Mar 22 2007

Old Testament Reordered Chronologically

Published by under Talks

Karen Armstrong’s reordering of the Old Testament in the light of recent archaeology.


Talk to Dunedin SOF Thursday 22 March, 2007. – (Ian Fleming)

Old Testament Israel is one of the four cultures Karen Armstrong treats in her book: The Great Transformation. She uses recent archaeological discoveries to show that Israel’s actual historical journey takes a path very different from the one portrayed in the Bible. I found her presentation of Israel’s actual history fascinating and illuminating. I thought you might too. So here goes.

Picture then back in 1300 BC an historical dark age around the E Mediterranean area, a period within which no one knows what happened. Some sort of cataclysmic crisis swept away the Greek, Hittite and Egyptian kingdoms of the time and plunged the whole area into oblivion. Was it drought, some mysterious Sea Peoples? Anyway, just darkness. Desperate dispossessed peoples roamed the region.

Out of this terrible period emerged the Israelites: a confederation of small tribes whose unimposing villages appeared in the stony highlands of Canaan. Israel was born of trauma and upheaval and constant threat. Its highland groups and clans seem to have bound themselves together by a covenant agreement and turned their back upon the ancient urban culture of Canaan. They bound themselves together in a unique relationship with their god Yahweh, originally a god of the southern mountains brought north by some of the highland tribes. Israelites felt related to their national god, calling themselves ‘am Yahweh, the kindred, or the people of Yahweh.

When the Hebrew Bible was created much later in the 700s and following centuries, it tells a completely different story. Israelite historians, poets, annalists, prophets, priests and lawyers developed a narrative quite counter to their actual one. They built up their saga, changed it, embroidered it, added to it and reinterpreted it, making it speak to the particular circumstances of the time in which it was recounted. Their national sagas helped the people in creating their distinct identity.One saga had their ancestor Abraham coming from Ur, in Mesopotamia and settling in Canaan at the behest of his god away back in about 1750 BC. Another epic story portrayed the Exodus from Egypt.

In historical fact however, the highland colonies were migrants from the failing city-states on the coastal plains. They were not foreigners but Canaanites. As regards their religion, the biblical record suggests that until the 500s Israel was not in fact very different from other local peoples.

In Canaan, back in the 1300s El, the leader of the gods had been replaced by the dynamic storm god Baal, a divine warrior who rode on the clouds of heaven in his chariot, fought battles with other gods and brought the beneficent life-giving rains. In very early isolated texts, written into later narratives in the Bible, it is Yahweh who is a divine warrior, just like Baal, as in the Song of Deborah in Judges.

In time, despite some resistance, the old tribal organisation gave way to a monarchy. Originally, according to the Bible, Kings David (c1000-970) and Solomon (c.970-930) ruled a united kingdom from its capital, Jerusalem, in the south. But this short-lived united kingdom was soon to split into two states, with northern Israel the larger and more prosperous, with 90% of the population. However we know more of the religion of the smaller southern Judah ruled by descendants of King David because it was Judah that was more favoured by the biblical writers. At his coronation the king was adopted by Yahweh as a son of God, eclipsing the covenant that had united the tribes under Yahweh.

By the end of the 800s, Israel was a major power in the area with King Omri building a marvellous new capital in Samaria. His son Ahab built a magnificent ivory palace there and married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, thereby integrating Israel with the region and holding its own against rivals. Ahab was no apostate as portrayed by the biblical historian of 1 Kings writing later in the 600s in a very different world. Ahab regularly consulted the prophets of Yahweh and saw nothing amiss in his wife’s devotion to Baal. And archaeologists have discovered that most of the population also, worshipped other local gods besides Yahweh. However in the 800s, some Israelites were cutting down on the number of gods worshipped, restricting them to Yahweh presiding alone over a host of lesser celestial beings. They were his heavenly hosts, the warriors in his divine army. The legends about the prophet Elijah of the 800s and his disciple Elisha may reflect the very early stirrings of what scholars call the “Yahweh alone movement.”

