destruction but were not heard by enough – and were even persecuted or killed by some. The moral tone of G-d’s people spiraled downward until there was no saving the nation. G-d had only given us the land of Israel and the Temple on the condition that we follow his Mitzvos (see Deuteronomy 8) and we weren’t living up to our side of the bargain.
The book of Kings ends with the greatest of tragedies the destruction of the holy Temple and exile of its people at the hands of the Babylonian king, Nevudchadnezar.
The book of Isaiah is the account of the prophecy given to Isaiah by G-d. Isaiah probably received and transmitted more prophecies than are recorded here. As a matter of fact, there were many more prophets in the years of the first Temple than are mentioned in Tanach (the Bible). The ones which were written down in the bible are the visions that somehow have relevance to Jews of all generations. The poetry of the book of Isaiah is as beautiful as any other in all of mankind’s literature – but that’s not the main point. The beutiful writing is just the medium of the message; the wrapping.
The role of Isaiah was to transmit the warnings from G-d to His nation…to be the conscience of the Jewish people. His message was also one of comfort – there’s the joy and hope of a look ahead to the perfect world of the messianic era.
Isaiah’s immediate political concern was the viability of the Jewish state. The Jewish claim to Israel and the right to nationhood is based solely on the observance of G-d’s commandments. Many Jews (even among those who remained loyal to the Kingdom of Judah) weren’t what they should have been, and G-d wanted to warn us of the national destruction which would come upon us if things didn’t improve.
Isaiah warned of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the exile of the Jews of the kingdom of Judah. Hindsight showed that he was right on target. But hindsight is 20/20 and it was very hard for many people of that generation to swallow what the prophet was saying. How could Jerusalem, the holy city, be destroyed? How could we, the Jews who have remained loyal, ever be exiled?
The prophet responded to these questions without hesitation:
G-d has very high expectations of us, and we’re not living up to them. Our city could be destroyed and we could be exiled. Threatened by the bleak predictions of the prophet, Menashe the king of Judah murdered Isaiah – his own grandfather. But the words of Isaiah live with the Jewish people to this day – as fresh and as relevant as ever.
It was Jeremiah’s lot in life to be known throughout the ages as “the prophet of doom,” for he was G-d’s main spokesman in the generation of the destruction of Jerusalem’s first Temple. But there’s much more to this great figure in Jewish history.
Jeremiah was the one who risked his life to plead with the Jewish king to change his ways… before it would be too late. For his trouble, the prophet was eventually thrown into prison without food or hope of rescue. He was the one who wrote a scroll (that would eventually become the book of Lamentations) predicting the terror of the destruction – only to have it torn up and thrown into a fire. And he was the one who, after having been saved from prison by the king of Babylonia, found the courage to face his patron with prophecies of the coming end of that nation.
Jeremiah was also the man who joined the suffering lines of marchers on their way to exile in Babylonia… and who placed their chains over his shoulders too. He was the one who followed the last remnants of the Jews of Israel into their lonely, self-imposed exile in Egypt – despite the fact that they hadn’t listened to him when he had told them not to go…
We get the picture of a man totally dedicated to his people, concerned with nothing else than for what was best for them. There are times when G-d decides that we need harsh rebuke to bring us back to the right path, and there are times when we need comfort. Jeremiah was there for us in both of those times – without a thought for his own safety or honor.
Jeremiah – The symbol of a man great enough to lead a great nation.
Of all the prophets, the vision of Ezekiel is the one most obviously relevant to all future generations. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel began his public career before the destruction of the first Temple and was instructed by G-d to bring the attention of the Jews (particularly those already in Babylonia) to the oncoming tragedy.
It is the accessibility of his searching gaze into the distant future that stands out most in the prophecy of Ezekiel. The book opens with a breathtaking vision of the “chariot of G-d.” While there are precious few details of this image that any human being could possibly understand (and even fewer that our rabbis felt fit to make public), the thought that a “son of man” rose to the level of perfection where he was privileged to such close contact with his Creator is in itself sobering. Ezekiel also gives us our best picture of the architecture and construction of the third Temple (to be built in the time of the Messiah), and of the future layout of the Land of Israel. It is interesting, that when the second Temple was erected, as much as possible, the builders used the book of Ezekiel as a blueprint.
To communicate his message, G-d would on occasion instruct Ezekiel to use physical signs and gestures as symbols (see, for example, chapter 5). His prophecy was very visual (see the Valley of Dry Bones), and the imagery has found its way into the literature and thought of all of the world’s cultures. What the prophet really wanted, was that the imagery should find its way into our hearts and change our actions for the better….
Why were twelve prophets lumped into this one book labeled: “The Twelve?”
Do these prophets have more in common with each other than with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel?
Our rabbis tell us that the reason a single book was formed out of these twelve prophets was to ensure their survival in the Jewish national library.
Remember, 2500 years ago, at the time that our rabbis were deciding which books to include in the Tanach (Bible), there was no printing press, no photo copier and certainly no CD ROM drive.
