I am a Buddhist, but I was also raised in the Deep South. And my Grandmother was a good KC Lady, and she made sure before dropping me in the middle of the Deep South, that I had a passing education in Christianity, and more than a couple of hours of Bible Study. And I’m glad she did, because I have been fascinated by the connection of Christianity, and Judiasm, and in part Islam as well, as related faiths.
Because of that interest, I perhaps read more about odd bits of Christian and Judiac history than some. I’m no historian, but I did somehow manage to come out with damn near a triple a major in Secondary Education, Theater, and Sociology. That is a simple preface to the interest in how history relates to how this history shapes society and movements.
Lately, I’ve been on a kick with history, and Dr. William H. McNeill has gotten my attention. Dr. McNeill is a Professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. My ex introduced me to his work, and he published an essay in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History that provoked a bit of thought.
Dr. McNeill took on Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.
Yes, I can see you champing at the bit already.
I’ll try to recap quickly. 701 BC was a busy time. Sennacherib was the King of Assyria. And he was a kicking the tar out of the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Philistines, and yes, the Davidian Kings of Judah. Not just a little tar kicking either, but laying down a swath through the cities and putting down rebellious leaders who might just question his authority.
Now then, this was back in the days of Hezekiah. Early days of Judah–thirteenth Davidian King. Israel had already fallen to Sargon II and it was a mess in Mesopotamia with slaves being carried off, people put to the sword, and cities just run over rough shod in the other portion of David’s kingdom.
This was in the early days of Judah. Not all the books that we call the New Testament, and certainly not all of the Torah had been written yet. In fact, this particular tale hinges on how the Israelites came to form a nation, even in exile.
Jahweh was still one of many gods of the region. Assyrians had their own. Egyptians as well. The God of Moses and David, he was really in competition with a fair number of deities. And in 701 B.C. the Assyrians became legends and tales to be handed down to the followers of Jahweh, because when the Assyrians came a knocking on Hezekiah, and Jerusalem’s door, they were afflicted by a plague.
Now then, you can call it a miracle that preserved Jerusalem, and the Temple of Solomon. You might also call it careful planning since Jerusalem laid in a good supply of water, and had diverted a good amount of the cisterns thanks to a tunnel that Hezekiah had built into the city that today still supplies water to the city.
Having secured as much of the water as he could, the Assyrians were left to fend for themselves, and they big old army, and some of that standing water may not have been boiled, and lo, they were afflicted with a plague.
Supernatural help, or good planning, Hezekiah declared it a miracle, and a huge victory over the Assyrians’ god. Jahweh 1, Anu and Mammetum, zip.
Of course, Sennacherib could have laid waste to Jerusalem, despite the losses from his men getting violently ill, and they left behind a heap of dead. He’d already put down better than forty other cities and forts in Judah, so what was one more? Especially with Egypt beckoning?
What our Assyrian warrior king may not have realized, was that Hezekiah was working to consolidate and reform the worship of Jahweh, in the city of Jerusalem, and in particular, the Temple of Solomon. Prophets were consulted, and the lack of a beat down on the centralized hub of worship for Jahweh was HUGE.
Mind you, Hezekiah wasn’t an idiot. He knew that the Assyrians had kicked in the tail of the rest of the kingdom of Judah, so he hustled on over to make peace by tribute while Egypt was getting a beat down. Silver and gold from the temple and Good King Hezekiah keeps his thrown, and his people out of slavery.
Of course, his kingdom sits between Egypt and Assyria, so you can imagine, things were a little tense. Tribute was paid, and eventually, Jerusalem is opened up to all sorts of influences. Gods from neighboring kingdoms were installed, and there was cavorting, carrying on, and eventually, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon rolled in, destroyed the Temple of Solomon, and carried the followers of Jahweh into the desert as slaves in 586 B.C.
So, how did this plague save The People of the Book, if they still got a beat down, after serving as a buffer zone between powers?
There is the funny thing.
