Inscribed on a stone tablet in ancient Mesopotamia c. 1290 BCE—eleven hundred years before the scroll of Qohelet—Ludlul bêl nêmeqi
, or The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer
by Babylonian poet Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan—
also called I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom—
is an autobiographical tale told by a noble gentleman, once important and prosperous, much like Qohelet, then driven to disgrace and disease by the Babylonian god Marduk, like Job but unlike Qohelet. Similar to Qohelet, the narrator recounts his story then draws conclusions in the form of advice to others. Much of his advice urges respect for the inscrutability of the divine mind. He expresses praise for godly wisdom through a series of natural oppositions. The polar antitheses are deliberately chosen to appear contradictory to the human mind, but they are contradictions that the mind then realizes it has accepted:
Marduk! lord of wisdom, solicitous god,
Furious in the night, calming in the daylight;
Whose anger engulfs like a tempest,
Whose breeze is sweet as the breath of morn
In his fury not to be withstood, his rage the deluge,
Merciful in his feelings, his emotions relenting.
The skies cannot sustain the weight of his hand,
His gentle palm rescues the moribund.
—v. 2-12, Tablet I, The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, transl. by Benjamin R. Foster, from Before the Muses: myths, tales and poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia, CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 1995.
The poet moves on from the god-driven extremes of weather to describe his own misfortune, again in riddling one-line oppositions, now personal:
I, who walked proudly, learned slinking…
To my vast family, I became a loner…
My brother became my foe,
My friend became a malignant demon…
My slave cursed me openly in the assembly of gentlefolk…
—v. 77, 79, 84-85, 89, Tablet I, transl. Foster
Antithetic parallelism doubles into two-line quadratics as the presence of a divine will behind his trials begins to emerge:
A pit awaited anyone speaking well of me,
While he who was uttering defamation of me forged ahead…
For the one who said “What a pity about him!” death came early,
The one of no help, his life became charmed…
—v. 93-94, 96-97, Tablet I, transl. Foster
Then a bearded young man in a tiara comes to him in a dream, announcing he has been sent by Marduk, and the poet’s fate turns. He has healed, demons thrown off, tongue, teeth, throat, tissues all relieved and unbound:
The Lord took hold of me,
The Lord set me on my feet,
The Lord revived me,
He rescued me from the pit
He summoned me from destruction
…he pulled me from the river of death,
…he took my hand.
He who smote me,
Marduk, he restored me!
—v. 2-10, fragment A, Tablet IV, transl. Foster
The questioning tale becomes a moral testimony to faith in the face of the mystery of divine intention:
What seems good to one’s self could be an offence to a god,
What in one’s own heart seems abominable, could be good to one’s god!
Who could learn the reasoning of the gods in heaven?
Who could grasp the intentions of the gods of the depths?
Where might human beings have learned the ways of a god?
—v. 34-38, Tablet II, transl. Foster.
The tale ends when all is restored to the narrator, thanks to his abiding faith in the wisdom of his lord and god, Marduk.
Because the tale of woe and redemption is so similar to—perhaps parent to—that brother piece of biblical wisdom literature, the Book of Job, this poem has been called the “Babylonian Job” overshadowing its correspondence to Qohelet’s narrative, but the use of personally experienced paradox to express wonder, then praise for an all-powerful god, is at the heart of all three wisdom narratives: Ludlul, Job and Ecclesiastes.
What we see here goes further than a correlation of life stories. It is a permeating belief system shared by Judaic and Babylonian wisdom literature. Divine inscrutability as expressed in Shubshi’s paragraph just above echoes clearly in the Book of Proverbs:
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
—Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 [KJV]
Three hundred years after Ludlul bêl nêmeqi, and eight hundred years before the scripture of Qohelet, we find the same thread of thought in The Babylonian Theodicy, c. 1000 BCE:
The mind of the god, like the center of the heavens, is remote;
Knowledge of it is very difficult; people cannot know it.
—from the Babylonian Theodicy, 1000 BCE, as reported by James L. Crenshaw, p. 220, Old Testament Wisdom, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
Which resembles the thinking behind:
God has made all things beautiful in their time
but he has hidden this beauty in forever
so that no one of us
can see our true calling
Eccles. 3:11 [KB]
And though you may never have heard it this way, the thinking behind:
To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven…
Eccles. 3:1 [KJV]
All of which supports my belief that our interpretation of the book of Ecclesiastes should recognize the celebration of faith expressed in embracing apparent contradiction, unfathomable to humans, and only understandable by the divine mind. Heard in the Babylonian sense, the phrase “vanity of vanities”, instead of a Calvinist scold, becomes an illustration of human frailty and by inference, an act of praise directed toward the divine lord of wisdom.
Divine mystery as a tenet, ironically, demystifies the diffidence of Qohelet’s advice:
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
—Eccles. 3:22 [KJV]
If the “people cannot know” the “mind of god,” then they must trust that the life they have been given is a sacred, unassailable choosing by that divine mind. My friend Sol’s “god’s will is what is.” To question what has been given “could be an offence to a god” to use Ludlul’s words.
Job’s tale and Ludlul’s are both parables for faith in the face of divine inscrutability. Qohelet’s tale teaches the same: when he searches for meaning on his own, he cannot, he must not—if you believe in this hidden god—find it. Instead, he finds what “is.” His time poem, and the nature poem too, celebrate what “is.” And as soon as he praises what “is”—chastely stating it with a poetic simplicity—he follows quickly with a cautionary statement about the human inability to comprehend:
Look at the close of each poem. First the time poem:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
What do you gain from working hard all your life?
I have been in this world of affairs where god has placed the family of humankind.
God has made all things beautiful in their time but he has hidden this beauty in forever
so that no one of us can see out true calling from start to finish.
—Eccles. 3:1…8-11 [KB]
He closes the time poem in a crescendo of human emotions. Emotions and circumstances we can’t control: love, hate, war, peace. The most desired: love, peace. The most feared: hate, war.
