The Origin of the Hebrew Bible
The Origin of the Hebrew Bible

The Origin of the Hebrew Bible

  1. The Origin of the Hebrew Bible



Although it is easy today to think of the Bible as a single book, it is actually a collection of diverse ancient writings that were brought together over centuries, first as a collection of individual scrolls, and only in relatively recent times published as a single work.


The Bible


The Bible has not always existed in the form in which we know it today. The various books which comprise the Bible were first bound together as pages in a single book in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Prior to that, the sacred texts of both Judaism and Christianity consisted of a library of separate texts, each written on a scroll. These scrolls made up a collection or library of sacred texts, but different congregations might have different collections of scrolls that were considered sacred. It was not until the year 90 CE in a council held at Jamnia (Javneh, Palestine) that the Jewish community began to develop a consensus about which works were to be considered to be canon, that is as scriptures that are binding in matters of doctrine and practice. It was even later, in the second century that Christian scholars decided that only writings by Apostles would be accepted as Christian scripture, an idea that excluded the writings of other early church leaders such as First Clement which was written in the early second century by the bishop of Rome to the church at Corinth.


The formulation of the list of sacred works was not a straightforward one or without controversy for either the Jews or the Christians. For instance, although the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was universally accepted as sacred text by Jews, the book of Ezekiel was problematic for many Jewish scholars because its description of the Temple differs from that found in the Torah, and it was not until an agreement was achieved that Ezekiel could be reconciled with the Torah that it was accepted. Ecclesiastes was questioned by some, because they felt that its pessimistic outlook was at variance with Judaism. The Song of Songs seemed much too erotic to many to be divinely inspired scripture, but eventually the viewpoint prevailed that its overt eroticism was really an allegory for God’s love of Israel. The Book of Esther was debated for well over a century after Jamnia, because the word “God” did not appear in it and because it introduced the feast of Purim, a feast that was not set forth in the Torah. Since there was general agreement that inspired scripture had ceased to be written at the time of Ezra, so (with the exception of Jonah and Daniel, which were written somewhat later) works written after about 400 BCE and the council at Jamnia were not accepted as inspired. On the other hand, Samaritans accept only the Torah as scripture, rejecting all of the other works that mainstream Judaism has accepted into its canon.


Christian scholars had as many problems, if not more, to contend with in establishing their list of canonized works. In fact, full agreement was never achieved, and the Bibles of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity differ in some of their contents. For instance, the Roman Catholic tradition accepts 1 Esdras (Ezra), 2 Esdras (Nehemiah), Tobias (Tobit), Judith, the Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 Machabees, and 2 Machabees as part of the canon, while Protestants consider these to be Apocrypha, books that might be useful and good to read but not sacred scriptures. The Eastern Orthodox church includes books titled The Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and Prayer of Manasseh that are not found in the Roman Catholic canon. Furthermore, some of the pre-Christian works accepted as scriptures by both the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches are not accepted as canon by Jews, and other works from this period that are not accepted by any denomination as scripture.


To make matters even more perplexing, it is clear from references to them within canonized works that there were once a number of other books that biblical writers considered scripture but which no longer exist, and although the book called 1 Enoch (or the Ethiopian Enoch) is referred to by the author of the Epistle of James as “scripture”, it was not adopted as canon by any of the three major Christian traditions since no copy of it was known until it was rediscovered in the eighteenth century. Thus, various decisions have been made by different groups about which ancient writings were inspired and which were not.

The oldest fragments of the Bible date to the first and second centuries BCE, but it is generally accepted that the Bible began to be written down during the Monarchy, beginning around 970 BCE. Prior to the monarchy, there were, of course, oral traditions, stories, and songs which were carried over into the written documents that began to form the collection of books we now know as the Bible. Some of these represent the very oldest materials now found in the Bible, including the Song of the Sea (recorded in Exodus 15:1‑8,21), the Song of Deborah (recorded in Judges 5:2‑31), the Blessing of Jacob (reported Genesis 49:2‑27), the Blessing of Moses (in Deuteronomy 33:2‑29), the Song of Moses (found in Deuteronomy 33:2‑29), Psalm 29 (which by tradition was sung at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple) and Psalm 68. To outline the history of how these early oral traditions came to be written down, we must begin with the founding of the Monarchy, around 1010 BCE. It was at this time that the oral tradition of pastoral times began to be codified within the urban elite priestly caste among whom writing and literature began to flourish along with agriculture among the sedentary Hebrews of Palestine.


The process of codification did not occur as a single event. The Jewish scriptures evolved through several periods of writing (some long after the events they recorded) and editing by persons who brought diverse earlier texts into a single document or collection. The chart on the following page summarizes, in simple form, the modern scholarly consensus about how various traditions were developed and brought together to form the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Jewish scriptures which are called the Torah. The chart will then be explained in the ensuing pages.





























































Document J: ca 950‑925 BCE


Scholarly analysis of the biblical text has yielded a great deal of insight into how the text arose.  Textual analysis indicates that prior to the rise of a literate culture among the ancient Hebrews, religious stories were passed down orally in song, poetry, and sacred tales.


During the period of around 960 to 925, Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem and established a state sponsored cult for the worship of Yahweh there.  Solomon’s kingdom grew increasingly urbane, and Solomon allied himself with neighboring kingdoms through marriage with daughters of various royal households.  This opened the door to greater foreign influence within his kingdom.  The Jerusalem based temple cult version of the urbanizing Hebrew culture was greatly influenced by the oral traditions of the people of Judah that recalled their pastoral origins and recounted the role of Yahweh, the patron war god of the Monarchy, in forming the first man and woman.  Throughout this chapter, the active deity is called Yahweh elohim (literally, ‘Yahweh god’) and the verbs which describe his actions as Creator are ‘asah (made), yatzar (formed), nata (planted) matar (caused [to rain]), or tsamach (made [to grow]), but never bara (to create) which is the consistent verb in chapter one.  The southern oral traditions recorded in the Bible are sometimes referred to as Document J (from the German word for Yahweh, Jahweh) to distinguish it from other sources that were later added to the written document.  The Yahwist literature includes part of what is now called Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and possibly a version of the story of the conquest of Palestine that influenced the later writing of Joshua and Judges.  These stories emphasized Yahweh as the God of the Hebrews and the importance of Judah within the Monarchy.


Written down during the rise of the state-sponsored, urban temple ceremonies in Jerusalem around 950 B.C., the J version of the creation story, which is usually seen as beginning with the second half of verse 4 of chapter 2 of Genesis, introduces the Yahwist narrative: “In the day that Yahweh1  Elohim made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up‑‑for Yahweh Elohim had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground‑‑then Yahweh Elohim formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Yahweh first forms man, then plants a garden as a home for the man, and finally produces a woman, “a helper as his partner” from the man’s rib.


1 Note re. the name “Jehovah:” Hebrew was originally written without vowels.  Thus, the name Yahweh was written with the consonants YHWH.  By the time of the Roman domination of Judea, the name of Yahweh had come to be regarded as so sacred that it was no longer spoken aloud except in the Temple.  Instead, devout Jews substituted the word Adonai (“Lord”) or HaShem (“the Name”) when referring to Yahweh or when reading aloud scriptures that contained the name Yahweh.  Eventually, the Masoretic scribes of the Seventh and Eighth Centuries CE developed a system for marking Hebrew vowels and began to use them when they copied the Hebrew Scriptures.  In respect for the custom of not pronouncing the name Yahweh, the Masorites inserted the vowel marks for the word Adonai wherever YHWH occurred.  This was intended to remind readers to substitute the word Adonai for Yahweh.  Later, Christian translators mistakenly accepted these vowels as the correct ones, reading the name as YAHOWEH and chose the English spelling Jehovah as the name of the Hebrew deity.


Chapter three continues the J narrative with the story of the temptation of the man and woman, who violate Yahweh’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The J Document continues through chapter seven wherein it recounts the story of Yahweh’s destruction of humankind because of their corrupt ways. The Yahwist texts emphasized the importance of the yichus or “lineage” of Levi, the fourth son of Jacob who became known as Israel, as the ritual leaders of the temple cult in Jerusalem. Priests or kohenim were descendants of Levi through the sub-lineage of Aaron, who was said to have been given this responsibility because Aaron’s brother Moses had expressed reservations when Yahweh called him to be his spokesman.  They held responsibility as the ritual leaders in Yahweh’s temple, and only they were permitted to enter the inner precinct that housed the Temple itself and the Great Altar that stood before it.  Here, the priests performed the sacred rituals of Yahweh such as the offering of sacrifices before the Temple.  The kohenim were aided in their priestly role by other descendants of Levi, those who were simply called Levites.  The primary responsibility of the Levites in the Temple cult was singing the hymns of the daily Temple ceremonies, especially the hymns that recounted the seven day of creation of the Hebrew origin myth.


Document J traditions refer to Abraham and Sarah by the names Abram and Sarai, variants of the name that were particularly used by Semitic speakers in the Arabian Peninsula.  They also include stories about Jacob, Moses, and Joshua.  The Moses stories are particularly those that emphasize the importance of Moses’ brother Aaron.


These writings, called the J Document, reflected the pastoral past of Judah. God is referred to as Yahweh Elohim (“Yahweh God”–the term elohim having been added later). Yahweh, the war god of the Monarchy is portrayed in concrete and anthropomorphic terms.  He formed a man (Hebrew adam) from the soil (adamah), planted a garden for the man to live in, formed animals and let the man name them, and finally produced a companion for the man from one of the man’s ribs.  The stories about Yahweh’s dealings with humankind recounted how the first couple ate the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge after being deceived by a serpent and how they were cast out of the garden because of this transgression.  It traced their descendants down to the time of a great flood, told of the covenant that Yahweh made with Abraham, and followed his descendants until, in Exodus 19 and 34, that Moses received the Law from Yahweh on Mount Sinai.  This early text also included parts of Deuteronomy, which reiterates the covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel and summarizes their obligations under that contract.  The Yahwist text also included some of the psalms, particularly ones that may have been used in the Temple services.


In the J text,  the verbs which describe Yahweh’s creative  actions as Creator are ‘asah (made), yatzar (formed), nata (planted) matar (caused [to rain]), or tsamach (made [to grow]), but never bara (to create) which is the consistent verb in chapter one.


J contains parts of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and possibly a version of the story of the conquest of Palestine that influenced the later writing of Joshua and Judges.  These stories emphasized Yahweh as the God of the Hebrews and the importance of Judah within the Monarchy.


Yahwist texts emphasized the importance of the of the yichus or “lineage” of Levi, the fourth son of Jacob (aka Israel), as the ritual leaders of the temple cult in Jerusalem and of priests or kohenim were descendants of Levi through the sub-lineage of Aaron, because Aaron’s brother Moses had expressed reservations when Yahweh called him to be his spokesman.


