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
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
[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
, in the day when thou camest to thy kingdom, And to send away all the vessels that were taken away out of Jerusalem Jerusalem, which Cyrus set apart, when he vowed to destroy , and to send them again thither. Thou also hast vowed to build up the temple, which the Edomites burned when Babylon Judeawas 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
blending into surrounding cultures anyway, the Jews should simply have
been assimilated into the dominant Roman culture.