(Philosophical / Learning) In 2002 Frank Keil and Leon Rozenblit did a study on the illusion of explanatory depth. The idea here is that people often have less knowledge that they can articulate than they originally thought. The study found that before trying to explain something, people felt they had a reasonable level of understanding; after explaining, they felt they didn’t.
(Philosophical / Learning) I prefer to learn about complicated topics deliberately, building concepts from their fundamental elements. This is challenging when the fundamental elements nest so tightly together, which is usually a function of either (a) deliberate design or (b) simple longevity. Sometimes a bit of both. The longevity leads to design elements that accrete over time. Every little thing that happens is related to something else. It’s like a spider’s web, an amazingly intricate tapestry of threads. As you investigate topics – particularly those that have been designed and have longevity – you find that the world is built on the shoulders of these relationships. The passage of time is simply an expression of the development and change in these relationships, which brings a historical focus into account.
(Philosophical / Learning) The acquisition of significant bodies of knowledge in adult life is usually the result of discipline, of the volitional application of the mind over a long period of time, of plain hard work. It is, therefore, as much a moral or ethical discipline as an intellectual one. This is because you consciously decide to invest part of your lifetime doing something more difficult (and, in the short run, perhaps less pleasant) than might otherwise be the case. In a very real sense, you engage not just on an intellectual quest but on a pilgrimage.
(Scientific Thinking) There is nothing so intoxicating to the scientific mind as the weird and unfamiliar. The fundamental basis of scientific thought is that an observed truth that undermines one's understanding is yet the truth. If the observation is not flawed, one's previous understanding must be. To the open mind, this is not a crisis; it's an opportunity to form a new, more perfect understanding of the world. So would it be abandoning science for a belief in magic? Not necessarily. Rather, you would include magic in your understanding of the physical phenomena that shape our world. Science is a path to knowledge – one that must include and explain every observable fact, embracing all and rejecting none. This applies to any endeavor where scientific thinking is important, which most certainly applies to religious and historical studies. (Scientific thinking is a type of knowledge seeking involving intentional information seeking, including asking questions, testing hypotheses, making observations, recognizing patterns, and making inferences.)
(Historical Thinking) The role of history can be thought of as a tool for changing how we think, for promoting a literacy not just of names and dates but also of discernment, judgment, and caution. History teaches us a way to make choices, to balance opinions, to tell stories, and to become uneasy – when necessary – about the stories we tell.
(Historical Thinking) A study of history cultivates virtues in life that are necessary to engage a world that’s different from our own. As a student of history, you learn to listen to voices from the past, to walk in the shoes of others (even those long dead), and to step outside your own moment in time and your own self-interested approach to the world. This is done to try to understand the hopes, dreams, struggles, and mindsets of people who were from another era or who had beliefs that don’t conform to your own. You learn and become immersed in why people and groups do things over an extended period of time. History validates that people and groups tend to act in clear, recognizable patterns. These patterns allow for a certain bit of predictability. This tells you a lot about human nature and how it acts in various situations.
(Historical + Religious Thinking) The study of the past reminds us that we’re not just autonomous individuals but rather part of a human story. That story is larger than ourselves. Thus perhaps looking for “something larger than ourselves” does not have to be so much about deity or divinity but rather the history that we are all part of, the vast sweep of humans interacting in time.
(Historical + Religious Thinking) Ultimate causes are something a lot of people are concerned with to an extent. This is an atavistic trait acquired long ago for surviving in the physical world in which there are actually causes and effects – say, proximity to lions and being eaten. We’re built to look for causal relations between things and to be deeply satisfied when we discover a rule with cascading implications. We’re also built to be impatient with the opposite – forests of facts from which we can’t seem to extract any meaning. No matter how much people pride themselves on logic or intellect, if their desire to believe something is strong enough, their minds will happily weave a fiction around those wishes until those wishes become stubborn beliefs. Thus does an opinion transmute into a putative fact. This process, if adhered to, often leads to compromising the discernment, judgment, and caution mentioned earlier. It can allow us to see patterns that aren’t there while also missing patterns that clearly are there.
(Historical + Religious Thinking + Meaning) The appeal of a religious conviction or a law of nature might be their timeless qualities. But what drives us to seek the timeless? What leads us to search for qualities that may last forever? Perhaps it all comes from our singular awareness that we’re anything but timeless, that our lives are anything but forever. This is an approach to human motivation grounded in a plausible reaction to a pervasive recognition. Science is one response to the knowledge of our inescapable end. And so is religion. And so is philosophy. Much of human culture – from artistic exploration to scientific discovery – is driven by life reflecting on the finite nature of life. Across cultures and through the ages, we have placed significant value on permanence. The ways we have done so are abundant: some seek absolute truth, others strive for enduring legacies, some build formidable monuments, others pursue immutable laws, and others still turn with fervor toward one or another version of the everlasting. We’re impelled by an awareness of finitude to deny death the capacity to erase us. We, as self-reflective beings, contend with tensions entailed in certain realizations. We emerge from laws that, as far as we can tell, are timeless, and yet we exist for the briefest moment of time. We are guided by laws that operate without concern for destination, and yet we constantly ask ourselves where we are headed. We are shaped by laws that seem not to require an underlying rationale, and yet we persistently seek meaning and purpose. Seeking clarity on how it all came to be, pursuing coherence in where it’s all going, and longing for an answer to why it all matters. All of us are a sensing collection of bone, tissue, and cells that, during our lifetime, will support organic processes of energy transformation, which themselves rely on atomic and molecular movements honed by billions of years of evolution on a planet forged from the detritus of supernova explosions scattered throughout a realm of space emerging from the big bang. There is no single, unified volume – one, cohesive story – that conveys ultimate understanding. Instead, we’ve written many nested stories that probe different domains of human inquiry and experience: stories, that is, that parse the patterns of reality using different grammars and vocabularies. Protons, neutrons, electrons, and nature’s other particles are essential for telling the reductionist story, analyzing the stuff of reality, from planets to Picasso, in terms of their microphysical constituents. Metabolism, replication, mutation, and adaptation are essential for telling the story of life’s emergence and development, analyzing the biochemical workings of remarkable molecules and the cells they govern. Neurons, information, thought, and awareness are essential for the story of mind. And with that, the narratives proliferated: myth to religion, literature to philosophy, art to music, telling of humankind’s struggle for survival, will to understand, urge for expression, and search for meaning.
(Investigation Principle) Use confessionally neutral terms to describe the biblical material. Hebrew Scriptures for “Old Testament” and Christian Scriptures for “New Testament.”
(Historical Principle) Any hypothesis must be given operational specificity. That is, proponents must spell out the hypothesis in such a way as to permit testing, by observing certain characteristics that are produced independently of the hypothesis. This permits assessment of whether the hypothesis is confirmed or disproved. There’s also the necessity of framing a null hypothesis. (This is the idea that any experimentally observed difference is due to chance alone and thus an underlying causative relationship doesn’t exist. It’s the idea that “there’s nothing to see here.”) Hypotheses are distinct from what are referred to as “heuristic fictions.” Heuristic fictions, unlike hypotheses, are evaluated not by whether they are proved or disproved, but by their fecundity, in terms of bringing up new ideas. These fictions usually form the basis of a model, with said model being a kind of “fictive machine” that has few basic parts and where the basic parts are easily separable and comprehensible.
(Historiography / Evidence) Various types of evidence are lopsided and might lead us to create biased reconstructions. When not informed by external data, any internal evidence may easily get caught up in the circular reasoning by which a given theory frames or even creates the evidence. External evidence, on the other hand, is by definition circumstantial. We can’t use data that isn't available to us; the risk of general inferences from particular data that happen to be extant is real. Further, comparative evidence may be overrated and lead to a kind of blueprint thinking or “patternism.” In the context to be explored here, that patternism shows up as not respecting the unique features of the scribal culture that existed with, and served as currents behind, the texts we study and that formed the basis of scriptures across a variety of faiths.
(Historiography) Historians first assume the retroactive existence of the laws of physics (the Earth is not flat and the cosmos didn’t appear in 168 hours) and, along with that, there are the assumptions around the biological characteristics of humans and beasts (no human has ever lived more than 150 years; twenty-five years was an above-average lifespan 3,000 years ago, and so on). Second, historians assume the validity of deductive logic, inductive data collection, and the applicability across time of statistical theory, and the parameters of the demographically possible. Then, from that point onwards, everything should be forensic. That is, things proceed like a court case in which generalized theory is of little use. This is because, as a historian, you're making a decision not about an entire class of events, but about one single, specific event – whether or not it occurred – and, as such, you use anything and everything that might be relevant to illuminate the situation. The one unbreakable rule is no cheating: every argument has to be overtly articulated and its assumptions specified.
(Historiography) Professional historians do three specific things. First, historians try to get a rough idea of what “really” happened, all the while recognizing that all historical writing is merely a series of heuristic fictions and that both complete adequacy of description and complete accuracy of “fact” are usually beyond the bounds of the possible. Second, and more important, historians spend their time studying what people think happened. Arguably, that’s the heart of the discipline. In essence, historians are engaged in documenting the development of humanity’s consciousness of itself and its world. Third, there are occasions when historians can observe how certain elites, religious or secular, told people what they were supposed to think happened. Sometimes it’s possible to work with all three elements at once and that can be very enlightening as it provides a fuller picture for the ebb and flow of events.
(Research Principle) The idea of implausification is important. A counter to this idea is to ask why don’t we simply say that hypotheses that make predictions that are repeatedly falsified are false? Thus they are falsified rather than implausified. Let’s consider this in a scientific context first. A particular particle physics model called supersymmetry can circumscribe, but not exactly specify, the precise masses of the so-called “superpartner” particles that it postulates. Rather, the hypothetical model allows a range of values and so, when an experiment fails to detect the postulated particles, the theory can be adjusted to predict another (usually presently untestable) range of values. Thus does the hypothesis elude falsification. Hence, in view of the effectively limitless imagination of theoretical physicists, one reason for avoiding the language of falsification is that previous data don’t constrain the hypothetical models enough to permit a firm conclusion about them to be drawn. The fundamental weakness here is with theories that are immune to falsification, not with the concept of falsification itself. Thus we’re stuck with something that is implausible but not necessarily falsifiable. If we take this more into the arena of history and cultural analysis, you find that often you can never fully test and definitively falsify certain ideas. What you can do is decide if those ideas are, more or less, implausible. The essence of the scientific method is the willingness to place your own ideas in jeopardy. The essence of any scientific theory is that it remains open to being proved false – or perhaps rendered implausible – in the light of fresh evidence.
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There is a fundamental question in all historical research, which is the problem of appropriate categories. It can be tempting, particularly in religious or biblical studies, to focus on a theological context. However, for a historian, interests should first be historical and philological: we have to engage the mindset, values, and category formations of the ancients. How did they understand the phenomena their world presented to them? What do their terms reveal about their values and assumptions and how they conceptualized the world?
There are emic and etic approaches to cultural analysis. The etic approach focuses on developing theories that can be applied universally and on testing the generalizability of those theories across diverse groups. In contrast, the emic approach focuses on developing theories specific to an individual cultural group or on identifying culturally specific factors.
A social-scientific historical inquiry can certainly apply external questions and categories to an ancient society. However, when engaging in such externally driven analysis, it’s crucial that any valid criteria be publicly arguable, repeatable by all researchers (“objective” in the sense of “observer-independent”), logical, precise, verifiable, and falsifiable. I would also add another category that’s best thought of as “implausification,” the idea there being that when confronted with contradictory data, a hypothesis that is continuously adapted becomes less and less likely.
Wilhelm Dilthey talked about Erlebnis (“lived experience”) and Robin George Collingwood talked about the “inside of events.” These are the emic side of things and here we have to get into, insofar as we can, the ancients’ thought patterns, categories, and language.
Let’s get some context on those concepts. First, Wilhelm Dilthey was a German philosopher, historian, and social scientist and he introduced the concept of “lived experience” (“Erlebnis” in German) which refers to the subjective experience of an individual in the world. According to Dilthey, “lived experience” is different from “objective experience” (“Erfahrung” in German), which can be measured, observed, and communicated in a universal language. “Lived experience” is the unique and personal experience of an individual that can’t be fully understood or expressed in words. This experience is shaped by an individual’s cultural, historical, and social context, as well as their personal beliefs, values, and emotions. Dilthey argued that understanding human behavior and culture requires an empathetic understanding of the lived experience of individuals. This approach is different from the natural sciences, which aim to explain the world objectively through empirical observation and experimentation. Dilthey believed that the social sciences require a more humanistic approach that emphasizes the importance of subjective experience, interpretation, and empathy. In summary, Dilthey’s concept of “lived experience” emphasizes the importance of subjective experience in understanding human behavior and culture while highlighting the limitations of objective observation and measurement in the social sciences.
Robin George Collingwood was a British philosopher, historian, and archaeologist and he introduced the concept of the “inside of events,” which refers to the subjective experience of individuals who participate in historical events. According to Collingwood, the “inside of events” is different from the “outside of events,” which refers to the objective facts and evidence that can be observed and analyzed from a distance. The “inside of events” is the experience of the participants, which includes their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It’s only accessible through imagination and empathy and can’t be fully understood through empirical observation or measurement. Collingwood argued that understanding history requires an imaginative reconstruction of the “inside of events” based on the available evidence. This involves empathizing with the participants and interpreting their actions based on their subjective experiences. Collingwood believed that historical interpretation is an ongoing process of reconstruction and revision, as new evidence and perspectives emerge. In summary, Collingwood's concept of the “inside of events” emphasizes the importance of subjective experience and imagination in historical interpretation. It highlights the limitations of objective observation and analysis and emphasizes the importance of empathy and interpretation in understanding historical events.
So one thing we can do is look at whether certain terms, like “religion,” “Jew,” “Judaean,” “Christian,” and “Judaism,” were stable and verifiable categories that were extrinsic to the ancients’ language. We can also look at whether those terms were intrinsic categories and thus use them to help us explain what the ancients actually thought and felt.
If we find that the terms we use are not emic (because the ancients had no knowledge of those terms as we use them) and not etic (by the criteria established above), then whatever we’re talking about is, by definition, outside the reach of the historian. Thus we have to figure out what categories were actually current in the social context of antiquity to better come to some understanding of their world and only then see how, whether and to what extent our understanding of their world aligns with their understanding.
As a relevant case in point, it would seem that no ancient Hebrew or Aramaic words map closely to our “Judaism.” Further, no term directly equivalent to “Judaism” appears in the first two centuries BCE and CE. Assuming that’s true, how could the ancients have expressed the same concept as we understand it? Or did they recognize the concept at all? We have to allow for the possibility that the distance between their terminology and ours is quite large. And if we allow for that, then we must hesitate to use our terms in describing their realities. Specifically, in the case cited, it would mean that what we call “Judaism” did not exist at a certain time in the past. Yet many people apply the term, as we understand it, to a time when it didn’t exist and to a people who wouldn’t have understood the term as we use it.
The idea of “Judaism” will be explored quite a bit in what follows. Let’s consider another term: “religion.” This is a term that often gets applied to cultures from the past. Yet it’s become clear that such cultures would have had no concept of what we currently call “religion.” Some scholars suggest that there was a major expansion of the use and understanding of the term “religion” that began in the sixteenth century.
“Religion” is not a native category. It’s not a first person term of self-characterization. Instead, it’s a category imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture. It’s the “other” – the “outsider” – who is solely responsible for the content of the term. Given that, in constructing the second-order, generic category “religion,” its characteristics are those that appear natural to the “other.”
“Religion” is an anthropological not a theological category. It describes human thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior. But it took us a bit to get there.
The etymology of the term “religion” is uncertain. In both Roman and early Christian Latin usage, the noun forms religio / religiones and, most especially, the adjectival religiosus and the adverbial religiose were cultic terms referring primarily to the careful performance of ritual obligations. This sense survives in the English adverbial construction “religiously” designating a conscientious repetitive action. The only distinctively Christian usage was the fifth-century extension of this cultic sense to the totality of an individual’s life in monasticism: “religion,” a life bound by monastic vows; “religious,” a monk; “to enter religion,” to join a monastery.
It’s this technical vocabulary that is first extended to non-Christian examples in the literature of exploration, particularly in descriptions of the complex civilizations of Mesoamerica, such as by Hernán Cortés (1520), Joannes Boemus (1520), Sebastian Muenster (1550), Richard Eden (1553), Pedro Cieza de León (1553), Joseph de Acosta (1590) and Edward Aston (1611). “Religion” in relation to ritual practice became an item in an inventory of cultural topics that could be presented either ethnographically in terms of a particular people or in a cross-cultural encyclopedia under the heading of “ritual” or “religion.”
So the idea here was that of “ritual” and “religion” being linked. But ritual, especially when it seemed similar to Christian practice or when it illustrated categories of otherness such as “idolatry” or “cannibalism,” gave rise to projects of comparative and critical inquiries. Similarity and difference, with respect to ritual, constituted a puzzle that required explanation by appeals to old patristic, apologetic charges of priestly deceit or to equally apologetic, patristic theories of accommodation, demonic plagiarism, diffusion, or degeneration.
Eventually, however, there was a shift to “belief” as the defining characteristic of religion. Certainly we see this in the mid 1700s. Terms such as “reverence,” “service,” “adore,” and “worship” served to remove, or at least obfuscate, from “religion” and ritual connotations. The focus became more on denoting a state of mind, which was a transition begun by Reformation figures most, if not all, of whom understood “religion” primarily as “piety.” This focus on belief led to the increasing English usage of “faiths” as a synonym for “religions.” This raised a host of interrelated questions as to credibility and truth. These issues were exacerbated by the schismatic tendencies of the various Protestantisms, with their rival claims to authority, as well as by the growing awareness of the existence of a multitude of articulate, non-Christian traditions.
We can consider an anthropological work by Edward Brerewood, Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages and Religions through the Chiefe Parts of the World (written in 1614) that distinguished four “sorts” (i.e., “species”) of the genus “religion” – “Christianity, Mohametanism, Judaism and Idolatry.” A key thing to understand is that it’s the question of the plural religions (both Christian and non-Christian) that forced a new interest in the singular, generic religion.
Let’s consider a few other terms.
The term “Israel” has a number of different meanings. About 1210 BCE it appears in an Egyptian inscription referring to a relatively important group (or tribe?) living in the mountains of Ephraim. Between the tenth century and 722 BCE it designates a kingdom whose capital is Samaria and that includes neither Jerusalem nor any other territory in southern Palestine. This Israel is also mentioned in Assyrian and other texts. Scholars also call this kingdom “the kingdom of the north.” After the Assyrians had eradicated this kingdom, the name Israel came to be a theological term designating all those who venerated the god of Israel.
The name “Judah” is first applied to a region (also called “Judea”) and to a tribe, then later to the “kingdom of the south” with its capital at Jerusalem, ruled until 587 BCE by kings claiming descent from the line of David. After the destruction of this kingdom by the Babylonians and its disappearance as an independent political entity, “Judah” or “Yehud” became the name of a province that is part of the Persian Empire, and then of various Hellenistic kingdoms.
We cannot speak of “Jews” or “Judaism” before the end of the Persian era, or even before the Hellenistic period, because it’s only toward the end of the fourth century that we find a religious system in place that is at all like what one designates today as “Judaism.” So it’s better to avoid using the terms “Jew” and “Judaism” for the earlier periods, but instead to speak of “Israelite” or “Judean.”
The name “Canaan” occurs in texts from Egypt and Mari and then is often used in the Bible in a rather vague way to speak of the territory that encompasses most of Syria-Palestine west of the Jordan. In the Hebrew Scriptures this name appears sometimes in a neutral way as a geographic term, but sometimes, as when speaking of the “Canaanites,” meaning the indigenous population of the Promised Land, with a distinct pejorative connotation.
