[Partly revised 4/29/14]


I.  Zedekiah's revolt and the destruction of city and temple

It's 587 BC.  The Judaean king Zedekiah rebels against Nebuchadnezzar, the man who had put him on the throne.  

It was a foolish move.  Nebuchadnezzar moved against him like a winged lion, and the city of Jerusalem soon had to capitulate.  Zedekiah had to watch while his sons were killed--and that was the last thing he saw.  Nebuchadnezzar's men gouged out his eyes and made him their captive.  They then destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.  They deported the leaders and members of prominent families, leaving only some of the poor to till the land.

And Hebrew civilization came to an end.  Like the Hittites, the Mittani, and so many other peoples, the Hebrews disappeared from history, never to rise again. 

At least, that's how it should have been.  Without a homeland, without leaders, and with a long tendency of blending into surrounding cultures anyway, the Jews should simply have been assimilated into the dominant Babylonian culture.

But that's not what happened.  Instead, among the Jews in Babylon  there arose a determination to go back and start again, to re-establish their nation, to rebuild the city and the sanctuary.   And, amazingly enough, they succeeded.   Later Jews concluded their Passover celebrations with the words, "Hashanah ha ba'a b'yeroshaliem," next year in  Jerusalem.  That kind of sentiment was strong among Babylonian-exile Jews as well.

For the Jews of the exile and for the post-exilic Jewish community, nothing seemed more important that the Jerusalem and the temple.  And in the long struggle to rebuild and maintain the city and the sanctuary, something happened that transformed the jewish community and made it possible for the Jewish people to survive without either.

II. Factors helping Jews keep their identity during exile

One key to Jewish survival: the prophetic messages that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem.  Isaiah had predicted both the captivity and eventual restoration.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel had likewise foretold both captivity and restoration.  This meant that, first of all, when Jerusalem was destroyed it was a confirmation of the prophetic message, not a suggestion that God had somehow failed and was weaker than the Babylonian gods.  Also, the prophetic message mean that a core group was committed to the promise of eventual return.

The story of Daniel and his three friends tells us one important way Jewish identity survived in Babylon.  These four young men determined to keep Jewish dietary law and (apparently) other ritual observances.  This would help a lot in keeping them a distinct people even while dwelling in a land not their own, and the distinctive Jewish diet is one of those factors that, thoughout Jewish history, has helped them maintain their identify as a people.

It probably also helped that Babylonian civilization itself was on the brink of a great collapse--and the Jews could see the handwriting on the wall.  The *original* handwriting on the wall!  Mene, Mene, Tekel Uparsin.  Sure enough, in 538 Babylon fell to the Persians

III. Cyrus and the Persians

The Persian king Cyrus created the greatest empire the world had yet seen.  It remained to be seen if Cyrus could hold that empire together.  The Persians were outnumbered 10 to 1 by subject peoples, and it was important for them to secure the cooperation of these people.  They did so partly be force, putting down revolts as swiftly as the Babylonians had.  But the Persians also adopted the wise strategy of using representatives of their many subject peoples in the actual governance of their territories.  Further, Cyrus claimed to be (and to a certain extent was) a better ruler for the average person than the old "native" rulers he had replaced.

Cyrus got extra Jewish support by allowing the Jews to go back and restore Jerusalem and to begin the rebuilding ot the temple.  Cyrus seems to have favored the Jews in part because their worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was similar to his worship of Ahura Mazda, the wise Lord. 

IV.  Zerubbabel and the beginnings of reconstruction

In 538 BC, a group of Jews returned to start the work of rebuilding.  Among the leaders were Zerubbabel and Jeshua.  The former was appointed governor, the later high priest.  Zerubbabel was a descendent of David, and Jeshua a descendent of Aaron.  The right ruling family, and the right priestly family: a good start. 

