Israel’s second God. 2: Evidence of the Exile

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by Neil Godfrey

1992, a year with two pivotal publications

The Great Angel by Margaret Barker was published 1992, the same year as Philip Davies’ publication of In Search of Ancient Israel. Each proposes a different model for the interpretation of biblical texts and their historical matrix. Davies argues that the realities of ancient deportations make any notion of uprooted captives having the luxury to ponder and creatively build on their literary and cultural heritage as romantic (pious) nonsense. See, for example, my notes on his discussion of the Babylonian Captivity.

Margaret Barker, on the other hand, proposes an alternative hypothesis that is rooted in a fresh analysis of the biblical and extra-biblical Jewish texts. She works within the framework of the orthodox hypothesis of the Babylonian Captivity being the turning point in Jewish literature and history, and explains the difficulties with the evidence in terms of the massive destruction and unsettled political and cultural developments of the period. Davies, rather, sees the problems arising from scholars attempting to explain the literature through a historical reconstruction that was a literary and theological fiction. In the following discussion of Margaret Barker’s second chapter of The Great Angel I am tempted to suggest alternative explanations and leads for followup thoughts by commenting on Barker’s explanations through Davies views, but then I would be doing an injustice to my primary reason for these posts. That is to do what I can to help publicize a wee bit more the biblical scholarship — in this case Barker’s The Great Angel — that too often tends to slip by the radars of most lay readers. I will try to keep any notes that relate to Davies’ viewpoint to a minimum, and clearly mark them as distinct from Barker’s thoughts.

What’s left when the ashes settle?

Barker explains that her hypothesis is “exploratory”. The destruction of the Jewish state and Babylonian captivity, the mass deportations, and the religious-political turmoil that preceded all this (the Josiah reforms) leave evidence so patchy and confusing that certainty is impossible in any attempted reconstruction of  Israel’s religion up to this time.

[T]he customary descriptions of ancient Israel’s religion are themselves no more than supposition. What I shall propose in this chapter is not an impossibility, but only one possibility to set alongside other possibilities, none of which has any claim to being an absolutely accurate account of what happened. Hypotheses do not become fact simply by frequent repetition, or even by detailed elaboration. What I am suggesting does, however, make considerable sense of the evidence from later periods, as I shall show in subsequent chapters. (p.12)

(Davies and others who have broadly followed in his wake have do not see the necessary social, economic and cultural conditions that must have been required to produce the biblical literature existing in Palestine before the Persian period. Another possibility Davies would propose is that the biblical literature was the product of different scribal schools, many of them engaging in debate or dialogue with one another, and this dialogue can be seen in a comparative reading of the texts.)

The religious practices the Deuteronomist purged (or wished were purged?)

Margaret Barker (MB) refers to 2 Kings 22-23 describing in detail the abominations that Josiah purged from Israel and adds a brief mention of a great Passover. I’ve listed them from that passage here, along with some notes from readings outside Barker.

  1. Note the opposition to altars and pillars on high places throughout the land (as opposed to the one sanctioned place for worship, Jerusalem’s Temple, as commanded in Deuteronomy), and compare these references with the Patriarches setting up altars and pillars in various places marking their travels throughout Canaan.
  2. Note also the opposition to angels and heavenly hosts, and compare role of these in stories of Patriarchs, visions of prophets (e.g. Isaiah seeing angels in the Temple) and the title “Lord of Hosts”. Deuteronomy abhored veneration of the hosts of heaven, declaring this to be a practice becoming non-Israelites only (Deut. 4:19-20). The title “Lord God of Hosts” or Yahweh of Hosts was never used by the Deuteronomist. MB: “What happened to the hosts, the angels?” (p.13)
  3. Also compare Baal, meaning Lord, with Yahweh, both sons of El, and both storm gods;
  4. and Asherah, being symbols of Wisdom, and the role of “wise men” in ancient Israel.
  5. Not MB: In other works Levinson shows that the laws in Deuteronomy stripped religious trappings from the city gates, places of court hearings and judgements;
  6. Not MB: and Levenson discusses the possibility of human sacrifice in early Israelite religion, and how commuting the practice to an animal or monetary substitute was arguably a later development.

