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Chapter 9: Post Exilic Judaism


In 587 B.C. Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonian army; they burned and destroyed the city and the Temple. It was the end of the magnificent edifice that King Solomon had built almost 400 years before.

For the people of Judah, the Temple was their sure and abiding sign that God was in their midst and his presence guaranteed their protection. The Temple had been a talisman for them, and no matter how the Latter Prophets inveighed against their faith in a building, and in the sacrificial worship that was carried out there, the people considered the Temple to be the most sacred place on earth: it was the House of the Lord.

Now the House of the Lord, as well as the sacred city of Jerusalem, lay in ruins. The people who survived its destruction were deported from their own land and sent to live in Babylonia. Although the siege of Jerusalem was brutal, once the Jewish people were settled in their land of exile, living conditions kept improving. Ultimately, the Babylonians gave the Jews the chance to become contributing members of the Empire. They also encouraged them to live in close proximity to each other and to preserve their own culture.

It was during this time that the institution of the synagogue began to evolve. It became a place where the Jewish people could gather as a community to pray together and to read and study the Scriptures. Up to that time communal worship, with its prayers and rituals, had centered around the Temple altars. But in Babylonia the people were far from Jerusalem and they had been forbidden to offer sacrifices at any other place.[1] This situation forced them to abandon their old ways of worship. It took the destruction of the Temple, the defeat of the Jewish people, and their subsequent exile to end the sacrificial worship that the Latter Prophets had condemned hundreds of years before.

The Babylonian Exile shaped other aspects of Jewish life. There was an increased emphasis on the Sabbath laws, on dietary restrictions, and on various other regulations that served to keep the Jews separate from the larger Babylonian society.[2] It was a way to insure that Judaism was preserved.

But despite the effort to keep themselves separate from other national groups, when the opportunity came for the Jews to be repatriated, most of them did not want to return to their native land.

The chance to return to Jerusalem came in 538 B.C., when the Babylonian Empire was overthrown by Cyrus, king of Persia. Cyrus believed that all people should be free to worship their own gods and to live in their own land. But by the time he came to power the majority of Jewish people did not want to exchange their prosperous lifestyle for the uncertainty of returning to a country that had been lying in ruins for fifty years. However, those who did not want to become pioneers and resettle their homeland were quite generous in their financial and moral support of those who were willing to go.

When the first group arrived in Jerusalem they found things were even worse than they expected. The countryside was desolate and rebuilding loomed as a monumental task. And other problems faced the returnees. They had come back in triumphant procession, ready to claim Jerusalem as their own and institute their own agenda. But when they arrived they found that the ruins were inhabited by the descendants of poor peasants who had hidden out in the hills during the defeat of Judah. They had escaped captivity while the wealthy merchants, landowners, and priests, who had substantial homes and holdings, had been rounded up and deported by the Babylonians.

In the years since the Exile, those peasants had made a life for themselves that was centered around Jerusalem. They built shelters for their families, and for many years had been eking out a living in the barren countryside. During those years, the peasant survivors of the Southern Kingdom had found common cause with the Jewish survivors of the Northern Kingdom, who were now known as the Samaritans.[3]

But those who returned from Babylon wanted nothing to do with those who had remained in the land. They considered the peasant survivors of Judah to be ritually unclean, and the Samaritans to be impure because they had intermarried with non-Jews.

So although both the peasants and Samaritans wanted to help the returning Jews with the rebuilding of the Temple, they were not allowed to do so. They presented themselves to the priest and other leaders saying, "We would like to build with you, for we seek your God as you do and we have sacrificed to him since the time of Esarhaddon."[4] Their offer was refused because they were contaminated; unclean. They reacted to this bigotry by harassing the returnees as they undertook the reconstruction of the Temple.[5]

But despite various problems, work on the sacrificial altar continued and in 515 B.C. the Temple was dedicated by a massive slaughter of animals.

The altar was set up on its old site...and on it they offered holocaust to Yahweh, holocaust morning and addition to the perpetual holocaust....New Moon feasts and all the solemnities sacred to Yahweh...though the foundations of the sanctuary of Yahweh had not yet been laid.[6]

The above-quoted scripture that triumphantly announces the resumption of sacrifices is almost a word-for-word refutation of the Prophet Isaiah's oracle against such worship.