900‑850 BCE: Document E


The Elohist text arose among the northern tribes that established their independence from the Monarch around 921 when they established the separate kingdom of Israel.  The religious traditions of the northern cities were more greatly influenced by the more urbane cultures of the Canaanites than was that of Jerusalem, which was more isolated from the surrounding cultures in the southern highlands. The Elohist texts are believed to have been written by the priests of Shiloh, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was originally housed among the northern tribes. These texts, like those of the southern tradition include stories about the early patriarchs as remembered among the northern tribes. They emphasize the importance of Joseph, the son of Jacob who rose to importance in Egypt, and of his son Ephraim, the founder of the leading tribe of the northern kingdom, the tribe from which the northern king was chosen. While the southern Jahwist texts simply recount the selling of Joseph into bondage as an explanation of how the entire family eventually came to reside in Egypt, the northern record emphasizes Joseph as an interpreter of dreams and his rise to high station within the government of Egypt. The northern priesthood’s record also emphasized the prominence of Moses as the great prophet of Israel and their texts are critical of Aaron from whom the southern priesthood descended. It is, for example, the Elohist text that condemns Aaron’s role in leading the people in the worship of a golden calf, for which Moses was so angered that he broke the original tablets of commandments that Yahweh had given him.


The Elohist text contains the first biblical record of angels in the story of Jacob’s dream of angels ascending to and descending from the presence of God at Bethel, while the Jahwist version of the same event simply reports that Jacob has a vision of Jahweh.


The northern tribes were geographically farther from the influence of Egypt and it is the Elohist text that explicitly recounts the story of Abraham casting his Egyptian concubine out of his family at Sarah’s behest. In contrast, the Elohist texts include various symbols that reflect their closer contact with the Canaanites and the Semitic cultures of Mesopotamia to the east. For instance, the Jahwist text recounts the birth of Isaac, but it is the northern text that recounts Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, a practice which continued to be practiced among the Canaanites as a means of obtaining the favor of their god. Snake cults had a wide following in Canaan, and it is the northern text that recounts the story of Moses raising the nehustan, a bronze image of a serpent, on a staff as a cure for those who had been bitten by snakes. In contrast, such snake cults were regarded as idolatrous in the southern kingdom, and the nehustan was eventually removed from the temple at Jerusalem for that reason.


The religious stories of Israel also recounted the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, from a different viewpoint:  God was referred to by variants of the name El, the older Semitic name for the divine father of the lesser gods who ruled the various nations.  The Elohist texts, as they are called, had a more intellectual style, one that spoke of God in more abstract terms than did the concrete stories of Yahweh that were written in the south. In the Elohist texts, God appears in dreams, while in the southern stories Yahweh comes in person.


The E texts emphasized the role of Israel as a Covenant people and the importance of moral and ethical rules.  Document E includes those stories in which the names Abraham and Sarah are used, in contrast with Document J’s use of Abram and Sarai. They also include northern traditions regarding Jacob, Moses, and Joshua and emphasize Moses over Aaron.



Combining Documents J and E: 722-609 BCE


In 722 BCE, king Sargon II of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and there was a great influx of refugees into the kingdom of Judah.  This immigration pushed the population of Jerusalem from a town of about 5,000 people to a city of about 45,000 and had a similar impact on the population of other towns in Judah as well.  The in‑flow of northern peoples into the Kingdom of Judah had a profound impact on the culture of Jerusalem and probably the rest of the kingdom.  One important change was that at this time the northern creation story was combined with that of the south, the E Document forming what is now the first chapter of Genesis and the first three and a half verses of the second chapter as well as numerous parts of later chapters that provide the northern version of various stories about the pre‑Flood and Patriarchal eras, versions that sometimes differ in important ways from the Jahwist accounts.


Fingerprints of the editorial process: The editing of two texts together left behind two interesting evidences of the different origins of these texts. The first is the presence of “doublets” of certain stories–two different versions of the same event which sometimes contradict each other in specific details, such as the number of each kind of animal that was preserved from the Flood. The second fingerprint of their separate origins is that the two versions of the various doublets also maintain the distinctive vocabulary and style of their Yahwist or Elohist source. For instance, the Elohist writer refers to Moses’ father as Jethro, while the Yahwist text calls him Reuel or Hobab; the Elohist calls the mountain on which Moses spoke to God Horeb, while the Yahwist author calls the place Sinai.  Such differences simply reflect the differing versions of the traditions that evolved among the northern tribes of Israel and among those in the southern highlands.



Hezekiah through the Babylonian Captivity


Hezekiah was the thirteenth successor of King David to sit on the throne of Jerusalem.  His reign is commonly dated to between about 716 and 687 BCE, during the period in which the Assyrians were consolidating their control over Palestine and Syria.  Hezekiah’s father had placed Judah under Assyrian suzerainty in 735 BCE, but Hezekiah was noted for his efforts to reform the religion of Judah, returning his people to the recognition of their Hebrew traditions and trying to eliminate the veneration of the gods of the Canaanites and the imported cults of the Assyrian gods.

In 710 BCE a rebellion occurred in Palestine against the Assyrians but they successfully put it down.  Whether Hezekiah took part in the rebellion is not clear, but he was permitted to retain his throne by deferring to Assyrian supremacy.  In 705, Sennacherib succeeded his father Sargon II in Assyria, and the transition was accompanied by numerous rebellions around the Assyrian empire. Hezekiah took advantage of the turmoil and allied himself with Egypt, the primary rival of the Assyrians for influence in Palestine. Knowing that this would bring retaliation from Sennacherib once he had dealt with the more important rebellions elsewhere in his empire, Hezekiah strengthened the defenses of Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:8‑11) and built the famous Hezekiah tunnel to bring water from the Gihon Spring on the city’s lower eastern slope (2 Kings 20:20, 2 Chronicles 32:30). He also strengthened and provisioned the central cities of his kingdom (2 Chron. 4:38‑41) and in retaliation against those neighbors who had not supported the earlier Palestinian revolt against Assyria he expanded his borders toward Gaza and Edom (2 Kings 18:8; 1 Chronicles 4:42‑43). The expected conflict materialized in 701 BCE, when Sennacherib invaded Palestine and captured 46 of its cities.  While he was laying siege Lachash, Hezekiah attempted to preserve Jerusalem from destruction by paying large tribute of gold and silver to Sennacherib.  After the fall of Lachish, Sennacherib demanded unconditional surrender by Hezekiah but the Assyrian army fell victim to a plague that took such a heavy toll that Sennacherib withdrew without taking the city.  Contradictory dates for the siege of Jerusalem have been interpreted by some as suggesting that he returned about some years later near the end of Hezekiah’s reign.


During reign of Hezekiah, an Aaronid priest began setting down the nucleus of what is now called the Priestly Document or P.  The Priestly Document gave ideological support to the religious reforms of Hezekiah by attributing the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians to Israel’s having forsaken the Yahwist tradition that Hezekiah fostered.  Although the Priestly school of thought had its roots in Hezekiah’s reforms, followers of this viewpoint continued to add to and refine Document P until as late as 460 BCE near the end of the Babylonian Captivity.  During the Captivity, the educated priestly caste was greatly influenced by the culture of Babylonia, and the Babylonian influences are very noticeably in Document P.


The creation myth of the northern tradition, now found in Genesis 1, began to be written down as early as the division of the Monarchy.  It spoke not of Yahweh, but simply of Elohim (“God”).  In it, God “creates” (Hebrew bara, ‘to create, to fashion by cutting [as in leatherworking]’) the heavens and the earth by speaking them into existence.  He commands, and what he commands comes to pass.  This northern tradition, which scholars refer to as Document E (for Elohist) differs from the tradition embodied in the J Document in being much closer to the Canaanite and Babylonian creation traditions. (The Babylonian parallels were enhanced by the later Priestly writers of the Babylonian Captivity who further edited the E Document, influences that will be discussed below.) Whereas Document J tells us that Yahweh first formed a man, then animals, and finally woman, the northern tradition, in what eventually became Genesis 1‑2:4a, asserts that man and woman were created and then animals.  Overall, the Elohist version of the creation story follows the same sequence of major events that are found in the older, Babylonian creation story known as the Enuma Elish (see chapter 1).



Deuteronomy and Editing of the J‑E Books


From the time of king Josiah until the Babylonian Captivity (about 628 to 586 BCE), the priestly elite in Jerusalem organized and added to the sacred writings of Judah to conform to their view that the survival of Judah depended on its loyalty to the Covenant that Yahweh had made with Moses.  This involved the writing of the books that comprise the Deuteronomic text and editing of the earlier, combined J‑E texts that were already viewed as sacred in Judah.  In fact, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman (2001) argue that this is the real period in which the Bible was born:


“The historical core of the Bible was born in the bustle of the crowded streets of Jerusalem, in the courts of the royal palace of the Davidic dynasty, and in the Temple of the God of Israel. . . . In reaction to the pace and scope of the changes brought to Judah from the outside, the seventh century leaders in Jerusalem, headed by King Josiah . . . declared all traces of foreign worship to be anathema, and indeed the cause of Judah’s current misfortunes.  They embarked on a vigorous campaign of religious purification in the countryside, ordering the destruction of rural shrines, declaring them to be sources of evil.  Henceforth, Jerusalem’s Temple, with its inner sanctuary, altar, and surrounding courtyards at the summit of the city would be recognized as the only legitimate place of worship for the people of Israel” (p. 2).


It was in this time of reform and expansionism that the biblical texts were organized to portray the history of the rise and fall of the Monarchy as it was understood in the time of Josiah’s hope for expanding the influence of his kingdom.


The Babylonian Captivity: 586-536 BCE


In 586 BCE, Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.  The Temple was destroyed, and the ruling Jewish elites, including priests such as Ezekiel, were exiled to Babylon. Psalm 137, one of the most moving poems of the Hebrew Bible comes from the five decades of estrangement from their homeland:


By the rivers of Babylon‑‑

there we sat down,

and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.


For our captors asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing Yahweh’s song

in a foreign land?


If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest Joy.


Remember, O Yahweh,

against the Edomites, the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, “Tear it down!  Tear it down!

Down to its foundations!”


O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the



During the five decades of the Babylonian Captivity, the purist traditions of Yahweh were diluted by the Babylonian religious world‑view, but there was a simultaneous attempt by the priestly class to reassert their Jewish identity and its religious heritage. The first of these changes, part of the increased urbane outlook adopted under Babylonian influence can be seen in the additions to the Book of Isaiah by a prophet whose name is unknown penned what now make up chapters 44 through its end. This Second Isaiah, as he is called today, proclaimed the ineffability of God, His love for his people, and the promise of a return to Palestine.


Various other additions to other books of the Torah by priestly writers who made additions to the stories about the heroes of Hebrew legends and to the Mosaic laws, additions that reflected Babylonian culture and emended the existing writings in ways that reflected both the influence of Babylonian culture on their understanding of God and also their desire to define what was distinctively Judaic. For instance, they added materials to the beginning of the Elohist creation story in Genesis 1 by inserting two introductory verses (vss. 1‑2, which assert that God made use of preexisting chaotic material to form an organized world) and an expansion of verse four (4b, in which God separates the light from the dark) that reinforce the similarities between the Elohist and Babylonian creation stories. These similarities can be seen when Genesis 1 and the Babylonian Enuma Elish creation story are examined side by side:



Genesis 1                                         Enuma Elish


  1. Creation begins with an unformed earth 1. Creation begins with the primordial, and

the dark waters of the deep.                           Watery chaos of Tiamat and Apsu.


