Sacred Doctrine or Political Manifesto? Ancient Jewish Literature in Context

By Jeff Zolitor

The first commonwealth ended in upheaval. Jehoiakim, King of Judah was dead. His son and heir apparent, Jehoiachin remained behind but could not keep his country from continued incitement of the Babylonian King, Nebudchanezzer. He was taken captive to Babylon and imprisoned, as were the priests, the royal court, and the administrative heads. The wealthy and influential were not spared. They to were exiled to Babylon. In short, the entire skeleton of self-government was broken, leaving a formless multitude behind. Babylon left in its place Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah to serve as vassal king. They changed his name to Zedekiah, as was custom, and left him to walk the tightrope between service to Babylon, and service to his people. They did not make a great choice. Zedekiah grew bold and sided with Egypt in one of its many wars with the Babylon. Egypt lost and Zedekiah was executed. This left a leadership void which Babylon filled with a certain Gedaliah, a capable man, but not of the House of David.

The house of David had ruled Judah for 350 years. According to the Hebrews beliefs, God said that it was house of David that would rule over Israel forever.

The exiles in Babylon had supported Jehoiachin and Zedekiah as kings, if not necessarily for their actions, then for their birthright. It was similar with the Priests. They had to be from the House of Aaron, although the king had the authority to decide what families of the House of Aaron would hold the position. In fact, he appointed the High Priest directly. This made for family rivalry within the House of Aaron.

When Zedekiah was killed, the exiles drew the line, and could not support Gedaliah, not that it mattered much. They were in Babylon and he was in Judah. With Zedekiah gone, and Gedaliah unacceptable, they threw their support behind the imprisoned Jehoiachin.

Their support wasn’t in word only. The exiles made up some of the wealthiest and influential people in the Near East at that time. When they came to Babylon they found a state that chose not to interfere in the affairs of its diverse peoples. Their only concern was for the orderly control of their empire, and that didn’t require cultural subjugation. In fact, that type of rule would have been contrary to their desire for order. The Hebrew exiles melded well into Babylonian society. They became traders and craftsmen, tax collectors and financiers. Their support for Jehoiachin was backed by substantial economic and financial means.

Back in Judah, Gedaliah was assassinated, presumably by members of the House of David still living in Judah. This left Babylon in a quandary. How could they control this small outpost of their empire without costly and successive wars? The answer came from the exiles. The King released Jehoiachin and appointed him King of Judah in exile. He was given royal quarters and a court, and he was even given a place in the Babylonian king’s court. Their move was a brilliant political stroke; better to have an authentic King of Judah in exile, than to keep appointing unwanted or unacceptable replacements. At this point, the governor of Judah was appointed with the full blessings of Jehoiachin, and may have actually been appointed by him.

For a while, Jehoiachin had the support of the remnants in Judah, and the exiles in Babylon. It was not to last long. Enter Ezekiel.

Ezekiel lived in Judah, Was probably a philosopher in the prophetic tradition, which meant that he was an astute observer, literate, and being a Jewish philosopher, his concerns were ‘better living through Judaism’. He also had a following.

I sometimes equate some of the prophets with the political pundits of today. They were aware of their political, theological and cultural environment, and they spoke about what they believed it all to mean. Jeremiah predicted the destruction and exile by the Babylonians. If fact he made his prediction to Jehoiakim, who ordered him executed. Instead he was exiled and ended up in Egypt. Was it divine providence, or a correct reading of the political climate? What prompted him to go to his king and tell him that, unless he made some big changes in a hurry, there would be trouble? I think therein lies the prophetic wisdom that is so revered. Not that they acquired the information, but that they used it to try to make things better, at great risk to themselves and those close to them.

Ezekiel was most likely exiled to Babylon, which might imply that he was a person of some influence. But did Ezekiel really exist?

The book attributed to him has an autobiographical style. The consistency in which the author uses “I”, “me”, “my” uniformly throughout the entire work also implies authorship. There is a uniformity of language, style and theme that also support the theory that one person produced the work. There is a lack of strict chronological ordering that can also argue in favor of Ezekiel as author. Someone writing after the fact would have had the opportunity to consult the history more readily and would have been more inclined to get the chronology correct. Someone writing in situ may not have had that opportunity, or may have been more interested in getting his message out quickly.

Was there an Ezekiel, or was that a nom d’plume? It doesn’t really matter. The indications are that the work was written by someone who had witnessed what he had witnessed, and needed a way to get his ideas out, in a way that would be read, understood and accepted.

Ezekiel set about writing a plan. In fact, his plan might resemble a combination of revolution and constitution, and his method of transmitting it to the people was through the prophetic model. He wrote as if God spoke to him directly, as if God showed him what the problems were and what needed to happen to make sure this kind of thing never happened again.

