In Section 2 we take an in-depth look at Yeshua’s life in the context of this culture which we have seen develop in the centuries leading up to His birth.
As we have seen, there were many wonderful, and many problematic, ways in which Judaism had been developing. Through it all the expectation of a coming Messiah and messianic age had continued growing in the general population. Those who had been counting knew that it was getting close to Daniel’s 69th ‘seven’, during which Messiah would be revealed.
They needed deliverance from Roman occupation, and Hellenising influences, which clashed with maintaining the purity of the Jewish people and their religious practice. Not long before they had needed deliverance from self-rule, which had degenerated under the Hasmonaean dynasty into such bitter conflict that all sides had called for Roman intervention. Yet still there were many who glorified in the Maccabean revolt and engaged in guerrilla warfare, seeking to re-live such a victory in their day and hoping that their courage in battle would induce Messiah to come to their rescue and supernaturally destroy the Roman army and all heathens in the way of establishing their glorious kingdom.
Messianic hopes and expectations were many and varied. The religious practice of much of the population was fervent and genuine. The wall the Pharisees were building around the Torah was becoming ever higher and thicker and governed every conceivable aspect of devout Jewish life. These were a people in need of seeing the reality of their God.
In Section 2 we take an in-depth look at Yeshua‘s life in the context of this culture which we have seen develop in the centuries leading up to His birth.
As with all Bible studies and commentaries, what is presented here is not infallible, that designation belongs to scripture alone. While every effort has been made through years of research to present as accurate an account as possible, there are many things that we do not know and many areas that even the best Bible scholars, and historians, disagree on. If you disagree with anything written in these blogs please feel free to do so, but don’t dismiss what I have written until you have first searched the scriptures afresh to see what God has to say on it – then please share with us what He reveals to you through His word. The purpose of this work is not to establish doctrine, a standard by which other works are judged, but to provide a perspective that broadens and deepens your understanding of Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Messiah / the anointed one) so as to grow in your love for Him, in your discipleship of Him, and in your effectiveness in discipling others in Christ Jesus.
As language is an essential part of culture, names will often be written in their original Hebrew (along with the English translations that most of us are more familiar with).
We also have a grouping of seven blogs (in the section ‘INTERLUDE‘) on the authors of each of the four gospel accounts. Again, the purpose of studying such is to help deepen our understanding and appreciation of our wonderful Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Nehemiah was written around 430 BC. Persian kings continued to rule over the Jewish people for the next hundred years. During this time there were concerted efforts to re-establish Jerusalem as the centre of Jewish religious life. To this end, groups of Torah scholars were set up in Jerusalem to help establish it as the hub of Torah authority, as well as the epicentre of the sacrificial system. They let it be known that all important questions of Jewish law should be sent to Jerusalem and there is historical evidence of a faraway group of the Jewish diaspora writing to the High Priest with questions about how they should practise the Torah (1).
There remained, however, significant Torah schools in Babylon and the role of the synagogue in Jewish life did not diminish with the re-establishment of temple worship. Jews now had two centres of spiritual authority and worship – the central authority of the temple in Jerusalem and the local authority of the synagogue. Influencing both of these were the Torah schools in both Babylon and Jerusalem.
Several of the innovations of the Babylonian exile were continued and built upon in Jerusalem, and throughout the diaspora, after the temple was rebuilt. These were attributed to Ezra’s highly respected leadership in Torah study and teaching. Being a scribe, Ezra also produced copies of the Torah and other Jewish religious books (notably the Nev’im (Prophets) and K’tuvim (Writings) that would come to be accepted as part of the Hebrew Scriptures). The practises further developed during this period included the prominent use of the singing of Psalms, prayer and instruction as part of the Synagogue service. Synagogue worship and rabbinical teaching continued to operate alongside the temple worship and reading of Torah (2). Formalised prayers that had been developed to replace temple worship during the exile continued to be used and a universal Jewish prayer service was established (3). To give these prayers a clear framework the wording of the Shemoneh Esrei, Eighteen Blessings, was standardised as well as the blessings before and after food, before and after performing a mitzvah (good deed done within a religious duty and keeping of the commandments), and before and after the Sabbath (Kiddush and Havdalah) (4).
During this period the Levites translated the Torah into the Aramaic vernacular and explained it so the people could understand.