The 700s were a period of religious transition in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, with the first stirrings of the interiorised spirituality of the Axial Age, about which Karen Armstrong’s book is primarily concerned. Amos and Hosea reflect this. About 780 Amos from the south prophesied to the northern kingdom’s Jereboam that Israel’s warrior god Yahweh was going to shatter not only the surrounding kingdoms but also northern Israel, using Assyria as his favoured instrument. A mark of the Axial age religions was to be that they would be conditioned by a sympathy that would enable people to feel with others. In this case, Amos felt anger, not on his own part, but the anger of Yahweh himself. Hosea too felt empathy with Yahweh through a tragedy with his own life, when his wife, Gomer, became a sacred prostitute in the fertility cult of Baal. The sympathy he felt, Hosea realised, was what Yahweh, the holy one of Israel must feel when his people went whoring after other gods. His own yearning after Gomer was a sign that Yahweh also yearned after unfaithful Israel and was prepared to give her another chance. Hosea also had an ethical concern. Moral laxity pervaded Baal worship but Yahweh demanded hesed, loyalty, not sacrifice, the knowledge of Yahweh, not burnt offerings. Yahweh yearned to lead his people like a toddler, with reins of kindness, with leading strings of love. Further, Hosea was also trying to oust Baal from his position and persuade Israelites to worship Yahweh alone. For Yahweh was not only a god of war but could bring good harvests just as well as Baal. Amos and Hosea both insisted on good interiorised ethical behaviour, without which outward ritual alone was worthless. Hosea in particular urged the Israelites to examine their inner lives, analyse their feelings and develop a deeper vision based on introspection.

Let us now turn from history for a while to resume it a bit later with the destructive fulfilment of Amos’s foresight. We need first to unscramble the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The JEDP hypothesis is most helpful here. It seems that two ancient texts were first combined, then later, in about the 500s, edited by a priestly writer, (P), to whom we will come later, an unlikely Axial Sage who added his own traditions from his exile in Babylonian captivity. One of these early sources, was (J), the Yahwhistic, because its author called his god Yahweh, and the second (E) Elohistic, because this writer usually preferred the more formal title Elohim. But neither J nor E were original compositions either; they simply brought together into a coherent narrative the ancient stories that had been recited by bards at the covenant festivals of early tribal Israel, transmitted orally from one generation to another, and very importantly for our understanding, not written down. Even though the kingdoms of Israel and Judah both utilised writing for administrative purposes, they had not used it to record the history and ideology of the state. Until the 700s, writing was regarded as a divine uncanny skill that was potentially dangerous for human beings.

It seems likely that J and E also represent two different strands of tradition – one southern, one northern – that were eventually combined and written down in the late 700s and included in the royal archive in Jerusalem. They were an early attempt at historical writing, but they are more than history. They had evolved over a long period of time, and were concerned not simply to describe the events of the past accurately but to convey what they meant, so they each included mythical material alongside their more historically-based narratives. Nobody of the time would have imagined that J and E were definitive texts. Later generations felt at perfect liberty to add to these scriptures and even to contradict them. The written J and E combined account reflected the religious ideas of Israelites and Judahites at the end of the 700s; but during the 600s, 500s and 400s other authors added to the original stories, introduced new material and rewrote the history of Israel in a way that spoke to the conditions of their time. The stories told in J and E had been used in the early tribal cult of Israel. But by the 700s the covenant festivals of the tribes had been replaced by the royal liturgies of Jerusalem and Samaria. This freed these narratives from their tribal cultic setting and enabled the bards and other recorders to develop a more sustained written chronicle of the history of early Israel.

Their story began with Yahweh calling the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – into a close relationship. He promised that they would be the fathers of a great nation, and would one day take possession of the land of Canaan. The saga continued with the migration of the Israelites down to Egypt, their victory over the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, the formation of a covenantal league at Mount Sinai/Horeb, and the march to the Promised Land. But within this basic framework, J and E had different emphases, which reflected the local traditions from which they came.

Thus J almost certainly developed in the southern kingdom of Judah. (J for Yahweh, J for Judah!) Its pivotal figure was Abraham rather than Moses. E did not include the primaeval history recounted in Genesis 1-11 (viz. the creation of the world; the fall of Adam and Eve; the murder of Abel by his brother Cain; the flood; and the rebellion at the Tower of Babel), but this was very important to J. He wanted to show that before Abraham, history had been a succession of disasters; humanity seemed caught in a downward spiral of rebellion, sin and punishment. But Abraham had reversed this grim trend. The covenant with Abraham had been the turning point of history. Abraham was special to J because he was a man of the south where he and Isaac had settled and lived. The career of Abraham also looked forward to King David, who was born in the southern town of Bethlehem, was crowned King of Israel and Judah in southern Hebron and had made southern Jerusalem his capital.

