Notes on Judaism from a Baha'i Perspective
Perhaps no history on the surface of the earth is more remarkable than that of the Jews. They can trace their ancestry back to bands of wandering herders, with names like Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca. They first emerge as a people separate from the other peoples of the Mediterranean world as a result of Moses and His teachings, which sharply distinguished them from their polytheistic neighbors. They conquered a land—Israel—and established a great empire, then declined in power and were vanquished. Their Temple was destroyed and their leadership was sent into exile until a subsequent empire allowed them to return home; they rebuilt their temple and then subsequently obtained, lost, obtained, and lost again their freedom. Roman domination led to another war of attempted liberation; it failed, the temple was destroyed a second time, and a second exile began, which only ended with the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.
Few peoples can trace their history continuously over thirty-two centuries. But even more remarkable is the fact that so much of the history of the Jews is embodied in one book- -the Hebrew Bible (it is not called the Old Testament by the Jews because it is their entire Bible). Thus the Hebrew Bible is the history of a people as well as a sacred scripture. In describing the development of a single people, representative of the entire human race, the Bible makes sacred the history of all humanity.
The history of the Jews actually starts in the prehistory of a people called the Semites. This people emerges in the Middle East some time after the last Ice Age. They are defined linguistically; some modern languages, such as Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew, as well as ancient languages, such as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Assyrian, are descended from the original Semitic tongue. Closely related are other languages such as modern Ethiopic and ancient Egyptian. The term "Semite" is of modern coinage and derives from the name Shem, one of Noah's three sons; for it was traditionally believed that the Semitic peoples sprang from him (Gen. 10:1, 21-31).
The Hebrew Bible begins with Adam and Eve, then describes the life of Noah. Biblical scholars are fairly sure that these stories are mythological, that is, they are stories that are not based on actual historical events. The stories of the Patriarchs, however, are viewed as legendary, that is, stories that are built up around actual, historical, people and places, though the details of the stories may not be historical. The first patriarch was Abraham; his son was Isaac, who had a son named Jacob, who in turn had a son named Joseph. There is a cycle of stories about each of these men and their families. Some biblical scholars suggest that perhaps these stories initially were separate, and were brought together by making the men successive members of the same clan; but this is speculation. The Patriarchs collectively are called Hebrews. The term Israelites does not apply to them; it applies to the people of the Hebrew Bible who lived after the coming of Moses. After the first exile one can use a third term, Jew, which referred originally to a person who was a member of the tribe of Judah, one of Israel's twelve tribes (by then, the other tribes were lost).
Arabic legends quoted by Bahá'u'lláh (though not necessarily endorsed by Him as historically accurate) tell the early history of the Semites in terms of religious allegory. Noah is described as having "prayerfully exhorted His people and summoned them to the haven of security and peace" (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 7). In reply, Noah's people persecuted Him. Bahá'u'lláh also says that Noah "several times promised victory to his companions and fixed the hour thereof. But when the hour struck, the divine promise was not fulfilled," which "caused a few among the small number of His followers to turn away from Him" (ibid, 7). Specifically citing "books and traditions," Bahá'u'lláh says that "there remained with Him only forty or seventy-two of His followers" (ibid, 8).
The limited information in this description does not contradict the general picture of the Middle East in the third, fourth, and fifth millennia B.C.E. The land was sparsely settled with wandering herdsmen and agricultural villages; towns and cities were small and rare and were found in only a few areas, such as Mesopotamia. Technology was simple. Literacy, when it arose in the late fourth millennium, was confined to a few priests and palace scribes at best. Trade was conducted over a large area, but on a very limited scale; roads and money were nonexistent. Religion was polytheistic and mythic. Under such circumstances one could expect that a Manifestation of God would reach only a limited area, perhaps a group of villages or a region; and He would probably have a small following. It is interesting to note that Bahá'u'lláh's account does not mention Noah teaching the oneness of God. One can speculate that any Manifestation of God who appeared in such primitive times might have emphasized morals and taught religious truths through stories, which were understood by the people as myths.
Arab legends mentioned in the Qur'án describe Húd as a Manifestation of God after Noah. He, too, exhorted His people but received rebelliousness in return (ibid, 9; Qur'án 11:50-60). He was succeeded by Sálih of the tribe of Thamúd, whom some identify with Shelah in Gen. 11:13-14. The Qur'án attributes to Him a warning to "worship God," but the people are said to have replied "O Sálih, our hopes were fixed on Thee until now; forbiddest thou us to worship that which our fathers worshipped? Truly we doubt that whereunto thou callest us as suspicious" (Qur'án 11:61-62; translation in Kitáb-i-Íqán, 10). As a result the people fell into perdition.
Abraham and the Patriarchs
Abraham is an archetypal figure, and His life has been interpreted many ways by succeeding generations. The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament sees Abraham as the archetype of true faith, because of His willingness to sacrifice His son at God's command. Muslims view Abraham as the first Muslim and emphasize His defense of monotheism in a completely polytheistic world. They attribute the first construction of the Kaaba in Mecca to Him and His son, Ishmael.
The account of Abraham in the Qur'án and the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá parallel that of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 12-25) but with some significant additions based on Arabic legend. The Hebrew Bible speaks of Abraham leaving his home city of Ur (in southern Mesopotamia) for Haran (in northern Mesopotamia) and then for Canaan (modern Palestine), but it does not say why He left; it only explains that God commanded it (Gen. 12:1) and focuses on God's promise to Abraham that "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great" (Gen. 12:2). `Abdu'l-Bahá, alluding to Qur'ánic passages, states that Abraham had to leave Ur because of persecution for His beliefs:
He was born in Mesopotamia. . . of a family who were ignorant of the Oneness of God. He opposed His own nation and people, and even His own family, by rejecting all the gods. Alone and without help He resisted a powerful tribe, a task which is neither simple nor easy. . . . therefore they all arose against him, and no one supported Him except Lot, His brother's son, and one or two other people of no importance. At last, reduced to the utmost distress by the opposition of His enemies, He was obliged to leave His native land. . . . But Abraham stood fast and showed forth extraordinary firmness—and God made this exile to be His eternal honor until He established the Unity of God in the midst of a polytheistic generation. This exile became the cause of the progress of the descendants of Abraham, and the Holy Land was given to them. . . . Finally, in consequence of His exile the whole of Europe and most of Asia came under the protecting power of the God of Israel. (Some Answered Questions, 12-13)
Abraham's mission is described in terms of championing God's truth—in this case, the teaching of the Oneness of God to a polytheistic world. The story reiterates the theme of opposition to the Manifestations. Abraham's message is described in a manner to make it a fitting precursor of Moses's, for one must believe in the One God before one can be taught how to relate to that God through prayer, sacrifice, and lawful behavior.
The Hebrew Bible itself preserves some details of the religion followed by Abraham's descendants. Unlike other sections of the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis God is called by various names: El `Elyon, "God Most High" (Gen. 14:18-22); El Ro'i, "God of seeing" (Gen. 16:13); El Shaddai, "God Almighty" (Gen. 17:1, 43:14, Ex. 6:3); El `Olam, "God the Everlasting" (Gen. 21:33); El Bethel, "the God of Bethel" (Gen. 31:13). This suggests that the Patriarchs worshipped God under various attributes. Whether they were understood to refer to the same God is unknown. God is also referred to as the God of a particular clan, as in "God of Abraham" (Gen. 28:13, 31:42, 31:53), the "Kinsman of Isaac" (Gen. 31:42, 31:53), and the "Champion of Jacob" (Gen. 49:24). Perhaps the best example is Gen. 31:51-53:
Then Laban said to Jacob, "see this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us." So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.
Here two wandering clans fix the border separating their lands by erecting heaps of stones and by swearing by the god of their own clans; Jacob by the "God of Isaac" (the god of his father) and Laban by the "God of Nahor" (the god of his father, Nahor) (Gen. 29:5). This suggests that the Patriarchs worshipped a clan god, who was not always necessarily identified with the god of another clan, nor necessarily with the high God. This form of worship is called henotheism, worship of one god who is not necessarily seen as the only God; it appears to be a common intermediate step between polytheism and monotheism.
Another important aspect of Abraham's teaching apparently was the establishment of the rite of circumcision among the Hebrews (Gen. 17:11). Circumcision had already been practiced by the Egyptians and probably the Canaanites, but now it became a religious act denoting one's acceptance of God.
Abraham is important to Bahá'ís because of His three wives, and the descendants He had through them. Through Sarah He fathered Isaac, the legendary ancestor of the Israelites and of Jesus. Through Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian maid, He had Ishmael, legendary father of the Arabs and ancestor to Muhammad and, therefore, of the Báb. Through Keturah, Abraham's little-mentioned third wife (Gen. 25:1-4), came numerous children, from whom Bahá'u'lláh is said to have descended (Some Answered Questions, 213). All the genealogies, even Bahá'u'lláh's, are probably legendary—no human being can trace a complete genealogy through thousands of years. Furthermore, simple mathematics shows that after almost four thousand years, everyone in the Middle East should be descended from Abraham, so the claim is not genetically significant. This point is reinforced by the biblical promise that from Abraham would come many nations. However, the spiritual point of the genealogies is unmistakable: Abraham was the father of all the later Semitic revelations.
Archaeology and modern biblical scholarship can not confirm the details of the stories of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) in the Hebrew Bible. However, they can corroborate enough information to suggest that the general lines of the stories are feasible and contain some history. No identifiably historical figures—such as a specific Pharaoh— are mentioned in the stories, nor are any of the Patriarchs mentioned in inscriptions or tablets uncovered by the archaeologist's spade, hence it is difficult to assign specific dates to Abraham and His descendants. However, the cultural details in their stories fit the period of 2000 B.C.E to 1700 B.C.E, and northern Mesopotamia, well.
The names found in the stories of the Patriarchs are typical of the period and place, as attested by numerous inscriptions. Marriage and inheritance laws known from clay tablets found in the northern Mesopotamian city of Nuzi match details in the story of Abraham, yet contrast with later Mesopotamian and Israelite practices. The description of the patriarchal way of life—wandering the grassy parts of the Fertile Crescent as stock breeders—agrees with the conditions of the time, including the important detail that the Patriarchs do not have camels (which were domesticated later in the second millennium B.C.E.). Even most of the towns and cities mentioned in the accounts existed at the time, except the Philistines, who apparently reached the land of Canaan after the Israelites. Finally, biblical accounts of the creation and flood bear many similarities to Mesopotamian legends, and the law codes of Moses's day draw on a Hebrew legal tradition that reflects earlier Mesopotamian practices. One conclusion, thus, seems firm: the ancestors of Israel came from the same region, at about the same time, as the legends of Abraham describe. Consequently there is no reason to assume that Abraham was not the head of a clan that traveled from Ur to Haran, where it settled and was augmented in numbers, and then journeyed to Canaan.
From Palestine, some of the wandering Hebrew clans wandered south to Egypt; others would have remained in Palestine. The story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, and then rising to a position of prominence under the Pharaoh, demonstrates that many trade connections existed between Egypt and Palestine, and suggests that Semites could be assimilated into Egyptian culture. But at some point some of the Hebrew clans in Egypt were enslaved and forced to work on royal construction projects. The Hebrew Bible says the period of slavery in Egypt lasted four hundred thirty years (Ex. 12:40), but the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which contains many variant readings of great antiquity) says that the four hundred thirty years included the time of the Patriarchs as well. In either case, the Hebrews were enslaved for at least two centuries before Moses arose to free them.