What are your endless sacrifices to me, says Yahweh. I am sick of holocausts of rams...the blood of bulls and goats revolts me...the smoke of them fills me with disgust....Your New Moons and your pilgrimages I hate with all my soul...your hands are covered with blood, wash, make yourselves clean.[7]

The Latter Prophets had continually warned people of the dire consequences that would befall them if they did not reform themselves and their worship. Although predications of disaster had come true, and the Jewish nation had been defeated, the cult of animal sacrifices was now reinstituted. The resumption of this bloody form of worship represented the triumph of the priests over the prophets.

Without a temple of sacrifice, the priesthood had no function. In Babylonia all the priests had been anxious to return to their native land. While in exile, they had no special function. Only in connection with the sacrificial cult at Jerusalem could they have a preeminent role among the Jewish people. "For the dedication of the Temple of God....they installed the priests according to their orders in the service of the Temple of God in Jerusalem."[8]

During the next century the violence of sacrificial worship was firmly reestablished, and religious life settled into a routine that centered around the altar at Jerusalem.

The men who had first returned from the Babylonian Exile were now married and raising their families, but many of them married women who were descendants of the peasants and Samaritans--the people considered impure by religious leaders. And after the completion of the Temple altar, as the priests and Levites gained power, they were increasingly vocal about the evils of intermarriage. But they were ignored until a priest named Ezra arrived in Jerusalem.

Ezra was a scribe as well as an hereditary priest. As a scribe he was trained in the minutiae of religious law and qualified to translate and interpret those laws. In Babylon he had been the equivalent of a minister for Jewish affairs at the Persian Court and had a great deal of influence. He used that influence to secure letters of authority from the king. He had himself sent to Jerusalem as a political and religious leader, empowered to collect money, appoint judges, and to punish with "death, banishment, confiscation or imprisonment" any Jew who did not obey the laws that he expounded.

Armed with that power, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem (circa 450 B.C.) and instituted an "ethnic cleansing" that shaped Jewish beliefs and policy for centuries to come.

For at least four generations prior to his arrival "pure" Jews had been marrying "impure" half-breeds. In ancient Israel such marriages had been allowed, but eventually they came into disfavor. Foreign women were blamed when Jewish men failed to fulfill their religious obligations or fell into idolatrous worship.[9]

The prohibitions introduced against such marriages had been based on religious considerations. They were an attempt to avoid any influence that might dilute or corrupt Judaism. But Ezra introduced a new element into the ban on intermarriages. For the first time, one group of people viewed other groups as a contaminating influence--as a source of racial or ethnic impurity. The issue was not whether or not they worshipped Jehovah: their individual beliefs did not matter. The issue was whether or not they were pure-blooded Jews.

Not only did Ezra demand that the foreign wives of Jewish men be cast off--in the name of God he demanded that all the children born of such marriages be sent away. This edict was multi-generational. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were to be cast off, never again to see their fathers.[10] And wives who had been with their husbands only a few years, as well as those who had spent a lifetime with their mates, must also be sent away. Grandmothers as well as mothers were banished. No one whose blood was contaminated with non-Jewish blood could stay.

Of course there was no place for most of them to go. In that day and time women, children, the frail, and the elderly had no way to sustain themselves. The homes from which they were being banished were the only homes they knew. They were sent out into a hostile environment with no resources and few skills. For most of them, Ezra's proclamation was a death sentence.

He used the power given to him by the king of Persia to make sure that no one could ignore his decree. "A proclamation was issued throughout Judah and Jerusalem for all the exiles to assemble in Jerusalem. Anyone who failed to appear within three days would forfeit all his property...and would himself be expelled from the assembly."[11]

Under the impetus of that threat, within three days all Jewish males from the surrounding countryside were assembled in the Temple square. There they were given details of the purge that was about to take place. They were to turn in any members of their family who were tainted by foreign blood. They were informed that committees would be set up to investigate all reports of the existence of such undesirables. There was no way to avoid detection.

