Fall of Assyria’s Empire and Rise of the Moses Legend
Assyria’s great empire lasted no longer than would the empires that began in the late nineteenth century — about seventy-five years. Assyria weakened itself economically by continuous wars to maintain its empire, including defending against invasions by an Indo-European tribal people, the Cimmerians, who came upon the Assyrians from the northeast. The Assyrians spent themselves expanding into Egypt and in quelling the rebellions of Egyptian princes. The Cimmerian menace increased, and more rebellions occurred within the empire. Assyria was burdened by the expense of maintaining its army. Soldiers had to be paid. Massive numbers of horses had to be cared for and fed. Siege engines had to be moved against rebellious cities.
Egypt was able to break away from Assyrian rule. The Assyrians were then weakened by conflicts over succession, by coups and civil war. During these conflicts, cities in Canaan broke away from Assyrian control and Phoenicia began ignoring Assyrian directives. Other petty kingdoms joined the rebellion against Assyria, and in 623 the well-led Chaldean army drove north from around Sumer and expelled the Assyrians from Babylon.
With the independence of Egypt and Babylon, and a weakened Assyria, the new king of Judah, Josiah — the grandson of Manasseh — declared Judah independent. The hereditary Yahweh priesthood, which had suffered a loss of status during Assyrian domination, seized independence as an opportunity to advance its cause. With the support of Josiah and the zeal of the newly liberated, they moved against the religious influences that had gained ascent during Assyria’s domination.
The Yahweh priesthood claimed to have found in a secret archive within Solomon’s temple a scroll signed by Moses — a document to become known as the Book of the Covenant. Why a scroll of such importance had not been previously known remains a mystery. But King Josiah treated the scroll as genuine. He supported the Yahwist priests, and he complained that previous generations had not listened to Yahweh. Now began an official intolerance that had not been the policy of kings David, Solomon, Jeroboam, Ahab, Jehu and Manasseh. According to the Old Testament, king Josiah, accompanied by a great crowd, went to Solomon’s temple and there made a covenant with Yahweh. Josiah ordered all objects of worship that were not Yahwist taken from Solomon’s temple, and these were burned in a field outside Jerusalem.
The high priest of Yahwism ordered lesser priests to Jerusalem, and he issued a new code that forbade all subjects of Josiah to practice religious rituals of “foreign” origin. According to the Old Testament, the code’s proscriptions included religious ordeals of passing through fire. It included practicing witchcraft, sorcery, using omens, worshiping images of gods in wood or stone, and it included a prohibition against orgiastic fertility festivals — festivals held in the spring and autumn that were accompanied by mass drunkenness and religious frenzy. The new code forbade all religious worship outside of Solomon’s temple. Temples outside of Jerusalem were rendered unusable. The new code forbade human sacrifices. According to the Second Book of Kings (23:10), Josiah defiled a place called the “Topheth,” a word meaning drums, which had been beaten loudly to drown out the screams of children being burned to death in sacrificial offerings (Jeremiah 7:31-2). The new code forbade the sacred prostitution that had been attached to temples, including the homosexual prostitution that was a part of Ba’al fertility worship. The penalty for adhering to any of the newly forbidden practices was death, and death was the punishment too for the priests of rival religions. According to the Second Book of Kings 23:20, king Josiah led the assault: And all the priests of the high places who were there he slaughtered on the altars and burned human bones on them.
Those who had been indulging in the now forbidden religious practices were great in number, and their religious practices had become habits not easily surrendered. And rather than try to force people to completely eradicate all of their old habits, the priests gave Josiah’s subjects a new meaning to various rituals that could fit with Yahweh worship. In the place of human sacrifices, animal sacrifices were to be performed. Instead of fertility festivals, they would engage in festivals that demonstrated their gratitude and devotion to Yahweh. The most important of these festivals, the spring festival, became the Passover — a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt led by Moses.
