The major players of the
ancient Middle East, century after century, arose in the
river valleys and flood plains, primarily of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
First one region, then another, produced a dominant city-based
which had the wealth and resources to conquer an empire. The corridor
through Palestine, aside from the coastal strip, was too harsh
inhospitable to engender a similar development. Hilly and remote
from trade routes, with few settlements and a backward nomadic
population, the land was loosely organized into minor "kingdoms" by rival
clans. Rather like the Celts at similar stage of nation building,
magistrates took on powers of governance in the period that the Jewish sacred history calls "judges." In the biblical mythology, it is Judge Samuel who appoints (anoints)
both the first and the second "kings of Israel." But this minor principality would not survive long.
To Babylon and Back
might have been happening on a few hilltops in Judaea, on the
wider canvass, Assyria - based on the cities of Assur
Nineveh - was conquering an empire. At its height this included
both Egypt and the whole of Mesopotamia. In the 8th century
the Assyrians were
expanding into northern Palestine, putting an end to any kingdom
of Israel. The first Jewish
monarchs that secular history actually records anything at all
about are kings Omri and
his son Ahab,
who held the Assyrians at bay for a few years. As an idolatrous minor
king Omri's victory goes unnoted in the sacred texts but the murderous
end of the dynasty is celebrated in 2 Kings.
conquest was followed, in the 7th century, by the rise of
new imperial power Babylon. Under its king, Nebuchadnezzar,
the conquest of Palestine extended further south to include
the kingdom of Judah, effectively ending the existence
of any separate Jewish state. The tribal leadership of Judah was
resettled in Babylon, under the eye of their Babylonian conquerors.
Such forced migrations were not untypical of the period removing
the elite was a way to head off organized resistance in a new colony.
But unlike earlier displacements, the Hebrews were resettled as
a single group and remained free to meet, trade and own land.
exiles were settled in some of the most attractive and important
districts in and around Babylon."
– Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem, p 80.
The Jews had much to learn from the rich, cosmopolitan culture of
Mesopotamia. Here they witnessed trade, commerce and religion on
an imperial scale. In Babylon the Great, walled City of
Wisdom, there were numerous gods and no fewer than fifty
five temples. Here was to be found a vast literature of religious
texts, in particular the great epic of creation, the story of
Gilgamesh. Here too were legends of the origin of kingship and moralistic
the Jews learned of prayer, dream interpretation, astrology, almanacs,
and omens. For the first time, they encountered the notion of
a personal immortality and the fantasy of resurrecting the
dead. Impressed by the high culture of their hosts, the
Jews adopted the lunar calendar of the Babylonians, and, like them,
began their year in the spring. In the Babylonian setting the Jews
met in gatherings (synagogues in Greek)
for the first time. Leadership of these assemblies assumed a priestly
character. One such leader, Ezekiel, kept the clan together by stressing
the role in the community of this Yahweh priesthood and how the
glory of their god, even without an Ark or temple,
was there with them in Babylon. Thus Yahweh floated free of
confinement to sacred space.
chief god of Babylon was called Marduk not Yahweh, but for Jews
from the bleak land of Judaea the experience of his worship
a revelation. As émigrés whose uniqueness could only
be preserved by a dogged devotion to a particular deity (reinforced
by some self-imposed dietary laws and circumcision) they would have
been particularly impressed by the lifestyle enjoyed by the
professional temple priesthood. In Babylon, full-time priests
monopolized interaction with the supernatural and in consequence,
wealth, prestige and power.
contrast, in pagan Rome, priests
were part-time, co-opted to the honorary role and had other
civic or military duties.
ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation." – Exodus 19.6.
the so-called Exile lasted barely half a century from
the capture of Jerusalem in 597 BC to the rise of a new dynasty
in 539 BC during this period the Jews
borrowed extensively from their host culture. Notably, certain
priests (so-called prophets) wrote texts which explained
the tribal misfortune of the Jews in terms of neglect of a particular
deity and of the desirability of priestly rule. The book of Elijah
(literally, God is Jehovah) is a story set three centuries
earlier. In this tale, the prophet denounces King Ahab and his
Jezebel for that most dastardly of crimes, having a barbecue for
the wrong god. Just in case indignant words are not enough, the hero
personally slays several hundred rival priests of Baal.
if fidelity to the correct god is the only way of keeping your
skin, why does the righteous man suffer? The Babylonians
had a poem which addressed the very issue from at least 2000 BC.