Ezra the priest selected men who were family heads, one from each family division, and all of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to investigate the cases, and by the first day of the first month they finished dealing with all the men.[12]

The purge was completed within a few months. The Bible reports that out of all the men who had been forced to assemble in Jerusalem, only four of them opposed Ezra's plan.[13]

The acceptance of Ezra's interpretation of what constituted religious purity, as well as his enforcement of rituals and behavior that mandated every aspect of Jewish life, constitute a watershed in the development of Judaism. In the centuries that followed his death, the rabbis would declare: "Ezra gave us the law." After his time, the Jewish people became the people of the Book: the people of the Law. They remembered, with reverence, that they were the descendants of Abraham and they preserved the writings of the Latter Prophets in their sacred books. But their primary emphasis became the ritual observance of the laws of Moses, as they pertained to the minutiae of everyday life.

It was these laws, developed and interpreted century after century by succeeding generations of rabbis, that came to define Judaism.


For 200 years, the Jewish people lived under the non-intrusive authority of Persian rule. Then, in 333 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and the land of Palestine become subject to Greek rule. Judaism was increasingly influenced by Greek culture and people divided into mutually hostile factions. Some were eager to adapt themselves to this new culture; others rejected all Greek influence and thought of Hellenized Jews as apostates.

In spite of resistance, Greek manners and customs flourished and many influential Jews sent their sons to the gymnasium, where they were educated as Greeks. And although Hellenism had an enormous effect on Jewish men, it produced no change in the lives of women. The Greeks, like the Hebrews, had severely restricted the activities of females; even during the era of the great philosophers, they were kept in harem-like seclusion in the home. So for Jewish women this new way of life, enthusiastically embraced by men, was simply a continuation of the status quo.

But eventually male infatuation with all things Greek underwent a drastic change. In 167 B.C., King Antiochus IV revoked the decree that had granted religious freedom to the Jewish people. The King's new policy forbade circumcision, the celebration of feast days, and the observation of the Sabbath. He rededicated the Jerusalem Temple to Zeus and demanded that the Jews take part in the worship of the Olympian god. That worship included the sacrifice and ritual consumption of pig's flesh.

For the Jews, sacrificing pigs on the altars of Jehovah was the worst kind of profanity--and eating pork was absolutely forbidden. It was so abhorrent that the book of Maccabees devotes two chapters to recounting the stories of martyrs who suffered terrible deaths rather than eat the flesh of pigs.[1]

The drastic punishments inflicted on those who would not worship Zeus provoked a Jewish uprising. Under the leadership of the family of Mattathias Maccabee, what began as guerrilla warfare eventually led to the retaking of the Temple. In 164 B.C. the Temple was cleansed and rededicated to the Lord.[2] It was a major victory, but it took twenty-two more years for the Jewish people to overthrow their conquerors and become an independent nation.

As soon as they achieved their independence, the Jews set out to conquer neighboring territories. Their attempts at expansion were successful and under a succession of Maccabean kings,[3] a new policy was put into effect. It was a policy of forced conversions. Although they had fought to the death for their own right to religious freedom, they allowed no such freedom in the territories they now took over. If the conquered people did not repudiate their own religion and convert to Judaism, they were executed.

The brutality of their foreign policy also characterized the domestic rule of the Maccabees. The violence perpetrated during their rule was especially destructive to the soul of Judaism because during that time the king represented the highest spiritual authority. The roles of king and high priest had been combined; like a medieval pope, the Jewish ruler exercised both secular and spiritual authority.

With so much power at stake, the question of who had the right of succession to the high priesthood became a matter of bitter debate--and bloodshed. Once again the people were divided into factions, each supporting its own candidate. This time it was the Pharisees and Sadducees who formed opposing groups.

By 103 B.C. when Alexander Janneus, grandson of Simon Maccabee, occupied the throne, the two groups were involved in mass murder over the question of succession. Janneus favored the Sadducees and had 6,000 Pharisees killed after they disputed the way he had performed a religious ritual at the Temple.[4] This slaughter incited the Pharisees to civil war, but they were defeated by the king's troops. After their defeat, Janneus took steps to crush any chance of future opposition by making an example of the dissenters.