Between Mesopotamia and the Caspian Sea, tribes of an Indo-European people called Medes had become united under a single king. A later king of the Medes, Cyaxares, reorganized his army and attempted to expand westward against the Assyrians. He allied his army with the Chaldeans, who were now in control of Babylon and Sumer. The Medes and Chaldeans attacked, and together they defeated the Assyrians, overrunning Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, in 612. Nineveh’s walls were broken by the siege engines that Assyria had introduced centuries before. A community that had existed for more than two thousand years was obliterated. Those who escaped from Nineveh took refuge in Haran, and they fought on, but they were defeated in 609. Such a terrible revenge was taken on the Assyrians that two hundred years later the area was still sparely populated. And the Assyrian empire was forgotten.
The Medes conquered as far as the Halys River in Asia Minor. The Chaldeans conquered as far as Cilicia and the Taurus Mountains. Meanwhile, with the demise of Assyria a revitalized Egypt felt free to move into Palestine. And when King Josiah heard that an Egyptian army was coming, he went south with an army to do battle against them, believing that Yahweh would protect him. Instead, he was promptly killed.
A contributor to the Old Testament’s Second Book of Chronicles was to claim that Yahweh had failed his faithful servant Josiah because Josiah had neglected to listen to Egypt’s pharaoh proclaim that Egypt was moving with Yahweh’s help, not against Judah but against others. But the Egyptians took control of Judah as Josiah had feared. They carried Josiah’s son and designated heir, Jehoahaz, back to Egypt and placed on Judah’s throne, as their puppet, his brother, Jehoiakim. Disaster was still seen as the result of displeasing the gods, and the Old Testament (2 Kings 23:29) describes Jehoahaz as it does other Hebrew victims: as having done evil in the eyes of the Lord.
The Hebrews continued to suffer the misfortune of living on a bridge of land between great, imperial powers. The Chaldeans, under King Nebuchadnezzar II, saw Egypt as a rival to be reckoned with. Their army went against the Egyptians in Syria. They drove the Egyptians back to Egypt, and while doing so they conquered Judah. In 587, eleven years later, the people of Jerusalem rebelled against Chaldean rule, and the Chaldeans responded by burning Jerusalem and tearing down its walls. Only remnants of the temple that Solomon built remained, never to be rebuilt. The Chaldeans rounded up about forty thousand from Judah as captives, including political leaders and high priests, and took them to their capital, Babylon, while some people from Judah fled into Egypt or into Arabia, and some went north into Chaldean controlled Mesopotamia.
Again many Hebrews saw Yahweh as having abandoned them. Some Hebrews believed that the god of the Chaldeans, Marduk, had defeated Yahweh. Contributors to the Old Testament would describe Judah’s loss of independence as more of Yahweh’s punishment for his people failings. The Old Testament would describe another prophet, Jeremiah, as having warned the people of Judah about their failure to obey Yahweh and of their failure to achieve economic and social justice — something lacking across all of civilization.
The Hebrews who fled from Judah and went to Mesopotamia were allowed to settle where they wished and to take up whatever occupation they chose. These Hebrews found in Mesopotamia a prosperity that the priests of Yahweh had claimed that Yahweh would provide them in Judah. Some of these Hebrews became farmers. Some prospered as merchants, rent collectors, contractors or bankers. Some among them adopted local names, converted to the worship of local gods and were content to remain in Mesopotamia permanently.
Those who were taken to Babylon as captives were also allowed to live according to their customs, including a freedom to worship Yahweh. These captives found Babylon a magnificent city compared to what they had known in Jerusalem. Like some other devout people who were to arrive in a big city, they found Babylon filled with wickedness and temptation, and in combating these temptations they clung desperately to their worship of Yahweh. Believing like others that gods dwelled in places, the captives in Babylon asked themselves how they could “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalms 137:4) They wondered whether Yahweh had accompanied them to Babylon. And some among them claimed that they could feel Yahweh’s presence among them.