A righteous man, Tabu-utel-bel, suffered unjustly at the
hands of the gods and was stricken by a terrible disease. The
story is rehashed by the exiled Jews as the book of Job.
particular significance, in view of the subsequent appearance
of the book of Genesis, were Babylonian stories of a Great Flood
(complete with a hero, an ark and animals); an Assyrian
tale of a tower of Babel; the early life of King
Sargon of Sumaria (who as an infant was floated down the
Tigris in a reed boat and subsequently brought up by a princess);
and a tale of the giving of the law to King
Hammurabi of Babylon by the sun god Shamash 3,654 lines of text inscribed
on an eight-foot high block of black diorite.
of wonders, on this ancient tablet of stone, carved six hundred
years before Moses, are some fifty
articles of the so-called Mosaic laws, the identity of which is
verbatim. (Bratton, p37)
the Persian – Fire-worshipping
Hero of the Jewish Priests!
gets endorsement of "Jealous" Yahweh! Amazing!
the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right
hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will
the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates;
gates shall not be shut." – Isaiah,
Medes and Persians
Iranian tribes combined to overthrow the over-extended
Assyrians (whose capital Nineveh was sacked in
Persian Cyrus I (559-529) established a 'Babylonian'
Empire to which his son Cambyses (529-522) added
Egypt in 525.
successor Darius I (522-486) annexed 'India' and
Thrace. Xerxes I (485-465) came up against the
growing power of Greece.
Persians defeated the Assyrians at Harran in 609
BC and the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BC.
- 400 BC
endorsed a Yahweh cult in the satrap of Judaea,
which remained a Persian colony until the arrival
of the Greeks and Alexander the Great.
- 343 BC
Egyptian revolt against Persia was fought with
Greek mercenaries. Persian rule of Egypt was interrupted
in 404 BC and re-imposed briefly in the next century
Nectanebo II fled in in 343 he was the last of
the Egyptian pharaohs.
323 the Greek king – Alexander III – himself
appeared, conquering Persia and 'liberating' Egypt.
With the rise of Cyrus, and the Persian conquest
of Babylonia, an undreamt of opportunity was presented to the pious elders
of the Jews. Cyrus was a self-styled Great King, anxious
to have all gods on his side for the conquest of empire. This included
a Yahweh cult in the satrap of Judaea. Accordingly, many of the
Jews (mostly descendants of the original exiles) were returned
the old homeland. A figure of 42,360 together with their
servants and two hundred singers is quoted, several times
the reported number taken into exile.
God is poor at Math?
The Bible twice lists the number of returnees: in Ezra 2.3-65 and Nehemiah 7.5-67. Although the lists differ, the total remains the same – and differs considerably from a correct tally of the contingent figures!
children of Parosh
children of Shephatiah
children of Arah
children of Pahathmoab
children of Elam
children of Zattu
children of Zaccai
children of Bani,
children of Bebai
children of Azgad
children of Adonikam
children of Bigvai
children of Adin
children of Ater
children of Bezai
children of Jorah [Hariph]
children of Hashum
children of Gibbar [Gibeon]
children of Bethlehem
men of Netophah
men of Anathoth
children of Azmaveth
children of Kirjatharim
children of Ramah
men of Michmas
men of Bethel
children of Nebo
children of Magbish
children of other Elam
children of Harim
children of Lod
children of Jericho
children of Sennah
children of Jedaiah
children of Immer
children of Pashur
children of Harim
children of the Levites
children of the singers
children of the porters
children of Nethinims
were sent back under Prince Sheshbazzar to set up a temple
to help the Persian war effort. Its design a succession
of courtyards set high on a hill, at its heart enclosing a holy
of holies was inspired by the multi-level temple ziggurats
(which reached up to heaven) that the Jews had seen
in Mesopotamia. Under the patronage of Cyrus, and despite the local
opposition of Jews who had never left, the children of
Judah, established a theocratic colony on the Persian model
under an appointed Persian governor. Persian rule of Judah would
last two centuries.
the exile, Jewish religion such as it was had
Man facing an anthropomorphic, capricious tribal God, who looked
for obedience rather than worship to assuage his anger. It was,
apparently, Abraham's unswerving obedience when asked by Yahweh
to sacrifice his son that validated his choice as Patriarch.