Everything up to here in the time poem has been human-driven: birth, death, planting, harvest, murder, health, destruction, construction, stoning, sex, heartbreak, getting, losing, keeping, discarding, making clothing, making rags, holding one’s tongue, telling the truth. And yet as he recites them, we realize that even though each of those actions we had imagined ourselves initiating independently, somehow they were not human-driven after all—that some larger plan was in place, some other force was determining the rhythm of these events. Again we have the paradox of our seeming control, and the clear evidence that we have none when we hear our lives reduced to this simple powerful poem.
Love, hate, war, peace culminate the human-driven. Human passion, human intention cannot run stronger. Like passion, a river crests in sunlight some years, and then safely subsides. Some years, it crests just as days of rain and wind hit, and life is changed forever. Human emotion crests too, with different results. Some benign. Some disastrous and life-changing. And we must see we have no control. All we have is trust in the hidden will of a god of our understanding.
So Qohelet has got you. You are in love, in hate, in war, in peace and out of control. And then he asks you how you feel about it? You work, you press your intention, and you have to assume there is some purpose to your free will, that you have some effect on the world around you or you couldn’t keep working. So your work, your drive to change the world around you is the meeting ground for you, the human, and the god who decides without you. Do you believe? Can you continue to work? Are you willing to join your intention, submit it to the god you can’t see, to a future you cannot know? The sacrifice, the worship is to continue to work and to enjoy it—not to see it as pointless and “a vexation of the spirit.” Acceptance of a meaning, a beauty, a purpose you will never understand is the turning point of faith. Qohelet is asking this question of you, the reader. He already knows the answer. It’s why he tells his parable.
Look at the nature poem:
Generations come and go but the earth endures beyond mind.
The sun is risen and set and returned to begin again.
The wind wheels around the zenith—dark north, bright south—and repeats the circle.
Every river runs into the sea, but the sea does not fill; yet the rivers continue to spring.
All these things are incomprehensible; we cannot fully behold them nor consider their extent.
Whatever was before is what will be again. Nothing is new.
There is no memory of former things. There will be no recollection after this.
—Eccles. 1:4-10 [KB]
Our reaction to being told we will not remember, that we cannot comprehend, may be to take offense on some level. So we experience this statement as negative, cynical or uncaring somehow. What if you add to the equation of reaction a desire to respect divine inscrutability? Then we might hear the same threats differently. We might be reassured that we cannot comprehend—that we do not risk “offence to a god.” And then we might be reassured that despite our incomprehension, “nothing is new.” We may not remember “former things…after this.” Nor may our children. Nor are children’s children. But the hidden god will not deviate from the plan of creation and divine intention: there will be nothing new.
That which has been is now, and that which is to be, has already been.
—Eccles. 3:15a [KB]
Reassuring? It’s a stretch. A turn of the kaleidoscope. The colored chips are resettling in a new configuration, still falling. And we may not remain here. But it’s worth taking a look, right?
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.
—Eccles. 2:24 [KJV]
Qohelet celebrates what “is.” Even death. God has hidden the beauty in forever but Qohelet does not deny that there are glimpses. You just can’t grasp the whole picture. But if you open your eyes to the sun—
Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is to behold the sun
—Eccles. 11:7 [KJV]
—you will see—the most beautiful—what already is.
Appreciate its beauty. Show your gratitude. Enjoy your work, your food, your drink, your love. That is all the beauty you could ever require. Trust that you have been given enough.
Besides dissolving Qohelet’s pessimism—as I’ve tried to enact above! —divine mystery connects biblical wisdom literature securely to Babylonian culture. Is it possible that the Babylonian captivity was a positive rather than negative inspiration for Judaic wisdom culture? Call it Babylonian “proximity.”
In Jeremiah, the advice of G-d is almost a prescription—or a justification after-the-fact—for Babylonian assimilation:
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon;
Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;
Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.
And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.
For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed.
For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the LORD.
For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
—Jeremiah 29:4-11 [KJV]
Note how interactive Y-H-V-H starts to blur into a more inscrutable divinity, here in Jeremiah’s account. Do not listen to the false prophets, I have not sent them. (But I will do nothing to gainsay them.) Trust that I will retrieve you after seventy years “to give you an expected end.” (But for seventy years you must trust without proof.) Know the thoughts I think of you. No actions. Inscrutable. Hidden. A test of faith. Like Job. Like Ludlul.
Later on in this chapter, the LORD is “Yahwist” again threatening to punish those who do not heed him saying he—
will send upon them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like vile figs, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil.
—Jeremiah 29:17b [KJV]
A further take on Babylonian “proximity” comes from the Jewish Encyclopedia. A twelve-volume assemblage with over 15000 articles on Judaism, its history, art and ideas, the Jewish Encyclopedia was published over five-year period from 1901 to 1906 and has recently entered the public domain. At the time it represented a watershed of accumulated wisdom:
Hitherto the difficulties in the way of such an adequate and impartial presentation have been insuperable. Deep-rooted prejudices have prevented any sympathetic interest in Judaism on the part of Christian theologians, or in Christianity on the part of the rabbis. These theological antipathies have now abated, and both sides are better prepared to receive the truth… With the publication of The Jewish Encyclopedia a serious attempt is made for the first time to systematize and render generally accessible the knowledge thus far obtained.