E’s narrative of the patriarchs never mentioned the covenant with Abraham and gave more prominence to Jacob, his grandson whom God renamed “Israel”. But of even greater importance to E was the story of the Exodus in which the little-known god Yahweh had defeated Egypt, the greatest power in the region. It showed that it was possible for a marginal people to overcome oppression and break out of obscurity, as the little kingdom of Israel had become a major power in E Mediterranean during the 800s. For E, Moses was the prophet par excellence. It was he, not Abraham, who turned history around.

Surprisingly at first sight, neither J nor E presented Moses as a great lawgiver. When they described the covenant on Mt Sinai they did not even mention the 10 commandments, (to be added only later by the Deuteronomists, literally second law.) J described Yahweh in strongly anthropomorphic terms. Yahweh strolls through the Garden of Eden, enjoying the cool evening air; he closes the door of Noah’s ark; he smells the delicious aroma of Noah’s sacrifice after the flood; and Abraham sees Yahweh in the form of a stranger whom he entertains in his encampment. But in E, God was more transcendent. He did not appear to human beings directly but sent his “angel” as an intermediary. When Moses had asked the god that summoned him from the burning bush, he was met with the reply: I am what I am, i.e. never mind who I am, mind your own business. To know somebody’s name meant that you had power over them. God was not to be controlled in this way.

Back into history now. With Isaiah there came a further distancing of God. In 740 Isaiah, a member of the Judean royal family, in his vision in the temple, saw a terrifying reality that lay behind the temple rituals. qaddowsh, holy is Yahweh, god of armies. His glory fills the whole earth.” The foundations of the temple shook and the hall filled with smoke, engulfing Yahweh in an impenetrable cloud. Yahweh was now the totally “other”. Isaiah was filled with terror. Yahweh was no longer a genial deity with whom it was possible to share a companionable meal. Isaiah was sent to deliver a bleak message. The people would not listen to Yahweh until it was too late.

The Assyrian army of Tiglathpileser III marched into the country in 738, subduing Israel’s northern territories, as Amos had predicted. Shortly after, in 734, southern Judah, till now too insignificant to be noticed, had to appeal to Assyria for help against Damascus and Israel, when it refused to join with their opposition against Assyria designed to prevent any further Assyrian westward advances. So Judah became a vassal of Assyria and could only look on aghast as Tiglath-Pileser swept down on Damascus and Israel, reducing Israel to a tiny rump state. But in all this, Isaiah remained confident in the eternal covenant that Yahweh had made with King David and the traditions of the Jerusalem temple. He told King Ahaz to depend on Yahweh alone. Isaiah’s insistence on humility and surrender before Yahweh appears at first sight similar to the Axial spirituality of kenosis, humble self-emptying. But it also dangerously inflated the national ego of Judah to a defiant patriotism. That Yahweh could control the gods of other nations, was an essentially magical theology which encouraged people to believe that a divine potency made Jerusalem invincible.

When the remainder of Israel was deported to Assyria by a new Assyrian King, Shalmaneser V, the little kingdom of Judah, one of only a handful of nations to retain a degree of independence after the Assyrian campaigns, was now left maintaining the only official Yahweh tradition, where before there had been two. The archaeological record shows that Jerusalem expanded dramatically at the end of the 700s. Within a few years, Jerusalem transformed from a modest highland town of about 4 hectares to a city of 60 hectares of densely packed houses and public buildings. Refugees from Israel brought down their own northern traditions and there was a desire at this time to preserve these in assembling a royal library. This desire was reflected in the reform of King Hezekiah, who succeeded his father in 715 and is remembered by the biblical historians as one of the greatest kings of Judah. But his foreign policy was disastrous. He foolishly entered into an anti-Assyrian coalition, bringing Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 to surround Jerusalem. But there was a mysterious last minute reprieve forcing the Assyrians to withdraw.