The Hebrew Bible offers more information about Moses than about Abraham, but much of the information appears to be legendary; thus reconstructing a "historical Moses" appears to be very difficult. Some basic information does appear to be reliable. In spite of the Hebrew etymology given to His name (Ex. 2:10), "Moses" appears to be an Egyptian name, as are the names of several prominent members of the tribe of Levi. Moses apparently spent some time in the wilderness, where He received the call to Prophethood; the Hebrew Bible says this occurred in Midian, in what today is Jordan, across the Gulf of Aqaba from Sinai. It adds that Moses married the daughter of a local priest; his name is variously given as Reuel (Ex. 2:18), Jethro (Ex. 3:1), and Hobab (Num. 10:29). One day, while tending His father-in-law's flocks, Moses saw a bush that was burning but was never consumed. From this bush God spoke to Moses, commissioning Him to return to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves there. Moses asked "if I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' what shall I say to them" (Ex. 3:13). God replied "Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you" (Ex. 3:14). The conversation refers to the patriarchal tradition of speaking about God according to titles and attributes; God here reveals a new name, YHWH (pronounced Yahweh, and sometimes rendered Jehovah), which is etymologically connected with the Hebrew hayah, "to be." Some scholars have suggested that Jethro's later declaration to Moses, "now I know the LORD [YHWH] is greater that all gods" (Ex. 18:11) suggests that the Midianites had already called God by that name of YHWH and that Moses had learned the name from them. Thus it is possible that Moses was reforming and augmenting YHWH worship, not initiating it.
Returning to Egypt, Moses repeatedly met with the Pharaoh—probably Rameses II (ruled ca. 1290-1224)—in an attempt to convince him to release the Israelites; the Hebrew Bible portrays these encounters, basically, as magic contests between Moses and the Pharaoh's priest-magicians. The Pharaoh finally decided to release the slaves, according to the Hebrew Bible, after the angel of death passed through Egypt and took the lives of all the first born of the land, except those of the Israelites. This event is commemorated each year in the festival of Passover, the greatest holy day in Judaism.
Allowed to depart, the Israelites march east. The exodus has become an act of great significance for millions of people, as a symbol of liberation from bondage and of flight from evil. The Pharaoh's army pursues, but a miraculous event at the "Reed Sea" (not the Red Sea) saves the people from recapture. As is usually the case, the oldest account, the "Song of Moses" (Ex. 15:1-18) is the least detailed. This poem, whose archaic Hebrew suggests it is one of the oldest compositions in the Bible—it may have been composed as little as a century or a century and ahalf after the crossing—only says that "Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea; and his picked officers are sunk in the Red Sea. The floods cover them; they went down into the depths like a stone" (Ex. 15:4-5). The description seems to be of boats sinking, not of a parted sea returning to drown a helpless army. A later account says "the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night," suggesting a naturalistic explanation (Ex. 14:21); what is belived to be a yet later revision to the text mentions the sea being parted so that the waters were "a wall to them on their right hand and on their left" (Ex. 14:22).
After successfully fleeing Pharaoh, Moses led His people in the wilderness. The Hebrew Bible portrays Jethro (Moses's father in law) advising Moses about how to organize the Israelites during the exodus (Ex. 18:17-26) suggesting that discussion of problems and advice by non-Israelites played a role in the organizing of Israel as well as revelation. But the most significant event during the wandering remains Moses's reception of the Ten Commandments and of God's laws for His people. As a result of the revelation, the former slaves, who were a "mixed multitude" (Ex. 12:38)—Hebrews, Egyptians pressed into slavery, members of conquered cities and tribes, and others—were welded into a single people, the Israelites. The laws, which dealt with every aspect of social organization, gave them a common set of values and thereby laid the foundation for the most important characteristic of a successful society: unity. The unity was not perfect, of course; the Hebrew Bible recounts many incidents where people derided and rejected the teachings of Moses. Unity, however, is always relative; the social and religious unity that Moses's revelation gave to a few thousand Israelites was great enough to enable them to conquer a land, a land filled with organized city-states possessing a high degree of administrative unity and military organization. `Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes the importance of the social unity and civilization that resulted from the Israelites' acceptance of Moses:
It was such a Man as this that freed a great nation from the chains of captivity, made them contented, brought them out of Egypt, and led them to the Holy Land.
This people from the depths of degradation were lifted up to the height of glory. They were captive; they became free. They were the most ignorant of peoples; they became the most wise. As a result of the institutions that Moses gave them, they attained a position of honor among all nations. . . Moses established laws and ordinances; these gave life to the people of Israel, and led them to the highest possible degree of civilization at that period. (Some Answered Questions, 14)
The Bahá'í sacred writings on Moses continue the tendency, exhibited in accounts of Noah, Húd, Sálih, and Abraham, to portray a manifestation of God in terms of the religious lesson He taught humanity. Bahá'u'lláh again emphasizes the fierce resistance that human beings, and human institutions, exhibit whenever they are confronted by a new divine revelation:
Armed with the rod of celestial dominion, adorned with the white hand of divine knowledge, and proceeding from the Párán of the love of God, and wielding the serpent of power and everlasting majesty, He shone forth from the Sinai of light upon the world. He summoned all the peoples and kindreds of the earth to the kingdom of eternity, and invited them to partake of the fruit of the tree of faithfulness. Surely you are aware of the fierce opposition of Pharaoh and his people, and of the stones of idle fancy which the hands of the infidels cast upon that blessed Tree. So much so that Pharaoh and his people finally arose and exerted their utmost endeavor to extinguish with the waters of falsehood and denial the fire of that sacred Tree, oblivious of the truth that no earthly water can quench the flame of divine wisdom, nor mortal blasts extinguish the lamp of everlasting dominion (Kitáb-i-Iqán, 11).
The Bahá'í writings discuss various details in the life of Moses, especially those that seem to undermine the view that Moses was a manifestation of God. `Abdu'l- Bahá notes that Moses exerted His great influence, in spite of His lack of education— He was a shepherd—and in spite of a stammer, because He was "assisted by divine power" (Some Answered Questions, 15). Both Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l- Bahá mention the charge that Moses was a murderer; `Abdu'l-Bahá states that He killed a man "to prevent an act of cruelty" (Some Answered Questions, 15) while Bahá'u'lláh adds the murder occurred before Moses was called to His prophetic mission, and emphasizes how great God's power is, that a man known as a murderer could become accepted as as embodiment of God's truth (Kitáb-i- Iqán, 55-58). Finally, `Abdu'l-Bahá comments on Deut. 3:26, "The LORD was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me"; He explains that God's anger was caused not by Moses's sins, but the sins of the Israelites, whom Moses represented before God.
Bahá'u'lláh did not comment on Moses's miracles directly, but in the above quotation He mentioned the "rod of celestial dominion," the "white hand of divine knowledge," and "the serpent of power and everlasting majesty" (Kitáb-i- Íqán, 11), referring to the rod that became a serpent (Ex. 4:2-4) and the miracle of Moses's hand turning white (Gen. 4:6-7). This suggests that Bahá'u'lláh interpreted Moses's miracles before Pharaoh symbolically; that the miracles Moses performed were demonstrations of the power, majesty, and dominion of God, and of the knowledge of God. This interpretation is also implied when Bahá'u'lláh says the voice of God speaking in the burning bush bade Moses to "shed upon Pharaohic souls the light of divine guidance; so that, liberating them from the shadows of the valley of self and desire, He might enable them to attain the meads of heavenly delight" (Kitáb-i-Iqán, 54).
Of course, the Hebrew Bible understands the miracles quite literally. When Moses turned Aaron's rod into a serpent before the Pharaoh, the Pharaoh's magicians turned their rods into serpents as well; however, Moses's serpent swallowed up the others, suggesting that His magic was more powerful than theirs (Gen. 7:8-12). Moses turned the water of the Nile into blood, but the Pharaoh's magicians performed the same trick (Gen. 7:19-22). Moses filled the land with frogs, and the magicians repeated His feat again (Gen. 8:5-7). It was only when Moses filled Egypt with gnats that the magicians failed to execute magic equally powerful (Gen. 8:17-18). Yet the Pharaoh remained unconvinced. Additional miracles by Moses failed to convince the Pharaoh to release the Israelites; it was only when the Pharaoh's first born son died that he agreed to let the Israelites go. If nothing else, the biblical account is an allegory about the ineffectiveness of miracles as proofs of God's power.
Yet the stories, in their own way, speak of Moses's divine power. The book of Exodus portrays Moses primarily as a magician, perhaps because in His day there was little else to which He could be compared. This observation is easiest understood when one considers the manifestations of God who came after Moses. Of all the figures to whom Bahá'ís apply the title manifestation, Bahá'u'lláh fits the description best, because he is the most recent. Muhammad, appearing among an idolatrous people and succeeding a manifestation hailed as the Son of God and as part of the Godhead Itself, stressed His humanity. Because Jesus's contemporaries made no distinction between the station of Moses and Abraham and the station of such minor prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, the Jewish concept of "prophet" was vague and any comparison between Jesus and Moses would have been confusing. Perhaps this explains why Jesus did not compare Himself to any previous figures. Rather, He seems to have left His station an enigma, referring to Himself by the obscure biblical title of the Son of Man. For Moses's people, there was no one with whom to compare their deliverer. The memories of Abraham were too indistinct. In a world that believed in magical powers, demons, a plethora of gods who interfered in human affairs, and human beings who were divine by their magical birth or royal sovereignty, there was no distinction that could be made between a manifestation and an ordinary human being who had learned spells or experienced visions. Thus Moses was remembered in ways that best reflected the understanding of His people: He was miraculously rescued after birth, held direct conversations with God, and demonstrated God's power in miraculous acts of magic.
When the Pentateuch attempts to describe Moses's station, it uses the only word available to it: n_bî, "prophet." However, it qualifies the word in a significant way. After Moses's death, the book of Deuteronomy concludes that "there has not risen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 34:10-11). Since, according to biblical scholars, the book of Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century B.C.E., after such "prophets" as Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, this passage seems to make a distinction between Moses and lesser prophets; one might say that it describes Moses as a greater prophet, or, as Bahá'ís would say, a manifestation of God. This usage of the word prophet appears to be found in the promise of Deut. 18:15 as well: "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like unto me from among you, from among your brethren—him you shall heed."
A similar distinction between Moses and lesser prophets is also made in the Book of Numbers, although in that book the word prophet is used to describe the latter: "If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the LORD" (Num. 12:6-8). Thus, regardless how the word prophet is used, the Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between Moses and those figures whom Bahá'ís call lesser prophets.
Wandering the Wilderness and the Conquest of the Promised Land
According to the Pentateuch, Yahweh decreed that the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years as a punishment for their rebelliousness. Whenever the Israelites attempted to enter the Promised Land they suffered defeat. In the thirteenth century B.C.E., Canaan was filled with many city states, each with fortifications and professional armies; thus entering the land proved very difficult. After being defeated when they tried entering from the south, the Israelites walked north through Jordan and began their campaign of conquest there.
According to the Book of Numbers, Israel conquered, fairly quickly, the hill country east of the Jordan River, in what today is Jordan. This area was sparcely populated with scattered small towns, and thus was easier to take than the more heavily populated areas of Canaan. Its population probably spoke a dialect closely resembling Hebrew, and probably told legends of patriarchal ancestors just like the Israelites. Thus it would not have been difficult to convert the population to Yahweh worship and assimilate it into Israel. Indeed, some scholars argue that Yahweh worship proved extremely attractive to the downtrodden and disaffected segment of Canaan's population. Assimilation, however, proved a two way street. The population did not give up its old gods immediately, and taught them to the Israelites. As a result, throughout the subsequent history of Israel one hears that the old gods were still worshipped by some Israelites, much to the anger of the Yahweh worshippers.
After taking the Jordan hill country Israel turned west, toward Canaan. At this point, on the verge of entering the Promised Land, Moses died (Deut. 34). Moses's successor, Joshua, led the people across the Jordan River, where the entire new generation was circumcised at Gilgal. The Israelites then attacked nearby Jericho, whose walls miraculously fell when Joshua ordered the priests to blow their trumpets (Josh. 6:15-21). Unfortunately, archaeology cannot verify or refute the story; the remains of thirteenth century B.C.E. Jericho eroded away centuries ago, before they could be excavated. With the destruction of Jericho, the Israelites were able to penetrate the hill country west of the Jordan.