—Preface, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/preface.jsp (4/17/09)
The project was the dream of Dr. Isidore Singer—Czech-born Parisian journalist during the trial of Alfred Dreyfus and later founder of the American League for the Rights of Man—culminating “a series of labors carried on throughout the whole of the nineteenth century and representing the efforts of three generations of Jewish scholars, mainly in Germany” (Preface, 1901). The early 20th-c. publication included over 400 participators, the primaries being Cyrus Adler, Gotthard Deutsch, Louis Ginzberg, Richard Gottheil, Joseph Jacobs, Marcus Jastrow, Morris Jastrow, Jr., Kaufmann Kohler, Frederick de Sola Mendes, Crawford H. Toy (the Unitarian we heard from earlier), and Isidore Singer. Richard Gottheil, the primary on the Babylonian “Captivity” article, was professor of Semitic languages at Columbia University, president of the American Federation of Zionists, and chief of the Oriental Department of the New York Public Library, and founder and president of the (Jewish) Religious School Union in New York. He and crew write:
As exiles, under royal protection, and consequently enjoying special prerogatives in their new home, their personal lot was undoubtedly a happier one than that of their brethren who had remained behind…
Their outward condition was also by no means unsatisfactory. Jeremiah, in his exhortations…states that the Israelites were permitted to till the soil, to cultivate the family life, and, by thrift and diligence, to accumulate wealth. Perhaps, being permitted to administer their internal affairs through their elders, they were allowed the undisturbed exercise of their religion; and nowhere are bloody persecutions heard of, designed to alienate forcibly the people from their ancestral religion, and to coerce them into accepting that of the conquerors. All the misery, want, imprisonment, and ill-treatment, frequently described as suffered in Babylonia, must be explained by the fact that the Prophets, whenever they gazed back upon the national catastrophe, felt anew all the pangs of homelessness and servitude. Consequently, the description of the people as a helpless worm (Isa. xli. 14), and of the violence and spoliation which had reduced Israel to the condition of those who suffer in chains and bondage (ib. xlii. 20-24), is not ascribable to actual sufferings inflicted in the land of exile.
—Richard Gottheil, Victor Ryssel, Marcus Jastrow, and Caspar Levias, “Captivity,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=135&letter=C&search=Babylonian captivity – 528 (4/16/09)
Messrs. Gottheil, Ryssel, Jastrow and Levias read between the lines of the writings of Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and even the later wisdom-writing of Psalms, to deduce a softer, gentler, more assimilated Captivity:
…they learned to conform to the manners and customs of the country, thus sacrificing not only their national but also their religious independence and individuality…
—Gottheil et al., 1906
Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s accounts were written later, Isaiah’s as much as three or four hundred years after Captivity. So everything is in hindsight. Idolatry, the most obvious violation, became the target of the Prophets’ retrospective condemnation of “Babylonianization.” Gottheil and company believe it was true that some Jews adopted Babylonian idolatry in an attempt to assimilate.
Even if the description of the idolatry mentioned in Isa. lvi. 9-lvii. 13a belongs to pre-exilic times, many other passages so graphically describe the idolatrous practises of the exiles that the relation between these and the Babylonian cult can not be mistaken (Isa. lxv. 3 et seq.; compare ib. lxvi. 17)…
—Gottheil et al., 1906
Though, in a separate Encyclopedia article, Kaufmann Kohler and Ludwig Blau acknowledge an older Judaic idol-worship. Perhaps derived in part from Judaism’s Sumerian ancestry.
The thunderings of the Prophets against idolatry show, however, that the cults of other deities were deeply rooted in the heart of the Israelitish people, and they do not appear to have been thoroughly suppressed until after the return from the Babylonian exile. There is, therefore, no doubt that Jewish monotheism was preceded by a period of idolatry…
—Kaufmann Kohler and Ludwig Blau, “WORSHIP, IDOL-,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15027-worship-idol (2/18/13)
According to the Prophets, those who did not join in idolatrous Babylonian practices were shamed:
These sad experiences of all true Israelites tended to separate them more and more from their recreant brethren. The more the pious exiles felt themselves repelled by their pagan environment and their disloyal fellow-Israelites (Ps. cxxxvii. 3 et seq.,) the closer became the union among themselves, and the stronger their allegiance to their Prophets and the Law…
—Gottheil et al., 1906
Useful. Shame motivates the faithful to solidify religious observance around the Sabbath, a discreet practice which can be observed in the privacy of one’s home—its discretion, depth and intimacy lending it tremendous efficacy in maintaining coherent Jewish observance even today:
As the faithful could not honor Yhwh by sacrifices in a foreign land, nothing remained to them of all their ceremonial but the observance of the Sabbath (Hosea ix. 3-5) and such other customs as were connected with a certain independence of action. Such, for example, were the act of circumcision, which, together with the observance of the Sabbath, constituted a distinguishing mark of Israel; regular prayer, performed with the face turned toward Jerusalem (I Kings viii. 48); and fasting, already mentioned. When the Prophets of the Exile spoke of the conditions under which the divine prophecies would be fulfilled, they always emphasized the observance of the Sabbath as the foremost obligation, as the force which should unite and preserve the Jewish community (Isa. lvi. 2, 6 et seq.; lviii. 13; Jer. xvii. 19 et seq.; Ezek. xx. 12 et seq.; xxii. 8, 26)…
—Gottheil et al., 1906
Gottheil and company’s narrative of Captivity culminates in the redaction of the Torah and Nevi’im due to a new Babylonian-born scribalism:
Particular attention was now paid to the ancestral literature; and thus there arose during the Babylonian Exile the profession of the “scribes,” those learned in the Law who set the standard of piety and devotion, and who transmitted their precepts both to their successors and to the people at large, while at the same time extending the body of the laws by means of revision and amplification (see Pentateuch). Historical writings also were now revised in accordance with the standard of the Law, establishing as a basis the historical conception of Deuteronomy.
—Gottheil et al., 1906
Scribalism from Babylon. Babylon whose written heritage extended back at least a millennium and a half. Two millennia further if you count their Sumerian ancestry. Babylon where scribalism was a part of everyday life, especially in the royal court, and the profession of “scribe” was a viable way to fit in to the economy. And this inscribing, documenting and revising process occurred in the 6th c. before the return to Jerusalem and Persian rule. Before Ezra’s convening of the Great Assembly.
According to Gottheil’s Prophets, shame over Israel’s loss, not an embrace of Babylonian mores, is again the motivator:
All the calamities which had befallen Israel were accepted by these exiles as a punishment for transgressions, and particularly for idol-worship… Therefore the history of the past was to serve both as a warning and as a guide for the future. This explains the purpose of the compilation of the various older historical works into a historical entity: the new Israel, risen from the grave of exile, must avoid the sins and errors which caused the ruin of its fathers.