The term “Hebrew” appears in the Hebrew Scriptures as an archaic name for the Israelites or Judahites, then for the Jews. The relation of this word to the term ̒apiru, a sociological term used in various Egyptian, Hittite, and other texts of the second millennium to refer to marginal populations, has been subject to much debate. In most of the biblical texts in which the term “Hebrew” occurs – in the books of Exodus and Samuel – it’s applied by other populations to describe the Israelites. When it became current in the last centuries before the Christian era, it’s used as an archaizing name for the Jews, and this is the way it’s employed in the rabbinical literature and the Christian Scriptures.
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Let’s look at some historical context for how events are usually situated.
The history of Israel and Judah unfolds in the geographic context of the Levant, corresponding to the present-day countries of Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
Maps of the Levant generally don’t show an absolute boundary because at no time in the past was it a single political unit. Rough boundaries are generally west of the Zagros mountains, south of the Taurus mountains, and north of the Sinai peninsula.
Throughout its history this region was much coveted by the surrounding empires and was often controlled by them, first by the Egyptians in the second millennium, then by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans in the first millennium. Geographically and politically the history of the Levant is intrinsically tied to that of the “Fertile Crescent,” an expression referring to the fertile territory with ample rainfall that stretches from Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Iran) to Egypt, including the areas around the Tigris and Euphrates.
It’s worth noting that from the very beginning the biblical narrative tells of the travels of the patriarch Abraham throughout the whole of the Fertile Crescent. His family originally leaves from the city of Ur and then settles in Harran in Syria; from there Abraham wanders through the land of Canaan, stopping at strategic places such as Shechem and Bethel, then going down into the Negev to the south, and from there finally to Egypt (Gen. 11–12). Geographically this covers the whole of the Fertile Crescent; historically the territories Abraham visits are places where in the Persian era (fifth and fourth centuries) there were existing populations of Judean exiles or émigrés.
Putting things in an archaeological context, the beginnings of the history of Israel in the thirteenth century fall into the time of transition from the Late Bronze to the Iron Age. The Iron Age ends for the archaeologists of the Levant with the Persian era.
In the middle of the second millennium the Levant was controlled by Egypt. It was organized politically into city-states whose minor kings were vassals of the pharaoh. There also existed some groups with minimal integration, notably the ̒apiru, who lived on the margins of the political system, in conflict with one or the other of the minor Canaanite kings or chiefs or serving as potential forced laborers for the Egyptians. Egyptian texts also mention “shasu” (šзśw) nomads, and they sometimes use the term Yhw(з) to characterize them. Scholars have often tried to connect this term – probably a toponym – with the name Yahweh (Yahua?), which was to become the name of the god of Israel.
The end of the thirteenth century was marked by upheavals during which the city-states collapsed. New populations, “people of the sea” arriving from the Aegean Sea or from Anatolia, the Philistines as the Hebrew Scriptures and we call them, established themselves on the southern coast of Canaan in cities like Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron. Their material culture was markedly different from that of the other inhabitants of the land, but they assimilated themselves quickly. The biblical texts call them “the uncircumcised” because, in contrast to the populations of the Levant, they didn’t practice circumcision.
Whereas most of the cities of the Late Bronze Age suffered depopulation, the mountainous zone of Ephraim and Judah experienced a notable increase in its population. This is the context within which we find the first traces of the genesis of the “Israel” that is mentioned in about 1210 BCE on the victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah. This “Israel” must have been a quite powerful grouping, because the Egyptian king thinks it worth mentioning among the people he boasts of having conquered. Although he proclaims that he has put an end to Israel, in fact that entity was about to embark on a course of growth and development. Its origins do not lie, as the book of Joshua claims, in the military conquest of a territory by a population invading from somewhere else; rather “Israel” resulted from a slow process that took place gradually within the framework of the global upheavals of the Late Bronze Age – that is, it had its origin in indigenous populations.
The opposition we find in the Hebrew Scriptures between “Israelites” and “Canaanites” was in no way based on an existing ethnic difference, but is a much later theoretical construction in the service of a segregationist ideology.
“Israel” is in the first instance a kind of clan or tribal confederation, joining together groups that probably thought they already belonged to the same ethnic grouping. This is suggested, for instance, by the virtual absence of the raising of pork for consumption, and by a distinct material culture. However, the idea that Israel before the monarchy was composed of twelve tribes is an invention of the biblical authors of the Persian and Hellenistic periods, when this idea came to play an important role in attempts to affirm the religious unity of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee.
At the beginning of the first millennium in the whole of the Levant there gradually came into being an exchange economy that replaced the previously existing subsistence economy. This transformation was accompanied by a parallel development in the forms of political organization, which tended in the direction of monarchy. One can observe this phenomenon, for instance, not only west of the Jordan river but also to the east in the creation of the kingdoms of Moab and Ammon.
The biblical narrative in the books of Samuel centers the story of the origins of the monarchy around three exemplary figures: Saul, David, and Solomon. This is mostly legendary material, but the narrative does contain some traces of historical events. Saul, who is presented as the first king of Israel, was able to resist Philistine domination and to create in the territory of Benjamin and the mountains of Ephraim a kind of state structure of which he was the head. David, who is represented as having been in conflict with Saul, seems to have been a vassal of the Philistines, who perhaps supported him in his conflict with Saul. In any event, the Philistines tolerated the creation of a kingdom under David located in Judah, first in Hebron, then in Jerusalem, and in competition with that of Saul.
According to the narratives of the books of Samuel and Kings, which are partly taken up again in Chronicles, David and his son Solomon were said to have reigned over a “united kingdom” with a huge territory extending “from Egypt to the Euphrates.” This claim is the result of an ideological choice made by the editors of the Hebrew Scriptures, who wished to show that Israel (the north) and Judah (the south) had in the beginning been united in a single kingdom. The large building works at Megiddo, Hazor, and elsewhere that have been attributed to King Solomon, probably date to a period a century later than his death and are the work of King Omri.
It’s in the north that we find the development of something like a significant “state,” which under Omri made the town of Samaria its capital. In the south, in contrast, the political entity was much more modest; estimates of the population of the south put it at about ten percent of that of the north. Jerusalem at this period was a small agglomeration that Pharaoh Sheshonq does not even deign to mention in the list of his military exploits after his campaign of ca. 930 BCE in the region. For more than two centuries Judah lived in the shadow of Israel, and was probably often its vassal.
The historiography of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, particularly in the books of Samuel and Kings, has been edited from the perspective of the south and presents the north and its kings in a negative light, accusing them of worshipping gods other than the god of Israel and of establishing sanctuaries that competed with Jerusalem.
In the ninth century under the Omrides (referring to kings Omri, Ahab, and Joram), Israel became a powerful presence among the kingdoms of the Levant, as is shown by the numerous building projects these kings undertook, especially the construction of the city of Samaria. The power of the Omrides extended all the way to Transjordan and brought about conflicts with the kingdom of Moab, as is attested by the stele of Mesha, which reports a quarrel between Israel and Moab from the perspective of the king of Moab.
Omri and his successors pursued a policy of rapprochement with Phoenicia. This is why the editors of the books of Kings accuse them of worshipping a god named “Baal.” The editors of the biblical text hold this transgression to have been the cause of the end of the Omrid dynasty. According to a stele with an inscription in Aramaic found in Tel Dan at the sources of the Jordan, Hazael, the king of Damascus, who ordered the stele to be inscribed, is said to have triumphed over a coalition of Israel and Judah and to have defeated Israel and the “House of David.” (The majority opinion among scholars holds that this stele contains the first mention of the name “David” outside the Bible.)
The books of Kings present the end of the Omrid dynasty as the result of a coup led by one of its generals, Jehu, to whom the editors attribute a religious motivation: he is presented as being a fervent worshipper of the god of Israel and an opponent of the cult of Baal. Historically speaking, Jehu was a weak king and the defeats he suffered at the hands of the Aramaeans are attributed by the editors to his predecessor, the Omrid Joram. Jehu became in fact a vassal of the Assyrians, who, starting in the second half of the ninth century, were beginning to try to control the Levant. In 853 BCE a coalition between Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus succeeded in pushing back the Assyrian king Salmanasar III at the battle of Qarqar, but the following decades and the whole of the eighth century are definitively marked by the hegemony of Assyria, which leaves numerous traces in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. An obelisk of the Assyrian king Salmanasar III shows a king prostrating before Salmanasar with the legend “the tribute of Jehu, son of Omri.” (Jehu was not in fact the son of Omri, but for the Assyrians Omri was the founder of the kingdom even after the end of his dynasty. It’s also possible, and quite likely, that the Assyrians simply were not much interested in the internal politics of Israel and questions of genealogy.)
The kingdom of Israel had another period of prosperity under the reign of Jeroboam II (about 787–747 BCE), who accepted Assyrian hegemony and acted as a loyal vassal. The well-off became even more prosperous thanks to the increasing production of olive oil, but this kind of proto-capitalism also brought with it a pauperization of those who were less well off. Prophets such as Hosea and Amos denounced this turn of events. In addition, Hosea conducted a polemic against the “calves” of Samaria and Bethel, which strongly suggests that the titular deity of Israel was worshipped there in bovine form. It’s possible that certain traditions reported in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the story of Jacob (who was later to become the ancestor of Israel) and the story of the exodus, were first put in a written form in the sanctuary of Bethel during the reign of Jeroboam II. (In fact, these two traditions are juxtaposed and contrasted with each other in Hosea 12.)
After the reign of Jeroboam, the decline of the kingdom of Israel set in. Around 734 BCE a coalition of Levantine kingdoms led by Damascus and Israel tried to force the king of Judah, Ahaz, to join a revolt against the Assyrians. There are traces of this in various biblical texts. Ahaz, however, on the advice of the prophet Isaiah, sought protection from the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, whose vassal he became.
Tiglath-Pileser III was easily able to defeat the Aramaeans and Israelites and truncated both their kingdoms drastically. In 727 BCE the last king of Israel, Hosea, sought an alliance with Egypt, thereby provoking a military expedition by Salmanaser V against Israel and the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. The kingdom of Israel was divided up into four Assyrian provinces, and up to twenty percent of the total population was deported, with other populations being settled in the territory of the former kingdom. This “mixed” population is the distant ancestor of the Samaritans. We know almost nothing about the situation in this region until the Persian era, except that the cult of the god of Israel continued. (2 Kings 17 confirms this, even though it probably would have been in its best interests to exclude this.)
For the kingdom of Judah, which continued to exist as a vassal of the Assyrians, the fall of Samaria meant a rise in its status and especially in the development of Jerusalem, which up to that time had been a rather modest settlement. Its urban space increased significantly toward the end of the eighth century and it became a genuine capital. This growth was at least partly due to the influx of refugees from the former kingdom of Israel. It was also during this period that traditions from the north (Jacob, Exodus, Hosea, the narratives about the prophets Elijah and Elisha and others) arrived in Judah, where they were revised from a Judean perspective.
The rise of Jerusalem began under King Hezekiah, to whom the Bible attributes a number of public works that are attested by archaeology, such as the famous tunnel at Shiloh, which contains the first known monumental Judean inscription. It’s worth noting that it’s quite possible that certain of the works attributed to Hezekiah are actually to be assigned to Manasseh, a king whom the editors of the books of Kings abhor.
We must assume that the beginnings of systematic literary activity are also to be dated to this period. For example, the second part of Proverbs (25:1) claims in its title to have been compiled during the reign of King Hezekiah.
Hezekiah’s policies toward the Assyrians were so reckless that the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, eventually launched a military expedition against the kingdom of Judah, took Lachish, its second city, and reduced its territory massively. In 701 BCE, however, the Assyrians interrupted their siege of Jerusalem and withdrew, for reasons that are unclear. This event gave rise to the idea of the inviolability of Zion, the mountain on which the Temple of Jerusalem is located. The inhabitants of Jerusalem saw in it the proof that their god would protect his city against his enemies.
Under Manasseh, a loyal vassal of the Assyrians, Judah became prosperous again and recovered parts of its lost territory. Although Manasseh’s reign lasted more than fifty years (ca. 698–642 BCE), the editors of the books of Kings devote only a few lines to him, in which they particularly deplore his impiety. However, he seems to have governed wisely and to have allowed Judah to enjoy its last period of stable life.
When King Josiah (640–609 BCE) acceded to the throne, according to the biblical narrative at eight years of age, the Assyrian empire had begun to grow weaker because of the resurgence of Babylon. During the second half of Josiah’s reign, the king and his counselors took advantage of this power vacuum to put in place a policy of centralization in accord with the new status of Jerusalem. The Temple of Jerusalem was proclaimed the sole legitimate sanctuary of the god of Israel. The historicity of the narrative found in 2 Kings 22–23 cannot be immediately confirmed, but it asserts that Josiah removed all the Assyrian religious objects from the Temple of Jerusalem and also destroyed the symbols of Asherah, a goddess associated with the titular god of Judah, and that he annexed a part of the former kingdom of Israel.
The books of Kings claim that Josiah’s innovations in the spheres of religion and politics were undertaken because of the discovery of a book in the Temple. This story is probably a traditional literary conceit; however, it is highly likely that Deuteronomy, which is what this book found in the Temple has always been assumed to have been, was in fact composed in its original form in order to legitimize the policy of centralization and of monolatry, the exclusive worship of the god of Judah/Israel. The idea of centralization prepares the way for establishing one of the main pillars of what was later to become Judaism: the centrality of Jerusalem and its temple. It is to the reign of Josiah that we must also look for the literary origins of some other texts, such as the narratives of the conquest of Canaan that make up the first part of the book of Joshua; these are probably intended to legitimize Josiah’s expansionist policies. The scribes of Josiah also wrote a history of the two kingdoms to show that Josiah was a kind of new David. No doubt they also composed a written “biography” of Moses and set down other traditions in writing as well.
The origin of a large part of that literature, which was later to become the Hebrew Scriptures, lies, that is, in the Assyrian period. The significance of much of this writing is restricted to a milieu of “intellectuals” – to the palace and the temple. In the Judean countryside at the sanctuary of Hebron, they will also have told stories about episodes from the life of the patriarch Abraham in a religious context that differed significantly from that which was dominant in the palace of Jerusalem. The story of Abraham, after all, is not an appropriate vehicle for a segregationist ideology, because it insists on the fact that the patriarch was also related to Lot, the ancestor of the Moabites and the Ammonites, and was the father of Ishmael, the ancestor of the semi-nomadic peoples of the desert southeast of Judah.
Josiah died in 609 while preparing for a confrontation with Egypt, and this is the beginning of the decline of the kingdom of Judah. It eventually fell to the Babylonians, who from 605 on were beginning to make themselves masters of the Near East. Numerous revolts by the kings of Judah were the cause of the first fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE: King Jehoiachin avoided the destruction of the city only by opening its gates. He and his court were deported to Babylon together with his high officials and artisans. A Babylonian document mentions the rations provided for King Jehoiachin, prisoner of the king of Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar II then installed Zedekiah as Jehoiachin’s successor, but he too eventually joined an anti-Babylonian coalition. The book of Jeremiah contains narratives and oracles that reflect the chaotic situation in Jerusalem in the years immediately preceding its second fall.
In 587 BCE the Babylonians took Jerusalem, destroyed the city and temple, and decided to initiate a second wave of deportations. They installed Gedaliah as governor at Mizpah in the territory of Benjamin. Archaeology shows traces of severe destruction at this time in the territory of Judah and a significant reduction in its population. In contrast, the territory of Benjamin seems to have suffered much less in this period. In 582 BCE Gedaliah was assassinated by a group bent on reestablishing independence, and according to the book of Jeremiah this event set off a third wave of deportations and the flight of some of the inhabitants of Judah to Egypt around 582. So toward the end of the sixth century there were three centers with a significant Judean presence: Benjamin and Judah, Babylonia, and Egypt (especially the Delta and Elephantine). In contrast to the Assyrians, the Babylonians allowed the exiles to live together in colonies and to form recognizable groups.
These various groups of exiles composed of members of the Judean elite were to play an important role in the production of a certain number of scrolls, which were in turn the ancestors of what would become the Pentateuch and the prophetic books. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 provoked an ideological crisis for these intellectuals. The pillars on which the identity of any ancient Near Eastern people would have rested – the king, the temple, the national god, and the land itself – had been destroyed. So it was necessary to find new foundations for the identity of a population deprived of its traditional institutions
It is in this context that we should view the various responses to this crisis that are contained in the “Deuteronomistic history,” the books of the Bible starting from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings. The intention in this history was to show that the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of part of its population were not due to the weakness of the god of Israel compared with the gods of Babylon. On the contrary, it was the god of Israel himself who was making use of the Babylonians to chastise his people and their kings for not having upheld the terms of his “covenant” with them, terms formulated explicitly in Deuteronomy itself. Some author or authors from the entourage of a group of priests eventually composed a “history of origins” (often called the “priestly document”), which is to be found especially in the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus and which insists that all the characteristic national rituals and institutions were revealed before the entry into Canaan and before the monarchy, so that the monarchy is not really indispensable.
For the priestly authors, all the rituals that will come to define Judaism in the Persian and Hellenistic periods (circumcision, Passover, the alimentary rituals and laws) were given by Moses in the desert even before there was an established form of political organization. These two literary complexes, the Deuteronomistic and the priestly narratives, prepare in a certain sense the way for monotheism, because they both affirm – each in its own different way – the unity of the god of Israel.
In 539 BCE the Persian king Cyrus took the city of Babylon, putting an end to the Babylonian Empire. His religious policy was “liberal” in that he permitted the reconstruction of destroyed temples and allowed deported populations to return to their respective countries. Cyrus is celebrated as the “Messiah” sent by the god of Israel in texts that are appended to the scroll of the oracles of the prophet Isaiah, which are often called “Deutero- Isaiah.” (These texts constitute chapters 40 to 55 of the present book of Isaiah.)
The Persians granted the Judean community the same cultural and religious autonomy they accorded to other peoples who were integrated into the empire. The Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the fifth century, and it’s under the influence of the Golah, the Judean exiles in Babylon who returned to Judea, that a quasi-theocratic temple-centered organization of political and religious life was put in place. Many of the Judean exiles preferred to remain in Babylon, and various documents found there indicate that these Judeans belonged to the comfortable strata of that city and were fully integrated into its life. Until the arrival of Islam, Babylon was to remain an intellectual center of Judaism, as is indicated by the Babylonian Talmud. In the same way the strong Judean presence in Egypt was in no way diminished. Thus Judaism from its very birth was a religion of the diaspora, and was to continue to develop as such during the Hellenistic era around the whole of the Mediterranean basin.
Between 400 and 350 BCE a compilation was made of different writings into a proto-Pentateuch, which became the founding document of nascent Judaism, but also for the Samaritans, whose central sanctuary was located after the fifth century on Mount Gerizim. The biblical narrative that reflects the consolidation of these diverse documents can be found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which present in an artificially exaggerated way the hostility between Judeans and Samaritans and which also insist on the positive and benevolent attitude of the Persians toward the promulgation of the Law in Jerusalem.
In 332 BCE Palestine was conquered by Alexander, who put an end to the Persian Empire. After his death, war broke out between his successors, and Palestine fell first under the control of the Ptolemies (or Lagides) who governed Egypt, then under that of the Seleucids who ruled Syria. This change, however, at first hardly affected the Jews. During the third century, Judea experienced an economic upswing which benefited the aristocrats in Jerusalem and the already well- off urban class. This was also the time of frequent contacts between Greeks and Jews, and the Jews living in Egypt adopted the Greek language as their own.
About 270 BCE, or somewhat later, the Pentateuch was translated into Greek, and during the third century an abundant literature was produced. Some of these texts, such as the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and so on, later entered the canon, but others, such as the book of Enoch, did not.
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The arguments in the “Religion as History” explorations have, as their basic precept, reliance on a core principle: listen to the primary texts. This must be done, to the extent possible, without engaging any prior theological or ideological commitments. You will find yourself dealing with, on the one hand, tough localized puzzles of detail and, on the other hand, tough systemic matters of meaning. With this said, we don’t rely exclusively on this evidence; doing so can constitute a trap that historians must be careful to avoid.