The Book of Joshua describes the subsequently conquest of the land as rapid and complete. From Jericho, a campaign was mounted against the central hill country; then against the southern hills of Judah; then against Galilee. As a result, "all the cities... and all their kings, Joshua took" (Josh. 11:12). The account says that the cities were utterly destroyed and all their inhabitants exterminated. The Book of Judges (ch. 1:1-2:5), however, portrays the conquest as continuing after the death of Joshua, under the command of various elders of various individual tribes. It also mentions the conquest of many of the same cities earlier attributed to Joshua. This suggests that the conquest occurred more gradually, which is most likely correct; the conquest was not actually completed until the reign of King David, almost two hundred years later (for example, it was David who conquered Jerusalem: see 2 Sam. 5:6-9). The extensive archaeology that has been conducted in the Holy Land does confirm that many Canaanite cities were destroyed in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries, among them Bethel (Jud. 1:22-26), Lachish (Josh. 10:32), Debir (Jud. 1:11) and Hazor (Josh. 11:10). Some were destroyed more than once. On the ruins were built settlements, probably Israelite, that were considerably more modest than the cities they replaced. In them the Israelites began to farm and herd livestock; they intermarried with the people who remained on the land from before the conquest.
Israel was especially successful in conquering the hill country, where cities were smaller and less able to defend themselves. The cities on the larger plains between the hills took longer to conquer. The rich agricultural lands of the coastal plain remained largely out of their control. There the Philistines, who were entering Canaan from the sea, were conquering the inhabitants with their new iron weapons and were building cities.
Establishment of the Confederation
Yahwism proved to be a powerful glue for holding disparate peoples together. But it also became a reason Israel refused to have a king, for it saw Yahweh as their king. In the place of a monarchy, the Israelites were loosely organized under tribal elders, and the tribes were confederated in a covenant with Yahweh that was renewed periodically at covenant gatherings. Tribal confederations were not unusual in the ancient world, or in other times and places; the Iroquois confederacy is similar. The gathering at Shechem (Josh. 24:1-28), where all Israelites met and swore to worship only Yahweh and to abandon idol worship, may be an account of the creation of the confederation out of the invading Israelites and local converts.
Israel's lack of a king proved a disadvantage when it was attacked. No major power— Egypt or Mesopotamia—dominated the land and maintained the peace, so war was frequent. When Israel was threatened a shôphet, "judge," would arise. This charismatic figure claimed Yahweh's authority to unite the tribes and defeat their enemies. He or she—Deborah, a female judge, led an Israelite army—was seen as God's representative and judge to the people for the period of the crisis; he/she was not a monarch. Judges rarely emerged as national figues because the land of the Israelites was large and within it were many unconquered Canaanite cities, which hampered communication and transportation. Most accounts of the actions of judges mention only one tribe—their own— and perhaps the tribe's nearest neighbors sending men to the campaign to defeat an enemy. While some judges were men of God, others had less than perfect reputations (such as Samson; see Jud. 16:1-4).
Probably the best-known judge to modern Americans is Samson. In addition to his affair with Delilah (Jud. 16:4-20) and his death pulling down the temple to the Philistine god Dagon (Jud. 16:23-30), Samson led the Israelites into battle against the Philistines and defeated them (Jud. 15:14-16). He is said to have been a judge of Israel—probably for the tribe of Judah only—for twenty years.
Establishment of a Monarchy: Samuel and Saul
Samson's was one of the few defeats the Israelites inflicted on the Philistines, whose organization and military effectiveness was improving. With their professional soldiers, their monopoly on iron weapons (the Israelites still used weapons of bronze, a softer metal), their powerful chariot corps (the Israelites had no cavalry or chariots) and their united effort—the five city states of the Philistines often fought together—the Philistines emerged as the Israelites' major competitor for control of Canaan.
In the half century before 1000 B.C.E—about two hundred years after the establishment of the Israelite confederacy—the Philistine crisis reached its climax. Israel fought the Philistines twice and was defeated. The Philistines occupied Judah and much of the central hill country. The darkest moment of the Israelite confederacy had arrived.
The inevitable solution was the replacing of the institution of the judge with something stronger. Samuel, a charismatic judge, arose and was recognized as a member of a new institution: the prophet, nábi. Prophets had existed before; other ancient societies had them, and Israel had bands of wandering prophets (cf. I Sam. 10:10) who presumably spoke while in an ecstatic state. But Samuel was a new kind of prophet: a man who claimed divine authority to speak for Yahweh to the entire nation, but not to rule over it. Samuel did not make himself into a prophet-king; that would have represented an augmeted continuation of the charismatic authority of the judges. Rather, he recognized the authority of a king: Saul (reigned ca. 1020 - ca. 1000), Israel's first monarch.
By replacing the institution of judge with two institutions—prophet and king—Israel recognized the continued overlordship of Yahweh, but did so through the prophet, who served as a check on the authority of the king. In the rest of the Near East the king himself was seen as the representative of the national god, and thus his power—whether wisely or arbitrarily wielded—was legitimized and reinforced by the state religion. Israel's solution to the problem of unchecked monarchal power was unique and without historical precedent. The institutions of king and prophet continued for about five hundred years, until the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile ended both.
Saul was succeeded by David, who had been one of his military commanders. The story of young David's defeat of Goliath, the Philistine military champion, is an example of the legendary status he acquired among the people (I Sam. 17). Though David never destroyed the major Philistine cities, with a small professional army of Israelites he swiftly ended the Philistine military threat forever. Among his subsequent tasks was the taking of the remaining Canaanite cities in the hills. They had been allied with the Philistines and many immediately accepted Israelite domination when the Philistines were defeated. One of the Canaanite cities that David conquered was Jerusalem; he took it with his private army and made it into his capital. Since it was on the border between Judah and Benjamin, on the edge of the central hills, it was centrally located and neutral. The Ark of the Covenant was brought to the City of David (II Sam. 6), thereby placing Israelite religion under the dominion of the monarchy. David established a priesthood to maintain the Ark properly. He considered building a Temple for the Ark—all important city-states in the area had a central Temple— but rejected the plan, probably because of opposition from the Yahwists. He also built a palace for himself in Jerusalem, Israel's first royal residence (II Sam. 5:11).
The land of Israel having been secured, David embarked on campaigns against Moab, Edom, Ammon, and other nations occupying what today is Jordan and southern Syria. He conquered all of them, thereby extending Israelite control over a large area. The booty that was captured, and the tribute that came from more distant states that did not desire a visit from Israel's armies, gave David a considerable treasury. Israel now controled an empire as large as any that existed at the time and was ranked as one of the major regional powers. It was the first time that anyone had united the land of Syro-Palestine under a single native ruler.
More significantly for many Israelites, Israel was now a land ruled not by an ancient confederation of tribes, but by a single man, who controled a professional army, who possessed his own capital city, and who had his own treasury. This departure from tradition was seen by some as a loss of freedom and a perversion of the old religion. David established a royal bureaucracy and took a census of the people of Israel, presumably for purposes of taxation and conscription (II Sam. 24). The last action was strongly opposed by Gad, one of David's prophets.
Israel's Zenith: The Reign of Solomon
Solomon (reigned ca. 961-922), son of David through his wife Bathsheba (II Sam. 12:24-25), was his father's successor on the throne and the heir to the Israelite Empire. His accession represented the death of the old confederacy, for the hereditary principle of monarchy was now established. Under him Israel reached the zenith of its prestige and world power. The Pharaoh gave him a daughter in marriage (I Kings 3:1) a highly unusual act. Even the Queen of Sheba (from southern Arabia) visited on a diplomatic visit (I Kings 10). Solomon was a highly effective promoter of Israel's trade and wealth poured into the country. He developed the country's copper resources for export. He also expanded the nation's weapons trade, acquiring a monopoly in war chariots. He used the resulting wealth to build up the nation's military might, to fortify its border towns, to erect a new royal palace, and to construct a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant. The Temple became the new symbol for Israel's religion and the nation's glory (I Kings 6-8). It was built for Solomon by Phoenician artisans who designed it according to the standards for temples in their land.
It was probably under Solomon that the national epic was first written down, the so- called Yahwist or J-strand of the Pentateuch. With the completion of the temple, many psalms (hymns) were composed for use in its worship; these, along with the psalms from David's reign and those composed later, eventually were compiled into the Book of Psalms. Solomon also apparently encouraged the development of wisdom literature, and may have composed himself some of the aphorisms that were later assembled into the Book of Proverbs.
Diplomatic prestige, material prosperity, and literature reached their zenith under Solomon. But all was not prosperity and success. Solomon was an administrator; he was not charismatic, and was not a general (under him, the Israelite empire lost some of its control over Syria). A strong, centrally organized monarchy under his person was his goal and he set out to establish it with alacrity and single-mindedness. Not long after his father died, he purged the court of rivals (I Kings 2:22-46), including some of his brothers (he was David's tenth son out of seventeen). As soon as he was secure in the throne he reorganized Israel into twelve administrative districts of equal size, over each of which he appointed an officer; in this manner Solomon attempted to abolish the tribes (I Kings 4:7-19). Taxation burdens were laid systematically on each district and were heavy. Solomon decided to impose forced labor on the Israelites (I Kings 5:13-14), for he had more building projects underway than he could pay workers to complete. One result was the later killing of Solomon's director for forced labor (I Kings 12:18). All of these acts severely undermined Solomon's popular support. One man—Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim—"lifted up his hand against" Solomon (I Kings 11:26). Such treason was not uniformly condemned; the prophet Ahijah declared him the future king of the north. As a result, Solomon pursued Jeroboam and forced him to flee to Egypt.
When Solomon died, the northern half of the kingdom refused to recognize Solomon's son, Rehoboam, as the new king. Instead they declared Jeroboam their monarch. Rehoboam had to accept the loss of half his territory and was reduced to ruling over Judah from Jerusalem. The nation had split permanently; the southern kingdom was called Judah, while the northern kingdom, which consisted of ten of the twelve tribes, retained the name of Israel. The two kingdoms were never reunified.
Of the two, Israel was the larger and was blessed with far more agricultural land than hilly Judah. Since most of Solomon's vassal states had been located to the north and northeast, Israel inherited them as well. Judah retained control over the Negev and Edom, to the southeast. Jerusalem was shorn of most of its sources of wealth, which now were directed to the capital of the northern kingdom—first Shechem, then Samaria. (Both are located within a few kilometers of Nablus, a large city in the modern West Bank). One of Jeroboam's first priorities was to construct two temples in order to discourage northerners from worshipping in Jerusalem; one was at Bethel, an ancient Israelite religious center that was just across the border from Judah, and the other was at Dan in the far north of Galilee. These measures were seen as blasphemous by the court officials and priests in Jerusalem, who were responsible for writing down much of the account of the northern kingdom that is found today in the Hebrew Bible.
The northern kingdom also needed a national epic, consequently at some point in its first century of existence a writer, called by modern scholars the Elohist, composed a narrative that today is found scattered throughout the Pentateuch. Notable are the composition's many stories of the patriarchs that mention locations in the northern kingdom, and its tales of Jacob, which were recounted in less detail by the Yahwist writer.
The two kingdoms were militarily much weaker than the united kingdom and faced greater external threats. Egypt, which had been weak for the preceeding three centuries, invaded Canaan about 918 B.C.E. Jerusalem was not attacked because Rehoboam paid a substantial tribute, but both kingdoms suffered considerable damage. The kingdom of Aram, based in Damascus, had achieved liberation from Israelite rule during Solomon's reign and emerged as a kingdom as powerful as the two Hebrew states. Both states made alliances with Aram, at various times, against each other. Beyond Aram—in Mesopotamia—Assyria was reemerging as a strong state, with ambitions to establish an empire. Judah, in its hills, was more isolated and more secure than Israel, with its rich agricultural lands and its location on the crossroads of the invasion routes. Judah and Israel were not in a permanent state of war, but an uneasy peace usually prevailed in which the states did not cooperate in defense matters, schemed against each other's foreign policies, and occasionally attempted to destabilize each other's governments.