Although the apparently miraculous deliverance seemed proof-positive that Jerusalem was indeed inviolable, the surrounding countryside was laid waste and Jerusalem was left now only a tiny city-state. So Hezekiah left a grim legacy, but his son Manasseh remained a loyal vassal of Assyria, and Judah prospered during his long reign. The Assyrians did not impose their god Asshur upon Judah, although some of their religious symbols became highly visible. Manasseh rebuilt the rural sacrificial shrines that Hezekiah had destroyed, set up altars to Baal, brought an effigy of Asherah into the Jerusalem temple, set up statues of the divine horses of the sun at the entrance of the temple, and instituted child sacrifice outside Jerusalem. Few of Manasseh’s subjects would have found his actions very surprising since, as archaeologists have discovered, many had similar icons in their own homes. Eventually Manasseh died, his son Amon’s 2-year reign ended with assassination by a palace uprising, led by a rural aristocracy, which put Amon’s 8-yr-old son, Josiah on the throne.

Mighty Assyria was now in decline, which allowed Egypt to force Assyria out of the territories of the old northern kingdom of Israel. So Josiah now became a vassal of Egypt, but the Pharaoh was content to leave him alone, being more interested in taking control of the lucrative trade routes in the Canaanite coastal lowlands. At 16 years of age, Josiah underwent a religious conversion, to wishing to worship Yahweh exclusively. In the reconstruction of Solomon’s temple, the high priest Hilkiah found the book of the law [sepher torah] which he declared the authentic law which Yahweh had given to Moses on Mount Sinai. However most scholars believe that the scroll contained an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, which described Moses gathering the people together on Mount Nebo in Transjordan, shortly before his death, and delivering a “second law”, a deutero-nomion. But instead of being an ancient work, as Hilkiah claimed, it was almost certainly an entirely new scripture.

Remember that until the 700s there had been very little reading or writing of religious texts in either Israel or Judah. In the J and E traditions, Moses had passed on Yahweh’s commands by word of mouth and the people had responded verbally: “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.” J and E did not mention the ten commandments. It was only later that the Deuteronomist writers added to the JE narrative, explaining that Moses “wrote down all the words of Yahweh” and “took the scroll of the covenant [sepher torah] and read it in the hearing of the people.” Now it was claimed that this was the very scroll that had been lost for centuries.

This was not a cynical forgery however. The Deuteronomists believe that they were speaking for Moses at a time of grave national crisis. The world had changed drastically since the time of the Exodus, and the religion of Yahweh was in danger. in 722 the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed and thousands of its citizens had disappeared without trace. The kingdom of Judah had narrowly escaped extermination in the days of Hezekiah. Now, only Yahweh – not Manasseh’s gods – could save his people. Now at last, Judah had a king who could revive the glories of the past. This was what Moses would say to Josiah and his people, if he were delivering a deutero nomion, a second law today. Josiah immediately inaugurated a programme that followed Yahweh’s torah by the book. He eradicated the cultic traditions his grandfather Manasseh had introduced, burning the effigies of Baal and Asherah, abolishing the rural sacrificial shrines, pulling down the house of sacred male prostitutes in the temple, the furnace where Israelites had sacrificed their children to Moloch, and the effigies of the Assyrian horses of the sun. Turning to the old territories of the kingdom of Israel, Josiah was even more merciless. He not only demolished the ancient temples of Yahweh in Bethel and Samaria, but slaughtered the priests of the rural shrines and contaminated their altars. The sepher torah, the book of the law, of the Deuteronomists, revealed that Yahweh had demanded exclusive allegiance from the beginning. Moses had told the people on Mount Nebo, Yahweh is our elohim, Yahweh alone! The Israelites must worship no other gods, make no treaties with the native inhabitants of Canaan, show them no pity, and wipe out their religion. Josiah followed all this to the letter.