  1. God creates light. 2. Marduk, the “Sun of the Heavens” is born.


  1. God creates the sky, “a dome in the midst 3. Marduk fashions the sky from half of the

of the waters.”                                      body of Tiamat.


  1. God commands the separation of the waters 4. Marduk sets the boundaries of the waters of

into one place so that dry land appears.            the ocean from “the edges of the land.”


  1. God creates the lights in the dome of the sky. 5. Marduk places the stars and planets in the



  1. God creates animals and mankind to have 6. The gods create mankind to “toil for the

dominion over the animals.                         gods” so that “the gods shall be free”.


  1. God rests on the seventh day.       7. The gods celebrate at a divine banquet.



Both Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish follow the sequence in which the events of creation were celebrated in Babylon during the Akitu celebration, the seven days New Year Festival and may have been similarly used in Israel. It is generally accepted that this parallelism owes itself to the Babylonian Captivity, during which the Jewish elites, both aristocrats and priests, were exposed to the Babylonian view of creation. While they rejected the role of Marduk and the other Babylonian gods in creation, they adopted the general outline during their half century of oppression in Babylonia but attributed the work of creation to their own God. On their return to Judea, their version was attached to the existing story of creation (Genesis 2:1b-end, in which the creator is Yahweh) as a new first chapter of the text (Genesis 1-2:a in which they used the more general term Elohim to refer to the creator). Their preferred term for God, Elohim includes a subtle, but important, enhancement of the root el (‘god’). By using the plural form, elohim, as the subject of sentences in which they continued to use singular forms of the various verbs (e.g., “create,” “command,” and “rest”), they were indicating that they were not writing of gods but of their supreme God, whose name was in a plural form to indicate His supremacy and majesty compared with the gods of other nations.


On the other hand, the simultaneous attempt to perpetuate a distinctive religious identity can be seen in the writings of Ezekiel who proclaimed his revelation of Yahweh and of His temple. Beginning by at least 550 BCE, Numbers and Leviticus were written. The Book of Leviticus set forth the distinctive religious obligations that distinguished followers of Judaism from the peoples of other nations and other gods.


The End of the Babylonian Captivity and the Post‑Prophetic Era


The Babylonian Captivity lasted for fifty years. Although little is known about conditions during the Captivity, it can be assumed that although the priestly elite in Babylon had no access to the Temple they would have continued to meet together to perpetuate their religious beliefs and practices as best they could during this time. The local gatherings of priests and others that are likely to have occurred during this time may have laid the foundations for the similar practice of the Post‑Captivity era: the local gathering of Jews in synagogues. The Captivity ended when Cyrus conquered Babylonia and incorporated it into his Persian Empire. In 538 B.C.E. Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to their homeland and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. This rebuilt temple, which is known today as the Second Temple, was completed in 516 B.C.E.


Those Jews who left Babylonia and returned to the land of Israel numbered only about 50,000 people. They were but a fraction of those Jews who remained behind in Babylonia, but they were very influential on the development of normative Judaism in Palestine. Among the most influential of the returnees was Ezra, who was both a priest and a prophet. The Talmud credits Ezra’s role in the reformation of Judaism and laying the foundations of the Pharisaic movement that would eventually become modern rabbinic Judaism as particularly important. It praises his role so highly that in Sanhedrin c. ii where it is written that his righteousness was so great that he would have been the lawgiver to Israel had not Moses preceded him. This may not be as great an exaggeration of Ezra’s role as it sounds, since various scholars today suggest that it may have been Ezra himself who brought together and edited the Jewish texts which came thereafter to make up the canon of Jewish scriptures.


Under the next Persian emperor, Artexerxes, Judah was organized under the leadership of another group of Jews who returned to their homeland. The primary leaders of this group, who left Babylon in 457 B.C.E., were Nehemiah and Ezra. Nehemiah had been appointed as the governor of Judah, while Ezra was a priest and scribe who had been given authority by the same Persian emperor to undertake religious reforms in Judah. Ezra presided over a Great Assembly in Jerusalem in 444 B.C.E. This was one of the last historical events recorded in the Jewish scriptures. As recorded in Nehemiah 8:1‑10 and 40, the Assembly of the people was gathered in the area to the south of the Water Gate of the Temple. Ezra brought the Torah before them, mounted a wooden platform that had been specially built for the occasion, and from atop the platform opened the scroll and praised the Lord, the Great God. The people raised their hands upright and responded “Amen, amen” and then prostrated themselves on the ground to demonstrate their submission to God. After this, the Levites went among the people and explained the Torah to them. Their explanation represented what is known as the Oral Torah (Torah she‑b’al Peh), the traditional interpretation of the Written Torah that came to be understood among the Pharisees (Perushim, “Separatists”) as having been given to Moses as the inspired interpretation of the written text. After having the Torah explained to them, the Assembly accepted it as the basis for life in the newly reestablished Jewish state, and they took an oath to observe the Torah and obey the commandments of God.


The new Jewish state had now been reorganized, a new normative view of the Torah had been established as the guidelines for life in that state, and the priestly caste had been successfully reinstalled in control of the state religious system that was centered in the Second Temple. But all was not entirely well. While all this was being accomplished, a number of dissident prophets had begun to speak out against corruption among the priestly leadership of the Second Temple. These dissident prophets included Malachi, Deutero‑Isaiah (the sixth century author of Isaiah, chapters 44-55), Trito‑Isaiah (the post-Exile authors of chapters 56-66 of Isaiah), Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Ezra himself. Even before these dissident prophets laid complaints against the priests, the relationship between the priests and the prophets had been an uneasy one. As rabbi Simchah Roth (2004) put it, “The love of the priests for the prophets was like the love of any bureucratically minded official for the ‘unqualified layman’ who starts pounding on his turf.” Although the dissident priests did not reject the role of sacrificial ritual as such. Rather, they condemned those who lost touch with the message of social justice and treated the rituals of the Temple as sufficient without a concern for social justice as well. Nevertheless, this message could not help but have had the political effect of magnifying the natural tension between the two groups. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Ezra’s support for the prophetic critique of the priests and temple sacrifice was perhaps even more distressful to the aristocratic priestly caste, since they were not just prophets but also members of the priestly caste and were thus criticizing their own.


The conflict between the theme of social justice and ritual sacrifice had deep roots and predated the time of Ezra by centuries. For instance, the prophet Isaiah, writing in the second half of the eighth century B.C.E., sets forth the basic complaint: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says Yahweh; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation‑‑I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:11‑17). What is under attack here is not the rituals of the Temple as such, but the absence of a concern for social justice in the lives of those who perform their sacrifices in the House of God. Centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah continued the same refrain, calling to the people: “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely; make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’‑‑only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says Yahweh” (Jeremiah 7:8‑11).


Hebrew was the language of the Torah, but Aramaic, the eastern Semitic sister language to Hebrew, was official language of the Babylonian Empire. After the Babylonian Conquest of Palestine, Aramaic had displaced Hebrew in Palestine as the dominant language of Jewish life, even in worship, and ordinary Jews were no longer able to read the Hebrew of the Torah and understand it. For this reason, in the synagogue, teachers and sages who knew both languages could read the Torah and explain it in Aramaic. This made the synagogue an indispensible institution for the Jewish population as a whole. But it also made the system of synagogue worship and its leadership.



The Rise of the Synagogue


The Babylonian schools: forerunners of the synagogues: Schools were founded in Babylonia to perpetuate the teachings of Judaism among the Exiles (the gola and bene gola). These became the precursors of the synagogues, the grass-roots places of prayer and instruction among the Jews.

A century after Ezra led the Great Assembly in a reform of Jewish worship, the institution of the synagogue (Bet Knesset or “Assembly Rooms”) as a local meeting place in towns and villages throughout Judah had become a normal part of Jewish life and worship. As noted above, the introduction of the synagogue as a local system of Torah study and worship may have arisen from similar study groups among Jews in the Babylonian Captivity. Whether this is so is uncertain, but what is clear is that the institution was spread throughout Judah following the return of Ezra and Nehemiah, and it was done so under the direction of the Pharisees who sought to teach the new normative view of Judaism based on their understanding of the Oral Torah among people at the grass‑roots level. The presence of synagogues in local communities provided a place for ordinary Jews to congregate and be instructed in the Torah by teachers or sages (Chakhamim) who helped them understand its meaning. During this era the local leaders of the synagogue were no longer natural competitors with the system of Temple ritual and its priests for the allegiance of the people at large.


Document D:  628‑576 BCE


Even before the Assyrian conquest of Israel, Judaic religion in the southern kingdom was being greatly influenced by Eighth Century prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, who stressed the name of Yahweh and the traditional pastoral mishpat (see chapter 6) view of law based on customary family morality rather than the authority of the state.  These prophets differed from the approach of the more urbane prophets such as Nahum and Obadiah whose views were more supportive of the state establishment of the day.  The book of Deuteronomy, which restates the laws of Moses following this Yahwist mishpat orientation, was written during the seventh century BCE.  Its authors also edited the books of Joshua, Judges, the two books of Samuel, and the two books of Kings in ways that reflected their preference for a traditionalist, pre‑Monarchy religious orientation.


The text of the part of the Hebrew Bible that is now made up of the books of Deuteronomy through Kings was possibly written by one or more authors who edited earlier materials into a narrative by which he sought to explain the fall of Israel. The writing of the Deuteronomic text may have begun prior to 622 BCE during the period of reforms begun by King Hezekiah and continued by King Josiah, and its editing likely continued down into the period of the Exile, carried out by various priestly members of the Deuteronomic school of thought. That its writing began before the reign of Josiah is suggested by various internal characteristics that seem to fit the milieu before Josiah.  For instance, there are discrepancies between Josiah’s attempt to move all priests to Jerusalem and Deuteronomy 18:16‑8 which allows provincial priests to function outside Jerusalem. Similarly, Deut 13:2‑6 only prescribes apostate priests, while 2 Kings 23:5, 20 describes the suppression of idolatrous priests.


The views of the Deuteronomic text are those of the Mushite priests of Shiloh.  Some have even argued that the early Deuteronomic text was authored by a single Mushite priest who belonged to the Court of King Josiah, and Jeremiah has been suggested in particular as the possible author.  Whether this suggestion is correct or not, it is clear that the writings of Jeremiah reflect a close connection with the Deuteronomic text, as can be seen by comparing Deut 28:1 with Jeremiah 17:24, Deuteronomy 10:16 with Jeremiah 4:4, Deuteronomy 4:19 and 17:3 with Jeremiah 8:2 and 19:13, Deuteronomy 4:20 with Jeremiah 11:4, and Deuteronomy 4:29, 10:12, 11:13, and 13:4 with Jeremiah 32:41.


The Book of Deuteronomy is the book of the law outlines the contract between Yahweh and his people.  This contract or covenant has the form that was common in ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties.  The wording of these treaties, which was followed throughout the Ancient Near East  followed a standard format:


  1. A preamble that names the author of the treaty.
  2. An historical prologue that sets out the relations between the parties prior to signing

the treaty.

  1. Stipulations that explain the mutual responsibilities of the partners.
  2. A document clause that describes the treaty document and that requires the vassal to

read it at regular intervals.

  1. A list of gods who witness the treaty.
  2. Curses and blessings that threaten the vassal with such penalties as illness, death,

And deportation if he violates his obligations and with such rewards as prosperity if

he abides by the treaty.