But at least obedience was within the wit of man himself. Pre-Babylon,
only the tribe of Levi could be priests and they performed
the role of itinerant shamans. Post-Babylon, the Levite priests
were downgraded to menial temple workers and the Sadducee
clan took over the high priesthood. By taking for themselves the right to intercede with God, to placate his anger and honour his glory, the earthly power of the high priests of the temple was assured.
changed to reflect the new organisation. Yahweh was elevated
to sole god and was deemed to require endless sacrifice to placate
his wrath. Thus all Jews acquired a duty to bring offerings to
the priests (who were thereby freed of more mundane tasks).
Not only did this give the priesthood their daily provisions and
a major slice of the butchery business but also control over
the lucrative leather trades. In time, tribute to the priesthood
was extended to include tithes, dispensation fees and commission
on money changing (only the clean shekel could be offered
at the temple; no other coinage was acceptable).
their cue from Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion of Persia,
the returnees brought with them not only priestly monopoly
and control over worship (and in a theocracy that implied
control over law and social behaviour as well) but also the notion
of an evil god (Satan) as a counterpoise to good god (Yahweh).
Similarly, for the first time Judaism acquired angels and demons.
At this point appears the curious tale of an idyllic garden (shades
of Babylon), a satanic snake and a disobedient female which
nicely explained why life was full of wickedness, why women should
be subjugated and why there was death itself.
Persians made no images of their dual gods, but for them fire
represented purity and was an incarnation of the light god Mazda..
On the other hand matter (including the human body) was created
by the dark god Angra Mainyu. In stark contrast, therefore,
earlier influence of fertility rites of the Canaanite and Phoenician
cities - the celebration of life - the Yahweh cult now became
at heart hostile to the body. Human sexuality was to cause
the priests more distress than any amount of bloodshed.
bloodshed there was, as the colonisers (the Golan)
drove out (and de-Judaised!) the original inhabitants (the
Am Ha-Aretz or people of the land), whom they
were forbidden to marry. The arrival of an organized priesthood
as a brake
on secular development which might otherwise have produced a local
monarch, albeit one under Persian dominance. Both Nehemiah,
cup-bearer to the Persian king, and Ezra, his minister
of Jewish affairs, introduced interpretations and refinements
of the Law which kept Jewish piety compatible with
the interests and security of the empire. With a brutal ruthlessness,
for example, Ezra commanded Jews to send away their
foreign wives and children. Membership of Israel was now
confined to the descendants of those who had been exiled in Babylon.
While fulsome in their praise of the Persian High King Cyrus, the
priest authors of official texts made clear their misgivings about kings. The
ambivalence is finely drawn in the tale,
which now appeared but set several hundred years earlier, of an
ideal kingship in fact, of a Golden Age of kingship.
Two successive kings, each ruling for forty years, showed
all the right characteristics. (Forty is one of those magic
numbers much favoured by the biblical authors, along with seven
Forty is used no fewer than 157 times, variously for days, nights,
years, cubits and what-have-you!!) True, they had a few weaknesses
but these became manifest only when they went against Yahwehs
laws and, of course, the guidance of the priests!
this tale of Israels Camelot, it seems kings David and
Solomon (his son) combined a brilliant mix of warrior vigilance
with unfailing religious devotion. With Yahweh rooting for
them, they slew, smote and heroically annihilated peoples including
women and children all the way from the Gulf of Aqaba to
the River Euphrates. Ancient Israel was an Empire, no less! A
fabulous story emerges of David, in turns shepherd, musician
and giant killer (he felled Goliath with a single shot, causing
the whole enemy army to run away possibly the most unique
battle in ancient warfare). Of Solomon we hear of 700
wives plus 300 concubines (such Hebrew virility!);
of prodigious wealth; of awesome wisdom (wiser than all
men); of a vast army of cavalry and chariots (just
like the invaders from the north); of a Red Sea fleet (Israel a maritime
power, just like Phoenicia!); of a monumental temple entirely sheathed
in gold (beat that, Babylon!); even of an exotic visitor
the Queen of Sheba paying homage.
was chosen (anointed) for both himself and all
subsequent generations! by a priest (the judge Samuel). Once
King, David returned the favour by anointing Zadok
and all his descendants to the position of High Priest. Thus
the Zadokite clan became the nucleus of the Sadducee priesthood,
the authors of the whole fantastic story.
much honoured in legend (and Hollywood) the simple truth is
that no evidence has ever been found of David, Solomon or
his empire. Neither secular history, nor archaeology,
provides a shred of confirmation for the highly detailed and colourful
biblical stories. Not a single stone or artifact from what was
the worlds most fabulous temple has ever been identified.
