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Babylon, Persia and Judaism

The empire holding the Judaean priesthood captive at Babylon lasted 87 years. A great Persian army led by Cyrus the Great invaded Mesopotamia, and in 539 BCE, Cyrus overran Babylon.

Around the year 538, a wave of former captives returned to Judah. They were led by Zerubbabel, son of one of Judah's former kings, and he was accompanied by a high priest of Jehovah worship. In Jerusalem they found impoverishment, foreigners and few worshipers of Yahweh. Zerubbabel found people in Jerusalem unwilling to accept his authority and resenting the intrusions of those returning from Babylon.

Darius died in 530 and was succeeded by Darius the Great in 522. Darius appointed Zerubbabel governor of Judah, and Zerubbabel started the rebuilding of Solomon's temple. Darius was treating Jehovah as just another minor god. The Persian Empire since 525 extended to Egypt, and Darius saw himself as had Cyrus, as the benefactor of all those he ruled. He continued to allow his subjects to maintain their customs and gods — more of polytheism's tolerance. But the rebuilding of Solomon's temple was delayed because of hostility by people in Judaea. According to the Old Testament (Ezra 4:21), the project was idle for seventeen years. It was finished in the year 515, to be described as a poor comparison with the splendor of the original temple.

High Priest Ezra and Judaic Laws

The Old Testament describes a High Priest, Ezra, returning to Jerusalem from Babylon in 458 BCE — the seventh year of reign of Darius's grandson: Artaxerxes. This was around eighty years after Darius the Great had freed the Yahwist captives in Babylon, (Ezra having been born after the liberation.)

Apparently, Ezra didn't know what to expect when he arrived in Judah. According to the Old Testament, he tore at his hair, his beard, his garment, his robe and he sat down appalled. He discovered that male members of the Yahwist community had been marrying non-Yahwist women. He found that the people Judah had not separated themselves from other peoples and were practicing "abominations."

Ezra called on the people of Jerusalem to assemble. He told them, "You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women." (Ezra 10:10). He commanded any man who had already married such a woman to expel her from his house. He made Jehovah worship the deciding issue whether one belonged to the community that he was now to govern. Concerned about the ancestry of those within the Jehovah priesthood, he purged from the priesthood those who could not prove that they were descended from purely Hebrew families.

Ezra promoted values expressed in the Moses scroll that had been delivered to King Josiah by Jehovah priests almost 200 years before. The scroll contained the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

There was the traditional eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but the custom of an entire family considered guilty for the act of any one of its members had been discarded in favor of individual responsibility: the father was to continue to have supreme authority within the family, but a father would not be punished for the sins of a son, or a son for the sins of the father.

Marriage was to be strictly regulated as before. Fathers were to arrange the marriages of their sons and daughters without their consent. If an engaged woman copulated with another man, both she and the man were to be stoned to death. If a married man or a married woman committed adultery they were to be stoned to death – unless the man copulated with a slave, in which case he was merely beaten. (Leviticus 19:20.)

If a father found his son stubborn, rebellious or disobedient he could take him to the city elders, and then the son could be stoned to death. In a dispute that went to court, the man judged wicked would be whipped, but no more than forty times. If a man had two wives and one was loved and the other unloved and the unloved one gave birth to the first son, that son would remain favored as the first son.

If a neighbor needed help with his stray oxen, sheep or donkeys, one should help him. And one should not move a neighbor's boundary marker.

People were expected to look after their health by following Judaic law. Touching the dead or touching persons having certain types of ailments was prohibited. To clean a leper, one was obliged to sacrifice a male lamb to Yahweh and to sprinkle the patient with the blood of a bird mixed with running water.

In Leviticus, Jehovah is described as giving laws to Moses that rejected foreign dress: the wearing of garments made of both linen and wool or garments with tassels, And in Leviticus it is written that one should not eat pork or any animal that did not both chew its cud and have cloven feet. Pork had been the major source of meat among settled Canaanites. The nomadic Hebrews had raised sheep and goats, which, unlike pigs, could be herded over long distances. And, with pork having been a food eaten by detested foreigners it was described as unclean.

Usury within the community of Jehovah worshipers was prohibited, but usury against others was allowed. As a part of these reforms, every seventh year debts were to be abolished. And every seventh year, fellow Jews who had been enslaved were to be set free – while the slavery of others was to remain.

Jehovah worshipers were to be known as Jews, in Hebrew "Yehudi," (J is pronounced like English speakers pronounce the letter Y, hence Yahweh translates to Jehovah). Jehovah worship was to be called Judaism, and the heart of Judaism was adherence to Yahweh's laws as described by Moses.

Regarding the authenticity of the Moses story, the archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and William Dever have found no material evidence for the Moses story. (Dever is not saying that he believes that the biblical Moses never existed. He is talking about archeological evidence.) The Moses story does have a mythological ring. Like Sargon the Great, Moses was said to have been abandoned as an infant and put afloat on a river. And Moses, rather than found by common persons washing their clothes along the Nile was found and adopted by none other than a pharaoh's daughter. She was said to have recognized the infant Moses as a Hebrew but was allowed to adopt the child despite the belief among Egyptians – especially Egyptian royalty – that Hebrews were an inferior people worthy of slavery.

But under the High Priest Ezra the Moses legend – or myth if you like – had become the heart of Judaism.


CONTINUE READING: Zoroaster (Zarathustra) and Judaism

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.