Thus Saith the Lord: The Revolutionary Moral Vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah

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9780151012190: Thus Saith the Lord: The Revolutionary Moral Vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah

In ancient Judea, Jeremiah and Isaiah advised kings and priests and watched the great armies of the ancient Near East sweep across the desert, threatening and overtaking their tiny country with its burgeoning faith. Across centuries a new view emerged based on their words: Might does not make right; we are all the children of one God.  Both the beautiful words of Isaiah and the frightening words of Jeremiah helped form our contemporary ideas of justice, ethics, and faith. Richard Rubenstein shows us the evolution of our own moral codes and how they transformed the god of the Israelites from a local deity into Adonai, the universal sovereign who requires ethical behavior and demands the pursuit of justice for all people.

 A work of historical and religious insight, Thus Saith the Lord will inspire readers to reexamine their beliefs and hear anew the words of these religious revolutionaries.

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About the Author:

RICHARD E. RUBENSTEIN is professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University and an expert on religious conflict. A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, he was a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford University. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter i
“If YHVH is God, Follow Him!”
—Elijah, I Kings 18:21The two kings sat side by side on a raised platform overlooking a large open square just outside the gates of Samaria. Both wore their robes of office. Ahab of Israel rested lightly on his ivory-inlaid throne with an ease born of long experience, like an expert cavalryman sitting his horse. Immediately to his right sat his guest, King Jehosophat of Judah, occupying a throne only slightly less ornate than his own. A large crowd of townspeople and farmers ringed the square, many holding up their children or craning on tiptoe for a better look at the two monarchs. But the kings’ attention was focused intently on the scene now being played out for their benefit in the open space before the platform.
The name of the place—the Threshing Floor—reflected its main function in the life of Israel’s capital. Each year, after the harvests of wheat and barley were brought in, oxen and mules were led round and round the flat, hard-packed surface to trample the stalks of grain or cut them up with threshing plows.1 At such times, the air would be full of chaff, thrown into the wind by farmers wielding winnowing forks, while the precious grain fell safely to earth. Today, however, the atmosphere was suffused not with dust and straw or the braying of barnyard animals, but with discordant human noise. The square, swept clean of farm debris, was full of prophets, hundreds of them, some dancing ecstatically or chanting with eyes closed, others gesturing wildly and crying aloud in voices that might or might not have been their own.
Those who had never witnessed the nevi’im prophesying en masse might have found the spectacle frightening or absurd—a strange drama performed by demented actors, each enacting a role known only to himself.2 To the royal onlookers, however, the apparent chaos in the square made perfect sense. They had summoned the prophets to Samaria to help them decide an issue of great public importance. Should Israel and Judah go to war with the kingdom of Syria?3 Or should the Hebrew-speaking nations keep the peace?
On Ahab’s part, this was not a neutral inquiry. For months he had been preparing to attack the powerful Damascus-based regime that was Israel’s chief competitor for supremacy in the region. His immediate aim was to recapture Ramoth-gilead, a strategic city formerly occupied by King Solomon in the days of the United Monarchy, but now under the control of the Syrians and their formidable ruler, King ben-Hadad II. Israel and Judah, long at loggerheads, were at last allies, thanks to a diplomatic marriage uniting the two kings’ families. Ahab had therefore invited Jehosophat to furnish a certain number of horses and soldiers for the campaign, and the Judean king had agreed—but on one condition. Ahab must first ask his prophets whether or not YHVH—the God worshipped by both monarchs—approved of the proposed war.4
Even without this prompting, the king might well have summoned the nevi’im to Samaria before marching off to war.5 Not only in Israel and Judah, but throughout West Asia, it was customary to confer with religious seers about matters of this sort. From the Iranian plateau to the Mediterranean coast, every substantial ruler employed a phalanx of prophets whose special vocation was to discover whether the national god or gods favored a proposed policy, and to advise the king accordingly.6 Prophecy was not a gift reserved to a handful of gifted individuals; it was an ancient craft whose practitioners probably numbered more than one thousand in Israel alone. Some nevi’im were attached to the court and lived in the capital. Others performed cultic duties in smaller towns where there were temples, shrines, or sanctuaries. Although a few practiced as individuals, most were members of guilds or brotherhoods that transmitted the techniques of receiving divine messages from father to son (and, in some cases, from mother to daughter).7 For YHVH’s followers, certain arts favored by the seers of other nations—fortune-telling, divination, necromancy, and magic, for example—were prohibited by Mosaic Law.8 Even so, as the impassioned performers on the Threshing Floor were now demonstrating, there were many acceptable ways to enter that receptive, transcendent state in which one’s heart was opened to God’s true intentions.