[There is an interesting story about Zerubbabel in III Esdras (Which is the strongest?  Wine?  The King? Women and Truth?).  Here's an excerpt:

Then the third, who had spoken of women, and of the truth, (this was Zorobabel) began to speak.O ye men, it is not the great king, nor the multitude of men, neither is it wine, that excelleth; who is it then that ruleth them, or hath the lordship over them? are they not women?  Women have borne the king and all the people that bear rule by sea and land.  Even of them came they: and they nourished them up that planted the vineyards, from whence the wine comet. These also make garments for men; these bring glory unto men; and without women cannot men be.  Yea, and if men have gathered together gold and silver, or any other goodly thing, do they not love a woman which is comely in favour and beauty?  And letting all those things go, do they not gape, and even with open mouth fix their eyes fast on her; and have not all men more desire unto her than unto silver or gold, or any goodly thing whatsoever?  A man leaveth his own father that brought him up, and his own country, and cleaveth unto his wife.  He sticketh not to spend his life with his wife. and remembereth neither father, nor mother, nor country. By this also ye must know that women have dominion over you: do ye not labour and toil, and give and bring all to the woman?  Yea, a man taketh his sword, and goeth his way to rob and to steal, to sail upon the sea and upon rivers; And looketh upon a lion, and goeth in the darkness; and when he hath stolen, spoiled, and robbed, he bringeth it to his love. Yea, many there be that have run out of their wits for women, and become servants for their sakes.  Many also have perished, have erred, and sinned, for women.  And now do ye not believe me? is not the king great in his power? do not all regions fear to touch him? Yet did I see him and Apame the king's concubine, the daughter of the admirable Bartacus, sitting at the right hand of the king and taking the crown from the king's head, and setting it upon her own head; she also struck the king with her left hand, and yet for all this the king gaped and gazed upon her with open mouth: if she laughed upon him, he laughed also: but if she took any displeasure at him, the king was fain to flatter, that she might be reconciled to him again.  O ye men, how can it be but women should be strong, seeing they do thus?  Then the king and the princes looked one upon another: so he began to speak of the truth  O ye men, are not women strong? great is the earth, high is the heaven, swift is the sun in his course, for he compasseth the heavens round about, and fetcheth his course again to his own place in one day.  Is he not great that maketh these things? therefore great is the truth, and stronger than all things.  All the earth crieth upon the truth, and the heaven blesseth it: all works shake and tremble at it, and with it is no unrighteous thing.  Wine is wicked, the king is wicked, women are wicked, all the children of men are wicked, and such are all their wicked works; and there is no truth in them; in their unrighteousness also they shall perish. As for the truth, it endureth, and is always strong; it liveth and conquereth for evermore.  With her there is no accepting of persons or rewards; but she doeth the things that are just, and refraineth from all unjust and wicked things; and all men do well like of her works.  Neither in her judgment is any unrighteousness; and she is the strength, kingdom, power, and majesty, of all ages. Blessed be the God of truth.  And with that he held his peace. And all the people then shouted, and said, Great is Truth, and mighty above all things.  Then said the king unto him, Ask what thou wilt more than is appointed in the writing, and we will give it thee, because thou art found wisest; and thou shalt sit next me, and shalt be called my cousin.  Then said he unto the king, Remember thy vow, which thou hast vowed to build Jerusalem, in the day when thou camest to thy kingdom, And to send away all the vessels that were taken away out of Jerusalem, which Cyrus set apart, when he vowed to destroy Babylon, and to send them again thither. Thou also hast vowed to build up the temple, which the Edomites burned when Judea was made desolate by the Chaldees.  And now, O lord the king, this is that which I require, and which I desire of thee, and this is the princely liberality proceeding from thyself: I desire therefore that thou make good the vow, the performance whereof with thine own mouth thou hast vowed to the King of heaven.  Then Darius the king stood up, and kissed him, and wrote letters for him unto all the treasurers and lieutenants and captains and governors, that they should safely convey on their way both him, and all those that go up with him to build Jerusalem. Wherefore a man loveth his wife better than father or mother.]

V.  Obstacles to rebuilding (cf. Ezra 4, Haggai 1)

Well begun is usually half-done--but not quite in this case.  Other Palestinians initially say they want to share in the rebuilding project, but the Jews insist that it is there project alone.  So the other Palestinian types begin to create problems.  They warn Cyrus' successors not to allow the rebuilding of Jerusalem, because the city had so often been a center of rebellion.  There's real danger, they say, of Jerusalem becoming a center of rebellion which will cost the Persians all there western dominions.  The king (called Artaxerxes in Ezra, but this is may be just an honorific title "the mindful," possibly this is one the men Herodotus would have called Cambyses, Smerdis, or False-Smerdis, but our records of Persian history at this point are confused) orders building to cease, and no further work is done between 529 and 520. 