The 31 chapters of Deuteronomy follow this format, and the two other presentations of the Covenant (Ex 20‑31;  Joshua 24) do so as well.  Craigie demonstrates the existence of this six‑fold pattern in Deuteronomy as follows:


  1. Preamble (“These are the words which Moses addressed to all Israel…”) 1.1‑.5
  2. Historical Prologue (1.6‑4.49)
  3. General Stipulations (5‑11)
  4. Specific Stipulations (12‑26)
  5. Blessings and Curses (27‑28)
  6. Witnesses. (30.19; 31.19; 32.1‑43)


The Deuteronomic text makes a clear effort to parallel and supersede the Canaanite claims to the preeminence of Ba’al Hadu, Canaanite god of the seas.  In the story of the parting of the Red Sea in Joshua 2:9‑11, the Deuteronomist declares that Yahweh has power over the seas and, by implication, is greater than Ba’al Hadu. Yahweh’s conquest over the gods of Egypt and his destruction of the Egyptian armies by drowning them with the waters of the Red Sea heralded the entry of his people into Palestine and the intent of Yahweh to claim this land from the people of Ba’al in their behalf. Thus, in attestation of the superiority of Yahweh over Ba’al, the Deuteronomist writes of the fear of the Canaanite kings for the armies of Yahweh. On entering the land of Canaan, Yahweh again demonstrates his power over the waters by parting the river Jordan so that the army of Joshua may attach the Canaanite city of Jericho.  Yahweh himself fights this battle by causing the walls of the city to fall so that his army may enter victoriously.


In the story of crossing the Jordan and conquering Jericho, the Deuteronomist emphasizes the special covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. When the Deuteronomist writes that Yahweh parted the waters of the river, he uses the Hebrew verb KRT, “to cut off”.  The same root is the basis of the Hebrew word for “covenant”, and the covenant in turn is symbolized in the rite of circumcision that Yahweh required of Moses and the Hebrews in Egypt.  Immediately, after the waters of the Jordan are “cut off” and Joshua and Yahweh’s army cross the Jordan, the Deuteronomist declares that Yahweh again demands the circumcision of all of the children of Israel.


The Canaanite Ba’al is also the god of storms, a claim also made of Yahweh by his people.  As god of storms, Ba’al was said to be able to cause hail storms, a theme that is taken up in Joshua 10:10‑11 when Yahweh demonstrates his ability to do the same thing with power great enough that he wields Ba’al’s own weapon to destroy Ba’al’s people, the Canaanites.  Thus once again, the Deuteronomist asserts that Yahweh is superior to Ba’al.


When the Deuteronomist recounts the story of Gideon, he again does so in a way that asserts the superiority of Yahweh over Ba’al.  As the Canaanite god of the waters, Ba’al was not only said to have had power over storms but also of the dew.  In this context, it is clear that after Gideon overturned the image of Ba’al when he asks for a sign of Yahweh’s power over the dew, this new

demonstration of Yahweh’s power is another way of reaffirming his superiority to Ba’al of the Canaanites.


The Deuteronomist recounts the destruction of the northern army, the cleansing of Jerusalem from the influence of the Ba’al cult under king Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel, and once again calls upon the imagery of water to demonstrate Yahweh’s superiority to Ba’al in the story of the destruction of the priests of Ba’al after their contest with Elijah who demonstrates Yahweh’s power to consume an offering with fire from heaven after the wood for burning it had been drenched with water. Appropriately, the story of this conflict between the priests of the two gods was set on Mount Carmel on the border between Israel and Phoenicia, the stronghold of Ba’alism. Mount Carmel had previously been known as Mount Ba’li‑ra’si, “Headland of Ba’al”, but it was now clearly proclaimed by the Deuteronomist to be part of the domain of Yahweh.


Deuteronomy played a central role in Josiah’s reforms.  As Finkelstein and Silberman put it:


“Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch that asserts it contains the “words of the covenant” that all Israel must follow (29:9). It is the only book that prohibits sacrifice outside “the place which the Lord God will choose” (12:5), while the other books of the Pentateuch repeatedly refer, without objection, to worship at altars set up throughout the land. Deuteronomy is the only book to describe the national Passover sacrifice in a national shrine (16:1‑8).  And while it is evident that there are later additions included in the present text of the book of Deuteronomy, its main outlines are precisely those that are observed by Josiah in 622 BCE in Jerusalem for the first time” (Finkelstein & Silberman, p. 280).


It is assumed that following the work of the original Deuteronomist, the Deuteronomic text continued to be added to and the previous J‑E text edited by later persons who belonged to the same school of thought, perhaps down to the time of the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity in 587, when the Jewish priestly elite was deported from Jerusalem.  In particular, additions were made that covered the history from Josiah to the Babylonian Captivity.  This was particularly important, since following the Captivity it was necessary to account for Yahweh’s disfavor following Josiah’s reforms.  This material explains why the Captivity occurred despite those reforms, which one would have supposed would have resulted in Yahweh’s blessing of Josiah’s kingdom rather than its fall. The writings of 2 Kings that culminate in 2 Kings 25:27‑30 which report Jehoiachin’s release from prison in Babylon in 560 BCE are part of this Deuteronomic History that was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.



Babylonian Influence on Aristocratic and Priestly Judaism


The exiles developed a class of religious teachers called the “Scribes” to avoid losing touch with their religious traditions. In their earliest stages they served the Jewish colonists in a very valuable way, especially in teaching, guarding and preserving the Scriptures. The Scribes produced the rabbinical literature known as the Mishna (God’s laws allegedly passed down orally and not recorded in Scripture), the Gemara (a commentary on the Mishna and a compilation of accepted traditions). These two volumes were later added to and combined to form the Babylonian Talmud. Other important literature and secular writings also developed.


Places for assembly or “synagogues” were instituted in order to conduct formal Jewish worship, and to provide schools for education that would perpetuate the teachings of Judaism among the Exiles (the gola and bene gola) while they were far from their homeland. It was the difficult circumstances of the Babylonian Captivity that allowed for the synagogues, without these unusual circumstances there might not have been synagogues which kept the national spirit of the Jewish people even after the fall of the Second Temple. The exiles developed a class of religious teachers called the “Scribes” to avoid losing touch with their religious traditions. In their earliest stages they served the Jewish colonists in a very valuable way, especially in teaching, guarding and preserving the Scriptures. The Scribes produced the rabbinical literature known as the Mishna (God’s laws allegedly passed down orally and not recorded in Scripture), the Gemara (a commentary on the Mishna and a compilation of accepted traditions). These two volumes were later added to and combined to form the Babylonian Talmud. Other important literature and secular writings also developed.


Three other important changes occurred among the Jews of the Exile: linguistic change, the development of an urbane Judaism, and the entrenchment of monotheism among the Exiles.


Linguistic change: Over time Aramaic–the international language of trade–replaced their native Hebrew, and on their return to Palestine, the Exiles made Aramaic the new national language of their people.


The development urbane Judaism: While the Jews of the Exile reacted strongly against the polytheism of their Babylonian oppressors, they did adopt a more urban and scholarly outlook from the culture of the Babylonians. This change is seen especially in the elevated linguistic style in the Judaic writings following the Exile.


The entrenchment of monotheism among the Exiles: The Babylonian captivity taught the exiles to abhor the worship of idols, which was the centerpiece of Babylonian religion. One of the major undertakings of the Returnees was their effort to stamp out the grass-roots henotheism (recognition of the existence of the gods of the Gentile nations) that was still practiced by the peasants who had remained behind in Judea.


The writings of the Babylonian period included the Book of Ezekiel, in which the writer proclaimed his revelation of Yahweh and of Yahweh’s temple.  Another of the Babylonian prophets (called Second Isaiah but whose actual name is unknown) penned additions to the Book of Isaiah that make up chapters 44 through its end, proclaiming the ineffability of God, His love for his people, and the promise of a return to Palestine. Second Isaiah went beyond merely proclaiming the superiority of Yahweh to the gods of the gentile nations but also declared Yahweh to be the only God when Yahweh declares, “[t]here is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me” (Isaiah 45:21b).  This theme runs throughout the message of the:  not only is Yahweh still active in the affairs of his people, but he was the only God, and after they had been sufficiently punished for their prior idolatry, he would save them from the domination of the worshipers of false idols.





The Rise of Persia and the Return


In 538, Babylonia fell to conquest by the Persians, and the new king, Cyrus, adopted a policy of reconciliation and permitted the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem. It was the Persian king Darius, who finally granted the Exiles the right to return to Judea and reestablish their temple in Jerusalem, an act for which he was thereafter greatly honored by the Jews.


Document P:  550‑450 BCE


During the Exile, the priests in Babylon began make emendations to the Jewish scriptures and they continued to do so after their return to Judea. Their writings and editorial changes formed what we now call the P Document, continued to be made, not just during the Captivity itself but down through the middle of the fifth century BCE.  Most of the P Document was written after the exile in Babylonia as part of the rise in the importance of the priests in the running of the Temple in Jerusalem after they returned from exile.  These writings emphasized the importance of the Jews remaining true to the covenant with God that made them His chosen people. The changes introduced by the priestly authored culminated in a public reading of the combined J‑E‑D‑P document in 444 BCE, which proclaimed the official version of the Torah, the form that has persisted to the present day. This was the era of Ezra, whom some have suggested was the primary Priestly author and editor who incorporated P into the Jewish texts, and whose death about 400 BCE was later taken at the Council of Jamnia as the date when (with two exceptions) the Jewish canon of scripture was closed.


The addition of Priestly material to the Hebrew Scriptures resulted in parallel accounts of various events that did not always agree with each other.  For instance, these inconsistencies include differences concerning the account of the Flood.  In the Yahwist version, seven pairs of clean but only one pair of unclean animals entered the Ark (Genesis 7:2‑3), while the Priestly document simply says that one pair of every kind of animal were taken in (Genesis 6:19‑20: 7:15‑16). In the J document, the Flood was said to have been caused by heavy rain (Genesis 7:4ff,), but P says the Flood was caused by a release of the waters above the sky and beneath the earth (Genesis 7:11).



The Priestly document included Numbers and Leviticus the writing of which may have begun before 550 BCE.  They also included various other additions to other books of the Torah, by priestly writers who emended the existing writings in ways that reflected both the influence of Babylonian culture on their more urbane understanding of God and also their desire to define what was distinctively Judaic.  Leviticus was written to spell out the precise rules for maintaining the ritual purity demanded by Yahweh of his people.  The Book of Numbers was also written about this time as were various additions to the Torah that reflected the views of the returning priesthood.


Additions to Genesis: The priests added materials to the beginning of the Elohist creation story in Genesis 1 by inserting two introductory verses (vss. 1‑2, which assert that God made use of preexisting chaotic material to form an organized world) and an expansion of verse four (4b, in which God separates the light from the dark) that reinforce the similarities between the Elohist and Babylonian creation stories.


Similarly, these writers made additions to the stories about the heroes of Hebrew legends and to the Mosaic laws, additions that reflected Babylonian culture.  The Book of Leviticus in particular sets forth the distinctive religious obligations that distinguished followers of Judaism from the peoples of other nations and other gods.