It was common among people to believe in numerous gods, and apparently, prior to their exile, worshipers of Yahweh had seen their god as superior to other gods but also as one of many gods. In other words, they believed that the gods that other people worshipped were indeed gods rather than just imagination — as expressed in Exodus 15:11, Exodus 18:11 and Deuteronomy 10:17. [note] Gods as mere imagination was not an easy concept during the Stone Age or thereafter. The worshipers of Yahweh, moreover, had seen Yahweh as other peoples saw their gods: as territorial, as ruling from a place. But now, in Babylon, they heard derision spoken against Yahweh and they responded defensively. Was not Yahweh, they asked, the god who had formed and made the earth? They concluded that rival gods were false and that Yahweh was the only true god. A late entry in the Book of Isaiah, amid descriptions of the captives in Babylon, would state the issue of Yahweh and other gods differently than is expressed in Deuteronomy: “There is no other god besides me…,” it reads. “There is none but me.” (Isaiah 45:21.)
The captive worshipers of Yahweh found community and consolation in regular meetings that differed from what they had known in Judah. There was no temple and no altar at which they could worship, and their worship gave new emphasis to prayer, fasts, confession, and study. Believing that their exile was punishment for their sins, they hoped that their faith and dedication to Yahweh would win for them Yahweh’s forgiveness. They prayed for redemption and for Yahweh to allow them to return to Judah and to restore their homeland. They prayed for a king — a word that in Hebrew translates to messiah. The captive worshipers of Yahweh prayed not for a meek or suffering messiah but a man of strength like David, and preferably someone descended from David.
Alongside the Mede people, south of the Caspian Sea, was another Indo-European people: the Persians. The Persians had arrived from Central Asia sometime before 800 BCE, and they had come under the rule of the Medes. To weaken the Medes, the Chaldeans supported a Persian rebellion. A Persian prince, to be known as Cyrus II, led the rebellion, and some in the Mede army joined his rebellion. Cyrus and his army deposed the Mede king, and Cyrus united the Persians and Medes under his rule.
With Cyrus the Chaldeans got more than they had bargained for: Cyrus was an able administrator and military leader. He consolidated his power over tribes in central Persia, and then he started building a greater empire. He moved his army of cavalry and light infantry into Asia Minor, and there, in 547, he overthrew King Croesus of Lydia, who had ruled all of Asia Minor west of the Halys River. Cyrus acquired Croesus’ great riches, and in name he acquired all of Croesus’ empire. The Greek cities on the western coast of Asia Minor submitted peacefully to Cyrus’ rule, but, in the more rugged terrain in southwestern Asia Minor, Cyrus’ generals had rebellions to crush.
Cyrus took annual tribute from the Greeks of Asia Minor while leaving them to their religion and customs. He connected his empire by a royal road that stretched from the city of Sardis in western Asia Minor to Susa, a road with post stations one day’s ride apart, with riders covering as many as 1600 miles in a week (9.5 miles per hour, 24 hours per day). For six years Cyrus embarked on more expeditions, his army conquering eastward from central Persia. And, occupying the trade route between Europe and the Far East, Cyrus’ empire prospered economically.
Cyrus’ army was strengthened by warriors he had gained from newly conquered peoples, and he turned his greater army southward against the Chaldeans. He claimed that Babylon’s god, Marduk, had been awaiting a righteous ruler and that Marduk had called upon him, Cyrus, to become ruler of the world. The Old Testament gives a different interpretation of these events. It describes Cyrus as Yahweh’s agent and claims that Cyrus was stirred by Yahweh into taking revenge against Babylon’s wickedness and that Yahweh had “taken Cyrus by the right hand.” (Isaiah 45:1.)
In October 539, Babylon fell to Cyrus without a struggle. According to the Old Testament, the captive worshipers of Yahweh expected Cyrus to wreak Yahweh’s vengeance upon the wicked Babylonians. But Cyrus failed to punish Babylon, and the disappointed Yahwist captive’s found Cyrus honoring Babylon’s gods and treating Yahweh as just minor god of some distant place.