Another focus of the arguments, and another basic precept, is to read the scriptures as if they were history. This is necessary because the scriptures attempt to situate sequences of events along the skein of time. Even the Mishnah and the Talmuds, which are mainly commentaries, can be construed as commentaries upon historical texts and traditions. There are other perspectives beyond the historical with which we can engage the scriptures but we have to encounter them on their own grounds, the historical, before dealing with those other perspectives.
Without doubt, the scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian, announce themselves as being works of history. The heart of the scriptures is, after all, a covenant that God makes with the human race. This covenant is reported as an historical matter and the relationship of God to his people is sequenced down through the ages. Without doubt or equivocation, the scriptures deal with cause and effect, chronological sequences and, sometimes. origins, all within the guise of being an historical narrative. The scriptures, then, must be analyzed historically without preconception, just like any other document from antiquity. Furthermore, the results of our analysis of biblical texts must be compared with the archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic facts that we have available.
What’s interesting here is that many of the texts, particularly those of the Pentateuch, had, for quite some time, traditionally been thought to be extremely ancient and to date back to the beginning of the first millennium. Scholarship, however, has reached broad consensus that much of these should be assigned a much more recent time. For this reason we have seen the advent of a perfectly understandable and healthy skepticism about the historical value of these texts; they have come to be seen as theological or ideological constructions rather than historical records. As one example, many parts of the Pentateuch presuppose the annihilation of the kingdom of Judah, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian exile in 587 BCE. This has often been taken as a good reason to consider it illegitimate to use these texts to trace the origins of Israel and its god. To take this tack, however, is to ignore the fact that the narratives contained in the Pentateuch are not inventions proceeding simply and solely from the minds of intellectuals seated in the equivalent of academic ivory towers.
There’s a historically interesting but often theologically challenging project of looking for the origins and successive transformations of the god of Israel and the scriptures that eventually formed to communicate details about that god and those who believed in that god.
Even historically this is challenging because, by way of evidence, we usually have only a handful of indirect pieces of evidence in the biblical texts. Certainly the authors of the various texts of the scriptures are obviously not impartial witnesses, but rather are very keen to impose on readers their vision of history and of how the god of Israel acted within history. Compounding that issue, these texts have often, and sometimes for good reasons, been seen as theological or ideological constructions such that their use as historical records has been compromised.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that biblical literature is a literature of tradition. The people who put these traditional accounts into writing received them from others, and they had all the freedom they needed to transform or interpret them, or to rewrite them modifying older versions, sometimes in a very drastic way. In most cases, however, the process of revision operated in a manner that rested on certain archaic kernels of fact. Those kernels of fact might perhaps have received their definitive formulation only at a relatively late stage, but which could still preserve “traces of memory” (Gedächtnisspuren) of events of the distant past.
This shows us something very important. The scriptures implicitly tell us to be critical of the scriptures and the Talmuds tell us to argue, to think critically about the issues they raise. Time and again the later books of the Hebrew Scriptures and the associated texts cite earlier items. On the surface this is always respectfully done. But, if you read carefully, there’s often an undercurrent of subversion. You frequently find that when the more recent quotations of earlier texts are checked against the originals, the meaning has been changed, sometimes just a touch, sometimes completely subverted. It’s not disingenuous to suggest that later writers and commentators are straightening out the scriptures, correcting them for their own purposes. What this implies is that the scriptures grant the reader the license to recognize that they are open to criticism.
In terms of what we can determine historically, the various biblical texts emerged into the light of day in different historical contexts; each text or revision of a text attempts to respond to its own context while also maintaining the memory of older traditions. It’s extremely important to note that the original process in which the texts were written down, the redaction and revision of those texts, and the collection of the different books constitute a process that extends over more than roughly five hundred years.
So it has to be granted that it’s probably impossible to consider the biblical narratives as objective sources. Nevertheless, those narratives may conceal within themselves references to historical facts that a historian may, to some extent, be able to reconstruct. This does require applying some critical analysis to those texts in an attempt to extract some reasonable and plausible facts from the surrounding mythological and ideological material. That idea of plausibility goes back to the implausification mentioned earlier.
Given all of the above context, we do have to broaden our evidence. We have to consider archaeological discoveries, inscriptions, epigraphic and iconographic documents (including seals, statuettes, and ostraca), along with any surviving Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian chronicles.
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Historically it would seem to be the case that no book, or more exactly no scroll, of what came to be the biblical texts was definitively formulated in one fell swoop. Papyrus and vellum are not durable materials, and scrolls or sheets were therefore easily legible only for a limited time. Their content, therefore, had to be recopied every few decades on new scrolls or sheets. Each time recopying took place, it was certainly possible to add or suppress material, or to introduce modifications in the text. It’s been stated by many scholars that the scroll containing Deuteronomy, for instance, went through numerous editions from the end of the seventh to the fifth century. It’s likewise asserted that the prophetic books also have a complex history of redaction, and many of the texts we now find in these books derive not from the “historical” prophet in question but from more recent editors. The conclusion of many scholars is that these texts received their present form only in the Hellenistic period. The same observation is said to apply to the Psalms and other texts.
A goal in any historical investigation is to attempt to remain belief-neutral. The arguments can be entertained and subsequently evaluated on their merits and on the degree of their consonance with the primary evidence. Even if someone doesn’t grant the final texts any spiritual authority, it’s still quite possible to appreciate the integrity of the process of creation and the character of the texts as they finally came down to us. It’s equally possible that some might see, in the complex filigree of creation and invention, the working hand of God. Depending upon any given person’s theological or ideological commitments, that person can think of the whole business either as being the work of remarkable humans, but nothing more than that, or of the hand of God working via the intermediaries of remarkable humans. And whether that person believes that the historical narratives and the historically-defined legal codes are “real” or fictitious, that person still can hopefully see them as having been consciously invented: very subtle, very skilful, very successful products of human mental activity. Thus whether God was (ultimately) the author of these inventions, or whether they are merely some of the greatest of human creations, or perhaps both, is a matter of any one person’s own faith. To appreciate the architectural integrity and the extraordinary creativity of these great inventions, it’s not required to be a believer of any sort.
The nature of the collective enterprise must be, first, to listen to the evidence, and, secondly, to reflect on large patterns that the evidence reveals to us. These will likely be patterns that often lie outside of any single speciality.
That collective enterprise requires two skills that can be difficult to obtain. First, there’s the skill of simultaneously comprehending in historical terms both the similarities and the divergences of the faiths that became, in modern usage, Judaism and Christianity. Second, there is the skill of balancing the concepts of process and of product. It’s not always easy to recognize that nearly identical historical processes can produce sharply different historical products. Likewise, it’s not always easy to recognize that divergent histories (processes) sometimes yield very similar results (products). If we focus too much upon the one or the other, the process or the product, the balance of the historical evolution of the two faiths is lost.
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Let’s consider those faiths in a way that people often don’t conceptualize them.
One of the easiest ways for an historian to go astray is to place a single label on two or more fundamentally distinct phenomena. So, as part of the explorations, it becomes necessary to insist on a set of distinctions between the religion (and its several variants) that arose after the triumph of Judah over Israel – the religion of Judahism – and the modem Jewish faith – Judaism – which evolved after the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 CE and which was articulated in its essentials by the Rabbis in the succeeding five centuries. Likewise, whatever the movement that grew up around Yeshua of Nazareth was turned out to be very different in kind and character from what would later be enshrined as Christianity.
So we end up with a model like this that proposes the following path:
Yahwehism → Judahism → [ Judaism → Pharisaism → Rabbinism; Yeshua-faith → Christianity ]
Simplified with primary texts:
The “Judahist faith” is not a term that many use but in this context it refers to the religion of Yahweh as it pivoted around Jerusalem.
What this model could do is lead to a false sense of linearity. Looked at historically, however, neither the Yeshua-faith nor Rabbinism falls in a line of smooth historical continuity with the older religion of Yahweh. Each went through massive disorientation in the post-70 CE years, and, arguably, each was such a radical re-invention of older ideas that neither one can legitimately share a single label with its ancient predecessor.
(Temple Ideas) Within the Yahweh faith, Yahweh was captured most clearly in the covenant with his people. That covenant tied his character to certain specific practices, among them an elaborate tapestry of ritual that focussed on the killing of several species of living things. The Temple, Yahweh’s home, was where believers sacrificed. That was a physical reality, the Temple acting as an architectural anchor for the faith. At the same time, the Temple was a cosmic metaphor, a representation of how the transcendent covenant with the Chosen People worked. It was a specific place where the covenant was acted out, and as sacred drama the message was clear and obvious: if you keep the deal you made with Yahweh then, likewise, Yahweh will keep the deal with you. The Temple was thus a physical guarantor of God’s presence at a specific place on this earth and the Temple was treated by its devotees as if it had been placed there by the hand of Yahweh himself. Its very existence was interpreted as an indication of the hand of God, exercising power in the physical world. The Temple was simultaneously interpreted as being a non-corporeal, cosmic entity, a metaphor for the Kingdom of God whose ultimate details certainly exceeded all human imagining. All of this applied to the Temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel and Herod. What these Temples did was provide an entire grid of belief – the location of the god-house, the place of sacrifice to God, the ritual embodiment of the covenant between Yahweh and his people and, simultaneously, all the metaphorical aspects of the Temple as an architectonic symbol of ultimate reality. Now ask yourself: for a people so conditioned, what would the destruction of this Temple mean?
This is no simple question of a “what-if.” We know that this exact type of destruction happened twice: in 587/6 BCE and 70 CE. And this double-destruction of the Temple is very well attested independently of the texts of the three faiths. In each case the Temple’s destruction can be placed in a tight historical explanation that recognizes the catastrophes as directly causal (not the sole causes, but the best-documented and the most direct) in the invention of the three sets of sacred, primary texts: the Genesis-Kings unity (“Old Testament”), the post-Pauline documents of the “New Testament,” and the fundamental documents of Rabbinic Judaism. What we end up with in these instances is a conjunction that’s pretty rare in biblical studies. We end up with a set of independently-attested primary causes that can be tightly related to biblically-evidenced effects.
The two religions of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism share a common historical background (which includes the Yahweh-faith) and each went through the identical intense formative fire, the destruction event of 70 CE. Both nascent faiths shared a common bank of reflexes in dealing with the catastrophe. They, or rather their practitioners, both had seen it happen before: each embryonic faith embraced the Tanakh and there, in the Genesis-Kings unity, was a template for dealing with the destruction of the house where Yahweh lived. This template was clear, aesthetically admirable and – importantly – transferable across time. From their perspective, the solution then was relevant to the solution now.
What was that template?
The first part of the template was that the details of the now-ruined Temple must be set down in writing so that those details can serve as a guide to any human rebuilders of the Temple, should events play out such that any such reconstruction became possible.
The second part of the template was making sure that people didn’t get caught up in the belief that the physical manifestation of Yahweh’s house was the sole and complete meaning of the Temple. It was important to affirm the non-corporeal, ideational aspect of the Temple as the arrangement of a set of ideas that tells something about ultimate reality, namely how God and his universe are related. With such an idea in place it would be possible to affirm faith in the religion of the Temple, independently of whether or not the Temple was ever actually rebuilt as a physical entity.
The third part of the template is the creation of or reliance upon scriptures. The preservation of the Yahweh-faith depended upon the creation of texts that would exist independently of geography and on constructs that would persist independently of architecture. In this, it was crucial that not only should heterogeneous variants of the earlier, pre-disaster religion be collected but it might also be necessary to create a new variant. This variant would have to be captured in a narrative that showed the history of the world, its divinely decreed rules, and, most importantly, the everlasting bargain between Yahweh and his people, the covenant. That was probably the most crucial part: the overriding concept of the covenant and the grammar of biblical invention whereby the covenant is articulated in text. Not just was it necessary for the covenant to be articulated in the text, but also the congruent, continually re-occurrent, themes of enslavement and exodus, exile and return, sin and redemption, as well as destruction and regeneration.
The overall template was about re-invention of the religion of the Temple, but without a physical Temple being required. The faithful did not necessarily have to re-establish a Temple on this earth. It could instead be a Temple established in the hearts of the people, or in the heavens of the cosmos, and in each community or even within each home within a community. Each embryonic-faith after the destruction event could affirm its adherence to the sacred writings found in the Tanakh but then proceed to create its own additional scriptures. In the case of the Yeshua-faith, this became the “New Testament.” This was, in effect, a new covenant. Rabbinic Jews didn’t use the word “scripture,” but created a corpus of material that begins with the Mishnah and ends with the Babylonian Talmud. This, too, was a new covenant.
[ KEY POINT ] So there was the invention of the scriptures. Those all hinged on the same pivot point, which was the invention of God.
There was a grammar of invention. These were the rules of what it was permissible, and not permissible, to do in the religious culture of the time including the caste and ideology of the writers or editors. This grammar can be inferred by first examining, at a macro-level, what the writers/editors did in their work and then what they didn’t do. This inferred grammar of invention is important in itself, but, more than that, it’s potentially valuable because it may be applicable to the way religious invention occurred in the two main offshoots of the (admittedly proposed) Judahist religion, namely early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. Note that this proposed grammar of invention can be the case in the belief-neutral way mentioned earlier. The grammar of invention could have been instigated purely by humans to provide the cultural and belief system they wanted or it could have been ordained by God, through the intermediaries of humans, to provide the belief system desired by God.
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Some would argue that the single most important idea that the scriptures articulate is the covenant. The covenant is at the heart of the several different faiths that follow upon the religion of the ancient Israelites. Each of those faiths could be said to reinterpret that covenant. Indeed, it could be further said that each of those faiths reinvents the covenant for its own purposes.
As it is framed, Yahweh cannot exist outside the covenant. Hence, the ultimate ground of human experience in the scriptures is this deal, the covenant. This is a deal that, in its most evolved form, was conditional, hard, inflexible, and comprehensible. The reason the god of the ancient Israelites is so convincing is that, as he is limned in the covenant, he is the perfect embodiment of what is: of reality. Whatever controls the lives of individual human beings (and there is an infinity of philosophical debate about such matters), it is not consistently nice, benevolent, predictable, or even understandable. Yahweh personifies that ultimate reality exactly.
The covenant between Yahweh and Israel is the only image of Yahweh that exists. It’s not a direct picture, and certainly not a “graven image,” as warned against in the Ten Commandments. Rather, the covenant is like a drape over Yahweh and, by the outlines of the shape so covered, the Chosen People were able to understand a bit about their deity.
Once the covenant was in place and part of their culture, it became impossible to speak of Yahweh without automatically referring to the covenant. Or, to put it another way: Yahweh cannot exist outside the covenant. Hence, the ultimate ground of human experience in the scriptures is this deal, the covenant. And that covenant, as the ultimate ground of experience in the scriptures, encompasses not only Yahweh, but his parallel construct, the Chosen People.
There is nothing mystical about the covenant. It’s grounded in historical reality. It’s a matter of cause and effect, stimulus and response, action and reaction. One of the mental habits that come out of this is a legal mode of thinking. The omnipresence of the Hebrew legal code is one of its crucial characteristics. It translates the sacred-profane distinctions that stem from the covenant into practical rules for everyday life. This legalistic approach to behavior yields a mentality that is both very exacting in its grasp of details and highly pragmatic. Yahweh’s law is a practical discipline, and because the laws are so precise and so practical, it’s easy for members of the group to monitor accurately who is and who is not conforming fully to Yahweh’s covenant. And, simultaneously, the laws are a continuing and visible reminder to the Chosen People that they are not the same as everyone else, those profane people who do not partake of the covenant.
Another mental habit that occurs is that the Chosen People think historically. To what extent the material in the biblical writings represents accurately written history is less important than simply realizing that the intellectual grid that is formed by the writings (which eventually become scriptures) is very much historical. History in the scriptures is central. That the past can be known and recorded is an assumption that makes the existence of scriptures possible. But before they became scriptures, these writings were nothing more and nothing less than the people’s understanding of their own history.
Within this historical mindset are four secondary characteristics. First, the scriptures teach the Chosen People to think in terms of cause and effect. The scriptures implicitly teach that if one is to think well in cause-effect terms, what is happening on both sides of the equation must be specified very precisely. Second, the scriptures teach those who read and hear their contents to think in terms of time in general and in terms of chronology in particular. Third, the Hebrews’ discourse became numerate: accurate numerical description, or attempts at it, are part of clearly defining cause and effect. As an example, many of the very boring population censuses (such as in Numbers) were an attempt to gain a definition of the Chosen People and to chart their growth. And, finally, fourth: the historical sense also produced a very precise sense of geography in the texts. There is sometimes prodigious topographical detail provided. Spatial description is as essential an axis of historical description as is chronology: the Chosen People move not only through time, but through specific, tightly bounded space.
The scriptures start with “God Almighty” as the ultimate cause of everything. That deity evolves and Yahweh, in fact, becomes a very specific actor. Further, once Yahweh’s bargain with Abraham is sealed, he is known only through the covenant. Yahweh therefore operates in very specific ways, not unlike any great historical figure. But it’s also crucial to realize that this covenant was acted out with and by the people in a very specific place: the Temple. And when that Temple was no longer standing, and when the people were dispersed – as happened in the Babylonian Exile – then the re-invention of the covenant had to take place.
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Before getting into the things that were written, let’s talk a little about how things were written.
We commonly think of the Bible as a book or a collection of books. The very name of the Bible goes back to the Greek word biblia, for “books.” This is from biblion, derived from biblos, originally the Greek name for the papyrus plant; hence “papyrus roll,” hence “book.” Jewish writers referred to the Hebrew scriptures as “the books” (Dan 9:2) or “the holy books” (1 Macc 12:9) from the second century BCE onward. 1 Macc 12:9 uses the expression ta biblia ta hagia; 2 Macc 8:23 speaks about hē hiera biblos, “the holy book,” presumably in reference to the Pentateuch. Note also the reference to “the ancestral books” (tōn . . . patriōn bibliōn) in the Prologue to Ben Sira (ca. 140 BCE). Around 100 CE, Josephus speaks about “our books [biblia]” (Contra Apionem 1.38).
That focus on what eventually became “books,” however, can obscure an important context for the history that led up to the idea of a collection of books.
The culture of the Israelites was predominantly oral. The transmission of cultural lore – stories of origins, legends of ancestors and heroes, dos and don’ts, professional skills and wisdom – was nearly always accomplished by word of mouth.
The native verbs for “reading” literally mean “to cry, to speak out loud” (Hebrew qārā’, Akkadian šasû and its by-form šitassû). These verbs reflect the way texts were used. Written documents were read aloud, either to an audience or to oneself.
Historically we know that so long as there was no industrial production of written texts, the spoken word remained the main channel of communication. So long as oral transmission dominated communication, there was no place for books. So long as written texts were relatively rare, there was little incentive for literacy.
Prior to the Hellenistic era – that is, before ca. 300 BCE – there were no books. There were documents, literary compilations, myths, collections of prayers, ritual prescriptions, chronicles, and the like, but no books, no trade in books, and no reading public of any substance. Written texts were the province of professionals. Insofar as literature reached a larger audience, it was by way of oral performance.
In Israel and Babylonia, texts were an extension, so to speak, of the oral performers. This is not to say that all texts were in origin oral artifacts, but it is to say that the oral delivery of the texts determined their style, even if they had originated in writing. The traditional texts from Israel and Mesopotamia are full of the stylistic devices of oral performance such as rhythm, repetition, stock epithets, standard phrases, and plots consisting of interrelated but relatively independent episodes. This holds true for narrative texts as well as exhortatory texts.
The patriarchal stories in Genesis, just as the Epic of Gilgamesh in Babylonian literature, consist of a string of episodes owing their unity to the principal protagonists of the various stories. Their disposition is paratactic rather than hypotactic; the style is “additive rather than subordinative.” That comes from Walter Ong in his book Orality and Literacy. Exhortatory texts are similar. Both in the Bible and in Babylonia, moral instruction preserved the oral form of proverbs or succinct observations, collected into larger literary units on the basis of catchwords or subject matter. The style is “aggregative rather than analytic.” Again, that’s from Ong.