“The Levites … instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” Nehemiah 8:7–8
This made it much more accessible to the diaspora for many of whom Aramaic was now their mother tongue. For those in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem, Hebrew was emphasised even though many still used Aramaic as a trade language. Everything in the Temple and synagogues of Judea was in Hebrew, as was the learning in the synagogue schools. (5)
Origins of the Sanhedrin and Recognising the inspiration of all the TaNaKh (OT)…
Ezra is credited by rabbinical Judaism with having brought like-minded Torah scholars together for what became called the “Great Synagogue” or Sanhedrin following on from the Nehemiah 8-10 gathering, although there is no historical evidence of a Sanhedrin existing at this time. Ezra certainly engendered a grass-roots movement of Torah study and public Torah reading and explanation, which was much needed because many of the population were now Aramaic speakers who lacked understanding of the finer nuances of the Hebrew language. With like-minded scholars and students he is said to be responsible for the canonisation of the Prophets (Nev’im), and Writings (K’tuvim) into the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible – what Christians refer to as the Old Testament). (6) (7) (8).
TaNaKh is an acronym referring to the traditional Jewish division of the Bible into Torah (Teaching), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Kituvim (Writings). The Tanakhthat Ezra and his disciples compiled, and that Yeshua and all the original apostles grew up with, and is still used by Jews today, consists of twenty-four books. This is less than the usual Christian count of thirty-nine because each of the following are considered to be a single book: 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, the twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi), Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles. The order, groupings and names of books are also different to the Christian Bible. The TaNaKh is divided into: 1. Torah (Law/ Teachings) – consisting of the five books of Moses; 2. Nevi’im (Prophets) – consisting of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & the twelve minor prophets; 3. K’tuvim (Writings) – consisting of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles.
In Christian Bibles, following Greek tradition, the books are named according to their main theme, but in Jewish Bibles the books were named according to their first words. What we call Exodus (the book about the Jewish exodus from Egypt) the Tanakh calls Sh’mot (Names), because it starts with “These are the names…”. Hence we do not see Yeshua or the B’rit Hadasha (New Testament) writers using the same referencing of the Tanakh as Christians do today.
Not all priests were in agreement with the Canonisation of the Nevi’im and K’tuvim, giving them the same status as the Torah, although they generally saw great spiritual value in these works. Thus a division started appearing in Jewish religious thought and practise between those who believed that their lives should be based just on the Torah or just the Torah and the Nevi’im, and those who believed that their lives should be based on the whole Tanakh.
Yeshua would endorse all three sections of the Tanakh in Luke 24:44 “that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Torah of Moses and the Nev’im (Prophets) Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (by “Psalms” Yeshua was using the Jewish convention of stating the first to refer to the whole. The K’tuvim (Writings) section in the Tanakh begins with the book of Psalms, not Job as in the OT). It was not until much later that the dispute was settled unequivocally in Jewish circles. Only after the Sadducees had lost all power and influence with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple did Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakki convene the Council of Yavneh, in about 90 C.E., to conduct a final Jewish review of the canon where the whole Tanakh at last was confirmed as the Jewish canon.
The Jewish “Oral Law”…
Halakhah also continued to be developed and passed down orally from sage (rabbi) to talmidim (disciple / student) after the restoration of the temple and sacrifices. They taught: “Be deliberate in judgment; raise many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah” (Avos 1:1). This fence around the Torah consisted of rules and practises deemed necessary to keep the people from straying away from Torah observance, or their cultural heritage, and becoming in any way like their heathen neighbours.
Halakhah – הֲלָכָה, the Way – is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from both the “written Torah” and the “oral Torah”. As such it consists of: * Mitzvot D’Oraita (an Aramaic word meaning “from the Torah”) – the 613 commandments (mitzvot מִצְווֹת, plural of mitzvah מִצְוָה) that Jewish rabbis and sages had reasoned from the Torah; and * Mitzvot D’rabbanan (Aramaic for “from the rabbis”) – all three categories of rabbinic commandments, which also became known as the “Oral Torah” and came to be attributed to Moses’ revelation on Mount Sinai, thus giving them, according to many pharisees, the same status as the Written Torah (ie. books of Moses, first 5 books in the Bible). : ~ Gezeirah – laws instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidently violating a Torah Mitzvot. Commonly referred to as a ‘fence’ around the Torah. ~ Takkanot – laws unrelated to the Biblical commandments that were created by the rabbis for the public welfare, to ‘make the world a better place’. ~ Minhag – all long-standing customs of the community.
An example of how this developed is in one of the dietary laws. The Torah states: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26). The Mitzvot D’Oraita derived from that verse decrees: “Do not eat flesh with milk” – the 164th commandment in their list of 613 commandments “from the Torah”. This is then explained by the rabbis to be a prohibition on consuming any meat with any dairy products – a cheeseburger would be “illegal” for an observant Jew to eat. Then, to prevent the people from accidently consuming any meat and cheese together Gezeirah were instituted which included declaring that any utensils, pots and pans with which they are cooked, plates and flatware from which they are eaten, and anything used in cleaning such as the towels with which the utensils that have come in contact with meat are dried, cannot be used with dairy, and vice versa. The only “safe” way to run the household is to have two sets of pots, pans and dishes – one for meat and one for dairy. In addition to all that, one must wait a significant amount of time between eating meat and dairy (different schools dictated different amounts of time) because fatty residues or meat particles could cling to the mouth and therefore still be present when the dairy was consumed if enough time had not lapsed between the two.