The Deuteronomic Historian (ca. 550 BCE): During the Captivity, another writer composed a prologue for Deuteronomy (chapters 1-4:40 and 29-34) and the books of Joshua through Kings, a history of the Monarchy and divided kingdom that attempts to explain why the God allowed the kingdom of Judah to fall to the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. despite Josiah’s reforms and to encourage the historian’s contemporaries to live faithfully according to the Covenant. The historian most likely composed his work after the final event in that history, the release of king Jehoiachin from prison in 561 B.C.


A Note on the Table of Nations: The tenth chapter of Genesis lists the peoples of the world as it was known to the Hebrews of the sixth century BCE. It should be remembered that this is a relatively late addition to the Hebrew Scriptures, representing a post‑Babylonian Exile perspective on the known world’s human geography of that time. The Table of Nations, as this chapter is called, represents the interest of the elite Priestly caste in incorporating into the Hebrew Scriptures the systematic thought that they had come to value while in Babylonia. In Leviticus, this scholarly mind set shows through in their efforts to systematize God’s work of creation. Here, the known peoples of the fifth century BCE world are given meaningful order by being incorporated into the Hebrew genealogy of Noah. The earlier J Document identified the descendants of Shem (vss. 21, 24‑30) names associated with the southern Arabia (Sheba, Ophir, and Havilah) and with the Hebrews (Eber), the descendants of Ham (verses 8 and 13‑19), which identifies his descendants as the Egyptians  (verses 13‑14a), the Philistines (verse 14b and verses 8‑12) and the Mesopotamian peoples–the Sumerian civilization (Shinar and Erech, vs. 10), the Akkadian empire (Akkad and Babel, vs. 10), and the empire of the Kassites (Cush, verse 8a), and the lineage of Japheth with the northern and western areas of the ancient Near East. The identification of the Cushites with the non-Semitic Kassites is also found in Habakkuk 3:7, where the term Cushan and Midian are used in synonymous parallels.


While the Priestly authors also divided the various nations of their era into three major groups and assigned each to descent from one of the three sons of Noah, their arrangement differed markedly from that of the J authors. In the Priestly  system the peoples of the Near East were the Semites who occupied  the east, the Hamites were reassigned as the peoples Ethiopia (whom the fifth century BCE writers had come to identify with biblical Cush, spelled Kwsh in the Hebrew), Egypt (Egypt), Sudan (which the new authors identified as the biblical Put), and Canaan (Canaan); the descendants of Shem (verses 22‑23, 31) as the northern and western nations of Elam (Elam) and Assyria (Asshur) and Aramaeans (Aram, verse 23); and Japheth (verses 2‑5) with nonSemitic Medes (Madai) in the east of Mesopotamia and with other peoples of the western Mediterranean–   the Ionians (Javan), the Etruscans (Tiras, vs. 2) Cyprus (Kittim), and southwestern Spain (Tarshish). This expansion of the descendants of Noah was due to the fact that the world of the fifth-century BCE Priestly authors was much larger than that of the earlier Yahwist writers of the early Monarchy, who dealt only with the Semitic world in their identifications.


The Priestly writers also changed the understanding of the four great rivers that flowed into Eden from its earlier southern Mesopotamian location in ancient Sumer. In the day of the Priestly writers, the identity of two of those Mesopotamian rivers had been lost. So they identified the Pishon as the Nile, the great river of trade within Egypt.


Who Were the “Cushites”? As do Genesis 2 and the Table of Nations, verse 1 of Numbers 12 refers to the people of the land of Cush. This opening verse of Numbers 12 is interesting because its relationship to the rest of the chapter’s text is problematic. It reads like a non sequitur in respect to the rest of the chapter, and this has given rise to many debates about the original meaning of the Priestly introduction to the otherwise Yahwist text. It reads, “While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman). . .” Relying on the later Priestly identification of Cush with Ethiopia, a number of Protestant denominations in Europe and America incorporated Miriam’s complaint into their racial ideas about the African descendants of Ham having been a cursed people. Yet, in the earlier Yahwist document the Cushites were understood to be a Semitic people, the people of the land of the Kassites, and while Miriam may have been criticizing Moses for a marriage to a non-Semitic woman, she does not claim that Moses is a fallen prophet because he has married a “Cushite.” Rather, she goes on to acknowledge that the Lord has spoken through Moses. She does not say that this is no longer true, but merely adds that the Lord has also spoken through Miriam and Aaron as well, an apparent non sequitor if her comment about Moses Cushite wife had been the crux of her complaint. That some other reason for Miriam’s reference to Moses’ wife may have been intended is supported by the fact that no Rabbinic commentary objects to Zipporah’s “Cushite” origins as problematic. Some go so far as to suggest that what Miriam is actually complaining about is that because Moses is keeping himself in a state of ritual purity in case Yahweh comes to speak to him and is therefore not having sex with Zipporah, a violation of her wifely rights to sex with her husband. In this view, Miriam was saying that Moses is treating his wife unfairly, and that he needn’t do so, since she, Miriam, and Aaron can fill in for him as mouthpieces for the Lord. This possibility meshes readily with some other information. Namely, the Targum Onkelos says that “Cushite” may simply be an idiom for “extremely beautiful.” In this case, Miriam is pointing out Zipporah’s beauty as something Moses should be responding to instead of ignoring his wife. Verse two shows that the real issue that Miriam is dealing with is not Zipporah, but whom the Lord may speak through. This interpretation has the virtue of making verse 1 segue nicely into verse two, instead of reading like a sudden change of topic. Miriam is saying, “Look Moshe, you’ve got a beautiful wife. There’s no need to ignore her like you’ve been doing, just because you think you have to stay in a state of ritual purity in case the Lord wants to talk to you. Don’t Aaron and I receive revelations too? Let us fill in for you, and spend more time with your wife, for heaven’s sake!”


Through their rediscovery in the last century by archaeologists, we now are relatively confident that the term Kwsh actually referred to the Kassites, who originally occupied the lands of modern Khazi‑stan east of the lower Tigris. This was also the “land of Cush” in Genesis 2, described as being along the River Gihon (the contemporary Karun River which flows east from the lower Tigris. The Kassites are a rather enigmatic group. The Kassites had entered Mesopotamia during the Babylonian period as early as 1750 BCE. They were a nomadic, pastoral people who covered a large territory east of the Babylonian empire. They didn’t conquer the Babylonians, but when Babylon collapsed, they took over the city in 1595 BC, built their own city (Kish) just a bit north of Babylon, and that area for about 450 years. They did a lot of work restoring the old Sumerian cities to their former glory. After they were superseded by the Neo‑Babylonians, they became lost to history until they were rediscovered by archaeologists. They were speakers of an Indo-European language who were racially “white”, who migrated into the area during the great waves of migration from western Turkey into Mesopotamia and western India. They conquered the Babylonians and set up their own capital just north of Babylon, a city called Kish. Like the Semites, they were a Caucasian people, but they spoke an Indo-European language not a Semitic one.


All this tells us that Zipporah was originally most likely understood to be a Kassite woman, not a Nubian, and Miriam’s complaint had nothing to do with race as has commonly been thought in recent centuries. But the short-lived Kassite Empire had been lost to history by the time of the addition of verse 1 to Numbers 12 by the priestly commentators who also organized the Table of Nations. To them, “Cush” was what we now call Ethiopia, and Miriam and Aaron’s complaint was that Moses had married a nonHebrew woman whose origins were even beyond the world of the Semitic Fertile Crescent. It is this later understanding which informed the tales of Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman.


The Purity Laws of the Book of Leviticus


The Mosaic rules of kashrut (the rules governing food taboos) are another illustration of the distinctiveness of the southern, highland cultural tradition. In the Judean highlands as represented by the Yahwist documents, the people of God adopted a distinctive set of food taboos that set them off from their Canaanite relatives.


The Importance of Ritual Purity: The book of Leviticus was composed in the period between about 637 and 609 BCE following the era of the reforms of Judaism under King Hezekiah. In the early rabbinic tradition, the text was called “the Priests’ Manual” because it deals with the laws that governed sacrifices, the consecration of priests, distinctions between ritual cleanness and uncleanness, the ceremony of the Day of Atonement, laws administered by priests, and religious vows. Leviticus is particularly densely packed with information concerning the Hebrew world view of the era in which it originated. Its central concern is the symbolism of the ritual purity that must be observed in order for Israel to remain holy and a nation of priests to their God.

Concepts of ritual purity or symbolic “uncleanness” are found in all cultures, but they are extremely diverse. The list of symbolically “unclean” things frequently seem strange to outsiders, so they must always be understood in terms of the symbolism of the culture of which they are a part. Mary Douglas (1966) has pointed out that when they are interpreted in the context of the system of symbols which make up the world view of a particular culture, the symbolism of ritual impurity or symbolic uncleanness functions to prevent actions that might call into question the larger system of symbolism of which concepts of ritual impurity are a part. This can be noticed particularly in Douglas’s examination of the food taboos of Leviticus.
The Clean and the Unclean: Chapters 17 through 26 of Leviticus is sometimes called the “Holiness Code” because it focuses specifically on the concepts of ritual purity and holiness versus ritual uncleanness. For instance, it is in these chapters that the distinction is made between “clean” and “unclean” foods. The archetypical “clean” animals of the Hebrews were the domesticated animals of their pastoral origins: cattle, sheep, and goats, all of which are ruminants (that is, animals whose defining characteristics in folk taxonomy are cloven hooves and cud chewing). These animals are the ones that are best adapted to lands of the highlands of Palestine that were too arid for rainfall agriculture and that were not easily irrigated. A pastoral economy was particularly cost-effective in the smaller towns and rural areas that were occupied by the Hebrews.


Pigs were archetypically “unclean” animals in Hebrew symbolism. They were not just not ruminants (as, for instance, the horse is not, since it neither chews the cud nor has cloven hooves). Rather, pigs mixed characteristics of ruminants and non‑ruminants by having cloven hooves but not chewing the cud. And mixtures are the bane of any taxonomist, since their very existence challenges the taxonomy in that some of their traits would place them in one category, while other traits would place them out of it. The problem presented by mixed cases is particularly problematic when the author of taxonomy is thought to be God. Anything that violates the categories that God established is not just problematic, it is anathema. “Mixture” in Hebrew is tebhel, one of the words that is used to describe “abominations” in Leviticus–a book that consistently condemns mixtures of any kind as contrary to the demands of God’s holiness: farmers are forbidden to plant the same field with more than one kind of seed, people are forbidden to clothe themselves with two different kinds of textiles, and hybrid animals are condemned as abominations. So pigs were particularly unclean symbolically.


But religious taboos often reinforce that which is actually practical. Anthropologist Marvin Harris (1974; 1977) took up the case of pigs to illustrate this fact. The natural habitat of pigs is not desert environments such as Palestine. Pigs evolved and are native to shaded, forest environments. Contrary to the modern idiom, to “sweat like a pig,” pigs lack sweat glands. They cannot cool themselves by sweating. So shaded forests where they can remain cool by avoiding the sun are the environments in which they thrive. In the desert regions of Palestine, pigs will overheat if they are not kept cool by being provided wallows in which to wet their skins so that the evaporation will cool them. But in the arid lands of the Hebrews, water was at a premium. It needed to be used consumption by humans and their food animals and for watering garden crops. To use it for cooling animals would have been a costly waste of a precious resource. Rearing pigs, which requires such a waste of water, would actually have reduced the total calories of food produced by animal husbandry. Meat could be more cost effectively obtained by rearing only the “clean” ruminants‑‑cattle, sheep, and goats. The divine command simply supported what made good economic sense.


