Saturday, November 8, 2014

The UPs and downs of Judaism 597 BCE-- Return From Babylon

Nadene Goldfoot                                                             

In the days when Jews had been enslaved and taken to Babylon in 597 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II and again in 586 BCE, they had survived there.  In those Persian times, about 200,000  Jews were living in Mesopotamia.  Cyrus II, King of Persia overran the Babylonian Empire which included Judah.  About 50,000 were anxious to return to their homeland and so made the 800 mile journey back to Jerusalem.

They were led there by Zerubbabel.(480 BCE) who was the grandson of King Jehoiachin. of Judah who ruled from 598 to 597 BCE.  Zerubbabel had been appointed to be the bodyguard of Darius according to Ezra's account in Persia.  Darius was king Cyrus II's son.  It was Cyrus who encouraged the Jews to go back to Judah in 538 BCE.

Zerubbabel  was the last satrap (subordinate official or ruler ) of the Davidic descent in Jerusalem and after his time, the high priest had more influence.    The Persians were fearful of restarting the Davidic dynasty.

  Darius was the king Cyrus's  son.  It is thought that  King Xerxes, son of Darius I and who ruled from 486 to 465 BCE  was actually the King Ahasuerus in the Jewish story of Queen Esther and Purim, making him Jewish.  Darius reigned from 522 to 486 BCE and inherited the throne of Cyrus.  It was Cyrus  who permitted Zerubbabel and the Jews to return to Jerusalem and start the reconstruction of the Temple. King Xerxes,  alias King Ahasuerus,  had married a 2nd time to Esther, who in secret was Jewish. It was Haman, King Ahasuerus's chief minister,  who wanted to kill all Jews in the empire. It's said that he was a descendant from the king of Amalek, Agag. It could have been a Holocaust to end all Jews, but Esther told her husband about Haman's scheme and he stopped it.  

Cyrus II died in 529 BCE.  He had overrun the Babylonian Empire, including Palestine.  His policy with people was certainly enlightened.  The Jews regarded Cyrus as a Divine agent.
The city lay in ruins.  Hostile people from other lands had come to live there and settled throughout Judah.  The few Hebrews who had been able to stay and raise up families through the exile period had had to intermarry with these other people and actually were hostile to the returnees from Babylonia.  The nerve of them!  They claimed the right to rule over everyone!  No doubt this was when we added a few DNA Y haplogroups to our people.
The ones that returned got busy and started rebuilding.  In one year they laid the foundations for a new Temple.  then all work stopped for 5 years.  Possibly they were also having trouble farming on the hilly land outside the ruined Jerusalem, but it took 18 years before the people went back to work on the building.  It took them a total of 23 years to finish the Second Temple.  It had only taken 9 years to build Solomon's Temple.  This Second Temple was not as impressive as the first.  It was the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who had inspired and encouraged them to get back to work and finish the job.
Things went from fair to bad.  The children of the returnees of course intermarried with the local non-Jews.  Jerusalem remained fairly uninhabited and defenseless.  The Priests of the Temple, the Cohens, were unable to lead these people and even became corrupt in doing so.  It had been 60 years after finishing the 2nd Temple and all of 80 years since the Babylonian exile had ended and Israel's community was ready to fall apart.  What had gone wrong?
They needed better leadership, and 2 great leaders had remained in Babylon; Nehemiah (5th century BCE) and Ezra (5th century BCE).  They hadn't gone on the trek because they had been holding positions of importance in the Persian capital, Shushan.  Nehemiah was an adviser and cupbearer of the Persian king  Artaxerxes.  You don't leave such positions of power.  But when he heard of the situation back in Jerusalem, he decided he had to leave the splendor and comfort of court life and return to the ruins of Judah. So the king appointed him as the Tirshata, the governor of Judah in 444 BCE.
He became their governor and the conditions changed quickly.  Before he had arrived, the men had tried to build up their defenses but their enemies had attacked and destroyed them before they had even finished.

Nehemiah had better ideas.  He divided the men up in 2 groups when he took over.  One group worked on the defenses,  a wall, and the other group stood guard while holding their weapons.  The walls were then finished in 52 days  and finally Jews were able to safely live in their city of David.

Now they were celebrating the holiday of the Feast of Booths, Sukkot.  This was the first time for them all as they never knew of this holiday before.  Nehemiah made sure that ethical laws were taught.  He discovered that poor Jews were slaves to rich Jews.  He set them free and taught that the society in Judah was to be rebuilt with the ethical principles established by Moses from G-d.  He even cancelled the debts of the poor.  Jerusalem was made more secure by having 1/10th of the population live within its walls.
He started a major educational program and imported scholars from Babylonia to teach Torah to these people of Israel.  Ezra read the Law of Moses in public assemblies.  This may be that he only had a few Torahs and because not everyone knew how to read.  Also, they had been living in Babylonia for so long and had learned to speak another language, and the Torah was in Hebrew, so most likely needed translation as he read it to them.  He couldn't have read the whole Torah in this one sitting, but must have read only certain parts he felt he needed to share.