Another reason the rebuilding ceases is that the people as a whole had other priorities, e.g., building their own houses.  Note what Haggai has to say (Haggai 1:2-11).

VI.  Haggai and Zechariah and renewed efforts to build

The rise of Darius, the great organizer of the Persian empire, meant a change in Persian policy and freedom to build once again.  The exhortations of Haggai an Zehariah help too, and so Zerubbabel and Jeshua manage to get the temple finished.  It's not nearly as magnificent as Solomon's, but Haggai assures them that one day it would be greater than Solomon's temple (as, indeed , it was).

VII.  Ezra and the law

Even more challenging than rebuilding the temple was the rebuilding of the Jewish people themselves.  A key figure here was Ezra, a man described in the Bible as a "ready scribe."  Ezra 7:10 says he "prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments."  He had been living in Babylon, but around 458 BC he got special authority (and a substantial subsidy) from the Persian King Artaxerxes I to help restore temple worship to some of its former glory.  Ezra was also given special authority to teach the law and enforce it--given specifically the power to use capital punishment, confiscation of goods, or imprisonment as he saw fit.  He does seem to have been successful, even to the point of getting Jews who had married foreign wives to divorce them.

This whole episode (Ezra 8-10) is disturbing to us, and seems counter to the general Biblical idea of  the permanence of marriage.  But maybe this was necessary to avoid the problem of the reintroduction of idol worship.  Note the problems intermarriage had created for Israel during the time of the judges and during the reign of Solomon.  In any case, we see a key to lasting Jewish survival: a reluctance to marry outside the faith.

VIII.  Nehemiah as governor

Another key figure in the restoration of Judea was Nehemiah.  A cup bearer to the king (Artaxerxes I), Nehemiah requested and got permission to help in the restoration of Jerusalem.  He is given authority as governor, and uses that authority to defend  Jerusalem from attack and to rebuild the walls.  He also mediates squabbles between the rich and poor, trying to prevent a repetition of the exploitation of the poor that had been a major reason for the captivity in the first place.

After the completion of the walls, a great dedication was held.  The law was read out, and the people renewed their pledge of loyalty to the covenant. 

IX.  Jewish indifference (cf. Malachi)

The two hundred years of Persian rule, then, were relatively good for the Jews, and much rebuilding was done.  They did have some struggle with regional opposition from groups like the Edomites, but the greatest problem was from within: a worldly indifference spreading among the people and even the priests.  This is the situation addressed by the last of the "minor" prophets, Malachi.

Malachi means either "my messenger," or "my king"--probably the former.  His book is the last great prophetic message to the Jews, written around 400 BC.

Malachi, following the usual prophetic strategy, starts with a condemnation of people his hearers would no doubt condemn too--the Edomites.  But then he goes on to extend his warning to the Jewish people as a whole, and then to his main intended audience, the priests.

Malachi faults the Jewish people for forgetting God's love.  He faults them also for there attitude to worship, their offering of 2nd rate sacrifices and their general attitude that religious service was drudgery: a boring task to be given a minimum of effort.  To all this, the priests would have no doubt said amen.  But then Malachi points to the problems with the priests themselves.  They are zealous for rituals, but they've left out something more important.  The priests *should* be teaching people to follow the law, but they are doing the opposite.  "Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord," they say.  An odd sentiment, but not at all unusual among those in the professional religion business.  You give people a religious stamp of approval in return for their financial support.  Malachi 3:5 lists the kind of things the priests are winking at--and notice that the exploitation of the poor is once again high on the list.

Malachi hopes that the priests will get their act together, but he also hints at how the Jewish people got their act together despite a corrupt priesthood.  

X.  Strengths of the Jews: Synagogues and Rabbis

Malachi notes (3:16-18) that those who fear the Lord spoke often to one another.  What he seems to be talking about is those who really care about serving God making the study of scripture together a high priority.  Where are they speaking together?  Well, this seems to be the time in which synagogues get their start. 

