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Jerusalem under the Persians and the Jewish Priesthood

Persian officials and their families were stationed in the homeland of the Hebrews – Judah. And in Judah were colonies of Persian merchants. With them were Persian temples and priests. In ruling over Judah, the Persians gave the Yahweh priesthood authority over Judah's internal affairs. Darius had given the Yahweh priesthood his permission to rebuild Solomon's temple. And like Darius, Persia's living King of Kings, Artaxerxes, was interested in the peoples of his empire remaining orderly under their local laws and religion. In the seventh year of his reign he appointed as Judah's new governor a Yahwist scholar and priest named Ezra who had been living in Babylon, and he instructed Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges who would keep Judah in the laws of the god of the Hebrews. It was more of the authoritarianism that was common and expected. Civilization had authoritarian gods, unlike the gods of hunter-gatherers, and the Yahweh (Jehovah) priesthood was hereditary and authoritarian.

In the third book of the Hebrew Bible, Ezra is described as moving with 1,800 male followers to Judah. And what Ezra finds must have been far from what he had expected, for when he arrives, according to scripture, he tears at his hair, his beard, his garment, his robe and he sits down appalled. He has found that the Hebrews of Judah have not separated themselves from other peoples and that they had been practicing "abominations."

Ezra wanted to separate the worshipers of Yahweh from foreign influences and to advance their identity as a community of worshipers of Yahweh. He called the people of Jerusalem to assemble, and he told them that new demands would be put upon them. He told them "You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women." (Ezra 10:10). He commanded any man who had already married such a woman to expel her from his house. It seems this wasn't a question of women who were not local. Instead, "foreign" referred to women who had not converted to Yahweh worship.

Already the people of Judah were a mix of peoples. Solomon himself had been the son of a woman described as a Hittite: Bathsheba. Migrations and a mixing of people were part of the age in which they were living. Ethnic or racial purity was already a lost cause, and attempts at segregation would be troubling.

Ezra was concerned with lineage of the Yahwist priesthood, and he purged from the priesthood those who could not prove that they were descended from purely Hebrew families. But rather than attempt to extend this stricture to those who were not priests, he made observance of Yahwist practices the deciding issue whether one belonged to his community – beginning what would eventually be Judaism’s racial tolerance. Judaism was to be based on the worship of Yahweh and adherence to Yahweh’s laws as described in the Moses legend. The words Judaism and Jew derive from the Hebrew word Yehudah, the fourth son of Jacob and founder of the tribe of Judah.

Judah's New Laws

Ezra is said to have arrived in Jerusalem with a copy of the Jewish Bible. He would draw from it in presenting what he said were Yahweh's laws. This included the traditional eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The custom of an entire family being considered guilty for the act of any one of its members was discarded in favor of individual responsibility: the father was to continue to have supreme authority within the family, but a father would not be punished for the sins of a son, or a son for the sins of the father.

Marriage was strictly regulated as before. Fathers were to arrange the marriages of their sons and daughters without their consent. Marriage was recognized as the basis of a family, and marital promises were supported by the harshest of measures: if an engaged woman copulated with another man, both she and the man were to be stoned to death; if a married man or a married woman committed adultery they were to be stoned to death – unless the man copulated with a slave, in which case he was merely beaten. (Leviticus 19:20.)

If a father found his son stubborn, rebellious and disobedient, he could take him to the city elders, and then the son could be stoned to death. In a dispute that went to court, the man judged wicked would be whipped, but no more than forty times. If a man had two wives and one was loved and the other unloved and the unloved one gave birth to the first son, that son would remain favored as the first son. If a neighbor needed help with his stray oxen, sheep or donkeys, one should help him. And one should not move a neighbor's boundary marker.

The Jewish priesthood expected people to look after their health by following Judaic law. Touching the dead or touching persons having certain types of ailments was prohibited. To clean a leper, one was obliged to sacrifice a male lamb to Yahweh and to sprinkle the patient with the blood of a bird mixed with running water.

In the Old Testament's Book of Leviticus, Yahweh is described as giving laws to Moses that rejected Canaanite ways. Moses is described as prohibiting the wearing of garments made of both linen and wool or garments with tassels, as was custom among the Canaanites.

And in Leviticus it is written that one should not eat pork or any animal that did not both chew its cud and have cloven feet. Pork had been the major source of meat among the Canaanites, who, having been a settled people could raise pigs. The nomadic Hebrews had raised sheep and goats, which, unlike pigs, could be herded over long distances. And, with pork having been a food eaten by the detested Canaanites and not traditional among Hebrews, it had been described as unclean, although there is no evidence that the Canaanites suffered from eating their pigs anymore than the Hebrews suffered from eating their sheep or goats.

Economic Hardship in Judah and Attempted Reforms

The prosperity that the followers of Yahweh had expected continued to elude them. In and around Jerusalem poverty continued, and famine appeared. As described in the Book of Nehemiah, 5:1-5, the poor protested:

We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine... We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. And now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves. And some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.

The priests who governed Judah after Ezra attempted economic and social reforms. As described in the Book of Deuteronomy, usury within the community of Hebrews was prohibited, but usury against non-Hebrews was allowed. As a part of these reforms, every seventh year debts were to be abolished. And every seventh year, fellow Jews who had been enslaved were to be set free – while the slavery of others was to remain. According to the Old Testament, adversity and hardship continued among the Jews. Suffering Jews continued to look nostalgically to the glorious days of King David. They looked forward to Yahweh bringing them another great king, an anointed one: a mäshäih – a messiah.


Biblical Literature and its Critical Interpretation, Encyclopedia Britannica (Macropaedia)

The Oxford History of the Biblical World, 1998 Chapters 1, 6~8, 1998

Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, by Edward Shanks, 1999

History of Jerusalem: Myth and Reality of King David's Jerusalem, by Daniel Gavron, the Jewish Virtual Library

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Neil Slberman and Israel Finkelstein, 2002

David and Solomon, by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, 2007

The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archeology and the History of Early Israel, by Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, 2007

History of Ancient Israel, by Michael Grant, 1996

The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, Robin Lane Fox, 1992

Adam, Eve and the Serpant by Elaine Pagels, 1988

The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels, 1996

Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christiantiy in the Roman World, by Alan F. Segal, 1986

Crossroads of Civilization: 3000 years of Persian History, by Irving Clive, 1979

Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, by Mary Boyce, 1979

My People: the Story of the Jews, by Abba Eban, 1968

Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, by Abba Eban, PBS series on video, 1984

Authors of the Bible: by Fred Glynn, 2006

Quest of Solomon's Mines, National Geographic documentary by Nova


PBS documentary. The Bible's Buried Secrets

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