These rabbinical teachings came to be considered of equal authority to the Torah and by around 100 BC were starting to be referred to by some scholars as the Oral Law. This elevation of cultural practises and rabbinic reasonings to the same status as the Torah was again not accepted by all priests or Torah scholars. Among those who espoused the Oral Law there was considerable debate over what the correct practises, interpretations and laws were. (4). Even the mitzvot d’oraita (Torah commandments) contained differences in listings of commandments between the different schools (9).
There was, however, little dispute over the number of commandments (mitzvoth) because of the significance attached to the number 613. The Talmud notes that the Hebrew numerical value (gematria) of the word “Torah” is 611, and there’s a midrash that says the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard by the Jewish people directly from God, so 611+2 = 613. These are divided into 365 negative commandments (do not do) “like the number of days of the sun”; and 248 positive commandments (do this) “like the parts of a person”. Other significances have also been given to the numbers 613, 365 and 248, all pointing to the overriding importance placed on the keeping of mitzvot d’oraita. (10) (11) (12) (13) (14)
Many of the mitzvot cannot be observed apart from the temple in Jerusalem, although they still retain religious significance. According to one standard reckoning, out of the total 613 mitzvoth, there are 77 positive and 194 negative commandments that can be observed today, of which 26 apply only within the Land of Israel. (15) (16)
Development of the Permanent Jewish Calendar…
A major accomplishment of the Torah scholars of this period was the development of a permanent Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is based on the cycle of the moon. However, if it were a strict lunar calendar then every year would be 11¼ days less than the solar year. The problem then would be that in three years an entire month would be lost. Therefore, the Jewish sages added a leap month to the Jewish year. The solar and lunar years line up exactly every 19 years so seven times every nineteen years an entire month, Adar I, is added.
Jewish leadership under the Persians…
Torah scholars who gained renown were generally referred to as sages during this period, but sometimes the term of honour, rabbi (‘master/teacher’), was used – this term gained increasing popularity over the centuries that followed.
The High Priests during this period included men of noble character and those corrupted by power and greed. Although the First Temple saw only 18 High Priests throughout its 400 years, over 300 served during the Second Temple’s 420 years! Several were righteous, and their combined service accounts for around 141 of those years. Soon after Nehemiah the position of governor faded from view and the High Priest was left as the single governing authority over Judea under the Persians.
After Eliashib, who was High Priest during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, his son Joiada (Nehemiah 12:10) held this position from 433-410 BC. As the sole leadership position, the High Priesthood ceased to be determined purely on a religious hereditary basis and became subject to Persian appointment. Joiada’s son, Joshua, was promised the High Priesthood by Bagoses, general of Artaxerxes II. He was killed by his brother, Johanan, in the temple during a quarrel. Bagoses, being horrified that Johanan as a priest would perpetrate murder in the temple, forbade him from entering its holy precincts again. Johanan justified his act, took up the High Priest’s office and entered the temple for the duties of that office from 410-371 BCE. Bagoses had the Persians respond by attacking the temple and imposing a tribute on the Jews.