Oral performance was not the only function of written texts in Israel and Babylonia. Writing also developed an archival function. Being first an aide-mémoire for messengers, heralds, and bards, texts came to be used secondarily as an extension or even a substitute for memory. Written texts could be used for consultation, to look things up. What you don’t remember, you can look up in your text. This was particularly useful for anything with an encyclopedic character or that served as a compilation.
Law codes and handbooks have a common characteristic in that they are both compilations: the former of legal cases, the latter of omens, symptoms, formulas, and the like. Such biblical books as Leviticus, Psalms, and Proverbs have a similar structure: they are compilations, respectively, of rules and rituals, hymns and prayers, and pithy sayings. The separate literary units are strung together like beads on the single thread of genre, purpose, protagonist, or presumed author. The historical books are collections of episodes, while the prophetic books are collections of oracles and supporting narratives. They are less obviously anthological than Proverbs, Psalms, or the books of laws and ritual prescriptions, yet they are as composite as those latter genres.
These observations challenge the assumption that each book of the Bible should be considered a carefully crafted whole with a plan that is reflected in all its parts. The books of the Bible were not designed to be read as unities. They are rather better compared to archives. A biblical book is often like a box containing heterogeneous materials brought together on the assumption of common authorship, subject matter, or chronology. Whatever literary unity these books possess was imposed by the editors and is, to some extent, artificial. The editors could rearrange, expand, or conflate the separate units at their disposal in such a way as to achieve the illusion of a single book with a single message.
But that’s taking us back to “books” which implies a reading public for those books. So let’s step back a bit.
One immediate thing worth noting is that in the time frame in question, reading and writing were restricted to a professional elite; the majority of the population was nonliterate. The culture we’re dealing with here was the culture of a literate elite. The scribes who manufactured the texts that would become the Hebrew Scriptures were professional writers affiliated to the temple of Jerusalem. They practiced their craft in a time in which there was neither a trade in books nor a reading public of any substance.
Scribes wrote for scribes. To the public at large, the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures were icons of a body of knowledge accessible only through the oral instruction presented by religious experts. The text of the Hebrew Scriptures was thus not part of popular culture. What this means is that the texts that eventually made up the Hebrew Scriptures were born and studied in the scribal workshop of the temple. In its fundamental essence, these were texts of the clergy.
The above provides some crucial context in that it tells us the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures were created in a world in which there were neither books nor authors in the modern sense of those terms. Instead of books, there was the stream of tradition; instead of authors, there were scribes.
That idea of tradition is important because the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a repository of tradition, accumulated over time, that was preserved and studied by a small body of specialists.
The texts they produced were often coproductions – if not by a collective of scribes, then by means of a series of scribal redactions. They didn’t care about originality or about intellectual property. They didn’t even care necessarily about being recognized as an author. In fact, it was often the case that they preferred their work to be thought of as coming from someone else’s hand, usually someone from the past who had pedigree with the culture. For example, texts might be presented as a legacy from famous ancestors from a venerable past, to enhance their authority with an audience that might otherwise be reluctant to accept them.
The scribes related to the Hebrew Scriptures should be thought of also as clergy. This formulation connects the scribes responsible for the Hebrew Scriptures with the temple, and indicates a specialization within the priesthood focusing on writing and scholarship. The flourishing of scribal culture that produced the Hebrew Bible occurred in Judah in the Second Temple period, more specifically in the Persian and the Hellenistic eras (ca. 500–200 BCE). Thus of particular focus would be the scribal workshop of the Second Temple, active in the period between 500 and 200 BCE.
The format of the modern book goes back to the codex. A codex consists of a group of papyrus or parchment sheets, folded in the middle, and stitched together at the back. It was invented in late antiquity; the first example is from the late first century CE. By 300 CE the codex had become as common as the scroll, and then the format took over as the use of scrolls rapidly diminished.
Modern editions of the Hebrew Bible are in the form of a book and thus display the format of a codex. In the period of the Second Temple, however, the Bible was still a collection of scrolls – not a codex. One might conceivably argue that the difference is merely one of physical format. Although the Bible started as a series of scrolls it could still be considered a single book with regard to its content. But was it? This immediately raises the problem of the order of the books of the Bible. If the books were originally scrolls, their order in the codex is arbitrary to some degree. Unless their sequence was indicated by the use of catch-lines, in conformity with Mesopotamian practice, the decision to put Lamentations right after Jeremiah or to relegate it to the Writings pertains to the editors of a particular codex. Worth noting that the earliest illustrations of a conventional order of the biblical books are extant in the canonical lists from the second century CE onward.
The standard scroll had twenty sheets of papyrus, which meant an average length of 340 centimeters. A longer scroll required forty, sixty, or even more sheets, but the gain in volume went to the detriment of user-friendliness. A scroll of 10 meters (sixty sheets) was at the limit of practicability. A scroll of that size was not long enough for Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles, however. The reason that we now have a first and second book of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, respectively, is because those texts were too long for a single scroll. Note the use of a catch-line in 2 Chron 36:22–23 = Ezra 1:1–2 to signal the fact that the separate scrolls belong to one work. Conceptually, Samuel and Kings belong together as one work – or a single collection. Their division into four scrolls – or four “books” in our Bible – is directly related to the constraints of the writing material. The same is true for Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
Modern concepts of the book usually entail a particular concept of the author, on the assumption that there are no books without authors. In perceiving the Bible as a book we therefore assume there must have been an author – or, when the Bible is viewed as a collection of books, a number of authors. If we treat the Bible as a collection of books – standard procedure in introductions to the Bible – we implicitly subscribe to a notion of authorship that is characteristic of modern book production.
Until the dawn of modernity, neither theologians nor lay people had any great interest in the individual authors who wrote down the Bible texts. The Bible was the Word of God; whichever humans had been involved in its making were looked upon as mere channels for a heavenly voice. Human authorship was of no interest in comparison to the issue of authority. This lasted until the Enlightenment, when the dogma of the literal inspiration of the Bible was eroded. Only when the Bible was no longer literally the Word of God did its human authors gain in importance.
Earlier cultures put much greater emphasis on the social role of the individual. In ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia and Israel, the human person is understood as a character (personnage) rather than as a personality (personne). The individual is indistinguishable from his or her social role and social status.
In Mesopotamia and Israel, the author, being a subcategory of the individual, is a particular character or role. The social group the author belongs to and identifies with is that of the scribes. His work expresses the common values, ideological and artistic, of the scribal community. Thus authors of the time did not write as individuals but functioned as constituent parts of a social organism.
Our concept of the author as an individual is what underpins our concern with authenticity, originality, and intellectual property. The ancient Near East had little place for such notions. Authenticity is subordinate to authority and relevant only inasmuch as it underpins textual authority; originality is subordinate to the cultivation of tradition; and intellectual property is subordinate to the common stock of cultural forms and values.
[ REALITY CHECK ] In antiquity, authorship was invoked to assert authority. Those who actually manufactured texts did not see themselves as authors. They did not pursue originality, and what they wrote was not, in their eyes, an expression of talent but a manifestation of craftsmanship. They were scribes rather than authors. Moreover, the books that the scribes produced were not books in the modern sense of the term. They were not comparable either in form or function. Scribes wrote scrolls (rather than books) for the benefit of other scribes (rather than for private readers). A book market did not exist, nor were there public libraries; in fact, there was no reading public of any substance. Texts reached the people by being read out loud by someone from the literate elite. Writing and reciting were complementary facets of the scribal craft. Thus a key point: the texts of the Bible came into being through the agency of the scribes. The message of those texts was proclaimed from the mouths of scribes and those texts were preserved for later generations through the skill and diligence of the scribes.
[ REALITY CHECK ] The influence of Egypt, in pre-exilic times, and of Mesopotamia, from the exilic period onward, on the scribal culture of Israel, and thus on the Bible, is widely recognized. If it must be acknowledged that there are dangers in overly relying on comparative evidence from Mesopotamia and Egypt, it is also true that the data from Mesopotamia and Egypt provide us with a model that can be used as a reference when trying to reconstruct the world of the scribes of the Bible. This model should not be mistaken for a blueprint of reality. It is useful insofar as it puts us on the right track in our investigations. The ultimate test of our reconstruction is not how it fits the model but how it is supported by the data, of which the largest set is the Bible itself.
Since the search for the scribes behind the Hebrew Bible entails not so much an investigation of individuals as the characterization of a specific social class, the comparative evidence from Mesopotamia and Egypt, which shows that the scribes constituted a professional group with a distinct corporate culture, may prove a useful heuristic device. That is, it may put us on the track toward the identification of the scribes behind the Bible.
We have to look at how ancient written traditions like the Bible are actually part of a much broader process, a process by which such traditions were learned in the first place and transmitted to succeeding generations. The fundamental idea is the following: as we look at how key texts like the Bible and other classic literature functioned in ancient cultures, what was primary was not how such texts were inscribed on clay, parchment, or papyri. Rather, what was truly crucial was how those written media were part of a cultural project of incising key cultural-religious traditions – word for word – on people’s minds. High value was placed on preservation of ancient traditions, and they invested heavily in ensuring continuity across generations. Written texts were part of a larger educational project of ensuring stable transmission of key traditions across time. Scribal recollection of early traditions was ensured partly through teaching students to read and reproduce written copies of the key traditions. Nevertheless, the aim of the educational process was ultimately the scribe’s memorization of the cultural tradition and cultivation of his (or occasionally her) ability to perform it.
There is an extremely important characteristic of the writing of transgenerational, long-duration texts like the Bible: unlike people, writing is immortal. Writing makes language permanent, depersonalizes language, decontextualizes expression, and adds normativity. Writing formalizes, generalizes, and perpetuates features and intentions of language – cutting it loose from momentary and context-bound utterance.
Non-documentary, long-duration texts (as opposed to limited-duration administrative documents) of the sort found in the Bible were created as part of a broader use of texts to achieve cultural continuity in elite classes across space and time. This takes us into the idea of “cultural memory” to form groups and subgroups in societies. Such “cultural memory” consists of a body of recollections transmitted in organized ways to participants in a given group, recollections of values and views that shape each individual into a member of the group. Though such cultural memory often consists in large part of recollection of various narratives in the group’s past, it can also include behavioral norms and visions of the future. Within the ancient world, however, such behavioral norms and visions usually are embedded in memories of the distant past, with this past having powerful associations of goodness and normativity. Indeed, that past is never “past” in the way we might conceive it but stands in the ancient world as a potentially realizable “present” to which each generation seeks to return. In this context, written texts often proved uniquely suited to “institutionalizing unintelligibility” (as Richard Gordon puts it), serving in certain loci or certain stages of education to preserve expressions that were not understood, half-understood, or highly counterintuitive. Writing in the ancient world, given its ability to preserve language, even unintelligible or strange language, comes to serve an important role as a link to this “past”/ potential present. Education in such writing and mastery of core writings marks one as an insider among insiders in cultures that treasure such inscribed cultural memory.
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The Hebrew Scriptures are composed of three major parts: the Torah (תּוֹרָה Tōrā, “Instruction,” “Teaching” or “Law”), also referred to as the Chumash (חומש) meaning “the five” as well as the Pentateuch (the Greek word for a collection of five books), the Nevi’im (נְבִיאִים Nəvīʾīm, “Prophets,” literally “spokespersons”), and the Ketuvim (כְּתוּבִים, Kəṯūvīm, “writings”).
Modern Judaism lacks a single simple term to designate the whole of their scriptures, and generally resorts to using the Hebrew letters (T + N + K) of each of the text's three major parts. Since the ancient Hebrew language had no clear vowels, subsequent vowel sounds were added to the consonants resulting in the word “TaNaK” (תָּנָ״ךְ Tānāḵ). In Hebrew, the Tanakh is also called מִקְרָא Mīqrāʾ, meaning “that which is read.”
It’s generally felt that we can distinguish two large complexes in the Torah.
The first complex, the book of Genesis (Bəreshit בְּרֵאשִׁית, literally “In the beginning”, Genesis; from Γένεσις / Génesis, “Creation”), poses the question of origins: in this part God creates the world and the humans (Gen. 1-3), but he is also at the origin of violence (Cain and Abel, the Flood: Gen. 4-9) and of the diversity of languages and cultures (Gen. 10-11). Then we have the stories of the patriarchs: Abraham (Gen. 12-25), Isaac (Gen. 26), and Jacob and his son Joseph (Gen. 27-50). These figures are the ancestors of Israel, but not only of Israel: Abraham and Isaac are also the forefathers of most of Israel’s neighbors.
The second complex tells the story of Moses, the liberation of Israel from its servitude in Egypt and its sojourn in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. This second part begins with the birth of Moses and ends with his death. It comprises the whole of the four books:
Moses has a special status that is emphasized from the very beginning of the narrative: he is a man who twice receives divine revelations about, among other things, the name of the god who calls him and the meaning of this name.
The story of the patriarchs and the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt give the reader two different models of what we might call “Israliete” or “Judaean” identity. According to the narrative in Genesis, Israelite/Judaean identity is transmitted by biological descent: Israelites/Judaens are those who descend from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; this is why these texts are so full of genealogies. Turning to the story of Moses, the genealogies all seem to disappear. The identity of the people of Yahweh is constituted not by their common descent, but by their adherence to the Covenant between God and Israel, of which Moses is the intermediary. This Covenant is concluded after the liberation from bondage in Egypt, and is founded on divine stipulations, essentially a series of if...then relationship statements. The terms of these can be found in the various codes of law that are sprinkled throughout the narratives of the sojourn of the Hebrews in the wilderness.
The difference between Genesis and the following books is also visible in the differing way in which the deity is presented. In the first part of Genesis several texts depict a “universal” deity, creator of the world, who later, in the story of Joseph, also appears as the god of the Hebrews and Egyptians. In the narratives of the Patriarchs, on the other hand, the god who appears here seems often to be the god of a clan, called the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also the god of Ishmael, of Esau, and of their descendants. In the story of Moses and of the Covenant at Mount Sinai, a warrior god who manifests himself in storm, fire, and thunder concludes a contract with his people and promises to help them conquer a land. The actual conquest of the Promised Land under the aegis of this violent god is recounted in the book of Joshua. When Yahweh commissions Moses in the book of Exodus, he promises him that he would lead the people into a land “where milk and honey flows.” Nevertheless, at the end of the Pentateuch Moses dies outside the Promised Land. The Pentateuch thus ends with the nonfulfillment of the promise.
The second part of the Hebrew Scriptures is called “The Prophets” and is made up the following:
These, collectively, take up again the narrative thread and recount the story of Israel, starting with the military conquest of the land under the divinely ordained war chief, Joshua, proceeding, after a time of charismatic leaders (related in the book of Judges), to the establishment of the unified kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon, and concluding with the fall of the kingdom of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE (related in the books of Samuel and Kings).
These books, which end with the sudden and complete destruction of the kingdom of Judah and all its political institutions, are followed by the collection of prophetic books, in the proper sense of the word (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets). These prophetic books are intended to allow the reader to better understand the reasons for the catastrophe, which, according to the prophets, came about because the people and its leaders rejected God’s demands for justice in the land and exclusive worship of him. So it’s the god of Israel himself who is the cause of the military defeats of his people, on whom he imposes sanctions, just as he imposes them on their leaders, when they fail to respect his commandments. At the same time these books also contain promises of renewal, either of a restoration of the Davidic Kingdom or of some more general, if unspecified, salvation to come.
The “Writings,” which make up the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures, are a collection of books in a variety of different literary genres, particularly texts containing reflections on the human condition and on man’s often difficult relation to god. The book of Psalms (תְּהִלִּים, Tehillim, lit. “praises”), which comes first in the collection in most manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures, contains hymns of praise, but also what are essentially individual and collective lamentations, like those in the book entitled Lamentations (אֵיכָה, ʾĒḵā, from its incipit meaning “how”) which specifically recalls and mourns the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Song of Songs (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים, Shīr Hashīrīm) – also called the Canticle of Canticles or the Song of Solomon – is a collection of erotic poems. This, too, has its place in this third part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Two further books have women as heroes. The book of Ruth (מגילת רות, Megilath Ruth) tells the story of a foreign woman from the land of Moab who marries one of the ancestors of King David. The book of Esther (מְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר, Megillat Esther) recounts how a young Judean woman intervened successfully with the Persian King to save her uncle and her people from false accusations.
The book of Job (אִיּוֹב, ʾIyyōḇ) tells of how a rich landowner revolted against a god whom he found incomprehensible and draws the conclusion that the doctrine of retribution that figures in some passages of the book of Proverbs (מִשְלֵי, Mīšlē, “Proverbs (of Solomon)”) – like ”the wicked man shall be punished; the just man, however, will have a happy life” – is at any rate not valuable as a description of what happens in our world. Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) (קֹהֶלֶת, Qōheleṯ; from the ancient Greek: Ἐκκλησιαστής / Ekklēsiastēs), the first Judaean philosopher, comes to the same conclusion. He insists that God is inaccessible to us, and he calls on man to recognize and accept his limits.
Incidentally, Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, the Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Esther are collectively referred to as the Five Scrolls or the Five Megillot (Hebrew: חמש מגילות, Hamesh Megillot or Chomeish Megillos).
Among the “Writings,” we also come across the book of Daniel (דָּנִיֵּאל, Daniyyel). This book paints a picture of the final judgment of the world by God at the end of time. The books of Chronicles (דִּבְרֵי־הַיָּמִים, Dīvrē-hayYāmīm) propose a new version of the history of the monarchy that was already recounted in the books of Samuel and Kings. This narrative is continued in the books of Ezra (עזרא, 'Ezrā) and Nehemiah (נְחֶמְיָה, Nəḥemyāh), which tell the story of the return of the exiles in the Persian period and the promulgation of the law of god in Jerusalem.
With Chronicles being at the end, at least in modern Jewish conceptions of the Hebrew Scriptures (and likely based on the original ordering), the Hebrew Scriptures ends with the appeal of the Persian king to all the exiles from Judea to return to Jerusalem and construct the “New Jerusalem.”
It’s worth noting that the Tanakh version of the Hebrew Scriptures in three parts does not entirely correspond to the Christian “Old Testament,” which is divided into four parts. There are, however, at least three different “Old Testaments,” one for each of the three main denominations of Christian religion: Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Orthodox Churches. The structuring and organization of the texts and the decision to include or exclude particular texts results from the particular theological preferences of each denomination.
The dating of each of the components that went into the Hebrew Scriptures is exceedingly complex and complicated to sort out. Regarding the Pentateuch, there is often reference to the purported integration into one narrative of (at least) four successive and parallel documents, the earliest of which was thought to date from the period of King Solomon and the latest from the Persian era. This is often known as the “documents theory” or the “documentary hypothesis” that names the putative sources with letters. The text of the Jahwist (J), who uses the name “Yahweh” (Jahwe in German) for god, was supposed to date from around 930; that of the Elohist (E), who prefers to call god “Elohim,” was attributed to the eighth century. It was assumed that the Deuteronomist (D) wrote in the time of King Josiah (end of the seventh century); and finally the priestly writings (P) were assigned to the time of the Babylonian exile or the beginning of the Persian period.
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Let’s imagine someone or a small group of someone’s who were part of the Babylonian exile. Let’s posit that this group gathered up the most important things that could be known of the history and worship of their people and did so with the intent to place all of that in one set of scrolls. In collecting these central traditions of the “Chosen People,” of whom they believed themselves to be, they also edited them so that all the disparate pieces fit together better than they otherwise would. This was necessary since all of this tradition had previously never been combined to form a cohesive unity. That one set of scrolls became, in essence, a national history. Question: why would they do this?
One very realistic answer is: because these people were in exile. They wanted to get back to their homeland. That would be an ethnogeographic concern. But even more importantly, they wanted their ethnos to survive; they wanted to practice what we would now call their “religion” that affirmed who they were as a people and the relationship that they had with their god. In some ways that was very much tied to a place (the Temple) existing in another place (their land, Judah and more specifically Jerusalem).