The Deuteronomists claimed to be conservative in returning to the original faith of Israel. In fact they were radically innovative. They outlawed symbols such as the sacred pole (asherah) and the standing stones (matstseboth) that had always been perfectly acceptable. Sacrifice could be offered only in the one central shrine in Jerusalem which meant that all others had to be destroyed. They also condoned the secular slaughtering of animals, a radical break from the requirement that only meat sacrificed ceremonially in a sacred area could be eaten. So the Deuteronomists created a secular sphere with its own rules and integrity functioning alongside the cult. They also appointed state judges in every city with a supreme court in Jerusalem. And the king was stripped of his traditional powers. He was no longer the son of God, the special servant of Yahweh, but subject to the law, as were others. The Deuteronomists also rewrote the history of Israel, first editing the earlier Yahwhistic and Elohistic narratives, adapting them to the conditions of the 600s, concentrating on Moses who had liberated his people from slavery in Egypt at a time when Josiah was hoping to become independent of the Pharaoh. They wrote a history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, which strongly condemned the northern kingdom and argued that the Davidic kings of Judah were the rightful rulers of the whole of Israel. This was not cheap propaganda. The Deuteronomists were learned men and their achievement was remarkable. In some ways Deuteronomy reads like a modern document. Its vision of a secular sphere, an independent judiciary, a constitutional monarchy and a centralised state looks forward to our own day. They also developed a much more rational theology, discounting much ancient myth. God did NOT come down from heaven to speak to Moses on Mt Sinai; you could not actually SEE God, as some of the Israelites believed, nor could you manipulate him by offering sacrifice. It was also essential that the Israelites behave with justice and kindness to one another. The Deuteronomists’ passionate insistence upon the importance of justice, equity and compassion went even further than the teaching of Amos and Hosea. If their reform had been fully implemented, the Deuteronomists would have completely altered the political, social, religious and judicial life of Israel. Today, people often use scripture to oppose change and to conserve the past. But the Deuteronomists, who pioneered the idea of scriptural orthodoxy, used the texts they had inherited in order to introduce fundamental changes.

But Josiah’s great experiment ended in tears. As we’ve already noted, the Assyrian empire was in the final stages of its decline, and Babylon was in the ascendant. In 609 the Egyptian Pharaoh marched through Palestine to come to the aid of the beleaguered Assyrian king. Josiah intercepted the Egyptian army at Megiddo and was killed at the first encounter. None of the reforms survived his death. Shortly after Josiah’s untimely death, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, became the undisputed master of the region, and for the next 20 years, the neo-Babylonian empire contended with Egypt for the control of Canaan. The kings of Judah veered uneasily between the two powers, opting now for one, then relying on the protection of the other.

But it proved dangerous to oppose Babylon. Each time Judah rebelled against Babylonian rule, Nebuchadnezzar descended on the little kingdom with his powerful army and subjugated the region in 3 brutal military campaigns.In 597 the young King Jehoiachin of Judah submitted to Babylon and was deported with 8,000 exiles; they included members of the royal family, the aristocracy, the military, and the skilled artisans: “all of them men capable of bearing arms, they were led into exile in Babylon.” It was this first group of deportees including P, the priestly writer, who created the new Axial vision as we shall soon see. Nebuchadnezzar had torn the heart out of the Judaean state, but it struggled on for another ten years, with Zedekiah, a Babylonian appointee, on the throne.

When Zedekiah rebelled in 587, Nebuchadnezzar showed no mercy. His army fell upon Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and razed the city to the ground. Zedekiah was forced to watch the slaughter of his sons, before his eyes were torn out and he too was carried off to Babylon with 5,000 more deportees, leaving only the poorer people and those who had defected to Babylon, in the devastated land. Judah was incorporated into the administrative structure of the empire and in 581 a third group was taken into exile.

This was a period of intense suffering. Recent archaeological investigations have revealed the fury of the Babylonian attack. Jerusalem, Judah and the entire E Mediterranean suffered an attack more destructive than the Assyrian onslaught. The country entered a dark age, one of the most miserable periods of its history. Jerusalem and its temple remained a desolate ruin. The prophet Jeremiah was not deported because he had consistently supported the Babylonians, realising that rebellion was utter folly. Although some prophets had thought that because Yahweh dwelt in his temple, Jerusalem could not be destroyed, Jeremiah told them that this was dangerous nonsense. It was useless to chant “This is the temple of Yahweh!” like a magic spell. If the people did not mend their ways, Yahweh would destroy the city. This was treason to say, and Jeremiah was almost executed, but after his acquittal he continued to wander through the streets uttering his grim oracles. His name has become a by-word for exaggerated pessimism, a Jeremiad, but Jeremiah was not being “negative”. He was right. He saw the situation as it was, however painful and frightening this might be. Jeremiah hated being a prophet. He seemed compelled, against his will to cry “violence and ruin!” all day long; when he tried to stop, it felt as though his heart and bones were on fire, and he was forced to prophesy again. Like Amos and Hosea, he felt that his own subjectivity had been taken over by God; the pain that wracked his every limb was Yahweh’s pain: God also felt humiliated, ostracised and abandoned.