With his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus acquired rule of the Chaldean empire, and kings who had been vassals of the Chaldean king came and paid homage to him. A king of kings, Cyrus now ruled as far as Egypt. He saw himself as the benefactor of all those he ruled, and he permitted a captive named Zerubbabel – a descendant of one of Judah’s former kings — to lead forty thousand or so Yahwist captives back to Judah.
Some among the returning exiles believed that Yahweh had promised them good things to come, but in Jerusalem they found impoverishment, foreigners and few worshipers of Yahweh. Nearly half a century had passed since the exile from Jerusalem, and Zerubbabel found people in Jerusalem unwilling to accept his authority and resenting the intrusions of those returning from captivity. Those who returned to Jerusalem began laid a foundation for the new temple, but the hostility of local people and Yahweh’s failure to intervene on their behalf led them to abandon the project.
In conquering Babylon, Cyrus acquired control over a vast trading network: through Canaan, Arabia to the Red Sea, Egypt and Africa. In his sixties, Cyrus sought additional territory farther east. In 529 he led his army across the Jaxartes River at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains. There a queen called Tomyris, told him to rule his own people and to bear the sight of her ruling her’s. During this expedition, Cyrus died, and his son, Cambyses II, succeeded him.
Cambyses II tried to win glory to his name by conquering new territory, and after four years of preparation he conquered a portion of Egypt, bringing an end forever to the rule of the pharaohs. Cambyses absorbed the island of Cyprus, which surrendered to him voluntarily. The Greek Historian Herodotus wrote about Cambyses seventy-five years after his death, and modern Egyptologists question his account. Another source is the Demotic Chronicle, from 407, decades after Herodotus. The religion of Cambyses was opposed to the worship of idols, and Cambyses is described as having the idols of the Egyptians burned to cure them of their superstitions. Cambyses is described as having killed with his dagger the bull representing the Egyptian god Apis and as having opened royal Egyptian tombs.
The stay of Cambyses in Egypt was disrupted by news of an attempted usurpation of his power in Persia. He had been away three years, and when he returned to Persia he found insufficient support against a formidable opposition. How he died — by suicide, assassination or disease — is an open question.
The rising against Cambyses was led by Darius, an exceptionally able soldier and a member of Cyrus’ extended family — the Achaemenids. Darius had allied himself with some other aristocrats. A son of Cyrus — an heir to the throne – had been killed, and Darius claimed that it was Cambyses who had killed him. Darius presented himself as having thwarted a takeover by someone impersonating the murdered son, and he claimed that as a member of Cyrus’ family he was restoring legitimate rule. Not everyone accepted Darius’ claims, and in many places Darius had to combat uprisings and competing claims to the throne. Succeeding at this, Darius turned his attention to expanding the empire he had acquired. Stating that his god had chosen him as king of the entire world, Darius extended Persian rule in Egypt and beyond into what is now Libya. And, attracted by tribal divisions and wars in India, in 517 BCE he extended Persian rule through the Khyber Pass to the Indus River.
Darius made his capital Persepolis, in the south of Persia. He built highways, maintained postal service across his empire and encouraged commerce. He built a canal 150 feet wide, linking the Red Sea and the Nile. He reformed the empire’s money and revised its administration, dividing the empire into twenty provinces, called satrapies.
Darius carried with him a portrait of his beloved wife, Artystone. He respected the religions of the various peoples he ruled, and he wished for and won the good will of people across his empire. Inspired by the tradition of law that he found in Babylon, he codified what he believed were just laws for his empire, and he wanted the various peoples he ruled to have local laws that pertained to their own customs.
