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Babylon, Persia and Judaism

The empire holding the Jewish priesthood captive at Babylon lasted 87 years. A great Persian army led by Cyrus the Great invaded Mesopotamia and in the year 539 and overran the Chaldeans and Babylon. The Persians ruled what today is Iran, and in fourteen years Cyrus was to extend his rule to Egypt.

Included in Persia's great new empire was tiny Judah, a client state again. Cyrus saw himself as the benefactor of all those he ruled. He allowed his subjects to maintain their customs, including the worship of their own gods. He was interested in collecting taxes and in the maintenance of order. This was more of polytheism's tolerance. Cyrus was treating Yahweh (Jehovah) as just a minor god at some distant place. The priests of Yahweh worship appreciated the new freedom that Cyrus bestowed upon them and their worship, but their inclination to believe in punishment for the wicked led to their disappointment that Cyrus had not punished those at Babylon whom he had conquered.

Around the year 538, soon after Persia's conquest of Babylon, 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. 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 the Great ruled until the year 530. A new king of kings (emperor), Darius I, began his rule in the year 522, and he appointed Zerubbabel governor of Judah, and Zerubbabel started to have Solomon's temple rebuilt. But construction was delayed because of local hostility. The project was idle for seventeen years (Ezra 4:21). It was finished in the year 515, said to be a poor comparison with the splendor of the original temple.

High Priest Ezra and Judaic Laws

The Old Testament describes Ezra, a High Priest, returning with others from Babylon to Jerusalem in the seventh year of the reign of the Persian King of King Artaxerxes (the grandson of Darius I). This calculates to the year 458 BCE, around eighty years after Darius the Great had freed the Yahwist captives in Babylon. (Ezra must have been born after the liberation.) And apparently Ezra didn't know what to expect when he arrived in Judah. According to the Old Testament, Ezra 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 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 Yahwist worship the deciding issue whether one belonged to his community. Concerned about the ancestry of those within the Yahwist 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, the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus Numbers, and Deuteronomy). This included the traditional of eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

The custom of an entire family being considered guilty for the act of any one of its members was 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, Yahweh 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.

With reforms described in Deuteronomy, usury within the community of Yahweh 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.

Yahweh 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). Yehudi is derived from Judah, in Hebrew: Yehudah. an ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel. Yahweh 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 archeologists Israel Finkelstein and William Dever have found no material evidence for what some believe is the Moses myth. (Dever is not saying that he believes that the biblical Moses never existed. He is talking about archeological evidence.) Although respected, the stories of religious significance of others peoples dating back to the same time period are readily accepted as myth, and the Moses story does have a mythological ring. Like Moses, Sargon the Great was also described as an infant abandoned on a boat in 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. And she recognized the infant Moses as a Hebrew and was allowed to adopt the child. This was despite the belief among the Egyptians, especially Egyptian royalty, that Hebrews were an inferior people, worthy of slavery.

But under 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.