Judah proved to have the more stable government because the hereditary principle had become accepted there. It was understood that its king had to be a descendant of David, therefore coup d'états by generals were not possible. Each king designated his successor, consequently the transition between rulers was usually peaceful. Israel, however, had been established by coup d'état, and the hereditary principle had been viewed by the tribes there with suspicion. As a result, in the two hundred years between the schism into two kingdoms and the destruction of the northern kingdom, Israel had nineteen kings in nine dynasties. In contrast, Judah had thirteen kings in one dynasty, the House of David.
Israel also faced problems because of its greater diversity. It contained a much larger proportion of unassimilated Canaanites in its population who still worshipped Baal and the Asherah. Its broad agricultural plains brought the kingdom more wealth but created a greater disparity between aristocrat and peasant. In Judah, polytheistic tendencies were weaker and the extremes of wealth and poverty were less.
The Rise of Prophets: Elijah and Elisha
The northern kingdom's flurtation with gods other than Yahweh reached its climax under King Ahab (869-50), who married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre. Tyre was an important commercial city and dominated the Mediterranean coast of what today is Lebanon, therefore an alliance with it was of extreme importance. Jezebel was a worshipper of the Tyrian dieties—Baal Melqart and Asherah—and strongly advocated their worship in Israel. The reference in I Kings 18:19 to eight hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Asherah, though not necessarily an accurate number, indicates the size of the institution she was able to establish for her gods in Israel. Apparently Jezebel was able to suspend royal support for the priests of Yahweh as well (I Kings 18:4).
The seriousness of the threat to Yahwism called for an extraordinary defense, and it appeared in the form of a remarkable prophet named Elijah. Unlike the later prophets, Elijah did not write a book, nor was one posthumously compiled from his words, but his followers preserved the stories of his life and they were later incorporated into the Hebrew Bible (I Kings 17-19, 21, II Kings 1). Elijah's impact on the Israelite imagination was much greater than the other lesser prophets—it can be more easily compared with the impact of Moses—hence the later belief that Elijah must come before the Messiah (Mal. 4:5; Matt 17:10-13).
Elijah fought against Ahab and Jezebel but was unable to remove them from power. When Ahab died his brother Jehoram became king and was little better. Elijah's hand-picked successor, Elisha, stimulated a revolt against this king by having Jehu, a commander in Israel's army, annointed king (II Kings 9:1). Jehu's revolt was successful. He killed Jehoram and Ahab's seventy other sons (II Kings 10:11), had Jezebel thrown out the palace window to her death (II Kings 9:33), and massacred the Baal worshipers (II Kings 24-25). However, Jehu's reign proved militarily unsuccessful; Israel lost much of its control of the lands east of the Jordan River.
The Destruction of Israel
The next three centuries saw a steady military decline for the two kingdoms of the Israelites. Prophets blamed the nations' loss of power on the growing corruption of Yahwism, and this undoubtedly was a factor. Had the Israelites strengthened their committment to Yahweh and His laws, perhaps they would have avoided the disunity that results from injustice and political corruptio. Perhaps they could have maintained themselves as an independent people. However, the trend of the times ran against them. Improved military technology, new knowledge of tactics, and improved organizational skills made possible larger and more effective armies. Increased trade by land and sea drew the peoples of the Near East closer together and made it possible for kings to dream of establishing larger kingdoms than ever before. Stronger, moreprofessionally organized bureaucracies made large, centralized kingdoms easier to govern. These developments favored the conquest of small kingdoms by larger ones. For the next twenty-five hundred years Canaan would be almost continuously a part of a large empire.
Mesopotamia, which had far more agricultural wealth and many more cities than any other part of the Near East, potentially could dominate the entire area. Only Egypt—which was often internally disorganized and weak in the early first millennium—could have opposed her.
The Assyrians conquered Mesopotamia and welded it into an empire, then turned west. Several times they invaed Palestine, andf the various states there either were conquered or paid a heavy tribute. In 724 the Assyrian arrived in the northern kingdom with a large army. A siege of Samaria began almost immediately, and after two years the city was taken (II Kings 17:5-6). In 722 B.C.E. the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist. Many Israelites fled south to Judah, which remained an independent vassal state. Others were taken into exile in Mesopotamia. Replacing them were Babylonians and other exiled peoples, who were settled in Israel (II Kings 17:24). With no monarchy to maintain Yahweh worship, and with more polytheists brought into the land, Yahwism suffered a severe setback in the northern kingdom.
Judah as an Assyrian Vassal State
Judah continued to exist for another century and a half, but usually as a vassal state. Such a status entailed certain religious duties; the king had to recognize the existence of Assyria's gods and even had to set up an altar to them in the temple in Jerusalem. This provoked outrage and resentment among Yahwists. The aristocracy, which dealt with, and thus was influenced by, the Assyrians, often flirted with paganism. The people's yearning for freedom was constant, and any instability in the empire fed the hope that it could be won.
The story is similar to the Northern Kingdom. Several times the Assyrians, and later the Babylonians (who took over Mesopotamia from the Assyrians) invaded Palestine. Only briefly, during the reign of King Josiah, was Judah reasonably secure and independent. Josiah was a vigorous and capable ruler. The temple was repaired and again purged of paganism, this time more extensively than ever before (II Kings 22:3-7). Pagan cults were abolished and their priests—including eunuchs and prostitutes— were put to death. Temple worship was completely reorganized; in order to justify the reforms the Book of Deuteronomy was "found" and made the basis for them (II Kings 22:8). It was probably based on worship practices that had been brought from the northern kingdom. Traditional cultic centers outside Jerusalem, which were also foci of pagan practices, were closed and all worship was centralized at the Temple (II Kings 23:15).
Josiah also was able to push the boundaries of Judah itself back to their old positions. He took control of the Assyrian provinces of Samaria and Meggido, thereby briefly reuniting Israel under the House of David. The cities of Judah, devasted by the Assyrians, saw a recovery.
The Deuteronomistic Histories
Josiah's rule brought Israel its greatest sense of security and hope since David and Solomon. It was a fitting time for a new writing of the national epic. It was probably Josiah who commissioned the writing of a narrative history of events that occurred after Moses, thus updating the national epics that the Yahwist and the Elohist had composed. The Deuteronomistic historian, as scholars call the anonymous author, utilized various lost works as his sources. For the period of the judges he used traditional materials, stories, and possibly some written documents. It is clear that he perserved considerable ancient oral tradition, and often multiple traditions about the same event (for example, the Israelites cross the Jordan River twice, in Joshua 3:17 and Joshua 4:10-11).
For the period of the monarchy the Deuteronomistic historian utilized a history of the court of King David (found in II Sam. 9-20, I Kings 1-2), "The Book of the Acts of Solomon" (I Kings 11:41), "The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel" (I Kings 14:19), "The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah" (I Kings 14:29), a collection of stories about Elijah and Elisha (found in I Kings 17-19, 21, and II Kings 1), and archival and oral sources. The result was one work that, for convenience of copying, was broken into the Books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, and II Kings. While the text often consists of highly accurate court history, it is corrupt also; in I Samuel 13:1 the text is even incomplete (the Revised Standard Version and Living Bible translations include notes to this effect). The work was added to at least once in order to update it through the fall of Jerusalem.
The Destruction of Jerusalem
Unfortunately Josiah's reign proved to be a brief Indian summer before the arrival of Judah's darkest days. Josiah died fighting an unnecessary battle with Egypt's army in 609 B.C.E. (II Kings 23:29). His son had to submit to the Pharaoh; Judah was now a vassal state of Egypt. The new king was unpopular. The temple reforms were allowed to lapse; pagan practices resumed.
In 605 B.C.E. the Babylonians, who had destroyed the Assyrian empire and had consolidated their control of Mesopotamia, began a new westward advance. In 604 King Nebuchadnezzar (reigned 605-562) conquered Philistia and deported many of its leading citizens. Judah submitted and became a vassal state for three years, until Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt and was defeated in 601 (II Kings 24:1), at which point Judah withheld tribute. Babylonia's armies were occupied with campaigns elsewhere for several years, but in 597 they came west to reconquer Judah. Several of Judah's major cities were destroyed; Jerusalem surrendered to avoid the same fate. Nebuchadnezzar's terms were harsh: the new king and his family, most court officials, many prophets and priests, and many prominent families were deported to Mesopotamia (II Kings 24:16). The exile had begun.
Judah was reorganized as a province of the Babylonian empire with the former king's uncle appointed its governor (II Kings 24:17). However, it was a province that seethed with rebellion. Egypt encouraged revolt in the hopes of regaining influence in Canaan. The Judahites in exile seem to have participated in a rebellion within the imperial army (Jer. 29). In 589 Judah revolted. Jerusalem was placed under siege immediately. The other fortified cities of Judah were surrounded and destroyed, one by one. Egypt sent an army to save Judah but it was defeated. Jerusalem held out for a year and a half before running out of food in July 587 (II Kings 25:3). However, before the city considered surrender the Babylonians breached its walls. The city was burned to the ground and the Temple destroyed. Some of the population was deported to Mesopotamia (II KIngs 25:9-21). Judah was reorganized as a province for a time, until its governor was assassinated by nationalists (II Kings 25:25); in reprisal the province was abolished, the territory was placed under the governor of Samaria, and a third exile was decreed. Jerusalem's destruction occurred approximately four hundred years after David's assumption of the throne and seven hundred years after Moses led the Exodus.
Judah no longer existed as a nation; only impoverished and disillusioned peasants remained. The cream of the nation had been sent into exile, to lose its identity and merge with the other peoples of Mesopotamia, as the exiles of the northern kingdom earlier had done. But the Judahites—the Jews—were not like the other peoples of the Near East, because they believed in one God, and in spite of the disasters that had overtaken them they did not forsake their worship of Yahweh. Rather, prophets spoke words of hope and encouragement. Priests began to codify the national epic anew by weaving together the Yahwist, Elohist, and Deuteronomist strands with their own priestly interpretation and commentary. Instead of spelling the end of a people, the exile opened a new chapter in their already long and eventful history.
Return from the Exile
In 539 B.C.E. Cyrus, king and founder of the Persian empire, conquered Mesopotamia. He wanted to consolidate his victory, and one way to do that was to free exiled peoples to return home. Hence, one year later, Cyrus allowed the Jews in exile to return to Judea, which now became a part of the Persian Empire. Almost sixty years of exile came to an end.
The people who returned from the exile were religiously different from their parents who left. The national epic was being rewritten to become the Pentateuch. Writings of earlier prophets had been collected and in some cases amplified by additions by anonymous prophets. Several prophets wrote new works, giving hope to the exiles and producing works of eternal significance. Religious laws acquired a new importance in the exile. The Sabbath and the dietary laws became observed regularly. Holy days such as Passover were observed widely. With sacrifice and ceremonies at the Temple impossible, Jews began to gather for worship; these meeting were the forerunners of synagogue services. The ability to read and study the religious traditions became important, and the Jewish emphasis on literacy and learning was born. In short, the people went into exile as Yahwists and returned as Jews.
Not all Jews returned. Many—possibly a majority—remained in Mesopotamia and founded the Jewish community there; the community that, after Judea, was historically the most influential on world Judaism. Many Jews had fled Jerusalem for Egypt and founded its strong Jewish community. From these two centers Jews gradually moved east, west, north, and south.