Under the Achaemenid dynasty, before Darius, temples had appeared for the first time in Persia. Related to the Aryans who had invaded India, or a least having a language closely related to the Aryans, the Persians had gods similar to those found in the sacred Hindu Vedas. Having mixed with the Medes, among the Persians a Mede priesthood called the Magi had come to dominate their religion. The major god of the Medes was Zurvan, a god of time and destiny. Another god of the Persians was Mazda, whom Darius adopted in an effort to unify his empire. And in western Persia the god Mithra and goddess Anahita were also worshiped.
The Persians buried their dead above ground, their faith holding that a corpse defiled the earth. As a religious people they saw virtue in modest eating, in having only one meal a day and nothing to drink but water. They valued cleanliness and associated a lack of cleanliness with the devil and his diseases. Severe penalties were given to those thought to have spread disease by their uncleanness. And concern with the evils of the Devil led to stern laws against what the Persians saw as sinful sexuality, including masturbation, promiscuity and prostitution.
Etiquette was important to the Persians. Persians holding superior positions in society offered their cheeks to be kissed by those of a lower status, while equals embraced each other and kissed on the lips. The Persians thought it unbecoming to eat or drink anything in the street, or to spit, and like the Japanese today they thought it rude to blow one’s nose around others. And in this age of travel and contacts among people, Persians were described by others as a hospitable, generous, warm hearted, open, and honest in speech.
In keeping with their concern for others, Persian punishments for crimes were severe. The punishment for manslaughter was ninety strokes with a horsewhip. Capital crimes included treason, rape, sodomy, cremating or burying the dead, murder, accidentally sitting on the king’s throne, invading the king’s privacy or approaching one of his concubines. Death was administered by poisoning, stabbing, crucifixion, hanging, stoning, burying one up to his head, smothering one in hot ashes, crushing one’s head between huge stones or other methods of serving Mazda in his battle against the Devil.
According to legend, Zoroastrianism had origins in a prophet named Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, who appeared sometime after the Persians had arrived in Iran. It was said that when Zarathustra was born his laugh scattered the evil spirits that had been hanging around him as they did around all people. Legend claims that Zarathustra grew up with a love of wisdom and righteousness. It was said that when he was thirty he immersed himself in water during a spring religious festival and when he emerged in a state of purity he had a vision of a shining being who introduced himself as Good Purpose. According to the legend, Good Purpose took Zarathustra up a mountain to the great god, Mazda. And Zarathustra came down off the mountain with a message that he wished to preach to all humanity.
Legend describes Zarathustra as having had a vision of Mazda as all wise and the source of all justice and goodness, from which all other divine supporters of goodness emanated. Zarathustra perceived wickedness and cruelty as residing in Mazda’s adversary: the Devil. Here, according to Zarathustra, was the answer to why righteous people suffered.
According to Zarathustra, when Mazda and the Devil first met, Mazda created life and the Devil created its opposite: death. Thereafter, according to Zarathustra, a struggle took place between Mazda and the Devil. Zarathustra described Mazda’s goodness and creation of life as the force of light, and he described the Devil as the ruler of darkness, including the world of hell under the earth. Zarathustra described the Devil as the leader of all the evil spirits that hovered in the air, tempting people to commit crime and sin. He described the Devil as creating not only darkness but winter, ants, locusts, vermin, serpents, sin, sodomy, menstruation and the other plagues of life that had ruined the paradise into which Mazda had placed the first humans.
According to Zarathustra, people in the great battle between Mazda and the Devil were responsible for choosing between right and wrong. Zarathustra called people to a rigid discipline to support Mazda’s goodness. And he claimed that in this struggle between right and wrong, every man, woman and child had a guardian angel that was under Mazda’s leadership — an angel that helped them achieve virtue.
According to legend, people ridiculed Zarathustra and persecuted him. But then a king was converted to Zarathustra’s teachings, and the religion of Zarathustra spread. When this might have happened is unknown, for none of the Persian kings mentioned Zoroaster in their inscriptions nor mentioned supernatural beings that were unique to Zoroastrianism, and the early Zoroastrians left no records. Long after Zarathustra, Zoroastrians priests declared writing unfit for Zarathustra’s holy words, but the Zoroastrian priesthood did leave a legend of Zarathustra’s death. Zarathustra, they said, was consumed by a flash of lightning.