Johanan’s son Jaddua (also known as Shimon Ha Tzaddik / Simion the Just) served as High Priest from 371-320 BCE. He restored the temple, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and earned the respect of all. Tradition has it that Simion met Alexander the Great on his way to attack the Temple. Alexander prostrated himself and promised to treat the Jews benignly, explaining that before every battle he would see a vision of Simeon leading his troops to victory. Simion is also traditionally considered to be one of the last members of the Great Assembly, and there are claims that after his death men ceased to utter the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) aloud. (17) (18) (19)
Developing Messianic Expectations…
This was also a time of developing Messianic expectations in the aftermath of exile and cessation of the Davidic dynasty. In the light of what God had promised King David, hope arose that He would someday restore a godly king to Israel:
“Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.” 2 Samuel 7:16 NASB
“I will save my flock; they will no longer be prey; and I will judge between sheep and other sheep. I will raise up one shepherd to be in charge of them, and he will let them feed — my servant David. He will pasture them and be their shepherd. I, Adonai, will be their God; and my servant David will be prince among them. I, Adonai, have spoken.” Ezekiel 34:22-24 CJB
For many, the expectation went beyond just a godly Davidic descendant to reign over Israel and extended to one who would also rule justly over all the gentile nations. Such expectations were fuelled by scriptures such as these that hinted that the coming anointed one, the Messiah, would be God Himself:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might,the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord – and He will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what He hears with His ears; but with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth; with the breath of his lips He will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be His belt and faithfulness the sash around His waist. Isaiah 11:1-5 NIV
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. Daniel 7:9-14 NIV
Other scriptures that were interpreted in the light of the Messianic hope during this period included (20):
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his. Genesis 49:10 NIV
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. Numbers 24:17 NIV
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah 9:9 NIV
Developing Understanding of the World to Come…
Associated with this development of doctrines of the Messiah were also those of Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come), which included immortality of the soul and resurrection of the dead in an age to come. While the focus of Judaism remained on living and doing the best in the here and now, the present troubles and injustices were not seen the end of the story; there was a reward, an inheritance, still to come for those who lived in obedience to Yahweh. As Daniel had prophesied that so many troubles would come to the Jewish people in the foreseeable future, it was comforting to know that was not all there was to come.(21)
As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.” Daniel 12:13 NIV
Your dead will live, my corpses will rise; awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust; for your dew is like the morning dew, and the earth will bring the ghosts to life. Isaiah 26:19 CJB
At that time, your people will be delivered, everyone whose name is found written in the book. Many of those sleeping in the dust of the earth will awaken, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting shame and abhorrence. But those who can discern will shine like the brightness of heaven’s dome, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. Daniel 12:1b-3 CJB
These doctrines were not developed in any systematic way during this period, as it was before the systematic thinking of Hellenization had impacted this part of the world and the Torah scholars were organic rather than systematic thinkers. The general picture that emerged was firstly of the state of the soul in heaven after the death of the body, followed by the Messianic age here on earth “at the end of days” and then the resurrection of the dead which embraced a nationalistic hope of the resurrection of all Israel. (21)
Enlightened by these revelations in the Nev’im (Prophets) and K’tuvim (Writings), many sages and scholars also saw evidence of existence after death in the Torah. Several noteworthy people are referred to as being “gathered to their people”, which they understood as a separate event from the physical death of the body or the burial. Examples included: Gen. 25:8 (Abraham), 25:17 (Ishmael), 35:29 (Isaac), 49:33 (Jacob), Deut. 32:50 (Moses and Aaron), and II Kings 22:20 (King Josiah). Genesis 17:14 and Exodus 31:14 refer to sins for which the punishment is being kareit “cut off from his people”, which they saw as referring to the soul losing their position in Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come). (22)
1. Jewish History.org. The Men of the Great Assembly. Jewish History. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug. 2016.] http://www.jewishhistory.org/the-men-of-the-great-assembly/. 2. Dell Markey, Demand Media. What Effects Did the Babylonian Exile Have on the Jewish Religion? The Classroom. [Online] 18 Aug 2016. http://classroom.synonym.com/effects-did-babylonian-exile-jewish-religion-7222.html. 3. Astor, Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov. The Beginning of the Second Commonwealth. Jewish History.org. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug. 2016.] http://www.jewishhistory.org/the-beginning-2nd-commonwealth/. 4. The Sanhedrin English. Historical Overview. The Sanhedrin. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug 2016.] http://www.thesanhedrin.org/en/index.php?title=Historical_Overview. 5. Keyser, John D. Hebrew and Aramaic – Languages of First Century Israel. Hope of Israel. [Online] [Cited: 25th Aug 2016.] http://www.hope-of-israel.org/h&a.html. 6. Encyclopedia Judaica: The Great Synagogue. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0019_0_19428.html. 7. Hirsch, Emil G. Ezra the Scribe. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5967-ezra-the-scribe. 8. Mindel, Nissan. Ezra the Scribe. Chabad.org. [Online] Kehot Publication Society. [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/111905/jewish/Ezra-the-Scribe.htm. 9. Levine, Jason. Judaism: The 613 Mitzvot (Commandments). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 29th Sept. 2016.] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/613_mitzvot.html. 10. Hartman, Osher Chaim Levene & Rabbi Yehoshua. 613: Your Wish is My Command. Aish. [Online] [Cited: 28th Sept. 2016.] http://www.aish.com/h/sh/se/613-Your-Wish-is-My-Command.html. 11. dlevy. Lies We Were Taught in Hebrew School, or why 613 is a Meaningless Number. Jewschool – Progressive Jews & Views. [Online] [Cited: 28th Sept. 2016.] https://jewschool.com/2009/05/16277/lies-we-were-taught-in-hebrew-school-or-why-613-is-a-meaningless-number/. 12. The Number 613: Properties and Meanings. VirtueScience. [Online] [Cited: 28th Sept. 2016.] http://www.virtuescience.com/613.html. 13. McGough, Richard Amiel. The Number 613. The Bible Wheel. [Online] [Cited: 29th Sept. 2016.] http://www.biblewheel.com/GR/GR_613.php. 14. Rich, Tracey R. A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments). Judaism 101. [Online] [Cited: 29th Sept. 2016.] http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm. 15. Chaim, Chofetz. Sefer HaMitzvot HaKatzar (in Hebrew). Jerusalem : Feldheim., 1990. 16. HaCohen, Yisrael Meir.The Concise Book of Mitzvoth: The Commandments which can be Observed Today. s.l. : Feldheim, 1990. 17. God’s Secret. 2nd Temple History and More – Persian and Hellenistic Periods (538-142 BCE). [Online] 19th Sept. 2008. [Cited: 19th Sept. 2016.] https://godssecret.wordpress.com/2008/09/19/what-do-you-want-know-who-you-stand-before/. 18. The Jewish Temples – High Priests of the Second Temple Period (516 BCE – 70CE). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] AICE. [Cited: 14th March 2020.] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/high-priests-of-the-second-temple-period. 19. Gniwisch, Leibel. The High Priest in Jewish Tradition. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 14th March 2020.] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4195084/jewish/The-High-Priest-in-Jewish-Tradition.htm. 20. Evans, Craig A. A Closer Look: Messianic Expectations. Christianity Today. [Online] 7th March 2012. [Cited: 5th Nov. 2016.] http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2012/march/closer-look-messianic-expectations.html. 21. Jacobs, Rabbi Louis. Jewish Resurrection of the Dead. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 6th Nov. 2016.] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-resurrection-of-the-dead/. 22. Rich, Tracey R. Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife. Judaism 101. [Online] [Cited: 6th Nov. 2016.] http://www.jewfaq.org/olamhaba.htm.
In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and some of the following questions…
* What were some of the changes in Judaism during this time? * What happened with the high priests became both the civic and spiritual leaders of the Jewish community? * How can we prevent church leaders becoming corrupted by money and/or power? * What are some of the similarities and differences between Jewish culture during this, and your culture? * What “oral laws” has your community, church or denomination developed? * What did the OT scriptures say about the coming Messiah?
Read Esther; Ezra 7-10; Nehemiah 1-7; Daniel 9 & Malachi
God protected His people, and the fulfilment of His word, through an orphaned young Jewish woman…
One of Darius’ sons, Xerxes, succeeded him in 486 BCE. He had little talent for economics and revelled too much in court pleasures and in lavish building projects. His treatment of subjugated peoples was also brutal, contrary to the habits of his predecessors (1). In 483 BCE. Xerxes held a one hundred and eighty day feast for his officials, followed immediately by a seven day feast for all the people in the citadel of Susa (fortified part of the capitol city of Persia where his palace was located), at the end of which Queen Vashti refused to obey his command to come so he could show off her beauty. Her punishment was to be banished forever from Xerxes’ presence and stripped of her royal position (Esther 1).
Xerxes then went to quell
rebellions in Egypt and Greece, initially accomplishing great exploits but
suffered a humiliating naval defeat against the Greeks in 480 BCE. So he returned to his magnificent feasts and
desired once again to have a queen. All
the most beautiful virgins in the empire were brought together for six months
of beauty treatments and preparations and from these Esther was chosen (Esther
2). She kept her Jewish identity secret
and they were married at the end of 479 BCE.
Four decades after the
temple was built the work of rebuilding Jerusalem hadn’t progressed much
further than that and now all was under threat with Haman’s murderous plot to
have all the Jews in all the provinces of Persia killed, destroyed and
annihilated. This time their salvation
came not from a mighty warrior or a foreign army, but from a young Jewish woman
whom God had placed as queen for such a time as this.
Awareness of the plot, and fasting and prayers of the Jewish people to avert it, took place not in the temple in Jerusalem but in the Persian city of Susa (2). The Jewish diaspora was now large not only in Babylon but throughout the Persian empire, and particularly in the main centres of power like Susa. The Jewish people were saved and empowered to destroy their enemies (Esther 9:1-19). Mordecai then wrote letters to all the Jews in all the provinces of Persia to establish a new yearly celebration feast, Purim, commemorating their sorrow being turned to joy. This innovation did not come from the religious establishment in Jerusalem, but it was accepted and adopted throughout Judaism. Purim continues to be the most joyous Jewish celebration.
Each new generation needs to be led back to God…
Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BC, and after the lead assassin was killed Artaxerxes succeeded to the Persian throne in 464 BC. In the seventh year of his reign, 457 BC, Artaxerxes permitted the Jewish scribe and priest, Ezra, to lead an expedition of about 5,000 Jews back to Jerusalem to settle there, teach the people the Law of Moses (Torah) and present offerings to God from Artaxerxes, and gifts for the temple (Ezra 7-8). What Ezra found when he arrived was that the initial fervour of the returned captives had faded, the work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem had seen little progress since the temple was rebuilt, 60 years before, and this next generation, from the priests and leaders down, had forsaken much of the Torah.