He had 800 Pharisees crucified, and while they were hanging on their crosses he ordered their wives and children to be murdered in front of them.[5] This mass crucifixion did crush the opposition to Janneus, but after he died the Pharisees were restored to favor by his successor. Now it was their turn to take revenge on their enemies.

As the fight for political control continued among the Pharisees and Sadducees, the balance of power seesawed between the two groups. Then, in 67 B.C., each faction found a champion in two brothers who were rival claimants to the throne. Each brother managed to seize power for a while and each looked to foreign armies to help them. At one point, they both asked Rome for military aid.

Both brothers offered a bribe to the Roman General Pompey. He decided to back the claims of Hyrcanus II and the Pharisees. In 64 B.C., with the help of Roman troops, Hyrcanus and his followers breached the walls at Jerusalem and killed 12,000 of their countrymen in the battle that followed. But when it was all over, Hyrcanus did not become king. Pompey stripped him of most of his territory, allowing him only the title and function of high priest. And Judah became known as the Roman province of Judea.

Once again the descendants of Sarah and Abraham had allowed the male power principle to run amuck, and once again that had cost them their country and their autonomy. The former kingdom of the Maccabees was now under Roman rule and in 40 B.C., the Roman Senate appointed Herod, son of a court advisor to the Maccabees, to be king of Judea.

In the years that followed, Herod became the focus of Jewish hatred.[6] He was a cruel ruler, but not more so than many of his predecessors. The reasons for the hatred were religious as well as political. Herod was not a pure-blooded Jew and he ruled at a time when a pure bloodline was of paramount importance. The emphasis on ethnic purity that began with Ezra had continued to be an important factor in the self-identity of the Jewish people.

But it was not simply pride of ancestry that dictated the meticulous recording of genealogical records in Herod's time. The civil rights of a family also depended on their heredity. Only persons of pure race comprised the "true Israel," and only true Israelites were entitled to important privileges.[7]

Herod's enemies used this criterion to denounce him as an unfit ruler. He retaliated by destroying the genealogical records that were kept in Jerusalem. If no one else could prove their unblemished ancestry then he, by default, was just as fit to rule as anyone else.

In their hatred of the king, the Jewish people forgot that he never would have been appointed to rule over them if his family had not been forcibly converted to Judaism. He was descended from Edomites[8] who under the rule of the Maccabean kings were forced to choose between death and conversion.

And in their hatred of the Romans, the people also seemed to forget that it was the request of their own leaders for military aid from Pompey that led to the Roman occupation of their country.

The Jews who lived in the world of Roman occupation and Herodian rule identified themselves as the people of the Law; of Torah.[9] Religious leaders taught that ritual observances, both sacrificial and personal, were demanded by God. Ritual laws were expanded to cover every possible facet of daily life and only those who devoted their lives to studying the Law could interpret all its requirements.

Although the study of religious law had achieved such prominence in Jewish life, women were prohibited from its study. For them to undertake such studies would be to profane that which was sacred. Women were further excluded from the religious life of the community when a new Temple was built during the reign of Herod. Religious leaders insisted that it be constructed with separate facilities for females. Like the heathens who were allowed only in the outer courts, women were not to be allowed full participation in Temple ceremonies.[10] This segregation was established at a time when the sacrificial cult at Jerusalem was at the height of its importance.

The attempt to further limit the participation of women in the most important areas of Jewish life reflected the continuing determination to restrict the activity of the female principle to domestic life. The world of Torah, of Pharisee and Sadducee, of ritual observance, priestly power, and endless holocausts of animals on the altars at Jerusalem, was a world in which the male principle reigned supreme.

It was a world in which the covenant sealed by circumcision had become a travesty among the descendants of Abraham. Instead of indicating a willingness to cut back the influence of the male power principle, it had become a celebration of maleness; the kind of maleness that was a denigration of the female and found expression in fervant prayer with which Jewish men began each day. "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who hast not made me a woman...."[11]

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