In other words, if a book was to be spread around and read, it had to be copied by hand (a huge job, when you consider that they didn’t have the types of paper and the pens that make our lives so easy today). It would also have to be stored safely. Now logic tells us that it’s easier and safer to store one large scroll than twelve small ones. So, since each of these twelve prophets is relatively small, they were all “published” together. The first of the twelve, Hosea, was actually an older contemporary of Isaiah, and if it would have been left as a book by itself, it would have come before Isaiah. The careers of the final three prophets of the book (Chagai, Zechariah and Malachi) reach into the period of the second Temple. What these prophets have in common, is that they each transmitted the word of G-d as it was given to them and they each have something to say to our generation.
What follows are very short descriptions about each of the Twelve Smaller Prophets:
Hoshea gave his prophecy to the Jews of Israel in the declining years of the first Temple period. His message was a warning to the Jews that their slipping morality would bring destruction and exile. Through the eyes of the prophet we see a vision of the coming destruction and exile, the rebuilding of the Temple 70 years later, and its eventual destruction at the hands of the Romans. We are also shown (by way of what might have been a dream involving Hoshea’s wife) that even in exile, G-d is still with His people.
The vision of Joel (Yoel) contains good news and bad news: He hints to the four kingdoms under whose cruel rule the Jews would live: Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. The future path of our nation would be difficult indeed – assuming that they didn’t correct their observance of G-d’s commandments. Joel is also famous for his description of the eventual ingathering of the exiles at the time of the final redemption.
Amos directs a good deal of his eternal prophecy to the Ten Tribes (who would soon be lost from our people as a result of their actions). Aside from the all-important warnings to both those of the northern kingdom and of the south in Jerusalem, Amos points out that Jews have been given an important mission in this world. The Jews were also given great strengths to fulfill their mission. If they don’t do their job, their punishment will be far greater than for others: “The bigger they are the harder they fall.”
Obadiah is noteworthy (aside from being the man who hid and supported 100 prophets in the terrible days of King Ahab), for a prophecy that isn’t directed specifically at the Jews at all, but at the neighboring nation of Edom. They too, according to Obadiah, are destined to be brought to justice for their actions. Our rabbis often associate the Roman Empire and its intellectual heirs with Edom.
Jonah (Yonah) is probably the most famous of the twelve prophets because his book is read in Synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Jonah was ordered by G-d to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh (located in today’s northern Iraq, near the Turkish border) and convince the non-Jews there to return from their evil ways. Jonah was afraid that the people of Nineveh would listen to his rebuke and improve themselves, thus casting the Jews (who weren’t listening to their prophets) in a bad light. He therefore tried to avoid the mission, even at the cost of his life.
Escaping in the opposite direction on board a commercial boat, Jonah ran into a fierce storm and allowed himself to be thrown overboard to save the crewmen. Once overboard, he was swallowed by a fish (and then a second, after the first spat him out). Eventually, after doing Teshuva (repentance) he found himself safely on dry land. Realizing that there is no escaping the will of G-d, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and spoke to its people. They did indeed change their ways.
Micah also warns the Jews (of both the northern and southern kingdoms) of what continued disregard for the commandments would bring. But much of the book is devoted to the wonders of the third Temple – to be built at the time of the redemption. Perhaps what has kept our interest in this book so strong over the centuries is the clear prediction that at no time in our long, long exile would G-d ever push us away completely… we will never be totally wiped out.
In Nahum we find an “undoing” of the prophecy of Jonah: The same city that was brought to teshuva by the words of rebuke from Jonah will soon be destroyed: Why? For having become, under the leadership of their king Sancheriv, the empire that swallowed and disrupted most of the known world, including the ten northern tribes of Israel. As we’ve seen in the words of so many other prophets, a question arises frequently: if the ten northern tribes earnedthe fate they received by Sancheriv, why should Sancheriv be punished for doing G-d’s will?
Habakkuk, like Nahum, was sent to speak about the end of an enemy of the Jews, this time Nebuchadnezar, the Babylonian king.
Here too, we are told about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple after just 70 years… this would not be a final redemption.
Notable in the prophecy of Zephaniah is the description of the length and depth of the coming exile, and of the redemption that will follow bringing universal faith in the one true G-d.
Chagai, Zechariah, and Malachi
The final three books of The Twelve are Chagai, Zechariah and Malachi. These were the prophets who lived at the very end of the age of prophecy (after their deaths, there have been no prophets. There have been some people with divine inspiration, but no one was on the level of a prophet). All three spoke to the Jews during and immediately after the building of the second Temple, and foresaw the events of the second commonwealth.
For instance, Chagai urged the people to put greater effort into the construction of the city, settlements, and Temple, despite the hardships involved. Zechariah discussed specific sins that were present in his generation and described the story of Chanukah (which would only occur 200 years hence).
This terribly brief overview of the words of “The Twelve” cannot hope to carry the flavor and power of the actual books. The intention here is only to give over an idea of the contents and purpose of each work, but there’s no substitute for diving in head first and studying the material – and if at all possible, in the original Hebrew.