—Gottheil et al., 1906
Ever useful, shame even motivates the post-exilic rise of wisdom literature:
And indeed the Psalms which were composed after the Exile reveal a keener introspection, a deeper sense of contrition, and a more frank avowal of sin than the earlier ones.
—Gottheil et al., 1906
Interesting-er and interesting-er. Another explanation for the rise of wisdom literature.
As I’ve said before, I question the skepticism that three of the biblical scholars I’ve studied—Perdue, Crenshaw and Toy—credit to a crisis of faith brought on by the failure of the covenantal god Y-H-V-H to protect his chosen people from subjugation, capture and exile. First the tribes lost to the Assyrians in the 8th c., then Babylonian captivity in the 6th c. and the fall of the last of the kings of David—I don’t contest the crisis of faith. I don’t question the religious evolution of the Jewish people away from “Yahwism.” I am skeptical that this crisis of faith produced skepticism.
As an artist I don’t see it that way. In a crisis of faith, people want Superman. I think Yahwism itself would have been the answer to Babylonian captivity and subjugation. No matter how far from reality. I propose that that is why the Torah was redacted during captivity—and then the Nevi’im immediately after. Their “Yahwistic” deity restored faith and identity. The covenant with Y-H-V-H was at its peak when there was the greatest need. The “Yahwism” of the earlier Old Testament, not the skepticism of the biblical wisdom writings, is actually the response to the crisis of faith of a culture under drastic metamorphosis—bombarded by the sophistication of Babylonian culture—rendered “homeless” by two mass migrations within a century.
Wisdom culture, I believe, with its divine inscrutability, its antithetical parallelism which praise through paradox, its word art, was already a factor in the 6th c. although it did not express itself through inclusion in the biblical canon until the 4th at the earliest. It was there nevertheless. Latent. The story of Job predates most of the Prophets. A thread in the fabric of Mesopotamian culture. Perhaps it was seen as “secular” and not authoritative enough, not “on message”. So if not wisdom culture yet, then scribalism at the very least, the bottom-line the objectification of thought in discrete, tangible documents—tablets you can hold, which have weight, take space—must be seen as the influence of urbanized Babylon.
Even monotheism may have its roots in the Babylonian preference for one all-father god, the supreme Marduk, the all-powerful Babylonian “Zeus.” In the Prophets’ “Yahwist” histories, Y-H-V-H often exhibits a kinship to the stern reactivity found in some accounts of Marduk and Zeus, despite their general demeanor of remoteness. The full spiritual and aesthetic detachment of the Babylonians’ tenet of divine inscrutability, however, was not practicable for a culture under siege. Hence we do not see a broader “Babylonianism” develop until Qohelet, Job, Proverbs, Tehillim, Song of Solomon etc. Later, when the culture and its Satrapian governance under the Persians followed by the Greek Ptolemies was stable if not comfortable.
Here is a passage in Ezekiel that I believe illustrates the Judaic theological struggle with divine inscrutability. The Lord tells Ezekiel to spy on elders of the Babylon Jewish community who are worshipping idols in secret. He says their abominations are causing him to “distance” himself. If asked why they perform such abominations, He says, they answer that it is because the Lord has left the earth. But note that the Lord and Ezekiel are hiding, digging under a wall, and creeping into a chamber in darkness, and smoke. The presence of divinity is demonstrably hidden and mysterious despite Ezekiel’s clairvoyance.
And He said to me, “Do you see what they are doing? The great abominations that the house of Israel is doing here are to cause Me to distance Myself from upon My sanctuary; and you will yet return and see great abominations.”
Then He brought me to the entrance of the court, and I saw, and behold, a hole in the wall.
And He said to me, “Son of man, dig now in the wall,” and I dug in the wall, and behold, an entrance.
And He said to me, “Come and see the evil abominations that they are doing here.”
And I came and saw, and behold, every form of creeping thing and animal of detestation and all the idols of the house of Israel, engraved on the wall around and around!
And seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, and Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan was standing among them, standing before them, and each man with his censer in his hand, and a thick cloud of incense was ascending.
And He said to me, “Have you seen, son of man, what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each one in his paved chambers? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has left the earth.’
—Ezekiel 8:6-12, Judaica Press Complete Tanach, www.chabad.org, http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/showrashi/false/aid/16106/jewish/Chapter-8.htm or [JPCT]
In this passage from Ezekiel, the Yahwist god rescues his people from his own remoteness—read divine inscrutability.
They scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became prey for all the beasts of the field, and they scattered.
My flock strayed throughout all the mountains and upon every lofty hill, and upon the entire face of the land My flock scattered-and none searches or seeks.
Therefore, shepherds, hearken to the word of the Lord.
As I live, says the Lord God, I swear that because My flocks have become a prey, for My flocks have become food for all the beasts of the field because they have no shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flocks, and the shepherds shepherded themselves but they did not shepherd My flocks.
Therefore, you shepherds, hearken to the word of the Lord.
So said the Lord God: Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I shall demand My flocks from their hands, and I shall banish them from shepherding the flocks. The shepherds will no longer shepherd themselves, and I shall rescue My flocks from their mouth, and they will not be to them for food.
For so said the Lord God: Behold I am here, and I shall search for My flocks and I shall seek them out.
As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his separated flocks, so will I seek out My flocks, and I will save them from all the places where they have scattered on a cloudy and dark day.
I will take them out from among the nations, and I will gather them from the lands and bring them to their land, and I will shepherd them to the mountains of Israel, by the streams and in all the dwellings of the land.
On good pasture I will pasture them, and on the mountains of the height of Israel will be their dwelling; there they will lie in a good fold and graze on fat pastureland upon the mountains of Israel.