Let’s consider some of the characteristics of the exile. One way to read the history here is that only a minority, at most about ten to twenty percent of the population, actually was sent into exile. The “poorest sort of the people of the land” were left behind (2 Kings 24:14) to be farmers and to tend the vineyards. The skilled artisans such as carpenters and blacksmiths, were taken away (Jer. 24:1). There’s an indication that some of the lands of the exiled elite were redistributed to the poor (Jer. 39:10).
Historically, we know the standard Babylonian practice was to strip conquered territories of their political and religious elites. This removed most of the potential troublemakers and the local leaders. The very top men in the conquered societies were brought to the capital and were treated well, while they were indoctrinated in Babylonian learning. The Babylonians tended to treat any deported elites well, and probably used many of them, those who were not artisans, as what would today be called middle-level civil servants. Below the level of royalty, the displaced Judaeans would, as per Bablyonian practices, not be treated badly. They would have been given religious toleration and would not be dispersed. Crucially, the Babylonians would have permitted sufficient concentrations of Judaeans to coalesce, to preserve their language, and their literary and religious traditions. It’s among this group that the “group of someones” I mentioned above would have been situated.
[ HEURISTIC FICTION ] So keep in mind what’s being postulated here. In a very specific context – the Babyloan exile – a particular person or group of people decided to collect up the traditions of their people and, from those, create a cohesive whole.
As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that there is a contradictory tradition about the Babylonian exile in Chronicles, which holds that (1) everyone who was not killed by the Babylonians was deported. And (2) that the land lay desolate for seventy years (see 2 Chron. 36:20-21) . This material is considered by many scholars to be highly stylized, essentially being tailored to fit a prophecy, namely, “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah” (2 Chron. 36:21). The material in Chronicles is widely thought to have been written considerably later than the material in Kings and in Jeremiah, probably the fifth century at the earliest. It’s worth keeping this disparity in mind because we’ll need to return to it later.
The Babylonian exiles’ concern about their own position is clearly seen in Jeremiah (24:1-10). Verse 8 in particular mentions “the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt” and these are to be regarded as bad. But verse 5 mentions: “I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans.”
It’s perhaps worth noting that the “Egyptians,” of whom both the author of Kings and of Jeremiah strongly disapproved, present a bit of a problem. On the basis of the primary texts it’s not easy to reconcile three assertions found within: (1) that the elite were exiled to Babylon; (2) that the rural peasantry were left in the land; and (3) that, thereafter, “all the people, both small and great, and the captains of the armies arose and came to Egypt . . .” (2 Kings 25:26, cf Jeremiah 43:4 and 7). This is particularly difficult, because, if that third assertion is true, it would mean the bulk of the people were not in exile in Babylon, but rather in Egypt.
Some scholars have stated that this situation is best interpreted as an instance of a common feature of the Hebrew scriptures which is that, despite their dealing in theory with the entire nation, they are actually sharply focused on urban life and, most especially, that of Jerusalem, the spiritual capital of Judah.
Assuming that’s true, that there was a strong anti-rural bias in the scriptures, that suggests a possible way to reconcile the three seemingly contradictory observations in the texts. Further, we can perhaps do so in a way consonant with the obvious, and stated, fears of being usurped on the part of the elite exiled to Babylon, who feared both the “Egyptians” and the locals who remained in Palestine. Specifically we can posit the following historical situation: (1) a minority, the elite of various occupational groups, were exiled to Babylon; (2) most of the rest of the urban population (meaning, effectively, the remaining population of Jerusalem) took themselves to Egypt; and (3) the bulk of the population, the rural proletariat and small-town shopkeepers, stayed behind.
So we can intuit a bit of a cultural imperative here for the exiles. Those who would – at least hopefully, in their view – return from Babylon and – equally hopefully – reassert control needed an ideological justification for their resuming power. This justification had to be one that would be acceptable throughout the diaspora as well as within their former land as well.
So what did these exiles produce? As per the above heuristic fiction, what this group had collected were the traditions and manuscripts of the people. These turned into nine scrolls, which became the first nine books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel (broken in early medieval times into two separate volumes) and Kings (also broken into two in the early medieval era).
Although traditional Judaism privileges the Pentateuch, and has done so since well before the Common Era, it has held equally firmly to the view that the Books of Moses and the first half of the Nevi’m – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings (called “the Former Prophets”) – together form a larger unity that is the primary reference for the history of the Chosen People from Creation into the period of the Babylonian exile. This is distinct from the “Latter Prophets” consisting of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (called the “Major Prophets”) and the twelve books ascribed to the “Minor Prophets.”
A foundational key to a lot of this seems to be the Book of Deuteronomy. This book is a statement of beliefs about Israel in history: God created the world and chose the people of Israel as his own, brought them out of Egypt, led them to freedom and eventually to settlement in the promised land. Around that hub of historical belief pivots all the narrative of Genesis through Joshua. The basic historical creed tethers the story of the Chosen People, like the radius of a circle, the narrative line racing around the circumference of that circle.
This is interesting when you consider that we have the report of an alleged finding of “the Book of the Law” in the late seventh century by the high priest Hilkiah in the Temple (2 Kings 22:8). This was found, apparently, while Hilkiah was rummaging about preparatory to some repairs being done on the Temple. What this book actually was has never been adequately determined, but a fair guess is that it was one of the legal segments of what is now the Book of Deuteronomy. According to the story, when this book was read to King Josiah, he immediately tore his clothes in grief, and decided on a religious reform that would drive out the various gods his people were worshiping and replace them with the worship of Yahweh (2 Kings 22:11-23:27).
All this being said, it can be argued that it requires a certain credulity to accept that the religious elite who controlled the First Temple, and who prized the words of their god, beyond measure, would have simply lost a central part of the Torah, the holy law; they had simply and quite literally, apparently, tossed it into the equivalent of the basement of the Temple, there to be forgotten. And, then, that same “lost document” shows up just at the moment that the king of Judah, a suddenly-enthusiastic Yahwist, is about to begin a purge of those whose religious views are not his own.
Modern historians and scholars suggest two central possibilities here, each of which is considerably more likely than the finding of Yahweh’s words in the disused junkroom of the Temple. One is that Josiah was determined on a set of actions – namely destroying all places of worship outside of Jerusalem – that were both “religious” (he was a keen Yahwist) and political in nature (he wished to strengthen his political control over his kingdom and perhaps gain a bit more influence in what had been the kingdom of Israel). Given this, Josiah therefore caused to be manufactured – and then “discovered” – a set of writings that gave divine assent to his activities. The other possibility is that, writing roughly seventy-five years later, when the memory of Josiah’s “reforms” still was very much alive (killing priests being a no doubt memorable activity), the exiled elites created a reason why Josiah was justified in acting the way he did.
Let’s once again go back to the wider literature that was, as part of the heuristic fiction, being created as the national history and tradition. All of this work takes the story of the covenant – the interaction of Yahweh and the Chosen People – from the creation of the world down to the time period of the exiles (which would have been around the 560s and 550s BCE). The Book of Kings ends with interesting ambiguity. Jehoiachin, released, is set upon a throne by his Babylonian host, and it’s apparently a higher throne than that of the other conquered kings who are with him. Further, Jehoiachin was given a daily allowance of food for the rest of his life (2 Kings 25:28-30). Thus there’s a bit of a cliffhanger ending: what will happen next? Well, historically we have to realize: those writers had absolutely no way to know.
A key part of what happened with these books is the writing down – in great detail – of the characteristics of the Temple. It’s been said that parts of the Book of Kings read like the transcription of an architectural seminar. Also written down – and also in great detail – are the ways in which ritual worship had been conducted in the past. Again, it’s been said that the Book of Leviticus is almost a drill-manual for priests. This is important because – if the heuristic fiction is to be entertained – the writers were providing the blueprint for a restoration of what they believed to be the central aspects of the religion of the Chosen People.
Keep in mind: they had no way to know if this Temple would ever actually be rebuilt or if the priests would ever go back to Judah and thus Jerusalem. Remember how 2 Kings ends: in ambiguity about the future. So if it were the case that the Temple was never rebuilt or if it was the case that the priestly caste never made it back to Jerusalem – and thus perhaps they were, as they worried, usurped either by the “Egyptians” or by the ill-educated and instinctively-apostate peasantry who had remained in the land – then the heuristic fiction adds another part: these writers in exile had another hope. This hope was that the scrolls they had put together, with their story of the nation’s history and with their definitions of the true form of Temple worship, would themselves become the Temple.
And that, right there, is a key dividing line between what went before and what came after.
The ability to even think along the lines being purported for these exilic compilers or editors or writers (whatever they ultimately were) is what, historically-speaking, permanently replaced the “religion” of ancient Israel with a new one. This new “religion,” because of its conceptual locus in the southern kingdom, focusing on Jerusalem, has been proposed to be called “Judahism,” and its followers “Judahists” or “Judahites.”
[ HEURISTIC FICTION ] Note that this would not be a religion in the sense we now understand the term, hence the quotes. Also note that this is most emphatically not Judaism, which came much later. It also, however, was most emphatically not just Yahwish, which had come before. So the heuristic fiction is positing that this was a turning point in the history of an existing faith that, due to circumstances, had to adapt itself and thus must be considered something different focally and conceptually from what had come before. Whether people then considered it this starkly is unknown but historically this helps us reason about the changing nature of the faith based on known circumstances that were external to that faith.
[ HEURISTIC FICTION ] Historically speaking, this new system of belief and practice must be distinguished from what came before it (of which, note, we have no direct knowledge, only light filtered through the writings of the Judahists). Equally, it has to be distinguished from its successor, the extended invention of the second through fifth centuries of the Common Era, “Judaism” whose followers we know as the “Jews.” The difference here is not linguistic: all variants of “Jews,” “Jewish,” “Judaism,” and “Judahism” trace their origins to the Hebrew word “Yehudah,” referring to the tribe of Judah. The faith-tradition of Judah, based on Temple sacrifice to Yahweh, up to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, is distinct historically from its descendent, the post-Temple faith-tradition, usually known as “Rabbinic (Talmudic) Judaism.”
Historically, what we end up dealing with are written texts, composed of previously written texts but also oral traditions and handed down stories. The earliest solid version of these written texts – which combined make up the central text of the Hebrew scriptures – comes from about 550 BCE. There’s no way of validating the suppositions being made concerning the pre-biblical (meaning prewritten) history of the biblical text. We only see that early history as it’s filtered down through the texts that we ended up with. However enjoyably seductive the speculations and inferences of biblical scholars are about the pre-exilic world, the only direct reality that we have to deal with is the text which was invented – in the form that we have it – after that world had disappeared.
Any questions of the etiology and relationship of the various proposed or purported document-components of the Hebrew scriptures is completely irrelevant either to their historical accuracy or, even more importantly, to whether or not they were believed by their audience and thus became historical realities in themselves. The manner in which those possible sources are combined does not in any way affect either the historical accuracy or the usability of the final product. Per our heuristic fiction, that final product was a tool for the reconquest of Jerusalem by a narrow, highly motivated, exiled religious elite.
One bit of what we might call cultural imperialism was in having Mount Zion occlude Mount Sinai and in having the covenant with David overlay the covenant with Moses. This was as an attempt to have the “former north” (Israel) be occluded by the “former south” (Judah). Looking at it now, from the standpoint of the exiles, on one side was (past tense) the north, the Mosaic covenant, Mount Sinai and, ultimately, the kingdom of Israel; on the other is (present tense) the south, the Davidic covenant, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, and the kingdom of David. Thus, Judahism, as formulated in the mid sixth century, had Jerusalem as its centerpoint and the kingdom of Judah as its spiritual genealogy, which were Yahwist convictions.
Yet even with this said, keep in mind that this exiled elite did not know the future. They had to at least assume that the future might be very different than what they hoped for. So, while admitting to the above, these exiles ultimately made the ending of the Davidic dynasty irrelevant. They defined a new, and continuing covenant with the Chosen People. This was done by essentially recreating the Temple, which had been destroyed in the events leading up to the exile. Though they are presented as being historical (and perhaps they are), the long descriptions of the Temple in the Book of Kings could actually be said to be future-oriented. They are both architectural in nature and architectonic (designating the study or character of structures). lf the Temple can be rebuilt, then what the exiles wrote down would be the verbal blueprints. But if the Temple can’t be rebuilt, that’s okay. The Temple will, instead, be a “mind-temple,” its exact character agreed upon by its devotees, because its contours have been so precisely defined in words by the writers. In either case, physical or conceptual, the Temple will be controlled by the professional priesthood.
Thus, as per the heuristic fiction, the Genesis-through-Kings unity was, in some form, produced. This was a historical narrative whose ideological cement is the belief in centralism. Judah is the politically centralized kingdom that overcomes the fragmentation of Israel; and Judah’s god, Yahweh, is a centralized god: there is only one god for Judah.
[ REALITY CHECK ] All of the above regarding the people’s actions in the exile and the written unity must be taken as a heuristic fiction. It could be real. It could be exactly the way it all happened. But we don’t know that for a fact. What we do know is after that time frame, we have these texts. After all, we are after that time frame and we do have the texts. But were those texts, in that form, created during that time frame? It’s possible, for sure. But, again, we don’t know. What we have here is a historical model – and thus a set of assumptions wrapped up in the heuristic fiction – that provide at least a plausible cause (the exile) for a possible effect (the creation of a written national historical narrative).
The Babylonian exile took place in 587/6 BCE. Approximately fifty years later, in 538 BCE, the exiles were allowed to return, having been freed from their Bablyonian captivity by the Persians.
Before getting into details of what the return would have looked like, let’s consider what the returnees might have been bringing back with them. This is necessary if we’re posting that this was one of the returnees chief means of establishing control. Certainly the Genesis-through-Kings unity in some form was brought back. Also, and closely related to the priestly concerns of the Babylonian exiles, was a version of what is today called the Psalms. Some of these purported to be quite old (and in their archaic language and early ideology, some clearly were). Others were more recent. The necessity of a hymn book is obvious; many of these songs, even the clearly recent ones, were ascribed to King David.
Likely the “Major Prophets” were part of this. The first portion of Isaiah (chapters 1-39); the book of the prophet Jeremiah probably was included. The Jeremiah scroll was especially useful to the Babylonian exiles because the prophet denounced the Judaeans who dwelled in Egypt (see Jer. 44:13-14). The third major volume of prophecy, the oft-ascribed post-exilic Book of Ezekiel, almost certainly was brought back, though whether in its present form is debatable.
Also likely is that a handful of “Minor Prophets” were included. Certainly Amos, Hosea, and Micah were part of the set, as their reference point was more than one hundred years before the Babylonian captivity. Others, however, are hard to guess, for some of the minor prophets – especially Jonah and Joel and Obadiah – have no external references to permit anything but the most speculative suggestions concerning dating. It’s possible the Book of Lamentations, a set of five poems about the fall of Jerusalem, also was included. A challenge here is this book is an extremely self-conscious artistic creation. It’s composed of couplets and triplet lines whose first letters comprise a set of acrostics of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s quite an impressive piece of art and that’s the problem. It’s so accomplished a piece of work, that it’s almost artificial in tone. It’s almost as if a later court poet had been assigned to write a great poem in the voice of a Babylonian exile from Jerusalem.
Possibly returning were items that are referred to very casually in the Genesis-through-Kings history, items such as the Book of Jasher, and the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah and the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. For example, we see statements about kings or situations that were “written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel” (for example 2 Kings 1:18 ; 15:26; 15:31; 15:36) or written in the “book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah” (for example 2 Kings 15:36; 16:19; 20:20; 21:17; 21:25). There are references to a volume known as the “book of the acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41). In Chronicles, there is reference to three more lost books: the Book of Samuel the Seer, the Book of Nathan the prophet, and the Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chron. 29:29). Plus we have mention of the Book of Shemaiah the Prophet (2 Chron. 12:15), the History of the Prophet lddo (2 Chron. 12:15 and 13:22), and the Book of Jehu the son of Hanani (2 Chron. 20:34).
Quite possibly, and quite likely, there was also in proto·form, cultural tales and historical memoirs that later were worked into biblical form. This would include items such as the Book of Ruth, and some of the sayings that later became the full Book of Proverbs and are used, in his own way, by the writer of the Book of Qoholeth (Ecclesiastes).
Crucial to this is that any items included would have to be those that were considered compatible with the program to make the worship of Yahweh the only religion in Jerusalem and the priestly heirs of the Kingdom of Judah the heads of that religion. Any work that didn’t support that viewpoint would certainly not have been considered amenable to those who were trying to jump-start the old faith-tradition which, as we’ve seen, meant in essence creating a new faith-tradition.
Let’s consider again the extent of the exile based on the sources we have. In the Book of Kings, presumed to have been written within easy living memory of the beginning of the Babylonian captivity, we seem to be given some very realistic estimates of how many people were taken into exile. Almost all were males, except in the case of princely families. The estimate seems to be that a total of 10,000 people were taken to Babylon. Of these, 7,000 were soldiers and 1,000 were craftsmen and blacksmiths. Those numbers are very likely schematized – “rounded off” as it were – but they don’t, on the face of it, seem unrealistic or entirely exaggerated. From what we can tell, the report doesn’t seem to have an ideological bent but is rather just a straightforward historical accounting. Using those estimates, we can clearly infer that the total of princely families and retainers and of scribes (both civil and religious) and priests was only about 2,000 people. Assuming even a moderate number of princely exiles, the number of scribes and priests deported probably couldn’t have been any more than 1,750 people. (See 2 Kings 24:14-16.) Worth noting that there is in Jeremiah (52:28-30) an alternative set of estimates which total the exile at an even lower figure, namely 4,600 in total. If you employ that figure, it merely reinforces the basic observations about the nature of the exile in terms of its scope.
Assuming those numbers, let’s consider what a putative return would have been like. Given that only men were deported (except for female members of the royal family), there had been in Babylon no women of the proper religious background for the Judahite devotees to marry. This would mean they either had to intermarry with Babylonians, and thus effectively drop out of the Judahite cause, or import women from the old homeland or from Egypt, assuming that was some sort of option. Whatever the prevailing collective choice, the number of trained and enthusiastic and physically resilient Judahite religious leaders had to have been reduced to some extent between 587 and 538. It could be suggested that there were, at most, 1,000 exiles and their sons and grandsons that could make it back to Jerusalem from the all important religious elite side of things. Remember: this would be the putative group that wanted to regain control of the land and reinstitute the religion.
Now let’s consider these exile numbers from another angle. Both the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah and of Chronicles rewrite the estimate of Kings and Jeremiah. They replace the earlier estimates with ones that are presumed by many scholars to be less realistic historically. Certainly we can say that these revised numbers create quite a different story altogether. According to Ezra (2:1-65), some 4,363 priests and Levites, accompanied by 128 religious singers and 139 temple porters, returned from Babylon. That’s quite a bit and the number of returnees in total was said to be 42,360 persons plus 7,333 servants, the latter presumably of foreign origin. Crucially, in Chronicles (the companion volume to Ezra-Nehemiah), the report of the Book of Kings is essentially just dismissed entirely. Whereas Kings made it clear that the lower-caste majority of the population of the former Kingdom of Judah remained in the homeland and was not exiled (see also Jer. 39:10), the author of Chronicles (2 Chron. 36:20-21) introduces the new – and, according to many scholars, certainly historically inaccurate – myth that everyone in Jerusalem was either killed or carried away to Babylon and that the whole land experienced a sabbath of desolation for seventy years.
Let’s go with the Book of Kings and Jeremiah estimates for a moment. What that estimate suggests to us is that the number of the returning Babylonian exiles was too small in comparison to the Judaean majority who had been left behind, and the Judahist leaders were likely too lacking in authority to permit the carrying out of the program that was suggested by Genesis-through-Kings. On the other hand, if we go with the Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles estimates, we’re likely forced to the exact opposite conclusion. How do we decide? Well, one way is to look at how successful the returning elite was in instituting the program they had set out to implement.
