The Assyrian Empire lasted about seventy-five years, its demise coming with invasions, rebellions, a succession conflict and civil war. A coalition of former subjects — Babylonians and Persians among them — overran Assyria. In 612 BCE they destroyed Assyria's capital city, Nineveh, in upper Mesopotamia (northern Iraq), and massacred its inhabitants.
With Assyria's power destroyed, a new king in the tiny kingdom of Judah (50 by 100 miles) declared independence. The hereditary Jehovah priesthood seized independence as an opportunity to advance its cause. It produced a scroll that it claimed had been written by one of its prophets: Moses.
The king of Judah, Josiah (the grandson of King Manasseh), was allied with the priesthood and treated the scroll as genuine. An admonition was expressed in the scroll about having no gods other than Jehovah. A new intolerance was born that had not existed under David, Solomon, Jeroboam, Ahab, or Manasseh. According to the Old Testament, King Josiah, accompanied by a great crowd, went to Solomon's temple and there made a covenant with Jehovah. King Josiah ordered all objects of worship not associated with Jehovah worship removed. Supported by Josiah, the high priest forbade all rituals not associated with Jehovah worship. According to the Old Testament this included witchcraft, sorcery, using omens, and orgiastic fertility festivals. Forbidden also was the homosexual prostitution that was a part of Ba'al fertility worship. Temples outside of Jerusalem were rendered useless. According to the Second Book of Kings, Josiah defiled a place called the "Tropeth," a word meaning drums, which had been beaten to drown out the screams of sons and daughters being burning to death in sacrificial offerings. The penalty for adhering to any of the forbidden practices was death, and death was the punishment for the priests of rival worship. According to 2 Kings 23:20, King Josiah led the assault: " And all the priests of the high place who were there he slaughtered on the altars and burned human bones on them."
A revolution had taken place, a nationalist and religious reaction to a new freedom from Assyrian rule. But the forbidden practices were habits not easily surrendered. To make the transition easier, rituals were given a new meaning. Fertility festivals became festivals that demonstrated gratitude and devotion to Jehovah. The most important of these festivals, the spring festival, became associated with what was believed to be the exodus from Egypt led by Moses – the Passover.
Judah had the misfortune of being between two great imperial powers: the Chaldeans in Babylon (who had destroyed the Assyrians), and the Egyptians to the southwest, along the Nile. King Josiah heard that an Egyptian army was coming, and he went with an army to do battle against them. According to the Old Testament he believed that Jehovah would protect him. But in battle (in 609 BCE) Josiah was promptly killed. A contributor to the Old Testament was to write that Josiah had erred in claiming that the Egyptians were coming against Judah; they were instead moving against the Chaldeans.
Anyway, the Egyptians took control of Judah and moved into Syria. Then the Chaldeans drove the Egyptians back to Egypt, and this put the Chaldeans in control of Judah. Eleven years later, in 587, the people of Jerusalem rebelled against the Chaldeans. The Chaldean ruler, Nebuchadnezzar II, responded by burning Jerusalem, tearing down its walls and destroying Solomon's temple. It is written that he sent Judah's royalty and skilled workmen into exile, that forty thousand Judaeans (Jews), including high priests, were rounded up and taken to the Chaldean capital, Babylon. Some scattered from Judah northward into the Chaldean empire. Some scattered into Europe, and some fled into Arabia.
In Babylon, the Jehovah priesthood was of little danger to the Chaldeans, and they were allowed to meet as a community, There, without a temple or altar at which they could worship, they focused on prayer, fasts, confessions and study. They explained their exile as punishment for their sins, and they hoped their faith and dedication to Jehovah would win for them His forgiveness. They heard Jehovah described as an insignificant god with little power. Prior to their exile, worshipers of Jehovah had seen Jehovah as one of many gods, to be described in Deuteronomy 10:17 as "the God of many gods." But now the exiled priests described Jehovah as the only true god.
The exiled priests prayed for a king – a word in Hebrew that translates to messiah . And big on patriarchal family-lineage (the position of priest was inherited from father to son), they looked forward to a king descended from King David.
The Hebrews have been described as adopting the writing and literary forms of the Phoenicians, who had borrowed from the Sumerians. The Hebrew story of Noah and a great flood compares with the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh. But ancient Hebrew culture like other cultures also had stories that had been told orally. Oxford Biblical Studies writes:
Material passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. There was a long process of gestation before books of the OT [Old Testament] reached their final written form. In ancient Israel pieces of poetry, stories of heroes, legends about founding figures, and songs of celebration circulated amongst groups and tribes. Repeatedly accounts of the momentous events of the Exodus and the wilderness journeys were transmitted to descendants and these were followed later by accounts of the early kings and the prophets; they all gathered embellishments and reinterpretations in the process.
Storytelling by the ancient Hebrews is said to have taken a new turn when the Chaldeans made the priests of Jehovah worship captives in Babylon. These priests no longer had a place for proper ritual. Their followers were scattered and being tempted by the religion of others. Face-to-face storytelling no longer sufficed. The priests looked to writing as a way of holding their community of worshipers together. With writing, the captive priests documented what they saw as important for Jehovah worshipers regarding genealogy and what was to be expected of them in belief and worship.
In the PBS documentary "The Bible's Buried Secrets: Archeology of the Hebrew Bible," Michael D. Coogan, a lecturer on the Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School, describes the work of these priests "as a kind of anthology," a work that involved collecting stories that had existed across many centuries. The documentary describes the priests working with what scholars call the Elohist source (a source that consists of those who lived in the kingdom of Israel in the second half of the 800s BCE). Another source was a group from Judah who were biased against those who lived in Israel. And there was a source that is dated around 621 BCE. The priests produced a compilation that described the story of the Exodus of Jews from Egypt and the covenant Moses made between Jehovah and the people of Israel. The compilation described men of prophecy and the sins of people of Israel who had stirred up Jehovah's wrath and punishments.
The compilation was to be called the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Pentateuch and later with the Christians it would be the first five chapters of the Old Testament. It was not without discrepancies. Modern scholars have identified the captive priests as representing a school of thought rather than the work of a single author. There was text describing Noah as bringing a pair of every kind of animal aboard his ark and contrary text describing seven pairs of clean animals and only two of unclean animals. In one place the flood was described as lasting 40 days and 40 nights and in another as lasting 150 days. Noah was described as sending out a raven and also as sending out a dove. But discrepancies aside, the work remained an account of Jehovah's covenant with Abraham and his chosen people.
CONTINUE READING: Babylon, Persia and Judaism
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.