Monday, 21 March 2016

The People of the Earth

I missed last week, and have nothing but a short post to make up for it today.

Currently I am reading Holy War in Ancient Israel by the German scholar Gerhard von Rad. It is an incredibly stimulating book that makes me want to go and write a novel. (That, or form a parish group dedicated to the planning and execution of holy war. Just kidding, of course!)

Von Rad argues that the phenomenon of holy war was at the core of ancient Israelite society, but that the original idea had faded by the time in which the Bible was written. Holy wars were not religious wars; they were defensive wars to protect the tribes of Israel. Israel was not a kingdom yet, but functioned as an alliance which only cooperated when they were called up for war by a charismatic leader. Von Rad refers to it as an ‘amphictyony’ (definition). This old militia is later increasingly supplanted by professional soldiers.

One of the key elements of holy war is the exhortation ‘Be not afraid’ – a command which will be taken up in Isaiah (who is, according to Von Rad, the prophet most inspired by holy war traditions) and in the New Testament.

There was one phrase which caught my attention in particular. Von Rad discusses how Judah’s professional soldiers have all been assimilated into the Assyrian army after the incursion of Sennacherib in 701 BC. Still, Judah is able to field a new army in a surprisingly short time. According to Erhard Junge, this can only be because the old militia is called up again under King Josiah. In fact, they were the ones who had brought him to the throne.

What could be more natural than that together with the renewal of the militia to its old military dignity the old conception of the real essence and meaning of the wars of Israel could also arise again. The agricultural circles from which the militia was recruited were, of course, still much more bound to patriarchal faith and patriarchal customs than the circles around the court, the officials, and the professional officers in the capital, who previously made all the political and military decisions.

And this ‘free rural population’ is called the ‘am hā’āretz, the ‘people of the earth’!

This reminded me immediately of a poem for which I have a particular predilection, Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse (in fact the title of this blog is derived from the poem). In Book VII, after King Alfred’s army has been routed by the heathen Danes and the only survivors are the peasant slaves of Mark the Roman, Alfred rallies them again by saying:

Though dead are all the paladins
Whom glory had in ken,
Though all your thunder-sworded thanes
With proud hearts died among the Danes,
While a man remains, great war remains:
Now is a war of men.

The men that tear the furrows,
The men that fell the trees,
When all their lords be lost and dead
The bondsmen of the earth shall tread
The tyrants of the seas.

The ‘bondsmen of the earth’ – one wonders if Chesterton knew anything about ancient Israel’s wars!
It is an epic scene, but to appreciate it fully, you need to read the whole poem.
Well, what are you waiting for?

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