Shortly after the first deportation in 597, Jeremiah heard that there were some so-called prophets at work in Babylon who were giving the exiles false hope. So he wrote an open letter to the deportees. They were not going to return home in the near future; in fact Yahweh was going to destroy Jerusalem. They must resign themselves to at least 70 years in captivity, so they should settle down, build houses, take wives and have children. Jeremiah was convinced that it was the exiles of 597, not the people who had remained behind, who would save Israel. If they could come through this time of trial, they would develop a more interior spirituality (a leading Axial insight.) Yahweh would make a new covenant with them. This time it would not be inscribed on stone tablets, like the old covenant with Moses: “Deep within them I will plant my law, writing it on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they shall be my people. There will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour, or brother to say to brother, ‘Learn to know Yahweh!’ No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.”However, some of the exiles, far from seeking the welfare of the Babylonians, wanted to smash their children’s heads against a rock. Exile is not simply a change of address. It is also a spiritual dislocation.

The Judaean exiles were reasonably well treated in Babylon. They were not kept in a prison or a camp. King Jehoiachin, who had freely surrendered to Nebuchad-nezzar in 597 was under house arrest, but was given a stipend and lived in comfort with his entourage in the southern citadel of Babylon. Some of the deportees lived in the capital while others were housed in undeveloped areas, near newly-dug canals. They could, to an extent, arrange their own affairs. But they were still displaced persons.

In Jerusalem, many had been men of authority and influence; in Babylonia they had no political rights and were on the margins of society, their position lower than that of the poorest of the local people. Some were even forced into forced labour. They had suffered a shocking loss of status. When they described the exile, they frequently used words like “bonds” and “fetters.” They may not technically have been slaves, but they felt as though they were.

Some of the community lost all faith in Yahweh. But others responded creatively to the catastrophe and began to develop an entirely new religious vision. The royal scribes continued to edit earlier texts. They Deuteronomists added passages to their history to explain the disaster, while priests began to adapt their ancient lore to life in Babylonia, where the Judaeans had no cult and no temple any more. Deprived of everything that had given meaning to their lives – their temple, their king and their land – they had to learn to live as a homeless minority, and once again they were not afraid to rewrite their history, revise their customs and find a radically innovative interpretation of their traditional sacred symbols.

We can see the development of this Axial vision in the prophetic career of the young priest Ezekiel who was deported to Babylon in 597 and settled in the village of Tel Aviv – Springtime Hill – after which the modern Tel Aviv is name. He had a series of visions which marked his painful transition from agonising terror to a more peaceful spirituality. God had become incomprehensible – as alien as Ezekiel felt in Tel Aviv. The trauma of exile had smashed the neat rationalistic God of the Deuteronomists; it was no longer possible to see Yahweh as a friend who shared a meal with Abraham or as a king presiding powerfully over his divine council. Ezekiel was a priest, so he interpreted the crisis in terms of the temple rituals and used traditional liturgical categories to diagnose the moral failings of his people. Ezekiel was one of the last of the great prophets. Prophecy had always been linked with the monarchy in Israel and Judah but it grew less influential as the monarchy declined.

So it was that the priests, who had officiated in the temple, had acquired a new importance as the last link with a world that seemed irrevocably lost. They could have fallen into despair after their temple had been destroyed but instead, a small circle of exiled priests began to construct a new spirituality on the rubble of the old. We know very little about them. This priestly layer of the Bible, the P tradition, had access to several old traditions, some written down and others orally transmitted. P’s most important sources were the Holiness Code, miscellaneous laws collected during the 600s and the Tabernacle Document which described the tent shrine that the Israelites had built in the wilderness to house the divine presence. At first sight P’s apparent obsession with external rules and rituals seems far removed from the Axial Age. P wanted the deportees to live in a different way, convinced that if faithfully observed, these laws would not imprison them in soulless conformity but would transform them at a profound level.