One thing that seems very relevant here is that it was actually King Cyrus of Persia who in 538 BCE ordered that the house of Yahweh “in Jerusalem which is in Judah” be rebuilt (2 Chron. 36:23; also Ezra 1:2-4, and Ezra 6:3-5). Relevant because this is not reported as being instituted by the returning exiles, at least with any sort of clear emphasis. Cyrus apparently put a senior official in charge of the rebuilding and the implication was that some, perhaps most, of the expenses were to be borne by the Persian treasury. This Persian official, a Babylonian former-Yahwist, Sheshbazzar, saw to it that the foundations of the Temple were laid. And yet, at least so it seems, at this point all the building stopped (Ezra 5:16). Only after Darius became king of the Persians in 521 BCE, did the Persian authorities turn their attention once again to the Temple.
We learn about some context from a prophet known as Haggai, who in the year 520 directed an unusually eloquent lecture to the governor of Judah (one Zerubbabel) and to the high priest, a man named Joshua. Though a drought was upon the land, and though the people of Judah said that “the time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (Hagg. 1:2), he chided the leaders into action, and both leaders and people began again to work on the Temple. The salient point, however, is that they had apparently stopped. Writing (or speaking) only a few months later, Haggai’s contemporary, the prophet Zechariah, noted that Zerubbabel had already begun work on the Temple and prophesied that “his hands shall also finish it” (Zech. 4:9).
Even allowing for some wiggle room in the details, it seems the Persians were quite a bit more interested in the rebuilding effort than the returning Yahwists and, further, it took some prophets to goad things along.
One thing is interesting to consider here both now and most definitely then. Because there was no longer a king of Judah, a new figure had to be interposed, a spiritual equivalent of the Davidic monarch. The office of “high priest,” something totally new to the followers of Yahweh, was created. Previously, the king (David’s line especially) had been a sacralized figure, for Yahweh was said to have made a covenant directly with King David. Now, with the monarchy gone and with civic authority held by Persian conquerors, the head of the nation of Judah and the head of the Judahist religion became one and the same person, the high priest. To be sure, the title “high priest” had occasionally been used earlier (for example, 2 Kings 22:4) but this was always at a time in the history of Judah – or Israel or of the United Monarchy – when a sacralized kingship still existed and therefore was, in the usual instance, superordinate to the “high priesthood.” The Book of Zechariah contains a hymn of praise to the first of these high priests, Joshua – “Behold the man whose name is the Branch; and he shall grow out of his place and he shall build the temple of the Lord” (Zech. 6:12). Joshua’s enthronement was seemingly in the year 520 BCE.
In a general way, arrangements in Jerusalem had by, say, the year 515 BCE, taken a form that the exiles with their Genesis-through-Kings template would have approved of, at least to some extent. Specifically, the Temple bad been rebuilt sufficiently to permit public worship, the religion of Yahweh prevailed; and the kingdom of Judah (though now only a spiritual kingdom) was recognized as the sole heir of the ancient Israelites; power over the Judahist religion was in the hands of priestly professionals, whose powers were greater than those of any previous priests, since there no longer was an intermeddling monarchy in existence.
Yet there were problems. We find very strong suggestions of this in the short prophetic message of the Book of Malachi. Apparently the priests were lazy and unenthusiastic (Mal. 1:6-14). Their moral laxness set an example that the people were all too ready to follow (Mal. 2:8-9). Intermarriage with non-Yahwists was common among the children of Judah (Mal. 2:11). What this sounds like is that the people of Jerusalem and its environs were either not ready or not encouraged to accept the religion of Yahweh as the only possible faith for themselves. The priestly caste – many of whom we could presume must have come from the local survivors, rather than from the Babylonian elite – was apparently sloppy, indifferent, and self-indulgent. Certainly this could suggest a tension with the relatively few priests who returned versus those who had remained behind, giving further credence to the Kings/Jeremiah characterization of the exile.
This is where Ezra and Nehemiah apparently enter the picture. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were keen Judahists who were descendants of the Babylonian exiles. Each of them had some insight into and influence with the Persian imperial administration. First, Ezra, and then Nehemiah, was sent to Jerusalem, there to sort out a religious situation that was, if not sliding into chaos, at least descending into an untenable situation. Each was given official approval for his actions and a significant degree of financial resources from the imperial government. The book of Ezra-Nehemiah (written within a century of their activities being completed) is quite clear on their achievements.
It’s worth noting that the matter of Ezra-Nehemiah and the Book of Chronicles is a complicated one for two basic reasons. First, it’s not clear if they should be considered a unity. Ezra and Nehemiah were one book in the oldest traditions. They were split into two by early Christian canonists but not divided in the Hebrew canon until the 1400s. Further, it was commonplace for biblical scholars, until roughly the 1980s, to present Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah as being by the same hand, a conjectural “Chronicler.” On the surface this can seem strange because the style of Chronicles is very different from Ezra-Nehemiah. That said, ideologically the works undeniably served the same primary purpose. Given that very common ideology, historically it’s probably less important whether or not one author or two produced these books. When Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah were written is uncertain because the internal clues are ambiguous. Scholars tend to say that the composition was certainly within one hundred years of, roughly, 430 BCE. This is usually based on the idea that nothing in any of the texts suggests a knowledge of the actual end of Persian rule and its replacement by Greek, which presumably would have been of some import and thus worth mentioning.
Speaking to the achievements mentioned earlier, Nehemiah rebuilt the ruined walls of Jerusalem and this was apparently done in the face of considerable ridicule by some of the local inhabitants (Neh. chs 3-6). This action was symbolically pivotal, however, for the completion of the wall around the holy city was a counterpart to the earlier rebuilding of the Temple. Built on a hill, the Temple was now ringed about by secure walls. Secondly, the priesthood was purged. Some, perhaps most, of the priests in Jerusalem “had not separated themselves from the people of the lands” (Ezra 9:1), which is to say that they had not accepted the central demand of the Judahist faith, namely that Yahweh be their only god. Instead, they mixed Yahweh-worship with that of other gods indigenous to the peoples of Palestine. Third, the Chosen People themselves (not merely their priests) were not given to following Yahweh as their sole deity. This is reported both directly (e.g. Ezra 9:1) and indirectly, as implied by the concern of Ezra and Nehemiah that so many of the people had married “strange wives,” a term for mixed marriages with non-Judahists. Even the sons of priests had taken these strange wives (Ezra 10:18).
So one of Ezra’s greatest achievements was to have the men who believed in Yahweh as the sole deity dismiss their wives and the children of those wives (Ezra 10:10-44). From now on, the message was clear: ethnoreligious purity was to be maintained. (And, once again, it’s worth noting that none of this would have fallen under the term that we call “religious.”) To conclude his work, Nehemiah had the leaders of the priests and Levites sign a “covenant” which signified their adherence to the stringent Judahist rules (Neh. 10:1-29). The Temple was ritually cleansed (Neh. 13:4-5) and the hierarchy of the Judahist priesthood re-sacralized (Neh. 12:44-47).
So going back to those numbers of returning exiles from Kings/Jeremiah and Ezra-Nehemiah/Chronicles, one thing we’ve learned is not all of those of Judahite conviction did return in the first place. Both Ezra and Nehemiah are testimonies to that: they, though highly trained and clearly allegiant to Yahweh, didn’t return until the last moment. And even then, that was only when the Judahist attempt at securing Jerusalem had nearly failed. And what that tells us is that there certainly was not some overwhelming victory of the returnees and, by extension, that would suggest the lesser numbers from Kings and Jeremiah are more accurate. But then why did Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles – who surely knew of the Kings/Jeremiah material – contradict it so directly?
The material in the Book of Kings, balefully accurate though it probably was, was faulty from an ideological point of view. Why? Because it explained all too well the failure, for a period of nearly three generations, of the Judahite religion to win over the people of Jerusalem and of the surrounding countryside. That failure was due to multiple proximate causes: the number of returnees was too small, their character was insufficiently authoritative, and the local majority, who had been left behind, had developed religious institutions which successfully resisted the Yahwist focus of the Judahite returnees. Thus the numbers provided in the Book of Kings concerning the number deported to Babylon and the majority that had been left behind, had to be erased, because they provided too accurately an historical explanation of why the Judahite retaking of Jerusalem for the religion of Yahweh had failed for so long. Thus the Books of Ezra-Nehemiah and of Chronicles replace the testament of the Book of Kings with numbers that explain (eventual) success, not failure. A vigorous and numerically deep band of Judahists is presented as returning to redeem an empty land. And yet that “eventual” part is crucial; it took quite a long time – the best part of a century after the Babylonian exile was over – for that victory to be achieved.
That said, victory was, in fact, achieved. The Judahist religion, with Yahweh, Jerusalem, and the priesthood as its center, was victorious. That much we know. We also know that there was some amount of slowness in rebuilding the Temple after 538 BCE. We have the lament of Malachi; we have the reports of priestly slackness and religious syncretism in Ezra-Nehemiah, and the prevalence of intermarriage with peoples who did not believe that Yahweh was the only god to be worshiped.
Let’s dig in a little more to the difference between, in particular, Kings and Chronicles. On the surface, Chronicles is the least necessary book in the Hebrew scriptures. For the most part, it’s merely a precis of the Genesis-through-Kings unity, a fact that its author tangentially acknowledges (2 Chron. 24:27). Fully ninety-five percent of the text is an abstract of material that can be found in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and, therefore, Chronicles appears to be intended to supplant these volumes. There are only two significant divergences (inventions) in Chronicles, one of which is the myth of the empty land discussed already.
The second is that in three words, the author of Chronicles rewrites the “finding” of the book of the law in the First Temple during the rebuilding of the Temple by King Josiah. Whereas in the earlier version (2 Kings 22:8), the scroll that is “discovered” is described as the book of the law, or the teachings (a book of torah), the version in Chronicles (2 Chron. 34:14) changes the entire meaning by saying that “Hilkiah the priest found a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses.” Here the added emphasis is crucial to make the change obvious. A more direct translation of the Hebrew would be “the law of Yahweh given through the hand of Moses.” Moses thereby is introduced as the hand who wrote at least part of the first five books of the scriptures.
Keep in mind that this was likely being written some time after the victory of the Judahite cause under Ezra and Nehemiah. When projecting into the material from the Genesis-through-Kings unity the idea that Moses actually wrote part of the early books by his own hand, the Chronicler is implying the superiority of those items that Moses allegedly wrote, over all other written texts. The alleged “Chronicler” is thus using some contact authority here, making it possible to take the spiritual superiority of those items supposedly written by Moses’ hand and to spread it to any item that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be associated with Moses.
What this did is allow for certain scrolls to be emphasized and others to be de-emphasized. And those de-emphasized scrolls could therefore – carefully – be contradicted and suborned.
With some of this asserted, one could argue that the reason that the Book of Chronicles was necessary is that it served as an alternative history to the historical narrative of Genesis-through-Kings, at least on two very important points. First, as talked about previously, it made the return from Babylon a triumph. The other is that it gave a legitimation for breaking certain books out of the Genesis-through-Kings unity, and privileging them by identifying their authorship, at least in part, with Moses. When the Chronicler (2 Chron. 34:30) later described what had been found in the Temple in King Josiah’s time, as the book, or scroll of the covenant, he was making the expansion of the alleged scribal work of Moses easier, from comprising solely law texts to implying the entire story of the covenant. Arguably, this transposition was made easier because 2 Chron. 6:11 has King Solomon referring to an undefined “covenant of the Lord” in the ark.
It can’t be overstated that, if the above historical construction is true, then this was effecting one of the biggest shifts in the history of the Judahist faith, which would be the privileging of the Torah. Ezra-Nehemiah gives us a possible date of when this happened, which would be around 458 to 450 BCE. Ezra was a scribe, expert in the law (or teaching) of Moses (Ezra 7:6). As part of the Judahist purification of Jerusalem, he gathered the people together and, day after day, from morning to midday, he read to them from the scrolls of the teachings (or laws) of Moses (Neh. 8:1-8). This is taken in Orthodox Jewish circles to mean that he read to the people of Jerusalem the Pentateuch. This seems a reasonable interpretation, provided you take note of two caveats. One of these is that the text in the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah does not explicitly state that the scrolls read by Ezra were the entire five volumes that have come to be known as the Books of Moses. Second, even if we assume that it was the entirety of the first five books of the Bible which were read out by Ezra, this does not mean that they were identical with those that we at present possess. With those caveats stated, arguably the most reasonable inference is that Ezra established the permanent dominance in Jerusalem of the Judahist religion, through his reading of a five-book text that he claimed to be by Moses.
Notice what happened here was two-fold. It was apparently thought necessary to break out from the existent unity of Genesis-through-Kings – a complete and coherent story running from creation to the Babylonian exile – the first five books and, further, to ascribe those five books to Moses in particular. We even see a bit of how the expansion of meaning occurred in Ezra’s reading of the text publicly. What is later described in Nehemiah (8:1) as being the book of the law and teachings of Moses (the torah of Moses), easily moves through the slightest of change in emphasis, to be the Torah of Moses.
But still, it’s worth asking: why do this? As stated earlier, the historical data at the close of the Book of Kings made it all too easy to see the subsequent return from the Babylonian exile as fairly inglorious. Triumph had to replace what was clearly a sad reality. So we could posit that an alternative general narrative history of Genesis-through-Kings was created (the Book of Chronicles), and the statements about the small number who went into exile and the majority that stayed behind were flatly contradicted yet without overt challenge. This having been done (in Ezra-Nehemiah and in Chronicles), there still remained a somewhat significant problem. That problem was that anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures would also be familiar with the contradictions between the earlier Genesis-through-Kings unity and the later statements in Chronicles and in Ezra-Nehemiah.
So, again if these historical reconstructions have any accuracy whatsoever, the idea seems to have been to so strongly praise the early portions of the Genesis-through-Kings work, that Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and especially, Kings, could effectively be demoted. Thus, the invention of the concept of the “Books of Moses” as being of special authority because some portions of them (and later, it came to be believed, all of them) were taken down by Moses as a scribe for Yahweh. Arguably, this is the strategy we see being played out in the work of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The only slight problem is that at no place in the five “Books of Moses” is it directly stated or even suggested that Moses wrote them. The most that is directly claimed is that Moses wrote part of some of the five books, and even then the claims are not terribly strong. The places where Moses’ authorship are directly specified are quite limited. One of these (Numbers 33:2) states that Moses wrote out the journeys of the people which Yahweh had directed. The only place in Deuteronomy where direct claims are articulated of Moses’ having acted as a scribe is in 31:24-25 where Moses is reported as writing the words of “this law” (or “this teaching” or “this torah”) on a scroll, and the scroll is placed in the ark of the covenant. The definite “this” is unambiguous. It refers to the material Moses has just been giving to the Chosen People in his long speeches. Some of it is already written down (as reported in Deut. 30:10), which implies that Moses is reading from a scroll already in existence and now he writes down the rest of what he has been telling the people. Therefore, in total, all that’s really being suggested about Moses as author is that he recorded something about the children of Israel in the wilderness and that he wrote out parts of the teachings that are found in Deuteronomy. It’s not a terribly strong case – and most definitely not an air-tight case – for ascribing the first five books of the scriptures to Moses and you have to wonder if contemporaries would have just accepted this claim.
It’s worth keeping in mind that this would have been something people would be aware of in terms of a discrepancy. The people, both in Jerusalem and in the diaspora, already had these scrolls. This is implied in Nehemiah, for the Levites commented on the text and explained it to the people; clearly the religious elite already was well acquainted with the material (Neh. 8:7-9). Almost certainly this text, as part of the Genesis-Kings unity, had been brought to Jerusalem in 538 BCE at the close of the Babylonian exile. So there was a pre-existing text that the local religious leaders had and shared. We do have to temper this conclusion, however, with the idea that the vast amount of people would likely not have been literate.
Keep in mind that the period of time we’re talking about from the return from the Babylonian exile to the establishment of the Judahist ethnos was the period between, roughly, 520 and 458 BCE. There’s another data point we can keep in mind here about the above program of Ezra and Nehemiah and that data point is the year 200 BCE. There was a rival, northern version of the newly privileged Torah called the “Samaritan Pentateuch.” In later history we also ended up with a library of scrolls at Qumran. Both of those sources make it clear that by, roughly, 200 BCE the Torah, as the five Books of Moses, was considered something quite separate from the remainder of the Genesis-through-Kings unity.
The residual material was now called the “Former Prophets.” However, both precisely when and how this separation was completed, is unknown. Some scholars suggest a “good guess-date” for the general acceptance (probably general, but likely not universal) within the world of Judahist belief in the separation and the privileging of the Torah was 400 BCE. That’s certainly within the period when the books of Chronicles and of Ezra-Nehemiah were written.
The part about the Samaritan Pentateuch warrants some discussion, more for historical context. One thing we don’t know is how Zerubbabel’s Temple was actually constructed. What we do know is that the Samaritans built their own Temple at Mount Gerizim. This was a duplicate (and rival) version of the Judahist Temple.
The Samaritans are a group that’s been habitually bad-mouthed, first by the Judahists, then by the Jews, from the eighth century BCE right down to the present day. The Samaritans claim to represent the tribes of Ephraim and part of Manasseh, and to have survived the razing of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE by the Assyrians. Since most of the Israelites of those times were not deported, there’s every reason to believe that some survived. The Samaritans preferred to take for themselves the name Israelites, although their rivals in ever-prospering Judah appropriated the name and the history of “Israel” for their own kingdom, as has been discussed above.
The interesting things about these people, who claim to be the true heirs of the northern kingdom of Israel, are, first, that they have their own version of the Pentateuch – the so-called Samaritan Pentateuch – which, as it turns out, is not much different from the Judahist version. Second, and more intriguing, they possess their own holy mountain, Mount Gerizim, overlooking Nablus. Third, and most interesting of all, in Maccabean times (see 2 Macc. 6:2, probably written in the second century BCE), it was recorded that there was, in fact, a temple on Mount Gerizim. This temple, which was destroyed by the Hasmonean ruler of Judea, John Hyrcanus in 113 BCE, or thereabouts, has been discovered and worked on by archaeologists. Crucially, the Gerizim temple was said to be a large-scale model (or, perhaps a full-size duplicate) of the Jerusalem temple. This replica was uncovered beneath the ruins of the fifth century CE church of St. Mary Theozakos. If, in fact, it was a duplicate of the Second Temple that was recreated in the late sixth century in Jerusalem, then we can now see what the Second Temple was like, before it was remodeled out of all recognition by King Herod. Moreover, if it is true that Zerubbabel’s Temple was built as accurately on the model of Solomon’s Temple as could be done (given available funds, given human memory and, especially, the verbal blueprints left by the Genesis-through-Kings account), then this is as close as we can come to visually experiencing the outlines of the First Temple.
Although the Mount Gerizim temple isn’t mentioned in the scriptures, worship on Mount Gerizim is referenced in John 4:19-24, where Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman. During their conversation, she asks whether people should worship at Gerizim or Jerusalem: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’” From this passage in the scriptures and other historical texts, we see that the Samaritans viewed Mount Gerizim as their primary place of worship.
Archaeological evidence shows that a temple was built on Mount Gerizim around the year 450 BCE. The temple complex was expanded during the Hellenistic period around 200 BCE. It would seem that the temple functioned until the Maccabees destroyed it in and around 113 to 110 BCE, although others put the date of destruction at 128 BCE.
The really important thing here is that this Temple opens a parallel case to the creation of Judahism. What we have is a group that is loyal to Yahweh, responds to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (and, perhaps their being banned from using the Second Temple) by two distinct actions: (a) by defining its own Yahwist-dominated scriptures (but with the Judahist triumphalism left out) and (b) by building a temple, based on the ancient Temple of Solomon, where they can regularly affirm their covenant with Yahweh by the spilling of blood in the form of sacrifice.
One should also note that there had been a Temple, complete with sacrificial ritual at Elephantine, in Egypt, where there was a large Yahwist population. This Temple was built pre-525 BCE (which is to say that it predated the Second Temple) and was destroyed in approximately 410 BCE.
Going back to the immediate history, of which the Samaritans were a parallel case, we see that what was recorded in the Books of Chronicles and of Ezra-Nehemiah was meant as a way to reframe a bit of the most recent history. It was clearly imperative (1) to make the return from exile lead automatically to the empowerment of Ezra and Nehemiah as temporary heads of the Judahist religion and (2) that their decision to privilege “the Torah” was at least indirectly alluded to, and the implication that the first five books of scripture were written by Moses, was kept alive.
