A Nation Conceived in Defeat

By Jacob L. Wright

How the end of ancient Israelite statehood gave rise to a new collective consciousness

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Comparing the histories written by victors to those of the vanquished, the eminent German historian Reinhart Koselleck explained that the former are “short-term, focused on a series of events that, thanks to one’s merits, have brought about one’s victory.” By contrast, the latter
labor under... a greater burden of proof for having to show why events turned out as they did—and not as planned. Therefore they begin to search for middle- or long-term factors to account for, and perhaps explain, the accident of the unexpected outcome. There is something to the hypothesis that being forced to draw new and difficult lessons from history yields insights of longer validity and, thus, greater explanatory power. History may in the short term be made by the victors, but historical wisdom is in the long run enriched more by the vanquished.... Being defeated appears to be an inexhaustible wellspring of intellectual progress.1
While Koselleck’s observation on the relationship between defeat and the writing of history is not always and everywhere applicable, it can undoubtedly provide insight into the Hebrew Bible, its composition, theology, and political thought. For though this body of literature describes great victories in Israel’s early history—those of Joshua and David, for example—its authors consistently adopt the vantage point of the vanquished. The narrative spanning from the Pentateuch to the Former Prophets (i.e., Genesis to Kings), which the biblical scholar David Noel Freedman called “the Primary History,” culminates in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the political subjugation of the Davidic dynasty2; the books of the Latter Prophets were written either in anticipation, or in the wake, of political catastrophes; and the themes of defeat, exile, and national restoration figure prominently in much of the Writings, including Psalms, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and, in individualized form, Job.3 Indeed, taken together, the texts quite naturally lend themselves to the study of what cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls “an empathetic philosophy of defeat [that] seeks to identify and appreciate the significance of defeat itself.”4
How does one define defeat? It is, after all, a relative term; as such, its definition arguably depends on one’s perspective. Complicating matters, it is possible not only to interpret defeat politically, but also—in the case of the Bible—to qualify it theologically. We see this in the text’s attributions of the conquest of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to divine displeasure with the king or his people, a common occurrence in the ancient Near East. In this way, defeat becomes a vindication of the deity’s will and a testimony to his power. For example, in his official inscriptions, the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib describes how he sacked the Judean countryside and imposed a tribute on the Judahite king Hezekiah, whom he trapped within the walls of Jerusalem like “a bird in a cage.”5 Undoubtedly, many of those Judahites who were deported or left behind to bear the burden of tribute would have agreed with Sennacherib’s description of events. The biblical authors, however, interpreted the episode as a defeat for Sennacherib, not Judah. The Assyrian king, these authors insisted, left Jerusalem intact not only because he had succeeded in breaking Hezekiah’s military strength and imposing the heavy tribute upon his land; rather, it was also on account of a “rumor” he had heard concerning an Egyptian offensive,6 or, alternatively, because an angel of God passed through the Assyrian camp at night and slew all of Judah’s enemies.7
As this and numerous other examples show, monumental defeat is frequently treated not so much as historical fact, but as the starting point for a creative historiography, one constructed collectively by a “community in mourning,” in the words of the historian Jay Winter,8 or what the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel called a “mnemonic community.”9 In what follows, I will argue that the significance of the defeat motif for the Hebrew Bible lies precisely in its authors’ efforts to construct a particular kind of identity for the Israelite people. Anticipating the coming doom and destruction, these authors set about the task of their people’s preservation. They did so—subtly yet critically—by unhinging the concept of “nation” from that of “state.” Hence, while defeat may have destroyed Israel’s states, it came to play a key role in the creation of Israel’s identity as a people.

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