Jewish tradition makes Ezra the head of the "Great Synagogue" a group of 120 men who focused on scripture study in Babylon, then came to Jerusalem and studied the scriptures there.  In Babylon, the scripture had had to be the focus of worship: no temple for sacrifice!  But the habit of meeting to study scripture together continued even after temple sacrifice had begun again. 

The priests are, theoretically, the official teachers of the law, but the priest now is rivaled by the rabbi.  And the prophets? Gone altogether.  Malachi begins in the typical prophetic fashion, "The burden of the word of the Lord to Malachi." But the end of the book is an exhortation to study the law and to wait for the day of Elijah the prophet.  The hint is that there will be no more prophetic word until the time of Elijah's return, and the coming of Messiah.

Tractate Sanhedrin (part of the Talmud) says specifically that the spirit departed with the last of the prophets, and that the prophetic voice was silenced.  The inter-testamental books (like Maccabbees) also reflect the idea that God, for at time at least, was no longer speaking through prophets.  I Maccabbees 14:41, for instance, "The Jewish people and their priests have made the following decision.  Simon shall be their permanent teacher and high priest until a true prophet arises."  The writer says this was inscribed on a bronze plaque and put on pillar on Mt. Zion.  So, without a prophetic voice, where do you turn to learn God's will?  I Mac. 3:48 says the Jews, "Unrolled a scroll of the law to learn about things for whom the Gentiles consult images of their gods."  

Now most of us would be comfortable with this situation.  We prefer the rabbi (the teacher) to the prophet: prophets are just too weird.  And it's easier to be a teacher than a prophet too!

But there are times when the general knowledge of God doesn't seem enough, that one wants instruction on God's will for a specific occasion.  Particularly if one is going through very rough times, one would like more specific guidance from God.  And without a prophet, the Jews just weren't going to get such guidance--unless, perhaps they had it already.

XI.  The visions of Daniel

The last part of the books of Daniel is a series of visions.  These visions reflect in detail the history of the Jews from the time of  Cyrus to the time of Antiochus Ephipanes (c. 168 BC).

Now one of two things is happening with these visions.  Either they were in fact written in the days of Daniel or they are what's called ex eventu prophecies, written after the events they describe took place.

If written ahead of time, this means that throughout some of the most difficult trials they would ever face, the Jews had a strong assurance that God really was in charge, and their faith would have been strengthened as, one by one, each detail came to pass.  It is my opinion that that's exactly what happened.  The Bible seldom foretells the future in detail.  There are general promises (e.g., the eventual coming of Messiah and God's kingdom), but no timeline.  God doesn't determine history in detail, but leaves room for human choices.  On the other hand, there are a very few passages that do give more detailed and specific provisions--and every one of them is associated with a particularly dark time.  My guess is that God makes special provision for those who go through such times, and that's why we have Daniel's detailed predictions of the future.

On the other hand, it's possible that these visions were in fact written during the time of Antiochus Ephipanes and put in the form they are as a kind of resistance literature: coded messages to inspire those who were fighting for their lives.

In either case, the visions suggest some keys to Jewish survival in difficult times:

1.  Remember earthly struggles are a reflection of the real struggle, a spiritual struggle
2.  God's deliverance comes when one least expects, in the darkest hour of all
3.  Eventually, there will be a resurrection, and to die for one's faith means ultimately not to die at all

This attitude is reflected during one of the most difficult struggles in Jewish history, the struggle of Jews to maintain their faith during the time of Alexander the Great and his successors.

XII.  Greek hegemony: Seleucids and Ptolemies

Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian empire and created an even larger empire of his own.  The empire didn't last: Alexander's successors split the empire among themselves.  The Ptolemies took over in Egypt, while the Seleucids took over Syria.   The kings of each of these dynasties all dreamed of being like Alexander with a universal empire.  Of course, that meant taking out their rivals, and for the Ptolemies and Seleucids their conflicts would take place--in Palestine! 

Now both Ptolemies and Seleucids wanted Jewish support, and were willing to cut deals with the Jews.  But it was a really tricky business to decide which alliance to make.  And, since their were palace rivalries in both Syrian and Egypt, one had to be careful not only to choose Ptolemies or Seleucids, but to choose which of the factions within each dynasty was the best to support--if any.