Judea initially was made a part of the Persian province of Samaria, and was administered by a series of Jewish governors appointed by Cyrus. The first one for whom we have a name- -Zerubbabel—was a prince of the House of David. Four waves of Jewish exiles returned over the next three generations. Permission to rebuild the Temple was secured: the so-called Edict of Cyrus, issued in 538 B.C.E (Ezra 1:2-3). The cornerstone was laid in the second year after the return, or about 536, but construction did not commence until 520, under the Emperor Darius. Two prophets wrote to stimulate interest in the reconstruction: Haggai and Zechariah. Haggai emphasized the crop failures and the poverty of the people in Jerusalem and attributed them to YHWH's displeasure because of the people's failure to rebuild the Temple. The first eight chapters of Zechariah expanded on Haggai's interpretations, and in a series of visions Zechariah emphasized the importance of supporting the leaders of Judea in the construction effort. Zechariah's prophetic allusions to Zerubbabel as "the branch"—so called because of his Davidic lineage—have stirred the fascination of Bahá'ís, who often interpret them to be references to `Abdu'l-Bahá. Partly as a result of Zechariah's visions the Temple was rebuilt in only four or five years, and was complete by 515 B.C.E.
The exiles did not return to an unpopulated land. Judean peasants had remained; and a dozen miles north of Jerusalem the towns of the tribe of Benjamin had not been destroyed by the Babylonians, so those Israelites had been able to continue their lives undisturbed. There was considerable resentment between the exiles and those who had remained and the latter resisted the former's domination of Jerusalem and the countryside. The exiles' religion had changed more than had the religion of those who had remained. As a result, the exiles were very interested in religious education and establishing the proper observance of Judaism.
Among the exiles were contending groups as well. Priestly functions in the first temple had been restricted to descendants of the priest Zadok, and they had progressively excluded the Levites from the Temple (the Levites were Israelite priests who offered sacrifices at the "high places" outside Jerusalem and who interpreted the traditional law). The return from the exile and the rebuilding of the Temple was led by Zadokites, who further excluded the Levites from the Temple. Opposing the Zadokites may have been disillusioned prophetic elements as well. The references to controversy in Third Isaiah (Isa. 56-66) probably refer to controversy between the Zadokites and their opponents.
Jerusalem disunified, impoverished, and powerless. Apocalyptic thinking would have been nourished by those Jews who were profoundly disturbed by foreign rule over the People of God, and by the foreign cultural influences pouring into Judea and Jewish life. For others, the purity of the Temple cult would have been an ongoing concern. Yet others—especially the scribal class that copied the emerging collection of sacred books—would have turned their attention to educating the people in the law and its observance.
In 445 B.C.E.— almost a century after the exile had officially ended—a Jewish court official named Nehemiah asked the Persian emperor Artaxerxes I to make Judea a separate Persian province and to appoint him its governor. He brought a fourth wave of returnees home. An able diplomat, Nehemiah obtained royal permission to rebuild Jerusalem's walls, and instituted a crash program to complete the work before political resistance from Judean peasants, neighboring cities, and other groups got it halted. He rebuilt the walls in fifty-two days. He also furthered religious reforms.
At about the same time Nehemiah governed Judea, Ezra visited from Babylon to institute royally-sanctioned religious reforms. Traditional Jewish chronology places Ezra's visit before Nehemiah's tenure, but many modern biblical scholars think it occurred about generation after his retirement. Among Ezra's reforms were forbidding marriage to foreign women; even many Temple priests had had non-Jewish wives, whom they were required to divorce.
The rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple and the reform of Jewish worship were symbolic conclusions to the struggles of the Jews to reestablish themselves on their land, and inspired another rewriting of their history. "The Chronicler" was a person or group of persons who composed a new national historical narrative, starting with Adam and continuing through the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah. Long assumed to be less accurate than the Deuteronomistic histories (I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, and II Kings) and based on them, the Chroniclers are now seen as having sources, possibly archives, independent of the Deuteronomistic historians. The Chroniclers wrote one work that for convenience of copying was broken into four: I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. One or more of the "Chroniclers" may also have participated in the editing of the book of Haggai.
The missions of Ezra and Nehemiah ended by about the year 400 B.C.E. With the Temple rebuilt, no kings' reigns to chronicle, and no religious reforms to insist on, Jewish prophets and historians fell silent, and in consequence there are no written sources describing the next two hundred years of Jewish history. This gap is the biggest in the 3200-year period between the life of Moses and the present. During the period we do not even have the names of all the governors and high priests.
While no one wrote prophetic works for the next three centuries, the prophetic tradition remained alive, though it underwent a subtle transformation. The prophets before the exile had written about a God who works through history, and who tested His people through foreign kings, but who never took away their independence or temple. The exile and the subsequent domination by Babylonians and Persians caused prophecy to take a pessimistic turn. History was no longer seen as an adequate instrument for God's will; God would have to intervene dramatically in history through a messiah and a judgment. In this way prophecy became transformed into apocalyptic.The creation of apocalyptic writings necessitated the use of new symbols and images—such as beasts—and these were borrowed from the pagan mythologies flourishing in the Near East.
Because many Jews lived outside the territory of Judea, the religion did not evolve uniformly. North of Judea was the separate Persian province of Samaria. Its governor had been one of the opponents of the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls. Its dynasty of governors was Jewish and intermarried with the line of governors and the line of high priests in Jerusalem, though it often was a political rival to Judea as well. Eventually the Samaritan Jews built a temple—to compete with that of Jerusalem—on Mount Gerazim, outside the city of Shechem. It was not the only Jewish temple outside Jerusalem. Later a Jewish governing family in trans-Jordan built a temple there as well, as did a Jewish settlement at Elephantine in Egypt.
The Arrival of the Greeks
Middle Eastern politics during the years 400-200 B.C.E. is well known, and had several extremely significant impacts on Judea. The most important was Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire. Alexander pacified Palestine in 332 B.C.E. and ruled the entire Persian Empire until his premature death in 323. Upon the conqueror's decease, his generals fought to control the entire empire, and eventually had to carve it up among themselves. The Seleucid family acquired control of Syria and Iraq while the Ptolemies consolidated their power in Egypt. Judea was a border state between the two, usually in the control of the Ptolemies; it is estimated that control of Jerusalem changed hands ten or twelve times between 321 and 198.
Judea's conquest by Alexander the Great integrated it into the Hellenistic, or Greek- speaking, culture that came to dominate the empires of his successors. Greeks had not been unknown in the Persian empire; many Greek mercenary soldiers had fought in Middle Eastern armies, and Greek vases and coins have been found throughout Persian Judea, indicating strong trading ties. But the Greek kings who ruled the Middle East established Greek-speaking military colonies and cities in Palestine, especially along the Mediterranean coast and in Galilee. Greek rule eventually brought relative peace and prosperity to the entire region, stimulated considerable improvements in agriculture, and fostered further migration of Jews from impoverished Judea to Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and eventually to Rome itself. In all these places they adopted Greek language, clothing, and customs. One of their innovations was to organize synagogues (a Greek word meaning "bringing together"), where Judaism could be taught to the next generation. Synagogues were one example of a voluntary association of people of the same ethnic group; multi-ethnic Greek cities had many such organizations.
In Judea, the merchants and administrators—the wealthier and better educated segments of society—became partially Hellenized. Even the Temple priesthood had hellenized members. But the majority of the city and country-dwellers continued to speak Aramaic, which had displaced Hebrew as the household language as a result of the exile. Many conservative Jews strongly resented Greek culture and saw it as corrupting Judaism.
For a century and a half Hellenistic culture was a relatively weak force in Judea, was tolerant of Judaism, and was little opposed by the pious. But when Antiochus Epiphanes IV (reigned 175-64 B.C.E.) became the new Seleucid emperor he found his empire under severe external and internal pressure, consequently he adopted a policy of forced Hellenization of his realm in order to strengthen his rule and increase his tax revenues. Judea was ruled by a Jewish council presided over the Temple's high-priest; Antiochus was able to gain their support by deposing the high-priest and appointing his brother, Jason, the new high-priest. Jason was a Hellenist, as the commonly used Greek form of his Hebrew name (Joshua) suggests. He agreed to reorganize Jerusalem as a Hellenistic polis (city) named Antiochia after the emperor. This involved the founding of a gymnasium, an institution for education and entertainment (via athletic competitions). Dedicated to pagan gods, the gymnasium soon displaced the Temple as the center of Jerusalem's social life.
But Antiochus also demanded absolute loyalty—he feared Judea's defection to Egypt—and needed more taxes. He eventually deposed Jason and replaced him by a high-priest with the Greek name of Menelaus who was willing to push Hellenization further and furnish the emperor with money. The latter was accomplished by a sharp increase in tax revenues and a looting of the Temple treasury. Temple worship of YHWH was declared to be worship of Zeus Olympius, although the form of worship was not changed significantly. When rumors swept Judea that Antiochus had been killed in a military campaign against Egypt Jerusalem revolted. But Antiochus's Egyptian campaign was successful, and when he returned to Syria he stopped at Jerusalem and recaptured the city. In punishment he established a Greek- speaking foreign colony in the city's citadel and put the extreme Hellenizers in charge of Jerusalem.
A year later, in 167, Antiochus decided that the only way to pacify Judea was to ban the practice of Judaism in the province of Judea (though not elsewhere). According to one source, in December 167 he had the Temple converted to the worship of Zeus Baal Shamayin, and had a sacred rock set up in the House of the Lord, and had sacrifices offered to it—an event referred to in the Book of Daniel as the Abomination of Desolation (11:31; 12:11). Observance of the Sabbath and circumcision were forbidden, on pain of death. The Jewish masses were not to be coerced to change their religion so easily and arose in revolt. In this uprising they were led by the "pious" (Hasidim in Hebrew), a movement of those who insisted on following the laws of the God of Israel.
The Hasmonean family—prominent among the Hasidim—led the revolt and were able to organize an effective guerilla resistance to the Syrians. When the father, Mattathias, died, his two sons—Simon and Judas the Maccabee ("Hammer")—proved able generals and organized substantial armies from the rural Jewish population. Antiochus had revolts in his eastern provinces to pacify, and was never able to send his entire army against Judea. Egypt and a growing new Mediterranean power—Rome—were both in favor of weakening the Seleucids, and thus supported the Jewish revolt. When Antiochus died in 163 his family fought over succession, and this diverted even more resources away from suppressing the revolt. As a result, in that year Judas was able to take Jerusalem from its Syrian occupiers and rededicate the Temple to the worship of God. The Hellenized high priest, who had cooperated with the Seleucids, was executed. Temple worship was purified and Hellenistic priests were purged. The rededication is celebrated by Jews annually in the Festival of Hanukkah. After Judas died in battle against the successor of Antiochus his brothers continued the fight, and in 140 Judea's independence was recognized. Following independence the Hasmoneans expanded their kingdom by conquering parts of the Mediterranean coast.
The national crisis precipitated by Antiochus stimulated the writing of additional prophetic and historical works. Foremost among the former was the Book of Daniel. Daniel was a legendary figure living in Babylon during the exile (sixth century B.C.E.); much of chapters 1-6 consist of stories about him, composed considerably after the exile (this is certain because the stories contain elementary historical errors in them). To them were added revelations in chapters 7-12, composed during the crisis. These revelations, like all biblical revelations, can be interpreted as having an immediate meaning to the author's contemporaries as well as long-enduring prophetic significance. The contemporary meaning can be determined by identifying "prophecies" referring to Antiochus and other kings of the author's day; when this is done one finds that Daniel's allusions are completely accurate up to about the year 168, and then contain numerous predictional errors, suggesting that the book was composed about 168. The purpose of the prophecies was to promise God's assistance to the Hasmoneans, thereby strengthening popular support for the revolt. Presumably the book was composed under a pseudonym because by the mid second century Judea had had no prophets for two hundred years; therefore prophecy was seen as a gift available to past generations but not to the present one. Hence the book was attributed to a figure who lived during the age of prophecy. The author apparently was a member of the Hasidim.