In contrast with rural towns, the larger cities of the Canaanites were environments in which some families might find it economically beneficial to rear a few pigs. Pigs eat garbage that humans are going to throw out anyway, and you can find enough “slop” in a city environment to provide a significant part of the pigs’ diet. In feeding them garbage that will be thrown out anyway, the pigs thrive without competing with humans for the same food. At the same time, since water is not being used in the cities to care for large herds of ruminants, it is easier to channel some water for pig care. For instance, pigs may wallow in the runoff from houses that collects in the lanes. Thus, pigs had been reared in the city environments‑‑the traditional places controlled by the Canaanites– before the Hebrews became the dominant people of the region. The association of pigs with the traditional enemies of the Hebrews made it even easier for the Hebrews to view the symbolism of “clean” (i.e., edible and useable as offerings to god) ruminants, inedible but useable “unclean” animals (such as horses and camels), and “unclean” abominations such as pigs.


Anthropologist Mary Douglas also took up the theme of the clean and the unclean in Leviticus, but examined the question from a symbolic rather than practical perspective. In her study (19**), she examined the purity laws in both Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11.


According to Douglas, defilement is never an isolated event. The only way in which pollution ideas make sense is in reference to a total system of thought whose keystone, boundaries, margins and internal lines are held in relation by rituals of separation. She raised the question of why the camel, the hare and the rock badger and why should some locusts, but not all, should be unclean? She noted that the frog was classified as clean and but the mouse and the hippopotamus unclean and pointed out that that the contrast makes no sense by modern standards of classification. Similarly, she noted that chameleons, moles and crocodiles seem to have nothing in common that should cause them to be listed together as “unclean” animals.


Douglas rejected the modern notion that pigs were classified as unclean for reasons of hygiene. After all, pigs are only dirty because they are fed garbage and allowed to wallow in dirty places. Similarly, she argued that health concerns do not account for pigs being forbidden as food but sheep and cattle as clean animals. While it is true that pigs carry trychonosis, a painful disease that can be contracted from eating poorly cooked pork, sheep and cattle carry anthrax a deadly disease.


Traditional rabbinic interpretations fall into one of two groups: either the rules are meaningless, arbitrary because their intent is disciplinary and not doctrinal, or they are allegories of virtues and vices. Adopting the view that religious prescriptions are largely devoid of symbolism, The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides said:


“The Law that sacrifices should be brought is evidently of great use…but we cannot say why one offering should be a lamb whilst another is a ram, and why a fixed number of these should be brought. Those who trouble themselves to find a cause of any of these detailed rules are in my eyes devoid of sense….”


Douglas pointed out that since each of the Levitical injunctions is prefaced by the command to be holy, so they must be explained by that command. There must be contrariness between holiness (Hebrew, qadesh) and abomination (Hebrew, to’evah) which will make over-all sense of all the particular restrictions.


The Hebrew concept of holiness treated it as an attribute of God. Its root means “set apart.” Conformity to holiness by humans also results in God’s blessings, which bring order: crops and herds grow, women are fertile, and the land prospers (Deut. XXVIII, 1-14). Where the blessing is withdrawn and the power of the curse unleashed, there is barrenness, pestilence, confusion. For Moses said:


“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you to this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…” (Deut. 28:15-24)


Holiness is not goodness in the sense of an all-embracing human kindness. It includes justice and moral goodness, but it embraces other ideas as well. The next idea that emerges is of the Holy as wholeness and completeness. Much of Leviticus is taken up with stating the physical perfection that is required of things presented in the temple and of persons approaching it. The animals offered in sacrifice must be without blemish, women must be purified after childbirth, and lepers should be separated and ritually cleansed before being allowed to approach it once they are cured. All bodily discharges are defiling and disqualify from approach to the temple. Priests may only come into contact with death when their own close kin die. But the high priest must never have contact with death. A warrior who had an issue of the body in the night should keep outside the camp all day and only return after sunset, having washed. Natural functions producing bodily waster were to be performed outside the camp (Deut. XXIII, 10-15). In short the idea of holiness was given an external, physical expression in the wholeness of the body seen as a perfect container.


Other precepts extend holiness to species and categories when they involve confusion or mixing. Hybrids and other confusions are abominated: “And you shall not lie with any beast and defile yourself with it, neither shall any woman give herself to a beast to lie with it: it is mixing/ confusion [Hebrew tebhel]” (Leviticus 18:23). The same idea is expressed in Leviticus 19: “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.” The idea of mixtures or confusions being a violation of “holiness” is made clear by the fact that all these injunctions are prefaced by the general command, “Be holy, for I am holy.”


So Douglas concluded that holiness is exemplified by completeness. In other words, holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused. By implication Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order. Under this head all rules of sexual morality exemplify the holy. Incest and adultery (Lev. 18:6-20) are against holiness, in the simple sense of right order, and morality does not conflict with holiness, but holiness is more a matter of separating that which should be separated than of protecting the rights of husbands and brothers.


Chapter 19 is another list of actions which are contrary to holiness. Developing the idea of holiness as order, not confusion, this list upholds rectitude and straight-dealing as holy, and contradiction and double-dealing as against holiness. Theft, lying, false witness, cheating in weights and measures, all kinds of dissembling such as speaking ill of the deaf (and presumably smiling to their face), hating your brother in your heart (while presumably speaking kindly to him), these are clearly contradictions between what seems and what is.


Douglas concluded that to be holy is to be whole, to be one’ holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind. The dietary rules merely develop the metaphor of holiness on the same lines. Livestock, the herds of cattle, camels, sheep and goats which were the livelihood of the Israelites were clean inasmuch as contact with them did not require purification before approaching the Temple. The farmer’s duty was to preserve the order of creation. So hybrids, either in the fields or in the herds or in the clothes made from wool or flax.


Cloven hoofed, cud chewing ungulates are the model of the proper kind of food for a pastoralist. If they must eat wild game, they can eat wild game that shares these distinctive characters and is therefore of the same general species. This is a kind of casuistry which permits scope for hunting antelope and wild goats and wild sheep.


Animals such as the hare and they hyrax (or rock badger) were borderline cases, animals that seem to be ruminant because their constant grinding of their teeth was held to be cud-chewing. But they are definitely not cloven-hoofed and so are excluded by name. Similarly for animals such as the pig and the camel which are cloven-hoofed but are not ruminant.


Douglas emphasized the fact that this failure to conform to the two necessary criteria for defining cattle is the only reason given in the Hebrew Scriptures for avoiding the pig; nothing whatever is said about its dirty scavenging habits. The law then goes on to deal with creatures according to how they live in the three elements, the water, the air and the earth. The underlying principle of cleanness in animals is that they shall conform fully to their class. Those species are unclean which are imperfect members of their class, or whose class itself confounds the general scheme of the world.


According to Douglas, there is a symbolic connection between the categories of Leviticus and those of the creation story in Genesis in which God creates three spheres of existence–the heavens, the earth, and the waters–and places in each its appropriate kind of animal life. In the heavens, He places two-legged fowls fly with wings. He populates he water with fish that have scales and swim with fins. Finally, on the land, He places four-legged animals hop, jump or walk. Any class of creatures which is not equipped for the right kind of locomotion in its element is contrary to holiness and therefore “unclean.” Thus, shellfish and the octopus, lacking proper “fish” characteristics are unclean forms of sea life, four-footed animals such as the bat, that fly violate the proper characteristics of birds, and any creature that goes on all fours but has forelegs that end in “hands” rather than proper quadruped feet and are therefore also unclean..  Contact with such animals that contradict the divine order of creation disqualifies a person from approaching the Temple. Similarly, animals that creep, crawl, or swarm (Hebrew, sherec) upon the earth are engaging in a form of movement that is explicitly contrary to holiness (Lev. XI, 41-44). Such animals are neither classified as fish, fowl, or animals and are therefore also unclean by the symbolic standards of Leviticus.


Douglas’s approach nicely accounts for the strange case of the locust, one variety of which is classified by Leviticus as “clean” while the other variety is “unclean.” One form simply crawls on the earth therefore violates the standard God set for proper land animals–which must walk, hop, or jump, while the clean variety hops on the ground.



Leviticus, Chapter 18


The unifying theme of Leviticus 18 is given in the introductory paragraph, specifically in verse 3: “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. Although part of the chapter focuses on sexual customs that are forbidden, the chapter as a whole is about the obligation of Israel to avoid customs it has contacted (and may have adopted) by its sojourn in Egypt or that it will contact and may be influenced by in Canaan. It is all about the obligation to avoid customs of these two gentile nations, and especially not “walk[ing] in their ordinances. Notice how that introduction explicitly focuses on the ritual practices of these corrupt nations that Israel was to avoid. This fits my comments about “lying with men” being a Canaanite religious ordinance.


Paragraph two is where the various sexual injunctions are listed. Verses 6 through 20 are all sexual violations that can be broadly categorized as forms of incest which were tolerated in Egypt and/or Canaan but would be forbidden to Israel. They happen to be sexual behaviors, but their condemnation is not specifically because they are sexual. Rather, they are condemned because they are forms of incestuous behavior that challenge the proper order of Hebrew society. As forbidden acts, they set Israel apart from Egypt and Canaan where at least some, perhaps all, of these forms of close mating were acceptable, particularly in the religious practices of those nations. Thus, for instance, the brother‑sister marriage was acceptable (and even idolized in poetry) in Egypt, where it was mandatory for the pharaoh, a divine person who could not perpetuate the royal line through a spouse who was not also of the divine lineage.


Thus, the reasons given for many of these violations of the stricter incest rules of Israel being forbidden are, for the most part, not because they are zimah (inherently wrong) but for other specified reasons. For instance, “uncovering the nakedness” of one’s father’s wife is said to be wrong not because doing so is zimah but because “it is thy father’s nakedness” (i.e., it disregards the rights of the father). Similarly, “uncovering the nakedness of thy brother’s wife” is said to be wrong because “it is thy brother’s nakedness.” Again, this is an abuse against the brother, rather than an inherently objectionable sexual evil. That these were specifically injunctions that pertained to the symbolism of ritual purity for the nation of Israel when Leviticus was written rather than inherent wrongs is attested by the fact that in an earlier era both Abraham and his son Jacob married in ways that would have violated these rules: Abraham by his marriage to a daughter of his father and Jacob by his marriage to two sisters, Rachel and Leah. (If the taboo against “uncovering the nakedness” of sisters is taken more narrowly, as perhaps it should be, as a condemnation not marriage but specifically having sex with sisters on the same occasion–that is, engaging in a ménage à trois with sisters, then Jacob’s marriage to two sisters may not be a violation of this rule as it would otherwise appear to have been.