Seated on his reviewing stand, Ahab waited for a pause in the prophetic hubbub, then rose from his throne, quieting the crowd. “Should I march to attack Ramoth-gilead,” he asked in a loud public voice, “or should I refrain?”
The response was immediate—and unanimous. “March to Ramoth-gilead and conquer!” the prophets howled as one. “YHVH will deliver it into the power of the king.”9 One ecstatic wearing a headdress equipped with iron horns ran through the crowd snorting like a bull and whipping his head from side to side as if to gore some invisible enemy, while the others scrambled to get out of his way. “YHVH says this,” he shouted, pointing at the horns. “With these you will gore the Syrians until you make an end of them.”10
Satisfied, Ahab settled back on his throne. The advice was welcome, although not unexpected. The nevi’im generally told the king what he wanted to hear, particularly when what he wanted was approval of a war. This was not because they were mere sycophants (although some, no doubt, would say anything to please him), but because the deity who spoke to them in dreams and visions, in audible voices and sudden convictions of absolute certainty, was, among other things, a warrior god. It was YHVH, after all, who had afflicted the Egyptians and drowned their charioteers in the sea; YHVH who instructed Joshua to raze the cities of Canaan and ordered Israel’s Judges to conduct merciless wars against their idol-worshipping neighbors; YHVH who punished King Saul for not exterminating the Amelkites, upheld David’s sword in battle, and sanctified the conquests of Solomon. As interpreted by the prophets of Ahab’s time, God generally preferred the clean, simple violence of a holy war to the dangerous ambiguities of peaceful diplomacy. Ahab, as it happens, was a skilled practitioner of both arts. He had ruled in Samaria for more than two decades—a lengthy reign by the standards of the small, unstable states of the region. The crown of Israel was more fragile than most. In the fifty-odd years since the breakup of the United Monarchy, seven rulers had ascended the throne of the northern kingdom, and three of these had had their reigns cut short by assassination.11 Even so, by 852 b.c.e., the year that Jehosophat visited Samaria, Israel had become a far more powerful player than Judah in regional and international politics.12 Ahab’s kingdom outstripped Jehosophat’s in population, agricultural productivity, military power, and strategic location.13 His father, King Omri, had been a famous warrior—so impressive on the battlefield, in fact, that the Assyrians referred to Israel for more than a century as “the House ofOmri.”14 Equally important, the old king had married his son, Ahab, to the Tyrian princess, Jezebel, thus cementing an advantageous alliance with the region’s leading traders, the Phoenicians of the Mediterranean coast.
King Ahab continued and extended his father’s work. On the diplomatic front, he cultivated the Phoenician alliance and ended a half century of hostility between Israel and Judah by marrying his daughter to Jehosophat’s eldest son.15 His military accomplishments were, if anything, even more notable. Only one year before Jehosophat’s current visit, the mighty Assyrian army had marched from its Mesopotamian bases into northern Syria—the first attempt by the Assyrians to extend their empire westward. In response, Ahab had dispatched 2,000 chariots and 10,000 foot soldiers to fight side by side with ben-Hadad of Syria and other regional rulers in a grand coalition against the invaders.16 The great battle at Qarqar on the Orontes River pitted some 50,000 defenders against a somewhat smaller but better equipped force led by the young Assyrian emperor, Shalmaneser III. Despite a large toll of casualties on all sides, the result was favorable to the allies. Shalmaneser was forced to withdraw to his homeland to lick his wounds and reorganize his forces.17
At some later time, perhaps, the Assyrians would return—or perhaps not. Ahab was concerned with more immediate matters. Ben-Hadad, his ally at Qarqar, was his only real rival for supremacy in the region. Before uniting to defend their territories against Shalmaneser, he and the Syrian king had fought two short wars, each begun by a Syrian attack on Israel, and each won by the Israelites against heavy odds.18 The second war ended with a smashing victory by Ahab’s troops outside the town of Aphek in the Golan Heights. The Bible states that the Israelites slaughtered 100,000 Syrian foot soldiers in a single day, after which the walls of Aphek collapsed, killing the surviving fighters who had taken refuge there.19 Probably more accurate, and certainly more revealing, is the report that, disregarding the advice of certain unnamed prophets, Ahab decided to spare ben-Hadad’s life and to conclude a peace treaty with him.
Copyright © 2006 by Richard E. Rubenstein All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harb...

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