The principal surviving account of the conflict is the First Book of Maccabees. While Daniel was the latest book to make it into the Hebrew Bible, First Maccabees is one of the first eventually to be considered a part of the apocrypha (books that ultimately were not included in the Bible). It covers the history of Judea from 175 to 132 B.C.E. Originally composed in Hebrew, only the Greek translation has survived (the book was part of the Septuagint, the traditional Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). First Maccabees was written to emphasize the role of the Hasmoneans and downplays the roles of other groups such as the Hasidim.
Another account also survives, Second Maccabees, which is a Greek condensation of a six- volume history of the Maccabean revolt, originally written in Greek and now lost. Second Maccabees was written in the genre of a romance, the Hellenistic equivalent of a novel. It is a passionate, not a scholarly, work, but contains valuable information about the impact of Antiochus's paganizing reforms of the Temple and its worship practices on the Jewish public.
Judea continued as an independent or semi-independent nation for over a century. The Hasmoneans became a dynasty and ruled either as king or high priest of the Jerusalem temple. They were able to extend their control over many areas outside Judea, such as Idumea (south of Judea) and Samaria and Galilee to the north; in all three areas they forcibly converted the population, which had followed independent Jewish traditions, to normative Judaism. In Samaria they destroyed the Temple on Mount Gerazim; Samaritan Jews who opposed Jerusalem's dominance gradually evolved into a separate religious group, the Samaritans. By the first century the Samaritans and Jews had become mutually antagonistic toward each other.
Throughout the first and second centuries before the Common Era, Rome was expanding into the eastern Mediterranean and emerging as the regional superpower. Roman involvement in the kingdom of Judea became increasingly common; in 63 B.C.E. Roman legions even took Jerusalem and installed a new Hasmonean as high priest and ruler. When the last Hasmonean king was killed his widow married Herod, king of Idumea, who became king of Jews as well. Herod's death in 4 B.C.E. is well documented, and since Jesus was born near the end of his reign, this helps date the birth of Jesus. One of Herod's major projects was the rebuilding and expansion of the Temple, an effort that continued for eighty years; he was also the builder of the fort at Masada. His sons, grandsons, and great grandsons ruled Judea or neighboring areas until 93 C.E. Herod Archelaus, Herod's son, ruled Judea from 4 B.C.E. until 6 C.E., when the Romans responded to numerous complaints from the Jews and removed him. Subsequently Judea was a Roman province, with an appointed Roman governor. The fifth governor was Pontius Pilate, who ruled from 26 to 36 C.E.
Developments in Jewish Sects
The second and first centuries before the common era saw Judaism split into several schools of thought. Relative freedom of religion under the Hellenistic kings, then the Romans encouraged the creation of Jewish sects; Christianity, in a sense, arose as one of them. Religious controversies during the Maccabean War also created several factions.
A crucial issue for most Jews apparently was the legitimacy of the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, because he was responsible for guaranteeing the purity of divine worship. The Seleucids and Ptolemies often deposed priests and installed individuals loyal to them, which was a common practice and did not itself usually stir much controversy. Preserving the proper hereditary lineage of the priest, however, often was a serious issue. When Antiochus Epiphanes deposed Jason and elevated the Hellenizer Menelaus to the high priesthood he helped precipitate the Maccabean revolt because Menelaus was not a Zadokite (the family that had controlled the Temple priesthood since the days of David). The Hasmoneans executed Menelaus but refused to recognize a new Zadokite high priest, and eventually the Hasmoneans claimed the high priesthood for themselves. Since the Hasmonean family was not Zadokite this precipitated a crisis among the Hasidim and the Zadokite priesthood. Some of the deposed Zadokite priests were also Hasidim and found Hasmonean seizure of the high priesthood unacceptable. Under a leader whose name has not survived— only his title, the "teacher of righteousness"—these Hasidim withdrew from Jerusalem and set up their own Jewish sect, the Essenes. While many Essenes lived throughout the towns and cities of Judea, a core group retreated to the desert near the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea where they set up a monastic community of celibate men. The settlement—at a place named Qumran—has been excavated by archaeologists, and their library—the Dead Sea Scrolls—has been found in several caves in the nearby hills.
At Qumran the Essene sect underwent considerable theological change, which was codified in a series of new books that they added to the Hebrew Bible. The traditional lunar calendar of Israel was replaced by a solar calendar. They became extremely concerned about ritual purity, which apparently developed from the ritual washings that were necessary for Zadokite priests in the temple. They took ritual baths often; archaeological excavation has shown that Qumran's buildings had many bathing facilities. The Essenes had strict regulations regarding the foods they could eat and the type of contact they could have with nonmembers, these have been preserved in The Rules of the Community, one of the manuscripts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Initiates gave up all their personal property; those who broke the sect's strict rules were punished.
The Essenes believed that God would send a series of three Messiahs who would lead the Jews on a holy war. In The War Scroll they described their predictions in detail. They prepared for the war themselves, and when a revolt against Rome began in 66 C.E. they threw all their support behind it. As a result, the Roman army totally destroyed Qumran and the Essenes in 68 C.E.
Before the monastery fell its library was removed and hidden in caves; it was discovered in the 1940s. In addition to containing copies of all the Essenes' holy books the library contained many excerpts from the Old Testament, providing scholars new opportunities to establish the original text of the Hebrew Bible.
The Essenes are important to Christianity because they had a ritual meal, rather like the Eucharist, and their ritual washings superficially resemble the rite of baptism.
Not all Zadokites became Essenes; some were will to keep their jobs under a Hasmonean high priest. They had learned from the attempt to Hellenize temple worship that the priestly class had to reject Greek religious ideas (though not necessary Greek language and culture). This group of Zadokites evolved into the Sadducees, whose name seems to come from the word Zadok. They performed the animal sacrifices that constituted an important part of Judaism's ongoing relationship with God. They were particularly concerned about exact fulfillment of the Law and the requirements of Temple worship. Their interest in the Hebrew Bible thus focused on the Pentateuch with its laws, not on the prophets like Isaiah. The Sadducees also played an important political role in Judea. They constituted the Sanhedrin, or religious court that sat in Jerusalem. They possessed considerable power over events in the city; their demand that the Romans execute Jesus may be an example. They were also among Judea's richest families.
The majority of the Hasidim evolved into a group called the Pharisees. They were not priests, but laymen who were concerned about the individual's relationship with God and individual fulfillment of the law. Since most Jews did not live in Jerusalem and could not visit the city regularly, their primary contact with Judaism was through Pharisaic teachers or rabbis, not through the Sadducees. Pharisaism was particularly strong among the Hellenistic Jews of the diaspora. Its principal concern was with day-to-day Jewish living and practical application of the law. Because of their focus on the law, the Pharisees were extremely concerned about interpreting it, and claimed access to an "oral Torah" or oral tradition of interpreting the law that went all the way back to Moses and which had never been recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
Virtually nothing is known about the development of Pharisaism from the Hasmonean period until the first century of the common era, because there is at most one written work that can be attributed to the Pharisaic point of view, and Jewish historians have preserved little about them. Apostolic Christianity was often in sharp competition with Pharisaic teachers, who taught and converted non-Jews to Judaism; this is one reason the Pharisees are criticized so much in the gospels. Pharisaism was destined to be of extreme importance to Judaism; after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Sadducees in 70 C.E., Pharisaism became the pillar upon which Judaism was rebuilt. The rabbis who wrote the Talmud in the first and second centuries were descendants of the Pharisees, recording the oral Torah they had long claimed to possess.
Judaism also contained apocalyptically-oriented individuals who believed that Jews should not be ruled by non-Jews, and that if the Jews started a war to liberate themselves, God would intervene and finish it for them. They understood the Messiah to be a political figure, a divinely-chosen king and general who would lead the Jewish armies. Throughout the first century this aspect of Jewish thought was not organized, but once the Jewish revolt began in 66 C.E. an organized party, called the Zealots, gradually came into being. The war did not end as they expected; no divine intervention came. The Romans first conquered Galilee, then Jerusalem in 70 C.E.; the Temple was accidentally burned to the ground. Much of the Jewish population of Palestine was killed or sold as slaves; the Roman historian Tacitus said 1.2 million Jews were sold as slaves during the war. The last remaining Zealots fled to a mountain fortress in the desert named Masada, and the Roman army besieged them there for two years. When it became clear that the Romans were about to overwhelm their defenses and defeat them, the entire garrison of Masada—960 men, women, and children— committee suicide.
The Jewish War of 66-73 did not end Jewish resistance to the Romans. In 131 C.E. a second revolt was raised by Simon Kosiva, popularly known as Bar Kochba ("Son of the Star"). Bar Kochba led much of Judea into revolt against Roman rule. Jerusalem—now crowned by a Temple to Zeus where the Jewish Temple had stood—was briefly captured by the rebels, but since it had no city walls it could not be held. The Romans responded with a massive force of twelve legions and suffered heavy losses in spite of their slow and thorough tactics. The Romans besieged the towns of Judea one by one, burning unfortified villages between them. When Bar Kochba was finally killed and his headquarters taken in 135 C.E., 50 forts and 985 towns, villages, and agricultural settlements had been destroyed and an estimated 580,000 Jews killed. So many Jews were sold as slaves, it is reported, that the selling price dropped below the price of horses. After the war ended the Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as the city Aelia Capitolina and moved it slightly, to the location of the present Old City. Hadrian's street plan is still preserved in Jerusalem's grid of streets. He forbade Jews even to enter the city, a law that remained on the books two centuries.
The Rise of Rabbinic Judaism
The destruction of Jerusalem had two important consequences. The first was the separation of Christianity from Judaism, for until 70 C.E. many Christians had continued to view themselves as Jews as well. Many of the first generation of Christians believed Jesus would return in their lifetimes, and when the Jewish war began they were confident Jesus would return to guarantee Jewish victory. The destruction of the Temple was a rude shock and caused many to postpone, in their minds, Christ's return. Before 70 C.E. Christians appear to have written little about their Founder; the destruction of the Temple probably triggered the writing of the Gospel of Mark, and the other three gospels were written in the next generation thereafter. Thus the destruction of the Temple set Christianity on an independent course, and started the process of creating the New Testament.
For Judaism, the destruction of the Temple was a blow of incalculable magnitude religiously, politically, and culturally. Politically, it reversed the expanding fortunes of Judaism in the Roman Empire. At the time of Christ the population of the Roman Empire was about eighty million; eight million, or ten percent, of the population was Jewish. The Jews primarily lived in the cities in an Empire that was predominantly rural; Alexandria, Egypt, the empire's second largest city, is said to have been forty percent Jewish. This may explain the fact that the Roman Empire adopted the seven-day week and the custom of resting on the Sabbath. The Jews also were largely literate in an empire where the majority were not. It is conceivable that as much as a quarter or a third of the literate people in the Roman Empire were Jews. As such they had an enormous impact of science, education, government, and trade. Many gentiles were inclined to become Jews and were welcomed, for at the time Judaism accepted converts. Had a Roman Emperor converted to Judaism, as Constantine later converted to Christianity, there could have been mass conversion of the Mediterranean world to the religion of Moses. The Jewish wars, however, were severe blows to the prestige and standing of Judaism and inflamed anti-Jewish prejudices. During Bar Kochba's revolt there were pogroms against Jews.
The religious impact of loss of the Temple was also profound. Except for a fifty-year interval after the destruction of Solomon's Temple, sacrifices of animals had been made uninterruptedly to the Lord for about a thousand years. In a world where all gods demanded sacrifice the Temple's destruction could only be seen as ending a significant, central aspect of divine worship. It swept the Sadducees, the priests of the Temple, into oblivion. Judaism, however, had other forms of worship—synagogues, run by rabbis—and they became the alternative pillar of divine worship. And ever since the first destruction and exile Judaism had come to stress proper observance of the Law. The first destruction and exile had triggered the compilation of the Pentateuch in its final form. It had fostered a concentration on the Law as the center of Jewish purpose and uniqueness. The second destruction and exile fostered further concentration on the Law. Johanan ben Zakkai, one of the greatest rabbis of the first century, escaped Jerusalem before its destruction and fled to the small town of Jamnia on the Mediterranean coast where he assembled a rabbinic synod. There they settled for all time which books were included in the Hebrew Bible and which were excluded. Even the Christians accepted the decision at Jamnia, though they called the resulting work the Old Testament. The rabbis at Jamnia also laid down rules for fasting and pilgrimage and prescribed other religious duties, formerly settled in Jerusalem. When Bar Kochba stirred revolt they wisely remained neutral, and relocated their operations to Usha in western Galilee. From Usha they continued to define basic Jewish teachings for several centuries.