Zoroastrians did not see evil as inherent in nature or inherent in the human body. They saw nature as good because of the power of their god Mazda, whom they thought stronger than the Devil and omnipotent except for the temporary battle he was facing with the Devil. Zoroastrians were optimistic, believing that Mazda’s triumph was assured. They believed that the birth of Zarathustra had been the beginning of a final epoch that was to last three thousand years – ending perhaps around the year CE 2000. They believed that Mazda’s message would be carried throughout the world, that those who followed the Devil’s lies would dwell in darkness and misery, that the final epoch would end with the pronouncement of a Last Judgment and the utter destruction of the Devil and all his forces of evil. They believed that with this ending would come a great resurrection of all good souls and that all good people (the followers of Truth) would cross the bridge into Mazda’s kingdom, free of decay, old age and death.
Judah was fifty miles at its widest point and one hundred miles long — a small land within the Persian empire. There, the Persians allowed Zerubbabel and his priesthood subordinate authority over Judah’s internal affairs. One member of this priesthood, Jehozadek, spoke around 520 BCE of the people of Judah having harvested little, not having enough food to satisfy their hunger nor enough clothing for warmth (Haggai 1:6). He blamed this on their own errancy, and he called for a renewed effort at rebuilding Solomon’s temple, which he believed would strengthen them spiritually.
After permission was received from Darius, work on the temple began, and it was finished in 516. It was a meager structure compared to the temple Solomon had built, but the temple’s opening ceremony was grand. It included the sacrifice of one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs and twelve male goats – paid for by Darius. (Ezra 6:17.)
As is written of Cyrus in the Book of Isaiah, 44:28 and 45:1, the Yahweh priesthood looked kindly upon Persia’s kings. For Cyrus had freed the Hebrew captives, and Cyrus and his successors had protected them from the aggressions of others and allowed them to worship their own god. The Persians and the Yahweh priesthood, moreover, believed in one supreme god, and both stressed morality and a strict adherence to a code of laws.
Persian officials and their families were stationed in Judah, and in Judah were colonies of Persian merchants. With them in Judah were Persian temples and priests. And with the good feelings of Yahwists toward the Persians, Yahwists might have been open to receiving religious ideas from the Persians. Not known to have been a part of Yahweh worship before the coming of the Persians were hierarchies of angels, demons in conflict, Satan as an independent and evil force rather than an agent of Yahweh, reward and punishment after death, the immortality of the soul, the coming of a final judgment ending in a fiery ordeal and resurrection of the dead. It appears that the aristocratic Yahwist priesthood – the Sadducees — resisted these ideas and that commoners in Judah accepted them — ideas to be championed by those to be known as Pharisees.
In the sacred writings of the Yahwists, Satan had not been a ruler over evil. In the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers, Satan is described as an angel (from the Greek word angelos), as a messenger and a bringer of unexpected obstacles, sent by God to obstruct wrongful activity. And in the Book of Job this Satan appears again as one of Yahweh’s obedient servants, an angel messenger, sent to test Job’s devotion to Yahweh, a test to see if Job would blame and curse Yahweh.
The story of Job attempts to resolve the problem of Yahweh being well meaning and powerful while those loyal to him suffer. Job is described as a wealthy man, with “7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yokes of oxen and 500 female donkeys,” the kind of man the prophet Amos might have despised. But the Book of Job describes him as a good man: devout and fearing Yahweh. Job is advised by a friend that the innocent do not perish and that the upright are not destroyed, that whoever sows trouble harvests it. The message for Job is to be patient, that if he endures his suffering Yahweh will do right by him. Job endures and is faithful to Yahweh, and Yahweh restores his good fortunes.