The first chapter of Genesis, which described how Israel’s God had created heaven and earth in six days is probably P’s most famous work. When his first audience listened to a creation story, they expected to hear tales of violent struggle. The exiles were living in Babylon, where Marduk’s victory over Tiamat, the primal sea, was re-enacted in a spectacular ritual at the new year and there were many stories about Yahweh slaying a sea dragon when he created the world. But in P’s creation story, there was no fighting or killing. This was a remarkable spiritual achievement. The deportees had been the victims of a horrifying assault. Some wanted revenge. But this, P seemed to tell them was not the way to go. His creation story can be seen as a polemic against the religion of their Babylonian conquerors. Yahweh finished his work in a mere six days and was able to rest on the seventh. He had no divine competition but was incomparable, the only power in the universe and beyond opposition. While Israelites could be extremely scathing about other people’s faith, P did not take that road. There were no cheap jibes against the Babylonian religion. His narrative was serene and calm. Even though the exiles had experienced such violent uprooting, this was a world where everything had its place. On the last day of creation God “saw everything that he had made, and behold: it was exceedingly good.” He also blessed all that he had made – and that, presumably, included the Babylonians. Everybody should behave like Yahweh, resting calmly on the Sabbath, serving God’s world, and blessing his creatures.

For P, a man of the Axial Age, holiness had a strong ethical component and was no longer a cultic matter. It involved absolute respect for the sacred “otherness” of every creature. In the law of freedom, Yahweh insisted that nothing could be enslaved or owned, not even the land. In the Jubilee Year all slaves must be freed and all debts cancelled. Even though they lived separate holy lives, Israelites must not despise the stranger: “If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him like one of your own people and love him as yourselves. For you were strangers in Egypt.” This was a law based on empathy. The experience of suffering must lead to the appreciation of other people’s pain. P was a realist, however. The commandment to “love” did not require people to be constantly filled with warm affection. This was a law code, and P’s language was as technical and reticent as any legal ruling. In Middle Eastern treaties, to “love” meant to be helpful, loyal and to give practical support. The commandment to love was practical, within everybody’s grasp. From start to finish, P’s vision was inclusive. Yet at first reading, the dietary laws seem harsh and arbitrarily selective. However for P, certain actions or conditions contaminated the temple and drove God out. For P, death was the basic impurity; the living God was incompatible with dead bodies. All major pollutants – improperly shed blood, leprosy, discharge – were impure because they were associated with death. These the Israelites were to avoid because they were living with their God. But P did not teach that other human beings were unclean or contaminating. The foreigner was not to be shunned but “loved”. Contamination came not from others but from oneself. There was however an undercurrent of anxiety in P. The legislation surrounding leprosy, discharge and menstruation inspired by a fear of the body’s walls being breached, revealed the displaced community’s concern to establish clear boundaries. P’s evocation of a world in which everything had its place sprang from the trauma of dislocation. The national integrity of the exiles had been violated by a ruthless display of imperial power. The great achievement of the exilic priests and prophets had been the avoidance of a religion based upon resentment and revenge, and the creation of a spirituality that affirmed the holiness of all life.

We do not have the time to trace the decline of Israel’s Axial Age from this time on. So we pass over the exuberant but vain prophecies of 2nd Isaiah of a new messiah who would change the history of the world. We pass over the rise of the Persian Empire and the return of a few of the exiles to Jerusalem under Cyrus, as recounted the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the rebuilding of the walls, and the required exclusion of of non-Israelite wives. A sad falling away from the Axial Vision. However the books of Ezra and Nehemiah comprised only a small part of the Hebrew Bible. Their perspective was shared by many of the people, but it was not the only viewpoint. During the 400s and 300s, the Hebrew Bible was brought together by editors and the more inclusive traditions of Israel and Judah were also represented. The traditions of P, who had insisted that no human beings were unclean dominated the first three books of the Pentateuch and qualified the more exclusive vision of the Deuteronomists. Other books reminded Jews that King David himself was descended from Ruth, a woman of Moab. And the book of Jonah showed a Hebrew prophet being compelled by Yahweh to save the city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire which had destroyed the kingdom of Israel in 722. When Jonah had remonstrated with God, Yahweh had answered in words that could have been endorsed by many other sages of the Axial Age: “Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a 120th people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?” The first phase of the Axial Age of Israel was over, but it would enjoy a second flowering in Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who would all build on Israel’s Axial insights, and create a faith based upon the Golden Rule and the spirituality of “yielding”, in the words of the Buddha, “empathy and concern for everybody.”

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