There is one exception to the emphasis on ritual purity rather than inherent wrong in this list of sexual taboos–where verse 17 forbids sex with a woman and her daughter or with her and her son’s daughter or daughter’s daughter. These are specifically said to be “wickedness” or zimah, that is inherent wrongs. After this part of the chapter, there is a shift from incest. The rule against adultery is introduced in verse 20, but not simply as a restatement of the Mosaic commandment against adultery (which is zimah). Rather, verse 19 addresses one specific form of adultery, adultery in which ritual impurity is also involved: “Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour’s wife, to defile thyself with her. That final modifying phrase can be understood as meaning “when she is ritually impure due to menstruation.” Again, what Leviticus is emphasizing is the ritual impurity of such an act, not the zimah of the adultery as adultery. Then, in verse 21 the second shift occurs: “Though shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fir to Moloch, neither shalt though profane the name of thy God,” neither of which is specifically sexual at all. The first is generally understood as a form of idolatrous worship in which a man passes one of his child (his “seed”) ritually through a fire sacred to the god Moloch as a way of making a vow to Moloch or dedicating the child to him. This understanding clearly fits the injunction not to profane the name of the God of Israel that immediately follows it, paralleling the idea of acts that reject the true God. Only after this nonsexual injunction comes “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind.” So this injunction is not actually incorporated into a list of sexual sins, as is commonly thought by many readers today. It merely follows such a list closely but is separated from it by an injunction of a nonsexual kind that clearly emphasizes idolatrous worship of a false god and profaning the name of the true God. In that context (and in the context of even the sexual list being almost entirely described as matters of ritual impurity–that is, as “abominations” [Hebrew, to’evah], the interpretation of “lying with mankind” as belonging to the Canaanite ritual context of idolatrous worship is, in fact, quite natural. Again, as in the previous injunctions about incest and adultery, the issue is not the sexuality per se, but the ritual impurity of “lying with mankind.” And this is stated explicitly: verse 21 ends with its rational: “It is abomination [i.e., to’evah or “ritual impurity,” not zimah].


The Rise of Hebrew Monotheism


Part of the path towards monotheism involved the elevation of the term elohim to the role of a personal title, Elohim for the Supreme God.  This usage occurred first among those Israelites who were involved in the state‑sponsored system of Temple worship of God in Jerusalem and is exemplified by Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth . . .” a text that was likely first written for use in the Temple cultus. In it, it is no longer the collective elohim (or “Host of Heaven”) who are involved in the pageant of creation, but Elohim (the Supreme God) who is portrayed as the Creator. While the name retains the plural suffix ‑im, its use as the name of a single deity is indicated by the fact that the verb (“created”) is the singular rather than plural form. Nevertheless, despite the official recognition of the supremacy of the God of Israel as the Elohim, the term elohim continued also to be used to refer to the pantheon of the lesser gods collectively, the old Assembly of the Gods that included the gods of the other Semitic nations of the Middle East, the offspring of El who stood above them all. Though El, the Father of the gods, is supreme, this is clearly not the “monotheism” of our modern understanding.


Although the roots of Hebrew religion were deeply imbued with the polytheistic traditions of the ancient Semitic world, these roots were superseded by a firmly monotheistic view of God by the Hellenistic period. The shift away from polytheism seems to have begun around 1000 BCE in Jerusalem with the establishment of the state cult of Yahweh, but for centuries it contented itself with simply subordinating all other gods to Yahweh by making them over as members of his heavenly court, the Host of Heaven (e.g., 1 Kings: 22:19).  An oblique reference to the divine council is found Amos 3:7, written around 750 BCE: “Surely the Lord El does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”  Here, the term “secret” is a poor translation of the Hebrew word sod, which literally means “council” and, by extension, a “decree” of the divine council which the prophet has observed in vision. Such visionary visits to the throne of Yahweh while he presides over the divine council are referred to in Isaiah 5, Jeremiah 23:18 (“For who has stood in the council of Yahweh so as to see and to hear his word?”), and Ezekiel 1.


At least in the rural areas away from Jerusalem It took many centuries for the restriction of supplication of Yahweh alone to supplant the older polytheistic traditions.  In fact, opposition to making offerings to the asherahs and the baals began only with Hosea in the middle of the eighth century BCE and escalates during the time of the seventh century prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel,


Josiah, the Priestly author, and the author of the Deuteronomic history at the time of Hezekiah’s reforms.  For instance, much of the Book of Jeremiah is devoted to the author’s opposition to the worship of “the asherahs” and the “baals”, the goddesses and gods of the Gentile nations surrounding Judah and Israel which was still widespread in the seventh century BCE.


The time during which real monotheism (as opposed to the henotheistic acceptance of the gods of the other nations as subordinate Yahweh) became the dominant motif of Hebrew culture was the reign of king Josiah.  In fact, the previous two kings had actually fostered the placating of foreign gods. The theological foundation for the elevation of Yahweh to the status of one and only god was laid by Deuteronomy, which was written during the seventh century.  It is in this book that we hear the fundamental declaration of the modern Jewish faith:  “Hear, O Israel:  Yahweh is our Elohim, Yahweh alone.  You shall love Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. . . . Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because Yahweh your Elohim, who is present with you, is a jealous God.  The anger of Yahweh your Elohim would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth” (Deut. 6:4‑6; 14‑15).  Here, the word Elohim seems to have shifted from its role as a proper name of the father of Yahweh to a generic term for “God” and Yahweh is equated with “God.” At the end of the seventh century, this command to love Yahweh as the one God took on a new urgency.  King Nebupolassar of Babylonia crushed the Assyrians in 606 B.C.E., and his expanding empire represented an even stronger threat to the independence of Judah than had the Assyrians. In the face of this new political threat to the existence of Judah, king Josiah, at the age of only 20, undertook sweeping reforms to implement the Deuteronomic command that Judah worship Yahweh alone as God.  He removed the images of the other gods from the Temple, overturned the great statue of Asherah, removed Asherah’s sacred prostitutes from the Temple precincts, and had all the shrines to other gods throughout the country destroyed.  These sweeping changes were recorded in 2 Chronicles 34:3‑7:  “For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was still a boy, he began to seek the God of his ancestor David, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the sacred poles [of Asherah], and the carved and cast images.  In his presence they pulled down the altars of the Baals; he demolished the incense altars that stood above them.  He broke down the sacred poles and the carved and cast images; he made dust of them and scattered it over the graves of those who had sacrificed to them.  He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars, and purged Judah and Jerusalem.  In the towns of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, and as far as Naphtali, in their ruins all around, he broke down the altars, beat the sacred poles and the images into powder and demolished all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel.”  This was a time of radical change.  Once it had taken place, it was merely a matter of time before the foreign gods lost their very status as real deities among the worshipers of Yahweh.


Eight years after Nebupolassar’s defeat of the Assyrians, he captured Jerusalem, and in 597 BCE the first exiles, who were members of the aristocratic governing and priestly classes were deported to Jerusalem.  The sixty‑year Exile was like a refiner’s fire for Jewish monotheism. There were those who lost faith in Yahweh, who had seemingly failed to protect them, but those who maintained their belief that Yahweh would yet redeem them from Babylonia found it even easier to reject the gods of their oppressors.  It was in this time that the Second Isaiah went beyond merely proclaiming the superiority of Yahweh to the gods of the gentile nations but also declared Yahweh to be the only God when Yahweh declares,  “[t]here is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me” (Isaiah 45:21b).  This theme runs throughout the message of the Second Isaiah:  not only is Yahweh still active in the affairs of his people, but he was the only God, and after they had been sufficiently punished for their prior idolatry, he would save them from the domination of the worshipers of false idols.  When in 539 BCE the Persian king Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and allowed the exiled Jews to finally return to Jerusalem, Yahweh’s promise seemed fulfilled.  Those who returned to their homeland did so with a strong motivation to restore the Temple and cleans their worship of all idolatry from the Am ha’Aretz, the “People of the Land” or peasants who had remained behind when the upper classes had been exiled.


The Am ha’Aretz had not experienced the life of oppression in Babylon that had led those of the exile to so strongly reject the henotheism of their ancestors. The peasants had simply continued their farming lifestyle and its henotheistic religious recognition that there were influential gods in other lands. If anything, their certainty of the supremacy of their own deity, Yahweh, over those of the Gentile nations had been weakened by the clear fact that their own land had been conquered by Babylonia, a fact that suggested that at least the god of that land was not subservient to their own. Thus, the peasant class not only worshipped their own deity, Yahweh, but gave recognition of the influence of other gods, especially those worshipped in Babylonia, by making offerings to them, as described above. As the upper-class returnees from Babylon reasserted their roles as the leaders of government and the priesthood, the laxer views and practices of the peasant class was a natural source of vexation to the returnees, who had maintained their sense of identity during their long exile by their rejection of the gods of their oppressors. So the returnees set about to reform what they held to be the idolatry of the Am ha’Aretz. This magnified the contrast between the aristocrats and the peasants. Indeed, the very phrase Am ha’Aretz came to mean not simply “peasants” but “those who are not punctilious in their observance of the Law.”


With the return of the exiles to their dominant social role in Jerusalem, true monotheism was on its way to becoming triumphant. All that remained was for the Priestly writer to transcend the older portrayal of Yahweh as a being of human‑like form with his more abstract vision of a God who is beyond all human perception.  Sometime after the return to Jerusalem, the Priestly additions were made to the Pentateuch, including his emendation of the words of Yahweh to Moses “. . . you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” Exodus 33:20b).  God is no longer like the gods of the Sumerians or other Semites who has human form and foibles.  No longer will he appear as he did to Abraham, as a wayfaring stranger, hot from the desert, with feet to be washed by his host.  To the Priestly writer, He transcends human perception, and only his kavod, his glory, can be perceived, not his essential self.  The Jews had, at last, in the post Exile writings, achieved what has now become our modern conceptualization of the one, ineffable God.


The process of achieving monotheism had involved several stages.  At first, the foreign gods of the Assembly of gods were had been viewed as simply subordinate to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Gradually, their status as deities was eroded until they were viewed merely as Angels rather than gods. As this change happened, the term Elohim came to be used only as another name of El, its plural eventually being reinterpreted as a “Plural of Majesty”, a concept of post‑Exile origin that was developed to reconcile the older biblical use of the plural noun elohim with the completely monotheistic views that had evolved among the Jews and that we now take for granted as if it had been accepted from the beginning.  Eventually, Elohim and Yahweh too were merged, with Yahweh being understood as a “name” and Elohim as merely a word meaning “God”, simply a more formal or respectful form of el, the generic term for “god.”


The Bible records some of the ritual practices among the Hebrews for worshiping the various baals (gods) and asherahs (goddesses) of the elohim pantheon. We know that as late as the seventh century BCE that the people built “high places” [elevated altars] where children were sacrificed as burnt offerings to Baal, as was recorded in Jeremiah:


Jeremiah 19:5, “They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire [for] burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake [it], neither came [it] into my mind.”


Jeremiah 32:35,  “And they built the high places of Baal, which [are] in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through [the fire] unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.”


They erected standing stones as sacred icons of Baal, as recorded in Second Kings and Jeremiah:


2 Kings 17:11-12, “And there they burnt incense in all the high places, as [did] the heathen whom the LORD carried away before them; and wrought wicked things to provoke the LORD to anger: 12For they served idols, whereof the LORD had said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing.”