He wrote that God told him to tell the whole House of Israel,

Enough of your detestable practices. In addition to all your other detestable practices, you brought foreigners uncircumcised in heart and flesh into my sanctuary, desecrating my temple while you offered me food, fat and blood, and you broke my covenant. Instead of carrying out your duty in regard to my holy things, you put others in charge of my sanctuary.

Rather than blaming the Babylonians, he put the blame squarely on Judah itself, and he wrote in the language that the Priest and Kings would most certainly understand. He accused the people themselves of continuing to “listen to false prophets and practice idolatry”. I see this as allegory where, False prophets = priests and princes, Practice idolatry = lusting after (praying to) money and material, compromising righteousness for political and economic gain, taking sides in foreign wars, lying and bearing false witness for the sake of profit and trade, and compromising citizens rights for the sake of profit and gain. All of which were happening in the time leading up to the exile.

After laying out the cause, Ezekiel draws up a plan. Ezekiel’s plan is a sort of constitution for the future of Jewish sovereignty. With regards to the Kings, his plan reels in their power substantially.

In any dispute, the priests are to serve as judges and decide it according to my ordinances. They are to keep my laws and my decrees for all my appointed feasts, and they are to keep my Sabbaths holy.

Up to this point, the King would sit as primary judge. Ezekiel wanted that power vested in the Priests. In an attempt at true land reform, the kind that the Chiapas might support, Ezekiel goes on to define what land belongs to the sovereign, and what land belongs to the people.

The land will be his possession in Israel. And my princes will no longer oppress my people but will allow the house of Israel to possess the land according to their tribes. If the prince makes a gift from his inheritance to one of his sons, it will also belong to his descendants; it is to be their property by inheritance. The prince must not take any of the inheritance of the people, driving them off their property. He is to give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that none of my people will be separated from his property.

He further chips away at the powers of the King with regard to the Temple;

It will be the duty of the prince to provide the burnt offerings, grain offerings and drink offerings at the festivals, the New Moons and the Sabbaths-- at all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel. He will provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to make atonement for the house of Israel. The prince is to enter from the outside through the portico of the gateway and stand by the gatepost. The priests are to sacrifice his burnt offering and his fellowship offerings. He is to worship at the threshold of the gateway and then go out, but the gate will not be shut until evening.

On the Sabbaths and New Moons the people of the land are to worship in the presence of the LORD at the entrance to that gateway.

When the prince enters, he is to go in through the portico of the gateway, and he is to come out the same way.

When the people of the land come before the LORD at the appointed feasts, whoever enters by the north gate to worship is to go out the south gate; and whoever enters by the south gate is to go out the north gate. No one is to return through the gate by which he entered, but each is to go out the opposite gate. The prince is to be among them, going in when they go in and going out when they go out.

The Priests, whom Ezekiel saw as overtly political and oft times corrupt, were no longer to be appointed by the King. While they must still come from the House of Aaron, there was only one family that Ezekiel believed to be honorable and righteous enough to hold the position and that was the House of Zadok. In Ezekiel’s mind, the House of Zadok produced the last best High Priest of Israel. It should be noted that Zadok, in legend, was a Priest and companion of King David. He also supported his son Solomon to the throne.

What did all this mean to the exiles, of which Ezekiel was a part? The exiles, while happy that the hereditary King had been restored, were less than pleased with the person. They saw him, as selling out his country and his faith by sitting in the Court of the Babylonian king. They believed that, rather than trying to use his influence for the benefit of his people, he was using it for his personal gain. They would have seen Ezekiel’s plan as a good one. The King however, would not have liked it at all. The am ha’artez back in Judah were most likely aware of Ezekiel’s work, but it is hard to believe that they were concerned with much besides their basic survival, and staying clear of the governor. The Priests would not have liked Ezekiel’s plan, although the priestly House of Zadok liked it very much, and it was their influence after the repatriation that would solidify the theological doctrine called Judaism.

These ancient texts were not written for us. They were written for the people of their time, with the knowledge of their current events and their environment, and a memory of their past. All of those things allude us, and it is therefore very difficult to read the texts without a bias that comes from our knowledge and environment, and our memory of the past. We read about the wonders and miracles of their God, and try to apply it to the realities of our day. It doesn’t work that way, and by doing so, we completely miss the point, which wasn’t necessarily to heap praise on their God, but to create a framework for their continued existence.

Aside from being full of beautiful stories and parables about a people supremely devoted to their way of life, about the trials and tribulations of those people, it also contains vestiges of the various political movements that shaped our history.