Earlier this summer I found a Reader's Digest guide to biblical history at a book sale. Called Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, this coffee-table sized book gives a clear and comprehensive back-story to the Bible from Abraham the Patriarch to Paul to Evangelizer. How were the Canaanites different from the Philistines? How many times did Paul get beaten to a pulp on his missionary journeys? It's all in there. Plus, the book employs drawings and diagrams to explain what the people of the Bible wore, how they farmed, what their houses looked like on the inside. Written by an ecumenical team of theologians, the book mixes biblical chapters and verses with lessons in history, geography, and ethnography. And since it's published by Reader's Digest, the text is easy to follow and consistently engaging.
Raised as a Unitarian-Universalist, but culturally Jewish, I've always been curious about biblical history and how the Jewish and Christian religious got their start. This book taught me a lot.
Here are some of the surprising things I learned:
>That Joshua, the successor to Moses as leader of the Israelites, led a bloody decades-long campaign to conquer Canaan in which no enemy--man, woman, or child--was left alive. I think we'd call that war crimes nowadays.
>That no one seems to know what happened to the Arc of the Covenant. It was built by Moses, carried around by the Israelites, stored in a tent, lost to the Philistines in a battle, recovered by Joshua, stored in Temple of Solomon's holy of holies... and then it disappeared sometime between II Chronicles and the start of the Babylonian Exile. Calling Indiana Jones...
>That God appreciated King David despite his failings. Even though David made a lot of mistakes (my college roommates would call it "stumbling"), he loved and worshiped the Lord, and always knew how to ask for forgiveness and accept his punishment. Feel like seducing another man's wife and then ordering her husband killed? No problem, God will slay your son and curse your family--but you'll still remembered as a righteous guy.
>That everyone in Jerusalem--from the Roman-appointed kings to the Jewish priests, to Jesus himself--understood that it's much easier to execute someone when they are unknown and unpopular. Jesus stayed alive and preached for as long as he did because the local leaders feared that persecuting him would spark a rebellion.
>That there was a split in the early Christian church between the Jerusalem sect, which believed that only full-fledged Jews could be Christians, and the Antioch sect, which allowed the baptism of Gentiles who weren't circumcised or followers of every Jewish law. But since the growth opportunities were among the Gentiles, the church leaders debated and decided to become more inclusive.
>That the early Israelites were good at kvetching. I'm surprised that Moses didn't tear out his beard... or maybe that's why he got white hair so quickly.
>That the Maccabees, known from the Hanukkah story, set up a strict theocracy after driving out the forces of the hated Selecid king, Antiochus IV that continued a civil war between the orthodox and reformist groups within the Jewish religion.
>That the Parissees were actually the more liberal of the two main Jewish priesthoods, and were the ancestors of modern rabbinical Judaism.