At the end of the reading, the entire community subscribed to an oath, they were so moved. walk in G-d's law, which was given by Moses the servant of G-d, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our G-d, and His ordinances and His statues.  (Nehemiah 10:30).

Nehemiah returned to Susa after 12 years, but returned again to Jerusalem.  In 433-432 he tried to bring and end to mixed marriages with Ezra's help.  That means that in the last 200 years, people had been marrying non Jews.  Was it a wonder then that Judaism had been slipping into almost non-existence in the homeland?  If Jews had been marrying Jews only since Abraham's day, all the Jewish men would be carrying J1 or J2 Ydna, but that isn't the case as today's DNA testing shows a few others in the Jewish population; not many, but a few others.  We have a variety of Es, Gs that make up 7% of the Jews, and a variety of Rs, and Q1b1a which 5% of Jews have.

Ezra had been a member of the priestly family of Zadok and was a scribe working for the Persian government.  He had also received permission in 458 BCE from King Artaxerxes I (reigned from 465 to 421 BCE) of Persia to return to Jerusalem and lead a new party of 1,754 settlers there, but would be of more religious Jews and they would establish the Mosaic law.  He worked along with Nehemiah to encourage the people to keep Torah, observe the Sabbath and the sabbatical year which Israel is keeping  right now in 2014 CE.  They encouraged everyone to pay their Temple dues and to reject intermarriage with gentiles which was in 444 BCE.

The Talmud notes that Ezra reintroduced biblical law since it had all been forgotten in the last 150 years.  He started the introduction of the square Hebrew letters and other updated information.  The rabbis compared his spiritual level with that of Moses.

While the Jews lived in Babylonia, they may have longed to be back in Judah, but they hadn't lost their religion.  It had gone with such a large population.  The Persians had been our rulers for 207 years from 539 BCE to 332 BCE.  We had become one People.  Before we were Hebrews divided into tribes or rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Now we were Jews.  Our religion is Judaism.  We would remain the people of the ONE G-D.  The past 1,000 years was one of idolatry, a constant problem in Jewish life.  We started with the golden calf while waiting for Moses to come down from his high mountain.  During this Persian period, idol worship was not a part in our Jewish life at all, but pagans were able to join with us.  Before this, they were unable to join with us.

The reason Nehemiah and Ezra were against intermarriage was because it endangered the very survival of Judaism.  They had forced the men to divorce their wives.  Later, somebody thought up conversion.  What a novel idea!  They realized then that through study, commitments, and ritual, anyone could choose to give up his former religion and join his future to that of the Jewish people.  Persian rule had been tolerant and enlightened but then the Persian kings became more dictatorial .  Alexander the Great defeated them and gave Jews a better life.
I wonder about the Jews taken away even before the Babylonian conquest.  The Assyrians had attacked in 722 and 721 BCE.  Those were really primitive days.  Amos taught that the G-d of Israel was the G-d of the Assyrians but that they just didn't know it.  He was the G-d of all people.  When King Solomon had died in 922 BCE, the land divided into Israel and Judah, Judah being the southern part of Israel.  The Assyrians had attacked and devastated Israel, taking its people to Mesopotamia where they had mixed with the native population and disappeared from our history as the Lost 10 tribes of Israel.  All this occurrence showed Amos that this was a sign of G-d's power, that a sign of G-d's weakness.  He had been determined to have the Israelites obey HIS laws of righteousness.  Assyria had become the instrument of G-d's anger.  The Assyrian warriors were fierce.

This made Isaiah to think of world peace, so he wrote:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.  
                                                 (Isaiah 2:2-4).  

Yet today we are facing down Iran (Persia) and their Ayatollah Khamenei in a battle of uranium use in that they would like to make an atom bomb and destroy Israel today.  Several of Israel's neighbors have not ended their warring and are making even worse weapons, like missiles that can reach all of Israel.  

Some of the lost 10 tribes are being found and many are returning.  Israel has been reborn after a lull of 2,000 years.  Perhaps it takes all of the tribes to withstand the war mongols of the world with G-d's help, of course.  

To be Jewish is not to be faint of heart.  We've had our ups and downs.  Scientists in DNA now believe that the living Jews of today came from 4 women.  Ashkenazis are said to be from 350 men.  We've had our times of almost being wiped out in our history, and we've bounced back to create Israel once again.  The tide has turned.  
                                                           May G-d be with us.  

Resource:  My People:  Abba Eban's History of the Jews Volume I, adapted by David Bamberger, p. 30-36
The New Standard Jewish encyclopedia

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