A major task the rabbis tackled in Usha was assembling and writing down in codified form the oral law. For centuries rabbis had been issuing rulings about how to apply the Mosaic laws under a variety of circumstances not specified in the Pentateuch. The result was a huge body of interpretation, some of which, it was said, went back to Moses Himself. The Usha rabbis assembled the oral law into a work called the Mishna or "Repetition." It had three sections: the midrash, or interpretation of the Pentateuch; the halakh or collection of legal decisions; and the aggadah or "homilies," a series of stories used to explain the law to lay Jews. The Mishnah was complete by the year 200 C.E. While the majority of Jews accepted it as an essential supplement to the biblical text, there were Jewish minorities as late as the twelfth century who rejected the Oral Law and all its written elaborations in favor of the biblical text alone.
Many Jewish scholars fled Judea during and after Bar Kochba's revolt for Iraq, then a part of the Parthian (Persian) Empire. Iraq was beyond Roman anti-Semitism and already had a large Jewish community that dated back to the first Exile, but it had not had many rabbinical scholars. The rabbis organized their own scholarly centers in the towns of Sura (south of modern Baghdad) and Pumbedita (western Iraq) and began to assemble commentaries on the Mishna. Commentary also began at Usha. The result were two works called Talmud or "study"; one Palestinian, the other Babylonian. They were completed in the fourth and fifth centuries respectively. The Babylonian Talmud, produced by a larger and more scholarly community that faced less danger of persecution (Sura is said to have had 1200 scholars working at it), is generally considered the more authoritative. Subsequently commentaries were written on the Talmuds as well through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The process of developing and reinterpreting Jewish law continues to this day.
The first few centuries of the common era made the Bible even more central to the lives of Jews and to Jewish culture than it was previously. As a rabbi once explained, the Bible has the sacredness, the importance, in the life of the devout Jew that Jesus has in the life of the devout Christian. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as the Word of God, the logos; similarly, for Jews the Bible is the logos. Understanding the Bible and living according to its laws, thus, became the focus of Jewish piety.
This focus on the Bible has had a profound influence on the development of Judaism. To understanding the Bible well one must be able to read and write. As a result, throughout the ages Jews have stressed the importance of learning much more than any other western religious or cultural group. Being able to read and write has had intellectual and economic consequences for Judaism; it has been a major reason that Jews have excelled in science, medicine, literature, and business. Understanding the Bible has also meant that Jewish culture has focused on the collective training of young men in scholarship; has stressed the examination of the meaning of ideas from every angle; has stressed debate and discussion in order to find the truth. Thus a focus on the Word of God has had significant ramifications for Jewish living and culture. Jewish mysticism has often focused on the esoteric interpretation of the Word, and the numerical and symbolic meanings of words and letters.
The Early Middle Ages
The difficulties Jews faced after Bar Kochba's revolt increased as Christianity moved into a position of religious dominance in the Mediterranean world. The presence of Jews became the "Jewish problem" as Jews stubbornly refused to convert to Christianity, the way the pagans did. Anti-Jewish sermons were delivered; Christian mobs were occasionally mobilized to attack synagogues and Jews. In the fourth and fifth centuries Jews were denied earlier rights to serve in the army or in government employ. In the seventh century two Byzantine emperors forces some Jews to be baptized.
The collapse of law and order throughout the Mediterranean world, however, was a much more serious threat to Judaism than persecution. As barbarians poured into the western and central Roman empire in the fifth and sixth centuries, urban life gradually shrank and nearly disappeared. Jews were urban people and thus suffered terribly when cities were sacked and trade prevented. In the Byzantine Empire that continued Roman rule in the eastern Mediterranean, warfare with the Persians devastated Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. Piracy grew on the Mediterranean, leading to a shrinkage of commerce. Judaism also lost members, generation after generation, to conversion. The result was a shrinkage in numbers, from eight million in the first century to an estimated million or million and a half in the tenth.
Conditions improved somewhat in the seventh century when Islam spread with lightning speed from Spain to the borders of China. Restrictions on Jews in Palestine were largely lifted. Muslims were unconcerned with the issue of whether the Jews were responsible for Christ's crucifixion and thus did not use it as an excuse to persecute them. Instead, Muslims needed the education and wealth of the Jewish community to build their own culture. Muhammad had specified that Jews, as people of the book, were not to be persecuted; rather they, and Christians, were to pay a head tax to compensate for the fact that they were exempt from service in the armies of Islam. In practice, however, Jews were not always a protected minority. Because Jewish communities often were wealthy, unscrupulous Muslim leaders sometimes extorted large sums from them. Some Muslim conservatives stirred trouble against Jewish communities. In the twelfth century Jews were forcibly converted to Islam in southern Spain.
The peace and stability Islam brought to much of the Mediterranean and Middle East, however, was of great benefit to many Jews. Jewish trading networks extended from Spain to China and Indonesia. Learning flourished in the empire among Jews and Muslims alike. Perhaps the greatest Jewish product of the age was Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1135-1204). Born in Spain, his family fled the Jewish persecutions there for Egypt, where Maimonides became one of the world's most renowned physicians. Because of his prodigious scholarship he emerged as the head of the Jewish community of Fustat (old Cairo). His brother, David, supported himself and his brother by the gem trade, primarily with India, and perished on a voyage across the Indian Ocean.
Maimonides completed his first treatise on logic when he was sixteen. He read literally ever book on astronomy that existed at the time and wrote a treatise on the Jewish calendar when he was 23. He completed a Commentary on the Mishnah ten years later and then assembled a fourteen-volume codification of talmudic law by the time he was 45. Subsequently he wrote his three-volume Guide to the Perplexed, an explanation of the fundamental theology and philosophy of Judaism. All the time he earned his living as a physician, served as a Jewish judge, and eventually became head of the entire Egyptian Jewish community. Maimonides codified and summarized Jewish theology in the same manner and at about the same time as al-Ghazali and Aquinas systematized Islamic and Christian belief.
The twelfth century also saw a new codification of the kabbala, or Jewish mysticism. The kabbala had multitudinous roots, one being the Talmud—which contained some mystical speculation—another being old Greek, pagan Neoplatonism. It offered esoteric interpretations of biblical passages based on the numerical values of words, created elaborate descriptions of the creation of the world and of God's attributes, speculated about God's physical size, and purported to offer the secret names of God, names that could serve as passwords for the soul's journeys in the afterlife. Some works were pantheist, arguing that everything was part of God. Southern France and Spain were the centers of kabbala, one of the greatest proponents of which was Rabbi Moses ben Nahman or Nahmanides (1194-1270 C.E.).
Jews also contributed to the rebuilding of western European civilization. Because they were literate and expert in the professions and commerce, as kings founded new cities or sought to expand old ones they often encouraged Jews to immigrate by granting them special privileges. This brought Jews northward from the old Roman Empire, into Germany, Poland, and Russia. Because the best physicians often were Jews, it was common for kings to have Jewish physicians, who often interceded to protect their people from persecution. Jews concentrated in university cities and sometimes served as professors; if anti-Semitism prevented hiring them as faculty they still loaned books to students and served as informal mentors. Persecution did not disappear; Jewish quarters were often located near the castle, so the Jews could flee to its relative safety if mobs threatened them. Government officials were usually more interested in charging Jews high taxes than harming them, leading to charges from church officials of Jewish favoritism.
Crusades and Pogroms
The First Crusade in 1095 caused the situation of Jews throughout western Europe to deteriorate. The crusade stirred up pro-Christian and anti-Jewish feelings, leading many Crusaders to beat or kill local Jews before leaving for Palestine. On their return, Crusaders brought home knowledge and commercial contacts of their own, thereby undercutting Jewish advantages in those areas. Cities began to expand, more universities were founded, the professions developed greatly, and Jews became less essential to rulers. As a result Christian ignorance of and prejudice against Jews were under less control.
The disappearance of a Christian boy named William in Norwich, England, in March 1144 illustrates the worsening situation. Norwich had a small Jewish community and William was supposedly last seen entering the house of a Jewish family. When his body was found, it was covered with countless small stab wounds and his head had been shaved. As tension in the town grew, Christian maids of a Jewish family claimed they witnessed William's murder through a keyhole in the synagogue door and that the boy had been crucified in an imitation of Christ's crucifixion. The rumor spread that Jews had suffered from hemorrhoids ever since they murdered Christ and it had been found that if, somewhere in the world, Jews annually murdered a Christian child in an imitation of Christ, and mixed the child's blood with flour to make unleavened bread, their malady was relieved. The rumor continued that a council of Jews in Spain selected the town where the murder would occur each year by lot, and Norwich had been chosen in 1144. The boy had disappeared during Passover.
As popular feelings were whipped up, people began to claim miracles were being performed by the by in heaven, and he was called Saint William. Since the possession of a saint was usually good for a local church, the Bishop of Norwich did not oppose. Jews were arrested in Norwich but the local sheriff protected them from the mob and eventually they were released. Jews were murdered in town, and in 1190 the entire Jewish quarter of town was attacked and Jews were killed in their homes.
Similar incidents occurred all over western Europe. Mysterious disappearances of children were blamed on Jews, who were also accused of kidnapping and circumcising Christian children and of stealing consecrated hosts (the bread for mass) for their of ritual uses. As the usefulness of the Jews to rulers declined they were more inclined to charge extortionary taxes, pass laws restricting Jews in their forms of employment, and requiring them to wear distinctive clothing. In England the Jews declined in numbers and sank into poverty, then were expelled from the country.
When the Black Death spread across Europe in the late 1340s, killing a quarter to half the continent's population, it was blamed on the Jews, who were accused of spreading it by poisoning Christian wells. The fact that they suffered as terribly as the rest of the population made little difference to the mob. Six thousand Jews were massacred in Mainz, Germany; another 2000 in Strasburg. The pestilence subsided in two years, but the precedent of killing Jews in large numbers was set. Jews were systematically expelled from cities or entire regions in the late 1400s. The largest expulsion was from Spain in 1492; 200,000 Jews were force to leave the country in less than a year. Many fled to Italy and the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Ottoman city of Salonika in northern Greece soon had over 20,000 Jews. Poland became an island of relative stability and its Jewish population gradually grew: in 1500 it had twenty or thirty thousand Jews out of a total population of five million; by 1575 the seven million Poles included 150,000 Jews. Its Jewish population continued to increase subsequently. One of the main reasons for the Jewish expansion in eastern Europe was that area's economic and social development, which needed Jews for the same reasons western Europe had earlier needed them. Jews also played an important role in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World for the same reason, though they were nominally Christian, as they had been forced to convert.
Jews who remained in areas hostile to them responded in three ways. As a tiny minority, self-defense was not a viable option. Enclosing the Jewish quarter with walls and gates to keep out stray troublemakers and make it more difficult for mobs to enter was feasible and in many places permission was granted by the monarch or city fathers. Thus the ghetto— short for the Italian burghetto, or little city—was born. Another response was to reinforce religious practice; Jews instituted their own investigations of members who were religious straying or were informers. The third response was mystical and a focus on the other world rather than the increasingly unpleasant conditions of this world. The Kabbala spread widely and became popular. Ghetto folklore developed elaborate stories about angels and demons, which are largely absent from the Bible. Beliefs in the coming of the Messiah, who would end their suffering, spread, and several individuals claimed to be the Messiah. The Hassidic movement, with its extreme emphasis on Jewish piety, expanded across western Europe.