Because of its account of the rule of Xerxes (from 486 to 465 BCE), the Book of Esther appears to have been written sometime after the early 400s, perhaps as late as the 100s BCE. In the Book of Esther, the Persian monarch, Ahasuerus, dumps his queen, Vashti, and marries Esther, a young Jewish woman. Esther’s cousin and foster-father, Mordecai, warns the Persian monarch that a plot is afoot against his royal life. A Persian grand vizier, Haman, who opposes Mordecai, convinces the monarch to decree death against Mordecai and other Jews in his empire, selected by lot, on a certain date. The queen, Esther, intervenes, and the Grand Vizier is instead hanged. Mordecai is made grand vizier in his place. And on the day that Jews were to be executed, they defend themselves and slay as many as seventy-five thousand.
Among Persian writings no record of any queen named Esther or a Persian minister named Mordecai or Haman have been found. Esther is an Aramaic name for the goddess Ishtar. Mordecai means worshiper of Marduk. The story of Esther resembles an ancient Persian story about the shrewdness of Harem queens. The description in the Book of Esther of the parade through the streets dressed in royal robes, the mock combat and other happenings are similar to the Persian celebration of the New Year. This celebration had mock combat between one team representing the old year and other team representing the New Year, with the old year being hanged in effigy. Apparently, Jews also took part in this New Year celebration, and eventually the story of Esther had been invented to explain the celebration and to turn it into a Jewish celebration — much as Christians were to change pagan holidays into Christian holidays.
Darius spent his later years at his palace enjoying his expanded harem, which had women of various races. In 486, at the age of sixty-four, he fell ill and died, and he was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who ruled for twenty-one years. Under Xerxes, some women at court acquired great influence, and jealousies surrounded him. then a eunuch commander of the guard conspired with others and assassinated Xerxes and Xerxes’ first son. The conspirators put on the throne another of Xerxes’ sons: an eighteen-year-old named Artaxerxes, the son of a foreign woman from the royal harem. Artaxerxes asserted his authority and had the eunuch commander executed. And Artaxerxes ruled over the vast Persian empire for forty-two years.
Like Darius, Artaxerxes was interested in the peoples of his empire remaining orderly under their local laws and religion. He appointed as Judah’s new governor a Yahwist scholar and priest named Ezra, who had been living in Babylon, and he instructed Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges who would keep Judah in the laws of its god, Yahweh.
According to the Old Testament, Ezra and a following of eighteen hundred males moved to Judah. And what Ezra found must have been far from what he had expected, for when he arrived he tore at his hair, his beard, his garment, his robe, and he sat down appalled. He found that the Hebrews of Judah had not separated themselves from other peoples and that they had been practicing “abominations.”
Ezra wanted to separate the worshipers of Yahweh from foreign influences and to advance their identity as a community of worshipers of Yahweh. He called the people of Jerusalem to assemble, and he told the assembly that new demands would be put upon them. Judah was to become a Yahwist state and its people to be considered one people. Ezra commanded that no one could marry any of the foreign women and that any man who had already married such a woman must expel her from his house.
Already the people of Judah were a mix of peoples. Solomon himself had been the son of a woman described as a Hittite: Bathsheba. Nevertheless, Ezra was concerned with lineage of the Yahwist priesthood, and he purged from the priesthood those who could not prove that they were descended from purely Hebrew families. But rather than attempt to extend this stricture to those who were not priests, he made observance of Yahwist practices the deciding issue whether one belonged to his community – beginning what would eventually be Judaism’s racial tolerance. Judaism was a faith based on the worship of Yahweh and adherence to Yahweh’s laws as described in the Moses legend. The words Judaism and Jew derive from the Hebrew word Yehudah, the fourth son of Jacob and the founder of the tribe of Judah. Like most other religions at this time, rather than evangelistic, its concern was essentially with its own community.