The lessons of the Babylonian captivity
appeared to have been so quickly lost, and Haman’s threat of annihilation the decade
before left no positive effect in the Promised Land. While the Jews in Babylon had continued
working hard to maintain their distinct identity as the people of God through
observance of Torah and customs, the
next generation of those who had returned to the land of Judah quickly became
complacent with their identity secured in their land and temple.
Money so easily corrupts, and when that happens in the spiritual leaders…
The high priest, Eliashib, had himself become compromised so the priesthood was
corrupted and the reading of the Torah
to the people ceased. Eliashib was allied with Tobiah the
Ammonite who, along with Sanballat the Horonite, sought to keep the children of
Israel weak and the city of Jerusalem without a wall. Eliashib’s
wealth suggests that it may have been some form of business partnership.
Without guidance from the Torah, many had taken foreign wives and started participating in the abominations of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. To Ezra’s horror, even some of the priests had taken foreign wives who continued living and raising their children as pagans with all the practises that God abhorred.
True Leadership Vs Self-Interested Leaders who Hinder God’s work…
Ezra wept bitterly in identificational repentance before the house of God until the men, women and children of Israel gradually joined him in weeping and repentance prayer. What Haman’s attempt at annihilation failed to do, the priest’s tears accomplished – God’s people in Jerusalem repented and returned to Him (Ezra 10:1-6).
Ezra gathered some of the heads of households and together they questioned all the men who had taken pagan wives until each one promised they would put away those wives and bring a trespass offering to Yahweh (Ezra 10:16-44). However, this was only half the problem and the rebuilding of Jerusalem remained stalled because key leaders of the community such as Shechaniah, who had married his daughter to Tobiah, and Meshullam, who had married his daughter to Tobiah’s son, remained allied to their enemies even as the high priest was. One of the high priest’s grandsons had married the daughter of Sanballat.
Godly Leadership Needed in both Church and State…
Ezra exemplified the Torah and prophets’ ideal of priest. He is credited with being the “Father of Judaism” and founder of the modern Jewish religion (3). Yet there was only so much he could accomplish with both the civic and religious leaders of the land aligned to their enemies. Ezra’s purity of life and teaching of the people appeared to have little impact on their leaders. But God heard his prayers. Thirteen years after Ezra’s arrival, in 444 BCE, Artaxerxes gave his Jewish cupbearer, Nehemiah, letters of authority to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. Under Nehemiah the walls of Jerusalem, which had remained desolate for the last 93 years of Jewish habitation, were repaired in just 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15).
Countdown to Messiah begins…
Here Daniel’s fourth vision’s countdown of sevens to Messiah begins:
“Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing.” Daniel 9:25-26 NIV
Daniel was clearly told when the 69 sevens would begin their countdown until the Anointed One / Messiah would come, and be put to death. The first sevensevens would begin with a decree involving the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. So there was to be another ‘seven sevens’ (49 years) and then ‘sixty-two sevens’ (434 years) before the Anointed One was to come, and would be put to death, a total of 483 years – time for more kingdoms to rise and fall.
What it takes to Repair Spiritual Walls…
As the physical walls of the city were repaired, so were the spiritual walls. Nehemiah gathered all the people together for Ezra to read the Scroll of the Law of Moses (Torah) to them. They listened intently and followed God’s directions for the Feast of Tabernacles with great joy. All the people came together again in response to the reading of the Law, this time with fastingconfessing their sins and the iniquities of their fathers then uniting in a great prayer of worship, repentance and covenant commitment to walk in God’s law and obey everything in the Torah (Nehemiah 9&10). This has become known as “The Covenant of Faith”. (4) What Ezra had begun 13 years before was now coming to fulfilment.
Godly Leaders Care for the Poor…
Nehemiah was a very rare and exceptional leader who walked in the fear of God, unlike the governors before or after him. He served as governor in the land of Judah for 12 years at his own expense because of his concern that the ordinary people were already too poor and heavily burdened even though there was a very wealthy upper class in Judea. He called a great assembly of the people to shame the wealthy into ceasing their unbiblical practises of charging their brothers interest, selling them and their families as slaves, and selling their land as repayment for debts (Nehemiah 5). He demonstrated a much greater commitment to both the Torah and the temple worship than the High Priest Eliashib, who served only his own interests.
When Nehemiah returned from his promised time back with the king of Persia he found this corruption had manifest itself again and took decisive action to set things back in order both in the temple and in the people’s obedience to Torah, removing Tobiah the Ammonite from his residence in the temple storeroom, re-instituting the Levitical worship and cleansing them of everything pagan (Neh. 13).