We end up with a situation where Genesis-through-Kings is broken up a bit: the first five books are privileged while the remaining four are demoted albeit not removed. To offset that, three new texts – Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah – are added to the primary historical narrative.
[ REALITY CHECK ] Ultimately, if the above historical reconstructions are true, we learn that the formatively decisive events in the creation of the Judahist religion occurred between the second Babylonian deportation of 587 BCE and, roughly 450 BCE (if one takes Ezra’s reforms as a terminal date) or 430 BCE (if one takes the end of Nehemiah’s governorship as a terminus). The only thing not put in place before 430 was the promulgation of a set of texts that memorialized the achievement of Ezra and Nehemiah, rewrote the story of the Babylonian captivity, and legitimized the privileging of the Torah. These were completed before the end of Persian rule. If 400 BCE is a reasonable guess-date, the absolute terminus for this period of achievement in the Judahist religion is 330 BCE. So, in that sense, everything important – all the decisive events – happened between 587 and 330 BCE. Those decisive events were the creation of many texts that a tightly unified priestly elite, thoroughly Yahwist in allegiance, used to acquire and maintain control of the primary sacred site of the Chosen People, Jerusalem and its Temple.
Jerusalem – and thus the Judahist, or Judahite, religion – was under Persian rule until the rise of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great). In 330 BCE he ended the Persian imperial rule over Jerusalem and for the remainder of his life (until 323) Jerusalem was under his administration. Thereafter, the heirs of Alexander ruled Jerusalem until the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BCE which resulted in the revival of a Judaean administration that was largely independent of outside rule. How the Judahist religion developed in the late-Persian and Greek periods is largely a mystery. This is interesting because the third major section of the Hebrew scriptures, the Kethuvim – the Writings – was overwhelmingly the product of the late-Persian and Greek eras.
It’s important to keep in mind that the texts of the Torah and the Prophets, which form two of the three categories of the present Hebrew scriptures, were extant, as we’ve seen above. Further, those texts were circulating in a fairly familiar form by the end of the Persian period. Equally important to note, however, is that there was not yet a canon of Hebrew scriptures. Instead there was just a convenient collection of scrolls. Because of this lack of canon, and thus a lack of what you might consider doctrinal quality control, and given that one more scroll would have been easy to add to a passed-around collection, many new books came on the scene during the Persian and Greek periods.
Crucially for the Judahite religion in the remaining Persian and Greek periods, there’s a lot we don’t know. For example, the priestly arrangements for control of the religious sphere that Ezra and Nehemiah had introduced seems to have held firm. But how far the penumbra of Yahwist worship extended outside of Jerusalem is at present unknown. Nor is it clear how tightly the Judahist priestly authorities enforced unity of discipline and belief within their own precincts. Certainly they insisted on the Yahweh-only creed and on strict forms of ritual sacrifice, but what they demanded besides that is, so far as we know, entirely unrecorded.
The available records considerably improved after the Maccabean Revolt and what those records show is that away from Jerusalem there existed numerous variant versions of Judahism, at least in the Greek period. (It’s unclear that we should call this “Judahism” but it will do for our purposes.) This suggests that although the Yahwist priesthood was completely in command of the Second Temple, there was no single normative form of the faith.
Let’s consider the Writings. With these we see that the old forms of narrative history and classical prophecy were less used. Those forms of narrative history and of classical prophecy had served a single purpose: to shore up the Judahist version of what the religion of the Chosen People should be: Yahweh-only in belief, Temple-centered in liturgy, Judah-dominated in ethnicity. With that world established, it seems that the prophetic voice became redundant and the narrative voice became unnecessary.
The Writings were a very fluid category and didn’t settle down and become a fixed canon until well into the Common Era. However, the inventory of the Qumran library indicates that most of the Writings were in circulation by the conclusion of the Hellenic period.
What’s perhaps most interesting about these is that if we look at them individually and as a whole, there was a tide of moving cross-current to much of the former works. In some cases we see an outright corrosive set of beliefs, antithetical to the fundamental precepts of Judahism. Yet these did become the Writings of the faith-tradition.
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The name of God in English is usually represented by four letters: YHWH (or occasionally YHVH). In the original language it’s composed of four Hebrew letters: “יהוה”.
Let’s break that down.
With all this, if you said the letters of God’s name in Hebrew, it would be “Yud-hey-Waw-hey” (or “Yud-hey-Vav-hey” if you are using the modern pronunciation).
We’ll use the transliteration Yhwh to designate the god of Israel. It’s often hard to read shortened forms of names or phrases without at least having a way to pronounce things in your head as you read. So, as you’re reading this, let's initially pronounce this in our heads as “you-wha.”
In the first chapter of Genesis, “god” has no proper name. The Hebrew word that is translated as “god” – ʾĕlōhîm – has a plural ending and could also be translated as “(the) gods.” The same word can express both the singular and the plural, and only the form of the verb indicates which is intended.
When scribes began to write down the texts that, much later, were to be put together to form the Hebrew scriptures, they wrote only consonants. That’s still the case today in languages with purely consonantal alphabets, such as modern Hebrew or Arabic. In versions of the text consisting only of consonants, the proper name of the god who appears in the second chapter of Genesis and then very frequently in subsequent passages is written “Y-H-W-H.” These four letters are the origin of the term “tetragrammaton,” which is used to refer to the name of the god of Israel. Only much later, between the third and tenth centuries of the common era, did learned Jews called the “Masoretes” (an Aramaic word meaning “guardians”) elaborate systems of vocalization to ensure the correct pronunciation of the sacred texts. One of these systems – that developed by the family Ben Asher – finally succeeded in establishing itself as the standard.
This is how scribes came into possession of a system with sufficient sophistication to allow them to add appropriate vowels to the words in a given text where only the consonants had initially been written down.
It’s perhaps worth noting that before the signs designating vowels were invented, it was possible, in certain contexts, to use some of the consonants to indicate the pronunciation. These were called matres lectionis (from Latin “mothers of reading”, singular form: mater lectionis, from Hebrew: אֵם קְרִיאָה 'em kri'a).
To illustrate this procedure, imagine an English word written like this: gllws. We could probably, without too much effort, recognize that this word was “gallows.” So we could represent what the Masoretes did by adding vowels like this:
A written expression like fclt, however, might be a bit more complicated. This word could be vocalized in at least two different ways:
In cases like this, therefore, the Masoretes had to make a decision about the meaning they wanted to attribute to the word or phrase. For the proper name of the god of Israel they encountered a problem: starting in the third century of the common era, Judaism had begun to prescribe that this name was no longer to be pronounced. This prohibition is already attested in the translation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) into Greek, where, in place of the tetragrammaton Yhwh, you’ll find either the word theós (“god”) or in most cases kúrios (“lord”).
It seems clear that this prohibition of pronouncing God’s name was imposed gradually but progressively. Thus the Masoretes found themselves confronted with a huge problem when it came to writing the divine name. They couldn’t change the consonants Yhwh because the consonantal text was considered sacred and invariable. At the same time they couldn’t introduce the vowels that would have permitted a pronunciation of the divine name because that would have been contrary to the developing theology of Judaism.
Faced with a “between a rock and a hard place” situation and in order to have the possibility of correcting the consonantal text, the Masoretes invented a distinction between Kĕtîv (“what is written”) and Qĕrê (“what is to be read”). Having done that, they then applied to the tetragrammaton the vowels of ʾădōnāy, “my Lord” (which is in fact probably a plural form), in order to indicate that a reader was to pronounce the word ʾădōnāy when the text contained the name of God, Yhwh.
This resulted in the forms found in biblical manuscripts:
The particular form just depended on which manuscript you consulted. The ĕ is used because the first vowel a in the word ʾădōnāy is preceded by a shewa, a sign that indicates that it is to be pronounced like the “smooth aspiration” in Greek: a brief glottal stop (“uh”) before the a. In certain manuscripts only the first and last vowel are indicated (ĕ — a), but in some the o is also added. In any event, this substitution corresponds to the replacement of Yhwh with kúrios (“Lord”) in the Greek Septuagint.
So our Yhwh, rather than being pronounced “you-wha” in our head, should now be replaced with a pronunciation of “you-uh.” A very slight shift.
It was, then, a mistake to try to pronounce Yhwh by using the replacement vowels of ʾădōnāy and inserting these vowels between the consonants of the tetragrammaton. This mistake resulted from a failure to understand the scribal practice just described. This mistake produced the pronunciation that the Dominican friar Raimundus Mari in the thirteenth century rendered as Yěh(o)wāh. This form was then reproduced extensively in translations of the Hebrew scriptures and persists particularly among Jehovah’s Witnesses in rendering the name of the god “Yehowah” into “Jehovah.” (The German consonant “J” is almost pronounced in the same manner as the English “Y” and, likewise, the German consonant “W” is pronounced like an English “V.”)
In Judaism you’ll also find another replacement used in addition to ʾădōnāy, which is haš-šem (“the Name”). This is used also by the Samaritans. For this reason some scholars have suggested that vowels used to create the substitute for Yhwh are actually those of the Aramaean šĕmā (“the name”), but for various reasons this isn’t considered plausible by many scholars. The reason for lack of plausibility can get involved but the crux of the matter is that certain Masoretic vocalizations of the tetragrammaton when it’s preceded by a preposition clearly speak against this idea.
So the most probable view is that the first form of vocalization used the vowels of ʾădōnāy, but that certain Jewish scholars who had come to mistrust the Septuagint (the Greek translation), especially in view of the Christian appropriation of kúrios in the New Testament to refer to Jesus, decided to use “The Name” in place of Yhwh. Recall, too, that certain Greek manuscripts use theós (“god”) in place of kúrios (“lord”). This might also indicate that there was some desire to substitute ʾĕlōhîm for the tetragrammaton.
Keep in mind that this prohibition on pronouncing the divine name came later. The biblical texts do, in fact, retain some traces of a pronunciation of the divine name. In addition to the tetragrammaton Yhwh, the Masoretic vocalization of which goes back to the substitute “Lord,” there are numerous attestations of a short form Yhw, which is found particularly in theophoric proper names – that is, names constructed with an element derived from the name of the god of Israel, such as Yirmĕyāhû (Jeremiah), Yĕša῾yāhû (Isaiah), Yĕhônātān (Jonathan), and so forth. This suggests that the short form of the divine name was pronounced “Yahu/Yaho.” In the transcriptions the sound u corresponds to the u in German or Italian, which is pronounced as in “do” or “through.” Or consider it like pronouncing the “oo” in “soon.”
To these two forms Yhwh (“you-uh”) and Yhw (“y-oo”), it’s possible to add a third, Yh (Yāh). This is found primarily in the liturgical exclamation hallĕlû-yāh (“Praise Yāh”), but also in such biblical texts as Exodus 15:2 (“Yāh is my strength and my song”), Isaiah 12:2 (“Yāh, Yhwh is my strength”), Psalms 68:19 (“You have mounted up the heights . . . to make there your dwelling place, Yāh, Elōhîm”), and so on. It’s very possible to find this combination of Yhwh and Yh outside the Hebrew texts. One example is in an inscription probably dating from the end of the eighth century that was discovered at Khirbet Beit Ley, a place about thirty-five kilometers southeast of Jerusalem. Although the beginning of the inscription is difficult to decipher, it’s possible to make out the following prayer: “Intervene on our behalf merciful Yhwh; acquit us, Yāh, Yhwh.”
Both in the Hebrew texts and outside of them, then, the short form “Yāh” appears, particularly in prayers and hymns. This indicates that Yāh is a liturgical variant of the tetragrammaton that can in certain cases appear together with Yhwh, no doubt because it creates a pleasant alliteration. The two short forms Yahû and Yāh agree in that the vocalization of the first syllable is an “a,” and this makes it likely that this was equally the case for the tetragrammaton Yhwh. There remains the question of the vocalization of the second syllable in the long form Yhwh and of its relation to the short form Yhw.
To answer these questions we have to start from the only biblical text that gives a kind of explanation of the divine name. This is the episode of the calling of Moses in Exodus 3. According to this text Moses was called by Yhwh while he was pasturing the herd of his Midianite father-in-law, who was a priest. Yhwh appears to Moses in a burning bush and tells him to return to Egypt, from where he had fled, and to announce to the Hebrews their liberation and their imminent departure for a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses first objects that he is not in a position to carry out this task, but Yhwh promises him his help (“I am/I will be with you”). The wording seems odd in English because Biblical Hebrew doesn’t make a clear grammatical distinction between future and present. Then Moses asks about the identity of the god who is speaking to him:
(11) Moses said to God (ʾĕlōhîm): “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (12) He said: “Truly I shall be with you/I am with you (ʾehyeh ῾immāk), and this will be a sign for you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt you will serve God on this mountain.”
The “He” in verse 12 refers to Yhwh, of course. Moses still finds this a bit confusing:
(13) And Moses said to God: “I shall, then, go to the sons of Israel and shall say to them: the god of your fathers has sent me, and they shall say to me: What is his name? What shall I say to them?” (14) God said to Moses: “I shall be who I shall be/I am who I am (ʾehyeh ʾašer ʾehyeh). And he said: “You shall speak thus to the sons of Israel: ‘I shall be’ has sent me to you.”
Yhwh then apparently adds some clarification:
(15) God spoke again to Moses: “You shall speak thus to the sons of Israel; the god of your fathers, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob has sent me to you. This is my name forever and this is the way one shall invoke me from generation to generation.” (16) “Go assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: Yhwh, the god of your fathers, has appeared to me, the god of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob and he has said: Truly I have been observing you carefully and what has been done to you in Egypt.”
The “I am who I am” explanation seems to be explicitly put into a relation to the name Yhwh. The expression ʾehyeh ʾašer ʾehyeh contains two wordplays. The form ʾehyeh echoes first of all the promise of assistance of verse 12, ʾehyeh ῾immāk. “I shall be” or “I am” refers in the first instance to the god who “is with [Moses]” and promises Moses help. In addition, ʾehyeh almost certainly also refers to the pronunciation of the name Yhwh, which, following up on the observations about the first syllable of this name, will have been pronounced by the author of Exodus 3 as “Yahweh.”
While we now have some ideas of how the name of the god of Israel was written, how was it actually pronounced?
Apart from Exodus 3, the most ancient testimony is probably to be found in the transliterations into Babylonian of theophoric names of Judeans living in Babylon at the end of the sixth century BCE. These use either ia-a-ḫu-ú, which would correspond to /yahu/, or ia-a-wa, which must indicate a pronunciation of the divine name like “Yahwa,” a form that could become, via the weakening of the a into an é, “Yahweh.”
Thus there exist some testimonia that suggest a pronunciation of the tetragrammaton like “Yahweh,” but the majority of sources speak rather in favor of a form like “Yahû” or “Yahô.” The Israelites and Judeans who had been settled since the end of the seventh century or the beginning of the sixth century on the island of Elephantine in Upper Egypt, called their god Yhw, vocalized in proper names as “Yahô.”
A text discovered at Qumrân (4QpapLXXLevb) that contains a fragment of the book of Leviticus in Greek (4:26-28) renders the tetragrammaton as Iaṓ: “If anyone transgresses even one of the commandments of Iaṓ and does not follow it . . .” (4:27). In Greek, Iaṓ contains two syllables and is pronounced ia-o, which would correspond to the Hebrew or Aramaic Ya-hô. This shows that at the time when the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek was undertaken, this pronunciation was current and well known. One might equally cite Diodorus of Sicily (first century), who in his Bibliotheke (I.94.2) writes: “They say that . . . among the Jews Moses said he had received laws from the god named Iaṓ.” The pronunciation Iaō (“Ya-hô”) is probably also found on a votive stele from the Roman era (third century) dedicated to Zeus Serapis (a god created by Ptolemy I as the national god of Greece and Egypt), who retrospectively was identified with Iaō. In the same way the pronunciation Yaō is frequently found in magic papyri, documents reflecting a syncretism between the Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish religions, and also in texts of Gnostic forms of Christianity.
This traditional reconstruction can be found in some Christian Bibles, but also in the scholarly discussion of the god of Israel, and has its foundation primarily in the testimony of certain Fathers of the Church.
Almost all of these testimonia about the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton come from the Christian era but they seem to match up with what we looked at earlier regarding more ancient pronunciations.
This investigation leads to the conclusion that the ancient pronunciation of the name of the god of Israel was “Yahô,” which amounts to saying that the tetragrammaton was originally a trigrammaton. The w in “Yhwh” was not a consonant, but a mater lectionis indicating the sound “o.” The letter h at the end of the tetragrammaton Yhwh should be understood as indicating a lengthening of the preceding o.
The texts from the fifth century stemming from Egypt (Elephantine) mention a god Yahô, thus documenting this short form, the equivalent of Yhw. The most ancient documentation of the long form that we have at the present time is found on the stele of Mesha, a stele of black basalt discovered in 1868. It contains an inscription in the Moabite language dating back to the ninth century and describing the victory of the Moabite king Mesha and his god Chemosh over Omri, the king of Israel, and his god Yhwh. The inscriptions discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai desert, dating from the eighth century, exhibit both the short form Yhw and also the long form Yhwh, and from the seventh century onward the tetragrammaton is widely attested in extra-biblical inscriptions.
It seems, then, that the two variants of the name coexisted and that the short form was widely used in theophoric names. Moreover, theophoric proper names attested in extra-biblical inscriptions show other variations, depending on their geographic origin. The majority of recorded names ending in -yw (transliterated “Yau” in neo-Assyrian documents) come from the north; those ending in -yh (Yāh or Yahû/ô) are mostly from the south.
It does seem clear that the original pronunciation of Yhwh was “Yahô” or “Yahû.” We can then ask: Where does the pronunciation “Yahweh,” which is particularly strongly represented in the texts of the Fathers of the Church, come from? Should we imagine some kind of gradual evolution from “Yahô” toward “Yahweh”?
If there is such an evolution, then it might be explained by a theological hypothesis that seems to form part of the foundation of the narrative of Exodus 3; this is the attempt to give an account of the meaning of the name Yhwh by reference to the Hebrew root h-y-h, “to be.” The pronunciation “Yahweh” in fact corresponds to the vocalization of a causative form of the third-person singular (masculine) of the root “to be.” “Yahweh,” then, would be “he who causes to be,” that is, he who creates. This speculation may have led some scholars toward the pronunciation “Yahweh.” Nevertheless, this pronunciation is probably of more recent origin than “Yahô” or “Yahû.”
So what does all this mean? It is perhaps the case that the text of Exodus 3 presupposes a link between the divine name and the root h-y-h. If we choose to pursue that observation we can try to explore a possible path from the root “to be” to the name “Yahweh.” And, in fact we do find names like “Yaḫwi-ilum” (“El is, manifests himself”), Yaḫwi-Adad (“Adad manifests himself”), and so forth. In the Pantheon of Ugarit/Ras Shamra, El (Ilu) is the chief deity. However ʾilu can also mean simply “god” or “divinity.” Adad was a storm god.
These names are noted in Amorite proper names found at Mari, a town on the Euphrates in present-day Syria that was important in the second millennium. Some scholars infer from this that the verbal form “Yaḫwi” must be the origin of the name Yhwh. The fact that in the case of Yhwh (“[He] exists”) the name of the divinity who is claimed to exist is missing, is then taken to prove that from the very beginning the Israelites had a more abstract conception of their god than any of their neighbors did, because they invoked him without giving him a proper name. The only problem is that this idea depends heavily on theological considerations and, historically speaking, is considered very implausible by many scholars.
Other scholars have started from the “a” in the prefix of the word “Yahweh,” which indicates, according to the rules of Hebrew grammar, a causative form: “he who causes to be,” “he who creates.” So the word would presumably originally have described a certain manifestation of the god El, whose complete name would have been ʾēl yāhweh yiśrā ʾēl: “El gives life to/creates Israel.” There are two problems with this theory: there is no causative form for the verb “to be” (h-y-h) attested in Hebrew, and it’s highly implausible that Yhwh was originally the name of a creator-god.