Ezra’s laws were presented as Yahweh’s laws. This included the traditional 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 strictly regulated as before. Fathers were to arrange the marriages of their sons and daughters without their consent. Marriage was recognized as the basis of a family, and marital promises were supported by the harshest of measures: 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 and 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.
The Jewish priesthood expected people 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 the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus, Yahweh is described as giving laws to Moses that rejected Canaanite ways. Moses is described as prohibiting the wearing of garments made of both linen and wool or garments with tassels, as was custom among the Canaanites. And it was 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 the Canaanites, who, having been a settled people could raise pigs. 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 the detested Canaanites and not traditional among Hebrews, it had been described as unclean, although there is no evidence that the Canaanites suffered from eating their pigs anymore than the Hebrews suffered from eating their sheep or goats.
Apparently by the time that Ezra was in Judah, the first five books of the Old Testament were assembled: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books were declared to have been written by Moses himself, inspired by God. [note] In Hebrew they were called the Torah of Moses. They appear to have been assembled with national unity in mind, as a compilation of the history of the Jewish people, with a clear distinction between the people favored by Yahweh and the outsiders detested by Ezra. Included was the long list of who begat whom that expressed Ezra’s concern about lineage, and also included were the priestly matters and legalities about which Ezra was concerned. Not included among the books were those writings that supported one group or another rather than the Jewish nation as a whole, writings that were later to be described as apocrypha (hidden things) and pseudepigrapha (falsely attributed writings).
Among the sacred writings of the Hebrews were The Proverbs. Legend held that Solomon was its author, but some Biblical scholars believe that Proverbs may have been written after the year 400 BCE. Proverbs begins with the statement that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” From there, Proverbs advises its readers to avoid being enticed by greed into joining with others in thievery and mugging. Do not envy sinners, it states. “Drink water from your own well. Pay your debts, and fear the Lord.” By fearing the Lord, it claims, one acquires security and wisdom. Integrity, it states, brings security, and hatred and arrogance stir up strife. Be kind and true, Proverbs admonishes. “Trust the Lord with all your heart.” If you honor the Lord “your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine.” Do not weary yourself to gain wealth. Wisdom and a good name are better than silver and gold. Do not boast about tomorrow. Do not slander a slave to his master. Be good to your neighbors. Smell good for the sake of others. Do not be enticed by an absent neighbor’s wife. Do not associate with one given to anger. And wives, do not be idle, and be happy in your work.
The Torah of Moses included Ten Commandments in two places: Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. One of these commands was in keeping with the priesthood’s desire for exclusive Yahweh worship. It read: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Another was:
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy… On it you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.
Other commandments were: You shall not murder, nor commit adultery, steal, give false testimony against your neighbor, covet your neighbor’s house, wife, manservant, maidservant, his ox or donkey or anything that belongs to him.
Death to Apostates
Despite the Ten Commandment’s words about murder, in the Book of Deuteronomy was a passage in tune with the doings of the Prophet Elijah that marks the difference between the attitudes of ancient times and modern times — except for those whom modern people consider fanatics. A case was being made in Deuteronomy for justifiable killing. It was priestly attempt to protect the faith. It reads:
If you brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying “Let us go and serve other gods, you should not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him. Your hand shall be the first against him, to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. (Deuteronomy 13:7-11.
The prosperity that the followers of Yahweh had expected continued to elude them. In and around Jerusalem poverty continued, and famine appeared. As described in the Book of Nehemiah, 5:1-5, the poor protested:
We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine… We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. And now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves. And some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.
The priests who governed Judah after Ezra attempted economic and social reforms. As described in the Book of Deuteronomy, usury within the community of Hebrews was prohibited, but usury against non-Hebrews 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. And adversity and hardship continued among the Jews. Suffering Jews continued to look nostalgically to the glorious days of King David. And they looked forward to Yahweh bringing them another great king, anointed as kings were — in Hebrew, a mäshäih, anointed one, to be reworked into the word used by English speakers as “messiah.”