The extraordinary magnificence of the Jewish Empire is matched
by the total void when we seek confirmation from any other source.
example, the Asiatic Greek Herodotus writing one of the worlds
first histories in the 5th century BC wrote of peoples
and places throughout the Persian empire and beyond. Herodotus
of lake-dwellers in far away Europe and of barbarous tribes along
the north African coast. He was familiar with the painted warriors
of the Sudan and with the nomads of southern Russia.
Yet in all
his work Herodotus makes no single mention of Jews or
Hebrews, Judah or Israel. He speaks of the coastal cities of Sidon and Tyre
but never of Jerusalem. He records the great temple of Aphrodite
Urania at Ascalon but fails to mention any temple of Solomon.
does, however, know of circumcision and says this:
the Egyptians, and the Ethiopians are the only races which from
ancient times have practiced circumcision.
Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves admit that
they adopted the practice from Egypt
No other nations
use circumcision, and all of these are without doubt following
– Herodotus, The Histories, Book 2,104; Penguin, p167.
Herodotus gathered much of his information first-hand from priests
and holy men. His travels took him to the frontier of Upper Egypt
and to Babylon itself. He also recorded popular beliefs and legends.
Speaking of the inhabitants at the eastern end of the Mediterranean
with the Syrians of Palestine
a tradition that in ancient times they lived on the Persian
but migrated to the Syrian coast, where they are found today.
This part of Syria, together with the country which extends southward
to Egypt, is all known as Palestine.'
– Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7,89; Penguin, p472.
For Herodotus, this land is the home of Syrians known
as Palestinians. If tribesmen in the interior escaped
his attention they assuredly were not the authors of a great empire
which supposedly had existed a few hundred years before his own
time. More than two thousand years later nothing has emerged to
change our understanding:
is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations
Land of Israel: the
Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert,
did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not
it on to the 12 tribes of Israel.
Perhaps even harder to swallow
is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is
by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal
– Ha'aretz Magazine, October 1999.
that we do have is some evidence of minor regional war lords
bosses (kings) who, in the centuries before first
Assyria, and then Babylon, overran Palestine. Yet more tellingly
in the Jewish
nationalistic saga, we have the rationale for a
theocratic state and a religious caste system. The priests
are born to rule both because it is Yahwehs design and because
secular kings (even magnificent ones) transgress and run amok.
kings are not excluded out of hand. The priesthood loathed the
diminution of their power and the intrusion of secular laws
were delighted by the enlargement of the territory of the theocratic
state, such as might be achieved by a warrior king (and as idealised
in the empire conjectured for Solomon). The duality
of power, the conflict between king and priest, runs as a theme
through subsequent Jewish history and was never resolved.
all, from the Davidic legend we get the supposed
primacy of the House of David and the awful conviction that,
when the hour is right, a warrior/priest (or a warrior and a
priest keeping him on the straight and narrow!) will
appear to lead the nation of Israel against the forces of darkness a
Messiah (or Messiahs)!
It is worth
noting that 'Davidic descent' as some sort of exclusive cachet
supposedly one of the marks of Jesus would
have been patently absurd in first century Palestine. If that fabled
polygamous king and his prodigiously promiscuous son Solomon he
of 'seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines'! had
actually existed, the passage of a thousand years (or twenty eight
generations according to Matthew, forty three
generations according to Luke) would have assured that each
and every Jew all seven million of them could
have made the same 'Davidic' claim!
J.A. de Gobineau, The World of the Persians (Minerva, 1971)
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (Phoenix Grant, 1987)
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 1999)
Herodotus, The Histories, (Penguin, 1954)
Nicholas De Lange (Ed.) The Illustrated History of the Jewish People (Aurum, 1997)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
For your copy order:
Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material
herein is sold for profit.