—Ezekiel 34:5-14 [JPCT]
Isaiah is the link to the G-d who does not speak. The people the mute G-d doesn’t speak to are the Babylonian exiles. Isaiah the human becomes his voice. He abandons the divine 3rd person to speak in the “I” by the 8th verse. He abandons the people’s 3rd person plural for the 2nd person even sooner:
The spirit of the L-rd GOD is upon me; because HaShem hath anointed me to bring good tidings unto the humble; He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the eyes to them that are bound;
To proclaim the year of HaShem’S good pleasure, and the day of vengeance of our G-d; to comfort all that mourn;
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the mantle of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called terebinths of righteousness, the planting of HaShem, wherein He might glory.
And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall renew the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.
And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and aliens shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.
But ye shall be named the priests of HaShem, men shall call you the ministers of our G-d; ye shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their splendour shall ye revel.
For your shame which was double, and for that they rejoiced: ‘Confusion is their portion’; therefore in their land they shall possess double, everlasting joy shall be unto them.
For I HaShem love justice, I hate robbery with iniquity; and I will give them their recompense in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
And their seed shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which HaShem hath blessed.
—Isaiah 61:1-9 [JPS]
What if the return from Babylonian exile meant something else? Ezekiel writes of Israel as “good pasture” in the highlands but Isaiah mentions “waste cities” and “the desolations of many generations.”
Cyrus took Babylon in 539. He decreed the release of all captives, Jews among them, that same year:
“Cyrus the Great”, Wikipedia, inscription under rubbing image: “Dhul-Qarnayn is thought to refer to Cyrus by many Qur’anic commentators.” Wikimedia Commons: “Sketch is from a German 19th century excavation report published in Iran in the early 1900s. It is hence PD-Iran.” Public Domain. Accessed 2/18/13 link to image
I am Kurash [“Cyrus”], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth, Son of Kanbujiya, Great King, King of Hakhamanish, Grandson of Kurash, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, descendant of Chishpish, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, of a family which always exercised kingship; whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy. [The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917); Vol. I: Babylonia and Assyria, pp. 460-462; The Bible (Douai-Rheims Version), (Baltimore: John Murphy Co., 1914).]
—Charles F. Horne, ed. The Kurash Prism: Cyrus the Great; The decree of return for the Jews, 539 BCE, History of Iran, Iran Chamber Society, http://www.iranchamber.com/history/cyrus/cyrus_decree_jews.php
And so Cyrus gathered not only Jews but also others captured by the rampant regimes of Nabonides and predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. Seized from rival city-states in Babylonia itself— very bad for good will among neighbors. Cyrus returned these people “to their habitations”—good guy. And their gods “unharmed” (must have been idols) to their temples—good guy. And thus establishes the Satrapian governance practice, encouraging home rule and indigenous religious practice in distant satellite territories. According to Gottheil et al., the prophets grudgingly acknowledge that exiled Jews had enjoyed self-rule and internal religious practice under Babylonian rule. But not in their homeland.
Wise, the Persian practice. Like the Iroquois. A greater nation could be built. You can rule more turf if you don’t rule as tough.
And Marduk made Cyrus do it. Nabonides’ seizure for Babilani (Babylon) of gods and people from other temples and lands has offended the lord of the gods. Cyrus feels charged to restore people, religions and ruined cities to appease Marduk. He is also concerned that he be loved and welcomed by the people of Babylon as a friend and that the displaced peoples and gods be made happy through their restoration.
Clearly Cyrus’s magnanimity was no accident. His decree’s inclusion on the Iran Chamber Society’s website continues to send a message of peace. This Website, which includes up-to-the-minute headline news of Iran in English or Persian, was established in 2001, a year of great anti-Arab feeling in the English-speaking world,
to promote Iranian culture and history. By actively publicizing historical and cultural findings and issues in a format that is accessible for the world community at large, Iran Chamber Society aims to create a global awareness about Iranian society and eradicate the misunderstandings and misconceptions about Iranian society, and to play an educational role as well.
—Iran Chamber Society “About Us”, http://www.iranchamber.com/about_us/about_us.php
So Cyrus II is still good governance.
Here is Ezra’s version of the first return to Jerusalem and Judah in 537. Much more Judeo-centric. Of course. There is no sign of Marduk’s displeasure. Only the needs of HaShem or Y-H-V-H. There are no idols to be returned, only ”vessels” of silver and gold. The proclamation concerns no other peoples, only the people of Judah, the G-d of Israel, and the temple in Jerusalem.
NOW IN the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of HaShem by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, HaShem stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying:
‘Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath HaShem, the G-d of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whosoever there is among you of all His people–his G-d be with him–let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of HaShem, the G-d of Israel, He is the G-d who is in Jerusalem.
And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill-offering for the house of G-d which is in Jerusalem.’
Then rose up the heads of fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, even all whose spirit G-d had stirred to go up to build the house of HaShem which is in Jerusalem.
And all they that were round about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was willingly offered.
Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of HaShem, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods;
even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.
And this is the number of them: thirty basins of gold, a thousand basins of silver, nine and twenty knives;
thirty bowls of gold, silver bowls of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.
All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when they of the captivity were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem.
—Ezra 1:11 [JPS]
Achaemenid golden bowl with lion imagery. The Hyrcanian Golden cup. Dated first half of first millennium. Excavated at Kalardasht in the Mazandaran province, north, near the Caspian Sea.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. File by Maksim. Where is the cup itself?
Accessed 4/18/09 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gold_cup_kalardasht.jpg
Cyrus Cylinder. Terracotta, Babylonian, ca. 539-530 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. W. 22.5 cm (8.75 in.) ME 90920. Upper floor, room 53: Ancient Iran. British Museum, London, United Kingdom. Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyrus_Cylinder_BM_ME90920.jpg 4/18/09
The cylinder was discovered in 1879 by the Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in the foundations of the Esagila, the main temple of Babylon, where it had been placed as a foundation deposit. It is today kept in the British Museum in London. There have been reports of attempts by the directors of the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran in Tehran to arrange a loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to be temporarily displayed in the National Museum of Iran for a special exhibition.—“Cyrus cylinder,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_Cylinder
Blurb from the British Museum’s Highlights Page:
A declaration of good kingship: This clay cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.
Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II was part of this policy.
This cylinder has sometimes been described as the ‘first charter of human rights’, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.—P. Michalowski, ‘The Cyrus Cylinder’ in Historical Sources in Translation (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp.426-30; T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1988); J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near East: Anthology of Texts and Pictures, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969 ). Accessed 4/18/09 http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/cyrus_cylinder.aspx
Restoration of people to their lands and gods to their temples. Per order of Marduk. But why such a display of gold and silver from the royal treasury? Conquest accompanied by the taking of slaves was a modus operandi for the Roman Empire five hundred years later. More typical than the release of “captives” who had been taken almost half a century before. And outfitting such prisoners of war “with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things” by order of the crown? Many of the “captives” could no longer have even been alive. The people who were released must have been the children or grandchildren of those originally captured, born Babylonian, bred Babylonian, perhaps even married Babylonian.
Now these are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and that returned unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city;
who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel:
- The children of Parosh, two thousand a hundred seventy and two.
- The children of Shephatiah, three hundred seventy and two.
- The children of Arah, seven hundred seventy and five.
- The children of Pahath-moab, of the children of Jeshua and Joab, two thousand eight hundred and twelve.
- The children of Elam, a thousand two hundred fifty and four.
- The children of Zattu, nine hundred forty and five…[etc.]
…The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore,
beside their men-servants and their maid-servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty and seven; and they had two hundred singing men and singing women.
Their horses were seven hundred thirty and six; their mules, two hundred forty and five;
their camels, four hundred thirty and five; their asses, six thousand seven hundred and twenty.
And some of the heads of fathers’ houses, when they came to the house of HaShem which is in Jerusalem, offered willingly for the house of G-d to set it up in its place;
they gave after their ability into the treasury of the work threescore and one thousand darics of gold, and five thousand pounds of silver, and one hundred priests’ tunics.
So the priests, and the Levites, and some of the people, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities.
—Ezra 2:1-8, 64-70 [JPS]
Gottheil & co. estimate that 14,000-18,000 Jews were originally deported to Babylon at the start of the 6th c. Now there were 42,360 returning! And they did not even represent all the Jews in Babylon. 42,360 with servants and entertainers, horses, camels and beasts of burden. And a huge amount of wealth of their own to contribute to the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem. These were not slaves. These were wealthy people who had lived in degrees of comfort in Babylon. They were led by Sheshbazzar, prince of Judah, a/k/a Zerubbabel, whose name means “son of Babylon.” Just how Babylonian were they?
There is an allusion to miscegenation:
And these were they that went up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsa, Cherub, Addan, and Immer; but they could not tell their fathers’ houses, and their seed, whether they were of Israel:
the children of Delaiah, the children of Tobiah, the children of Nekoda, six hundred fifty and two.
And of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Hakkoz, the children of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called after their name.
These sought their register, that is, the genealogy, but it was not found; therefore were they deemed polluted and put from the priesthood.
And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things…
—Ezra 2:59-63 [JPS]
They returned to Jerusalem and began to build the temple and the “locals” resisted. Called the “adversaries of the houses of Judah and Benjamin” or Samaritans, they may not have been the “locals.” But the people of Jerusalem would have experienced something on the order of an invasion with that many people returning and with that much money and royal authorization. The Babylonian way would have been the way it went. The Judaism we have today is a Babylonian Judaism.
The Babylonian practitioners of the new Israel “came to regard themselves as the true Israel” (Gottheil et al., 1906). And they had the Prophets—also Babylonian Jews—on their side. Here is the Prophet Jeremiah’s vision of the Lord’s promotion of Babylonian-brand Judaism over Jerusalem’s—or horrors, Egyptian:
The Lord showed me two pots of figs, prepared before the Temple of the Lord after Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and the princes of Judah and the craftsmen and the sentries of the gates from Jerusalem and brought them to Babylon.
One pot [contained] very good figs like the first ripe figs, and the other pot [contained] very bad figs that could not be eaten because they were so bad.
And the Lord said to me; What do you see, Jeremiah? And I said, “Figs. The good figs are very good, and the bad ones are very bad, which cannot be eaten because they are so bad.”
And the word of the Lord came to me, saying:
So said the Lord God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I recognize the exile of Judah, which I have sent forth from this place to the land of the Chaldeans, for good.
And I will place My eyes upon them for good, and I will return them to this land, and I will build them and not destroy, and I will plant them and not pluck them.
And I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord, and they shall be to Me for a people, and I will be to them for a God, for they shall return to Me with all their heart.
And like the bad figs that cannot be eaten because they are so bad, for so said the Lord: So will I make Zedekiah King of Judah and his princes and the remnant of Jerusalem remaining in this land, and those dwelling in the land of Egypt.
—Jeremiah, 24:1-8 [JPS]
The Prophet Ezekiel too posits the Lord asserting the supremacy of Babylonian Judaism:
Now it came to pass as I was prophesying, that Pelatiah the son of Benaiah [one of the princely elders in Babylon] died, and I fell on my face and cried out with a loud voice, and I said, “Alas, O Lord God, are You making a complete end to the remnant of Israel?”
Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying:
“Son of man! Your brethren, your brethren, your kinsmen and the entire house of Israel, all of it, to whom the dwellers of Jerusalem said, ‘Distance yourselves from the Lord; to us has the land been given for an inheritance.’
Therefore, say; So said the Lord God: Although I have removed them far off among the nations and although I have scattered them in the lands, I have become for them a minor sanctuary in the lands where they have come.
Therefore, say; So said the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and I will assemble you from the lands which you have been scattered therein, and I shall give you the land of Israel.
And they will come over there, and they will remove all its detestations and all its abominations from it.