Because friendship with Greeks was, in some ways, more dangerous to Jewish survival than enmity.


Well, Greek culture was enormously attractive.  Plays, poetry, art, history, philosophy--lots to admire and love.  And, on top of all this, sports!  The Greeks built gymnasiums wherever they went, and for Jewish young men the temptation to want to go hang out at the gym was tremendous.  The problem was, though, the the gymnasium dress code.  "Gymnos" means naked--and Greek athletics were done in the nude.  That meant that, in the gym, a Jewish young man was markedly different--circumcision was obvious.  And it was certainly easier to fit in if one wasn't circumcised or if one underwent the painful process of having the circumcision reversed.

The temptation to assimilate was a tough one not to succumb to.  But an even greater danger occurred with the rise of a Seleucid king particularly eager to make himself a 2nd Alexander: Antiochus IV, better known by his nickname, Antiochus Epiphanes.

XIII.  The Great Tribulation I: Antiochus Ephiphanes

"Epiphanes" means manifestation, and it was a nickname chosen by Antiochus because he considered himself to be a manifestation of the god Zeus.  Jews (and others) changed this to Antiochus Epimanes, Antiochus the Madman. 

At first, Antiochus' major target was the Ptolemies, and he launched a semi-successful invasion of Egypt to try to cripple has main rivals to supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean.  But the campaign proved very expensive, and so Antiochus launched a totally unprovoked attack on the temple in Jerusalem, plundering its treasures just so he could finance his military campaigns.

Two years later, still short of money, Antiochus decided to put Judea under tribute. Once in control, Antiochus decided to crush the Jewish faith.  He set up an image of himself as Zeus in the temple at Jerusalem, and sacrificed a pig on the altar.  He set out to destroy every copy of the scripture he could fine, and possessing any of the Jewish holy books became a capital offense.  If a mother had a baby boy circumcised, both mother and child would be killed, the dead baby hung around her neck.

Many Jews gave in easily--even enthusiastically.  But others resisted, including the family of the priest Mattathias.

XIV.  The Maccabees (Hasmoneans) and the struggle for freedom

Mattathias was a priest in the town of Modin.  Antiochus had sent his representative to compel all to make pagan sacrifice.  Mattathias himself killed the first Jew who started to comply with this order, kills Antiochus' messenger, and prepares Modin for resistence.  Elsewhere, there is similar resistence to Antiochus' demands.

Antiochus adopted the strategy of attacking on the sabbath, in one instance killing 1000 Jews who, since it was the Sabbath, felt they would have been breaking God's law if they defended themselves.

Mattathias wouldn't concede this advantage: if they had to fight on the Sabbath to save their lives, they would.

Mattathias sons each in their turns become leaders of their people. It is well worth your time to read of the heroism of  Judah, Jonathan, John, and Simon.  Judah leads the way to the first great victories over the Syrians.  He captures Jerusalem, takes back the temple, tears down the polluted altar (where the abomination of desolation, i.e., pig slaughter to Antiochus, had been made) and rededicates the temple.  The Jews set up an annual feast to commemorate the victory over Antiochus and the cleansing of the temple--Hanukkah.

The Hasmoneans combined political and spiritual leadership.  They served as priests, but also as "ethnarchs" and, later, as kings.  Unfortunately, they didn't get complete support--and they didn't deserve it either.  Alexander Jannaeus was particularly ruthless.  In 95 BC, he crucified 800 of his Jewish opponents, killing their wives and children in front of them while they died agonizing deaths--and while he and his concubines held a big party!

XV.  Roman hegemony

Factions fighting for control in Judea meant a constant search for allies, and various Jewish groups made alliance with Syrians, Egyptians, and even Spartans!  But the most sought after ally eventually was Rome.  Rome was powerful (a big advantage) and too far away (so the Jews thought) to actually want to control Judea themselves.  The trouble was that gaining support from Rome was a tricky, tricky guessing game. This was the period of the Roman Revolution, and a Jewish leader who wanted Roman support had to guess which Roman faction was going to win out.  Do you support Caesar or Pompey?  Later, do you support Antony or Octavian?