To the end of the OT Prophets…
Malachi was also written during the first period of seven ‘sevens’ (49 years since the decree to rebuild the walls and city of Jerusalem). Like Ezra and Nehemiah, he rebukes corruption in the priesthood and the infidelity of the people, calling for repentance. Like Daniel, he elicits Messianic expectations:
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts” Malachi 3:1
1. Stevenson, John T. Israel After The Exile. John Stevenson Bible Study Page. [Online] 2000. [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.] http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/14ezra.html. 2. Goldberg, G. J. Esther: Her Point of View Josephus’ Version with Commentary. Thematic Concerdance of the Works of Josephus. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.] http://josephus.org/Esther.htm. 3. Carlson, Thomas. Exile to Babylon and Diaspora. Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug 2016.] http://www.religion.ucsb.edu/faculty/thomas/classes/rgst116b/JewishHistory.html. 4. Astor, Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov. Ezra and Nehemiah. Jewish History.org. [Online] [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.] http://www.jewishhistory.org/ezra-and-nehemiah/.
In the comments section below share your thoughts on some of the following questions…
* What are some of the things we can learn from Esther’s story? * How had the Jews in Israel, who could attend the Temple and participate in sacrifice and worship there, become less faithful to God than the Jews in the Persian cities? * How can you help your people keep fervently focused on God and not backslide like the Jews in Israel had done? * How are you reaching the next generation? * What were the sins of the Jewish leaders and how can we avoid being seduced by such sins? * What qualities did Ezra and Nehemiah have that made them good leaders? * What have you seen happen in your nation when gifted leaders lack godly character?
After the death of King Solomon the northern tribes of Israel rebelled against his son Rehoboam. From this point on there would be two kingdoms of Hebrews, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. These kingdoms were frequently at war with one another. All the kings of Israel were evil and corrupt, leading their people in worship of other gods and governing poorly. God raised up many prophets to call the leaders and people of Israel back to Himself. These included Elijah (870-845BC) and Elisha (845-800 BC), but even the most promising responses to the prophets were only temporary. Israel’s leaders and most of her people, although not all, continued in the practices of the peoples God had removed from the land before them.
Be careful who you form an alliance with, do not be unequally yoked…
When Judah formed an alliance with Israel to stop their fighting against one another and jointly defend against their enemies, as Jehoshaphat did with Ahab, the results were not good. The unequally yoked marriage between Jehoshaphat’s son and Ahab’s daughter led the young man far away from his father’s righteousness. Instead of this unifying of the nation bringing wholeness, peace and prosperity, it opened the door for the sin of Israel to permeate throughout Judah and bring it down as well.
God’s last pleas to Israel to forsake her spiritual adultery came through Amos (765-754 BC) and then the lived prophesy of Hosea and his adulterous wife (758-725 BC); yet still they would not repent. So in 722 BC God’s warnings through the prophets came to pass. The Assyrians conquered and decimated Israel (2 Kings 17:1-23). Their king, Sargon, in an inscription found at Nineveh, wrote that he carried away into captivity 27,290 of the survivors (2). Those who had fled and those taken into captivity integrated into the surrounding nations and disappeared from history as a distinct people, although even today there are some who trace their roots back to these Israelites.
Lions pave the way for evangelism…
After his conquest of Israel, the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath and Sepharvaim to repopulate the Israeli cities. The land was no longer called Israel, but re-named after its capital Samaria. These newcomers had no knowledge or fear of God. Yahweh sent lions among them, so they begged the king of Assyria to send them a priest from the land to teach them the rituals of the god of the land. One of the Israeli priests who had been taken captive was sent and dwelt at Bethel to teach all the people how they should fear the LORD (2 Kings 17:24-41). The people in Samaria were soon worshipping Yahweh as well as their own gods.
The First Two Names for God in Scripture
Ĕlōhîm is the first word used for God in the scriptures: “In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1. It is used 2,750 time in the Old Testament. Ĕlōhîm is the plural of Eloah, the word construction is understood to be a plural of majesty and so means “supreme one” or “mighty one”, emphasising God’s greatness, power and prestige. This plurality also hints at the triune nature of the One true God: “Then Ĕlōhîm said, “Let Us make man in Our image, in Our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26).
Yahweh יְהוָ֥הis the personal Hebrew name for God, and most significant name in the Old Testament, written 6,828 times; 1,820 of those in the Torah. Because it consists of four Hebrew consonants (YHWH) it is called the Tetragrammaton. This name is built on the word for “I am” and closely connected to God’s covenant with Israel. Yahweh is the eternal self-existent One who enters covenant with His chosen, and as such His divine name should not be taken in vain (Exodus 20:7). After the destruction of the second Temple (AD 70) the doctrine developed in Judaism that God’s name Yahweh was too holy to be spoken. Yahweh is therefore translated LORD (all caps) in most English versions of the Bible. (3) (4)
Yahweh is first used as the name for God in Genesis 2:4 “…When the LORD God (Yahweh ’ĕlōhîm) made the earth and the heavens.”