Reformation and Enlightenment
The 1500s, however, did see one favorable development in northern Europe: the Reformation. As Protestantism arose the unity of Christendom was shattered, and with it the vision of a religiously united population. Religious diversity for Christians made including the Jews a bit easier to imagine. As religious wars developed Jews were called on by both sides to provide money and arms for the war effort. The Protestants emphasized deep study of the Bible and wanted their scholars to learn Hebrew so they could read the Old Testament in its original language, hence they renewed and fostered the study of Judaism. Protestants were not more friendly to Jews than their Catholic parents, however. Martin Luther wrote pamphlets against Jews, urged that synagogues be burned and Jewish homes destroyed, and got Jews expelled from many German towns and cities.
Catholics were no friendlier. They accused Jews of fostering heresy. Ironically, it as one charge that had some truth to it, for Jews had long fostered rationalism and intellectual inquiry. Throughout the Middle Ages many heretical movements in Christendom had connections with learned Jews. The Catholic Reformation that followed in the wake of Protestant separation was not kind to Jews. Throughout Italy Jews were forced to move into walled ghettos, separate from the gentile population, and contact between the two peoples was minimized lest the Jews corrupt the morals and beliefs of the Christians. In ghettos the Jews ran their own schools, courts, and hospitals, enforced their own laws, and formed a mini- state within the state.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw conditions in western Europe improve slightly as education improved and centralized government stressed stability. In 1664 the King of England granted English Jews full citizenship, with the same rights as Catholics, nonconformists, and other Christian minorities. The English colonies in America also granted Jews full freedom of worship, though few Jews emigrated there because it was so undeveloped and rural. The first American Jews were refugees from persecutions in Brazil. The first American synagogue was constructed in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1677. One result of freedom was the lack of Jewish ghettoes in the American colonies, and thus the lack of Jewish social and civic institutions.
France and Germany also restricted persecution of Jews somewhat in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and allowed them to participate more freely in commerce and the professions. Jews played a major role in the development of modern capitalism and fostered industrialization. Some Jews, such as Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), became leading figures in philosophy. Spinoza was also one of the first rationalists to develop higher biblical criticism. He questioned most traditional views of the origin of the biblical text, insisting on the careful use of historical context and linguistic methodologies for determining the true meaning of the biblical text. He also rejected many traditional religious beliefs ad advocated a form of pantheism that, to most Jews, sounded like atheism. As a result of his heretical beliefs he was expelled from the Jewish community and disowned by his family.
Spinoza was part of the spread of rationalism in Europe, a movement known as the enlightenment, and rationalism advocated a common culture that transcended religion. Thus it spread toleration. Philosophers and artists began to include Jews among their circle of friends and Jews increasingly published philosophy, literature, and articulate defenses of Judaism. When rationalists sought to reform French society through the French Revolution they granted full citizenship to Jews in 1791. Napoleon's conquests spread Jewish citizenship across Europe by physically tearing down the walls of the old ghettos. But secular society also developed new forms of intellectual anti-Semitism, which later became the roots of Naziism.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were very good for European Jews in many ways. Europe's urban population expanded enormously, and so did the Jewish population. Jews married early and had large families; as a result the Jewish population of Europe grew from two million to seven million from 1800 to 1880. In contrast, the population of the Sephardic Jews in the Islamic lands and the rest of Asia grew from half a million to 750,000.
Emancipation produced new opportunities for freedom and personal development, but new challenges to community. Ghetto Jews were viewed as backward, with their medieval-style clothing and their elaborate religious practices that were ill-suited to the modern world. Kosher laws, in particular, made it extremely difficult to socialize with gentiles. Hence they were increasingly rejected by Jews entering the professions and circulating in a secular world. Many Jews converted nominally to Christianity; perhaps the two greatest examples were Benjamin Disraeli, who became Britain's Prime Minister in 1858, and Karl Marx. In east-central Europe some quarter million Jews converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century.
Within the Jewish community pressure grew for a reform of Judaism that would throw off medieval features. The second and third decades of the nineteenth century saw Germany synagogues initiated important experiments, such as services in German instead of Hebrew and new prayer books. Kosher laws and other talmudic ordinances fell away; an anti- circumcision party even developed among German Jews. The result was Reform Judaism. When German Jews began to migrate to America in the mid nineteenth-century they soon overwhelmed the earlier Jewish community of Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews who had stuck to the old practices.
Reform Judaism was not uniformly adopted everywhere. Even in Germany many Jews remained deeply religious and committed to the old ways. They came to be called Orthodox Jews, in contradistinction to the Reform movement. In Eastern Europe, where emancipation was very limited and where anti-Jewish pogroms were becoming a serious danger, the ghettoes continued and the old form of Judaism remained the standard. Persecution drove two and a half million Jews from Russia, Romania, and parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1881 to 1915. Two million of them migrated to America, where they quickly came to outnumber the Reform Jews. To close the gap between the Reform and the newly-arrived Orthodox an intermediate form of Judaism, Conservative Judaism, developed.
Homeland and Holocaust
Secularization of western European society did not solve the "Jewish Question"; anti- Semitism continued. The French Jews, who regarded France as the most secular and tolerant society in the world, were profoundly shocked in 1894 when Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongly accused of espionage. Dreyfus was sent to prison on the Devil's Island in the South Atlantic, and when evidence of the guilt of another officer surfaced the army refused to admit its mistake. French society was torn into two parties for over a decade, and one party was openly anti-Semitic in its literature. Anti- Jewish riots broke out in most major French cities. In Algiers—capital of the French colony of Algeria—the entire Jewish quarter was sacked. In the rest of Europe anti-Semitism was encouraged as well, and openly anti-Semitic politicians began to be elected to legislative positions. It became clear that anti-Semitism would not die simply because society had abandoned much of its religious trappings
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), a Jewish journalist who was allowed to cover the Dreyfus trial, took up his pen and wrote The Jewish State, the book that launched the modern Zionist movement. Herzl worked tirelessly to promote Zionism, dying young as a result. Eastern European Jews embraced it with particular enthusiasm, for persecution there was growing and citizenship in a secular state was not a reasonable expectation. In western Europe Zionist congresses debated the idea of setting up a Jewish homeland in Palestine and began courting contacts with diplomats. When World War One converted Palestine from an Ottoman Turkish province to a British protectorate and British policy came to favor establishment of a "Jewish home" in Palestine, the political conditions for migration to Palestine were set.
Palestine in 1917 had at most a hundred thousand Jews, out of a total population of 600,000. Many were refugees from pogroms in Eastern Europe; some were religious scholars who were totally uninterested in a Jewish state. The British did not allow unlimited immigration and Zionism at first had little momentum, and thus few potential immigrants. All land had to be purchased from the Arabs, who charged as much as the market would bear. As more Jews came to Palestine the price of land spiraled upward. Eastern European Jews who voluntarily migrated to Palestine were often secularist and Marxist; they founded the kibbutzim, which remain among the world's few successful socialist experiments.
By the end of the 1920s the Jewish population of Palestine had risen to a mere 160,000, and anti-Jewish violence promulgated by angry Arabs became a more serious problem. Jews began to organize military units to defend themselves, units that were broken up by the British. In the 1930s, with the rise of Naziism in central Europe, immigration to Palestine rose sharply; in 1935 alone 64,000 Jews arrived. Arab resistance grew and the British began to face the breakdown of the mandate. Arab and Jewish states, increasingly became inevitable.
The deterioration of the safety of Jews throughout most of Europe accelerated the process. In the Russian Empire tens of thousands of Jews were killed in early the 1920s, for they were heavily involved in the Russian Revolution as Marxists. Under Stalin, who was fiercely anti-Semitic, Marxist Jews suffered terribly and the religion was virtually banned. But the spread of Naziism represented far more serious a threat. In some ways systematic anti- Semitism in Germany was surprising, for violence against Jews had ceased a century earlier and Jews were thoroughly integrated into German science, literature, and philosophy. Germany was winning half of the Nobel Prizes being awarded; and a third to a half of the German Nobels were being won by Jews. But the lost of the First World War was a terrible blow to German pride and needed an explanation; blaming the loss on the Jews was persuasive to many. The collapse of the German economy in the early 1930s required a scapegoat and pushed the country to desperation. It elected a demagogue in one of the first national elections it had ever held. Hitler had an obsession against Jews and as a result Naziism bolstered its nationalist theories of racial superiority of the Germans with arguments of Jewish genetic inferiority and conspiracy theories of Jewish dominance of the German economy. Even before Germany began military action it began to crack down on its Jewish population. Two hundred thousand Jews fled Germany for France, Holland, and countries beyond Europe.
Creation of a powerful German military machine and its use to conquer France, Poland, and much of the Balkans and the western Soviet Union brought much of European Jewry under German authority. Nazi-occupied Poland alone had 3.3 million Jews, and Hitler could do anything with them he pleased. Labor camps where Jews and other non-Germans were reduced to slave labor were built, then concentration camps. When the Soviet Union was invaded the Jewish populations of occupied Soviet cities were rounded up and shot in the hundreds of thousands. While some two and a half million Soviet Jews fled the German armies, a million and a half remained behind, and most were killed.
In 1941 the first gas chambers were constructed. Ironically, as the tide clearly turned against Germany, Hitler and his generals put a higher priority on the "Final Solution" to the Jewish problem than on prosecuting the war. Trains carrying Polish, German, and other Jews to death camps were given priority over military trains carrying soldiers and supplies to the front. Ninety percent of Poland's Jews were gassed, shot, or worked to death. At Auschwitz alone over two million human beings were gassed and incinerated. The war saw the cold-blooded killing of six million Jews, almost two thirds of the total in Europe.
The horror produced two results of lasting significance. One was the Nuremberg trials and the creation of international law against genocide. The second was awareness of the need to create a Jewish state. Not only were Jews convinced it was essential, but international sympathy made Jewish migration to Palestine easier. The result was an explosion of the Jewish population of Palestine. When the British sought to prevent Jewish immigration a campaign of terrorism—coordinated by young men like Menachem Begin—forced them to reverse their policy. The Czech government agreed to sell arms to the Jewish agency (the coordinating agency of Jews in Palestine), which began importing weapons via a clandestine airfield. When the British surrendered their mandate in 1948 to independent Jewish and Arab states, Israel was prepared to defend itself against Arab invasion. The Jewish question was replaced by the Arab question, for hundreds of thousands fled the land that became Israel. But the Jews reestablished their own sovereign state, for the first time in over two thousand years.
Notes1 J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Old Testament Literature, History, and Thought (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1974), 91.
2 An analysis of this poem may be found in Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 112-44. He estimates the date of composition of the poem on p. 124.
3 J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Old Testament Literature, History, and Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 136.
4 John Bright, A History of Israel, 208.
5 Chapters 9-11 and 12-14 of the Book of Zechariah are believed to have been composed later, by two anonymous writers. This conclusion is made based on the different style, vocabulary, and concerns of these chapters.
6 A letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice on 8 August 1974 states that "although Bahá'í scholars, such as Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl, have considered certain prophecies and references in the Bible to be applicable to `Abdu'l-Bahá. . . the Universal House of Justice has not found anything in the writings of either `Abdu'l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi to confirm specific references in the Bible to `Abdu'l-Bahá." Thus all inferences that certain biblical passages refer to `Abdu'l-Bahá must be recognized as assumptions common in the Bahá'í community, and not teachings in the Bahá'í scriptures.
7 A scholarly, speculative reconstruction of the controversy between Zadokites, Levites, and others, and its impact on the composition of Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, Third Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the Chronicler histories is a principal theme of Paul D. Hanson's book The Dawn of the Apocalyptic.
8 Morton Smith, "Hellenization," in Michael E. Stone and David Satran, Emerging Judaism: Studies on the Fourth and Third Centuries B.C.E., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 110.
9 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 171. Much of the rest of this chapter is a summary of Johnson's work.