And I shall give them one heart, and a new spirit I shall place within them, and I shall remove the heart of stone from their flesh, and I shall give them a heart of flesh.
In order that they walk in My statutes and keep My laws and perform them, and they will be My people, and I shall be their God.
But [as for those who] to the heart of their detestations and their abominations their hearts go-I have placed their way upon their heads,” says the Lord God.
Then the cherubim lifted their wings, and the wheels corresponded to them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them, from above.
And the glory of the Lord rose away from upon the midst of the city, and it stood on the mountain that was on the east of the city.
Then a wind lifted me and brought me to the Chaldeans, to the exile, in the vision, with the spirit of God, and it departed from me, the vision that I saw.
And I spoke to [the people of] the exile all the words of the Lord that He showed me.
—Ezekiel 11:13-25 [JPS]
But why did the Babylonian Jews leave a life of comfort? Were the tales of “misery, want, imprisonment, and ill-treatment” a justification for
- their invasion and displacement of the current inhabitants or
- their loss of what must have been a considerably more comfortable and familiar way of life?
Perhaps the gold and silver from Mithredath the state treasurer, was an added impetus to go? Perhaps in going, they became instrumental in stabilizing the distant regions of Judah and Israel under Persian rule, the money buying their political allegiance. Perhaps it broadcast a very visible message about the style of governance being inaugurated under Cyrus II. A gesture of power—because in a way these people were being re-exiled from their homes of at least a generation. And a gesture of good will—because ostensibly this is what a diasporic community wants, right? To go home.
The massive re-location in 537 BCE, shortly after the decree, makes some sense. Politically and religiously. More sense than the later return led by Ezra, the priest and scribe. Why did they go later?
Ezra is an enigmatic character. Beckoning across the years. What if Ezra’s return from Babylonia in 457 BCE with 5000 descendants of captives meant something else as well? What was going on Babylon? Anything? Nothing? Was it in decline after a century of outsider rule?
Under Cyrus (ruled 559-530 BCE), his son Cambyses II (ruled 530-523 BCE ended by a scuffle among heirs during which weak moment city-dwellers revolted) and Darius the Great (ruled 522-486), Babylon continued in prosperity and relative stability, as the central seat of the 9th Satrap of the Persian empire. Not too far away, Pasargadae, then Persepolis were the Persian capitals. The early Persian rulers were good for Babylon, fostering intellectual growth in astronomy and mathematics. Life in the city would have been good. Building, writing, teaching—those expressions of human civilization continued apace.
Unrest seems to show itself at the end of Darius’ long rule with the succession of his son Xerxes who not only refused to participate in the annual Babylonian ritual of clasping the golden hands of the statue of Marduk as rightful emperor, but offended the Babylonians by confiscating the idol and melting him down. In response to the desecration, Babylonians revolted 484-482 and refused Xerxes his father’s title “King of Babilani.” But the Jews didn’t leave in the 480s.
Mending the ties, son of Xerxes I, Artaxerxes (ruled 465-424 BCE) moved the Persian capital from Persepolis to Babylon. So Ezra’s group would have left during a time of stability and wealth in the city. So it’s even more of an enigma.
Babylon didn’t start its downward slide until the 4th c. due to Persian overtaxation under Darius II (ruled 423-404 BCE after a scuffle between heirs) and Artaxerxes II (ruled 404-358 BCE)—taxation having been invented by the Babylonian King Nabonides who kept a “chest”—and the Persian failure to maintain the canals (agricultural system) and the shrines to Marduk (religious system). For the most part, as you can see by the numbers, the Persian rulers enjoyed long reigns and relative peace in the eastern part of the realm where Babylon was located. Greece and Egypt were the trouble spots. Jerusalem, except when caught in the crossfire, would have enjoyed relative calm as well. Babylon finally fell when Darius III fell to Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. (Jerusalem in 332.) Babylon briefly flourished under Alexander until he died prematurely in 323. By the 3rd c. tablets report residents moving to other cities. By mid-2nd c. BCE, Babylon was in ruins.
Babylon was lost until archaeological excavation began in 1811 by British amateurs. In 1854, a barge shipping two years’ worth of excavation stored in 40 crates sank in the Tigris. A more “scientific” archaeological digging began with the German Oriental Institute in 1899 who sent teams every year until the outbreak of WWI in 1917. Work was resumed by the German Archaeological Institute in 1956.
In more recent times, the site of Babylon was excavated by G. Bergamini on behalf of the Centro Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia and the Iraqi-Italian Institute of Archaeological Sciences. This work began with a season of excavation in 1974 followed by a topographical survey in 1977. [G. Bergamini, Levels of Babylon Reconsidered, Mesopotamia, vol. 12, pp. 111-152, 1977] The focus was on clearing up issues raised by re-examination of the old German data. After a decade, Bergamini returned to the site in 1987-1989. The work concentrated on the area surrounding the Ishara and Ninurta temples in the Shu-Anna city-quarter of Babylon. [G. Bergamini, Excavations in Shu-anna Babylon 1987, Mesopotamia, vol. 23, pp. 5-17, 1988] [G. Bergamini, Preliminary report on the 1988-1989 operations at Babylon Shu-Anna, Mesopotamia, vol. 25, pp. 5-12, 1990]
—“Babylon”, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon 4/17/09
Saddam Hussein began to rebuild Babylon in 1985, casting himself as Nebuchadnezzar. Interrupted by the Gulf War, he returned to build a modern pyramidal ziggurat Sumerian-style above some ruins, named Saddam Hill. He planned to build a cable car line when he was interrupted again by the 2003 American invasion. Under General James T. Conway, marines moved into the site and set up a helipad and parking lot for “Camp Alpha.” I must include this exchange from Wikipedia:
Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum reported that occupation forces
“caused substantial damage to the [replica of the] Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity [...] US military vehicles crushed 2,600-year-old brick pavements, archaeological fragments were scattered across the site, more than 12 trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists [...] Add to all that the damage caused to nine of the moulded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar Gate by soldiers trying to remove the bricks from the wall.”