Proving more faithful…
Within a couple of centuries, the peoples in Samaria (the land that had belonged to the northern kingdom of Israel) would be worshipping Yahweh exclusively – proving more faithful than Israel had been. These Samaritans, who had intermarried with the poor Israelites who had been left in the fields, adopted almost all the Hebrew Torah and cultic practices but kept no genealogies like the people of Judah (Jews) to prove their ancestry. The Samaritan Israelites called themselves “the sons of Israel”. They also referred to themselves as “Shomrim” (the keepers), considering themselves the be the keepers of the old ways, the ancient faith, the covenant promise. The Samaritans followed in the footsteps of the northern kingdom of Israel before them in opposing the worship of God in Jerusalem, convinced that the centre of Israel’s worship should be the mount of YHWH’s covenant blessing (Deuteronomy 27:12), Mount Gerizim, where they had built their own temple to Yahweh. They had a fourfold creed:
One God – YHWH
One Prophet – Moses
One Book – Torah
One Place – Mt Gerizim (8)
The Jews (Judean Israelites) and Samaritans each believed that they were the true worshippers of God and the others were heretics and imposters who had taken the wrong path when the two had separated after Solomon’s death. The Jews were angered that the Samaritans would dare to sacrifice to Yahweh outside of Jerusalem (5).
The Torah Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible. They are sometimes called the five books of Moses or the Pentateuch. In Hebrew, each of the five books is identified by its incipit (first words). In English the names for each book is derived from the Greek Septuagint (the first translation made into Greek) and reflect the theme of each book.
God’s judgments are for our redemption…
During the time of Israel’s destruction God sent Isaiah (760-673 BC) and Micah (738-698 BC) to warn Judah that they would likewise be destroyed if they did not repent (Isaiah 1,3,5,13,22,29,30:1-17,31,57-59,65:1-12, Micah 1-3). Although Assyria and Egypt would give Judah a taste of God’s judgments as a warning, it would be the Babylonians who would destroy the nation if they failed to heed the admonitions to repent with their whole hearts. Yet God’s judgments would be for their redemption, His discipline would teach them to repent and honour Him so that His mercies could again be poured out on them.
These prophets told not only of the coming judgment for Judah’s sin but also of their later restoration and then, even more wonderful, the coming of Messiah and the kingdom of God, a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah 2, 4, 7:14, 9:1-7, 11-12, 14, 24:21-23, 25, 32:1-8, 35, 40, 42, 45, 52:7-56:8, 60-62, 65:17-66:2, Micah 4 & 5). The Jews were failing to live as a kingdom of God on earth so God Himself would come and set up His kingdom to restore the earth to His intent and put His Spirit in them and give them new hearts to qualify them for citizenship. Not only Judah, but God would gather all nations and all tongues to come and see His glory and serve Him (Isaiah 66:18-21).
1. Edersheim, Alfred.The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids, Ml: : Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1886. 2. Tidwell, Josiah Blake. The Captivity of Judah. Bible Hub. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug. 2016.] http://biblehub.com/library/tidwell/the_bible_period_by_period/chapter_xv_the_captivity_of.htm. 3. Levine, Douglas Knight & Amy-Jill.The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (1st ed). New York : HarperOne, 2011. 0062098594. 4. Gainotti, Charles R. The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH. [book auth.] Roy B. Zuch. Vital Old Testament Issues: Examening Textual and Topical Questions. Oregon : Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012. 5. Hooker, Richard. The Jewish Temples: The Babylonian Exile. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Exile.html. 6. Santala, Risto. THE PROPHETS OF THE SOUTHERN KINGDOM, JUDAH . [Online] [Cited: 22nd Oct. 2016.] http://www.ristosantala.com/rsla/OT/OT17.html 7. The Bible Study Site. Kings of Israel and Judah. The Bible Study Site. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.] http://www.biblestudy.org/prophecy/israel-kings.html. 8. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg. The Samaritan woman RECONSIDERED. ISBN: 9781713300366. 2019
In the comments below share your thoughts on some of these questions:
* What does it mean to be faithful to God? * What paved the way for evangelism in your nation or community? * What do God’s names Ĕlōhîm, and Yahweh tell us about Him? * Do you have clashes between different tribes or groups of people in your area? How can peace be brought to that conflict? * What has God been saying to your nation? * What has God been saying to the church in your nation? * Is there something happening in your nation that you see as God’s judgment?