The list:

  • the vessels that were made for Baal,
  • the vessels made for Asherah, [MB elsewhere: this was the symbol of Wisdom, the Queen of Heaven].
  • and for all the host of heaven
  • the burning of incense in the high places in the cities of Judah and in the surrounding area of Jerusalem,
  • the burning of incense to Baal,
  • burning of incense to the sun and to the moon
  • and to the constellations and to all the host of heaven.
  • He brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD
  • He also broke down the houses of the cult prostitutes [elsewhere MB notes of the term “cult prostitutes”, that exactly the same Hebrew letters can be read as ‘holy ones’, angels] which were in the house of the LORD,
  • the house of the LORD, where the women were weaving hangings for the Asherah.
  • Then he brought all the priests from the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba;
  • and he broke down the high places of the gates which were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on one’s left at the city gate

“Nevertheless the priests of the high places did not go up to the altar of the LORD in Jerusalem, but they ate unleavened bread among their brothers. . . ” (Levinson‘s study of Deuteronomy suggests that the Deuteronomist drastically changed the customary Passover, that was kept locally in villages and houses, by commanding the Passover sacrifice be performed at Jerusalem only, but the eating of unleavened bread continue to be observed in the residences of the people.)

  • He also defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech
  • He did away with the horses which the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the LORD,
  • and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire
  • The altars which were on the roof, . . . and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, the king broke down
  • The high places which were before Jerusalem, which were on the right of the mount of destruction which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the sons of Ammon, the king defiled
  • He broke in pieces the pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with human bones
  • Furthermore, the altar that was at Bethel and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made, even that altar and the high place he broke down. Then he demolished its stones, ground them to dust, and burned the Asherah
  • Josiah also removed all the houses of the high places which were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made provoking the LORD; and he did to them just as he had done in Bethel
  • All the priests of the high places who were there he slaughtered on the altars

“Then the king commanded all the people saying, “Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God as it is written in this book of the covenant.” Surely such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was observed to the LORD in Jerusalem.” (Compare the notes on from Levinson above.)

  • Moreover, Josiah removed the mediums and the spiritists
  • and the teraphim and the idols

Before him there was no king like him who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

That’s quite a list of bad things the author of 2 Kings 23 (sometimes called “the Deuteronomist”) complained out. They are made to sound all very pagan, but Margaret Barker draws attention to the similarity of many of them to the religion of the Patriarchs, and the pre-exilic prophets.

  1. Isaiah, for example, has a vision of angels in the Temple, but the above list appears to suggest that angels had no place in the Temple.
  2. The patriarchs were described as regularly establishing altars and pillars throughout the land in worship of their god, El. And later we read in a passage in Exodus that they never knew a god by the name of Yahweh (Exodus 6:2-3).
  3. Wisdom was a noble concept in its own right in Jewish literature, something to be found in older or pious citizens and judges at the city gates, Deuteronomy 4:6 appears to imply that the only wisdom recognized by God was his Law. How did the teachings of the wise men of Israel relate to the teachings of the Deuteronomist?
  4. Moses appears to be unknown to the authors of the pre-exilic prophets like Isaiah, so it is interesting to compare the emphasis here to the reforms of Josiah being “according to all the law of Moses”.

Another account of the same?

2 Chronicles contains another account of Josiah’s reforms but there the author opted to omit the list of practices the Deuteronomist said were purged from Israel, and chooses instead to elaborate in much more detail the Great Passover.

Why? Is this difference a clue that the purges listed in 2 Kings were more propaganda, a “wish it had happened that way” narrative, than historical fact? Were Josiah’s reforms really a radical purging of all undesirable customs as the Deuteronomist implies? Or is the narrative a propaganda claim for a later generation?

(Not in MB: 2 Chronicles appears to me to offer a viewpoint that does not fit into either side of the contest that MB appears to be hypothesizing. It is pro-Josiah, which would seem to imply it being pro on whatever the Deuteronomist was standing, but it does not appear to be so anti what the Deuteronomist was against. Is this evidence of an attempt by one school of scribes to synthesize competing religious practices?)