A US Military spokesman claimed that engineering operations were discussed with the “head of the Babylon museum”.
["Damage seen to ancient Babylon". The Boston Globe. January 16, 2005. http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2005/01/16/damage_seen_to_ancient_babylon/.
Photo by Daniel O’Connell, Gunnery Sergeant, USMC. This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Babylon_Ruins_Marines.jpeg
The head of the Iraqi State Board for Heritage and Antiquities, Donny George, said that the “mess will take decades to sort out”.
[Heritage News from around the world, World Heritage Alert!. Accessed April 19, 2008.] In April 2006, Colonel John Coleman, former chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, offered to issue an apology for the damage done by military personnel under his command. However he claimed that the US presence had deterred far greater damage from other looters. [Cornwell, Rupert. US colonel offers Iraq an apology of sorts for devastation of Babylon, The Independent, April 15, 2006. Accessed April 19, 2008.] Some antiquities were removed since creation of Camp Alpha, without doubt to be sold on the antiquities market, which is booming since the beginning of the occupation of Iraq [J. E. Curtis, “Report on Meeting at Babylon 11-13 December 2004”, British Museum, 2004 ].
—“Babylon”, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon. Accessed 4/17/09
Back to Ezra. The Book of Ezra was supposedly written between 440 and 460 BCE according to bible.org.
Ezra doesn’t return from Babylon to Jerusalem until 459-7 BCE. Almost 80 years after Cyrus’s decree, for which neither he nor his father could have been alive. Almost 140 years after the first Jews were taken into captivity. He is said to be the son of Seraiah, a high priest taken captive by Babylonians in the 580s per Wikipedia, but he could only have been a distant descendant.
As a Babylonian, born, bred and educated, Ezra would have been steeped in literacy. Hence his personal scribalism. Steeped in the stricter maintenance of tradition of the homeland, which occurs in a diaspora. Hence his priestly discipline. And his attitude against intermarriage. Politically astute, he petitions to lead a force of 5000 to Jerusalem and is funded by Artaxerxes, who maybe enjoys the opportunity to echo the great Cyrus II in magnanimous gesture. Again, the funded Babylonian Jew, the stranger, endowed with people and treasure, enters Jerusalem and takes command.
All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.
And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the Law.
And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Uriah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchijah, and Hashum, and Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people–for he was above all the people–and when he opened it, all the people stood up.
And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered: ‘Amen, Amen’, with the lifting up of their hands; and they bowed their heads, and fell down before the LORD with their faces to the ground.
Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, even the Levites, caused the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place.
And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
—Nehemiah 8:1-8 [JPS]
Ezra has the book. A tablet. Or several. Of some weight and presence. There is no Y-H-V-H. No prophecy. No thunderbolt. The book, the written word is the commandment of the new G-d. The Law. The Torah is born, because Babylon comes to Jerusalem.
Finally, a curious passage occurs in the Jewish Encyclopedia in an article called “Captivity” under the heading “Causes of Exile”:
Israel was exiled to Babylonia because the language of the Babylonians is akin to that of the Torah. According to another opinion, God had therefore exiled Israel to Babylonia because the latter is a low-lying country, like the nether world; as it is said (Hosea xiii. 14): “From the power of the nether world I will ransom them.” Another authority says that God exiled Israel to Babylonia, because it was the land from which they had come, as a husband that is angry with his wife sends her home to her mother (Pes. 87b). Babylonia was Israel’s home. Israel and Judah were exiled to different places in order that each might find consolation in the other’s misery (Pesik. R. xxxiii.).
—Richard Gottheil, Victor Ryssel, Marcus Jastrow, and Caspar Levias, “Captivity,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906. Public Domain. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=135&letter=C&search=Babylonian captivity – 528 Downloaded April 14, 2009.
The language of Babel, Babilani or Babylon was “akin” to the golden age Hebrew of the Torah. No Aramaic. No Greek. No Persian. Babylonia was “home” for the “daughter” people, “the land from which they had come.”
So at the very least, the connection to Babylon is old and deep. In the next section I will investigate the wisdom tradition in Sumerian literature and its bearing on Ecclesiastes. The origin of the tradition of documentation, the power of the written word as spore of human culture.
There is a difference between the influence of Old Babylonia (Sumer) and New. Later I will compare population size in the Ancient Middle East. For now, Judaic culture found itself between two giants, Egypt and Babylonia, rivaling each other closely in degree of urbanization from the 4th
millennium through the first. Late in the 4th
millennium BCE, Sumer assumed leadership and was dominant throughout the 3rd
millennium with the city-states of Akkad, Lagash and Ur. This is the Old “Babylonia” or Sumer Abraham left.
—Abraham’s Journey, BIBLE DOCTRINE NEWS. http://www.biblenews1.com/maps/BibleAbrahamL.gif FREE BIBLE MAPS: All maps are considered public domain and may be used freely. Satellite pictures are credited to NASA. Downloaded April 14, 2009.
The city of Babylon rises during the 2nd millennium but doesn’t reach climax of urban population until the 7th-4th c. BCE. This is the Babylon which inscribed the Torah and the Nevi’im, and whose lasting effect on Judaic scribalism caused the bloom of biblical wisdom literature. This is the Babylon whose particular disciplined reconstruction of Judaism begat the world’s religions, whose prophets and scribes shaped monotheism, the Sabbath, and even maybe “Yahwism.” This is the Babylon whose tenet of divine inscrutability is a hidden godview underlying most of the Judaic bible, reaching a more outward expression in the Books of Ecclesiastes and Job, a godview modern culture has lost the connection with and needs to regain in order to understand the bible.
Qohelet was deeply influenced by the brotherhood of this Babylon, and his art must be read in that light.
Trilingual inscription of Xerxes the Great proclamation, carved into the steep rock bluff of Van citadel, Van, Turkey, once capital of Urartu; written left-to-right in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite.
Photo by John Hill, 1973. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License. Wikimedia Commons.