With its walls razed to ground by Babylon’s armies, Jerusalem joined a long line of ancient vanquished cities—from Ur and Nineveh and Persepolis to Babylon itself. While some recovered from the destruction, others did not. But none responded to political catastrophe by fashioning the kind of elaborate and enduring monument to their own downfall that we find in the Bible. Most conquered populations viewed their subjugation as a source of shame. They consigned it to oblivion, opting instead to extol the golden ages of the past. The biblical authors in contrast reacted to loss by composing extensive writings that acknowledge collective failure, reflect deeply upon its causes, and discover thereby a ground for collective hope. Working through colorful biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts, and drawing on an array of comparative examples, the course illustrates the thoroughgoing manner with which biblical authors responded to defeat by advancing a demotic agenda that places the community at the center. The aim of the biblical authors was to create a nation, and they sought to realize this goal via a shared text, which includes stories and songs, wisdom and laws. This corpus of writings belongs, without a doubt, to humanity’s greatest achievements. Whereas the great civilizations of the Near East invested their energies and resources into monuments of stone that could be destroyed by invading armies, the biblical authors left a literary legacy that has been intensively studied until the present day. More important, these authors’ visionary response to defeat brought to light a radical new wisdom: the notion that a people is greater than the state which governs it, and that a community can survive collapse when all of its members can claim a piece of the pie and therefore have a reason to take an active part in its collective life.
- Week 1 - The Riddle That Has Yet to be Solved
Our larger goal is to understand why the Bible was written. So first we need to take a step back and form a larger view of the world in which the kingdoms of Israel and Judah emerged. This module sets the stage for all that follows. Upon completion of this mod...
- Week 2 - The Rise and Fall
In the last module, we studied the activity of the great cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Levant. These major groups played a key role in forming the backdrop for the rise of Israel and Judah. After Egyptian and Mesopotamian rulers withdrew from the ar...
- Week 3 - The Making of the Bible as a Response to Defeat
In this module, we dive into the question of why the biblical authors created the Bible. We begin by looking at various depictions of how Judahites were living after the fall of Judah. These depictions provide us with insight into what the biblical authors wer...
- Week 4 - Reinventing the Hero
In this module, we will begin by exploring a clue that adds further support to the general thesis of this course (i.e., that the Bible is a project of peoplehood in response to the defeat of the state). That clue is the absence of martyrdom and glorious death ...
- Week 5 - A Wise and Discerning People
As in most ancient societies, knowledge and education are reserved for elites. (The situation is not so different today.) This week we will see how the biblical authors depart radically from this principle. The Bible can be understood, Dr. Wright will suggest,...
- Week 6 - Beyond Morality: The Bible as Political Model
This week, to wrap up our course, we turn back to the question of why with which we began. Why did the Bible originate in ancient Israel and Judah? We will begin by synthesizing what we’ve learned so far in order to bring it to bear on this fundamental questio...
Dr. Jacob L. Wright
Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible
Candler School of Theology and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies