Royalist nationalism, opposition prophets, and the impact of exile and return

Jack Conrad concludes his survey of Ancient Israel (supplement III)

Compared with the northern kingdom of Israel - which was abolished by Assyrian decree in or around 720 BCE - history moved according to a similar, but delayed, rhythm in the southern kingdom of Judea. Archaeological evidence shows that between the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE the population of Jerusalem doubles and doubles again. From a thousand to perhaps 15,000. A rough estimate, of course; and with equal vagueness historians reckon a one-in-20 to a one-in-10 ratio between urban and rural populations in the ancient world. So that would give a total population in Judea of around 200,000 at the time.

A new, 20-foot-thick wall is built to surround the western hill and incorporate the huddled dwellings that had sprung up in the shadow of the city of David. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic, mercantile and religious elite amass considerable fortunes, indulge their whims in conspicuous consumption and provide themselves with numerous hangers-on, multiple wives, large houses and elaborate tombs. As for the Judean kings, they crown the city heights with impressive buildings for the first time.

Enhanced wealth for the elite derives in the main from the spread of market relations, intensified tax demands and a surge in international trade. Under Assyrian sponsorship Judea becomes a branch line on the highly lucrative Arabian trade route. Both imports and exports mushroom. Caravan trains from the south bring in incense and other exotic luxury goods. Within Judea commercial-scale olive oil production takes off. Extensive vineyards are planted and wine shifts from being a private and local, to a highly profitable, state-controlled, industry. Sleepy villages are transformed into bustling towns with reassuringly expensive public buildings, thriving bazaars and all manner of artisanal workshops.

Although hugely benefiting from integration into the Assyrian economic space and still Assyrian vassals, politically the kings of the newly prosperous Judea begin to entertain imperial ambitions of their own. Royal eyes fix on the north. Israeli ‘reunification’ soon becomes the official slogan: one capital city, one Davidic dynasty, one supreme god. Twenty years after miscalculated rebellion ended the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern king Hezekiah (reigned circa 727-698 BCE) made his own declaration of independence. The elderly Assyrian king, Sargon, had died unexpectedly while fighting the Cimmerians in the southern Caucuses. Hezekiah seized his moment.

A royalist movement for national liberation is launched, which is combined, reinforced or wrapped up with religious reformation. The second book of Kings reports that Hezekiah rebelled “against the king of Assyria” and goes on to praise him because he “removed the high places, and broke down the pillars, and cut down the Asherah.” Hezekiah is given additional plaudits because he “broke in pieces the bronze serpent”, called Nehushtan, “that Moses had made.”[1]

Baruch Halpern argues that it would be mistaken to interpret this account as equating to full blown Jerusalem-centred monotheism. That came later. Hezekiah is therefore viewed as taking Judea in the direction of exclusive Yahwehism.[2] Halpern believes that Hezekiah did not close state temples in provincial towns, though he suppressed rural shrines and locked his kingship into Yahweh worship. The archaeological record is inconclusive.[3] Yet there can be no doubt that Hezekiah did preside over far-reaching changes.

Hence the related suggestion that refugee priests played a key role in shaping his Yahwehite nationalism. Those who fled from the destruction of the northern kingdom would have loathed the Assyrians with a passion. And coming from a richer, better connected, more sophisticated culture, they could well have been regarded as an invaluable intellectual asset by Hezekiah, as he set about formulating his version of Israeli reunification.

Others say that the Yahwehite priesthood in Jerusalem wanted to assert its domination over the increasingly prosperous, but still fiercely polytheistic, countryside … and therefore stake a holy claim to be the sole beneficiary of religiously required tithes and offerings.

Not that the two arguments are mutually exclusive. Northern and southern priests could have fused into a single Yahwehite party. A ‘Yahweh alone movement’[4] is thought to have emerged prior to Hezekiah’s reign, perhaps beginning in the north. Hezekiah made a big impression on the writers of the second book of Kings, of that we can be sure: “[T]here was none like him among the kings of Judea after him, nor amongst those who went before him.”[5]

It is worth noting that it was under the combined circumstances of irredentist royalist nationalism, burgeoning commercial relations and expanded state control that for the first time written texts, rather than recited epics or ballads, became the main form of ideological authority.

It is not so much that literacy had spread from the narrow confines of the elite to the much wider middle classes (which it might have done). Selecting from the jungle of lists, annals, mysteries, hymns, regulations, popular legends and recent memories, and fashioning a coherent literature, required learning, a clear aim and artistry. But committing the result to parchment and papyrus helped fix the message. That empowered the sponsor. Priests were expected to recite scripture to their congregations. Hence, whereas the term ‘scribe’, or ‘writer’, previously designated administrative and clerical functions, now “didactic connotations became predominant.”[6] Scribes were valued because of their creativity and there is every reason to believe that Hezekiah himself provided guidelines, close supervision and generous patronage.

Anyway, we can safely conclude that the king drew confidence about his coming military success not only through faith in Yahweh. Hezekiah agreed to include his little kingdom in an Egyptian-backed anti-Assyrian alliance. So as a personality he would appear to have been a sober-minded realist who recognised the advantages of exploiting big-power rivalries. Hezekiah was therefore no crazed religious fanatic embarking on a suicide mission. I think we can say that.

Nevertheless, four years after Hezekiah’s rebellion began, the newly installed Assyrian king, Sennacherib, son of Sargon, soundly defeated the Egyptians. He then proceeded to stomp his way through the Judean countryside and sack town after town. Archaeology provides ample confirmation. Naturally, Jerusalem itself was put under siege. Though its defences proved far too strong to allow easy capture, Hezekiah, sensibly, sued for peace. The terms imposed by Sennacherib amounted to the amputation of an arm and leg: mass deportations to Assyria; the agriculturally rich and heavily populated western territories, the Shedhelah hills, ceded to the Philistines; and additional tribute transfers. We can dismiss biblical claims that an angel miraculously slaughtered the Assyrian forces surrounding Jerusalem and thereby lifted the siege. Clearly later invention designed to enhance the image of Hezekiah.

The attempt by the Judean monarch, the ‘Yahweh alone’ movement and the anti-Assyrian court faction to assert monopoly rights over the peasant tax base proved almost as disastrous for the south as it had for the north. Hezekiah presumably met with unremitting hostility from sections of the elite, not least the rural priesthood. Those committed to the traditional heavenly host would in all likelihood have accused him of blasphemy. We can imagine them vehemently blaming Hezekiah’s reformation for the disaster that befell Judea at the hands of Sennacherib and demanding a return to the trusted gods and goddesses.

Writing the book

There must have been pained outcry coming from the common people too. Hezekiah’s war increased their sufferings no end. The king mobilised all available resources to prepare Judea for the oncoming struggle: new fortifications, building up enormous food reserves, deep tunnelling to secure water supplies and, one presumes, a substantially expanded army. Such a programme could only have been carried out by draining the treasury, enforcing compulsory labour and squeezing extra surplus product from the immediate producers. Moreover, when the Assyrians invaded Judea, they left a trail of havoc, trauma and death: ruined crops, stolen animals, ransacked houses, women and girls raped, horrible massacres, etc. Adding to their woes, those who survived amongst the peasantry would have been bled white in order to pay for the heavy tribute Sennacherib demanded in exchange for his victor’s peace.

Though the Bible relates, in a convoluted account, how an aged Hezekiah eventually died of natural causes. Replacing him with his 12-year-old son, Manasseh, amounted to a palace coup. Hezekiah’s anti-Assyrian nationalism is thrown into reverse. Renewed cooperation with Assyria and counter-reformation marches in step. As detailed by a scandalised second book of Kings, that means reintroducing the image of Asherah into the Jerusalem temple, re-establishing the high places, erecting once again the altars of Baal and worshipping the “host of heaven”.

Manasseh is condemned for practising soothsaying and augury, and dealing with wizards and mediums. In that exact same spirit the king is said to have “burnt his son as an offering” some time during his 55-year reign.[7] A sacrificial act which, of course, he might actually have performed. All in all, Manasseh is depicted as one of the most dreadfully wicked monarchs and is even blamed for the future destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (obviously a later interpellation).

Yet Manasseh would appear to have pursued a successful diplomatic policy by reinventing Judea as an ultra-loyal Assyrian vassal. For its part Nineveh (the capital city of the Assyrian king) had a real interest in a prosperous Judea so that it could serve as a strong buffer state against the Egyptian arch-enemy (undergoing a great-power renaissance at the time). Manasseh’s pro-Assyrian course brought about an unmistakable economic revival. Judea once again integrated itself into the Arabian trade route and commercial agricultural production was intensified and pushed east and south into the arid zones of what remained of the kingdom.

Manasseh was succeeded by his son, Amon. But he lasted less than two years. Amon was assassinated. Perhaps another palace coup, but this time carried out by the anti-Assyrian faction. The second book of Kings blames Amon’s servants and they are duly put to death by the “people of the land” - one presumes populist code for members of the elite in this particular context. Manasseh’s eight-year-old son is elevated to the throne. Josiah (reigned 639-609 BCE) goes on, however, to be a king in the mould of his grandfather, Hezekiah. Not his father or great grandfather.

Amazingly, the high priest of the Jerusalem temple and Josiah’s secretary discover a previously unknown “book of the law”. It provides the new king with the pretext he needs for another bid at imposing root and branch religious change. Having fortuitously discovered Yahweh’s legal code, Josiah immediately proceeds to decisive action. As told by the second book of Kings, the statues of Baal and Asherah are once again removed from the Jerusalem temple … and burnt. Their, and all other, “idolatrous” priests are “deposed”. Josiah issues further orders. The temple brothels which housed the “male cult prostitutes” are closed. His reformation tsunamis out from Jerusalem. High places are laid waste, the topheth, the sacrificial site where children are killed in honour of Molech, is demolished, and sacred pillars are toppled. Taking advantage of an orderly Assyrian withdrawal from the Levant and the absence of an Egyptian presence in the highlands, Josiah extends his Taliban-like campaign into Samaria (the old kingdom of Israel). The great cult site of Bethel is trashed, its altar being broken into tiny pieces. Josiah carries out the same programme of purification throughout the north, killing priests as he goes, before returning triumphantly to Jerusalem.[8]

Understandably, most biblical scholars consider that Josiah himself sponsored the writing of the ancient law codes found by his secretary and the Jerusalem high priest. Obviously the ten commandments - and similar legal instructions - purportedly given to Moses on mount Sinai by Yahweh … and, of course, now found in Deuteronomy. While there were doubtless later redactions, its “main outlines” begin “for the first time” during Josiah’s reign.[9]

Likewise, doing Josiah’s bidding, it was in all probability the scribes of the ‘Yahweh alone’ movement who completed the first versions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. The same people also authored the first version of Deuteronomistic history - from the book of Deuteronomy itself to the second book of Kings.[10] Existing religious literature, poems, hymns, prophecies and popular legends were collected, woven together, elaborated and theologically interpreted. Hence the theory that each of these books should be treated as a series of original blocks which are then overlaid by subsequent authors and redactors.

Transparently, the whole exercise of literary creation was carried out in order to further political aims. Exodus, Joshua, Samuel, Deuteronomy, Kings, etc being prequels to Josiah’s reformation and Anschluss with the north. His bold plan for making David’s empire real would have been considerably aided by manufacturing a unified religion and a unified history. Minds were that way armed and readied for apocalyptic conflict.

So, thanks to Josiah’s scribes, the peoples of the south and north are cleverly united through 12 ancient tribes, which are in their turn given a common ancestor in the form of the patriarch, Jacob (renamed Israel by an angel) along with a superbly crafted story going back to the first man and woman (indeed to creation and the beginning of time itself). Deuteronomistic history provides them with a never to be forgotten common enemy too. Significantly, Egypt, not Assyria. The half-remembered folktales of the Hyskos expulsion from Egypt are continued, but reversed in the collective memory through the annual Passover festival. Revealingly, when it comes to the so-called exodus from Egypt and the so-called conquest of Canaan, the Bible unfailingly reflects the political, strategic and geographic realities of the 7th century BCE. Not the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age: ie, the 15th to 10th centuries BCE.

The exodus, of course, provides the narrational springboard for Joshua’s Assyrian-like conquest. In an obvious attempt to forge a common nationalist pride the Judeans /Israelites are portrayed as mighty warriors. Their forefathers stormed cities, humiliated mighty kings and ruthlessly exterminated enemies. It was they, not the late Bronze Age general crisis - ie, urban abandonment, the sea people and peasant revolution - who were responsible for the still highly visible ruins that littered the Palestinian countryside.

In status terms the southern, Judean, kingdom is presented as the elder brother to the wayward northern, Israeli, kingdom. After the glory days of David and Solomon the Deuteronomistic history has the north irresponsibly splitting away. The two kingdoms are ruled by a string of good and bad rulers, which in terms of a “cultic interpretation of history” explains why the north fell to the Assyrians and the south survived.[11] Bad kings being defined, of course, by their participation in unacceptable religious practices.

As it turned out, Josiah’s national liberation gamble went the same way as that of his grandfather. He was defeated and killed - not, however, by the now visibly declining Assyrians, but the reassertive Egyptians under pharaoh Necho II. A miscalculating Josiah had aligned Judea with faraway Babylon and thereby inadvertently made his kingdom the front line in the Egyptian-Babylonian war of 609 BCE. In the desperately fought battle of Megiddo the Egyptian army overcame the Judeans en route to taking on the Babylonians (there was an Assyrian-Egyptian, anti-Babylonian alliance).

There follows a brief, three-month, interregnum under Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz - who reversed his father’s reformation. But, returning from his unsuccessful Babylonian campaign, Necho deposed Jehoahaz and replaced him with his elder brother, Jehoiachin. He became Egypt’s stooge in Jerusalem. Another terrible reversal for Judean royalist nationalism … but, exceptionally, on this occasion, the losers got to tell their side of the story to countless future generations. Read the Hebrew canon.

Voices of opposition

Not that the Old Testament consists of uncontested or seamless Judean royalist propaganda. I have already mentioned Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah. They are generally thought to have got their calling during the late monarchical period. Amos and Hosea being active in the north; Isaiah and Micah in the south. From the better off classes, and therefore educated and free from crushing relations of dependence, these oppositional prophets detached themselves from their specific origins. They clearly championed the interests of the peasantry, as against the landowning elite, although this was mediated through the prism of religious fervour. By including the complaints, protests and demands of the rural poor within their “says the lord god” indictments, the prophets provide eloquent testimony to their plight.

Violation of traditional inheritance codes, alienable property, onerous rates of interest and confiscationary loan guarantees are deemed akin to outright robbery. By such sinful means the rich have joined field after field to their already extensive estates until they are the sole owners of the land. Meanwhile, those who have incurred minor debts are sold off into slavery for silver or even a pair of sandals if they fail to pay on time. The prophets seethe with righteous indignation against the legal system which enforces the separation of the peasant mass from the means of production. Courts are dominated by the upper classes and if need be are easily persuaded through intimidation and bribery. A crime against god’s laws, the prophets defiantly remind people. Because of their arrogant rejection of traditional egalitarianism, callous treatment of the poor, idleness, licentiousness and luxurious way of life, the elite are soon to suffer terrible retribution from Yahweh. And, though they will flee to mountain tops and hide in the depths of the sea, there can be no escape.

Because of ideological blinkers, mainstream biblical scholars think of oppositional prophets within a reformist frame. True, in the texts we have available to us, there is no explicit demand for another peasant revolution. Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, etc are therefore said to have directed their message to those above. The elite is admittedly called upon to repent and re-establish social justice. But this ignores likely context. Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, etc were preachers and I think it is safe to say that they delivered their wonderfully vitriolic homilies not in temples, palaces and mansions, but market squares, village assemblies and crossroad meeting places. Here, in a popular environment, their damning condemnations and terrible warnings cannot seriously be interpreted as designed to produce a contrite elite. No, their simple, fluent, lacerating words would surely have focused anger amongst those below. At a village level resistance would have been internalised and when the opportunity arose released in protest actions.

Conceivably, when it came to the national stage, the message conveyed by the opposition prophets would have been taken as inspired advice to wait upon Yahweh’s divine vengeance. Clearly the opposition prophets did not ignore or neglect high politics. Well versed and well connected, they formulated penetrating critiques of the foreign policy pursued by Judean monarchs.

Put trust in Yahweh: ie, common interests. Not fickle foreign powers and catastrophic military adventures. Condemnations of the disastrous war policy pursued by the ruling classes, warnings of pending national disaster - sanctioned by Yahweh - are combined with appeals for a rediscovery of the old egalitarian ideals. Hosea ii,18 urges a new covenant between Yahweh and those who would abolish war and introduce righteousness/egalitarianism. Hosea iii,4 even predicts the abolition of corrupt kings and princes before a return to the imagined ideal of David. Surely a rallying call for the revolutionary refoundation of the state.

Not surprisingly then, the “provocative message” of the oppositional prophets is rejected outright by official society.[12] Blaming national woes on the religious transgressions of the monarch, the landowning classes and the state priesthood drained their Yahwehism of theological legitimacy. Yet, though the prophets were clearly despised by the elite, doubtless suffered state-sponsored persecution and never achieved their stated goals, self-selecting groups of disciples took up, passed on, supplemented, refined and finally systemised their teachings in written form. Hence an oppositional religious literature arose alongside the newly created official religious literature.

The sayings of the oppositional prophets must have proved widely popular and obviously resonated with tremendous interpretive possibilities. Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc, therefore, had to be incorporated into official religious literature as the second part of the Nevim (the 12 ‘minor’ prophets). The result is the much commented upon fractures which characterise the Tanakh: official versus unofficial, egalitarian versus monarchical, peasant versus landlord, international manoeuvring versus national solidarity.

Tragically, in terms of Judean elite pretensions, not only did Josiah miserably fail, but in 586 BCE the Babylonians - having rid themselves of the hated Assyrians - once again established themselves as the masters of Mesopotamia … and from there the whole of the Middle East. They defeat the Egyptian army, based on the west bank of the Euphrates, advance into northern Syria and demand immediate Judean surrender. Emboldened by Egyptian promises of aid, the Judeans prove defiant. In purely military terms a big mistake.

Nebuchadnezzar II launched a standard punishment expedition and the Babylonian king easily asserted his will through overwhelming martial force. Mimicking the Assyrians, the Babylonians maintained the Davidic dynasty, but carted off into exile the “mighty of the land”.[13] Something like 7,000 individuals were reportedly involved. Including king Jehoiachin and his family. Despite this draining defeat, there followed yet another Judean independence declaration. Oded Lipschitz paints the situation in Jerusalem as bitterly divided between “religious-nationalist” fanatics around the new king, Zedekiah (reigned 596-586 BCE), and “realists”, who calculated that rebellion against Babylon and relying on the Egyptians was inviting disaster.[14] Interestingly, amongst those who wanted to accept Babylonian rule - albeit as a form of divine punishment - was the prophet Jeremiah (as recorded in the biblical book named after him).

Another Babylonian punishment expedition inevitably followed. However, this time round, Nebuchadnezzar opted for an entirely different solution to the ‘Judean problem’. This was part of a wider strategic reorientation. He decided to depose the Davidic dynasty, blot out Jerusalem and its royal temple, and transform Judea into a mere Babylonian province. Jerusalem was put under siege and eventually its defences were breached. A fleeing Zedekiah was captured and his sons were killed before his eyes, after which the king is blinded. A month or two after the city was seized the laborious work of razing its walls, gates, palaces, big houses, the royal temple - everything - began. Meanwhile, in or around 587 BCE, there was another deportation of the elite (including the blind king and his royal household). Maybe 8,000 were involved (plus perhaps a couple of thousand smiths and other craftsmen). The book of Jeremiah tells how the Babylonians only “left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing”.[15] These “poor people” have vineyards and fields allocated to them by the Babylonians (one presumes to simultaneously buy gratitude and maintain the imperial tax base). Needless to say, they, the rural and urban poor, constitute an overwhelming majority. Judea was never emptied of people

The Babylonians proceed to appoint Gedaliah, from a renowned family of priests and royal courtiers, as their “governor” in Judea. So they did not deport the entire Judean elite. Gedaliah would have been counted as one of the ‘realists’ before the Babylonian conquest. His administrative-religious centre is obviously not going to be Jerusalem. Mizpah, some four miles north-east of the ruined Jerusalem, is chosen as the new capital by the Babylonians. From here their tribute demands are allocated, collected and dispatched. As an aside, Gedaliah is assassinated. Part of a failed uprising this triggered another, third, though little mentioned, wave of Judean exile: rebels sought sanctuary in Egypt.

Judea in Judea and Judea in exile proceed to go their own separate ways. In Judea notions of an exclusive Yahwehism based on Jerusalem, its royal temple and its royal line are clearly no longer tenable. Other cultic centres substitute. Amongst the remaining elite there were those who probably fashioned their own version of Yahwehism. And from what we can gather, the common people happily returned to, or simply continued, with their ancient ways. Reliant on the soil, the seasons and the vagaries of the weather, these Hebrews sacrifice to the heavenly host and maintain their family shrines. Lacking state power, the elite could do little or nothing to stop them.

By the rivers of Babylon

Nowadays, the clear balance of scholarly opinion is that the destruction of Jerusalem, social decapitation and the subsequent diaspora in Babylonia had a “critically important” impact on Yahwehism.[16] Jill Anne Middlemas emphatically confirms that the “importance of this period cannot be overestimated”.[17] Throughout most of the 20th century that was not the case. Exile was de-emphasised. Academics tended to downplay the changes wrought by the deportation to Babylonia. However, in his Studies in the book of Lamentations (1954) Gottwald anticipated “a changed attitude to the exile that would emerge more fully at a later time”.[18] Whether it was exposure to Babylon, and its ancient, wealthy and sophisticated culture, or the subsequent role played by the successor Persian state that exerted the biggest influence on Yahwehism, remains a bone of contention. The great biblical scholars, Julius Wellhausen and Eduard Meyer, engaged in a long and acrimonious polemic over the issue, Wellhausen favouring the Babylonians,[19] Meyer the Persians (and therefore Zoroastrianism).[20] And that debate continues today … not least because we have so little material evidence available to us about the Judeans during this relatively brief period of time.

What we can say, and with some assuredness, is that removing a whole swathe of the elite from Judea and relocating them in the heartlands of the Babylonian empire (mostly in the lush southern region of Mesopotamia) did not bring about either a jolting henotheism nor a jolting monotheism.[21] Nor did the Persian takeover. The elevation of one god above others was as much in evidence in pre-exile Judea as in Babylonia.

Nonetheless, the whole deracinating experience obviously produced far-reaching change. The exiled elite were doubtless traumatised. They had seen Jerusalem overrun by a vengeful army; days of killing, rape and pillage would have followed. After surviving those horrors, they, including what remained of the royal household, were picked out, because of their elevated social standing, and marched off to live in a faraway foreign land. Trauma must have been mixed with grudging admiration. They would have been awed by the magnificent buildings, canals, elevated gardens and other architectural wonders. Babylonian literature and learning was no less impressive. There was bound to be a degree of cultural assimilation. Though they never entirely dropped Hebrew, the exiles adopted the Aramaic language, along with its square-scripted alphabet. There were obvious religious borrowings too. The garden of Eden, the flood, Noah’s ark and the Tower of Babel all have their origins in Mesopotamia. As for Babylonian names of the month, they entirely replaced those used back in Palestine.

If it were to survive, Yahwehism had to change. I think that much is obvious. The “identity movement”, interestingly summarised by Victor Matthews and James Moyer, was clearly in the vanguard of those who “refashioned” ideas, customs and institutions.[22] That, we can safely conjecture, involved a split, a party conflict, within the elite. One that would have been based on rival responses to the novel “social realities” created by Babylonian exile and oppression.[23] The priests of the “identity movement” strove to “creatively” adapt to the new conditions - as opposed to those traditional leaders, who wanted to doggedly resist in the name of outdated concepts such as the Davidic kingdom. Not surprisingly, the priests of the “identity movement” win out and come to serve as the leaders of the community; they demand ritual purity, a ban on outside marriage, male circumcision and strict religious observance from all members. The Sabbath becomes of central importance. All such practices mark out the Judeans and bind them together (not that some exiles would not have broken ranks and become Mesopotamian).

With the Jerusalem temple in ruins and impossibly distant, the Judeao-Babylonians invented the synagogue (Greek for ‘place’). These meeting places substituted for the temple cult in many respects. There were hymns, religious readings and sermons; however, the Sabbath and feast days were observed without the previously prescribed blood sacrifices. It should be pointed out, not least to highlight the uncertainty, that some academic authorities dispute the claim that Babylonia was the birthplace of the synagogue. Ptolemaic Egypt has been suggested; but frankly, given that we are dealing with a kind of Judean dark age, it is still impossible to come to anything like a hard and fast conclusion till more evidence, one way or another, is brought forward.

That aside, in Babylonia, being what Bob Becking calls a “religion under stress”, Yahwehism underwent a “multidimensional” process of “transition”.[24] Despite humiliation at the hands of Egyptians and Assyrians, the Judean elite could still content themselves with the self-view of being, at least potentially, on a par with other nations. Their underlying assumption was that the power of each state formation reflected the power of its patron god. With Babylonian conquest - and deterritorialisation, demilitarisation and demonarchisation - that way of thinking about the world became untenable. As the Babylonians were so evidently powerful, so too must be their god; by the same logic, if Judea could so easily be overthrown, it followed that their god was not as powerful as had traditionally been taught.

New religious concepts filled the vacuum. A new generation of prophets break the theological link joining “heavenly power and earthly kingdoms”. Though Babylon was powerful, this did not mean that the god of the Judeans was weak. Yahweh became the universal god. Correspondingly, the gods of Mesopotamia were dismissed as mere idols made from stone or wood. As a result, Assyria, Egypt and then Babylon had succeeded in war not because of the might of their gods. Instead, in the mind at least, Yahweh now decides the fortunes of all nations. In short, the rise and fall of empires reflected a divine plan: “One god stood behind all these world-shaking events.”[25] Hence the rise of the Assyrians, Egyptians and finally the Babylonians testified not to innate virtue or innate blessedness, nor the power of divine patrons. It was Yahweh who presided over all events. Defeat and exile were due not to the weakness of Yahweh. It was his anger over the backsliding practices of the chosen people. Yahweh wanted to teach a lesson and purify them. Accordingly, the notion arose that a new king would help redeem Israel. A god-chosen messiah. To begin with, he was doubtless Davidic or at least Judean. But, over time, hope and meaning shifted. As can be seen in the book of Isaiah, he could be a foreigner. Hence Cyrus, the Persian king, is said to have served as Yahweh’s anointed.[26]

Suffering servants

Life for the exiles in Babylonia is widely credited as being relatively cushy. Hence, in a popular history book we read of an “absence of racism”, along with the claim that exile could not have been “universally abhorred” because so many stayed on, even though Cyrus offered to “repatriate” them in 539 BCE.[27] Such liberal ideological biases pepper serious mainstream scholarship too. Eg, Babylonian policy was not “overly oppressive” and there was no “overt pressure” on exiles to assimilate and lose their identities.[28] The same scholars are at pains to stress that the Jews were not slaves and were not forced to endure “inhuman conditions”. In terms of strict Babylonian jurisprudence, undoubtedly true. The Jewish exiles were not slaves (I shall from here on start to refer to the Judean exiles as Jews).

The standard point of comparison when it comes to life for the exiles in Babylonia is, of course, classic Greece and Rome; or perhaps the antebellum United States south, when it comes to American academics. A misleading compass. In these social formations the institution of slavery was joined with commodity production in agriculture (and mining) and thus assumed particularly extreme, unremitting, vicious and murderous forms. Slaves were robbed of all humanity and treated as mere objects of exploitation. Hence they were commonly worked to death according to nothing more than a cold profit-and-loss calculation.

We know that a portion of Babylonian prisoners of war were directly incorporated into the branded, tattooed and tagged class of slave labourers. However, a majority of war captives were apparently “able to return home” after the completion of a period of labour duties.[29] That said, those condemned to slavery could be lashed or mutilated merely on a whim. But relationships between slaveowner and slave were in general still personal. Necessarily, that involved acts of generosity, flattery, loyalty, mutual respect and even friendship. Though it needs to be stressed that the underlying relationship was always grossly unequal. Exploitation - and this is the point I am getting at - was therefore limited, compared with classic Greece and Rome (and the US south). Slaves in Babylonia could marry non-slaves, own property and buy their freedom. Babylonian legal codes afforded them definite rights and by implication recognised their innate humanity (not that that stopped very many slaves making desperate escape attempts).

Besides the lowest of the low, there were domestic and royal slaves. As in classical Greece and Rome (but not the US south - which practised a racialised slavery), a few amongst them rose to positions of high influence and became in our terms billionaires. Privileged slaves themselves owned slaves. However, slavery was not ubiquitous. According to the relevant volume in the Cambridge ancient history series, the majority of the dependent population in Babylonia were semi-free labourers, named ikkaru in legal texts.[30] True, these wretches could not leave the land without the owner’s permission, but they lived with their families and could neither be bought nor sold. Most agricultural production on big estates, it would seem, was carried out by them. And here, we can reasonably say, lay the main source of surplus product, and therefore the main social relationship which reproduced the royal, religious and land-owning ruling classes.

While temples owned “increasing contingents” of slaves - who were regularly augmented by kings handing over new batches of war captives - Babylonia cannot be categorised as a slave mode of production.[31] The role of slaves in artisanal and agriculture production was marginal when compared with free or semi-free labour.[32] Eg, though temples had slaves who were “trained as craftsmen”, we have abundant records available to us showing that they had to regularly pay for the services of jewellers, brewers, bakers, tanners, smiths, carpenters, weavers. launderers and potters. Temples also had to employ free labour during harvest times. And in cases of failure to supply food and drink, and low or unpunctual payment of wages, these workers would strike or simply pack their bags and head off. It was “impossible to replace them by temple slaves”.[33]

Not merchants

Another misconception. Projecting back from the Radhanites and the caste position of Jews in early medieval Europe, North Africa and Asia, the Jewish exiles in Babylonia are widely credited as being proto-capitalists. Hence the constantly reproduced account of the non-priestly Jewish exiles turning to mercantile trade for a livelihood and thereby becoming seriously rich. Here, on this subject at least, Marxist writers such as Karl Kautsky and Abram Leon simply gave a leftwing spin to the standard scholarly paradigm of their time.[34]

Not that such arguments lacked foundation. In 1893 a long-buried room stacked full of hundreds of cuneiform clay tablets was discovered in Nippur. The business achieve of a firm called Marasu. By 1898 they had already been partially translated and analysed. These documents appear to show that Jews in the area were involved in commerce - they worked as tenant farmers, rent collectors and minor officials - and therefore, so ran the conclusion, they were relatively well off. From here, given prior assumptions, it was only a small step for European scholars to categorise some, at least, as merchant adventurers. However, apart from such slippery logic, there is a chronological problem too. The Marasu archives date from the time of the Persian king, Artaxerxes I (reigned 464-424 BCE). Yet whether they reflect life of the Jewish exiles in the Babylonian period is highly problematic, to say the least.

Anyway, as noted above, the Babylonian mode of production did not rest on slavery. But, quoting the holy name of Marduk, its kings did command corvée labour … and on a very extensive scale. Families, villages, districts, whole communities, including exiled communities, were expected to supply labour quotas for temple construction, canal digging, road building, irrigation and other such state projects. A particular form of tribute. Then, as now, all such labour - especially when it comes to the grunt work of pulling, carrying, lifting and digging - is physically draining and dangerous. Exhaustion, injury and death would have been commonplace. Hence there is no reason to dismiss agonised cries emanating from exilic prophets about ‘suffering servants’.

Naturally, we need to take into account the social snobbery of the elite. They would have been unused to manual labour of any kind. Nor would they have respected such work. In fact they would have regarded anything resembling the daily drudge of the lower classes as being utterly degrading. But, along with other exile communities forcibly transported into Babylonia - Persians, Carians, Phrygians, Tyrians, Arabs, Indians, etc - the Jews were subject to repeated labour demands by their imperial masters.[35] And they were given no choice, of course. Community leaders had to deliver their set human quota as commanded.

So prior to the Persian period, in Babylonian exile Jews constituted a distinct, oppressed, population. Yet, despite that, they were largely self-governing and self-taxing - typical of all such quickly gained sprawling empires of the epoch. Religion, community and tribute thereby combined to form a single metabolism. Though it was always structured around the threat of violence, such multiculturalism perfectly dovetailed with official Babylonian ideology and the policy of minimising state expenditure on administration.

Nonetheless, whereas the northern elite disappeared into Mesopotamian society, their southern counterparts retained a definite separateness and cohesion. Perhaps it was just a matter of time. Maybe if they had stayed in Babylonia longer the Judeans would have become fully assimilated. But most likely not. Before the triumph of intolerant universal, monotheistic religions, pre-capitalist societies were characterised by a generally unproblematic combined but separate development. Toleration was the norm. Depending on its size, each religious/ethnic minority has its own land allocation or city quarter, district or street. Such peoples maintain a traditional language, sometimes over many hundreds of years, when it comes to religious and other such internal affairs; meanwhile in day-to-day matters the dominant language is adopted. Bilingualism and trilingualism is common.

Persian agents

Showing its extraordinary fragility, the neo-Babylonian empire collapsed, like the proverbial house of cards, before an unexpected Achaemenid Persian invasion. And, having taken Babylon in 539 BCE, virtually without a fight, the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed - or, much more likely, organised - a return by a section of the Jewish population in Mesopotamia. They went back to Judea not as a free people - a cosy story - but as colonial agents with a prime mission to extract tribute.

The Persians had no interest in restoring the old kingdom of Judea and its Davidic monarchy. Undoubtedly this was the hope of those who belonged to the royalist-nationalist party (and it is possible that for a short initial period the Davidic heir to the throne might have served as the Persian governor in Judea[36]). That said, after a considerable gap, maybe 18 years, the Persian king, Darius, did give his active backing for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple - of course, not over the ruins of Solomon’s supposed marvel. High priests were to substitute for kings. Many scholars see in this decision an integral part of an overarching plan by Darius to manage his newly acquired empire; he usurped power in 522 BCE, overthrowing the populist monarch Bardiya/Gaumata.

Joel Weinberg, a Latvian (Israeli) biblical scholar, developed an influential ‘citizen-temple-community’ thesis. Political power, he suggested, was concentrated in major temples under the Persians and through priests and temple officials the religious community was controlled, exploited and reconciled to foreign rule. Weinberg provided a two-fold taxonomy when it comes to distinguishing temple political-economies. The first owns, or holds, large tracts of land and thereby extracts surplus through rent. The second lacks significant landholdings. Instead, these temples rely on obligatory tithes and other such offerings coming from the religious community. Clearly the post-exile Jerusalem temple falls squarely into the second category.[37]

The elite returnees would oversee the extraction of surplus product from the local population in Judea and perhaps draw on religious donations required from the Jewish diaspora (inhabiting towns and cities in Mesopotamia and perhaps the Nile too); that before handing a maximised portion of it over to Darius as tribute. Put another way, the rebuilt city of Jerusalem and its temple would function as conduit for tribute.

To help securely root what was a subordinate social order in Judea (the Persian sub-province of Yehud) the returnees once again refashioned the religious tradition. Davidic kingship was downgraded in favour of asserting the kingship of Yahweh. Scholars are generally agreed that that included additions to the Torah, hence the Jewish versions of the flood and the Tower of Babel, and introducing the books of Ezra, Ruth, Nahum, Ecclesiastes, Jonah, Lamentations, proverbs 1-9 and various psalms.[38] Transparently, however, the main innovation in this new material was the purity laws developed in Mesopotamia. In tandem, accepted traditions were reversed ... and, of course, claimed as ancient.

The evolution of Yahwehism was clearly bound up with military weakness, religious xenophobia and extracting tribute. Being Persian vassals, the returnees had no proper army: only a religious police force. Therefore they had to rely to an extraordinary degree on the authority of Yahweh and the religio-ethnic exclusiveness of the kind laid down in Deuteronomy. A weapon of class warfare. Theologically their self-defined community had been saved, chastised and purified by the humiliating experience of exile and had thereby regained the blessing of Yahweh. The common people, those who had stayed behind in Palestine, remained defiled and had to be treated as foreigners.* Suffice to say, the concerns of the returnees were as much socio-economic as theological. The peasants not only worshipped their own family gods, along with Yahweh and the host of heaven. They still held the land given over to them by the Babylonians. And gaining possession of the lion’s share of the surplus they produced had to be justified by Yahweh’s chosen ones; both to those they were robbing and to themselves. Not surprisingly, the local people of all classes confronted the returnees as a resentful, resisting, mass.

Breaking from the royalist nationalism of the past, excusing collaboration with conquerors and dismissing most of the native population in Judea as foreigners had to involve a high degree of falsification. Here the returnee scribes and priests had a great advantage. As noted above, they had dropped the ancient Hebrew alphabet - a variant of which is still being used by the Samaritans in their liturgy - in favour of a version of the Aramaic square alphabet, in which Hebrew is written today. The opportunities for dissembling opened up by the transliteration from one alphabet to another must have been considerable.

Not that the returnees constituted a monolithic bloc. Morton Smith describes two main parties that coalesced amongst them.[39] Using historical shorthand, we can describe the majority party as Levites and the minority as Zadokites. Whereas the Levites were dedicated adherents of the ‘Yahweh alone’ movement and therefore emphasised the practice of religious purity, the Zadokites emphasised their rights as the hereditary priests of the Jerusalem cult. That was, as will already have been gathered, no mere theological quibble. The Zadokites wanted to establish themselves over Judea as an exclusive theocracy - a term first used by Flavius Josephus in his Contra Apionem.

No hard evidence exists showing that the Zadokites had an uninterrupted lineage going back to Zadok - that is, the man appointed by Solomon to be high priest of his new Jerusalem temple (let alone to Aaron, the brother of Moses). That is why impossibly ancient and impossibly uncontaminated genealogies were invented by both parties. Despite that, the Zadokite bid to establish themselves as theocrats relied first and foremost not on genes. Rather on carrying out the wishes of Darius and showing themselves at every opportunity to be loyal servants of the Persian empire.

Understandably, the spokespersons of the Levite party raised strong objections to the plans for the Jerusalem temple. Hugely costly, it would, they rightly feared, give its priests enormous authority and wealth. The arrival of the prophet Ezra from Babylonia, along with the second wave of returnees, settled matters, however. He seems to have been accompanied by Persian military detachments. Ezra and his ally, the new governor, Nehemiah, are depicted in the Bible as proceeding to impose the programme of the Zadokite priesthood in its most extreme, most inhuman form. Returnees who had married “foreign women”, or “people of the land”, were told to immediately divorce them and “put away their children”. Those who refused to obey Ezra’s horrid instructions were to be barred from the community and faced severe punishment: “for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment”.[40] I would interpret such demands as a kind of apartheid terror. Designed to stigmatise, divide and cower not the mass of the population, but the Levite party.

Protected and, we might suppose, encouraged by the Persians, Ezra lifted the Zadokite priesthood into power and forcibly concentrated religious authority into an easily controlled singularity. Other existing cults were suppressed. Apart from the Jerusalem temple (completed in 515 BCE), all rival places of sacrifice, along with their fetishes and festivals, were branded abominations and destroyed. That would have included alternative versions of Yahwehism.

By tradition Levite priests had a role in the Jerusalem temple, but in the main presided over local cultic shrines. Nevertheless, while Zadokite ideology had a lasting impact on the biblical canon, their exclusive power proved short-lived. The Levites seem to have aligned themselves with the common people. Perhaps achieved by cynically championing the egalitarianism and fiery denunciations of the rich contained in the teachings of Amos, Hosea and other oppositional prophets. This unstable coalition would appear to have forced upon the Zadokites a conciliatory policy, including when it came, in the words of Morton Smith, to “the great document of this compromise”: ie, the Torah. Through what would have conceivably been a carefully negotiated historic compromise, the Levites regained a role, albeit a subsidiary one, in the Jerusalem cult, and no less importantly, the citizen-temple-community was considerably expanded. Weinberg reckons that this - what equates to a great reform act - was agreed in the second half of the Persian period (around 400 BCE).

The masses were thereby reconciled with and internalised the refashioned religion. Though this is a subject which I need to study further, there is overwhelming evidence that the popular classes became militant Jews. Strictures demanding religious purity, developed by the elite exiled in Mesopotamia, were turned against the rich and powerful.

For the Zadokite priesthood there was what might well have been seen as a generous compensation package. Those willingly paying tithes, making pilgrimages and sacrificing at the Jerusalem temple greatly expanded. That meant riches for the Zadokites who monopolised the altar and decided on matters of law. However, the temple cult also employed thousands of Levites as lesser officials: accountants, guides, musicians, doormen, librarians, guards, porters, maintenance workers, cleaners, etc. The Jerusalem temple can be imagined as a combination of church, bank, library, high court, abattoir and storehouse.[41] As such it provided a living for a much wider circle of others too: suppliers of sacrificial animals, incense sellers, hostel owners, peddlers, pickpockets, pimps, prostitutes, etc. Hence the Jewish religion familiar to us from both testaments of the Bible comes into view at last.


  1. 2 Kings xviii,4.
  2. B Halpern The first historians: the Hebrew Bible and history Pennsylvania 1996, p226.
  3. I Finkelstein and NA Silberman The Bible unearthed New York 2002, p250n.
  4. A term coined by Morton Smith in his book Palestinian parties and politics that shaped the Old Testament, New York 1971.
  5. 2 Kings xviii,5.
  6. M Weinfeld Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic school Oxford 1971, p162.
  7. 2 Kings xxi,3-7.
  8. 2 Kings xxiii,4-20.
  9. I Finkelstein, NA Silberman The Bible unearthed New York 2002, p280.
  10. Though it ought to be pointed out that there is a school of biblical scholarship around Rudolf Smend which argues for an exilic Bible composed in Babylon. Then again there are those who stress that the creation of Deuteronomistic history began before Joshua’s reign. See M Weinfeld Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic school Oxford 1992.
  11. B Halpern The first historians: the Hebrew Bible and history Pennsylvania 1996, p220ff.
  12. R Albertz A history of Israelite religion in the Old Testament period Vol 1, London 1994, pp164.
  13. II Kings xxiv,12-16.
  14. O Lipschitz The fall and rise of Jerusalem: Judah under Babylonian rule Winona Lake 2005, p71.
  15. Jeremiah xxxix,9.
  16. DL Smith-Christopher, ‘Reassessing the historical and sociological impact of the Babylonian exile (579/587-539 BCE)’ in JM Scott (ed) Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian conceptions Leiden 1997, p7.
  17. JA Middlemas The troubles of a templeless Judeh Oxford 2005, p2.
  18. DL Smith-Christopher ‘Reassessing the historical and sociological impact of the Babylonian exile (579/587-539 BCE)’ in JM Scott (ed) Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian conceptions Leiden 1997, p8.
  19. Religiously Babylon had long ago abandoned geo-specific deities and was in all likelihood moving towards some kind of monotheism. Merodach, the sun god, came to be regarded not merely as the supreme deity. One inscription refers to the 13 main gods as nothing but forms in which Merodach manifests himself to humanity. Nebuchadnezzar addresses Merodach in prayer as “thou who art from everlasting, thou who art lord of all that exists”.
  20. Some time about 700 BC it is said that a prophet called Zoroaster developed a religion that closely approaches full monotheism. Ormazd is the heavenly divinity that is the maker and upholder of the universe. As the god of light and order, he is also the god of truth and purity. Against him and his attendant spirits stand the forces of darkness and sin, headed by the wicked Ahriman. These two rivals engage is a ceaseless struggle for domination. Humanity, by doing right and avoiding wrong, by loving truth and hating falsehood, can help god triumph over evil. In the end of days Ormazd will overcome Ahriman and will reign over a new and righteous world. Those who served him will be rewarded with a life of eternal blessedness; those who sided with Ahriman will be punished with endless misery. Zoroastrians can still be found scattered here and there in the Middle East. In India they are called the Parsees - descendants of those who fled from Persia with the onset of Islamic rule.
  21. Kautsky is clearly mistaken when he says that the monotheism of the Jews, the Judeans, was the result not of a slowly evolving philosophical sophistication, but rather of sudden contact with, and adoption of, a “higher urban culture” (K Kautsky Foundations of Christianity New York 1972, p202).
  22. VH Matthews, JC Moyer The Old testament: text and context Peabody MA 1977, pp213-14.
  23. DL Smith-Christopher The religion of the landless Bloomington 1989, p10.
  24. B Becking, M Christina, A Korpel (eds) The crisis of Israelite religion Leiden 1999, p7.
  25. See www.Bibleinterp.com/articles/MSmith_BiblicalMonotheism.htm
  26. Isaiah xxxxiv,28; xxxxv,1.
  27. J McIntosh Ancient Mesopotamia: new perspectives Santa Barbara 2005, p157.
  28. H Donner, ‘The separate states of Israel and Judah’ in JM Miller, JH Hayed (eds) Israel and Judean history Philadelphia 1986, pp421, 433.
  29. J Boardman (ed) The Assyrian and Babylonian empires and other states of the Near East Vol 3, part 2, Cambridge 2003, p269.
  30. Ibid p266.
  31. Ibid p269.
  32. See MA Dandamaev Slavery in Babylonia Northern Illinois 1984.
  33. J Boardman (ed) The Assyrian and Babylonian empires and other states of the Near East Vol 3, part 2, Cambridge 2003, p272.
  34. I have rather less excuse. See chapter four in the first edition of Fantastic reality (2007).
  35. See DL Smith-Christopher, ‘Reassessing the historical and sociological impact of the Babylonian exile (579/587-539 BCE)’ in JM Scott (ed) Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian conceptions Leiden 1997, p23f.
  36. See R Albertz, ‘The thwarted restoration’ in R Albertz, B Becking Yahwehism after exile Assen 2003.
  37. See the translation of his key articles by DL Smith-Christopher in The citizen-temple community Sheffield 1992.
  38. See PR Bedford Temple restoration in early Achaemenid Judah Leiden 2001, pp8-9.
  39. M Smith Palestinian parties and politics that shaped the Old Testament New York 1971.
  40. Ezra vii,26.
  41. See ME Stevens Temple, tithes and taxes Peabody Mass 2006, p24.

*Those who remained in Judea would have made an exact opposite charge: one that perhaps finds expression in Ezra xxxiii,23-29 and other texts responding to the 597 BCE deportation. The exiles had been banished by Yahweh because of their dreadful sins and those who were allowed to stay were always true followers of Yahweh. I think that we can soundly reason along those lines, even though we only have the filtered account of the returnees available to us.