Other viewpoints of Israel’s pre-exilic religion?

The pre-exilic prophets such as Isaiah were not focussed on the same issues of concern as the Deuteronomist above. Why?

And why is Moses such a foundational figure to the Deuteronomist but not mentioned at all by the pre-exilic prophets? (Some suggest that there is no certain evidence that Moses is mentioned in any definitely pre-exilic literature.)

While the Deuteronomist saw his world through his sacred history, the pivotal role of the Exodus and the saving acts of Yahweh to the exclusion of all other gods, we have little evidence that others in Israel had the same preoccupations or views of their religion.

(Not MB: It has been argued that the narratives of the Patriarchs migrating from Mesopotamia to Canaan are etiological myths to rationalize the claims of Persian deportees from Babylonia to settle Canaan. [Ditto for migrations from Egypt to Canaan in relation to the Exodus tale.] There is evidence that the practice of mass deportations could involve inculcating a new identity among those deported and resettled, and this would involve claims that the deportees were returning to a land of “their fathers” to reestablish their rightful place and true religion.)

The Formless Voice

MB draws attention to specifics in Israel’s existing religion that the Deuteronomist opposed, in particular the condemnation of the veneration of angels, and the discrediting of Wisdom by displacing it with an alternative Wisdom that was the Law itself. She also comments particularly on the formless voice of God delivering the Law from the fiery mountain top (Dt. 19:12). The fact that there was no appearance or vision of God is most heavily stressed, yet this stands in contrast to the visions of God experienced by the prophets like Isaiah and others.

What WAS the religion before Deuteronomy?

If Deuteronomy really was the product of Josiah’s time, and the school that produced it also wrote or re-wrote and edited the history of Israel to reflect their religious ideals, and accordingly removed references to the earlier religious practices they disliked, or misrepresented them, then how can we know what the older religion of Israel was? Did the Deuteronomist school destroy or distort most of the evidence we need?

Were the Deuteronomists writing what actually happened in 2 Kings 22-23, and calling on a return to true ancient ways?

Or were they inventing a past golden age to justify their innovation? Does the uniformity of much of the Old Testament literature really reflect the hands of later editors?

MB sees evidence for the latter option in the extra-biblical texts.

The evidence of 1 Enoch

According to 1 Enoch, the period of Babylonian exile and second Temple restoration was:

  1. a time of apostasy
  2. a time when wisdom was despised
  3. a time when impurity was installed in the temple

To MB, this sounds very much like a reference to the Deuteronomist’s agenda.

Also according to 1 Enoch, the original religion of pre-exilic Israel was preserved by its authors and those who produced similar works:

  1. they kept a role for Wisdom
  2. they kept a tradition of heavenly ascent and vision of God (denied by the Deuteronomists)
  3. they were astronomers with a complex theology of heavenly hosts and angels

1 Enoch versus the Deuteronomists

Whom do we believe?

The Deuteronomists who claimed to be reforming a paganized religion and restoring original purity?

Or the Enochians who claimed to represent an original religion that was being stamped out by the Deuteronomists who were introducing something new?

And what are the implications for the development of monotheism?

The evidence of the rabbis

Rabbinic writings belong many centuries later, but according to MB they “remembered that there had been drastic changes i the cult at this time, not all of them for the better.” (pp.14-15)

Josiah had “hidden away” the following,

  • the ark (representing the presence of Yahweh — Exod.25:22)
  • the anointing oil (that consecrated the high priest who bore Yahweh’s name and was his anointed/messiah)
  • the jar of manna
  • Aaron’s rod
  • the coffer sent by the Philistines as a gift when they returned the ark

b. Horayoth 12a; also b. Kerithoth 5b

MB prompts readers to ask if the reasons given by the rabbis for Josiah removing these items from the Temple really was “as a precaution against the exile prophesied in Deut. 28:36”.

Along with the objects associated with Baal and Asherah that were removed from the Temple, did Josiah also remove those trappings associated with the cult of Yahweh?