Another solution starts from the short form Yāh. The Scandinavian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel thought that the original form of Yhwh would have been “Ya huwa”: “Behold! It is him.” Yāh would thus originally have been a cult exclamation that gradually became a substantive to designate the god invoked. However, there are no parallels for this kind of origin of a divine name.
The hypothesis that the name Yhwh comes from a verbal form that is conjugated with a causative prefix remains perfectly plausible. Several suggestions have been made about what root might be behind Yhwh. Some scholars have postulated a link with the Semitic root ḥ-w-y (“destroy”): “he destroys.” Yhwh would then be the god of destruction. Another possible line of argument might be based on the idea that Yhwh originally came from the south, from an Edomite or Arab context. Axel Knauf has made the observation that pre-Islamic Arabs knew of deities whose name was construed as the third-person form of a verb in a prefix conjugation, such as Yaǵūt (“He helps”) and Ya῾ūq (“He protects”). All this said, it’s worth noting that in the ancient Semitic world, divine names constructed with causative prefixes are rather rare.
So what do we end up with?
Ya-ho-wah or Ya-hoo-uh or Yah-weh or Yah-way. The first two would be my preference based on what I’m understanding about the Hebrew but I know the latter are much more common.
The accumulated data points heavily in the direction of a three syllable word, whose middle syllable was hô or hû. The first two syllables were Yahû or Yahô that were sometimes abbreviated to Yô. For poetry, liturgy, and some other reasons, the name Yâh was also used. Only from Theodoret’s Greek spelling of the Samaritan use of the term is there any basis for the pronunciation ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jahveh.’ This is hardly enough to overpower all of the other exhibits.
So the three-syllable pronunciation “Ye-Ho-WaH” has some support from at least one verse (Exodus 15) which uses a rhyme scheme. In that verse, two syllables – as in Yahweh – isn’t enough to make the rhythm fit; three are required. It’s important to note that the first syllable in “Ye-Ho-WaH” is not pronounced with a hard “e”, as in “hear ye”. It’s pronounced more softly like in “yes”, only without the “s” sound.
One excellent argument for the pronunciation “Ye-Ho-WaH” are the places where God’s name is used as part of other Biblical names. First, our English letter “J” isn’t new, but it’s pronunciation is quite new. Until recently, our “J” was pronounced exactly like our “Y”. Hence the spelling of all the names in the quote below will sound much more familiar if you replace the “Y” sound with a “J” sound. (Even though the use of the “Y” opening is more correct.) Second, a “theophoric name” embeds all or part of a god’s name into another name. This is typically done to honor the god or invoke its protection. For example, the name “Christopher” means “Christ-bearer” and is intended to honor Christ in the naming of the child.
Here are some examples of Hebrew theophoric names that begin with the first three consonants of the Tetragrammaton: Yehoiakim, Yehonathan, Yehoshaphat, Yehoash, Yehoram, Yehoiada, Yehoiarib, Yehoaddah, Yehoaddan, Yehoahaz, Yehohanan, Yehoiarib, Yehonadab, Yehoshabeath, Yehosheba among others. These names were sometimes shortened to create new names, and this resulted in Yoiakim, Yonathan, etc. When we compare the names that begin with the three first consonants of the Tetragrammaton (YHW), we see that all the names are vocalized YeHo-.
This is more evidence for the pronunciation “Yehowah”.
What about “Jehovah”? Again, our letter “J” used to be pronounced like our letter “Y”. Therefore “Jehovah” would’ve originally been pronounced “Yehovah”. If you use the modern pronunciation for the Hebrew letter “ו” (Waw), it sounds like our “v” instead of our “w”. Thus Yehowah becomes Jehovah. Interestingly, this might even be construed as more evidence for Yehowah being the correct pronunciation.
What is the origin of the god Yhwh? There seem to be two biblical accounts. One has it that Yhwh appeared to Moses while Moses was leading his father- in-law’s flocks to pasture, lost his way, and arrived at a “mountain of god” called “Horeb” (Exod. 3). The other account occurs when Moses found himself again in Egypt (Exod. 6).
Both of these narratives assert that the relation between Yhwh and Israel had not existed from the beginning, but was instead the result of a certain encounter. The two different biblical accounts of the commissioning of Moses by the god Yhwh both locate this event outside the land of Israel. The event took place either in Egypt or in a region located between Egypt and Judea.
One interesting example leads us potentially to Ugarit. We can consider the original version of a verse from Deuteronomy where Yhwh seems to be conceived as being the son of one of the Canaanite gods, El. The Masoretic Hebrew text (Deut. 32:8), on which most modern Bibles are based, reads:
“When the Most High gave to the nations their patrimony, he fixed the territory of the people according to the number of the sons of Israel. The hereditary portion of Yhwh is his people; Jacob is the portion that falls to him.”
In contrast, the original text, which can be reconstructed on the basis of the Greek version and a fragment from Qumran, reads:
“When Elyon (the Most High) portioned out the nations as a legacy, when he divided mankind, he fixed the territories of the peoples according to the number of the sons of god (El). And the portion of Yhwh is his people, Jacob is the part which falls to him.”
According to this text Yhwh is understood as the son of El, and this might also be the case in a particular fragment from Ugarit. Ugarit is located in present-day Syria, which was a prosperous city-state during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries. Systematic excavations since the 1930s have brought to light an impressive number of documents relating to administration, religious practice, and myths. Some of these are in Ugaritic, a Semitic language written in an alphabet derived from cuneiform characters. In one of the mythological texts there is a passage that seems to describe a banquet given by the god El. Only fragments of the original text exist, but one phrase seems to mean something like: “the name of my son, YW – goddess/god(s).” Some have interpreted this as a shortened form of the name of the god of Israel. On this reading, the god El would be saying: “The name of my son (is) Yhwh.”
Given this, we certainly can’t definitively exclude a link between Yw in the Ugaritic text and Yhwh, which would suggest that in the thirteenth or twelfth centuries Yhwh might have been known in Ugarit and (marginally) integrated into the Ugaritic pantheon. That being said, the Ugaritic passage in question is extremely fragmentary and unclear. As such, it’s a lot to ask of it to support the thesis that there was worship of a god Yhwh in Ugarit or even that Yhwh’s origins were in Ugarit.
In an Egyptian papyrus dating from 1330–1230 BCE there is a proper name that might be thought to contain an abbreviated form of Yhwh, namely Yah. This name could be a transcription of a Canaanite proper name ʾadōnī-rō῾ē-yāh (“My lord is the shepherd of Yah”). This theophoric name, however, is composed of three elements, contrary to the norm of only two elements. Another interpretation is that “Yah” is being used as a toponym. This would perhaps make it possible to link this name with the famous Shasu nomads, who are mentioned in Egyptian texts and are sometimes brought into connection with the term Yhw. The word šзsw may derive from an Egyptian word for “wander,” “to go, pass by.” In an inscription of Amenophis III of Soleb in the Sudan (ca. 1370 BCE) there is a list containing various mentions of these nomads with a specification of their territory; among these appears “The country — of the Shasu — Yhw(h)” or “Yhw(h) in the country of the Shasu.” The same designation occurs in another place in Soleb, and also in a list inscribed in the hall of the temple of Ramses II at West Amara (also in the Sudan). For context, West Amara was the Egyptian administrative center of upper Nubia (Kush) from the reign of Sethi I (1294–1279 BCE) and was also known as “The house of Ramses, the well-beloved of Amon.”
In these texts Yhwʒ seems to be a geographic term (perhaps, albeit with some uncertainty, referring to a mountain) and perhaps also a divine name. The explanation of this duality might be that the god of a certain place could come to be identified with that place and thus take its name from that place. In the lists mentioned above, the territories of the Shasu are located particularly in the Negev, that is, in the south, but according to other inscriptions there were also Shasu further north in the Levant, as far as Qatna in the territory that is now Syria.
At least according to some scholars, we might take the first place-name in the list “Seir” to be a name referring in general to all the territory in which the specific places mentioned later in the list are located. This would add further weight to the fact that the oldest attested occurrences of Yhwh are from the south of Palestine, the territory of Edom and Araba.
The papyrus known as Anastasi VI, which mentions the Shasu of Edom, whom the pharaoh Merneptah authorized to sojourn in Egypt with their herds, confirms this localization:
“We have finished letting the Shasu tribes of Edom pass the Fortress of Merneptah . . . which is in Tjeku, reaching as far as the pools of Pitom of Merneptah . . . which are in Tjeku to keep them alive and to keep their cattle alive through the great ka of Pharaoh.”
To this we can add the Papyrus Harris I (from the era of Ramses IV, about 1150 BCE) in which the pharaoh boasts:
“I destroyed the people of Seir among the Shasu tribes. I razed their tents: their people, their property, and their cattle as well, without number; they were pinioned and carried away in captivity, as the tribute of Egypt.”
An iconographic attestation of the Shasu can be found in a damaged relief in the temple of Amon at Karnak that represents the Palestinian campaigns of Seti I (1290–1280 BCE). The Shasu are recognizable by their goatees and their hair held back by a hairband. This military excursion of the Egyptian king against the Shasu confirms their importance. They seem to have been involved in the mining of copper in the area around Araba, which had become the center of this industry as a result of Egyptian expeditions into the area. Full excavations and surveys in the valley of Timna, about thirty kilometers north of Eilat, have revealed evidence of the extraction and smelting of copper in furnaces. This mining activity in the valley of Timna was at its apogee in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries. Another place, Punon (Feinan in Jordan), which is mentioned in the book of Numbers (33:26) and has been linked with the Shasu in the list of West Amara, is also located in this area.
So the archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic evidence all place the Shasu in the territory of Edom or Seir, and in Araba at the time of the transition from the Late Bronze to the Iron Age. And among these Shasu there might have been a group whose tutelary god was called “Yhw.” It’s possible to combine all this evidence with a biblical tradition that definitely represents Yhwh as a god coming “from the south.”
There are four poetical texts in the Hebrew scriptures that ascribe to Yhwh a “southern” origin. First in Deuteronomy (33:2) in a psalm attributed to Moses:
He said: “Yhwh came from Sinai, for them he shone forth from Seir, he was resplendent from Mount Parān; he arrived at Meribat of Qadesh; from his south toward the slopes, for them.”
The “for them” refers to the tribes mentioned in verse 5.
The expression “Meribat of Qadesh” – in Hebrew, mĕrîḇōt qādēš – is difficult to understand. Some translate the Masoretic text as “he has come from the holy myriads,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The semitic poetic figure, which is called “parallelism of members,” would suggest that this expression has a geographic meaning. The Septuagint takes Qadesh as a proper name so as to read: “with the myriads of Qadesh.” Some scholars correct the Hebrew text, making it mēʿarḇōt (“from the steppes”), which at any rate makes sense, or mimmĕrîḇat [“from Meribat”], which is also possible, because Meriba is mentioned in verse 8, which recalls the revolt of the people at this place. (See also Exod. 17:7).
What about that “south toward the slopes” bit? The end of this verse is virtually untranslatable. The Masoretic vocalization suggests something like: “from his right hand a fire of law emerges.” The term dāt (“law”) is a Persian loan word, which could mean that this might be a gloss or a later addition. The Septuagint has “angels with him” probably in order to create parallel with the “myriads of saints.” The possible reading adopted here takes the word as a feminine plural ʾašdôt, which means something like “the slopes,” the place of transition between the mountains and the desert.
Another of the texts we can consider is in the book of Judges (5:4-5) in a song celebrating a military victory of the tribes of Yhwh:
(4) Yhwh, when you came forth out of Seir, when you advanced from the land of Edom, the earth trembled, the sky quaked, the clouds poured down water; (5) the mountains fled before Yhwh — this Sinai, before Yhwh, the god of Israel.
A very similar affirmation can be found in Psalm 68 (vv. 8–9 and 18):
(8) Oh God, when you came forth at the head of your people, when you advanced over the arid land — pause — (9) the earth trembled, yes, the sky quaked before God — this Sinai — before God, the god of Israel. (18) The chariots of God are counted by twenties of thousands, by thousands and by thousands; Yhwh is with them, the (= he who is?) Sinai is in the sanctuary.
On the “Sinai” bit, the Masoretic text is not very clear. Sometimes the Hebrew bām sînay (“with them — Sinai”) is corrected and replaced with bāʾ missînay (“he has come from Sinai”), but there are no manuscripts or other versions that attest this reading.
Finally, chapter 3 of the book attributed to Habakkuk (3:3 and 3:10a) contains a poetic text that takes up similar ideas:
(3) God comes from Teman, the Holy One comes from mount Pārān. Pause. His splendor covers the sky, his praise fills the earth. (10a) The mountains see you and tremble.
These four texts are linked by the presence of the same themes and the same affirmation that the god Yhwh comes “from the south,” even if they differ slightly in details. All of these passages are to be found in poetic contexts: Judges 5:4-5 is the opening of the canticle of Deborah, a song of war or victory; Deuteronomy 33:2 is part of a psalm that records the blessings of Moses on the tribes of Israel before his death; Psalm 68 is a hymn celebrating divine intervention in a war; and Habakkuk 3 is also a psalm about war.
The texts of Judges 5 and of Psalm 68 are especially close to each other, as one can see from this synopsis:
when you advanced from the land of
Edom, the earth trembled, the sky
quaked, the clouds poured down
water; the mountains fled before
Yhwh — this Sinai — before Yhwh,
the god of Israel.
O God, when you came forth at the
head of your people, when you
advanced over the arid land —
Pause — the earth trembled, yes,
the sky quaked before God — this
Sinai — before God, the god of
The most obvious difference between the two passages lies in the fact that the tetragrammaton Yhwh does not appear in Psalm 68. The reason for this is that Psalm 68 is a part of a larger literary context, which is called “the Elohistic Psalter” (Pss. 42-83). At some point in the course of a series of reworkings of these psalms, the editors gradually began replacing the name Yhwh with ʾĕlōhîm (God), either in the interests of universalism or to avoid having to pronounce the tetragrammaton during the recitation of these psalms.
This substitution of “Elohim” for “Yhwh” may possibly be the result of a theological decision of the Asaphites, a group of Levites (a tribe of priests who provided the cantors for religious services). They collected and edited this collection of psalms. The number of these psalms – there are 42 of them – probably also played a role in their organization. It’s possible, according to certain experts, that the Elohistic Psalter contained 42 occurrences of the tetragrammaton. In the Talmud, Treatise Qidushin 71a, one finds the idea that the divine name consists of 42 letters, which probably refers to different ways of naming the god of Israel. In Mesopotamia the number 42 is often used to divide long hymns. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead there are 42 divinities and 42 sins it is necessary to avoid; in the Hebrew Bible and also the New Testament the number 42 is reputed to be unlucky.
All this said, Psalm 68 still retains traces of this “Elohim” for “Yhwh” replacement at the end of verse 9, where the Hebrew text as we have it repeats “Elohim, Elohim of Israel,” which makes very little sense. It’s pretty clear that this originally read: “Yhwh, the god of Israel.”
If we put the name Yhwh back into Psalm 68 in place of “Elohim,” the two texts are in large part identical. Moreover, the tetragrammaton has in fact been retained in other places in the psalm. In both texts Yhwh “comes out” to engage in battle with his enemies. In both of them the author first addresses Yhwh in the second person, then speaks about him in the third person. We find in both texts the same upheaval of the heavens and the earth brought about by his manifestation as a war god. There is also the same way of referring to Yhwh by putting his name in apposition to the strange phrase zeh sînay.
The most important difference between the two passages is that the text of the book of Judges describes Yhwh as coming out of Seir/Edom, whereas Psalm 68 refers to a location described as yĕšîmôn, which is a quite rare word meaning something like “arid place.” Is this an allusion to the tradition of a sojourn of Israel in the desert, as at least some commentators on the book of Judges have suggested? If this were the case, it’s still not clear why the author did not choose the more common word for desert, midbār, which immediately evokes that tradition. Perhaps he wanted to put the emphasis rather on the function of this advent of the god, who crosses the desert and in doing so brings rain and fertility. Or perhaps it’s simply a reference to a specific region that we can’t identify.
The prevailing hypothesis seems to be that the passage at Judges 5 contains the older version of the text, which is taken over and reworked by the author of Psalm 68. The latter adds at various places some allusions to other passages from the Song of Deborah. Thus Psalm 68:13-14 (“Would you linger in the camp?”) refers to Judges 5:16 (“Why did you remain with the baggage?”). The celestial army mentioned in Psalm 68:12 evokes the combat of the stars in Judges 5:20. Judges 5, in any case, is at least in its primitive form often considered to be one of the oldest texts in the Hebrew scriptures.
The God whose path we’ll trace probably had his origin somewhere in the “south” relative to Israel and Judah, between the Negev and Egypt. This was thus a “desert god” who was likely to have been originally venerated by groups of nomads. This was likely a god of the wilderness, of war and storms, but gradually through a series of small steps he became the god, with a name that was not allowed to be pronounced, of Israel and Jerusalem. Then eventually, after a major catastrophe – the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah – he established himself as the one god, creator of heaven and earth, invisible and transcendent, who nevertheless loudly proclaimed his special relationship with those who were “Israelites” (broadly) or those who came from the land of Judah (more specifically) and who we would refer to as “Judaeans.”
HIstorically speaking, what we can do is treat the God of Israel as a progressive construction arising out of a particular tradition. Looking at this tradition in a historical context, we can try and determine the origins and successive transformations of the God of Israel. Think of this tradition as a series of sedimentary strata gradually laid down over the course of time, which is then sometimes disrupted by historical events that disturb the orderly sequence of layers, allowing something new and unexpected to emerge. What we see in all of this is a “collective invention” which is a process in which the conception was continually revised in the light of particular, changing social and historical contexts.
A mono-idolatrous cult came progressively to be devoted to the god of Israel, but through what process and in reaction to which events was this cult established, and how did it become dominant?
“Israel” contains the theophoric element ʾēl. This can be understood as the proper name of a god, El, who is known in Ugarit as the creator god or the head of a pantheon, but it could also in certain cases be used as a generic term for “god.”
The etymology of the name Yiśrā-ʾēl is a subject of controversy. In the book of Genesis (32:29) the author of the story about Jacob’s struggle with a mysterious entity who eventually reveals himself as God proposes a folk etymology:
“He said: They will no longer call you Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God (kî śārîtā ̒im ʾĕlōhîm).”
The same explanation is given in Hosea 12:4:
“In his prime he strove with god (ûbʾônô śārāh ʾēt ʾĕlōhîm).”
This etymology construes the name from the root ś-r-h (“hit,” “combat”). In this case the primary sense would be “May El/God combat,” because in theophoric names the name of the god is the subject, not the direct object. However, this root is attested in the Hebrew scriptures only in the two texts just cited, and there are few occurrences in any other Semitic languages. Apparently the name iś-ra-il is attested in Ebla, with a possible meaning connected to a root meaning “combat” although some scholars connect the name with the root “be just” or “protect.” On that last point, the name can be construed from the root y-š-r (“to be just”). This would be a construction in the affirmative conjugation: “El is just.” This root is found again in two poetic texts in Deuteronomy, which affirm: “None is like El of Yeshouroun (ʾên kā-ʾēl Yĕšūrûn)” (32:15; 33:5, 26). The name Yeshurun is used as a poetic name for Israel (see also Isaiah 44:2) and seems to have been constructed from the root y-š-r (“to be just”). An explanation in terms of this root is also supported by a fragmentary tablet from Ugarit, which gives a list containing the names of a corporation of military charioteers. One of these soldiers is named y-š-r-ʾi-l.
Amazingly perhaps, this tablet was still in the oven at the moment when Ugarit was destroyed and can thus be dated to the end of the thirteenth century, so it is contemporary with the first attestation of Israel in Egypt. However, a name on a list in Ugarit need not necessarily be in any way connected with the biblical Israel, and the vocalization of the name Israel in the biblical texts speaks rather in favor of a name constructed in the preformative conjugation