And also worshiped him on the roofs of houses, where they made offerings and poured out libations to Baal and other gods,


Jeremiah 32:29, “And the Chaldeans, that fight against this city, shall come and set fire on this city, and burn it with the houses, upon whose roofs they have offered incense unto Baal, and poured out drink offerings unto other gods, to provoke me to anger.


They also bowed down before the baals and served them, as recorded in Jeremiah and Ezekiel:


Jeremiah 16:13, “Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, [neither] ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night; where I will not shew you favor.”


They burned incense to the baals [the Hebrew generic form for any foreign god] on rooftops and on altars


Jeremiah 11:12‑13, “12Then shall the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem go, and cry unto the gods unto whom they offer incense: but they shall not save them at all in the time of their trouble. 13For [according to] the number of thy cities were thy gods, O Judah; and [according to] the number of the streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to [that] shameful thing, [even] altars to burn incense unto Baal.”


Ezekiel 16:16‑21, “16And of your garments you took, and decked your high places with divers colors, and played the harlot thereupon: [the like things] shall not come, neither shall it be [so]. 17Thou hast also taken thy fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given thee, and madest to thyself images of men, and committed whoredom with them, 18And took your  broidered garments, and covered them: and you have set my oil and my incense before them. 19My meat also which I gave you, fine flour, and oil, and honey, [wherewith] I fed you, you have even set before them for a sweet savor: and [thus] it was, says the Lord GOD. 20Moreover you have taken your sons and thy daughters, whom you have borne unto me, and these you have sacrificed unto them to be devoured. [Is this] of your whoredoms a small matter, 21That thou hast slain my children, and delivered them to cause them to pass through [the fire] for them?”



They made sacrifices to other gods:


Jeremiah 11:17, “For the LORD of hosts, that planted thee, hath pronounced evil against thee, for the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done against themselves to provoke me to anger in offering incense unto Baal.”


They swore oaths in the name of the baals:


Jeremiah 5:7, “How shall I pardon thee for this? thy children have forsaken me, and sworn by [them that are] no gods: when I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses.


And they preached, interpreted dreams and prophesied in the name of the various baals:


Jeremiah 23:27, “Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbor, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal.”


Jeremiah 23:13, “And I have seen folly in the prophets of Samaria; they prophesied in Baal, and caused my people Israel to err.”


In places where Asherah was worshiped, they erected wooden poles or planted trees (especially palm trees) as icons to her, as recorded in Second Chronicles and Jeremiah:


2 Chronicles 34:4, “. . . and “[t]he children gathered firewood, while the fathers kindled the fire and the women kneaded the dough to make “cookies” and “cakes” shaped in the form of Asherah and poured out libations to her and to other gods.”


Jeremiah 7:18, “The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead [their] dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.”


It was during this time of zeal for purifying Judaic religion of foreign influences that the Book of Leviticus was written (beginning perhaps as early as 550 C.E.) to spell out the precise rules for maintaining the ritual purity demanded by Yahweh of his people.  The Book of Numbers was also written about this time as were various additions to the Torah that reflected the views of the returning priesthood.



The Final Redacting of the Combined J‑E‑P‑D Document


The Babylonian Captivity lasted from 587 to 458 BCE, after which the Jewish priestly elite was permitted to return to Judah. Shortly following their return, an Aaronid priest who has come to be called the Redactor edited the collection of Jewish sacred texts, bringing it into conformity with the viewpoint that had developed among the leaders of the priestly cast during their sojourn in Babylon.  The identity of the Redactor is unknown, although some have suggested that he may have been Ezra, a leading figure among the returnees.  During their stay in Babylon, two contrasting things happened to their religious outlook. On the one hand, their world view was influenced by that of their more urbane captors.  Nevertheless, they also became more vehemently opposed to the contamination of Jewish religion by the  idolatrous influences of the Babylonians which they found among those Jews who had remained in Judah during the Captivity. The redacted version of the Hebrew sacred texts was edited to support the anti‑Babylonian biases of the Post‑Exilic priestly caste. The P Document played a central role in this final editing of the first five “Mosaic” books. The Deuteronomic books were included without additions by the Redactor, perhaps because the text was too well established for further editing to have been accepted.  By this time, twenty‑two scrolls had come to be regarded as sacred. Five of these made up a collection known as the Law that was attributed to Moses. Thirteen were known collectively as the Prophets. Four others that at this early time were called simply the Psalms, but that later came to be known as the Writings. This three‑fold division continued to be recognized and is mentioned in Josephus (Against Apyon I.8).



Canonizing of the Torah


Sometime after the return to Jerusalem, the Priestly additions were made to the Penteteuch, including his emendation of the words of Yahweh to Moses “. . . you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” Exodus 33:20b).  God is no longer like the gods of the Sumerians or other Semites who has human form and foibles.  No longer will he appear as he did to Abraham, as a wayfaring stranger, hot from the desert, with feet to be washed by his host.  To the Priestly writer, He transcends human perception, and only his kavod, his glory, can be perceived, not his essential self.  The Jews had, at last, in the post Exile writings, achieved what has now become our modern conceptualization of the one, ineffable God.


The Babylonian Captivity lasted from 587 to 458 BCE, after which the Jewish priestly elite was permitted to return to Judah. Shortly following their return, an Aaronid priest who has come to be called the Redactor edited the collection of Jewish sacred texts, bringing it into conformity with the viewpoint that had developed among the leaders of the priestly cast during their sojourn in Babylon.  The identity of the Redactor is unknown, although some have suggested that he may have been Ezra, a leading figure among the returnees.


In 444 BCE at a great assembly in Jerusalem the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) were formally adopted as the authoritative sacred scriptures of Judaism. Once the Torah had been recognized as the canon of Judaism, the custom of public readings from the Torah became a central part of the practices of perpetuating the Jewish religion.  The remaining books of the Hebrew Bible were canonized quite some time later. Those that make up the books known collectively as the Prophets became standardized as part of the Jewish canon during the third century BCE, after which public readings from the Torah came to be supplemented by readings from the Prophets as well. Originally, an official known as the maftir selected the reading from the Prophets based on his own interests, but eventually it became customary for the maftir to be expected to select a reading from the Prophets that was conceptually linked to the current reading from the Torah that preceded it. Generally, this connection between the Torah and the Prophets was made by selecting a reading from the Prophets that somehow related to the first two lines from the Torah reading.



Establishing the Rest of the Jewish Canon


Because both the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians and the Babylonian Exile had scattered many of the people throughout the Gentile nations, by the Third Century BCE there were more followers of Judaism outside Palestine than within it. Thus, during the Third through Second Centuries, first the Torah and then other Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, which had become the primary language of most Jews. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) text. For several centuries it remained the basic source for reading the Jewish scriptures, although especially within Palestine, the older Hebrew manuscripts were still available along with Aaramaic paraphrases for use by those for whom Aaramaic had become the native language there.


The question of what works to establish as canon, that is as authoritative, inspired scriptures–was not a pressing one until the destruction of the Second Temple.  In contrast with Christianity, Judaism focused on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. This also made the question of canon less pressing. Judaism was a religion of practice, not theology. By the first century A.D., individual synagogues might have other texts, such as psalms, proverbs, and works attributed to various prophets in their collection of sacred texts, and these collections might differ from one synagogue to another.  Nevertheless, all Jews accepted the Torah–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–as scripture, since their authorship had come by then to be attributed to the prophet Moses. Eventually, a customary set of verses (usually about 21 verses for each) developed, although it is still permissible today for noncustomary selections from the Prophets to be used. Finally, those known as the Writings were canonized around 100 CE by the Sages at Javneh.


At the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zacchai, the youngest student of Hillel the Pharisee, escaped Jerusalem by having himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin.  He and other rabbis were instrumental in establishing an Academy in Jamnia (now Javneh) that created a new identity for Judaism in the post-Temple era, one in which the guiding force of Judaism was no longer the priests who controlled the sacrificial rites of the Temple but scholars who studied the Torah in light of the oral traditions that gave it meaning. According to rabbinic tradition, it was in Jamnia that a great council of rabbis said to have been held towards the end of the first century of the Common Era determined which books would be accepted as inspired scripture in Judaism. The Torah itself, including Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–books which tradition had come to assign authorship to the great prophet Moses–were, of course, universally accepted as scripture. These books contained the whole of “the Law” which included all of those rules that God had laid down for his people to follow. Any synagogue would have contained copies of these five sacred books. However, other scrolls that were treated as sacred texts had not yet been standardized and different collections could be found in different synagogues. Thus, when the attempt was made to finalize a list of which other works should be accepted as sacred along with the Torah, there was some controversy. One general rule held that no books written after Ezra (about 400 B.C.) would be regarded as scripture. By this rule, laid down about 90 CE, those texts, even ones popularly held to have been written with a prophetic voice after that time were to be excluded from the final list of Jewish sacred texts. Those works that were added to the Torah fell into two main groups, those referred to as the Prophets and those called the Writings.


The Prophets: The core of the prophetic texts consisted of commentaries on the social and political events of their times and their relationships with the moral obligations of the people toward one another and their duties toward God.  The prophetic tradition occurs throughout the history of the Hebrews.  In fact, the prophetic tradition did not die out in the culture of the Jews until at least the first century A.D., where it was still practiced among some of the Jewish sects, including Jewish Christianity.


The books of the Prophets became standardized as part of the Jewish canon during the third century BCE, after which public readings from the Torah came to be supplemented by readings from the Prophets as well. Originally, an official known as the maftir selected the reading from the Prophets based on his own interests, but eventually it became customary for the maftir to be expected to select a reading from the Prophets that was conceptually linked to the current reading from the Torah that preceded it. Generally, this connection between the Torah and the Prophets was made by selecting a reading from the Prophets that somehow related to the first two lines from the Torah reading. Eventually, a customary set of verses (usually about 21 verses for each) developed, although it is still permissible today for non-customary selections from the Prophets to be used.


The Writings: Finally, those known as the Writings were canonized around 100 CE by the Sages at Jabneh. These included the poetic works–the Psalms, the Proverbs, and Job. The Writings also included a group now called the Megillot:


  1. The Song of Songs was strongly opposed by many of the rabbis because of its strong erotic imagery until, finally, the view prevailed that its true meaning was an allegory of God’s love for Israel, not the carnal love of a man for a woman.


  1. Ruth, which was accepted for its historic value but may have been slightly controversial

because its main character was a Moabite woman.


  1. Lamentations which was widely opposed because its pessimistic outlook seemed uncharacteristic of Judaism to many rabbis.


  1. Ecclesiastes which was opposed by many rabbis because they felt that its pessimistic and

despairing outlook was uncharacteristic of Judaism, but it was eventually accepted by the



  1. Esther which was controversial for at least a century after Jamnia. Because the word      “God” did not appear in it and because it introduced the Feast of Purim, which implied that the Torah–which does not mention Purim–was incomplete.


The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and First and Second Chronicles were also included in the Writings. Despite the general rule of including only books written through the time of Ezra, the Sages also finally included the books of Jonah and Daniel, which had been composed after that time, since the consensus developed that they too were truly prophetic works.


By A.D. 200 rabbinic Judaism had established the 39 books that are still accepted.











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