Rabbinic literature further spoke of different roles of high priests in the pre-exilic and post exilic eras. Before the Babylonian captivity the high priest was “the anointed”. Afterwards he was said to have been dedicated with “many garments”, a reference to the eight garments he wore at Atonement/Yom Kippur. The anointed high priest, (messiah), it was believed, would be restored to Israel in the last days.

The Christianity connection

MB summarizes what the above sources seem to tell us about the reforms of Josiah/the Deuteronomists:

In addition to the removal of certain pagan accretions,

  1. Wisdom was removed (though never forgotten)
  2. The hosts of heaven, the angels, were declared unfit for the chosen people
  3. The ark (and the presence of Yahweh which it represented) was removed
  4. The role of the high priest was changed so that he was no longer anointed (messiah)

“All these features of the older cult were to appear in Christianity.” (p.15)

To be continued — next post re this to look more closely at the names El and Yahweh and the traditional Documentary Hypothesis used to explain them. . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Israel’s second God. 2: Evidence of the Exile”

  1. Forgot to add, when composing the above, Davies’ argument that the Josiah reforms are a fiction. I have summarized this on another webpage here.

    The reason I like the argument of Davies et al is that it begins with the primary evidence, that is, the archaeological evidence, and from there proceeds to find a context for the texts that cannot be physically dated older than a couple of centuries b.c.e. Once we place the texts in a cultural-social-politico-economic-ethnic context where they best fit, we can then begin to attempt to explain their contents, narratives, themes, motifs and tropes, within that context. The literary texts are not themselves primary evidence of the events they narrate, or at least we lack any evidential reason to take them as such.

    The literary (not the archaeological) reason Davies finds reasons to question the very historicity of the reforms of Josiah is summarized in the site linked above, and repeated here:

    The other presumed historical period was the discovery of “a book of the covenant” in the Jerusalem Temple that led to the reforms of King Josiah. The only evidence that such a book was ever discovered and that this king ever existed or enacted these reforms is the story itself found in 2 Kings 22-23. The whole point of this story is to explain to the reader that if the laws of book of the covenant had been obeyed then the nation of Judah would never have gone into Babylonian captivity. Furthermore, 2 Kings appears to be strongly influenced by the ideas and language and style found in the book of Deuteronomy, and the book of the covenant in this story is described in a way that makes it look very much like it was really the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. The whole story looks like an attempt to make the book of Deuteronomy appear to have been known in ancient times and to have had authority. In the story good King Josiah is conveniently killed after enacting the laws of Deuteronomy and all his good work is undone by his successors.

    Thus alas! the book was unknown both before after Josiah’s time, at least until the time the story was written. It looks very much as if the whole story was written to make a much later book look ancient and requiring obedience to its laws.

    If such a story as this were found anywhere except in the Bible it would simply lack credibility. Readers would assume it was a fable.

    But let’s suppose the story really were true and stop and think about it. Can we imagine an ancient king really using Deuteronomy as his new book of laws. Deuteronomy has only one chapter with commanding a king what to do. (He must not get horses from Egypt and must spend day and night reading the book, etc.) Some scholars have argued that Deuteronomy was actually written at the time of King Josiah, but if this is so it is hard to understand why it has so few commands for kings at a time when kings had all authority over virtually all the activities of their kingdoms. But let’s suppose one king really did decide to give up all his ways and begin to rule entirely by the rules of this book. Can we really imagine the many other powerful individuals and groups in the kingdom, those who owed their powers and status to the king, can we imagine them also calmly stepping aside and allowing their king to do this? Possible maybe, but highly improbable.

    Now if these stories are untrue we open the floodgate of rethinking all our notions of when the books of Moses and other Bible books were actually written, by and for whom and why.

  2. That’s fine. I’m not always sure I agree completely with everything I say either — especially over time. 🙂

    But as for the story of the Josiah reforms and discovery of Deuternomy, I would be interested in arguments faulting Davies’ methodological approach to the question. The very popular Bible Unearthed (Finkelstein and Silberman) book, for example, seemed to me to base much of its premise on this single text and without addressing the critique of Davies. That really disappointed me.

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