Well, to make a long and fascinating story short and dull [nicely summarized here], I'll just say that the Hasmoneans ended up guessing wrong.  Who guessed right?  Not a Jewish family at all, but one of the despised Edomites.

In 63 BC, Pompey the Great annexed much of the eastern Mediterranean.   During his campaign, he besieged and took Jerusalem itself. 

Pompey didn't want to control Judaea directly, and he was willing to let the Hasmoneans continue as "ethnarchs," i.e., leaders of the people.  But factional strife continued...and a new problem.  In 40 BC the Parthians took Jerusalem.  When the Romans took the city back, they  put in power a clever but ruthless politician, Herod the Great. 

As an Edomite, Herod had potential problems getting the Jews to accept his leadership.  He married into a Jewish priestly family, and added greatly to the temple to try to gain popularity. But he was an extremely cruel man, and not much liked by his subjects.  He served Roman interests well enough, though, and, at his death, the Romans divided his kingdom among his sons. 

This wasn't particularly successful in Judea, and the Romans ended up using Roman governors (e.g., Pilate, Felix, and Festus) to try to bring a bit more stability.  It didn't work: the particular men sent were below average in ability and insensitive to Jewish popular sentiment.  Tension increased,  and it was clear that something was going to give.

XVI.  Different strategies for survival

The Jews adopted several different strategies for dealing with their Roman overlords.

 A. The Sadducees  (who included most of the priests and particularly the high priests) favored cooperation with whatever power happened to be on the throne, whether it be a Herodian or a Roman governor.  As long as temple-sacrifice continued (and they maintained their own privileges and wealth) that was good enough.

 B.  The Pharisees (who dominated the synagogues) stressed adherence to the law in one's personal life: proper diet and rigid following of the sabbath law were essential to keeping the faith.  Separate yourself by lifestyle, and that's good enough.

 C.  The Essenes, who regarded the temple priesthood as hopelessly corrupt, went out into the wilderness areas and set up communes where they could live their lives free from interference by either Roman or Jewish authorities.
D. The  Zealots thought armed revolt the only answer, and were determined to drive out the Romans by force.  Assassination and terrorist attacks, not just on Romans, but on Jews too, were the ticket.  Stir things up enough, provoke a war, and hope for the best.

XVII.  The Great Tribulation II: The Destruction of Jerusalem

In AD 66, things reached crisis stage.  The zealot types did succeed in provoking a war with Rome.  In the midst of this war, there was essentially a civil war among the Jews themselves.  Disunited, and doing horrible things to each other, the Jews couldn't hold out against the Romans despite the advantages of a magnificently fortified Jerusalem.  Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 AD, and, within a few years, the Romans had subdued all other pockets of Jewish resistance.  Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and we have the beginnings of the great diaspora, the great dispersion of the Jewish people  After one last desperate revolt (the Bar Kochbar Rebellion in 135 AD), the Romans, fed up, turned Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina, an entirely pagan city.  Jews weren't permitted to even set foot there or anywhere in Judea.  The diaspora was complete.

XIX.  The exciting conclusion to this course!

And Hebrew civilization came to an end.  Like the Hittites, the Mittani, and so many other peoples, the Hebrews disappeared from history, never to rise again.  At least, that's how it could have been.  Without a homeland, without leaders, and with a long tendency of blending into surrounding cultures anyway, the Jews should simply have been assimilated into the dominant Roman culture.

But that's not what happened.  Instead, among the Jews of the diaspora, there arose a determination to go back and start again, to re-establish their nation, to rebuild the city and the sanctuary.   And, amazingly enough, after nearly two thousand years, they succeeded.  

For centuries, Jews concluded their Passover celebrations with the words, "Hashanah ha ba'a b'yeroshaliem," next year in  Jerusalem.  And now--well, the Jews have Jerusalem once again.  And there they are surrounded by enemies.  Divided among themselves.  Tempted to assimilate and fall away from God completely.

What was it that enabled the Jews to survive against all odds, and still enables them to survive against all odds?  Just a book  But it's *the* book: the most important book ever written--and a book that I hope this very strange class has helped you to better understand.