Jerusalem is saved in 701 B.C. Jahweh 1, Anu zip, right? Huge miracle that saved the city, preserved the Temple, and pretty much cemented in the minds of the people, that they were Chosen by God. Much better than those Anu worshippers, because Jahweh protected them. In spectacular fashion. The God of Moses and David kicked ASS.
The funny thing is, after that incident, and a huge shot in the arm for Jahweh’s badassery–let’s face it, they’d been spared from the most powerful army in the region–folks in Jerusalem started reforming their beliefs a bit. Monotheism was sort of an odd duck, and it began to spread a bit. The whole thing was so big, that it appears in not one, but three accounts in the Bible. Kings. Chronicles, and the Book of Isaiah. Impious and dirty Assyrians smoteded. Booya, Jahweh.
Hezekiah’s rule consolidated things, and he was followed by Manasseh. Mannaseh inherited the two great powers that they sat between, and there was all the tribute that had to roll out, and in order to play nice, he let in those foreign gods into the city. Back in those days, Jahweh being a jealous God was no joke, because he had a LOT of competition.
Which sort of grated on a few folks, who were filled with joyous knowledge, that Jahweh could kick some ass for his people. Even as Mannasseh was making nice with the neighbors. The powerful neighbors. Literacy was on the rise, and prophets abounded to tell folks the good word, and a lot of religious leaders, they weren’t very happy with the state of things. They had miracles, they had proof of them, and they had a population was getting smarter and smarter, and questioning a lot, and the reformed practices were collecting fast.
And then, lo, in Josiah’s reign, as the pious were feeling good about themselves, Assyria blew the heck up. Collapsed. Jahweh and the faithful 2, Anu, still zip. Well, against Jahweh at least, if you didn’t count the rest of the Israel that they’d taken over. Add to it, when they were cleaning up the Temple, the found a whole new book of law, as given to Moses. Deuteronomy is given to the people of Judah, and a whole new flowering of Judaic reform is off. Conform to God’s will, new style.
Now then, nearly four decades after Deuteronomy is given to the people, Nebuchadnezzar rolls in, and bitch slaps Judah. Razes the Temple of Solomon, puts the people in chains, and off to Babylon they go. Slaves. Again.
You begin to see a pattern here?
Now then, when the children of Judah are confronted with the sore lack of protection from this new Babylon, when they were saved before, what do you suppose they did?
Blamed the impious. Duh. God wasn’t happy with them. Best way to get back in Jahweh’s good graces, is to study up, and fly right. Instead of wiping the faith from existence, Nebuchadnezzar was a vindication of
the clerics and priests who’d been telling the children of Judah that they were making God angry. And instead of abandoning their faith, the literate and well schooled in the population realized that the miracles of old could be revoked, so it reinforced their faith, and made it something not tied to place, but to the people, and more importantly, to the Covenants that they’d made.
This, according to Dr. McNeill was the crucible time for the People of the Book. Had the Assyrians kicked down Jerusalem, and taken the Jews into slavery, would their faith have survived? Exodus had been a long while back. The Davidian line was established, and they had gotten into the habit of rule, and their worship of Jahweh. The question lies in that fairly well published miracle of NOT getting their tails kicked in, and their central temple put to torch. Then, when they fall from grace, their faith is not just tested, but vindicated.
Were it not for a the Assyrians getting their nasty illness from standing water, there would have been no Judah. No Davidian line of Kings any longer, and certainly no Christianity. No Islam. Possibly the very thought of monotheism would have been chased from the world.
All for a glass of clean water…
Of course, were that the case, then what the heck would the world have been like? Would we all be Buddhists? Taoists? Would we even have come over–Europeans that is? Would America be an African or Egyptian, or Ottoman colony? Without the Coptic Queens, how would Mali and Songhai have fared? Great Zimbabwe fallen or stuck around? The barbarians of Europe, the rise of Carthage?
All that, and again, just for the lack of some clean water.